The book of Romans has been considered to be a difficult and confusing book. One reason for the confusion is people’s lack of knowledge of the purpose of the book. We want to read the book and not assume its purpose. Many writers simply assume this is Paul’s letter of systematic theology. One of my study Bibles begins, "The gospel Paul preached, justification by faith alone, was under siege." The suggestion is that this preaching of justification by faith alone is the theme of the book. But this is not the theme of book, especially since the phrase "justified by faith alone" does not occur in the book. We have to open our minds to intention of the author and the Holy Spirit and not insert our purpose on to any given letter.
Before we begin any study of the New Testament letters, it is important to remember the structure of letter in the first century. Our letters begin with a salutation, then the body of the letter is found, and finally a closing and name of the author. But that is not how letters were written in the first century. The structure of their letters looked like this:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Recognition of this structure will help us identify Paul’s purpose statement for this letter. Let us begin reading Paul’s letter to the Romans looking for the intent of the letter.
Finding the Purpose Through the Structure
With a view to the structure of first century letter, a letter would begin by the author mentioning who he is and state his rank, if any. The letter to the Romans begins with the author stating that this is Paul, and his rank is a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle. Now, usually the letter will immediately declare the recipient of the letter (see 1 Corinthians 1:1-2). However, Paul does not do this, which should clue us in that he is stating something important and perhaps is giving the direction and purpose of the letter. Notice how Paul continues:
"Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…" (Romans 1:1-6, NRSV).
Paul clearly keys upon the fulfillment of God’s promises. In this sentence Paul is declaring that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promises God made through the prophets. By Paul speaking to this point before he even addresses the recipients of this letter, thereby breaking the standard traditional set up of a letter, it is clear that this is something Paul urgently wants to communicate. To break from the usual structure of a letter shows that this is an important theme that Paul is going to communicate. I believe this is a clue to the theme of Romans which Paul will more clearly lay out in a few more sentences.
In verse 7 Paul then declares the recipients to be "God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints." The next part of a first century letter is the salutation: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:7). Grace and peace was a typical salutation in the first century. Verse 8 begins the thanksgiving section of the introduction to a letter. Thus, we read, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…" In this section Paul declares his thanks to God for their faith and also declares his longing to see the saints in Rome. He has intended to come and is eager to come because he is a debtor to the rest of the Gentiles.
Paul now comes to his stated purpose and thesis for the letter. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith" (Romans 1:16-17). The word "righteousness" appears 36 times in this letter and the word "righteous" appears 12 times. Paul is going to talk about God’s righteousness. Or, put another way, how God has kept his promises to all people through Jesus Christ.
Outlining the Message of Romans
Unrighteousness of the Gentiles (1:18-32)
In the first part of the body of Paul’s letter, Paul describes the unrighteousness of the Gentiles. Paul begins by declaring that God’s wrath has been revealed from heaven against all ungodliness. All people are without excuse for their unrighteousness because what can be known about God is clearly seen through His eternal power and divine nature. But the Gentiles did not glorify God and God let them go to their own lusts and desires.
Unrighteousness of the Jews (2:1-3:8)
At the beginning of the second chapter, Paul leaves his discussion of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles and argues that the Jews have also been unrighteous. Notice Romans 2:1, "For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things." Paul says that the Jews cannot pass judgment upon the Gentiles because they perform the same actions and they will not escape God’s judgment either. One can imagine the Jewish Christians reading this letter and cheering Paul’s words in the first chapter, only to be stunned that Paul points the finger at them as well. In verse 5 Paul uses the same language against the Jewish people that he used against the Gentiles. "But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed" (2:5). This section is about proving that the Jews are under just as much condemnation. In verse 24 Paul condemns them because their actions have caused God’s name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles.
Universal unrighteousness (3:9-20)
Paul then declares universal unrighteousness. "For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one;" (Romans 3:9-10). Again, Paul’s words in verse 19: "Now we know that whatever the law says speaks to those who are subject to the law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may be subject to God’s judgment" (3:19). Up to this point, Paul wants everyone to realize they are under God’s judgment.
God’s righteousness revealed (3:21-26)
In contrast to all of the unrighteousness of humanity, "but now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed…" (3:21). God’s way of keeping his promises and pronouncing the unrighteous innocent is through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Paul says that we are justified freely by His grace "through faith in His blood" (3:25). This was the demonstrate God’s righteousness so that he would not only be righteous but also declare righteous those who have faith in Jesus (3:25-26). Again, Paul is setting the table to speak about the righteousness of God, the theme of this letter.
