The Epistle to the Romans
Importance of this Epistle:
This epistle was put as the first one in the Pauline Epistles, although, historically, it was not the first epistle written by St. Paul the Apostle. Bible scholars believe that this was also the order of arrangement followed by the Theological School of Alexandria since the second century A.D.1 This was because of its importance among the Books of the New Testament, being rightfully considered the Gospel according to St. Paul. It is the only epistle of St. Paul that he sent to a church that he did not establish or even visit. Also, it is addressed to the capital of the Roman Empire, which is considered his preaching field, since he is the Apostle of the Gentiles (Gal 2:9). For these reasons, it included the fundamental teachings in St. Paul’s preaching, and it is therefore a record of the Apostolic Faith.
Who is St. Paul the Author of this Epistle?
He is Saul of Tarsus, of Jewish nationality; his original language is Aramaic, and also Greek. He is born in Tarsus in Asia Minor. He was a Pharisee, zealous of his religious heritage, as he has described himself, “Concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil 3: 6). His Jewish zeal led him to persecute the Church at its beginnings. In the year 37 A.D., as he was leading a terrorist attack against Christians, he was involved in killing the first martyr “Stephen the deacon”. He was guarding the clothes of those who stoned him, and he heard him asking forgiveness for those who stoned him. As one of the Fathers has said “The prayer of Stephen was answered in changing Saul, as it was a reason for changing his life”
For Saul, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead was the most ridiculous thing, and he continued to be offended by the Resurrection until the Risen Christ appeared to him on his way to Damascus, and called him by his name, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He said “who are you Lord” and the Lord answered, “I am Jesus Christ whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9).
In this manner, Jesus Christ completed His appearances after His Resurrection from the dead by His appearance to Paul. Paul became a witness and a preacher of the Resurrection after he experienced its power in his life, i.e. after he had risen with Christ from his blindness, ignorance and sin. After spending 3 years reviewing the Torah scriptures with what he has heard and seen, he was called to preach the gospel of the Kingdom in all the territories of the Roman Empire from east to west, having received this calling directly from the Lord: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:11)
When and why did St. Paul write the Epistle to the Romans?
He wrote the epistle from Corinth during his third missionary trip before his return to Jerusalem (Ro 15:25-29). This was in the year 58 A.D., four years after Nero’s enthronement, and six years after the expulsion of the Jews and Christians from Rome by Claudius (Acts 18:1-2) because of the trouble that the Jews caused against the Christians.
St. Paul wrote his epistle to the Christians who converted from both the Jews and Gentiles, with the purpose of purifying their faith from the remnants of the Jewish law. Converts from the Jews kept the worship according to the law with all its ordinances and celebrations in addition to their faith in Christ, and the Gentiles whom they converted to Christianity received from them the worship according to the law, the circumcision, the Sabbath, and all their customs. This can be understood from the introduction of the Epistle (especially, 1:10-17).
A General Overview of the Epistle:
It is a document that brings to us the apostolic faith revealed by God. It is the gospel of the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ apart from the Jewish law. What is meant here is that God, who is the truly righteous one, is He who gives His righteousness to the man, thus justifying him by his faith in Christ. And this is quite different from the self-righteousness, which a person thinks he can get through his own efforts in finding and following the details of the commandments and ordinances of the law. That was how the Jewish people went astray, until they blasphemed on God and killed His only begotten Son, being unable to see in Him the fulfillment of the law. This is what St. Paul the Apostle explains in detail in this Epistle, and what he summarizes in his statement regarding the Jews, “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Ro 10:3-4).
Contents of the Epistle:
Chapters 1 – 8: Address the issue of man’s justification
Chapters 9 – 11: Address the issue of the chosen people, the Jews
Chapters 12 – 15: Address the practical consequences in Christian life and peaceful living
Chapter 16: Includes salutations and the conclusion of the epistle
Part I ( Chapters 1 – 8 )
The Case of Man’s Justification
This subject will be discussed in the following four parts:
1- From 1:18 to 3:20: The unfaithfulness of Jews and Gentiles
2- From 3:21 to 3:31: How man can be reconciled with God? The righteousness of God
3- From 4:1 to 4:25: How was Abraham justified? Through faith or through works of the law
4- From 5:1 to 8:29: Faithful union between God and His Church
1- The unfaithfulness of Jews and Gentiles
After the author of the epistle introduces himself as “Paul, the bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the Gospel of God”, in which is revealed the righteousness of God for all those who believe, Jews and Gentiles (Ro 1:1-17), he starts to describe the state of sin that covered all humanity, and how humanity deserved the wrath of God which is declared from heaven on all human ungodliness and sin (Ro 1:18). It was necessary for God Himself to intervene on behalf of man to take away this divine wrath, since this judgment included both the Jews and the Gentiles.
