Paul Writes His Letter to the Romans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Paul’s epistle laid out his theories of postmortem judgment and marked one of Christianity’s earliest attempts to distance itself from and reject Judaism.

Summary of Event

Saint Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee who was converted to Christianity, presumably in 33 c.e. Little is known about his life from that time until he began his first missionary journey in 47 c.e. For at least seventeen years after that, he was busy founding and visiting churches, especially in Asia Minor and continental Greece. He also wrote a number of letters which were both exhortations reflecting practical conditions in churches and expressions of his theology. His earliest letter was addressed to the church in Thessalonica about 50 c.e. During a three-month visit to the Corinthian church in the winter of 55 or 56 c.e., he wrote his most famous letter, to the Romans. Since the fourth century, this epistle has stood at the head of the Pauline corpus in the New Testament, even though it may well have been written last. Paul, Saint Priscilla Aquila of Pontus

When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, which he honors as the result of others’ labors, it was already widely renowned. He salutes the faith of the Romans “proclaimed all over the world,” and he names some thirty people known to him as active in Christian circles, among them Priscilla and Aquila of Pontus. Some scholars, however, believe that Romans 16, which enumerates these people, really belongs to another letter, probably the one intended for the Ephesians.

Romans can scarcely be considered a summary of the whole of Paul’s theology because it contains only incidental teaching on Christology and eschatology, two central concerns of the day, and nothing on the Lord’s Supper or church polity. Nevertheless, Romans ranks alongside Galatians as one of Paul’s most important treatises.

Judging from the contents of the letter, the writing of it was the result of controversy. After an appropriate introduction, Paul proceeds to assert that all will be rewarded or punished. The Gentiles, who have no specific moral or theological law, will be judged by the natural law written in their hearts. The Jews, who honor a specific law and yet transgress it, will also be judged. Because all have sinned, Greeks and Jews alike, it is clear that justification cannot come through the law. It brings only recognition of sin, for where there is no law there is no transgression. Justification comes rather by God’s grace through redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God has sent forth as a propitiation through faith in his blood.

That man is justified by faith without the works of the law is seen, Paul contends, in the justification of Abraham, who was counted righteous by his faith and not by his legal observances. Justification, as a free gift, is mediated through the atoning death of Christ, the second Adam, who recapitulates and undoes the pernicious work of the first Adam. People, in a mystical way, are buried with Christ by baptism into death; their old selves are crucified with him so that the body of sin may be destroyed. He that is dead is free from sin. Then, just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so people are made alive to walk in newness of life. Sin no longer has control over people because they are not under the law but under a reign of grace.

The Romans protect Saint Paul from the mob.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

One major concern of Paul in his letter is the rejection of the Israelites and their destiny. The Jews have obviously rejected what is now offered to the Gentiles. Understandably, God will reject whom he will and show mercy to whom he will; all things work together for good to those who love God and who are called. Those whom he did fore-know he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son; those whom he predestined he also called and justified and glorified. Even though the Jews have refused to confess to the saving faith that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead, God has not abandoned them entirely. Even now a remnant exists elected by virtue of grace and not of works. Moreover, the Jews’ defection might be only temporary, so that in the meantime the Gospel can be preached to the Gentiles who should, in turn, be humble in face of their election.

At this point a section follows that deals with the practical obligations of the Christian life. Even though talents and gifts are different in different people, there must be a universal fraternal charity and tolerance. All must be subject to higher civil authorities as no authority exists except from God. Respect and forbearance must be extended to all including those who do not share the same convictions as to food and feast days. Charity, peace, self-denial, patience, and mercy must prevail.

The epistle ends with the controversial ending sending the apostle’s greetings to friends supposedly in Rome.

