If you are following the New Testament track, you are entering the book of Romans.
Romans is the first of the epistles. That is, it is the first of the epistles in the biblical order (or canon). It is likely not the first epistle to be written; that is probably James. But it was set first likely because of its size. The epistles are grouped by author and then positioned from longest to shortest. That is a very serviceable arrangement. It does not communicate a larger theme like the arrangement of the minor prophets. But it does make Romans, both the longest of all the epistles and of Paul’s epistles, come out first.
And there is an appropriateness about this. Being first interestingly fits Romans’ content. This is because Romans really is the most grandiose of the epistles. It can be considered the premiere epistle, the “granddaddy” of them all, “the epistle to end all epistles” both because of what it says and how it says it.
The grandiosity of Romans is seen in its very first verses. Almost all the epistles have an introduction, a few verses in which the author identifies himself and his readers. But none of them have an introduction like Romans. Its introduction runs a full seventeen verses. Those verses contain a quick survey of the Gospel (verses 1-6), Paul’s prayers and thankfulness for the Roman believers (verses 8-13), and the unique universality of Jesus’ saving work (verses 14-16). In my mind, I see this introduction as a wide staircase in an elaborate mansion. This is a lavish entrance. As such, it lets us know something good is coming.
The theme of Romans is stated at the end of this elaborate introduction. In 1:17, Paul says
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
This is the truth Paul will develop in the next sixteen chapters, the truth that the Gospel shows a different righteousness or a different way to righteousness than what we are accustomed to. I call this way “the faith way”, but Paul calls it by the fuller name “the righteousness that is by faith”.
Paul proves not only that this righteousness by faith is real but that it has always been God’s intent by quoting Habakkuk 2:5 (also quoted in Galatians 3 and Hebrews 10). There, God gives Habakkuk the wonderful principle that “the righteous will live by faith”, a principle that has a dual meaning (both “the righteous will live by having faith in hard situations” and “those who become righteous by faith will live”). That principle is the principle of Romans and of the entire Gospel. It is also a pretty great principle.
Salvation In All Its Parts
The theme launches the book into its longest section (1:18-8:39). Here, Paul lays out “the Gospel Proper”. He does so with three ideas:
- No one is saved by law keeping – 1:18-3:20
- Anyone can be saved by faith in Jesus – 3:21-4:25
- Salvation is both being saved from the punishment of sin and the power of sin – 5:1-8:39
These three ideas can be understood in different ways. Many people merely divide this section in two, saying the first part discusses justification (salvation from the punishment of sin) and the second part discusses sanctification (salvation from the power of sin).
I’m not as interested in the technicalities of how it is outlined as much as I am in the general ideas. However you outline it, Paul clearly says that we cannot be saved in either way by law but can be saved in both ways by faith in Christ.
He then caps this truth with the beautiful revelation that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Israel Essay
Chapters 9-11, the next section, might seem like a departure. Here, Paul discusses physical Israel, that is, the literal descendants of Abraham or “Jews”, and how they relate to the Gospel. This was likely necessary because early Christians were developing an animosity toward the Jews. Paul forbids this here. He shows that God’s intent was indeed to develop a spiritual family from all over the globe, as the early Christians understood, but also that His intent was not to shun the physical family of Abraham, as the early Christians misunderstood. He warns us Gentile believers not to become arrogant, conceited, or antisemitic, but to understand God is working something marvelous in all people. I find this to be an incredibly effective passage not just for developing a Gospel spirit inside myself but also for refuting racism. These chapters show The Faith and the leaders of The Faith condemned racism of all kinds from the very beginning.
Unity in Christ
The next couple chapters, 12-15:13, are kind of a “slop” category. There are several unique ideas here which we tend to lump together as “practical application”. Among these ideas are calls to love and understanding the part each individual contributes to the church (12), submission to government (13), and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to unity (14-15:13). In these verses are lots of great statement which can stand on their own, but there is also the overriding idea that people saved by faith in Jesus live a different and better way.
Finally, the book ends with a closing that is as grandiose as its opening. Again, most epistles have a closing of some kind, but none are as expansive as Romans’ closing. Paul tells the Roman readers his plans, which include a stop in their territory. He also gives a long list of people he want to greet or relate greetings from. Some of these people we know, like Timothy. Others we do not. We run into “woman who work hard” here, and Phoebe who carried this letter to the Romans. We meet Paul’s relatives and the first convert to Christ in Asia and Rufus who may be the son of Simeon who carried Jesus’ cross and lots of other wonderful people. We only get a glimpse of most of these people here, but it is a “Gospel glimpse”. It shows us the kind of people the Gospel can turn us into.
The First Epistle
It is really unfair to call any epistle “first”. Every epistle is a beautiful and unique word of God. But it is nonetheless true that this epistle is one of the most unique. Its construct is unique, being much more elaborate than any other epistle. But its message is unique as well. It is the ancient message made even more clear by Jesus that righteousness come by faith and that faith expresses itself as righteousness. That’s what the Romans needed to hear. It is what we need to hear, too.