The book of Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters, weighing in at a hefty 16 chapters and it’s a comprehensive sweeping view of God’s salvation story. It was reading Romans that helped pull Martin Luther out of despair and help him rejoice in the righteousness of God as something not to be feared but to be thankful for. In the preface to his commentary, Luther says that in Romans we find: “what is law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, righteousness, Christ, God, good works, love, hope, the cross, and also how we are to conduct ourselves toward everyone, whether righteous or sinner, strong or weak, friend or foe.”
It was probably written around 55-57AD to the church in Rome, the capital city of the empire. The church was a mixed community of both Jews and also Gentiles, which had led to some divisions amongst them. In the process of explaining the Gospel, Paul repeatedly touches on the differences (and similarities) between Jews and Gentiles.
The letter can be divided into a few sections.
Chapter 1-4: God’s righteousness and the problem of our sin. Paul dives in to explain just what a dire situation humanity finds itself in. Both the Jews, despite their great inheritance of revelation and covenant, and the Gentiles, stand equally before God in serious trouble. In fact God has used the law given to the Jews to show them just how serious and pervasive sin was in their lives. The law is good but doesn’t save. Paul then famously concludes by stating “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Thankfully, this is not our end point as the good news is that we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (3:24-25).
Chapter 5-8: God creates a new humanity in Christ. Jews and Gentile again, are both together equally saved through believing in Jesus, and they identify with his death, and his resurrection. Death? To sin and the old life. Resurrection? To a brand new life empowered now by God’s Holy Spirit. So that’s why even though we’re saved by grace (rather than anything that we did) we don’t carry on sinning – because that “old life” is dead and buried.
Chapter 9-11: But what about Israel? Well, being of physical descent alone won’t do; God has always been making choices in his people, so just being “descended” from Israel hasn’t worked before. Faith must be added. But God is quite capable of using even people who have rejected him to accomplish his purpose, and that’s the position that unbelieving Israel is currently in. But Paul writes that at some point in the future, all Israel will be saved in the end. How? When? He doesn’t say, but simply trusts in God.
Chapter 12-16: How to live a Christian life together as the church. In these chapters you should be able to spot the repetition of the phrase, “one another”, as Paul targets what relating to each other looks like in practise. These chapters also deal with all the ethnic issues that divide the Roman church – Jewish food laws and the Sabbath for example. In fact, these different practises don’t define who is in and who is out. They are culturally different, but not essential and so can be blanketed over by love.
It’s a wonderful, expansive letter that gives us a vision of how great a salvation God has brought to us in Jesus!