The Epistle to the Romans is a cornerstone in the Scriptures. Sometimes called the Gospel according to Paul, it is the most comprehensive book in the New Testament. If you are going to study the New Testament seriously, you must diligently address this book.
Romans was written at the close of Paul’s third missionary journey during the three months he was in Greece (Acts 20) in either the late winter or the early spring of a.d. 57 or 58. This was just before he returned to Jerusalem with the offering from the Macedonian churches.
The historical impact of Romans is probably unequaled by any other book. The Church thrived on the great truths of God’s grace until grace began to erode into forms of legalism, plunging the world into the Dark Ages from the 6th to the 16th centuries.
The Great Reformation brought grace back into the picture. “By grace are we saved through faith.” The Epistle to the Romans really altered the whole course of the world.
The book of Romans has a very international outlook. Paul was a Roman citizen. Since he was educated in Tarsus, he had a Greek cultural background and was well learned in the Greek philosophers. He was also a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” taught by Gamaliel himself, who was among the most venerated of the rabbis. Paul was bright, lettered, and intellectual, yet he was also very sensitive. He knew how to reach people; he tailored his message to his audience.
This book will delight the greatest logician; it will hold the attention of the wisest of men; yet, it will bring the humblest soul to tears of repentance at the feet of the Savior. Romans emphasizes that a God small enough for our mind is not large enough for our need.
The name Paul means “the least; the little one.” He, of all writers, really understood the grace of God. He acknowledged that he himself was the chief of sinners, and yet he was the most devoutly religious man who ever lived. But if he was the most religious man who ever lived, and yet could also call himself the chief of sinners, that’s really good news for you and I. God has already saved one far worse than us, by Paul’s own testimony in the Scriptures. He was the chief of sinners, and God saved him.
Romans wasn’t written to the world, but to believers. It wasn’t written to the church at Rome, but to the individuals, to the believers, who were in Rome. This letter does not preach to the unsaved; the unsaved are never called “God’s beloved,” a term reserved for God’s own children. Romans is intended to teach the saints. What are saints? I prefer Donald Grey Barnhouse’s definition:
Saints are a group of displaced persons, uprooted from their natural home, and on their way to an extraterrestrial destination, not of this planet, neither in its roots or in its ideals.
That describes us. If you feel a little estranged sometimes, rejoice in that. When you pick up the newspaper and see all of the nonsense and evil in the world, you can take comfort that we are just passing through.
The Outline of the Book
The first section, chapters 1-8, is doctrinal, a masterpiece on the doctrine of faith. The first three chapters are the most complete diagnosis of sin in the Bible. They speak of three basic types of people: the Pagan Man, who has never heard the Gospel; the Moral Man, who strives to live a good life; and, the Religious Man, who keeps all the rules and regulations. All three stand condemned because their righteousness is not adequate to avoid offending a perfect and holy God.
The second section, chapters 9-11, deals with God’s greatest predicament: How can God love us and save us without violating His own nature? Without violating His justice? Without impugning His own holiness?
God has a problem but He found a very creative way to solve it by giving us the greatest gift conceivable-His Son. These chapters can also be called dispensational because they focus on Israel’s past, present and future. We are interested in Israel, not because we are Jewish, but because we are Gentiles and heirs through them.
The third and last section, chapters 12-16, explains sanctification, the peace of God. We are not only delivered from the penalty of sin in the past tense, we can be delivered from the power of sin in the present sense.
The three sections can be summarized as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” or Doctrinal, Dispensational, and Practical.
The Theme of the Gospel of Paul
The word “Gospel” is not a code of ethics or morals. It’s not a creed to be accepted. It’s not a system of religion to be adhered to. It’s not good advice to follow. So what is the Gospel? It is a message concerning a Divine Person. My friend Lew Phelps suggested to me the word GRACE could be an acronym to summarize Romans: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”
God’s grace is what Romans is really all about, and, specifically, God’s predicament. Romans presents the most complete and penetrating statement of God’s divine plan for redemption. Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to give dead men life!
An illustration of this is the case of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. When the son came home, his father did not say, “My son has become good.” Rather, he said, “My son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and now is found!” The point of the Prodigal Son is that, despite his misdeed, he never lost his sonship.
Paul’s entire commitment can be summarized in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
The power of God unto what? Unto salvation-not unto reformation, education, progress, development, nor for the “fanning of some innate flame.” It is for lost man and no other. Men are involved in either salvation or its opposite, perdition. The book is written for you and me.
A Trilogy Around A Key Verse
A trilogy of truth found in the Old Testament became the cornerstone of the Reformation. Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith,” changed Martin Luther’s life. He was desperate about his own sin and kept going through all the bizarre medieval church procedures for absolution, trying harder and harder and harder.
Finally, he decided to journey through the Alps to Rome, and on the way he met a monk. The monk understood his predicament and said, “You need to get into Habakkuk.”
Martin did and chapter 2 verse 4 leapt out at him, “The just shall live by faith.”
Who are the just? The answer to that question is the centerpiece of the first chapter of Romans (1:17). How shall they live? The book of Galatians deals with that in Galatians 3:11. The just shall live by what? By faith. The book of Hebrews focuses on faith in unparalleled terms. These three epistles, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, are a trilogy on Habakkuk’s declaration: The just shall live by faith. [This is one of the many reasons I believe Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews.]
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the definitive statement of Christian doctrine and can command a lifetime of study in itself. It will challenge the greatest minds and philosophers, and yet any of us can understand it and embrace its precepts.
Our verse-by-verse study of the Book of Romans is now available on DVD, as well as the other formats.