Significance

Paul’s letter to the Romans, as embodying a significant draft of his theology, has always been a favorite of exegetes including Origen (c. 185-c. 254 c.e.), Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 c.e.), Pelagius (c. 354-after 418 c.e.), Peter Abelard (1079-1144), and Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225-1274). Saint Augustine of Hippo was especially influenced by it in his anti-Pelagian stand, so that it has become central in any discussion of justification by faith, original sin, and to a lesser degree, of predestination. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was greatly affected by the epistle and wrote a commentary on it in 1515, which has been published only in the twentieth century. German religious reformer Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560), too, wrote on it, as did John Calvin (1509-1564). The conversion that resulted in the establishment of Methodism by John Wesley (1703-1791) was largely effected from its study.

Romans is regarded by many scholars as the one document Paul did not write under the press of solving a problem and therefore sheds little light on the internal conditions of the Roman church with which, after all, Paul had no direct relationship. The epistle is written to secure the sympathy and hospitality of the church of Rome so it might serve Paul as a basis of operation for his subsequent work. At the same time, he hopes to make some contribution to the spiritual growth of the Roman Christians and to reap “some harvest” among them. That Romans is written for such uncomplicated and obvious reasons is not inconsistent or incongruous with the fact that the epistle stands, at the same time, as a comprehensive, planned, and carefully written statement of the fundamentals of Christianity. It is intended as an apology for Paul’s understanding of the principles and methods of the Christian mission so that the Roman church can judge for itself whether he is the dangerous innovator that some Jewish Christians claimed he was, or a missionary whose gospel can command their support.

This view of Paul’s purpose and the occasion of the letter naturally affects the understanding and use made of this epistle in reconstructing Paul’s thought. Paul writes here for the last time as a free man and active missionary. He has completed his most successful period of missionary work and is at the height of his powers. Romans is thus the fruit of his thought and preaching, as well as his experience with controversy, suffering, trials, and spiritual buffeting. One can discern throughout the epistle traces of themes in earlier letters all brought together in a more reflective way into a finished product. Thus the concept of the “body and its members,” such views as the relationship of faith and the spirit to the law and works, the promise to Abraham, and especially the matter of justification by faith are all ideas which can scarcely be understood without fuller reference to such earlier epistles as 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and especially Galatians.

The sections in Romans that seem to stand as units, such as chapters 9-11 on the rejection of Israel and the early discourse on the universality of sin and retribution, may well represent old sermons or treatises that Paul used frequently in different contexts, which means that they may not reflect conditions in the Roman church at the time.

In Romans, then, the apologetic strain is prominent. Paul is doing more than writing something of passing historical relevance; he is, in fact, structuring a philosophy. He is arguing that a living and providential God “whose activity creates real crises in the lives of individuals and in the affairs of mankind” has broken into the course of history with the advent of Christ. It is most important, therefore, to deal with the relationship of Christianity to its parent Judaism and to expound on such meaningful matters as the merit of a legalistic religion compared to one of the free spirit, and to elucidate the doctrine of justification.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryan, Christopher. A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Attempts to show which literary type or genre would have been seen by Paul’s contemporaries as being exemplified in the letter and to determine what can be surmised of Paul’s attitude and approach to the Jewish Bible. The study involves discussion of and comparison with other literature from Paul’s time, place, and milieu, including other writings attributed to Paul.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1997. An extensive and detailed explication of Pauline theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McRay, John. Paul: His Life and Teaching. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2003. An introduction to Paul’s life and thought aimed at an undergraduate college audience. Includes a detailed examination of Paul’s ideas, such as atonement, justification, and the Law, and what grounds these ideas in Jewish thought of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Park, Eung Chun. Either Jew or Gentile: Paul’s Unfolding Theology of Inclusivity. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Explores the evolution of Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and Jews and Christians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westerholm, Stephen. Preface to the Study of Paul. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1997. Attempts to clarify Paul’s assumptions about metaphysical reality, a vision derived from Jewish faith and shared with other early Christians. Paul’s fundamental convictions included the belief in the goodness of God and of what God has created, the belief that evil has its roots in the inappropriate responses of moral beings to what is good, and the assurance that goodness must triumph in the end. The argument of Romans takes shape within the framework of this vision.
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