How to read Romans


  • Content: a letter of instruction and exhortation setting forth Paul's understanding of the gospel-that Jew and Gentile together form one people of God based on God's righteousness received through faith in Jesus Christ and on the gift of the Spirit

  • Author: the apostle Paul

  • Date: ca. A.D. 57, from Corinth (cf. Rom 15:25-26 with 1 Cor 16:1-7)

  • Recipients: the church in Rome, which was neither founded by Paul nor under his jurisdiction-although he greets at least twenty-six people known to him (16:3-16)

  • Occasion: a combination of three factors: (1) Phoebe's proposed visit to Rome (16:1-2; which would begin in the house church of old friends Priscilla and Aquila , 16:3-5), (2) Paul's own anticipated visit to Rome and desire that they help him with his proposed mission to Spain ( 15 :17 -29), and (3) information (apparently brought by visitors) about tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers there

  • Emphases: Jews and Gentiles together as the one people of God; the role of the Jews in God's salvation through Christ; salvation by grace alone, received through faith in Christ Jesus and effected by the Spirit; the failure of the law and success of the Spirit in producing true righteousness; the need to be transformed in mind (by the Spirit) so as to live in unity as God's people in the present


This letter is arguably the most influential book in Christian history, perhaps in the history of western civilization. But that doesn't necessarily make it easy to read! while theologically minded people love it, others steer away from it (except for a few favorite passages), thinking it is too deep for them. But the overall argument and the reasons for it can be uncovered with a little spadework.

At issue is tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, who probably meet in separate house churches and who appear to be at odds regarding Gentile adherence to the Jewish law-especially over the three basic means of Jewish identity in the Diaspora: circumcision (2:25-3:1; 4:9-12), Sabbath observance, and food laws (14:1-23). what is at stake practically is whether Gentiles must observe the Jewish law on these points. What is at stake theologically is the gospel itself-whether "God's righteousness" (: his righteous salvation that issues in right standing with God) comes by way of "doing" the law or by faith in Christ Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

What drives the argument from beginning (1:16) to end (15:13) is expressed in the conclusion-that God might give Jews and Gentiles "the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had" so that together "with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:5-6). The focus of the argument is on what makes such unity possible: God's righteousness given to Jew and Gentile alike on the basis of faith in Christ Jesus and effected through the gift of the Spirit. This primary issue is surrounded by matters having to do with Paul's hoped-for relationship with this church at the strategic center of the empire (1:1-15; 15:14-33), followed by a commendation of Phoebe (16:1-2) and greetings to friends (16:3- 16), concluding with a final exhortation, greetings, and doxology (16:17-27).

The argument itself is in four major parts (1:16-4:25;5:12-g:30; 9:1-11:32; 12:1-15:12), each of which concludes on a confessional note that also serves as a transition to the next part (5:1-11; 8:31-39; 11:33-36; 15:13). In turn the parts take up (1) the issue of human sinfulness, showing first its universality (Gentile and Jew alike, with the law offering no advantage to the Jew) and then the effectiveness of Christ in dealing with sin, so that right standing with God is based on faith alone-for which Abraham, the "father of us all" (4:16),serves as exhibit A; (2) how faith in Christ and the gift of the spirit effect the kind of righteousness that the law intended but could not pull off, since it lacked the power to deal with human sinfulness; (3) how God is faithful despite Jewish unbelief, having a place for both Gentiles and Jews in the new "olive tree" (11:24); (4) what the righteousness effected by Christ and by the Spirit (thus apart from the law) looks like in terms of relationships within the believing community and beyond.


The key to a good reading of Romans is not to get bogged down over the many bits of detail that beg for an answer. Rather, use 'A Walk through Romans" to get the big picture, and then perhaps come back an4 with the help of a good commentary try to discover answers to its many pieces.

Knowing two things may help you as you read. First, the argumentation Paul employs in this letter is patterned after a form of ancient rhetoric known as the diatribe, in which a teacher tried to persuade students of the truth of a given philosophy through imagined dialogue, usually

in the form of questions and answers. Very often an imagined debate partner (interlocutor) would raise objections or false conclusions, which, after a vigorous "By no means!" the teacher would take pains to correct.

