Paul’s epistle to the Romans was probably written in Corinth around A.D 57 during the missionary’s third journey. The message was written to a church that had already established itself in Rome, probably started by Jewish Christians who had been present in Jerusalem at Pentecost but had later returned to Rome where they got engaged in spreading their new faith in Jesus Christ. Although the Jews began the church, there are suggestions in Rom 1:5, 6, 13, 11:13 that majority of the believers were gentiles. The Gentiles and Jews had a relationship that was characterized by a lot of prejudice against each other mostly due to political and cultural differences (Moo 1996).
There was also great tension between the traditional Jews and the Jewish Christians as they got embroiled in arguments about Jesus Christ’s validity as the promised Messiah. Paul did not however write the epistle with an aim of addressing any particular problem but rather it was meant to pave way for his planned visit to Rome where he intended to lay a foundation for his future missionary work in this region.
It is quite clear in Rom 1:11, 12, 15:24 that Paul had a very strong desire to visit the Roman Christians and fellowship with them while encouraging and assuring them about everything that they had freely received from God. Although the epistle was specifically written to the church in Rome, it is quite clear that it was for the benefit of every believer in the New Testament Church. It has a very clear message to the Jews even though much of the content is for the benefit of Gentile Christians (Witherington 2004).
1st Century Audience
The main theme in this letter is that salvation comes not through the law but by the grace of God through faith in His son Jesus Christ. This was a very important issue in the efforts to spread the gospel to the gentiles who may have got the wrong impression that they had to follow Jewish law and be just like the Jews in order to receive salvation.
The righteousness of God is strongly emphasized in this text. Paul is quick to restate his confidence in the gospel about which he feels no shame and which he recommends to each person who desires to come to Christ and be saved.
He argues that every human being is guilty of sin and is accountable for every sin before God and that the only way out of this sinful life and into salvation is through the death of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. According to Paul, this salvation comes freely to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ irrespective of whether they are Jew or Gentile (Moo 1996).
Paul begins his letter to the Roman Church by analyzing Old Testament scriptures and relating the history of Israel’s religion to God’s work of salvation that he has fulfilled through Jesus Christ. To these early Christians it is very important that Paul makes it very clear that the God he was writing about was the same God who made a covenant with Israel and was now extending the covenant promises to the gentile believers.
He goes on to explain that such an action does not indicate that God has been unfaithful to Israel but rather is supposed to reflect God’s unending love to all mankind. He tells the gentile Christians to pass on his greetings to Jewish believers, an indication of his strategic plan to unite both groups of believers into one strong church of Jesus Christ. Paul however, takes special interest in tracing the origin of Christianity to Jewish culture and religion so that the Jews may not view the gospel as bringing a completely new religion.
In such way, he is trying to establish a harmonious church in which Jews and Gentiles will be involved together in worship and fellowship irrespective of their social and cultural differences.
The theme runs throughout the book and was supposed to help the early believers get the understanding that God’s plan to save Israel had not stopped, but was still continuing (Blauvelt 2005).
By engaging in a dialogue with Judaism, Paul was not necessarily addressing a Jewish Christian audience but rather his main purpose was to highlight those issues that differentiated a Christian from a Jew and what the gospel he was preaching had to say about such issues. The purpose of doing this was to help the Christians with a gentile origin to understand where their faith was rooted. Christianity in Rome is likely to have begun in the synagogues and some of the gentile synagogue attendees were likely the first gentile converts. Because of their familiarity with the law, it was important that Paul addressed their curiosity about how this gospel that he was preaching related to the understanding of law and circumcision that they previously had (Moo 1996).
To the Jewish Christian, Paul specifically wrote with the purpose of converting these believers to a gospel free from the law while at the same time correcting the arrogance and indifference that the Gentile Christians had towards the minority Jewish Christians. He tries to make the Jews understand that the law should not be a determinant of anyone’s involvement in the Christian congregation.
He criticizes Judaism for placing too much emphasis on the law and assuming that Israel is God’s favored nation while at the same time affirming that the church is rooted in Israel and this nation continues to have an important place within God’s salvation plan. God’s magnificent plan for the salvation of humankind would now be based on a partnership with God that the humans would achieve through righteousness. The Jews were now no longer custodians of such things as pertained to knowledge about God and His word but they now had to create room for the rest of humankind popularly referred to as Gentiles (Witherington 2004).
Paul accuses human beings of a tendency to lay judgment on one another especially if there happens to be any slight difference in cultural or religious backgrounds. He portrays God as a God of love, a just God and one who is universally fair in the way he deals with human beings. The author is well aware of how human beings have continually portrayed God as a judging God and how human beings have always tried to outdo God in exercising judgment.
