Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written

What would the church be like without Paul’s great letter to the Romans?

Is there anything unique about this letter that makes it important for us to study it today? The purpose of this book is to answer these questions. In the following chapters, we will come to see why the Book of Romans has been so important to the church and why it continues to be a real asset for our own personal spiritual understanding today. There is a unique quality of this book that has greatly impacted Christians throughout history and continues to impact us. From studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, we can learn the content of the Christian faith like nowhere else in the New Testament. In his letter, Paul opens vistas to the gospel, shining a light on what we can experience by embracing and living in the Good News of Christ. He profoundly shares with us an understanding of the impact of Jesus Christ on our lives and the world.

Paul’s words are loaded with divine truth and require careful study and thought.Indeed the letter to the Romans is a theological jewel, but Paul’s discussions in the letter are sensible and practical. In the first portion of the letter, the apostle Paul lays a mighty foundation and builds a strong superstructure. After he has completed chapters 1 through 11, he draws powerful conclusions, beginning with chapter 12, which show how the whole letter has pastoral and practical application for the Christian life, the church, and the world.

Romans and the Early Church

The letter to the Romans has had a significant place throughout the history of the church. Since early in the Christian era, the church has recognized the importance of this letter. The position it occupies in the New Testament indicates that the early church saw it as the most significant letter that Paul wrote. Paul’s letter to the Romans stands first among all his letters, not just because it is the longest, but it is the most ordered, complete, and comprehensive statement from his pen. Paul had written at least five letters prior to writing Romans (1 and 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians). Most likely the letter has that position due to content, not age. Because of its content, Romans has had a remarkable influence on the early life of the church and its theology.

This influence of Romans on the early church can be seen in the writings of one of the great thinkers of the early church, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul. Irenaeus, who lived in the latter part of the second century, had a true affinity for Paul’s teachings. Irenaeus’ doctrine of salvation was centered in Christ’s life and death, and he emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit as the means of living the Christian life. Irenaeus’ answer to the question of why Christ came from heaven was “that He might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man” (Against Heresies, III, 18, 7). Like Paul, Irenaeus saw the coming of Christ in the flesh as absolutely essential to salvation. On the basis of Romans 8:3-4, Irenaeus stated, “The law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it, for sin did not hold sway over spirit but over man. For He who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man” (Ibid., V, 15). Irenaeus’ teaching on salvation and the Christian life reflects the strong influence of Romans on the thinking of one of the most creative thinkers in the second-century church, who in turn has greatly impacted the belief and life of the Christian church.

Romans and Church Renewal

A number of instances can be cited where the power of Paul’s letter to the Romans has brought about life-changing experiences for individuals and provided impetus in the church for revival and renewal movements. The message of Romans, by touching the lives of individuals and revitalizing the spiritual life of the church, has restored an understanding of what God did and continues to do in Jesus Christ.

One such individual who was touched by Paul’s letter to the Romans was the great church father Augustine (AD 354-430). It was through reading Romans 13:13-14 that he came to faith in Jesus Christ. Augustine tells his story in his Confessions. At the time of his conversion, he was deeply distraught because his attempts to live a good moral life had been a failure. But on one occasion he was in a garden and heard a voice saying, “Take and read.” The voice sounded like that of a child, and Augustine rushed back to where a friend was sitting in the garden. There he had left a copy of Paul’s letters. Immediately he picked up the volume and read the first words that his eyes fell upon: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” He had no need to read further. Through these verses, God transformed Augustine and flooded his heart with the assurance that he was a child of God (VIII, 463-67).

Another remarkable example of the power of Paul’s letter to the Romans is its role in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, which was the movement that led to the repudiation of the pope’s authority and to the stand that the Scripture is the sole authority for faith and practice. At first, the movement’s effort was to reform the existing church according to New Testament teachings. The church leaders’ reluctance to reform then led to the subsequent establishment of Protestant denominations. This tremendous renewal of the church began while Martin Luther was a professor of Bible at a seminary in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther, along with his students, began to read Romans and to set aside the misinterpretations that had been imposed on it by the church. As Luther and his students did this, they began to grasp the true meaning of the gospel. Only gradually did Luther come to understand the revolutionary significance of what he was reading. At first the Book of Romans spoke to him personally, liberating his soul from the agonies and frustrations of doubt and establishing his Christian life on the solid and enduring ground of the gospel. But soon Luther became convinced that the teaching and practices of the church of his day were clearly in contradiction to the gospel, which he had first discovered in Romans and later in the whole of the Scriptures (Smart, 1972, 16-17).

