A Letter to Roman Christians
Peter C. Smart, Worcester
It is not known how the church at Rome was founded, but according to the Roman historian, Suetonius, the gospel had reached the city within twenty years of the crucifixion. By the time of the Neronian persecution, Tacitus describes a "huge multitude" of Christians there. It is felt by many that this large company consisted mainly of Gentile believers. The letter was written towards the end of Paul's third missionary journey, during his stay at Corinth. At this time he was preparing to make his journey to Jerusalem with the fund raised for the poor of the church there. In this article, we view the Epistle as a whole, with its implications for us today.
In the opening verses, Paul greets his fellow-Christians in Rome, and tells of his plan to visit them. Later in the letter we see that he hoped to go on to Spain, such was the extent of the apostle's vision and desire for the people to hear the gospel. He was not ashamed of the gospel; he was sure that it was God's means of power in saving sinners, and Rome had no lack of such within its society. This power was so dynamic in its effects, that the resulting faith was spoken of throughout the whole world.
This letter is the longest and the most profound of the existing writings of Paul. Its argument is complex and detailed, needing careful reading to be understood. Yet its core is simple, and we shall keep to this in our analysis.
The letter has been outlined in three parts:
The sin of man, 1. 17 to 3. 20.
But the grace of God, 3. 21 to 8. 39.
Therefore the Christian ethic, 12. 1 to 15. 13.
The Sin of Man.This is shown to be universal. To the Gentiles has been given a revelation of God's nature and will in His creation, but they have deliberately refused this, relapsing into futile speculation and darkness. Thus God gave them over to the consequences of their own evil ways. Reject the true God, and inevitably men sink into this morass of depravity. But the Jews are shown to be no better. They enjoyed God's special revelation of His nature and will in the law of Moses; they flouted it and disobeyed its commands. The sad conclusion concerning man is given: they are all under sin, there is none righteous, no not one. All stand condemned.
The Grace of God.Into this seemingly hopeless situation, there comes a ray of hope in the grace of God. God is at work to put things right for sinful man. No man can by the works of the law-his own moral achievements-put himself right with God. But in Christ, God has provided a way for the sinful to be justified. In the gospel, God declares His gracious will to forgive men and make them right with Himself. The death of Christ is the means of that forgiveness, and God's requirement from man is faith. Justification by faith is no new truth, but it was seen in the life of Abraham. Through faith we enjoy peace with God and the hope of glory. It is through faith that we enter into a new relationship with Christ. We die in union with Him to our old self-life and its evil ways, and rise into new life in a risen Christ. Baptism symbolizes it, and we are called to become what we potentially are-dead to sin and alive to God. Romans 8. 1 perhaps expresses the pinnacle of thought of this letter. The transformation is complete. The condemned sinner has now been freed, the power of sin has been broken, we are fellowheirs with Christ, and in hope we await the time when, in the final triumph, we shall be fully conformed to the image of His Son.
The Christian Ethic.Being free from condemnation may indeed be the pinnacle of thought, but it is not the end. The message of the letter not only emphasizes the need to "believe" but also to "behave". Grace and gratitude go together. Having expounded the grace of God, Paul describes the response in living that those who believe ought to give. It is but our reasonable service, for the believer is called to a life "in Christ", lived in that fellowship, of which Christ is the Living Head. It is a life whose master-principle is that selfless love which is but the fulfilling of the law. As law-abiding citizens of the state, all behaviour patterns are conditioned by Christ's design for living.
Chapters 9-11.Of these chapters, we have as yet said nothing. Some would say that these chapters could be detached from the letter without affecting its structure and argument, and that they are included by Paul just as a matter of convenience. This is not so, for they are closely related to those that precede them. In particular, the thought-content is an expansion of that in chapter 3. The apostle had stated at the beginning of the letter that the gospel was to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile. It was a cause of great heaviness and sorrow to Paul's heart that this seemed to have been reversed, that his kinsmen had spurned the grace of God in Christ. They had the covenants, the law, the promises and other privileges, yet to them the cross of Christ was a stumbling block, the law but bondage, and the promises a source of pride. But Israel's faithlessness did not mean that God's purpose had failed. He has mercy, in His sovereignty, on whom He will, and if Israel rejects Him, He turns His blessing to the Gentile. The diminishing of the Jew had become the riches of the Gentiles. Yet God has not finally rejected Israel, for even now there is a faithful remnant, and for the chosen nation the day of God's salvation will dawn. Thus the glorious contemplation of Israel's true greatness is given to us in these chapters, their restoration the blessing of the world. One writer has entitled a study of this letter as "Wrestling with Romans". He feels that if this dedicated study of such writings is not attempted, the Church today is the poorer. The great truths of the gospel are outlined in this letter; may we, no less than its first readers, make them our own!