It is with fear and trepidation, and at the same time with great joy and anticipation, that I embark on writing a Bible study on the book of Romans. Fear because the few pages of each lesson will never be able to explain the incredible wealth contained in Romans; joy because, even if all that we do is scratch the surface, we will be far richer for it.
The book of Romans impacted many important church leaders such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, who came from a variety of experiences. Augustine, for example, lived an immoral life and was converted when he read Romans 13:13, 14. Martin Luther was a pious monk who found it impossible to please God. Verses like Romans 5:1 and 8:1 led him to a new, deeper understanding of God as he discovered anew that salvation is through Jesus Christ alone.
The Author of Romans
It is certain that Paul is the author of the book of Romans. He identifies himself as a bondservant (or slave) to Christ. As such, he identifies himself with those to whom he is writing—people “set apart for the gospel of God.” In other words, he identifies himself as a Christian. Slavery to Christ is a unique type of slavery. It is a slavery through which we are made free.
In 1959, the Christian Reformed Publishing House published a delightful compendium study book entitled “Saved from Sin.” Students were brought through the first half of the Heidelberg Catechism, in which they learned about their sin and salvation through Christ. The following year focused on the obligation of those who are saved from their sin as they studied the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. The title of that booklet was “Saved to Serve.” That was Paul’s point. He claimed himself as a slave to Christ with total allegiance to Jesus Christ, his Savior. He had been saved to serve—as every Christian is.
Paul declared himself to be an apostle called by Jesus Christ. An apostle is understood to be one who was an eyewitness of the resurrection, who had been appointed by Christ to govern in the early church. He was sent by the Lord of the church to teach (and write) with the authority given to him by Christ. Prior to his conversion Paul could boast in being a Pharisee’s Pharisee. Originally, the Pharisees were a sect who had set themselves apart to God in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Seeing the decadence of Israel, they began as a group of people who sought to keep God’s law perfectly and thereby provide a place where a law-keeping Messiah could be born. By the time the true Messiah came, they were more interested in the keeping of the law (and imposing it on others) than they were in the Messiah. At his conversion, Paul quite literally became a Pharisee’s Pharisee (a set apart one), although not set apart by human exclusiveness but by God Himself; not set apart to keep the law but to proclaim grace.
His purpose for writing was to inform the church in Rome that it was his desire to visit with them. Ready to embark on his third missionary trip, Paul wanted to bring peace between the Jews and Gentiles in Rome to prove that the two could live together in the church. Believing he was called to preach in Spain, Paul asked the church in Rome for support in his mission work and for their prayers for his upcoming visit to Jerusalem.
The Church in Rome
Rome was the political, economic, and cultural center of the world, the capital city of the most powerful nation in the world. At that time its population was between 40,000 and 50,000 people. With few worlds left to conquer, Rome had become a place of great wickedness. As the capitol of the world power, its citizens sought pleasure for the sake of pleasure, took savage satisfaction in the affliction of others, and pursued instant self-gratification. It was a time of moral suicide.
The household churches in Rome had been founded by Jews who had been converted to Christianity. Many of them had arrived in the city as slaves of the empire. Paul didn’t hesitate to tell them that the greatest honor came to them, not by being part of Rome, but by being citizens of heaven through Jesus Christ. Irenaeus (AD 100) wrote that Peter founded the church and was her first bishop. Earlier traditions associate both Peter and Paul with the founding of the church. This is more likely, since it was never Paul’s desire to “build on another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
In all of the ugliness and violence to be found in the city, Paul wrote to the church, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” If God’s benevolence and purity were needed anywhere, certainly they were needed in the decadent capitol city of Rome. It was also needed in the church. Many Gentiles had found in the church a new peace and security not offered by the government. Their influence in the church increased after Emperor Claudius ordered the Jews to leave Rome (Acts 18:2) because the Jews were constantly rioting. Claudius would not have distinguished between Jews and Jewish Christians. In fact, the rioting may well have developed within the Jewish community because some were claiming Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ.
When the Jews returned to Rome after Claudius’s death, changes had been made in the church. The Jews were in the minority. Difficulties arose between the traditions of the Jews and those of the Gentiles. Much of Paul’s letter focuses on those difficulties: the place of the law, the arrogance of both Jews and Gentiles, and how to deal with a weaker brother.
Those within the church are loved by God and called to be saints (v. 7). Once reserved for the Jews only, this Old Testament term for those who were consecrated and dedicated to God is now applied to Gentiles as well. It is a term conferred on those set apart for the gospel of God, members of the church of Jesus Christ. God had called both Jews and Gentiles alike to be a part of His church. He had set them apart for Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul and Christ
Paul’s comment, “Woe to me if I do not preach Christ” is clear already in the opening verses of Romans. In his introduction he declares Jesus as the One who was promised beforehand in the Old Testament. One can only begin to imagine how excited this persecutor of the followers of the Way must have been as the Holy Spirit revealed to him how the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. As an expert in the law who once considered himself blameless, Paul was forced to acknowledge his own sin when he was blinded by the glory of the risen Lord. After his dramatic conversion on the way to Damascus, he could no longer boast in himself; he found that true blamelessness comes only when one is clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Paul gives testimony to the human nature (descendant of David) and the divine nature (Son of God) of Jesus and declares Him as Lord. He will later explain how Jesus is to be Lord over all: He rules over our intellect as Lord of our minds, our vocation as Lord of our wills, our ecclesiology as Lord of the church, and our politics as Lord of the nations.
In claiming himself to be an apostle set apart for the gospel of God, Paul makes very clear that he is not bringing a new message to his readers. His letter focuses on the relationship that mankind has with God. Jews and Gentiles alike have sinned against God and are in a broken relationship with God (Romans 1:18–3:20); salvation comes not through the law or through nature but by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21–5:21); slavery to sin and condemnation is removed from us (Romans 6–8); God is sovereign over all (Romans 9–11); and we are called to live a life of gratitude and service (Romans 12–15).
Paul quotes the Old Testament throughout the book of Romans for two reasons. First, he pointed out to the Jews that the work of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the promise given to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In addition, Christ fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law. Second, he pointed out to Gentiles, who despised the Jewish heritage and wanted to throw out the Old Testament, the wealth of knowledge to be gained from it. Together, Jews and Gentiles would discover through Paul that the message they had received concerning salvation originated in the Old Testament. By underscoring the unity between the old dispensation and the new dispensation, Paul encouraged both Jewish and Gentile Christians to study the Old Testament in light of the gospel.
No other book of the Bible so completely explains the central teachings of the Christian faith as does Romans. It offers a full introduction to the basic principles of Christianity. Readers who are familiar with the Reformed faith will recognize Romans as the chief resource used by the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism.
As we study the book of Romans, however, we must remember that we are Western people living in the twenty-first century reading a Middle Eastern document written in the first century. Modern readers of Romans have a tendency to view what they read through their own culture and life circumstances. Both the cultures in Rome and in this century may seem to be self-serving and seeking after their own instant gratification. Yet, both have different ways of thinking, different assumptions, and different views. This can make a difference in our application. Although Romans contains great, important, universal truths, we must be careful not to read our presuppositions into the text. Let us rather seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we study this very important book of the Bible.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What does Paul say about himself in Romans 1:1–7?
2. What were the qualifications for an apostle? How did Paul qualify?
3. How is our current society similar to Rome when Paul wrote his epistle?
4. What does Paul write about the church in Rome?
5. What does it mean to be called a saint?
6. What does Paul write about Jesus Christ in these verses?
7. How does Paul describe the gospel?
8. What is the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
9. What do you expect to learn from this study of Romans?