Bible: The New Testament The Letter of Paul to the Romans (Romans) Summary & Analysis | SparkNotes (2023)


Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, fourteenhave traditionally been attributed to the great missionary Paulof Tarsus. These fourteen books all take the form of letters addressedto a given individual or community. In the traditional canonicalordering of the New Testament, these fourteen books are arrangedin a block following Acts, and separated into three groups: thenine letters addressed to communities, the four letters addressedto individuals, and Hebrews. Within each grouping, the traditionalcanonical system orders the books according to length. Thus, a traditionalNew Testament arrangement will list the books as follows: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians,Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy,Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. This SparkNote addressesonly a few of the most important letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians,and Ephesians. Modern scholars agree with the traditional second-centuryChristian belief that seven of these New Testament letters werealmost certainly written by Paul himself: 1 Thessalonians,Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians,and Romans. These letters were most likely written during the heightof Paul’s missionary activity, between 50 and 58 a.d.,making them the earliest surviving Christian documents—they predatethe earliest of the Gospels, Mark, by at least ten years.

During the winter of 5758 a.d.,Paul was in the Greek city of Corinth. From Corinth, he wrote thelongest single letter in the New Testament, which he addressed to“God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Likemost New Testament letters, this letter is known by the name of therecipients, the Romans. Paul’s letters tended to be written in responseto specific crises. For instance, 1 Corinthianswas written to reprove the Christian community in Corinth for itsinternal divisions and for its immoral sexual practices. But Romansis remarkably devoid of this kind of specificity, addressing broadquestions of theology rather than specific questions of contemporarypractice. Whereas other Pauline letters—2 Corinthians,for instance—are full of impassioned rhetoric and personal pleas,Romans is written in a solemn and restrained tone. Perhaps thissolemnity can be explained by timing: Romans was the last writtenof the seven New Testament letters that modern scholars attributeto Paul, and has been seen as a summary of Paul’s thought, composedas his career moved toward its conclusion. But it is also true that,as opposed to the Corinthian church, the Roman church wasnot founded by Paul himself. At the time when he wrote Romans, Paulhad never visited Rome, although Chapter 16 ofRomans does indicate that he had acquaintances there. Writing toa community largely composed of strangers, then, Paul may have feltcompelled to use the restrained and magisterial declarations ofRoman style, rather than the impassioned pleas and parental sternnessthat permeate his letters to the churches at Corinth.


Because he is not personally familiar with the Roman church,Paul begins his letter by introducing himself. He has been “calledto be an apostle,” and his mission is “to bring about the obedienceof faith among all the Gentiles” (1:15).Paul follows his introduction with a flattering greeting to theRoman church, and expresses his desire to preach in Rome someday.Paul gives a summary of the theme of his letter: “The Gospel . .. is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, tothe Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousnessof God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:1617).

Paul begins with a discussion of the state of humanitybefore the possibility of salvation through faith in Jesus. He tellshow Gentiles worshipped idols, disdaining devotion to God, and howJews failed to follow the law properly, acting hypocritically byproclaiming allegiance to Jewish law while surreptitiously sinning.Paul says that God’s ancestral promise to the Jews, symbolized bycircumcision, does not bring automatic salvation: “A person is aJew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of theheart—it is spiritual” (2:29).Paul concludes, “We have already charged that all, both Jews andGreeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).

Paul teaches that salvation from sin is only possiblethrough faith. Paul cites the example of the biblical patriarchAbraham, who received God’s blessing and passed it on to his descendentsthrough “the righteousness of faith” (4:13).The free gift of grace, Paul continues, unearned and undeserved,is a product of God’s love manifested toward the unworthy. WhereasAdam’s fall brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’s sacrificebrought grace and life. The importance of baptism, Paul explains,is that baptism initiates a new life of grace and purity: the sinnersymbolically dies, baptized into the death of Jesus, and the personwho emerges is “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).Christians, then, must be governed by holiness, not by sin: holinessalone will lead to eternal life. Jewish law ceases to be binding:the law arouses sinful passions, and as beings dead tosin, Christians become dead to the law. Paul urges the Romans tolive not “according to the flesh” but rather by the Spirit (8:4).Through the Spirit, all believers become spiritual children of God,called by God to glory. This potential is a source of strength for theChristian: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31).