You will notice as you read how thoroughgoing the diatribe pattern is. The imaginary interlocutor appears at several key places (2:1-5, 17-24; 8:2; 9:19-21; 11:17 -24; 14:4, 10). Paul debates first with a Jew (2:1-5,17-24), with whom he dialogues in most of the argument that

follows, as he raises and answers questions and responds to anticipated objections (2:26; 3 :1 -9, 27 -31 ; 4:l -3 ; 6:1 -3, 1 5 -16; 7 :1, 7, 73 ; 8:3 1 -35; 9:19; etc.). A Gentile interlocutor is finally introduced in 11:13-24. In both cases Paul begins by attacking ethnic pride (2:17 -20; 11:18).

Notice further how all of this is suspended when he comes to the exhortations that begin part 4 (12:1-13:14), only to be picked up again when the issue of Jew-Gentile relationships over food and days is brought to the fore (14:4,10). Sometimes this form of argumentation can be dizzying,

especially when in the course of it Paul makes some sweeping statements that may look contradictory. But in the end, all individual statements have to be kept in the context of the whole argument.

Second, the nature of the argumentation is such that it follows a logical sequence of ideas, but you should not think that this also represents a sequence of Christian experience (justification [chs. 1-5] followed by sanctification [chs. 6-8], as is often suggested). For example, even though the role of the Spirit is not examined thoroughly until 7:4-6 and 8:1 -30, his role is already anticipated in2:28-29 and 5:5. Likewise the inadequacy of the law is first presented in chapter 2, but in the context of the life of the Spirit it is raised again in 7:7-8:4 and hinted at again in 13:8-1 0. And what is said about the Spirit in 8:1 -30 makes clear that his presence is presupposed in the argument of 6:1-14. Likewise the ethical specifics in chapters 12-14 presuppose the argument of chapters 6 and 8. The point is that Paul does not present the whole gospel at every

turn; as you move forward in the letter, you will need constantly to try to keep the whole argument in view.


1: 1-7


In this, the longest by far of his salutations, note how Paul already focuses on the gospel (vv.2-4, to be resumed in w 16-17) as including the Gentiles (vv. 5-7).


Thanksgiving and Prayer

Watch how Paul's standard thanksgiving and prayer evolve into a narrative about his longing to come to Rome, a narrative that will be resumed in 15:14. Note especially how he backs away from pressing his apostolic status.


The Thesis Stated

As you read the rest of the letter, you will see how many of its ideas and concerns are anticipated in this thesis sentence (together with vv. 2-4): the gospel is about God's Son; it is God's power bringing salvation to Jew and Gentile alike; it is the revelation of God's righteousness, available to all on the same basis, namely, faith in Christ Jesus.


Part I: On Sin, the Law, Christ, and Faith

Paul begins by painting the dismal picture of the human condition, starting with Gentile sinfulness: Idolatry leads both to the worship of the creature and to injustice and hatred of every kind (1:18-32). But note that he quickly counters by arguing that having the law does not thereby advantage the Jews, allowing them to judge others (2:1 -11): (some) Gentiles who do not have the law do what the law demands (2:12-16) and (some) Jews who have the law still break the law (2:17- 27).The only hope lies with heart circumcision (see Deut 30:6) by the Spirit (Rom 2:28-29).

After a brief (diatribal) look at the issue of God's faithfulness in light of Jewish sinfulness (3: 1 -8), Paul concludes with the bad news-that Jew and Gentile alike are sinful and need help, which the law could not provide (3:9-20).

God's own response is the greatest good news ever: Through the death of Jesus Christ, God's righteousness is given apart from the law and is available to Jew and Gentile alike by faith (3:21-26). Note how Paul then raises the three questions (3:27-31) to be answered in the rest of the argument: (1) "Boasting" is excluded; (2) its exclusion is based on the "law" of faith, apart from the Mosaic Law; (3) faith is the only answer, since there is only one God-for Gentiles as well as Jews.

For all of this Abraham serves as exhibit A (4:1-25). Note the emphasis that Abraham not only believed God and thus was credited with righteousness but also that this happened while he was still uncircumcised (a Gentile), thus making him the father of all, both Jew and Gentile alike (that is, those who believe God as he did, w.23-25).

Paul's response to this good news is to burst into confessional rhapsody, urging all his readers to enter into "peace" and to boast/rejoice in their hope and in their sufferings, since "we" have experienced God's love in Jesus Christ (5: 1 - 11).

5:12- 8:39

Part 2: On Sin, Christ, the Law, and the Spirit

Note how part 2 begins as part I did, with the universal scope of human sinfulness. But now Paul goes back to Adam in order to point out the equally universal scope (: for Gentiles as well as Jews) of the righteousness made available in Christ (5:12-21).

