Letter to the Romans

ROMANS, LETTER TO THE. The genuineness of the letter has never been seriously questioned by competent critics familiar with first-century history. Although other NT letters have been wrongly attacked as forgeries not written by the alleged authors, this letter stands with Galatians and 1 and 2 Corinthians as one of the unassailable documents of early church history.

I. Literary Unity. The literary unity of the last two chapters with the body of the letter has been questioned. There are manuscripts that have the doxology of Rom.16.25-Rom.16.27 at the end of Rom.14.1-Rom.14.23; some have it in both places. Yet none of the manuscripts lacks Rom.15.1-Rom.15.33 and Rom.16.1-Rom.16.27, and there is no evidence that the letter was ever circulated without its last two chapters. It is not difficult for anyone who is familiar with letters of a theological and missionary nature to imagine how this inspiring doxology might appear out of its intended place in some copies.

This is a letter, not a treatise. It was not intended to be a formal literary product. In the midst of greetings from friends who were with the author as he wrote (Rom.16.21-Rom.16.23), Tertius, the scribe to whom the letter was dictated, puts in his own personal greeting (Rom.16.22). Perhaps Paul was interrupted at Rom.16.21. As he stepped away, he may have said, “Tertius, put in your greeting while I attend to so and so.” He returned in a moment and resumed his dictating. The people of the Bible were human beings under human circumstances, and the letter means more to us because this is so.

Perhaps Paul composed this segment, Rom.16.25-Rom.16.27, at the end of his discussion of “judging and scandalizing” (Rom.14.1-Rom.14.23). This little doxology is a compact paragraph, a unit in itself. It would fit appropriately in a number of places.

The opening verses of Rom.15.1-Rom.15.33, on “the strong and the weak,” are obviously related to the material in Rom.14.1-Rom.14.23. One can picture Paul resuming his work at 15:1 after an interruption. Tertius takes up his pen, and Paul says, “I must say more about the treatment of the weaker brother. The little paragraph of praise to God that we did last, is to go at the very end, after we have finished everything else.” Tertius draws a line through it, and later faithfully copies it at the end.

The prayer at the end of Rom.15.1-Rom.15.33 is not to be taken as the conclusion of a letter. It is only the appropriate conclusion of a particular topic. Paul had been telling of his itinerary. He was deeply moved as he contemplated the perils of his impending visit to Jerusalem, and he strongly implored the prayers of the saints in Rome in respect to this matter (Rom.15.30-Rom.15.32). Quite naturally and spontaneously at this point he broke into a prayer for them. The conclusions of Paul’s letters always contain some striking use of the word “grace” (see 2Thess.3.17-2Thess.3.18), a word not found here. Therefore the prayer of 15:33 should not be construed as a conclusion of a letter.

The main body of the letter ends at Rom.16.20 with the words “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” Rom.16.21 to Rom.16.24 are intentionally a postscript. He has finished the personal greetings to people in Rome. Phoebe, who is to take the letter to Rome, is nearly ready to begin her journey. Greetings from friends in Corinth, who may have assembled for a farewell, belong by themselves in a postscript, followed by another benediction (Rom.16.23-Rom.16.25). Then finally comes the exalted doxology (Rom.16.25-Rom.16.27).

The peculiarities, which have caused some to question the literary unity of the last two chapters with the main body of the letter, give no ground whatever for questioning the letter’s genuineness. No forger or redactor would have left such matters open to question. The only reasonable explanation of the data is that the letter is exactly what it purports to be, a personal letter from the apostle Paul to the church at Rome, which he was planning to visit.

II. The Time of writing This cannot here be discussed in detail. Suffice it to say that the letter clearly places itself in the three-month period (Acts.20.3) that Paul spent in Corinth just before going to Jerusalem. According to the best authorities in NT chronology this three-month period was about December a.d. 56 to February 57.

III. The Reason for Writing. It is not difficult to know why this epistle was written. In the first place Paul was emphatic in his claim to be “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom.11.13; Rom.15.16; see also Acts.9.15; Acts.22.15-Acts.22.21; Acts.26.17-Acts.26.20, Acts.26.23; Gal.2.7-Gal.2.9; Eph.3.2-Eph.3.8), and Rome was the capital of the Gentile world. Paul was a Roman citizen, and a visit to Rome was consistent with his regular mode of operation. He established churches in strategic centers and worked in major cities.

