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New Testament: Romans

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Saint Paul

The Apostle Paul writes the longest of his letters to a community of Christians in Rome, announcing that he plans to visit them, to be mutually encouraged, and to be sent on by them to Spain. To accomplish the goal of having the support of the Roman Christians, Paul sets forth an account of the gospel that he preaches--particularly about the saving work of God in Christ--and spells out its implications for the Christian life. In addition, he writes concerning the salvation of the Jewish people, discusses some particulars of Christian conduct (life under the Roman government, living together in the midst of disagreements, and fulfilling the law of love). He speaks of his plans for travel as an apostle and sends greetings by name to some twenty-six persons known to him in Rome.

So What?

With the exception of the four Gospels, Romans is unsurpassed among the books of the New Testament for its impact on later church history. It had a place in Augustine's conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity; in the rediscovery of grace, justification, and faith by Martin Luther, sparking the Reformation; and in the beginnings of the Methodist movement when John Wesley read Luther's Preface to Romans. In 1919 Karl Barth produced his commentary on Romans, a work that was to change theology radically in the twentieth century.

Where Do I Find It?

Paul's Letter to the Romans is the sixth book in the New Testament. Because it is the longest of Paul's letters, it stands first in the "Pauline corpus," the collection of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (the books of Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

According to the letter itself, the Apostle Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans. There seems never to have been any serious doubts about authorship.

When Was It Written?

Romans was written somewhere between 55 and 58 C.E. from Corinth, probably at the home of Gaius, a resident of Corinth (see Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14). Paul sent the letter to Rome, carried by Phoebe, deacon of the church at Cenchreae, the port of Corinth (Romans 16:1). According to Acts 20:3, Paul spent three months in Greece prior to his trip to Jerusalem. It may well have been at that time that he wrote Romans.

What's It About?

Paul's Letter to the Romans is about God's saving work in Christ for Jew and Gentile alike, both of whom fall short of doing the will of God yet receive grace and mercy from God.

How Do I Read It?

In his Loci communes of 1521, Philip Melanchthon (an associate of Martin Luther) referred to Romans as a "compendium of Christian doctrine." That view is no longer held by interpreters, for there are many theological topics that are not covered in Romans (such as, in a direct way, the Lord's Supper, the cross, and Christ's return). Yet, even though the letter is not a compendium of doctrine, Paul does sum up many of his teachings, presenting his gospel to a community that he plans to visit. The modern reader can understand Romans as, in large part, a summary of Paul's main teachings and foundational for Christian theology ever since.

AUTHOR: Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus and former Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament

I. Greetings and Thanks (Romans 1:1-17)

Paul sends greetings to "God's beloved in Rome." He gives thanks for them and their faith, known throughout the world, and speaks of the gospel as God's power of salvation.

II. The Revelation of the Wrath of God (Romans 1:18-3:20)

In the style of a diatribe, Paul declares that the wrath of God is being revealed against Gentiles and Jews alike, so no one can boast before God. God's judgment is universal and impartial.

III. The Revelation of the Righteousness of God (Romans 3:21-4:25)

Since God has sent God's Son into the world, crucified and risen, the righteousness of God (that is to say, God's saving power) has been revealed, by which human beings are justified purely by accepting the good news by faith. Abraham is an example of how a person is justified by faith, that is, by believing God's promises.

IV. The New Life in Christ (Romans 5:1-8:39)

Although there is peace with God for all who are justified by faith, and although they are free from the power of sin and its consequences, life continues to be a struggle against sin. Christians walk by the Spirit, live in hope of the redemption of the entire cosmos, and know that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ.

V. Israel in God's Plan (Romans 9:1-11:36)

Israel's continuing unbelief is a cause of deep sorrow for Paul. That unbelief is due neither to a failure of God's word nor to Israel's ability to hear the gospel, but to a temporary "hardening" in Israel so that the gospel can overflow to the Gentiles. In the end "all Israel will be saved" by the grace and mercy of God.

VI. Serving God and Loving Others (Romans 12:1-21)

Turning to ethical exhortations, Paul calls his readers to new thinking, using their gifts within the body of Christ and living in harmony with one another.

VII. On Governing Authorities, Love, and Conduct (Romans 13:1-14)

Believers are to be submissive to governing authorities, for they exist by divine design, and to practice love as the fulfillment of the law of God.

VIII. The Weak and the Strong (Romans 14:1-15:13)

Some persons keep certain dietary and calendrical observances in honor of the Lord, and others do not. Believers should not carry on disputes concerning these matters. Moreover, the "strong" who do not keep such observances should put up with the ways of the "weak" who do, and all should seek to please and build up one another.

IX. Paul's Plans (Romans 15:14-33)

Paul explains that his intention is to travel to Rome and then on to Spain. First, however, he must go to Jerusalem with a collection he has gathered from his churches for the church in Jerusalem, thereby fulfilling a promise he made earlier (see Galatians 2:10).

