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Romans, The Letter of Paul to the

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Romans, The Letter of Paul to the

    Circumstances of the Letter.

    Romans, the longest of Paul's letters and the only one in which the apostle does not name a companion or coauthor, is the most carefully worked out statement of his view of the Christian faith. Although Paul had never visited the Christian community in Rome, despite his repeated hope to do so (1.11, 13), and hence cannot have been one of the founders of Christianity in the capital city of the Roman empire, he intended to visit it soon, both to encourage the believers and be encouraged by them (1.12).

    Also in Paul's mind as he dictated this letter (16.22) was his plan to carry his mission to the western half of the Mediterranean world, as far as Spain (15.24), after he had delivered a gift of money to the “poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (15.26; cf. Gal. 2.10). Paul probably hoped that the Christians in Rome would underwrite this mission (15.28–29). Acts, however, reports nothing of this mission to Spain, and the danger that Paul feared in Jerusalem from nonbelievers (15.31) in fact materialized in a different way with his arrest there (cf. Acts 21.30).

    It is probable that there was more than one Christian community in Rome, since Paul refers to a “house church” (16.5); others may have been in the houses of Prisca and Aquila (16.3; cf. 1 Cor. 16.19 for the house church they sponsored in Corinth), of Aristobulus (16.10), and of Narcissus (16.11). It is also probable that the Christian community there was composed of converted Jews as well as gentiles, despite an earlier order by the Emperor Claudius that all Jews be expelled from Rome (41 or 49 CE). That this also affected Christians is evident from the reference in Acts 18.2 to Prisca and Aquila, who were Jewish Christians. Paul's direct address to Jews (e.g., 2.17), and his concern with their history (e.g., 3.1; 4.1; 9–11), owes more to the content of his own faith and the style of his argument than to actual debates he anticipated with Jews in Rome.

    Although Paul had never been to Rome, he knew many Christians who lived there, and included greetings to them at the end of his letter (chap. 16). Arguments to the effect that these greetings could not have belonged to the original letter are not persuasive, since mobility within the Roman empire was great, and there were many who migrated to Rome during this period. The extent to which women played a key role within the early church is evident also from the same chapter: for example, Phoebe, a deacon, 16.1; Prisca, 16.3 (cf. 1 Cor. 16.19, Acts 18.2); Mary, 16.6; Junia, an apostle, 16.7—all of whom, as the language indicates, were active in the Christian mission.

    Specific information is not available concerning the circumstances surrounding the composition of the letter, such as the place from which it was written or the exact date of its composition. Scholars are not in agreement on a chronology of Paul's life, and the most that can be said is that the letter seems to have been written toward the end of his life. Since it is not known how well Paul was acquainted with the circumstances of Christians in Rome, we are unable to determine whether his ethical discussions in the letter (cf. 14.1–15.13) refer to specific problems, or whether they are the kind of general admonition he thought any group of Christians might read with profit. That the problem was not between Jewish and gentile Christians about dietary matters is clear from the fact that no Jewish dietary laws forbade the general eating of meat (14.2) or the drinking of wine (14.21). The admonitions read like a generalized account of the problem that Paul faced in Corinth (see 1 Cor. 8), and hence they are probably intended, as is the rest of the letter, to be a summary of Christian faith and practice.

    Content of the Letter.

    A more detailed outline of Paul's letter to the Christian communities in Rome is the following:

    •  I. God's lordship and the problem of the past: wrath and grace (1.1–4.22)
    • A. Opening (1.1–13)
    • B. The gospel and God's wrath (1.14–3.20)
    • C. The gospel and God's grace (3.21–4.22)
    •  II. God's lordship and the problem of the present: grace and law (4.23–8.39)
    • A. Sin and grace: Adam and Christ (4.23–5.21)
    • B. Sin, grace and law (6.1–7.25)
    • C. The spirit and the surety of grace (8.1–39)
    • III. God's lordship and the problem of the future: Israel and God's gracious plan (9.1–11.36)
    • A. God's grace and Israel's rejection (9.1–29)
    • B. Grace, faith, and the purpose of the law (9.30–10.21)
    • C. Israel and her future with God (11.1–36)
    • IV. God's lordship and the problems of daily living: grace and the structures of life (12.1–16.27)
    • A. Grace and the community (12.1–21)
    • B. Grace and the state (13.1–7)
    • C. Grace and the neighbor (13.8–14)
    • D. Grace and unity in the faith (14.1–15.13)
    • E. Grace and Paul's plans (15.14–33)
    • F. Conclusion (16.1–27)

