Conclusion: Why Such a Letter?
As we have now gone through the whole of the book of Romans and seen the basic focus and flow of thought and argument throughout, our final desire is to place the whole of the book in a context that gives a ready explanation for its purpose and focus. Why has Paul spent so much time and energy on explaining the nature of the gospel as focusing on Jew and Gentile? Very likely, to some of us, this seems a bit too much priority to give to that matter. If we think this way, though, perhaps we have not yet come to understand and appreciate quite fully enough the true significance of this matter.
In our setting today, it seems to me that we are far more appreciative of some of the key themes of Romans other than this central and unifying focus. We can appreciate the importance, for instance, of the idea of justification by faith, which is a large and important topic in the early chapters of Romans. We are so appreciative of it, in fact, that it often comes to take central place in our analyses of the book. It is given too much appreciation, one might say.
I think, though, that we have been able to see that Paul consistently throughout the book has had in mind this one central theme of the gospel for Jew and Gentile. And I hope, also, that with some reflection, we will be able to see why Paul has given such priority to this message.
First of all, the inherent value of this message really ought to be appreciated. As wonderful as are the truths that deal with the manner of my personal and individual salvation, such as the truth of justification by faith, the substitutionary atonement through the sacrifice of Christ, and the regeneration to true spiritual life through the indwelling of the Spirit, these truths all remain subordinate to God’s greatest and largest purpose: The redemption of the whole world and creation itself. The sacrifice of Christ is not the end goal, but the all-important means towards the yet greater end of redeeming all mankind for service to God. My receiving of spiritual life was likewise towards a greater purpose, that of becoming a slave of Christ rather than of sin. The largest picture that we can understand for the purposes of God in all His doings is that which He gave to us from the very start of the world: He has created mankind in His image for the purpose of filling the whole world with His righteous and holy image. The message of individual salvation is glorious indeed, but it remains only a key part of the larger picture of God’s redemption of all mankind for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose.
And mankind, since very early in its history, has been divided into two basic groups: Jews and Gentiles. God determined after the days of Noah that He would not destroy the whole world and start over in an attempt to create a pure race of men. That did not work. Rather, He chose one family from the world and chose to work redemption for all peoples through that family. Abraham and his descendents, the Jews, were that family. God’s plan for redeeming the whole of the world focused upon one nation.
But God’s wise plan eventually turned away from that nation, Once the Messiah had come, the main purpose for that nation was fulfilled. God turned away from the rebellious Jews and turned to the Gentiles. This plan was God’s wise way to bring salvation to all men. God’s plan to gather all people into one redeemed race of men focuses on His interaction with the Jews and Gentiles. This is right at the heart of His plan of redemption.
Once we have truly grasped this, there really is no other remaining doubt about why Paul would give priority to it in a theological message about the gospel. The greatest message of the gospel is that God is redeeming all mankind so that they might fulfill the purpose on this earth for which God initially created them. The picture of a perfect paradise on earth is now going to be achieved. It cannot be so unless God redeems the whole of creation. This is exactly what the glorious gospel promises that God has done and is doing.
But apart from this primary fact of the inherent value of this most glorious message, there are also a number of circumstantial reasons why Paul would choose at this point and time to write such a letter with such a message. We have already seen the most immediate of those circumstances, which is Paul’s present plan to move on from ministry in his current part of the world and go yet further afield in the world for the sake of spreading the gospel yet more broadly among the Gentiles, while at the same time he plans also first to visit Jerusalem and minister among the Jews themselves. The Romans form an integral part of his plan for this stage of his life and ministry, and he wants them to be fully aware of the scope of what God is accomplishing and how important are both Paul’s role and their own role in that ministry of the gospel. By presenting to them the richness of the large picture of the gospel as he does, the Romans are far more able to appreciate what it is Paul is doing and what is their part in it all.
Beyond the immediate circumstances of Paul’s present and future ministry plans, though, the matter of Jew and Gentile relations was something that dominated much of the development of the early church. This was the issue of debate throughout the first generation of Christianity.
Throughout Paul’s ministry, it proved to be a constant matter of potential problems. First, Paul’s own approach was to begin his evangelistic efforts among the Jews of the synagogues in the cities which he visited. After some time preaching to them, there inevitably came a point at which the majority of the Jews rejected what Paul was saying and turned to persecute him. Only a small portion of the Jews would receive the truth of the gospel. This proved to result in a great trial of persecution for Paul at the hands of his countrymen, as they turned against him violently when they rejected his message. There was always animosity from the Jews towards the gospel that he preached, and that was a great matter of concern for him and for all the church.