There was this difference, however. There was a church already existing at Rome, probably founded by local people who had heard the gospel in their travels. It was Paul’s peculiar policy to preach in hitherto unevangelized areas (Rom.15.17-Rom.15.24; cf. also 2Cor.10.14-2Cor.10.16). His proposed visit to Rome was not inconsistent, however, for (1) he had a contribution to make to their spiritual welfare (Rom.1.11-Rom.1.13) and (2) he planned to visit Rome on his way to evangelize Spain (Rom.15.24). He was asking the church in Rome to help him in this project. The structure of the letter is built around Paul’s travel plans.

There was a great theological reason for the writing of this letter, a problem that had demanded the Letter to the Galatians at an earlier juncture in Paul’s ministry. It concerned the relation of (1) the OT Scriptures, (2) contemporaneous pharisaic Judaism, and (3) the gospel implemented by the earthly work of Christ. It had been difficult for Peter to orient himself to the new day (Gal.2.6-Gal.2.14ff.), but he had made the transition (Acts.15.7-Acts.15.12; see also 2Pet.3.15-2Pet.3.16). We may well marvel at Peter’s humility and true vision when, in calling Paul’s letters “scripture,” he certainly included Galatians, in which his own short-sightedness is recalled.

It has been said that if Galatians is the “Magna Charta” of the gospel, Romans is the “Constitution.” The theological substance of this letter had to be presented to the NT church, whether addressed to Rome or not, but there were circumstances in Rome that made it appropriate for Paul, in a relatively calm frame of mind, with time for fuller elaboration, and without having become personally involved in local affairs, as he had in Galatia, to expand the central doctrine of the Letter to the Galatians. Thus he explained his purpose in coming to Rome and the main purpose of his life ministry and message. There was friction and misunderstanding between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church. We know from the personal greetings at the end that it was a mixed church. The problem is reflected in almost every section of the letter, but especially in chapters Rom.3.1-Rom.3.31, Rom.4.1-Rom.4.25, Rom.9.1-Rom.9.33, Rom.10.1-Rom.10.21, and Rom.11.1-Rom.11.36. Both sides were stubborn. There was a moment, probably brief, even after Paul had reached Rome, when Mark and a certain Jesus Justus were the only Christian Jews in Rome who would cooperate with Paul (Col.4.10-Col.4.11). A clarification of the gospel and its implications was needed.

IV. The Content and Outline. These must be understood from the point of view of Paul’s total ministry and his particular travel plans. True, the greatest theme in the work is justification by faith. But this is not an essay on that subject. Much of the material simply does not fall under any subheading of that theme. This is a letter from the apostle to the Gentiles of the church in Rome, and the subject is “Why I am Coming to Visit You.” Outlines that fail to see this viewpoint and seek to force the material into formal divisions as though this were an essay, are very likely to assign subtopics and secondary subheadings that do not fit. Some outlines are almost like “zoning” laws, forbidding the reader to find in certain sections material that certainly is there.

The following very simple outline is suggested. (The great doctrinal themes are discussed in articles on doctrinal topics.)

I. The Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome.

I am entrusted with a message that I must deliver to you; i.e., the gospel in all its implications (1:1-17).

II. The World Is Lost

A. The Gentile world is wretchedly lost (1:18-32) in spite of God’s justice for attempted morality (2:1-16).

B. The Jewish world is equally lost, in spite of all their privileges (2:17-3:20).

III. Justification by Faith Is My Great Message (3:21-5:21).

There is no space for the wealth of subtopics.

IV. Holy Living in Principle (6:1-8:39).

V. God Has Not Forgotten the Jews (9:1-11:36).

VI. Details of Christian Conduct (12:1-15:13).

VII. Miscellaneous Notes

A. Travel plans (15:14-33).

B. Personal to people in Rome (16:1-20).

C. Personal from people in Corinth (16:21-23).

D. Doxology (16:24-27).

Bibliography: C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (HNTC), 1957; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Romans (TNTC), 1963; M. Black, Romans (NCB), 1973; C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (ICC), 2 vols., 1975-79; E. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 1980.——JOB