Romans: Introduction and 1:1-3:20

14th May 2002

1. Introduction to the book of Romans
        1.1. Background
2. Overview of the book of Romans
3. Paul's introduction to the letter (1:1-17)
        3.1. Paul's manifesto (1:16-17)
4. God's anger (1:18-3:20)
        4.1. God's anger against hedonistic Gentiles (1:18-32)
        4.2. God's anger against hypocritical moralisers (2:1-16)
        4.3. God's anger against those who trust in the law (2:17-29)
5. No-one is exempt from God's judgement (3:1-20)

1. Introduction to the book of Romans

Paul's letter to the Romans has been described by Martin Luther as ``Really the chief part of the New Testament, and ... truly the purest gospel''; by Tyndale, the first translator of the bible into English, as ``The principle and most excellent part of the New Testament ... and also a light and a way in unto the whole scripture''; and by F. F. Bruce as ``A sustained and coherent statement of the gospel.''

The book of Romans has had a profound effect in Christian history: it was as Augustine read it that he was converted, and through his studies in it that Luther rediscovered the great lost doctrine of justification by faith; and it was while listening to someone reading Luther's preface to Romans that John Wesley found his ``heart strangely warmed''.

If we're to appreciate it fully, we need to get away from a shallow perception of it as a source of ``soundbite'' verses (``All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God'', 3:23; ``There is no condemnation'', 8:1; ``In all things God works for the good of those who love him'', 8:28). The whole book is a single, sustained argument.

1.1. Background

Romans was written while Paul was in Corinth, about to undertake a three-legged journey:

  1. to Jerusalem, to deliver the Corinthian collection;
  2. to Rome, to visit the church ``while passing through'' (15:24);
  3. to Spain, to preach in ``regions beyond'', having planted churches in all four provinces of Asia.

The church in Rome was a mixture of Gentiles and Jews, dominated by the former. There was conflict between them, not ethnic in basis, but doctrinal: the Jews considered Christianity as merely a ``denomination'' of Judaism, and believed that Christians - including non-Jewish Christians - were required to keep the law of Moses; but the Gentiles believed they were free from Jewish law. This conflict underlies much of Romans.

John Stott says: ``Paul is seen from beginning to end as an authentic peacemaker, pouring oil on troubled waters, anxious to preserve both truth and peace without sacrificing either to the other.'' (Cf. Arthur Wallis, ``We pay too high a price for Unity if it costs us the Truth.'')

Against this background, Paul's two great themes throughout the book are:

2. Overview of the book of Romans

Romans breaks down quite naturally into twelve sessions as follows:

Reference Description
1:1-3:20 Introduction; Humanity's rebellion, God's anger
3:21-4:25 Righteousness given as a gift through faith; Abraham justified by faith
5 Peace with God; Death through Adam, Life through Christ
6:1-7:6 Death to sin; living in grace; married to the law
7:7-8:17 Struggling with sin; living in the Spirit
8:18-27 The coming kingdom
8:28-39 The steadfastness and security of God's love
9 God's sovereign choice in election
10-11 Salvation for Israel and the Gentiles
12:1-8 The new life (living sacrifices, renewed minds)
12:9-13:14 Relationships: with other christians, the state, etc.
14-16 Freedom from regulations; forbearance; epilogue

3. Paul's introduction to the letter (1:1-17)

v1-7 - The usual formalities at the beginning of a New Testament-era letter include saying who it is from. Paul expands this sections into a statement of who he is and of the gospel that he preaches.

v2 - The gospel, clearly presented in the New Testament, was promised beforehand through the Old Testament prophets. It's not a brand new thing: the signposts were always there in Judaism. That's part of why Jesus calls himself the fulfillment of the law. A few examples off the top of my head:

v8-15 - Paul wants to visit Rome, prays for them, etc., although he has no existing relationship with them: he didn't plant the church, and hasn't even visited it before. This despite his policy that ``It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation.'' (Romans 15:20) Perhaps this is because the church was never ``planted'' but sprang up spontaneously among newly-converted believers returned to Rome from Jerusalem.

3.1. Paul's manifesto (1:16-17)

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ``The righteous will live by faith.''
- Romans 1:16-17

This has been described as Paul's ``manifesto'' for Romans, and the rest of the letter as his exposition of it. This is a very meaty nugget, and there's lots to notice here:

4. God's anger (1:18-3:20)

Unfortunately, the rest of this study is pretty depressing: it's two straight chapters of God's just anger. But this is the necessary backdrop against which his grace must be understood: unless we first understand God's holiness, and his anger, and the justice of his anger, then we can never fully understand how great his grace is.