God’s righteousness credited (3:27-4:25)
From the argument that the righteous of God has been revealed, Paul is going to explain that the righteousness of God has been extended or credited to various peoples. First, in chapter 4 Paul argues that the righteousness of God had been extended to Abraham (4:3), David (4:6), and Abraham’s descendants (4:13,16,23). Those who believe in Him who raised Jesus from the dead have righteousness credited to them also (4:24).
God’s righteousness demonstrated (5:1-8:39)
Next, Paul seems to explain the demonstration of God’s righteousness toward humanity. The first verse of chapter 5 begins with "therefore," so Paul is making some conclusion based upon what he has argued in the previous chapter. First, Paul says we had hostility with God but now have peace with God through Jesus (5:1). Second, we were separated from God but now have been reconciled to God (5:10). In Christ, God proved his love for us (5:8). Christ is the demonstration of God’s love and God’s righteousness. From Adam we have death because each of us has sinned like Adam (5:12). But from Christ we have the justification of life (5:18). In chapter 6 Paul declares that since God’s righteousness has been demonstrated through Christ, we need to die to sin. In chapter 7 Paul says that because of God’s righteousness we need to be dead to the law. In chapter 8 Paul teaches that since God’s righteousness has been demonstrated we need to be dead to the flesh.
God’s righteousness vindicated (9-11)
After describing the mighty works of God through Christ to show his righteousness, Paul takes on the potential arguments that might be made, particularly from the Jewish people who were God’s chosen people. Paul is going to show how God’s righteousness is vindicated toward Israel. In chapter 9 Paul shows has God’s promises have been fulfilled toward Israel, thus vindicating God. Toward the end of chapter 9 and into chapter 10 Paul points out that it is not God who has rejected Israel but that Israel has rejected God. It is not that God did not keep his promises, but that Israel rejected God’s promises. In chapter 11 Paul points out that God continues to extend his righteousness to Israel (11:11-12). The Jews can still grafted on to the tree and the Gentiles can be removed from the tree. Therefore, there is no room for boasting, but these things have happened in effort to save His people.
God’s righteousness applied (12-15)
In chapters 12-15 Paul makes practical life applications based upon the righteousness of God. The key to this section is found in the first two verses of chapter 12 where Paul says that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. Paul goes on to explain how we are to present our bodies as these sacrifices to God. In 12:3-8 we are to be living sacrifices through the use of spiritual gifts, recognizing that each has a different function but all people are needed in the body of Christ. In 12:9-21 we are to be living sacrifices through the way we treat each other. Our actions towards others must be based upon the righteousness God has extended toward us. In 13:1-7 we are to be living sacrifices through our obedience to the civil governments. In 13:8-10 we are living sacrifices through true love toward our neighbor. In 13:11-14 we are living sacrifices by always being prepared and ready for service. In 14:1-15:14 Paul shows we are living sacrifices through upholding and strengthening the weak. We are not to be a stumbling block but are to consider the needs of others before our own needs.
The rest of chapter 15 and the beginning of chapter 16 is Paul’s closing of the letter to the Romans. Paul again states that he desires to come to Rome but has been prevented in coming to them. Paul also reveals some of his travel plans in preaching the gospel and to continue their prayers to God on behalf of him.
Most of chapter 16 is the greeting part of the letter. Paul addresses many specific people who lived in Rome.
Finally, Paul ends the letter with a doxology. Sometimes writers would end with a closing statement or perhaps may be called a "P.S." in our society. This statement of glory to God is similar to the theme stated in verses 2-6 in the first chapter of the letter. The righteousness of God has been revealed, previously a mystery before, but now known through the Scriptures to advance the obedience of faith among all nations.
As we can see, in outlining the book we can see that the overall message is the righteousness of God and its effects on humanity. Paul first points out the universal unrighteousness of all humanity to then show the righteousness of God and how God’s righteousness has been revealed to us, extended to us, demonstrated through Christ, and vindicates God of any false charges. We, therefore, have a duty because of God’s righteousness to be living sacrifices to God. We do this through our obedience, treatment of others, love, and submitting ourselves to each other.