If you skipped in the first blog entry in this series, regarding the introduction and historical context of Romans, you should go back and read it. This background to this letter is often neglected in sermons and classes on Romans, and it really will change the way you read this book of the Bible. Like Paul’s other writings in the New Testament, Romans falls under the genre of the epistle (a form of letter), which follows a fairly predictable structure (to oversimplify: greeting, body, farewell).
Next, let’s review the broader outline of the contents of this letter, i.e. the flow of Paul’s argument and the overall case he sets forth. Again, if you read the introductory lesson/blog, you know that Romans is mainly about bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ–and how this multi-ethnic family of God was always the Father’s mission through Abraham and Israel. Romans is not Paul’s one letter of “pure theology,” as many teachers and preachers have claimed over the years. Paul was a missionary who wrote letters on the go, addressing specific situations at the local churches. Romans is no exception. So, what is Paul actually saying in this letter, and how does He say it?
Early on in this epistle, Paul provides something akin to a thesis statement in Romans 1:17. This thematic verse sets the course of the letter (like a good college essay would be directed by its thesis!), so we see these themes throughout the body of the letter and in the outline below this key passage:
Rom. 1:16-17 … I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous by faith shall live.”
OUTLINE OF ROMANS
- Ch. 1-3 Righteousness of God
- Ch. 4 Basis of Faith
- Ch. 5-8 Life/Living in Christ
- Ch. 9-11 Explanation of Decline of Jewish Flavor of the Faith
- Ch. 12-16 Practical Section
The letter can certainly be broken down much further, as many study Bibles will help you do, but this macro-level overview is perhaps most helpful at giving us a sense of the letter’s cohesion. Paul is known to “write” (or rather, dictate to amanuensis) with long sentences that connect in an even wider argument. Translators almost always break down these long Greek sentences into shorter, more manageable sentences for English readers, which both helps and hurts our ability to follow his line of reasoning.
Throughout this letter, Paul builds a for the unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians, humbling both sides by saying that each needs the other. This is not mere rhetoric or a generic call for unity, though: it is based on the promises and faithfulness of God, proving His righteousness. Paul sets forth the messiah, Jesus, as the sole means by which a person—of any ethnicity—now relates to God.
There are some popular misconceptions about one of the main phrases in Romans and how it relates to this Jew/Gentile issue. What exactly does it mean that we are saved “by faith, not by works,” for example? (Hint: it is not merely talking about good works, although that would also be true. Getting the emphasis right matters greatly here.) Such topics, however, will be the subjects of future blog posts on Romans. Stay tuned for part 3.