Paul then takes up the issue of sins, given that sin itself is taken care of through the death and resurrection of Christ. Using three analogies-death/burial/resurrection pictured in Christian baptism (6:1-14), slavery and freedom (6:15-23), and death in marriage (7:1-3)-he concludes in 7:4-6 by urging that we die to the old (the flesh [sinful nature] and the law) and live in the new (Christ and the Spirit).

Since Paul has been so hard on the law to this point, he digresses momentarily to exonerate the law-it is God-given, after all-despite its role in our death (7:7-25). Lacking the Spirit, it stood helplessly by while "another law"-the sin that it aroused-took over and "killed" Paul (w. 14-24).

God's response to this (8:1-30) is a third law, the Spirit (v. 2), who fulfills the law in us (v. 4) and stands against the sinful nature (w. 5- 13). The Spirit also leads us in the present (w. 14-17) and guarantees the future (vv. 18-25), while aiding us in prayer in the midst of suffering (vv.26-21) and conforming us to Christ's likeness (w. 28-30).

Paul's response to all of this is the ecstasy of 8:31-39. God is "for us," not against us, in Christ, from whose love we can never be separated and in whom we are more than conquerors in all situations. Thus believers (especially Gentiles) don't need to go the way of the law.


Part 3: God's Faithfulness and Jewish Unfaithfulness

Paul turns now to address the tension between God's faithfulness (in bringing Jew and Gentile together as one people) and Jewish unfaithfulness (in that the majority of Jews have not responded to the good news in Christ). The argument is in three phases, bookended by a lament over those of Israel who have rejected Christ (9:1 -5) and a confessional conclusion, where Paul bows in praise and wonder before God's awesome sovereignty (11:33-36).

Note how the first phase (9:6-29) resumes the question of God's faithfulness from 3:3. Despite Jewish rejection, God's word has not failed; election needs to be understood along the new lines of a remnant and God's mercy on Gentiles.

Watch how the second phase (9:30-10:21), although still dealing with God's faithfulness, presents Israel's own responsibility for missing out on what God is now doing (with Gentiles now "in" and much of Israel "out").

The third phase (11:1-32) takes up the very tough question of whether God has rejected Israel altogether. Despite appearances, God has not cast off his ancient people; they have stumbled but not totally fallen. Returning then to the concept of "remnant," Paul argues that God's new remnant people includes both Jew and Gentile; both have served, in different ways, to help bring the others in.


Part 4: The Practical Outworking of God's Righteousness

The (preceding) mercies of God call us to service of God based on a renewed mind (by the Spirit) that can determine what pleases God (12:1-2). Note that verses 3-8 offer the basic theological grounding for the exhortations that follow: The believing community (of Jew and Gentile together as one body) is the arena in which all of this is to be worked out, first at the interpersonal level (w. 9-21) and then in the world ( 13: 1 -7). Love is the linchpin (w. 8- 10), holding everything together (it fulfills the law and makes the rest of the argument work).

After pointing out to Gentile believers that the end of the law does not mean the end of righteousness (13:11-14), Paul concludes the whole argument on the very practical issue of Jew and Gentile respecting each other's attitudes toward food and days (14:1-15:13), urging each to accept the other (14:1; l5:1, 7). Notice how, in marvelous argumentation, he sides with the Gentiles theologically (14:17-18) but with the Jews practically (w. 19-21).And note especially how the whole argument concludes in 15:5-8 with prayer and exhortation to "accept one another,', followed by a series of Old Testament texts that include the Gentiles in God's story (w. 9-12). The whole argument from 1:16 then concludes with the prayer of 15:13.


Paul, the Gentile Mission, and Rome

Picking up where the argument left off in 15:5-13, Paul points out his own role in bringing the gospel to Gentiles (vv. 14-22), which in turn leads him to lay out his plans to come to Rome-by way of Jerusalem (vv.23-33).


Concluding Matters

The conclusion to the letter begins with a commendation of its bearer, phoebe (16:1-2). This is followed in turn by greetings to friends in Rome (w. 3-16), a final exhortation (w.17-20), final greetings (w. 21-24), and a doxology (vv. 25-27). Note how at the very end Paul again stresses that it is in keeping with the prophets that "the Gentiles . . . come to faith and obedience" (cf.1:2-7).

Here God's story gets told in its primary theological expression' God's love for all, both Jew and Gentile alike, found expression in Christ's death and resurrection; the gift of the Spirit makes it all work out in everyday life.