This is one of the key problems we face in evangelism: most people today are simply not aware of their sinfulness; they recognise neither their need to be saved, nor even that there is anything to be saved from. We - and they - must understand the bad news of God's anger for the good news of his grace to make any sense.

From Romans 1:18 to 2:29, Paul discusses God's anger against three groups of people: firstly, against immoral, hedonistic pagan Gentiles; then against hypocritical moralisers; and finally against self-satisfied Jews who think that because they know the Law of Moses, they will win God's approval. We'll concentrate of the first of these, since it's the most relevant to contemporary society.

In all three cases, God's anger is against those who deliberately suppress their own knowledge of him. It is clear that everyone has some knowledge of him (v20) and we are responsible to God for what we do with that knowledge.

Karl Barth was an influential liberal theologian in the first half of the 20th century. His reading of the book of Romans converted him to biblical evangelicalism. On verses 18 onwards, he wrote:

Our relation to God is ungodly ... We assume that ... we are able to arrange our relation to him as we arrange our other relationships ... We dare to deck ourselves out as his companions, patrons, advisers and commissioners ... This is the ungodliness of our relation to God.

4.1. God's anger against hedonistic Gentiles (1:18-32)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

- Romans 1:18-23

v18 - ``godlessness and wickedness''. The two Greek words here mean ``against God'' and ``against man'' respectively. They are the twin opposites of Jesus' pair of greatest commandments, ``Love the Lord your God [and] love your neighbor as yourself'' (Luke 10:27).

Those described as godless and wicked are ``men who suppress the truth by their wickedness''. What truth do the suppress? Among others, that explained in the next few verses:

v19-20 - God is visible in nature:

All these are expressions of God's creative character, and everyone is aware of this to a greater or lesser degree. It's wired into the Human Condition. It's a part of what it is to be made in the image of God. We catch echoes of eternity in the everyday.

v21-23 - The great folly of ``science'' is to love the creation (quite rightly) but to deny its creator. For many scientists, this is as much due to peer pressure - fear of being thought ``unscientific'' - as it is to do with the individual.

v23-28 - note the parallelism in this section. Three times, the people being described choose to make an exchange; and each time that exchange has a consequence:

Note that sexual immorality appears here both as a sin and as a consequence: a vicious circle.

v29-31 is a litany of 21 rebukes.

v32 is a summary of the charge against hedonists. Note again that the substance of the charge is that the accused know exactly what they are doing, and so are ``without excuse'' (v20).

Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
- Romans 1:32

4.2. God's anger against hypocritical moralisers (2:1-16)

v4 is a warning against the ``cheap grace'' misunderstanding. Compare with ``Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? What a ghastly thought!'' (Romans 6:1, J. B. Phillips.)

v5-8 appears at first sight to teach judgement according to works. However, the substance of this passage is not to do with the basis on which judgement will be made, but the impartiality with which God will judge Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free alike.

v9-10 - the key phrase ``first for the Jew, then for the Gentile'' occurs again here, not once but twice: the first time in connection with judgement for sin; the second time in connection with rewards for those who do good. Again, the issue being stressed here is that of impartiality.

v14-15 - ironically, the true meaning of the phrase ``a law unto themselves'' is almost the opposite of how it is generally used!

4.3. God's anger against those who trust in the law (2:17-29)

v25-29 - An external religion is of no value at all: what counts is what it in our hearts: ``by the Spirit, not by the written code'' (v29)

5. No-one is exempt from God's judgement (3:1-20)

This is a summary for the whole of 1:18 onwards. The key insight is in v9: ``We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.'' This is a restatement in other words of the ubiquitous theme ``first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.''

v10-18 is extremely depressing compilation of Old Testament quotes on the sinfulness of the world.

The passage concludes on a very low note:

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
- Romans 3:20

That's why it's important to come to the next session, in which the good news of the second half of chapter 3 will become apparent! Having demonstrated clearly that everyone is guilty before God and that we are without excuse, Paul will go on to expound on God's solution to the problem, as he outlined back in 1:16-17 - that in the gospel, ``a righteousness that is from God'' appears!

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