X. Greetings and Closure (Romans 16:1-27)

Paul asks that the Christians in Rome welcome Phoebe, the probable carrier of the letter. Paul sends greetings to twenty-six named persons, of whom nineteen are men and seven are women, including Junia, who is called an apostle. He warns against contentious persons, sends greetings from coworkers and friends, and closes with a doxology.

AUTHOR: Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus and former Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament

Romans differs from the other letters written by Paul. He wrote them to congregations he had founded, but Romans was written to a community of Christians that he had not founded. According to the letter itself, the Apostle Paul considered his evangelizing work completed in the eastern Mediterranean world and now had his sights set on going west, even as far as Spain (15:23-24). Located at the house of Gaius (16:23), a resident of Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1:14), Paul writes to the Christians at Rome (he never speaks of a single "church" there) to let them know of his plans. He intends to travel to Spain by way of Rome, and he hopes that the Roman Christians will lend support to his mission to Spain (Romans 15:24). He knows many of the Christians at Rome by name (as chapter 16 shows). The Christian community--made up of a core of Jewish Christians, but predominantly Gentile Christians--had been in existence for some time. The Jewish Christians had been expelled with other Jews by the Roman emperor Claudius in 49 C.E. (see Acts 18:1-3) but were allowed by Nero to return in 54 C.E. There clearly were differences between the (more traditional) Jewish and (newer) Gentile Christians in Rome on several issues. That accounts for Paul's treatment of issues that could divide, but should not. Paul indicates that prior to heading for Rome he has to take a collection to Jerusalem, but he has some foreboding of what will happen in Jerusalem and asks the Roman Christians to pray that he will be safe (Romans 15:30-32). According to Acts, however, that was not to be. Paul was arrested, imprisoned, and taken to Rome not as a free man but as a prisoner.

AUTHOR: Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus and former Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament

Christians and the state. At Romans 13:1-7, Paul calls upon his readers to be subject to the governing authorities. The passage has been used to support Christian cooperation with evil regimes with disastrous consequences. Some Christian clergy and other leaders during the American Revolution appealed to these verses to oppose resistance to British rule. One should recognize that Paul wrote to persons in Rome where some Jewish Christians had already been expelled under Claudius not many years before. Paul wrote to a place where Christians could suffer from civil disobedience. Whether he wrote for all times is another matter. In the end Paul himself must have been executed for civil disobedience, presumably refusing to participate in worship of the Roman emperor. Paul relativized the authority of the emperor by declaring that he is God's servant (13:4), not a god.

Diatribe. The term is derived from the Greek word diatribē, a word with several meanings, including "discourse." It refers to a form of presentation, oral or written, in which the speaker or writer confronts and debates an imaginary addressee in order to instruct those actually being addressed. Typically it makes use of hypothetical questions and false conclusions. Paul uses the technique frequently in his letters by setting up false inferences of the gospel and then correcting them. In Romans, diatribe is particularly evident in 1:18-3:20 (using an imaginary opponent at 2:1, 17; showing the opponent to be wrong at 2:4; naming false conclusions at 3:3-4, 9; and making his own conclusion at 3:19-20).

The "I" of Romans 7. Romans 7 is an extensive and deeply moving treatment of the human being before the law of God. Interpreters have struggled and disagreed among themselves concerning Paul's use of the first-person singular pronoun "I" in much of the chapter. Proposals have included the following: (1) Paul writes autobiographically, describing his own personal struggle; (2) Paul is talking here about the struggle that the Christian has in resisting sin; (3) he speaks about the non-Christian person, particularly the Jewish person; and (4) he describes the life of the non-Christian from a Christian perspective. It appears that Paul is not simply talking theology apart from some experiential basis. He could be referring to the experience of the Christian, whose only hope is the salvation which God brings (7:24-25).

Faith in or of Christ? At several places in his letters (Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9), Paul uses expressions in Greek (such as pistis Christou) that have traditionally been translated as "faith in Christ" (or some other christological title). That is how the phrase is rendered in the NRSV, RSV, NIV, and other modern translations of the Bible. But the NRSV includes footnotes in each instance to alert the reader that the phrase might in fact be understood better as the "faith of Christ," "Christ's faithfulness," or something similar. The "Pistis Christou Debate," as it is often called, continues among New Testament scholars.