Two centuries later, there was a great need for a spiritual awakening. An evangelical movement began under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley and other Christians. Aware of the noticeable spiritual decline, a group of people who were deeply troubled by the condition of the church gathered together in London, England. They met in a house on Aldersgate Street to listen to the reading of Luther’s commentary on Romans. John Wesley was present that evening. As he listened, his heart was “strangely warmed.” The words of Paul, interpreted by Luther, brought the heartfelt, transforming power of the gospel to bear on Wesley’s life. From that time on, he was profoundly influenced by Paul’s message to the Romans, particularly as he developed his theology and preached the gospel. Through the ministry of Wesley, the spiritual awakening that began in England reached America and had a tremendous impact on revitalizing the life of the Christian church. But more than that, it changed the way the entrance into the Christian life was viewed by a majority of American churches. Many churches began to emphasize faith as being vital to a conversion experience, to transforming and regenerative change, and to entering the kingdom of God. Romans, therefore, played a key part in the spiritual and theological renewal of the church in Europe and America.

The immense influence of Romans in America reached beyond the time of John Wesley and the great Wesleyan revival. The letter to the Romans continued to have a growing significance through a pastor by the name of Karl Barth (1886-1968). During the First World War, Barth was a young Swiss pastor who became deeply dissatisfied with the way liberal scholars in German universities were presenting the gospel. As a result, he began to study Romans and preach and teach it. A man of amazing ability and vitality, he wrote two commentaries on the letter to the Romans prior to leaving his ten-year pastorate for a professorship. The second was more explosive and influential than the first. In his commentaries, Barth proposed the idea that the Christian faith was usually blended with the present-day national culture. The result of such blending was that values of faith and values of the world were often viewed by the church as being the same. This blending of the gospel and the world’s values reinforced the self-confidence of modern people, but it failed to remind them that they were under divine judgment and called to repentance. He wanted humankind to understand what God thought about them and the way that God had come to them. God’s Word had become flesh in Jesus Christ. Christianity was not a human religion, but divine revelation—not the word of man, but the Word of God. For Barth, the message of Romans is this: Let God be God.

Barth is identified with Romans more than any other person in the history of the church. Over a span of sixty years, he wrote three commentaries and many studies on specific passages of the letter. The effect of his influence was felt beyond Switzerland and Germany and had a decisive impact on some areas of church life in America. His second commentary caused many to rethink their approach to the Scriptures and their understanding of the faith. This expansion in thought and understanding had a profound effect on the Christian church. Throughout his life, Barth remained a student of God’s Word and continued to grow in his grasp of the faith. But never did he think that he had fully fathomed the depth of God’s message in Romans. In the preface to A Shorter Commentary on Romans, his third commentary, he says, “After all, there is always something new to learn from the Epistle of Romans” (1959, 8).

A number of people have paid tribute to Barth for his Christ-centered, Trinitarian approach to the Scriptures. There is no doubt that many have been inspired by him to look in a fresh way at Paul and to come to a deeper understanding of what God has done in Christ and to be more committed to the truths of the gospel.

The Greatness of Romans

Earlier we observed that Romans occupies the honor of first place among Paul’s letters. There is no doubt that the apostle spoke to his day. However, since more than nineteen centuries exist between his time and ours, we must ask why Paul’s writings, and particularly his letter to the Romans, are the living Word of God for all times. Does Paul speak directly to us, person to person, and to all who will listen to him? By way of answer, let it be said that the apostle Paul was more than simply a character in the New Testament; he was specially chosen by God and inspired to share the Word of God with all generations. Though dead, he is still relevant to modern life and speaks to us. Through his letters, Paul enters rather easily into our modern world and serves well as a guide to our understanding of the saving work of Christ and to our receiving salvation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches that we have been made for fellowship with God, but sin has separated us from Him. We cannot save ourselves from the deadly grip of sin, but God’s grace in Christ bridges the chasm between God’s holiness and our sin. Now through faith in Christ, we can be put in a right relationship with God and be forgiven of our sins.

