One exercise that serves as a great starting point for the study of any book of the Bible is to sit down and take the time to construct an outline that demonstrates the flow and relationship of the book as a whole. How do all the parts relate to one another? How does the book connect from step to step, section to section? When we do this, we are forced to try to grasp the big picture of the book that we were emphasizing in the first chapter to be so important. Have you ever tried to do this for the book of Romans? It would be well worth your time if you haven’t. I would actually recommend putting this book down and making an outline of Romans before returning to read the rest of this study. Your time in this book will be more rewarding if you do so.
As we try to put all the pieces of Romans together and explain them in relation to one another, we have to ask why Paul follows the course and flow of thought that he does. One very important pursuit is to try to bring all the parts into one basic whole. We should ask, “What is the one basic unifying principle that makes sense of all that Paul writes in this letter?”
We might break the epistle down into some few major sections (for example: chapters 1-3, 4-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-16, or something like that) and try to understand why Paul moves from the first section to the second to the third and on through them all. Why does he start where he does? Having laid out the argument in the first three chapters, why does he then choose the next focus that he does? Is it what we would have expected? Does it seem like a sudden change of focus? Or does it flow naturally to our mind as the expected result of what he has just said?
One reason this is very important is that it is a good way for us to test whether or not we have well understood what we have been reading. If we think we have understood Paul’s point in a certain passage, but then we are very confused about why he starts talking about the next thing he treats of, what does this indicate to us? It may well be that we have been confused about what he actually means to say. Especially in a writer such as Paul, and especially in an epistle that is as well constructed as Romans, we should expect some fair bit of logical coherence. If it seems to us that Paul is dealing with a bunch of unrelated topics one after another with no real connection between them, then probably we have not yet understood him very well.
Now, with all the good exposition of the book of Romans that has been written and is available today, there are still a few points, it seems to me, where this idea sneaks through that Paul is on another digression, or that he has a long “add-on” to his argument now, or some like view of a passage or a part of a passage. As one example, we might take the second half of chapter 5, starting in verse 12. This section is often described as dominated by a rather lengthy digression from the main point, which is seen as only really contained in verse 12 and verses 18-19, with the intervening verses as a parenthetical aside that is not to the main point. This is, of course, not always suggested to be irrelevant or unimportant, but still the fact that the bulk of this important passage is not seen as directly relevant to the main point is significant.
Or again, what about these three long chapters of 9-11? What is their relation to the whole of the book? Often times the “gospel” portion of the book of Romans is considered as concluded at the end of chapter 8. Chapters 9-11 then serve as some sort of addition to the main body of the theological portion of the epistle, considered more or less necessary and relevant by various commentators. Even when it is considered as dealing with an important and (at least to Paul’s mind if not to ours today) necessary issue that must be dealt with now that the gospel has been laid forth, it still serves as a separate addendum to some degree rather than as an integral part of the main point of the epistle.
This is already a bit of a difficulty in trying to reconcile all the parts into one unified whole, but it becomes especially so when we realize that it is in these chapters that Paul really reaches the height and climax of his passion, emotion, and purpose in the letter. There is no question, it seems to me, but that the end of chapter 11 is the ultimate height of Paul’s exclamation and doxology in the book of Romans. He certainly does burst out in important praise elsewhere, but I think a fair look will recognize 11:33-36 as the proper climax and conclusion of Paul’s theological portion of the epistle. Any view of the whole of Romans that necessarily subjugates chapters 9-11 to a position of afterthought or addendum (no matter how necessary of one) has failed to grasp something important in the picture of the book.
Another example that calls for some consideration is the question of how the “practical” section of the book (chapters 12-16) relates to the “theological” section. Are there simply loose and general connections between the gospel explanation and general rules of holy living? Or is there a more specific connection and tighter reason why the particular issues found in the practical section are dealt with? Could we possibly even have begun to predict what issues Paul might turn to in the practical section, or at least could we see the connection as very natural once he presents those issues to us? Would it have been just as apparent to us if he had chosen at random any other principles of holiness to discuss and apply in these chapters?
I think that these examples of some matters in harmonization and unification of the book are probably the natural and necessary result of the usual explanation of the theme of the book. It is usually accepted that the book of Romans has as its central and main purpose to lay out Paul’s theological understanding of the gospel. That is so very true…in part. Certainly, the gospel is at the heart of anything that we will find in the New Testament, and that especially so in the book of Romans, even explicitly so as we read in Chapter 1.
However, there is an important principle that is accepted as true by most and must come into play in our thinking more clearly than it usually does, I think. The principle is that we must also consider the unique setting, purpose, and circumstances of any epistle as it is written. What I mean is that Romans is not an abstract theological treatise meant to serve for all settings and places and peoples and times in complete equality. Rather, this is a letter written to the church at Rome at a particular point in time with a particular purpose. Of course this does not mean that it is not eternally important for the church in all ages, but this is only to recognize what is true of all the letters in the New Testament, that they have a historical setting and a particular purpose for their writing.