    The central theme of Paul's letter to the Christian communities in Rome is the universal scope of God's redemptive act in Jesus Christ, offered to all who accept it in trust. That redemption, by which God reestablishes his gracious lordship over his rebellious creation, is offered not only to Jews but also to gentiles.

    First Section (1.1–4.22).

    Paul assumes that apart from Christ, all humanity has rebelled against God, the characteristic form of that rebellion being to set something other than God at the center of one's life. Such substitution of some part of creation for the true God, whether self or some other reality, Paul understands as idolatry (1.22–23, 25). Because there was enough evidence from the created universe itself to warn human beings away from idolatry (1.19–20), such rebellion against God is culpable (1.21) and brings wrath (1.18, 24–31). Although gentiles show by their actions that they possess a sense of morality (2.14–16), they will not be saved by being morally pure, since moral purity cannot reconcile them to the God they have rejected. Similarly, though Jews belong to God's chosen people (3.1) and possess the Law (2.17–20), these features will not deliver them from divine wrath brought on by their rejection of God's act of redemption in his Son, Jesus Christ. Hence all people stand in rebellion before God (3.9–18), including those who belong to the chosen people, to whom the Law was given (3.19–20).

    In Christ, however, God has come in grace to rebellious humanity, and he offers a remedy as universal as the malady (3.23–24). That remedy is to be received in faith (3.25), a remedy open to all, of whatever origin, since God is the God of all, and he offers a restored relationship to himself through trust in the love he has shown in his Son (3.28–30). In fact, a right relationship with God on the basis of trust is not something new, but was already the case with Abraham (chap. 4). It was Abraham's trust in God that allowed him to stand in a positive relationship to God (4.18–22); that positive relationship is what Paul calls “righteousness.” Such righteousness, based on trust, came to Abraham before he was circumcised; hence, faith is open to all, whether uncircumcised, as Abraham was when he first trusted, or circumcised, as Abraham later became (4.9–12, 16).

    The record of Abraham's trust in God has, however, more than historical interest; Paul affirms that it also bears directly on his readers (4.23). With that announcement, Paul begins the second major part of his letter.

    Second Section (4.23–8.39).

    Turning his attention to the present, Paul explains what his readers may now experience (5.1–5) as a result of the new opportunity for forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship to God which is offered in Christ (4.24–25). That new relationship is based on God's initiative in opening the way through Christ to righteousness in the present and to salvation in the future (5.6–11). The divine initiative remains necessary in the present, since the present continues to suffer from the inheritance of Adam, namely, the rebellion mentioned earlier (5.12–14): the universality of sharing in Adam's rebellion is demonstrated for Paul by the universal fate of death for all people (5.12). It was from that rebellion and its negative results that Christ has saved human beings (5.15–19).

    Where does God's law fit into all this? Paul raises that question (5.20–21) and then considers it in the next two chapters. Discussing the relationship of law, sin, and grace in every possible combination (6.1: sin and grace; 6.15: law and grace; 7.7: law and sin), Paul argues that baptism into Christ's death breaks the power of sin (6.1–11), and hence Christians are now free not to sin (6.12–14). Paul next argues that everyone, whether Christian or not, is under the power of some force, whether of sin or of grace (6.16–23), and that only God's grace releases a person from the power of sin through the death of Christ (7.1–17). Third, Paul argues that the close relationship of sin and law shows that those under the Law are incapable of extricating themselves from it (7.7–23). Only Christ is able to do that (7.24), as Paul had already stated in 6.1–14.