The apostle presents the case of justification as follows:
First – Concerning the Jews:
St. Paul presents the case of the entrance of sin to the world because of Adam’s disobedience to the commandment, and therefore death entered man’s life, so man died and sin lived. Then God gave man the law to follow it and the one who does it shall live (Ro 2:12-13).
But man was unable to follow the requirements of the law and became unable to justify himself with the blood of various animal sacrifices because animal’s blood cannot purify the heart of man and his conscience. Animal sacrifices could only purify the body from sins that he committed without intention. But for the sins he committed intentionally, the judgment was death. In this way, the law became a Judge of man and not a helper to justify him.
Second – Concerning the Gentiles:
Since the Gentiles did not have a written law, God put in their hearts a conscience that judges and discerns like the written law, so their conscience became a law 2 for themselves. When they sinned, their conscience became darkened, corrupt, and unable to judge their deeds. They also deserved to be under the divine wrath and judgment.
2- How can man be reconciled with God then?
This is the meaning of Justification where man recovers his son-ship to God, and enjoys peace of heart by the purification of his conscience from sin. Also, justification is the participation in God’s righteousness by faith. It is a free grace as in the first creation of man from dust (Genesis 2). It is a second creation, a new creation (2Co 5:17, Gal 6:15). But there is a difference between the new creation and the first one: dust did not sin but man did sin. Therefore, it was necessary to radically wash and cleanse man to make him righteous (1Co 6:11). And Christ did exactly this for our sake. Here, St. Paul uses two examples to show the work of Christ for us:
1- The propitiation (Ro 3:25): or the sacrifice of atonement (Lev 4:20), whereby Christ gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins, to take away the judgment of death that we deserve, to fulfill the divine justice.
2- The Redemption (Ro 3:24): The redemption was paid by man to be freed from slavery. This is what Christ did as He has freed us from the dominion of sin and paid the price, His precious blood on the cross to fulfill the divine justice concerning man, because “what will a man give in exchange (to redeem) of his soul” (Mt 16: 26). And as St. Peter said, “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Justification is therefore the result of both God’s Justice and Mercy (Ps 85:10-11).
And whoever is justified by the blood of Christ becomes approved to do the works of righteousness through Christ (Ro 6:4, 8:1-2). This is the full meaning of justification in “being justified freely by His grace” (Ro 3:24), because justification is more than forgiveness of sins. It is the partaking of God’s righteousness to become enabled to do the works of righteousness with pleasure and consistently as a new creation.
St. Paul says in that respect that if the Jew was justified by faith in the work of Jesus Christ and not the work of the law, this will open the door to the Gentile to receive the righteousness of God through faith in Christ, because God is the same to the Jew and the Gentile (Ro 3:30).
Here we ask with St. Paul:
Why was it necessary that God intervene to justify man?
In the first 3 chapters of the epistle, St. Paul reveals how the human condition had incited the divine wrath because of sin. Because men “did not like to retain God in their knowledge (out of their own free will), God gave them to a debased (rejected) mind to do those things which are not fitting … according to the lusts of their hearts” (Ro 1:28, 24). This is fair and just because of the free will that God has given to man when He created him in His image and likeness. Any man, who with his own free will rejected the grace of God that protects him from falling in sin, has condemned himself to the wrath of God. Thus man deserved the judgment of death according to the divine justice.
But God promised Noah that He would not destroy the human race by the flood again (Gen. 8, 9). Therefore, God had to intervene, because of His love, to bear the price of the divine wrath on man and justify him.
- G. Zuntz, The Texts of the Epistle, 1954, p. 14-17, 276-279 ↩
- St. Paul used the word “law” to mean different things in this epistle. The general meaning remained the same “law”, but there is the law of Moses (2:12-14), the natural law (2:14-15), the law of works (3:27), the law of faith (3:27), the law of sin (7:25, 8:2), and the law of the Spirit (8:2). ↩