It is important to recognize that Romans most certainly is an epistle written to a particular audience in a particular setting. At the same time, though, it is true indeed that it has a bit stricter structure and form than the rest of Paul’s epistles. The argument is more tightly framed and more fully developed over many chapters than is normal. While keeping in mind the particular circumstances of Romans, it will help us also to see the stricter form of Romans as a well-developed composition.
One important starting point for this is found in the two verses after the introductory material of the epistle. Having greeted the church and given some preliminary remarks, Paul does something rather formal: He gives a thesis statement of the argument he is about to develop in the book.
That verses 16-17 of chapter 1 are a thesis statement of the basic point of the book is generally recognized, and with good reason, for it is here that we find in a much more direct and structured way than expected Paul’s statement of purpose for the book:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, both to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith, just as it has been written, “The righteous one from faith will live.” (1:16-17)
These two simple verses contain Paul’s focal point. They serve as both a summary of the points of emphasis that were found in the introductory matter and as an introductory bridge that leads us to the development of these key points in the many chapters to come.
You will notice the same key points brought together in these verses that we already saw emphasized in our previous discussion of the first 15 verses. He plainly addresses the matter of the gospel as the center of his focus, stating that it is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. Without fail, he goes on immediately to emphasize that this gospel is for everyone, and that particularly means that it is for the Jew and the Greek alike. This universal gospel that is for all men the only means of salvation forms the heart of what Paul wants to communicate to us in this grand book.
There are a couple of other emphases in this two verse thesis that are significant, and one that stands out so prominently as to have equal place here with the two grand themes I have just named: Faith. In truth, this wonderful matter of faith is also emphasized in the opening 15 verses (see v. 5, 9, 12), though I have not yet drawn equal attention to it in our discussion as you might have anticipated. There is a reason for that, and the reason is that the emphasis upon faith is logically subordinate to these two main themes, though of such importance as to be equal with them in practical importance and emphasis.
Basically, we will talk about faith at great length in the development of supporting and explaining the fact that the gospel is universal to all men. Faith is an important and necessary part of that fact, and it serves as one of the grounding principles throughout the process of establishing it. Faith is everywhere given great prominence in Paul’s writings, and we will gladly see that throughout this epistle.
As we work through the book, we will see how faith is related to the one basic purpose of demonstrating the gospel as universal for all men, both Jew and Gentile. As we will see, faith is the vehicle by which all men can be brought into the gospel salvation. Because God’s plan is to save all men, the means of salvation must be that which is available to all men. Faith is often contrasted with the law throughout the book. The Jews would view salvation as dependent upon the law. Paul shows, however, that this cannot be, for then only the Jews, who alone have the law, could be saved. Moreover, the law was only in place from the time of Moses onward. This is far too limited in scope. The gospel must be for all men, and faith is that which makes possible such universality.
Joined with the concept of believing (faith), we also find an important emphasis upon the righteousness of God. This idea of righteousness is also going to be at the heart of Paul’s thought. How does God’s righteousness determine His relationship to man? How can man attain to the righteousness of God? Is it the same for all men, both Jew and Gentile? These are important questions throughout the book.
Lastly, be sure that you notice also the presence of one other key term: “Live.” While you might not realize it simply from reading these two verses at the start of the argument, this word will come to have central importance for a large section of the epistle. The concept of life and death is hugely important in Romans. Death controls the world. How will man come to have true life?
So, then, the most basic focus of the book is upon the universality of the gospel. It is a message of salvation for both Jew and Gentile. That is, it is for all men. The key supporting ideas within that primary focus are faith, righteousness, and life. The basic concepts of the epistle are now already before us in name.
Let us take a moment to see how these basic parts of verses 16-17 serve as a platform from which Paul will move through and develop his argument. Just the briefest of outline looks is going to be given here:
He is about to enter into a lengthy discussion of the righteousness of God as pertains to the condemnation and justification of all men, both Jew and Gentile. This is developed starting in the very next verse, 1:18, and running on through the end of chapter 3. Actually, the matter of the righteousness of God is present and central all the way through to the end of chapter 11, even if at times the language becomes a bit less explicit in relation to this element of the discussion. It is the first phase of the development of Paul’s thesis found here.
Paul then moves into an emphasis of how the Old Testament demonstrates this salvation by faith and grace as well, and he asserts how clearly this is promised not only for the circumcised Jew but also for the uncircumcised Gentile (chapter 4).
The next large step in developing this thesis is the emphasis upon life in Christ, being introduced in chapter 5 and developed until the end of chapter 8. Throughout all of this, there is again the emphasis upon the universality of salvation for both Jew and Gentile, as we will see. The Jews and Gentiles alike are equally dependent upon Christ as the only source for spiritual life.
The conclusion of the argument reaches its climax in chapters 9-11, where the question of the relationship of the gospel to Jew and Gentile becomes not only a prominent controlling element of the discussion but the only central and explicit focus of it. Paul shows in those chapters how God is working through history to accomplish the bringing in of all mankind to the gospel salvation in Christ, both Jew and Gentile alike. His ways in this are mysterious and marvelous.
All of these large portions of the discussion are found in these two thesis verses. The main point of a universal gospel of salvation for both Jew and Gentile is the central point that controls all. It is developed with some hugely important arguments: The righteousness of God in relation to all men, the nature and importance of faith, the history of the Jewish people themselves and their Old Testament Scriptures, and the nature of true spiritual life as found in Christ Jesus, the nature and meaning of God’s dealing with the world through the Jewish people. There are some other great themes that come into the discussion as it is developed (such as the theme of law that is not here mentioned by name, though it is implied in the the reference to the Old Testament Scriptures). We will see how all of these grand points combine into one great argument to show how God has now provided salvation for all mankind, both Jew and Gentile. Just what does that mean for us all? This is a great thing to learn from the inspired apostle Paul.
We are now ready to explore the first stage of Paul’s development of the argument: The sinful and fallen nature of all mankind and God’s wrath against them on account of it.