Then, those Jews who did believe in the gospel did not always understand very well the fullness of it in relationship to God’s previous giving of the law. There were indeed smaller matters of concern in this area, such as Paul deals with in chapters 12-15 of Romans, but there were also very serious matters to be dealt with, matters so serious that Paul often had to combat them in the strongest way possible. He often had to deal with false Jewish teachers who sought to convince Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic codes in order to enter the Christian church. Paul denounced such teachings as false heresies that were completely contrary to and undermined the gospel of grace and faith. He considered these teachings to be another gospel that was no gospel at all.
The truth is that the early church had a great difficulty in coming to a proper understanding of the places of Jew and Gentile under the gospel. Even the apostles themselves at the earliest stages were surprised when God blessed Gentiles with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, thereby showing that they too were to be accepted into the church. This was something that many of them were very slow to accept. Likely they would not have done so had it not been for the miraculous signs that God sent in order to clearly demonstrate His will in the matter.
And yet even after these signs and attestations, as Paul preached to the Gentiles and many Gentiles entered into the Christian church, Paul faced many struggles to have them received by the Jews on equal footing. The first great “controversy” in the worldwide church required Paul and others to travel to Jerusalem and discuss with the apostles there the matter of what to do with the Gentiles and how to receive them into the church. Though the matter was settled there in favor of full Gentile acceptance, still the matter required much perseverance by Paul in order to have it consistently accepted in practice. There was even the time when Peter himself was confronted publicly by Paul on account of Peter’s not accepting the Gentiles in practice as equal members of the church body. It was not an easy matter for the Jews to follow.
The implications of this struggle find their way often enough into the pages of the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul, but not exclusively so. The first letter of Peter has much to say about the matter, in fact, as well. Paul’s letters often had to combat false teaching from the Jewish teachers who would require the keeping of the Mosaic codes, as we have already mentioned. There are two sides of what this led Paul to have to do in ministering to the Gentile churches where this was taking place. First, he had to reprove and condemn the false teachers, demonstrating the falseness of their doctrine. Paul strove often with the Jews, both with the false teachers themselves at times but also especially with those who were true Christians, in efforts to convince them to accept the Gentiles as full brothers in Christ.
But his primary concern was not with these false teachers themselves, and only sometimes with the Jewish believer. Rather, as an apostle to the Gentiles, his main focus usually was with the Gentile believers. He often had much work to do to reassure these Gentiles Christians of their full acceptance with God through Christ regardless of their national heritage. For example, the book of Ephesians is full of many demonstrations that the Ephesians, though Gentiles, were fully accepted with God through Christ, even having been chosen in Christ from all eternity. They were chosen in Christ every bit as much as the Jews.
And no doubt there were issues of this sort to be dealt with in the Roman church itself as well. Though we do not see quite as many clear indications of just what was taking place in Rome at the time of Paul’s writings, it is no doubt to be inferred from his letter to them that some of these matters were found among them as points of importance. The matters he dealt with in his practical exhortation surely were matters that he knew there was need to discuss for them.
We know that there were historical matters that potentially led to certain interactions between Jews and Gentiles in Rome, such as the fact that all the Jews were for a time expelled from Rome and then later allowed to return. Such events might have made for some more direct conflicts or matters of discussion between the ways of Jews and Gentiles. We know, for instance, that Priscilla and Aquilla were expelled from Rome for a time as Jews, but that we see Paul here again addressing them as present in Rome when he writes. We also see that Paul names a number of other members of the Roman churches to be his “kinsman.” So, there were definitely substantial contingents both of Gentile and of Jewish believers in Rome, as we might indeed expect and assume in such a city.
So then, as Paul thought of his immediate ministry plans, considered the Roman church in light of those plans, was aware of certain elements of relations between the Jews and Gentiles there in Rome, and lived throughout all his ministry in light of the struggle in the church between Jews and Gentiles, the time was perfectly ripe for a good and full theological statement about the gospel as universal for Jew and Gentile. So he lays out for the Romans (and to the spiritual blessing of all generations that follow) this great and wonderful presentation of God’s eternal plan of salvation for all mankind. He lays out for us just what God has done in Christ to bring all men into one salvation, Jew and Gentile alike, how this has related to all He has done in the past through the Jews, and how He yet will work among men to accomplish the fullness of His purposes for us all. It is with the greatest thankfulness to God that we ought to receive this letter and its wonderful teachings. May we come to appreciate it more and more in the fullness of its glory.