Paul promised the church members at Corinth that he would visit them again as soon as he had the opportunity, and it was not long after sending his last letter to them that the opportunity came and he was able to spend several months with them. During this time, probably the latter part of the year 57 A.D., he wrote a letter to the church at Rome, the most ambitious of all his letters and the only one in which he presents a systematic account of his understanding of the gospel. Because he had not visited the church at Rome and was unfamiliar with their local problems, the letter is not written in the form that he used in his earlier correspondence with the other churches. Instead, it is a carefully prepared statement of what he regarded as the essential elements of the Christian religion. Paul wanted the gospel proclaimed throughout the then-known world, and it seemed most appropriate that he should not only visit the church at Rome but gain its full support for the missionary program that he envisioned. We do not know how the church at Rome was started, but it existed during Paul's life, and there were good reasons for believing that it would soon become one of the leading Christian churches of the world. Paul wanted the Roman church to have a firsthand knowledge of the gospel that he preached, but unable personally to visit its members in the immediate future, he set forth his convictions in a letter addressed to the Romans.
Parts of the sixteen chapters in the Epistle to the Romans are so detailed that a full explanation of Paul's meaning would require a large volume of Analysis. The main substance of the letter can be summarized briefly by stating the answers given to a number of pertinent questions: What is the gospel? Who needs it? Why is it needed? What is the nature of salvation? How is it achieved? What difference does salvation make in an individual's life? What difference does it make with reference to society as a whole? Many other points are discussed in Romans, but these questions are sufficient to indicate the letter's general character.
The gospel, we are told, is the power of God unto salvation, for in it the "righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith." Man is a sinful creature who follows his own heart's desires and is powerless to change these desires by himself alone. Only through the power of God, working in cooperation with the human spirit, can these desires be changed and brought into harmony with the divine will. Jesus' life illustrates the way in which the power of God can work in and through a human life, thus enabling a person to overcome evil temptations, which are always present in the world. The same power that enabled Jesus to overcome temptations is also available to all those who have faith in him. The faith by which God's righteousness is revealed involves beliefs but also includes something that grips the entire personality and finds expression not only in what one thinks but in feelings, attitudes, and actions. The salvation of which Paul writes is salvation from the power of evil that entices man to sin against himself and God. Salvation means a transformation of one's nature so that what one wants to do will coincide with what ought to be done.
This salvation is needed by everyone, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Salvation is just as necessary for the Jew as it is for the Gentile, and necessary even for those people who feel that they do not need it, for they may be the ones who need it most. How well people think of themselves is determined by the standard that they use in judging themselves. Anyone who measures himself by the righteousness of God will know that he falls short and is in need of improvement. The salvation of which Paul speaks is not something that will automatically make a person's character equal to the righteousness of God, but it will move the person in that direction and keep bringing him ever nearer to that goal. But, again, it is important to know that this salvation is available only to those who recognize their need for it and who are receptive to the divine power that is constantly being offered to them.
In his discussion of the way in which salvation is to be achieved, Paul presents the same arguments that he used in his Epistle to the Galatians. He emphasizes that salvation is not brought about by efforts on the part of the individual to observe the requirements of the Law. It makes no difference so far as this point is concerned whether the laws are human or divine in their origin. Laws of any kind are powerless to make people good, evidence of which can be seen in the state of society as it existed in Rome during Paul's life. The Romans boasted of the superior quality of their system of laws. Although their laws were among the best that the nations of the world had known up to that time, Roman society had become notoriously corrupt. The state of this corruption is indicated in the closing verses of the first chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
Concerning corruption, Paul argues that Jews are not better off than the Romans. The Romans have had their human laws, and Jews have had divine laws, but in neither case have the laws changed the desires of humans or transformed their natures from that which is evil into that which is good. Only by faith can a transformation of this kind occur. In this connection, Paul writes about justification by faith. Having pointed out that "no one will be justified in [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin," he goes on to say that everyone is "justified freely by [God's] grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ." And again, he says, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." People are in need of justification because they are estranged from God. They are not living in harmony with their own best interests, which is equivalent to saying that they are not in harmony with the divine will. Justification is that which overcomes the estrangement and puts people on the right track, a process that happens when the Spirit of God takes possession of one's heart and life. A person's desires are changed, and a "new creature" emerges, which is what Paul means by salvation.
Having developed his argument concerning the means of salvation, Paul supports his position by referring to Abraham, as he did in his letter to the Galatians. Abraham's faith was "credited to him as righteousness"; by faith, those who are his spiritual descendants can be saved. Jesus is the supreme example of faith in that he was a human being in whom the Spirit of God was manifested more completely than in any other person. In this respect, Paul thinks of Jesus as the ideal man in the same way that Adam was regarded as the symbol of the human race. Just as in Adam we all died, so in Christ are we all made alive. Adam's disobedience illustrates what happens in the lives of all human beings, and Jesus' triumph over the forces of evil illustrates what can happen when the Spirit takes possession of a person's entire nature. This point, Paul insists, is the true meaning of Christian baptism and symbolizes the death and burial of one's sinful nature and a resurrection into a new quality of living.
Paul's own experience with the Law when he was studying to become a rabbi is described at some length to demonstrate again the impotence of the Law in contrast with the power of faith to transform one's nature. Trying to achieve salvation through obedience to the Law was indeed a miserable type of existence, comparable to having a dead person strapped to one's own body. In this state of affairs, a person is a slave to sin, as Paul notes: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." And again, "Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it." Under these conditions, Paul cries out in the name of humanity, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" The answer is that deliverance comes through faith in Jesus Christ: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."
The effects of salvation will be manifest first in the changed life of the individual and then, as this salvation takes place in increasing numbers, in society. The life of the Spirit that frees one from bondage to the Law does not give one the license to sin, nor can laws legitimately be violated just because they conflict with one's immediate desires. The Christian will be a law-abiding citizen whose freedom consists in the fact that he no longer wants to act contrary to laws. He will do what is right because he desires to act that way, not because he does it from a pure sense of duty or as a means of gaining a reward.
With reference to the future of the Jewish people, Paul expresses the hope that they, too, will be included with those who are saved through the gospel. Since the gospel is of divine origin and the great heroes of Israel achieved righteousness through faith, that the Jews would reject the gospel seems strange. When they refused to accept it, the opportunity was extended to the Gentiles. But Paul does not envision a complete break between Judaism and Christianity. He believes that the Jews eventually will come to accept the gospel since God is not willing that any person should perish but that all might be saved.
The closing part of Paul's Epistle to the Romans contains instruction in the manner of living. Paul tells the Christians in Rome to have respect for the civil government: "The authorities that exist have been established by God." He does not mean that Christians should obey the civil laws when these laws conflict with the laws of God but rather that Christians should not attempt to hide their conduct from the rulers nor escape the punishment that the state inflicts. Earthly governments are not perfect, and some laws are bound to be unjust. Nevertheless, laws preserve order in society, and Christians should abide by them. As in the other letters to different churches, Paul asks the Christians at Rome to contribute to the fund that he is gathering for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem.
In no portion of the New Testament is the dynamic and universal character of Christianity set forth more clearly than in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, evidence of which can be seen in the fact that so many of the revival and reform movements in the course of Christian history have been started and promulgated by a restudy of this portion of the New Testament. For example, in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther's commentary on Romans was an important factor in the promotion of the Protestant Reformation, and in the twentieth century, when Karl Barth published his analysis of Romans, a new era was introduced in the contemporary interpretations of Christianity. Paul's letter to the church in Rome is without question one of the great documents in Christian literature. It has furnished the inspiration and guidance for many of the important developments that have taken place in the life of the church during the past and in all likelihood will continue to do so in the future.
The dynamic character of the gospel as Paul understands it is illustrated in the introductory portions of his letter, where Paul refers to the gospel as something that is powerful: "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." The gospel is more than the acceptance of a set of speculative ideas, even though these are not necessarily excluded; it is the righteousness of God, an active force operating in the lives of people who are ready and willing to receive it. Available to all those who recognize their need for it regardless of their religious backgrounds, the gospel does for those persons who are willing to accept it something that they are wholly unable to do for themselves: produce within them a changed nature so that the desires of their hearts will coincide with what they ought to do.
The universality of the gospel is exemplified in the way in which it completely transcends all distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Among the early Christians, as well as in other communities, certain people believed that salvation was only for the Jews. Paul's letter to the Romans addresses a church whose membership is composed of people from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, and he wants to set forth the meaning of the gospel in terms that will be intelligible to all of them. Because he is familiar with both Judaism and Hellenistic culture, he uses concepts drawn from each of these sources to communicate his version of Christianity. Thus we find him using the terminology of Jewish eschatology and apocalypticism, as well as the language of the mystery cults and other forms of Gentile religion, to explain his conception of the real significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His use of terms drawn from such different sources was not without its dangers: His readers might very well interpret these terms in a manner that was other than he intended. He did not want to convey the idea that the use of these terms in connection with the Christian religion was exactly like what either the Jews or the Gentiles had been taught. Rather, he used them to distinguish similarities that would aid in their proper understanding.
Salvation, as this term was used by the Jews of Paul's day, primarily refers to a future event when the kingdoms of this earth will be brought to an end and the new age identified as the kingdom of God will be established. The saved will be those who are not destroyed at that time but who will be permitted to live under the new order of things. Although Paul does not reject this view entirely, he couples with it the idea that salvation is something to be achieved here and now, as well as in the future. Being saved from yielding to evil temptations is achieved not by conformity or obedience to laws but by faith in the righteousness of God, manifested in the life of Jesus the Christ. In support of this conviction, Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who said that "the righteous will live by his faith." Paul's use of the word "faith" is somewhat different from that of the ancient prophet, for Habakkuk was speaking about his belief concerning the future that was in store for those who lived in obedience to the Law, or commands, of God; Paul is discussing a salvation that is apart from the Law. Thus we see how Paul uses a familiar Hebrew term to communicate to his readers a concept that was in some respects new to them.
In his discussion of the need for salvation, Paul implies what has often been called the doctrine of original sin. The Adam of the Genesis story is generally interpreted as a reference to all humanity. The same tendency toward evil present in Adam is also present in every human being. Yielding to these temptations brings about an estrangement between an individual and God. To explain the way in which this estrangement can be overcome, Paul draws analogies from customary court procedures and from concepts used in the mystery cults. He shows how all humans are guilty before God, and in this connection he speaks of justification and redemption. When the sinner acknowledges his guilt, he is accepted by God, and past sins are no longer held against him. Justified in the sense that the estrangement has been overcome, the former sinner is now in accord with the divine will, which does not mean that he will never sin again, but he will continually be aware of his need for improvement and will seek divine aid for its accomplishment. To explain the change that takes place in life when a person experiences justification and possesses the same spirit present in Jesus, Paul uses the language of the mystery cults. Just as the heroic redeemer of these cults experienced a death, burial, and resurrection, so Christian baptism means a death of one's old nature, a burial, and a resurrection in which one walks in a newness of life.