The following will be translated into Croatian and used as a handout for the Romans lectures I will give at EPC Stiejna spasenja (Evangelical Pentecostal Church Rock of Salvation) in Zagreb in November and December.
While I recognize that Luther’s reading of Romans is not perfect–it’s too individualistic, too “Western”, etc.–I maintain that Luther’s reading is the best basis for approaching the contents of this letter.
Once students “get” Luther’s perspective, the teacher can provide the necessary correctives about:
- simplistic views of 2nd temple Judaism,
- Western individualism,
- Paul’s variegated view of the atonement,
- how the questions we bring to Romans change the reading (and how our questions are not always the same as the Reformers),
Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Introduction and Outline
Perry L. Stepp, Ph.D.; Ravnatelj, Biblijski institut Zagreb
Based on the travel plans that he mentions in chapter 15, Paul wrote Romans in the winter of 57-58, from Corinth. He was preparing to go from Corinth to Jerusalem, and then he hoped to go on to Rome and from there to Spain and western Europe.
Paul’s purpose for going to Jerusalem was to deliver money that gentile churches had collected to the Jewish churches. There had been a great famine in Palestine, which Christian prophets had predicted. Based on this prophecy, Paul and other leaders of the gentile churches told the gentile Christians that they needed to donate money to give to their Jewish fellow-Christians. This money would help the churches in Jerusalem and Palestine survive the famine and minister to the non-Christian Jews around them by providing food and relief.
It is worth noting here that, while the gentile churches were not wealthy, the Jewish churches in Palestine and Judea were extremely poor and persecuted heavily. Gentile churches in the first century faced fierce persecution from time to time. The Jewish churches in Palestine, Judea, and especially Jerusalem faced heavy, constant persecution.
Why is Paul writing to the Roman churches about his travel plans? Because when he gets to Rome, he plans to ask them for financial support for his trip to Spain and western Europe. Here is a clue that tells us how to read Romans; it is a fundraising letter.
(As Acts tells the story, Christian prophets warned Paul several times that he would be persecuted on this trip. Indeed, although he reached Jerusalem without any trouble, once he got there he was arrested, imprisoned, and nearly killed on several occasions. He finally reached Rome, but not as he imagined he would and not on the schedule he had planned:
- He thought he would go directly from Jerusalem to Rome; instead, he was imprisoned for two years in Caesarea Maritima, the site of one of Herod’s palace complexes.
- He thought he would go to Rome of his own volition with control of his schedule and agenda; instead, he went to Rome as a prisoner in chains.)
How should we picture the church that Paul is writing to? This would have been a network of between twenty and forty house churches, with anywhere from 10 to 100 people meeting in private homes. (Wealthier Roman Christians would have had large dining rooms in their homes that could hold as many as 120 people at a time.)
The number of house groups would have fluctuated over time. Based on house sizes, the average house group was probably around 20 adults, and there would have been between 600 and 1,000 active Christians in Rome (then a city of 1.5 million people, including the outlying areas.)
This gives us a picture of how the Roman church received Paul’s letter. Phoebe, a deaconess from Cenchrae (a town near Corinth, from which Paul writes this letter) has carried the letter from Corinth to Rome (Rom 16.1-2). She would have gone from house church to house church in Rome, carrying the letter and reading it to the congregations. She would have also had personal instruction from Paul about things to explain further, things to emphasize, etc. This was a standard responsibility for letter carriers in the New Testament world.
Why does it matter that Romans is a fundraising letter? Paul has never been to Rome. Out of the hundreds of Christians in the churches there, he only knows personally the 25-30 people whom he names in Romans 16. Most of the believers in Rome do not know him personally, and have not heard him preach or teach. In other words, because they don’t know him directly, he must introduce his ministry and teaching to them.
They have heard about him but they do not know him and have never heard him. He wants to be able to ask them for financial support for his missionary work. So what does he do? He writes this letter to them, which constitutes an extensive (though not exhaustive) introduction to his teaching. It’s like Paul is saying, “You may not know me, so let me tell you about my ministry and about what I teach. Then you will feel good about supporting me financially.”