What this means for our discussion right now is that whatever Paul has to say about the gospel in abstract is necessarily going to be framed in the context for which he writes at that moment. It is important to remember this obvious point when it comes time to analyze and interpret the book. We will have a shortcoming of understanding and appreciation of it if we try to read it as a book on the theology of the gospel without realizing that it is being shaped by the historical setting, the audience, the circumstances, and the author. Thus, it is not enough to say that this is a book about the gospel, but we must take one very important step more in explaining the focus of the book.
Now, we would readily do this very same thing with any other of Paul’s letters that we read. Think of Galatians or Colossians or the Corinthians epistles and how much emphasis is placed on the particular focus that Paul has for each of those letters as he writes: The combating of Judaizers in Galatians; the beginnings of philosophical heresies in Colossians; and the church division, disunity and disorder in Corinth. All of these are vital in understanding fully what is being said in each of those epistles. The same is true with the epistle to the Romans.
For some reason, though, this emphasis usually is not quite so clearly found when it comes time to talk about Romans. It is not explicitly denied, but it seems somewhat lost in the analysis of the logical argument of the book. There is some reason for this found in such facts as that the book is more logically tight in its construction and a bit less personal in nature, Paul having not even been to Rome (a striking contrast with, say, his interaction with the Corinthians and Galatians, though not as much with Colossians).
We might almost be tempted to add that there is less emphasis placed upon historical setting within the book itself. Actually, though, this is probably more likely to be felt as a result of the lack of emphasis upon it in commenting upon the book rather than a lack of emphasis found in the book itself. The truth is that we are given rather explicit information about the point at which Paul writes this book, what he is doing, where he is going, what his plans are, etc. It seems to me that such information compares rather favorably with the little that we are sometimes given in some of Paul’s other epistles. Why is this not emphasized a bit more, I might ask, in our analysis of the book as a whole? Again, this is not ignored by most commentators; almost always will you find some discussion of it in the introductory material of the book as a commentator discusses such things as time, place, and occasion of writing. However, I am suggesting that this information has more to say about the interpretation throughout the book as a whole than we usually find.
By the time that we take the explicit information given to us by Paul concerning his situation and activities and combine it with the implicit information that we can readily gather from seeing his emphases throughout the book, I think we can safely make some conclusions. What is the guiding and controlling circumstance that shapes Paul’s presentation and application of the gospel as he writes to the Romans? Is Romans about the gospel? Yes, but it is about the gospel as understood in its fullest and most universal scope: A universal gospel for all mankind, even a gospel for the whole world that God created! God’s perfect world has been ruined by sin, and God is determined to redeem it, and to redeem the whole of it.
In redeeming the whole of the world, God has a gloriously wise plan. Romans is about laying out that plan. One of the key elements of that plan comes to be a dominant theme for Paul: The role of Jews and Gentiles. A universal gospel is especially a gospel for both Jew and Gentile.
One of the key questions that Romans addresses is: What does the gospel mean for Jews and Gentiles? Paul’s purpose in Romans is to answer that question plainly and fully. In doing so, he certainly is going to lay out some wonderfully important principles of general gospel truth that are timeless and ageless and ready to form the content of any gospel presentation and application for any setting in any age. How could we ever expect otherwise? But if we do not realize that Paul’s purpose is inseparable from a central focus upon the question of the Jew and the Gentile, then we will not appreciate the book of Romans fully.
In fact, we might even take things just a bit further still. In one sense, the gospel is here framed according to the important focus of Paul’s circumstances relating to the Jew and Gentile. On the other hand, though, once we understand the flow of the book of Romans, we might actually come to say things a little differently. We might rather say that the question of the Jew and Gentile is actually far more at the heart of the gospel itself (and almost all of human and redemptive history) than people realize. Maybe we actually need a little more help in understanding just what the gospel actually is. Once we do, we might not see so much separation between the idea of the “gospel” and the question of the Jew and the Gentile.
Well, the rest of this book will be devoted to an analysis of the book of Romans according to this central focus that I have just proposed. We will walk through the book step by step and seek to demonstrate that this is indeed the unifying principle of what Paul writes, from beginning to end, section by section. I think that this emphasis must be seen if we are going to find a sufficient explanation for all of the sections of the book, without exception. It might surprise some of us how consistently we are able plainly to see this focus once we have our eyes open to it. Hopefully, seeing this controlling theme should also help us to appreciate more fully the various parts of the book, and I believe it will. We are ready, then, to jump into the book and walk through it from first to last to see how Romans is a book about the universal gospel for Jews and Gentiles.