Thousands of written messages came and went in the ancient city of Rome. Nearly all of them have disappeared. The most startling one survived. You have it.
A Gem Thrown Into a Dark Well
As we revisit Paul’s letter to the Romans, think of the city that received it. Rome was a beating heart that virtually received and supplied the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. The mud of every immorality, the wine of every new delight, the intrigue of every political maneuver, the flash of every new fashion, and the capricious waste of every folly eventually found its way into this hub. With each sick compression, the Roman heart then pumped all of it back out toward the rest of its conquered lands, shaping culture at large.
In 58 A.D., the Apostle Paul launched his life’s message into the circulation of this beast by sending a letter to the Christians in Rome. It was the apostle’s doctrinal magnum opus.
N.T. Wright says of Paul’s epistle, “It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages”¹
Another scholar says Romans “overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals.”²
J.B. Phillips adds, “It is possible that Paul, naturally impressed that he was writing to the heart of the empire, would take extra pains to ‘polish’ this exposition of the faith.”³
And this he seems to have done. Romans is at once a personal correspondence as well as a doctrinal treatise. It possesses a remarkably tight structure and educational flow, while keeping the social touches one would expect to find in a letter.
What’s Under the Hood
Paul pulled out all the stops in Romans. The apostle recruited everything and everyone from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David to Solomon, and on to various prophets, in order to testify of his amazing message, which he called “the gospel of God.”
Romans is the Gospel
Though he calls his letter “the gospel,” it is not the gospel as we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, where we see a narrative of Jesus accomplishing His work. Instead, the gospel in Romans occupies itself with the application of Christ’s finished work upon the believers. It is not the passion of the Christ in progress; it is the passion of the Christ finished and applied. The results of this spiritual power landing on a human soul are nearly incalculable. For in this book, God makes typical sinners into His sons, placing them into the mystical and practical Body of His Son, Jesus Christ. If this sounds ethereal and difficult to understand, in some respects it is. Paul calls it a great mystery which God revealed (16:25-27).
Men and Women Happily Rushing Toward Damnation
Romans starts off by asserting that all men are sinners condemned in the eyes of God (3:10-19). Never has there been a more unpopular message that needed so urgently to be spoken. Without it, blissfully ignorant, doomed human beings will continue on their fatal course toward damnation, believing themselves to be “good enough” and so neither desiring nor looking for salvation.
God Justifies, but Only His Way
God’s first great movement then, in making sinners into sons, is to justify them by His grace (Rom. 3:22, 24. 5:1). It is nothing short of suicidal for sinful human beings to justify themselves. No matter how we self-comfort, sin remains as indelible as some massive India ink stain. Only God can truly justify a sinner, and He does it through the redemptive death of Christ. He does not “let us off the hook,” as though justice could be satisfied merely through God forgetting about it. He must justify a person according to His own standard of holiness and glory, not a lesser, adjusted benchmark. Incredible thought! Whoever puts their trust in the death of Christ on the cross, receives a complete payment for their sins.
Salvation Never Stops
And yet the saga is not over, for salvation affects a sinner’s very disposition, making them into sons of God from the inside out (5:10b, 5:19). Sanctification moves us into a position of holiness in Christ (6:18-19, 22, 5:19), then progressively adds the spiritual life of God from our spirit (8:10), into our soul (8:6), and body (8:11). It is a great and lifelong process. The result is conformation to the image of the Son of God (Rom. 8:29), transformation through the spiritual renewing our mind (Rom. 12:2), and glorification, the ultimate step in God’s full salvation, when even our mortal bodies will be like Christ (8:17-21, 30). The salvation panorama in Romans truly is “Death…swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
This period of time in our growth process is fraught with dangers within and without, but nothing can stop it. As Paul writes, “I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
Guess What…the Church is Included in the Gospel of God
Though the first eight chapters of Romans deal more or less with the personal dimension of Christian development, the remaining chapters bring it into balance. None of the dynamic phases of full salvation are meant to occur in solitude. This is why the latter chapters of Romans stress the body of Christ, the church (12:1, 4). The emphasis turns to the mutual use of gifts for the benefit of one another (12:4-8), the living of virtuous lives in the midst of the other members (12:9-21, 13:8-10), and admonitions to receive one another (14:1, 15:7) for the building up of one another (14:19).
Although this more universal concept of the church seems an ideal abstract, Paul’s letter concludes with names of real people (16:3-15). This is no theoretical text. He may have left off his intentional teaching in Romans 15, but his example teaches still in chapter 16—he knows people and knows of them. The churches mentioned at the end of the book are all real (16:21-23, 16), not like the romanticized blueprints dreamed about in popular ecclesiology books today.
The Amazing Shelf Life of Paul’s Epistle
What kind of future could this paltry letter have had back when a diminutive unknown named Paul wrote and sent it to a trembling sect? The developing warp and woof of Roman culture, indeed, of time itself seemed poised to swallow it like an ocean would a mosquito.
Consider the final day of the apostle’s life in Rome, marched to his death between Roman soldiers.
“He was to die by decapitation, and he was led out to execution beyond the city walls, upon the road to Ostia, the port of Rome…As the martyr and his executioners passed on, their way was crowded with a motley multitude of goers and comers between the metropolis and its harbor—merchants hastened to superintend the unloading of their cargoes—sailors eager to squander the profits of their last voyage in the dissipation the capital—officials of the government charged with the administration of the Provinces, or the command of the legions on the Euphrates or the Rhine—Chaldean astrologers—Phrygian eunuchs—dancing girls from Syria with their painted turbans—mendicant priests from Egypt howling for Osiris—Greek adventurers, eager to coin their national cunning into Roman gold—representatives of the avarice and ambition, the fraud and lust, the superstition and intelligence, of the Imperial world. Through the dust and tumult of that busy throng, the small troop of soldiers threaded their way silently, under the bright sky of an Italian midsummer…The place of execution was not far distant; and there the sword of the headsman ended his long course of sufferings.”4
Consider this man, all but eclipsed by the “more important” matters of the day, a man who had once referred to himself as being like “the scum of the world” (1 Cor. 4:13), and ask how he might have reacted had he seen what was to become of his letter to those Romans.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, this letter would go on to belong to the ages. It would be carried under the arms of school children and parsed by scholars. Legions of the faithful would memorize it and study it and argue over it. History would turn on its thoughts when a protestant reformation would break out sixteen centuries later. Its phrases would be emblazoned on tee shirts, and trumpeted into massive audiences. It would be read by millions, preached in the poorest boroughs of this earth, and proclaimed in palaces. Its contents would be loved, trusted, and believed.
If Paul had seen his letter, so mightily blessed under the hand of God, he might well have fallen down and wept, saying once again,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
¹Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 395.
²Felix Just, S.J. (2 September 2005). “New Testament Statistics: Number of Chapters, Verses, and Words in the Greek NT.”
³ J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966), 308.
4W.J. Conbeare, J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 781-782.