Paul’s next topic is the problem of reconciling the doctrineof salvation through faith in Christ with the Old Testament promiseof the salvation of the Jewish people. This section begins witha lamentation, as Paul, who was himself born a Jew, expresses hiswish to help the Israelites, the supposed firstborn children ofGod. But he goes on to explain that the Christian covenant of graceis by no means a betrayal of Abraham’s covenant with God. Thosewho have faith in Jesus, who believe “with the heart,” are “childrenof the promise,” the spiritual children of Israel (10:10, 9:8).The genetic children of Israel, the Jews, stumbled when they mistookJewish law for the means to salvation. But the Jews have not beenentirely cast aside. Paul teaches that eventually the Jews willcome to express faith in Jesus, enabling God to keep his originalpromise to them.

Finished with his exposition of Christian doctrine, Paulembarks upon a lengthy exhortation to the Romans, advising themon the proper means of living a Christian life. Harmony, humility,and love are his main concerns. He urges charity, forbearance, andsubmission. Paul returns to the apocalyptic theme on which he dwellsin his other letters. He says that it is doubly important to actrighteously in an apocalyptic age. In a long segment, Paul mandatestolerance and freedom of religious conscience within the church.The strong in faith are not to judge and reject the weak in faith—thatis, those who have given up Jewish law are to accept the observancesof those who continue to practice Jewish law. Paul finishes thissection with a set of Old Testament quotations about the worshipof God spreading among all nations. Paul concludes his letter witha section in which he discusses his own ministry, proving his authoritythrough a discussion of his credentials: “I have reason to boastof my work for God” (15:17).He informs the Romans that he is preparing to bring the contributionsof the Greek and Macedonian churches to Jerusalem, where he speculatesthat he might run into difficulties. Chapter 16 containsa long list of greetings, which many scholars believe were addedby a later editor. Paul sends the greetings to the Roman Christians,warning the Romans to be wary of “those who cause dissensions andoffenses” (16:17).


The period during which Paul wrote his letters was traumaticfor the new church. Christianity had not yet evolved into a distinctreligion with a hierarchy of authority and a defined dogma. Christianity,in its earliest years, was an offshoot of Judaism. Believers inJesus, including all of the Twelve Apostles, were generally bornJewish and identified themselves as Jews who believed that the OldTestament prophecies had reached their fulfillment in Jesus.Indeed, the term “Christians” did not appear until Paul’s ministryat Antioch, decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. The church was nota single, unified body governed by a central authority, but, rather,a conglomeration of individual communities, often separated by largedistances, which depended for spiritual authority on local preachersor traveling missionaries, like Paul. Christians in the decadesafter Jesus lived in constant fear of persecution and constant expectationof the second coming, Jesus’s triumphant return to Earth during whichhe would save the faithful.

The letters that Paul wrote respond to these conditionsof the early church. He addresses them to specific communities,most of which had been established by Paul himself. In an era whentravel was slow and long-distance communication was difficult, Paul’sletters were a means of preserving his spirit in a community oncehe had left, or of instructing a community from a distance. Theaim of the letters was to inspire unity among believers and to instructthe faithful on difficult points of doctrine. The letters are highlyindividualized, responding to the specific problems of the communityto which they are addressed. By and large, with the possible exception ofthe letter to the Romans, Paul’s letters show little evidence that theywere intended to endure as permanent documents. Paul, like otherearly Christians, expected an imminent Second Coming, and he wrotehis letters to address immediate problems rather than to establisha lasting apparatus to perpetuate the church.

The four Gospels can be viewed as a history of the birthof faith. The Gospels all follow a similar pattern. They describeJesus working miracles and preaching, but failing to convince manypeople of his divinity until his resurrection. The triumphant momentin the Gospels comes when the apostles witness the reborn Jesusand have their faith confirmed. The entire story of the Gospelsis designed to stress the importance of faith for the Christian.Indeed, practically the only factor that separated these early Christiansfrom the nonbelieving Jews was faith in Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels,however, is the opposition between faith and law made so clear asin Romans. Paul elevates the role of faith, describing it as thesole means by which people can attain salvation. Through Jesus’sself-sacrifice, Paul teaches, God gave men the free gift of a covenantof salvation. It is only by faith in Jesus that one attains salvation.


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