Instead, those that have had first-hand privilege of knowing the ways of God but have not respected such responsibility are subject to God’s judgment because they cause others to dishonor God’s name. According to Paul judgment should only be left to God because only He has the right to pass judgment. All humankind is wrong and no one should claim any special favors from God. He however goes on to reveal that Jesus Christ came to make all humanity right with God (Witherington 2004).
In Chapter 4, Paul argues that it is simple faith in God and not religious tradition or performance that will put mankind into a rightful relationship with God.
The way we respond to God’s unending love towards us is the starting point for this simple faith as displayed in the story of Abraham. In using the example of David, Paul illustrates that sin cannot separate man from God’s love as long as man recognizes that God is big and loving enough to give forgiveness. He argues that religious formalism is the major obstacle that separates humanity and a loving God. Throughout chapters 2 to 8 Paul reveals a doctrine of man’s union with Jesus Christ and the role of God’s spirit in the life of a Christian. His emphasis however dwells heavily on how the Gentiles would become part of God’s family together with the Jews without disrupting anything about the salvation history.
For the Jewish Christian the relevance of the law and issue of God’s continuing salvation plan was very essential. The whole of chapter 7 discusses the law and the relationship between the Mosaic and New covenants. In Rom 9-11, Paul climaxes his letter with the theme of Israel’s forefathers as discussed earlier in Chapter 1 in order to settle the Jewish Christian’s issue about God’s continuing salvation plan and assure them of God’s faithfulness to the promises He had given the Israelites through their forefathers (Blauvelt 2005).Annotated text diagram of Paul’s letter to the Romans
|Man’s unrighteousness||Unrighteousness subjects man to God’s judgment |
God’s judgment applies to all human beings
The Jews received no immunity through the law
God was right in judging Jews for rejecting Christ
Jews and Gentiles alike are under God’s judgment
Mosaic law does not offer salvation
|God’s righteousness||Christ’s death saves man from slavery of sin |
Salvation through Christ makes all men equal before God and gives them an equal standing
Right standing with God leads to hope of eternal life
|Practicing Righteousness||Righteousness practiced in individual lives |
In the congregation of believers
Among believers both weak and strong
|Jesus Christ||Sacrifice for mankind’s sin |
Salvation came to all
Faith in him brings salvation
|Judgment||Belongs to God |
Causes differences in the congregation
Should not be practiced by Christians
Today the world is going through the same issues that Paul was dealing with in the early church in Rome. The letter to the Romans is God’s word to every Christian through such aspects as God’s continuous salvation plan, the sinful nature of mankind and man’s need for God, God’s unending love and the provision he has given for the problem of sin in Christ.
Faith in Jesus Christ rather than the law or religious formality is the means to a holy life and the security that God has provided for the Christian during times of suffering or in the face of death. For every human being, faith in Jesus Christ is the only way that leads to God and through Christ, a sinful person can enter into a rightful relationship with God that will lead to eternal life (Rutledge 2007).
Even though God gets angry this anger cannot compare to human anger because the later follows after its own selfish ways. God is angry about sin but his judgment changes as soon as sinful man gets to a realization of his sinful nature and seeks forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Whether in the society of Paul’s time or in today’s society, wickedness is still high among human beings and their evil behavior continues to separate them from God.
Our creator however desires that every sinful person comes to repentance as the only way to avoid the wrath of God’s anger. Though the wrath of God is very real, his anger is not a seasonal kind of emotion but it is an unwavering, steady and purposeful resistance to sin. Christian character is very essential for every true Christian, as this will attract others to the word of God. Bad Christian character continues to blaspheme the word of God just like the Jewish failure to fully obey the law as indicate in Paul’s letter. God’s righteousness is a necessity for every person and is more important than anything in a person’s life and though no one deserves it, God is loving and kind enough that He has offered this righteousness freely to all those who trust in Him (Bright& Simons 2007).
Paul’s strong statement that he was not ashamed of the gospel should be a lesson for every Christian whose belief and faith in God opens his/her life to ridicule. Many people worry that their dignified religion might be ridiculed if they admit that God’s might power is able to change negative situations and change people. Many Christians are even ashamed when in the company of converted murders and robbers although this should never be so.
God who changed the life of Paul is able to change the lives of such people and create them anew in the perfect image of God through Jesus Christ. These people should be embraced openly in the Christian congregations because they are no longer under the condemnation of sin in their new life in Jesus Christ. The power of God’s spirit has changed such people into a new likeness with Christ. A new life in the spirit of God means that the convert has died to world standards and should therefore not be ashamed of his/her new birth through the gospel of Jesus Christ (Witherington 2004).