No wonder the message of Romans has been used by the Holy Spirit as a major source to bring about spiritual revivals in the church and to have a continuing influence on God’s people.This letter takes us to the living heart of the gospel. As the name of the letter indicates, Paul wrote it to a church in a city known as Rome. At the same time without knowing it, he wrote it to the whole world and for all the ages, supporting the efforts of cross-cultural ministry and providing a key to understanding the Bible. So even though this great letter was addressed to the saints in Rome during the first century, its message is eternal, and its mandates are universal.

Themes of Romans

The letter to the Romans covers several universal themes:

Our Need for Salvation. Romans affirms that people of all times and nations are sinners and are in need of salvation.

God’s Grace and Our Faith. It also points to the fact that neither the law of Moses nor any work by humans has ever been, nor can ever be, the means of salvation.

Scope of Salvation. Paul tells us in Romans that the scope of salvation is broader than individual souls and the church, for it includes the renewal of creation (Rom. 8:19-21). Sin and grace are universal and can be traced to their ultimate sources in Adam and Christ. The only hope for all of humankind – whether Jew or Gentile – is total trust in Christ for salvation.

Christian Service. Regarding believers’ discharging their duties, Paul asserts that love is the key characteristic in relating to the state, the church, neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, and themselves. Indeed, Paul lived in faith before God; and with great spiritual insight, he taught that total trust in Christ frees us to love God and neighbor.

A Message for All Times

The letter that Paul wrote to Rome plumbs the depths of the human heart and human existence. It deals with the decisions and destiny of all people and is marked by great energy and eloquence. Its arguments flow like a broad and deep river—quiet—but its current moves forever onward. Romans is a relentless flow of divine truth, often with the writer’s earnest and warm feelings and his keen sense of its relevance to human life (Stifler, 1960, 20).

Too often, Paul is thought to be an abstract thinker, saying too much about the future and not enough about the present. While Paul does emphasize the importance of the future life in heaven, he also understands that in the present, Christians should already be living the End-Time life, reflecting that they are citizens of heaven—a new people should live a new life. To use a technical term, this is frequently called “eschatological (End-Time) existence”—the future life begins here for those who trust in Christ as their Savior. Indeed, we already experience the reality of “the gospel of God” that Paul talks about in Romans (1:1).

What can we conclude from the study so far? The greatness of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been hailed by many over the years. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is his masterpiece. In it he shows the connection of the gospel to all humankind and to all creation. Martin Luther described it as “the chief book in the New Testament and the purest gospel.” John Knox, a modern American professor, says that it is “unquestionably the most important letter ever written.” A Scottish New Testament professor by the name of A. M. Hunter declares it to be Paul’s magnum opus. These are only a few examples, for many have ranked Romans as the greatest letter in the literature of the world. This estimation of greatness may appear to be a bit overstated; but when we consider the remarkable influence that Romans has had on the church and the world for twenty centuries, it is right to describe Romans as the greatest letter ever written. It is hard to overestimate the value of Romans. Just the way it transformed the lives of Martin Luther, John Wesley, and millions of others, the Holy Spirit still uses the truths of Romans to transform the lives of men and women. We can safely say that its day is not over. Paul’s words in Romans will continue to have a vast influence until Jesus Christ comes again.

Romans and the Holy Spirit

We know that the entire Bible is the inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16) and requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit in order to understand the messages of the books of the Bible (1 Cor. 2:6-16). The Bible is the work of men to whom the Word of God was revealed in various ways. God guided and inspired them to write what sometimes they themselves did not understand. Though the books have human authors, they are divine in origin. The books were produced under divine inspiration, that is, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV).

The letter to the Romans is no exception. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul and revealed to him the great truths of Romans. Since the truths given by God must be understood by the help of God, we need the help of the Holy Spirit to grasp the full significance of the gospel in Romans and to be able to apply it to our own lives and to teach others what Christ can do for them. This study may whet your appetite for more, and you may ask for more. Just as Barth said, “There is always something new in Romans.” So as we study, we should feel free to get the help we can from other sources. Even though the Holy Spirit may choose to enlighten us through those whom He has already enlightened, we also need to seek the Holy Spirit’s aid through prayer. The Holy Spirit is crucial to our understanding “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10-16). Indeed, the Holy Spirit and careful study will enhance our grasp of the grand perspective of Romans and its message from the living God for all times.

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