Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? In the days of the early Christian church, it was impractical for the apostles to personally visit each fledgling Christian community, so the central tenets of the faith were spread throughout the Near East in the form of letters written to individual congregations.
These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. The “Pauline epistles”—letters written by the influential apostle Paul—are particularly central to Christian belief. This summer, in our “Letters to the Church” series, we’re walking through each of Paul’s epistles. As we do so, ask yourself: what might Paul write to your church today?
The first letter on our tour is the book of Romans.
Paul’s Letter to the RomansStart reading it here: Romans 1
When was it written? Probably around A.D. 55-57, about 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To whom was it written? “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people”—that is, members of the church in the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.
Why was it written? Paul longed to visit the Christian community in Rome, but his travels and responsibilities toward other churches in the Empire made that difficult. In his letter, Paul mentions a plan to visit the Roman church on his way to Spain.
This letter was written with a number of purposes in mind. Foremost among them was a simple explanation of the gospel of grace; but Paul also wanted to address growing tensions between Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians in the church.
What does it say? Much of Romans consists of what might be called a “Gospel presentation.” Setting a model that Christians continue to follow today, Paul outlines the basics of the Christian gospel, hitting all of the key points: God’s holiness, mankind’s sin, and the saving grace offered by Jesus Christ. He then moves on to talk about how believers, once they’ve been justified by faith, should respond to that gift of grace. Paul’s approach is logical and thorough—he clearly and thoughtfully lays out his case, anticipating questions and taking time to explain the more challenging elements. He is careful to ground his message of the Gospel against the backdrop of the Old Testament.
The letter also spends a good deal of time addressing a troublesome rift that was dividing Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome. Early Christians were faced with some important questions about the roots of their faith: what was Christianity’s relationship to the Jewish faith? Was is necessary for Christians to observe Jewish laws and behavioral restrictions? Was it wrong for Jewish believers to adhere to Jewish traditions? Paul’s message to both factions was a plea for unity in Christ: although following the Jewish law could not bring salvation outside of Jesus Christ, Paul challenged everyone in the Roman church to show grace and tolerance to fellow believers who, for reasons of conscience, followed different rules about diets, holidays, and other religious practices.
Noteworthy passages: Given the centrality of the book of Romans to Christian theology, there are far too many key passages to note all of them here. However, a few that especially stand out include:
- Romans 1: Paul introduces himself with beautiful, graceful words that communicate both his passion for Christ and his love for the church.
- Romans 7:14ff: The classic description of the “dual nature” that plagues every Christian. Paul perfectly describes the believer’s struggle to live for Christ while continually resisting the temptations of sin.
- Romans 12: How then shall we live? Paul describes what a Christian life looks like.
- Romans 14-15: How to approach “matters of conscience”—tensions that arise when some Christians feel compelled to observe practices or restrictions that others consider unnecessary. In brief: be gracious, humble, and generous at all times, and this won’t be a problem.
What can we learn from Romans? The book of Romans is a powerful, important letter than can be appreciated by any church. Its clear outline of the Gospel speaks for itself. And even the issues that were specific to the 1st-century Roman church—the tension between Jews and Gentiles—have clear relevance to the diverse, worldwide Christian church today. It’s probably simpler to just encourage you to read the book of Romans instead of trying to sum up its many key points. Consider these questions as you read:
- Why do you think Paul took the time to lay out the Gospel so clearly, rather than dive straight into the church-specific issues that needed addressing?
- What picture of the Roman church do you gather by reading Paul’s letter?
- Your church probably isn’t divided over the Gentile/Jew question. What issue might Paul have addressed instead if he were writing to your church today?
- Imagine that you’ve received this letter from Paul. What might you write back to him in response?
Hopefully this has given you a bit of introductory insight into the book of Romans. Like all of the New Testament epistles, it’s not a long read—you won’t regret taking 30 minutes to read through it this week!
Next up: Paul’s first letter to the deeply troubled church in Corinth.