Modern readers are fortunate that Paul felt the need to introduce himself so extensively, in this incredibly long letter. (In fact, Romans is generally said to be the longest ancient letter still extant.) The description of Paul’s teaching that we find in Romans helps us understand much of what he says less exhaustively in his other letters.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this letter in Christian history. Paul’s letter to the Romans sparked Saint Augustine’s conversion, Martin Luther’s reformation, John Wesley’s revival, and Karl Barth’s theological revolution. And it sparks revival and renewed faith in those who read and listen to it with hearts open to receive its message today, as well.
The following outline of the argument of Romans is based on Martin Luther’s reading of the letter. His reading is not without weaknesses, but it provides the best starting point for thinking about the contents.
- INTRODUCTION (1.1-15)
- THESIS: Paul’s gospel (1.16-17). The message of the gospel is that God delivers sinful people by declaring them righteous on the basis of their faith, not on the basis of their performance.
- THE PROBLEM: all humanity has rejected God, to the point that our goodness is not good enough to save us (1.18 – 3.18)
- Gentiles have rejected God by worshipping idols and rebelling against God’s standards for behavior, morality, and worship. (1.18-31)
- The good people who DON’T live horrible, sinful lives still fail, because they don’t live up to the standards they know they should meet. (2.1-16)
- The Jews, who have revelation from God and a history of covenant relationship with God, don’t live up to their end of the covenant. They don’t live up to their own standards either. (2.17 – 3.8)
- Summary: when viewed on the basis of merit, no one is righteous, all stand condemned. (3.9-18)
- GOD’S SOLUTION: God justifies those who cling to him in faith. (3.19 – 8.39)
- God didn’t give his law so that people would live up to it and save themselves. He gave it so that people would realize that they COULDN’T save themselves, and throw themselves on his mercy. (3.19-20)
- All of humanity falls short of God’s standards. Because we fall short, we owe a debt of guilt and sin that we cannot pay. God put our guilt and debt on Jesus, and made him the sacrifice that makes peace between us and him. And now we can be his people, not because we deserve it or are better than others, but because we commit ourselves in faith to the God who makes rebels his people. (3.21-31)
- Abraham is the example of a person who God accepted and made a covenant with on the basis of faith, not performance or ritual or race. He is not just the father of the Jews; he is the father of EVERY PERSON who entrusts themselves to God (4.1-25)
- The benefits of being accepted by God, pt 1; the guilt of your sins no longer separates you from God. (5.1-11).
- The benefits of being accepted by God, pt 2; the power of sin over human nature no longer separates you from God. (5.12 – 7.25)
- The completeness of God’s victory over sin and death; life in the Spirit, redemption for the entire cosmos, “in all these things we are super-conquerors.” (8.1-39)
- GOD’S FAMILY OF FAITH. If God has included Gentiles into Abraham’s family, then what of the Jews? Has God broken faith with his ancient people? (9.1 – 11.36)
- CROSS-SHAPED COMMUNITY: what does a community that looks like the cross of Jesus look like? In other words: on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the salvation God has made for us there, how should Christians treat one another? (12.1 – 15.21)
- Do not conform to the world’s pattern. Let the Spirit transform you by renewing your mind according to HIS pattern. (12.1-2)
- Living from an honest self-image. (12.3-8)
- What love looks like. (12.9-21)
- Preserving your witness in a world that is against you. (13.1-14)
- Loving other believers in spite of differences of opinion and belief. (14.1 – 15.13)
- Summary: Paul’s attitude toward his teaching. (15.14-20)
- PAUL’S TRAVEL PLANS. (15.22-33)
- CLOSING (16.1-27)
- Authorization of Phoebe. (16.1-2)
- Personal greetings from Paul. (16.3-16)
- Warning against false teachers and divisive people. (16.17-20)
- Personal greetings from Paul’s companions. (16.21-23)
- Closing prayer. (16.25-27)