Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (Introduction)

Having gone through Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians, it is now time to turn to his letter to the Christians in Rome. As Romans is a much larger and more complex letter than Galatians, it will not be possible to go through it in quite the same detail. Attention will be paid to the most relevant verses and passages, with a number given separate treatment in daily notes. Many of the themes and arguments Paul presented in Galatians with regard to the Law are echoed in Romans, often with additional exposition and elaboration. The passages in chapters 1-8 are also integrated within a relatively broad and systematic theological framework, unlike the pointed rhetorical structure of Galatians. It will be necessary to discuss the different theological context and emphasis in Romans when examining the sections similar to those in Galatians.


The subscriptions in a number of manuscripts indicate that Paul wrote the letter from Corinth, presumably en route to Jerusalem (Acts 20:1-3), and this is very likely correct. If so, then Romans may have been written early in 58 A.D., with 1 and 2 Corinthians probably written during 57, and Galatians at least several years earlier. There are several factors which help explain the particular character of the letter, as compared with that of Galatians or 1-2 Corinthians:

    • It was not written to believers that Paul had visited, nor had he any direct role in the original preaching and foundation of congregations in Rome and its environs. There is thus no immediate reason (causa) for his writing, no urgent issue to address; this apparently offers Paul the freedom to present a more objective, ‘systematic’ summary and exposition of the Gospel. As commentators have noted, it has the character of a “letter-essay” or “teaching letter” (lehrbrief, in German).
    • Rome provided a unique situation regarding the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. The original believers in Rome were almost certainly Jewish, but following the expulsion of Jews during the reign of Claudius (c. 49 A.D., cf. Seutonius, Life of Claudius 25), gradually Gentile (non-Jewish) believers came to be more numerous. By the time of Paul’s writing, the congregations were likely mixed, but with Gentiles dominating. This gave Paul the opportunity to provide a more developed treatment of the relation between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, and in terms of Christian (and Jewish) identity. It is clearly a subject to which Paul had given a great deal of thought.
    • It is possible to sense throughout the letter Paul’s preparation for the journey to Jerusalem, during which he planned to present the collection (gathered from the churches in the Gentile world) for the poor and suffering (Jewish) believers in Jerusalem. He seems to have felt there was important symbolism involved, regarding the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ—a theme certainly dear to his heart, as movingly and powerfully expressed especially in Romans 9-11. It is also a theme that, in one way or another, colors the entire epistle.
    • Rome was, of course, the center of the Empire, and this would have been enough to give the believers there a certain prominence (as clearly evident from subsequent Church history as well). Paul is laying the groundwork for a visit to the imperial city, with a presentation of the Gospel that he previously has not had the opportunity to preach to them. Rome would be, in many ways, the pinnacle and climax of Paul’s missionary work and calling (Acts 9:15; 13:47). The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching and teaching (under house arrest) in Rome (Acts 28:11-31), where, according to tradition, he was put to death as a witness (martyr) for Christ.

The complex character of Romans is such that it does not possess the same sort of simple and straightforward rhetorical organization as does Galatians. However, the letter may still be divided into a relatively clear framework (see, for example, B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans:2004, pp. vii-ix, 21-22); for the moment, I limit the outline to chapters 1-8:

    • Epistolary prescript (Greeting), Rom 1:1-7
    • Exordium (Introduction, w/prayer) and brief narratio, (vv. 11-15), Rom 1:8-15
    • Propositio (main statement), Rom 1:16-17
    • Probatio (presentation of arguments), Rom 1:18-8:39

The probatio is the main theological/doctrinal section of the letter, as in Galatians (chs. 3-4), where arguments and evidence in support of the proposition is presented. Commentators have divided ch. 1:18-8:39 various ways; here is the basic division I am using:

  • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment (v. 18), according to the Law (of God):
    —1:19-32: Judgment against human wickedness/injustice as represented by (pagan) idolatry and immorality
    2:1-16: Jews are judged (along with Gentiles) according to evil/wicked deeds that are against the Law
    —2:17-29: Jewish identity (circumcision) is meaningless if the Law is violated
    3:1-8: God’s judgment against Jew and Gentile alike is just
    —3:9-20: Declaration (with proof from Scripture) that all human beings (Jews and Gentiles) are “under sin”
  • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    4:1-25: Argument from Scripture: The blessing/promise to Abraham (by trust/faith)
    5:1-11: The effect/result of being made/declared just: salvation from the coming judgment
    5:12-21: Argument/Illustration from Scripture: Sin and Salvation (Adam/Christ)
  • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin
    —6:1-14: Argument 1: Believers are dead to sin by participation in the death of Christ, along with an exhortation not to sin (vv. 12-14)
    —6:15-23: Argument 2: Believers are free from slavery to sin (and are now slaves of righteousness)
    7:1-6: Argument 3: Believers are released from the bond of the Law (and sin): Illustration from the marriage bond
    —7:7-25: Theological excursus: The relationship between the Law and Sin
  • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
    —8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
    —8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
    —8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
    —8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
  • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

It can be argued strongly that Rom 1:18-8:39 represents the first Christian work on salvation (soteriology), and the only thing like a systematic treatment in the New Testament. Note again, according to my outline, the four soteriological “announcements” Paul makes in these chapters:

These statements build one upon another, and represent a kind of “salvation history” or “order of salvation” in capsule form.

The Propositio (Romans 1:16-17)

These two verses represent Paul’s fundamental statement (or proposition) in the letter—it is actually a two-fold statement, each of which begins with the conjunctive (explanatory) particle ga/r (“for”). The first begins with a personal declaration “I do not feel shame/disgrace upon [i.e. about] the good message [i.e. the Gospel]…”, and then the statement follows:

“…it is the power of God unto salvation to every (one) th(at) is trusting—to (the) Yehudean {Jew} first and (also) to the Greek”

The second statement is in v. 17a:

“For the justice of God is uncovered in it—out of trust (and) into trust…”

Clearly the emphasis in these two statements is on trust (or “faith”), pi/sti$ (vb. pisteu/w). V. 17b concludes with a declaration (citation) from Scripture (Hab 2:4, also cited in Gal 3:11):

“…as it is written (accordingly), ‘but the just (person) will live out of trust [e)k pi/stew$]'”

The four clauses of vv. 16-17 can be arranged in a chiasm:

    • Declaration (personal): “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (v. 16a)
      • Statement: It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that trusts (v. 16b)
      • Statement: It reveals the justice/righteousness of God—out of and into trust (v. 17a)
    • Declaration (from Scripture): “the just will live out of [i.e. by] trust” (v. 17b)

A comparison with the propositio of Galatians (Gal 2:15-16ff) shows how, in that letter, the message of the Gospel is defined specifically in relation to the Law; in Romans, it is the message of the Gospel itself that Paul is expounding. As we shall see, his use of the word translated as “law” (no/mo$) also has a wider scope of meaning in Romans; whereas in Galatians, apart from Gal 6:2 (“the Law of Christ”, cf. my recent note), it always refers to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”). This will be important to keep in mind as we proceed through the key passages of Romans.

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