    The section 7.13–23 is thus Paul's reflection on the past, namely what life under the Mosaic law looks like from a Christian perspective; 8.1–39, on the other hand, is his reflection on the present, namely what life under Christ and freed from law looks like from a Christian perspective. Thus, a life restored under the gracious lordship of God through Christ is a life wherein the enmity between God and human beings is at an end (8.1–11), and where they, restored to the family of God (8.12–17), may look beyond present deprivation (8.18–25) to the presence of God's Spirit with them (8.26–27). Life in such a situation is safe from any hazard (8.28–39).

    Third Section, 9.1–11.36.

    One problem remains, however, and that is the rejection by the chosen people, the Jews, of God's plan for their redemption in Jesus Christ. Since God had promised them blessing through Abraham, does not their rejection of the fulfillment of that promise in Christ mean that God's promise, and thus his word, has failed (9.6)? Paul answers this question by pointing out that since God has always worked with a remnant in Israel, it should not be surprising that he continues to do so in the case of the small minority in Israel who believe in Christ (9.1–29). Furthermore, by putting the Law ahead of Christ as an expression of God's will, the Jews have continued to resist trust in God as the way of salvation (9.20–10.4). Yet such trust, not limited by birth, as was the Law, is God's chosen way of the redemption of sinners (10.5–13), a way that has been proclaimed to Jews as well as gentiles (10.14–21). Despite the Jews' rejection, however, God has not rejected the Jews (11.1–10), nor will the rejection of Christ by the Jews be final. Rather, that rejection is part of God's merciful plan: by rejecting Christ, the Jews have created the opportunity for gentiles to hear the proclamation of salvation. When that proclamation has been completed, the Jews will also finally accept trust in God through Christ (11.11–16). Using the analogy of grafting branches into an olive tree (11.17–24), Paul makes the point that the hardened attitude of Jews toward Christ is not the final word; in the end, they too will share in God's gracious lordship established through trust in Christ (11.25–31). All of this is part of God's merciful plan (11.32), knowledge of which calls forth praise to God, who works in such strange yet gracious ways (11.33–36).

    Fourth Section, 12.1–16.27.

    Having ended the third section with hymnic praise to the God whose gracious ways with sinful humanity are mysterious and past finding out, Paul gives attention to the ways in which God's gracious lordship, established through trust in Christ, relates to the structures of everyday life. Showing successively how that gracious lordship impinges on life in the community (12.1–21), in the state (13.1–7), and on one's relationship with one's neighbor (13.8–14), Paul then considers how Christians should deal with differences among themselves (14.1–15.13). Taking as his example the distinction between the “weak” (those who have scruples about eating meat, 15.2, or observing the Sabbath, 15.5–6, or drinking wine, 15.14) and the “strong” (those who regard such scruples as unnecessary), Paul affirms that the personal preferences of the strong are to be laid aside lest the weak be offended, and thus be lost to the Christian community (14.15; 15.1).

    In the final verses, Paul outlines his travel plans (15.14–33) and sends greetings (16.1–16, 21–23) along with final exhortations (16.17–20) and a benediction (16.25–27).


    Because of the range and depth of theological topics discussed in it, the letter to the Romans has played a key role at critical junctures in the history of Christianity. Amid the crumbling institutions of a Roman empire which had embraced the church, Augustine learned from Romans a view of human nature and of the state that could survive the demise of civilization. Amid the pomp of a church grown self‐important, Luther and Calvin found in this letter, particularly its treatment of justification by faith alone, a way to construct a worshiping community that allowed God's gracious lordship to be more clearly expressed. In a period of naive identification of cultural progress with God's will, Karl Barth heard in Romans the divine “no” to any attempt to equate human accomplishment with divine grace. Paul's acknowledgement of the continuing validity of God's special relationship to the Jews (e.g., 3.1–2; 11.29) stands in the way of any Christian exaltation over the modern heirs of ancient Israel. To those who pay careful heed, Romans continues to be an important guide for all who seek to make sense of their lives in the midst of historical change and cultural conflict.

    Paul J. Achtemeier

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