It can be argued that no other book of the Bible has impacted the formation and history of the Church more than the Epistle to the Romans. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it was the most important and most crucial book in the Bible. Augustine cites Romans as the place to which he turned after hearing the words, “Tolle lege” when he was converted. The early church pastor John Chrysostom, perhaps the greatest preaching in the early church, had Romans read to him twice ever week. Martin Luther came to an understanding of justification by faith alone while studying Romans 1:17. John Wesley considered his conversion to Christ to come after reading Luther’s commentary on Romans and feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” John Bunyan was converted through his study of Romans. Samuel Coleridge, the English poet, literary critic, philosopher, declared the Romans was the “profoundest piece of writing in existence.” Perhaps Luther summarized best by saying:
This epistle is the chief part of the New Testament…the purest gospel, which indeed deserves that a Christian should not only know it word for word by heart, but deal with it daily as with the daily bread of the soul, for it can never be read or considered too much or too well, and the more it is handled the more delightful it becomes and the better it tastes.
There is little doubt among scholars that the Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans. He likely wrote this letter while he was in Macedonia and Greece (Acts 20:1-3), specifically while staying in Corinth with Gaius (1 Cor 1:14, Rom 16:1, 2). The exact date is difficult to nail down, but a timeframe of 51-53AD works. It was prior to his delivery of the collection which he had taken up for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17, Rom 15:25).
Non-Christian historical records indicate that the church at Rome had been around since at least before 50AD. Suetonius records, “Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because under the instigation of Chrestus they were incessantly making tumults.” Secular historical accounts frequently confused the common name Chrestus with the Greek form of Christ, Christus. Though some scholars debate the its composition, the church was most likely a majority Gentile body with a minority of Jewish believers. There is no indication in Scripture or in historical records that either Peter or Paul founded this church. In fact, the Scriptural records seems to imply that they did not. Paul had pledged to not “build upon another man’s foundation” (15:20). So, it appears that the church at Rome was not founded by any apostle. Likely, it was birthed as a result of Roman highway system. There was a constant and steady stream of movement around the area. Travelers from around the known world would hear the Gospel and inevitably end up in Rome, the world’s capital. Once there, believers in Christ would seek out one another for fellowship.
Paul’s letter does not focus just on the particulars of the church at Rome. It is more general in scope. As the capital of the world, the concerns of the people of Rome were the concerns of the people of the world. His letter spoke to the general needs of all people. Paul systematically explains the nature of the Gospel, but it is more than just a systematic textbook. It is a letter written to real people. This is not just ivory tower theology, but this is nitty-gritty real world application of the truths of the Triune God. Paul is presenting the hope of the Gospel to the world.
There are three basic sections to Romans. The first is an exposition of the Gospel (chs. 1-8). Then Paul addresses the question of Israel (chs. 9-11). Finally, he lays out some of the practical results of the Gospel (chs. 12-16). The theme of Paul’s exposition of the Gospel is found in Rom. 1:16, 17. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. In it the righteousness of God is revealed. The righteous shall live by faith. The need (1:18-3:20), the way (3:21-31), the model (4), and the results (5-8) of the Gospel are explained in the first section. There is a crucial point made in chapter 4, where Paul explains that there is nothing new in the Gospel. Everything promised by faith in the Gospel was found in seminal form in the Old Testament model of Abraham. This becomes important in chapters 9-11 where Paul argues that Israel’s rejection was not a failure of the covenant, but rather it corroborates the promise of God to Abraham. Finally, Paul explains that because of the Gospel we must live in love toward one another and submission to our authorities (12-16).
This is a book of grace. John Murray notes that Paul’s transition from Pharisee to Apostle was one of grace. The spell of religion was broken by Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul responds by saying, “And the commandment, which was unto life, this I found to be unto death!” Paul’s life is a reflection of the antithesis he posits in Romans. Grace and law, faith and works, these are the poles of Paul’s life which was divided by his conversion experience. His zeal for persecuting the church was transformed into a zeal for reaching the lost. The story of Romans is a story of God’s grace poured out on a world in desperate need of Christ.