The law. Paul uses the Greek word for "law" (nomos) in several senses. It can refer to the law of God in a broad sense, which even Gentiles can know and by which they can live (Romans 2:14-15); to the Mosaic law that guides Jewish life (Romans 8:3, 7; 9:31; Galatians 3:10; 4:21); to the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) in a more general sense (Romans 3:19; 1 Corinthians 14:21); to the books of the Torah (the "Pentateuch," the first five books of the Old Testament) in particular (1 Corinthians 9:9; Galatians 4:21-27); to some general principle (Romans 7:21); and to "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

Romans and homosexuality. Romans 1:26-27 has been a key text in views about homosexuality historically and in modern times. According to some people, the passage is definitive and normative, the basis for opposing the full acceptance of homosexual persons in the church and in society. According to others, homosexuality is an orientation, and therefore the passage is not about homosexuality but about certain same-gender behaviors evident in Paul's time (primarily the exploitation of youths, slaves, and other vulnerable persons). With this reading, the passage would have nothing to say about "homosexuality" as an orientation and perhaps nothing about some same-gender activities by homosexual persons.

The salvation of the Jewish people. In Romans 9-11 Paul laments that the Jewish people have not accepted the gospel. He probes why that is so, often drawing upon the Scriptures of Israel with a thoroughness not found elsewhere in his letters. Near the end of these three chapters Paul concludes that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26). The salvation of Israel will not be on the basis of observing the law of Moses but purely by the grace of God. Although interpreters have found it difficult to think that here Paul might be thinking of salvation of the Jewish people without their prior faith in Christ, Paul says that he is disclosing a "mystery" (11:25), a revelation from God that is not according to reason.

AUTHOR: Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus and former Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament

Adam and Christ. In Romans 5:12-21 Paul discusses the tragedy of Adam's trespass against God, which affected all of humanity; all people are like Adam in their rebelliousness against God. But Christ was obedient, and his righteousness is available for all. His saving work exceeds the destruction that Adam caused. Paul takes up the Adam/Christ theme also in 1 Corinthians 15:21-23, 45-49.

The Holy Spirit. Paul speaks frequently about the Holy Spirit, using a wide range of expressions: "the Spirit of God," "the Spirit of Christ," "the Holy Spirit," "the Spirit of holiness," "the Spirit of God's Son," or simply "the Spirit." According to Paul, the Spirit prompts faith in a person (see 1 Corinthians 12:3), distributes spiritual gifts to members of the church (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-11), and empowers the life of the individual (Romans 8:1-11).

Justification by faith. This theme is probably the first that comes to mind for many when they think of Romans (and the same is true of Paul's letter to the Galatians). It is a major theme, emphasized strongly at Romans 3:21-26, 28, 30; 5:1. All of chapter 4 is about justification by faith in the case of Abraham and the implications that flow from it for those who share the faith of Abraham. Justification by faith means that one is justified (set in a right relationship) with God purely on the basis of one's trust (or faith) in the promises of God, and not by efforts known as doing the works of the law.

The law. For Paul, the law is holy, given by God as a gift to Israel (Romans 7:12), but it can also be misused when its ritual precepts (such as dietary commandments) are imposed upon Gentiles (as in Galatians 2:14; 5:1) and when it is used as a measure of one's presumed righteousness before God (Romans 3:19-20). According to Paul, Christians live under the lordship of Christ (not the law), but that will entail a life conformed to the will of God, which is summed up in the love commandment (Romans 13:9; see also Galatians 5:14).

The righteousness of God. Paul speaks of "the righteousness of God" at Romans 1:17; 3:21-22, 25; 10:3; and elsewhere in his letters. The expression does not refer to some standard (such as God's justice) but to God's saving work, which is made evident in the gospel (1:17).

Sanctification. The term refers to the process of making a person, place, or thing holy. In his letters Paul speaks of believers in Christ as persons who are sanctified already (1 Corinthians 1:2) or, in similar terminology, persons who are called to be saints, that is, sanctified persons (Romans 1:7). Persons are sanctified through baptism (1 Corinthians 6:11). On the other hand, Paul can speak of sanctification as a process in which a believer is engaged by means of a moral life (Romans 6:19-22; 1 Thessalonians 4:3).

The weak and the strong. In Romans 14:1-15:13 Paul addresses the "weak and the strong" at Rome. The "weak" are vegetarians, observe certain days, and drink no wine (14:1-2, 5, 21). The "strong" do not abide by such regulations (14:2-5, 10), and Paul identifies with them (15:1). The former probably were Jewish Christians who continued a Jewish way of life as Christians, and most likely the latter were mainly Gentiles (Paul being an exception). Paul urges the so-called "strong" to bear with and honor the others (14:1, 3-4, 15, 19-21, 23).

The wrath of God. The wrath of God is mentioned twelve times in Romans (1:18; 2:5 [twice], 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22 [twice]; 12:19; 13:4, 5) and three times elsewhere by Paul (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9). Usually Paul says that God's wrath will be revealed at the last day as punitive judgment (Romans 2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 9:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9), but he also says that it can be seen already in the effects of the law (that is, divine judgment, as in Romans 4:15) and in the punishment of wrongdoers by temporal rulers (Romans 13:4-5).

AUTHOR: Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus and former Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament