Romans is the first of Paul’s many letters, and I believe that the key to understanding it lies in an obscure passage in chapter 15. Paul is writing to a church he did not found, and which he has never visited, but he is setting out perhaps the clearest exposition of the Christian gospel to be found anywhere in the NT. Was he writing to put them straight over some points of doctrine or behaviour, as is clearly the case with some other letters? There is no hint of this at all in the letter: compare it, for example, with Galatians, to which we will come shortly.
I think there is a different purpose behind his letter. He is not trying to get the Roman Christians to be orthodox: he is telling them that he is. 15:17 begins a section in which Paul is saying that he has finished his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From the origins in Jerusalem right round to Illyricum (modern-day Croatia, the last stop before Italy) Paul has preached the gospel and planted churches. We know that his ministry has always been to break new ground, rather than building on the work of others (v 20), so (v 23) there is nowhere else for him to go. But he has one burning ambition left – to do in the western Med what he has done in the east. He wants to go to Spain (don’t we all as autumn draws on?). But that is a bit of a distance from his base in Antioch, so he is looking for a new ‘sending church’, and Rome seems an admirable choice.
But how will the Christians there know whom they are taking on, and more importantly can they trust him? So Paul writes to them setting out in detail the gospel he will be preaching under their sponsorship, and in the process gives us the greatest account of what the Christian gospel means to be found anywhere in the Bible.
The first eight chapters spell out clearly and logically what the gospel is, beginning from human sin and rebellion and ending with the crashing crescendo of chapter 8 and the triumphal cry of ‘No condemnation’ for those in Christ Jesus. There is then a three chapter diversion into the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, a key issue in the church in Rome due to its particular history. Then, in 12:1 comes the fateful word ‘Therefore’ which marks the division between good theology and its outworking in right behaviour. Chapter 12 to 15 spell out how Christians ought to live in the light of the gospel, and covers such up-to-date topics as roles within the church, respect for secular authorities, and the treatment of those who see things differently from how we see them. Finally he sets out his hope to come to Rome to begin the new phase of his ministry, and adds a chapter of personal greetings: many of the characters he knows because their paths have crossed in the past.
Romans is one of the best NT books to study in detail, because of its clear explanation of the gospel. Some of its arguments may sound a little strange to our ears, but it all makes perfect sense and would be a great way to spend six months of your homegroup’s or congregation’s life.