Today’s Christians judge one another or those they deem as non-believers, but according to Paul, passing judgment on others or condemning them does not place one above condemnation but instead puts one right into condemnation itself. In Rom 3:22-33, every human being is sinful in God’s eyes and therefore it is only God who has authority to pass judgment because only He is righteous. Just like the Christians during the 1st century, today’s Christian life is marked with a lot of un-holiness and ungodliness that is constantly attracting God’s anger and it is important that Christians face the reality that God is angry about sin and that his forgiveness is not automatic but requires one to seek forgiveness.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans the word justification is used instead of forgiveness. The word justification means that every sinner who seeks forgiveness from God will not only receive that forgiveness but will have the privilege of being set right by God’s power. God’s righteousness can only be found in Jesus Christ (Blauvelt 2005).
In Today’s Christian community God’s mercy should be enacted every day through forgiveness towards one another being patient towards those who are at fault and practicing charity towards them as well as restoring back to the congregation those who have wandered away from the faith. This is because God himself is patient with the Christian even when he/she is not walking right and is not quick to judge anyone but gives everyman the opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness (Rutledge 2007).
When writing to the church in Rome, Paul was addressing a congregation that was marked by cultural diversity. The kind of tolerance and grace that flows throughout this epistle should be a great lesson to the Christian congregations today especially in places where cultural diversity is most evident. In Rom chapters 14 and 15 Paul specifically addresses the weak and strong Christians and the differences they exhibited about what to eat.
This is a clear indication that the church was not unified and that cultural differences and religious background could have led to such differences. This is a great lesson that such differences should not occur within the congregation and that we should be mindful of each other’s welfare instead of undermining one another. It is of utmost importance that the Christian family practices harmonious co-existence bearing in mind that all believers are not in the same level of spiritual maturity.
Whether a believer looks strange, odd or may appear different, he/she must be welcomed into the congregation in the same way that God has accepted him/her. The life of a true Christian must follow the example of Christ, not be stumbling to other believers, must lead to spiritual growth of the Christian, and most of all must bring glory to God (Blauvelt 2005).
God’s mercy to Christians does not result from any efforts from man or even man’s willingness to receive such mercy but it results from God’s own purpose and power and the fact that he was willed to extend his mercy to the believers. God’s hands still remain wide open to all people who are willing to enter into a rightful relationship with him irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. Salvation however should not be sought through works (Rom 9:31-32) but through faith, by avoiding hardness of heart but his /her life should be characterized by good works.
In Rom chapter 12 there is an appeal to Christians to turn over their lives to God through full surrender of their whole being to Jesus Christ. A Christian who lives in total surrender cannot fail to live the kind of life that God demands (Rutledge 2007). In Rom 8 we learn that all those that freely come to Christ are free from condemnation, are sons of God by adoption, have the spirit of God dwelling in them, are joint heirs with Jesus Christ and linked with him eternally, and most importantly there is no charge put against them that believe. In Rom 11, we also learn that God’s gifts to the believers are unmerited, gracious and free and a believer cannot be separated from God as long as he/she is living according to God’s will.
Old Testament sacrificial offerings have been replaced by the Christian’s own body, which should be offered as the living sacrifice through the service of worship. Dedicating of the whole body to God results in transformation of a believer’s character and leads him/her to doing the holy will of God. But dedication must be accompanied by service in which the spirit of Jesus Christ becomes the sole dominating power. Renewal of the mind is also of utmost importance by spending considerable amount of time in fellowship with other Christian men or women who display godliness in their character (Rutledge 2007).
Comparison Chart of Letter to the Romans: 1st Century Christians and Today’s Christians.
|First Century Christians||Today’s Christians|
|Jewish refusal to accept Gentiles |
|Christians failure to embrace new believers with love|
|Gentiles undermining minority Jewish Christians||Big and established churches undermining smaller and younger ones|
|Jews seeking salvation through the law and works||Christians seeking salvation through works of religion|
|Christians passing judgment towards one another||Judgment among believers still rampant today|
|Law offers no salvation||Religious works offer no salvation|
|Salvation only through faith in Christ||Salvation only through faith in Christ|
|Salvation for both Jews and Gentiles||Salvation for all mankind|
|Law does not exempt Jews from judgment||Religion does not exempt man from judgment|
|God loving, kind and merciful||God has not changed|
|God extends salvation to the Gentiles||God extends salvation to all humankind|
Paul’s letter to the Romans is as relevant to the Christian today as it was to the audience in the first century Roman Church. The messages about God’s unending love, proper Christian brotherhood as well as a life free from the domination of sin are all messages that the world needs today more than ever before. The church today is still experiencing the same type of socio religious problems and detailed study of the letter to the Romans can be of tremendous help to solving such problems
Blauvelt, L. (2005). The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome: From Progressive Bondage to Joyful Deliverance. Xulon Press.
Bright, H. & Simons, K. (2007). Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Wycliffe Associates (UK). Web.
Moo, D. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans. Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Rutledge, F. (2007). Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Wm.B. Eerdmans.
Witherington, B. (2004). Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A socio-rhetorical commentary. Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing.