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Romans, Epistle to the

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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ROMANS, EPISTLE TO THE

1. Time, occasion, and character . The letter to the Romans belongs to the central group which includes also Galatians, and the two letters to the Corinthians of St. Paul’s Epistles. Marcion’s order Gal., Cor., Rom. Is not unlikely to be the order of writing. A comparison of the data to be found in the letter, with statements in Acts, suggests that Rom. was written from Corinth at the close of the so-called third missionary journey ( i.e. the period of missionary activity described in Acts 18:23-28 ). After the riots in Ephesus ( Acts 19:23-40 ) St. Paul spent three months in Greece ( Acts 20:3 ), whither Timothy had preceded him. He was thus carrying out a previous plan somewhat sooner than he had originally intended. Acts 19:21-22 informs us that the Apostle wished to make a tour through Macedonia and Achaia, and afterwards, having first visited Jerusalem once more, to turn his steps towards Rome. From the letter itself we learn that he was staying with Gains ( Acts 16:23 ), who is probably to be identified with the Gains of 1 Corinthians 1:14 . At the time of writing, Paul and Timothy are together, for the latter’s name appears in the salutation ( 1 Corinthians 16:21 ). Sosipater, whose name also appears there, may he identified with the Sopater mentioned in Acts 20:4 . PhÅ“be, the bearer of the letter, belongs to Cenchreæ, one of the ports of Corinth. The allusions in the letter all point to the stay in Corinth implied in Acts 20:1-38 . Above all, the letter itself, apart from such important passages as Acts 1:10-11 and Acts 15:22; Acts 15:30 , is ample evidence of St. Paul’s plans to visit Rome, the plans mentioned in Acts 19:21-22 . It is then more than probable that the letter was written from Corinth during the three months’ stay in Greece recorded in Acts 20:3 .

A comparison of Romans 15:22; Romans 15:30 with Acts 19:21-22 brings out one of the most striking of Paley’s ‘undesigned coincidences.’ The parallel references to Jewish plots in Romans 15:31 and Acts 20:3 are also noteworthy. It should, however, be mentioned that if on critical grounds ch. 16 has to be detached from the original letter, and regarded as part of a lost letter to the Ephesians, much of the evidence for the place and date of Romans is destroyed, though the remaining indications suffice to establish the position laid down above.

The date to which the letter is to be assigned depends on the chronology of St. Paul’s life as a whole. Mr. Turner (Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , s.v. ‘Chronology of NT’) suggests a.d. 55 56. But for further treatment of this subject, readers must consult the general articles on Chronology of NT and Paul.

The immediate occasion for the letter is clearly the prospective visit to Rome. St. Paul is preparing the way for his coming. This explains why he writes to the Romans at all; it does not explain why he writes the particular letter we now possess. A shorter letter would have been sufficient introduction to his future hosts. How are we to account for the lengthy discussion of the central theme of the gospel which forms the larger part of the letter? Some suspect a controversial purpose. The Church at Rome contained both Jews and Gentiles; through Priscilla and Aquila and others St. Paul must have known the situation in Rome; he could, and doubtless did, accommodate his message to the condition of the Church. The objections he discusses may be difficulties that have arisen in the minds of his readers. But the style of the letter is not controversial. St. Paul warns the Romans against false teachers, as against a possible rather than an actual danger ( Acts 16:17-20 ). Similarly, the discussion of the reciprocal duties of strong and weak (ch. 14) is marked by a calm conciliatory tone which suggests that the writer is dealing with problems which are probable rather than pressing. In fact, St. Paul seems to be giving his readers the result of his controversial experiences in Corinth and Galatia, not so much because the Church in Rome was placed in a similar situation, as because he wished to enable her members to profit from the mistakes of other Churches. If the letter is not controversial, it is not, on the other hand, a dogmatic treatise. Comprehensive as the letter is, it is incomplete as a compendium of theology. The theory that St. Paul is here putting his leading thoughts into systematic form ‘does not account for the omission of doctrines which we know Paul held and valued his eschatology and his Christology, for instance’ (Garvie). Romans is a true letter, and the selection of topics must have been influenced by the interest of the Church to which he was writing.

But apart from the position of the Roman Christians, and apart from the wish of the Apostle to prepare the way for his visit to them, the form and character of the letter were probably determined by the place Rome held in the Apostle’s mind. St. Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship. He was the first to grasp the significance of the Empire for the growth of the Church. The missionary statesmanship which led him to seize on the great trade-centres like Ephesus and Corinth found its highest expression in his passionate desire to see Rome. Rome fascinated him; he was ambitious to proclaim his gospel there, departing even from his wonted resolve to avoid the scenes of other men’s labours.

It should be noted that the Church at Rome was not an Apostolic foundation. The Christian community came into existence there before either St. Paul or St. Peter visited the city.

He explains his gospel at some length, because it is all-important that the capital of the Empire should understand and appreciate its worth. He is anxious to impart some spiritual gift to the Roman Christians, just because they are in Rome, and therefore, lest Jewish plots thwart his plans, he unfolds to them the essentials of his message. Indeed, his Roman citizenship helped to make St. Paul a great catholic. The influence of the Eternal City may be traced in the doctrine of the Church developed in Ephesians, which was written during the Roman captivity. The very thought of Rome leads St. Paul to reflect on the universality of the gospel, and this is the theme of the letter. He is not ashamed of the gospel or afraid to proclaim it in Rome, because it is as world-wide as the Empire. It corresponds to a universal need: it is the only religion that can speak to the condition of the Roman people. It is true he is not writing for the people at large. His readers consist of a small band of Christians with strong Jewish sympathies, and perhaps even tending towards Jewish exclusiveness. His aim is to open their eyes to the dignity of the position, and to the world-wide significance of the gospel they profess.

Jülicher further points out that Rome was to be to St. Paul the starting-point for a missionary campaign in the West. Consequently the letter is intended to win the sympathy and support of the Roman Church for future work. It is to secure fellow-workers that the Apostle explains so fully the gospel which he is eager to proclaim in Spain and in neighbouring provinces.

2. Argument and content . Romans, like most of the Pauline letters, falls into two sections: doctrinal (chs. 1 11) and practical (chs. 12 16). In the doctrinal section, it is usual to distinguish three main topics: justification (chs. 1 4), sanctification (chs. 5 8), and the rejection of the Jews (chs. 9 11). It is not easy to draw any sharp line between the first two. The following is a brief analysis of the argument:

The salutation is unusually long, extending to seven verses, in which St. Paul emphasizes the fact that he has been set apart for the work of an Apostle to all the Gentiles. Then follows a brief introduction. The Apostle first thanks God for the faith of the Roman Christians, and then expresses his earnest desire to visit them and to preach the gospel in Rome. For he is confident and here he states is central theme that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all men, if they will only believe (Romans 1:1-17 ).

Salvation for all through the gospel that is the thought to be developed. And first it is necessary to show that such a saving power is a universal need. The evidence for this is only too abundant. Nowhere have men attained God’s righteousness: everywhere are the signs of God’s wrath. The wilful ignorance which denies the Creator has led to the awful punishment of moral decay with which St. Paul had grown sadly familiar in the great cities of the Empire. Indeed, so far has corruption advanced that the consciences of many have been defiled. They not only commit sin without shame; they openly applaud the sinner (Romans 1:18-32 ). Nor can any one who still perceives this failure hold himself excused. The very fact that he recognizes sin as such, condemns him in so far as he commits it. His keener conscience, if it leaves him unrepentant, will evoke the heavier penalty. God will judge all men according to their deeds. Both Jew and Gentile will be judged alike, the conscience in the Gentile corresponding to the Law in the case of the Jew ( Romans 2:1-16 ). This passage is usually referred to the Jews, whose habit of judging and condemning others is rebuked in Matthew 7:1 . It may have a wider application. The remainder of the chapter deals with the Jews. The principle of judgment according to deeds will be applied without distinction of persons. The privileges of the Jew will not excuse him in the eyes of God. Neither the Law nor circumcision will cover transgression. The true Jew must be a Jew inwardly: the actual Jews have by their crimes caused the name of God to be blasphemed. A Gentile who does not know the Law and yet obeys it is better than the Jew who knows and disobeys ( Romans 2:17-23 ). But is not this condemnation a denial of the Jews’ privileges? No, the privileges are real, though the Jews are unworthy of them; and the mercy of God is magnified by their ingratitude. Yet even so, if God’s mercy is brought to the light by their sin, why are they condemned? The full discussion of this difficulty is reserved to chs. 9 11. Here St. Paul only lays down the broad truth that God must judge the world in righteousness, and apparently he further replies to Jewish objectors by a tu quoque argument. Why do they condemn him if, as they say, his lie helps to make the truth clearer? ( Romans 3:1-8 ). St. Paul now returns to his main point, the universality of sin, which he re-states and re-enforces in the language of the OT. The whole world stands guilty in the sight of God, and the Law has but intensified the conviction of sin ( Romans 3:9-20 ).

To meet this utter failure of men, God has revealed in Christ Jesus a new way of righteousness, all-embracing as the need. Here too is no distinction of persons; all have sinned, and salvation for all stands in the free mercy of God, sealed to men in the propitiatory sacrifice of His Son, whereby we know that our past sins are forgiven, and we enter the new life, justified in the sight of God. The righteousness of God is thus assured to men who will receive it in faith. Faith is not defined, but it seems to mean a humble trust in the loving God revealed in Jesus. There can no longer be any question of establishing a claim on God by merit, or of superiority over our fellows. All need grace, and none can be saved except by faith. Jew and Gentile here stand on the same level (Romans 3:21-30 ).

Does not this righteousness through faith make void the Law? St. Paul scarcely answers the general question, but at once goes on to prove that the father of the race, Abraham, was justified by faith, i.e. by humble trust in God, in whose sight he could claim no merit. His trust in God was reckoned unto him for righteousness. His blessedness was the blessedness of the man whose sins are hidden, St. Paul here introducing the only beatitude found in his letters. This blessing came to Abraham before circumcision, on which clearly it did not depend. Similarly, the promise of inheriting the earth was given to him apart from the Law, and the seed to whom the promise descends are the faithful who follow their spiritual ancestor in believing God even against nature, as Abraham and Sarah believed Him. Surely it was for our sakes that the phrase ‘was reckoned unto him for righteousness’ was used in the story of Abraham. It enables us to believe in salvation through our faith in Him who raised Jesus from the dead ( Romans 3:31 to Romans 4:25 ).

At this point opens the second main stage in the doctrinal section of the letter. The fact of justification by faith has been established. It remains to say something of the life which must be built on this foundation. Jesus has brought us into touch with the grace of God. His death is the unfailing proof of God’s love to us sinful men. What can lie before us save progress to perfection? Reconciled to God while yet enemies, for what can we not hope, now that we are His friends? Christ is indeed a second Adam, the creator of a new humanity. His power to save cannot be less than Adam’s power to destroy. Cannot be less? Nay, it must be greater, and in what Jülicher rightly calls a hymn, St. Paul strives to draw out the comparison and the contrast between the first Adam and the Second. Grace must reign till the kingdom of death has become the kingdom of an undying righteousness (Romans 5:1-21 ).

Does this trust in the grace of God mean that we are to continue in sin? Far from it. The very baptismal immersion in which we make profession of our faith symbolizes our dying to sin and our rising with Christ into newness of life. If we have become vitally one with Him, we must share His life of obedience to God. The fact that we are under grace means that sin’s dominion is ended. If we do not strive to live up to this we fail to understand what is involved in the kind of teaching we have accepted. If we are justified by faith, we have been set free from sin that we may serve God, that we may win the fruit of our faith in sanctification, and enjoy the free gift of eternal life (Romans 6:1-23 ). The new life likewise brings with it freedom from the Law; it is as complete a break with the past as that which comes to a wife when her husband dies. So we are redeemed from the Law which did but strengthen our passions ( Romans 7:1-6 ). Not that the Law was sin; but as a matter of experience it is through the commandment that sin deceives and destroys men ( Romans 7:7-12 ). Is, then, the holy Law the cause of death? No, but the exceeding sinfulness of sin lies in its bringing men to destruction through the use of that which is good. And then in a passage of intense earnestness and noble self-revelation St. Paul describes his pre-Christian experience. He recalls the torturing consciousness of the hopeless conflict between spirit and flesh, a consciousness which the Law only deepened and could not heal. The weakness of the flesh, sold under sin, brought death to the higher life. But from this law too, the law of sin and of death, Christ has set him free ( Romans 7:13-25 ). For the Christian is not condemned to endure this hopeless struggle. God, in sending His Son, has condemned sin in the flesh. The alien power, sin, is no longer to rule. The reality and the strength of the Spirit of God have come into our lives with Jesus, so that the body is dead, to be revived only at the bidding of the indwelling Spirit ( Romans 8:1-12 ). We are no longer bound to sin. God has put it into our hearts to call Him ‘Abba, Father.’ We are His little ones already. How glorious and how certain is our inheritance! That redemption for which creation groans most surely awaits us, far more than recompensing our present woes; and patience becomes us who have already received the first-fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit of God prays for us in our weakness, and we know that we stand in God’s foreknowledge and calling. All must be well ( Romans 8:12-31 ). And then in a final triumph-song St. Paul asks, ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ The victory of the Christian life requires a new word: we are more than conquerors. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord ( Romans 8:31-37 ).

Almost abruptly St. Paul turns to his third main question. The rejection of the Jews, by which the grace of God has come to the Gentile, grieves him to the heart. How is God’s treatment of the Jews to be justified? There was from the first an element of selectiveness in God’s dealings with the race of Abraham. The promise was not the necessary privilege of natural descent. It was to Isaac and not to Ishmael, to Jacob and not to Esau (Romans 9:1-13 ). God’s mercy is inscrutable and arbitrary but it must be just. Whom He wills, He pities: whom He wills, He hardens. If it be said, ‘Then God cannot justly blame men; how can the clay resist the potter?’, St. Paul does not really solve the problem, but he asserts most emphatically that God’s right to choose individuals for salvation cannot be limited by human thought ( Romans 9:14-21 ). The justice of God’s rejection of the Jews cannot be questioned a priori . But what are the facts? The Jews, in seeking to establish their own righteousness, have failed to find the righteousness of God. They have failed, because the coming of Christ puts an end to legal righteousness, a fact to which Moses himself bears testimony. They ought to have realized this, and they cannot be excused on the ground that they have had no preachers. They are responsible for their own rejection: they have heard and known and disobeyed ( Romans 9:30 to Romans 10:21 ). But though God has the right to reject His people, and though the Jews are themselves responsible for, their refusal to accept the gospel, yet St. Paul cannot believe that it is final. Even now a remnant has been saved by grace; and the present rejection of Israel must have been inteoded to save the Gentiles. What larger blessing will not God bestow when He restores His people? The Gentiles must see in the fall of Israel the goodness of God towards themselves, and the possibilities of mercy for the Jews. This is enforced by the illustration of the wild olive and the natural branches ( Romans 11:17-24 ). The Jews are enemies now, in order that God may bless the Gentiles. But they are still beloved, for the sake of the fathers. No, God has not deserted His people. If they are at present under a cloud, it is God’s mercy and not His anger that has willed it so. And the same unsearchable mercy will one day restore them to His favour ( Romans 11:25-36 ).

With the thought of the infinite mercies of God so strikingly evidenced, St. Paul begins his practical exhortation. Self-surrender to God is demanded as man’s service. ‘Thou must love Him who has loved thee so.’ A great humility becomes us, a full recognition of the differing gifts which God bestows on us. A willingness to bear wrong will mark the Christian. He must he merciful, since his confidence is in the mercy of God. The conclusion of ch. 11 underlies the whole of ch. 12. St. Paul goes on to urge his readers to obey the governing powers; to pay to all the debt of love, which alone fulfils the Law; to put off all sloth and vice, since the day is at hand (ch. 13). The duties of strong and weak towards each other will call for brotherly love. We must not surrender the principle of individual responsibility. Each standeth and falleth to the Lord. We have no right to judge, and we must not force our practices on our fellows. On the other hand, we must not push our individual liberty so far as to offend our brothers. Let us give up things we feel to be right, if we cause strife and doubt by asserting our liberty. The strong must bear the infirmities of the weak. Even Christ pleased not Himself. May we find our joy and peace in following Him! (Romans 14:1 to Romans 15:12 ).

St. Paul then concludes by explaining why he was so bold as to write to them at all, and by unfolding his plans and hopes for the future (Romans 15:13-33 ). The last chapter contains a recommendation of PhÅ“be who brings the letter, and a number of detailed salutations to individual members of the Church, and to some house-churches. A brief warning against teachers who cause division, greetings from St, Paul’s companions, and an elaborate doxology bring the letter to a close (ch. 16).

The theology and leading ideas of the letter cannot be treated here. In a sense, however, the importance of Romans lies rather in its religious power than in its theological ideas. The letter is bound together by St. Paul’s central experience of the mercy of God. In God’s grace he has found the strength which can arrest the decay of a sinful, careless world. In God’s grace he has found also the secret of overcoming for the man who is conscious of the awfulness of sin, and of his own inability to save his life from destruction. The problem of the rejection of the Jews is really raised, not so much by their previous privileges as by God’s present mercy. St. Paul cannot be satisfied till he has grasped the love of God, which he feels must he at the heart of the mystery. The reality and nearness of God’s mercy determine the Christian character and render it possible. It is noteworthy that, though St. Paul seldom refers to the sayings of Jesus, he arrives at the mind of Christ through the gospel of the grace of God. A comparison of the Sermon on the Mount with Romans 12:1-21; Romans 13:1-14; Romans 14:1-23 makes the antithesis, ‘Jesus or Paul,’ appear ridiculous. Above all, the glowing earnestness with which in chs. 4 8 he seeks to share with the Roman Christians (note the use of ‘we’ throughout that section) the highest and holiest inspirations he has learnt from Christ, reveals a heart in which the love of God is shed abroad. As Deissmann suggests, we do not recognize the special characteristic of St. Paul if we regard him as first and foremost the theologian of primitive Christianity. Romans is the passionate outpouring of one who has come into living touch with his heavenly Father.

3. Some textual points: integrity and genuineness . The omission in manuscript G of the words en Rômç in Romans 1:7; Romans 1:15 is an interesting indication of the probability that a shortened edition of Romans, with the local references suppressed, may have been circulated in quite early times. The letter to the Ephesians seems to have been treated in the same way. This shorter edition may have concluded at Romans 14:23 , where the final doxology ( Romans 16:25-27 ) is placed in several MSS (ALP, etc.). But the shifting position of this doxology in our authorities perhaps indicates that it is not part of the original letter at all (see Denney, in the EGT [Note: Expositor’s Greek Testament.] ). But there is further evidence to show that some early editions of the letter omitted chs. 15 and 16. Marcion apparently omitted these chapters. Tertullian, Irenæus, and Cyprian do not quote them. There is also some internal evidence for thinking that ch. 16 at least may be part of a letter to Ephesus. The reference to Epænetus in Romans 16:5 would be more natural in a letter to Ephesus than in a letter to Rome. In view of Acts 18:2 it is difficult to suppose that Aquila and Priscilla had returned from Ephesus to Rome. Moreover, it is not likely that St. Paul would have so many acquaintances in a church he had not visited. On the other hand, none of these considerations affects or explains ch. 15, and the two chapters cannot be separated very easily. Further, Sanday and Headlam have collected an imposing array of evidence to prove the presence at Rome of persons with such names as are mentioned in ch. 16 (‘Romans’ in ICC [Note: CC International Critical Commentary.] xxxiv f.). The question must still be regarded as open.

But while there is some probability that ch. 16 is part of a distinct letter, the theories of dismemberment, or rather the proofs of the composite character of Romans advanced by some Dutch scholars, cannot be considered convincing. The views of the late Prof. W. C. van Manen have received perhaps undue attention, owing to the fact that the art. on ‘Romans’ in the EBi [Note: Encyclopædia Biblica.] is from his pen. His criticism was certainly arbitrary, and his premises frequently inaccurate. Thus he quotes with approval Evanson’s statement that there is no reference in Acts to any project of St. Paul’s to visit Rome a statement made in direct contradiction of Acts 19:21 ( EBi [Note: Encyclopædia Biblica.] , vol. iv. col. 4137). The year a.d. 120 is regarded as the probable date of Romans, in face of the external evidence of 1 Clement ( ib. col. 4143). The general argument against the genuineness of Romans, which weighs most with van Manen, lies in the fact that ‘it has learned to break with Judaism, and to regard the standpoint of the law as once for all past and done with.’ This is ‘a remarkable forward step, a rich and farreaching reform of the most ancient type of Christianity; now, a man does not become at one and the same moment the adherent of a new religion and its great reformer’ ( ib. col. 4138). Of this disproof of Pauline authorship it is quite sufficient to say with Prof. Schmiedel, ‘Perhaps St. Paul was not an ordinary man.’ Indeed, Prof. Schmiedel’s article on ‘Galatians’ ( ib. vol. ii. col. 1620f.) is a final refutation of the Dutch school represented by van Manen. They have advanced as yet no solid reason for doubting the genuineness of Romans.

H. G. Wood.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Romans, Epistle to the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​r/romans-epistle-to-the.html. 1909.
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