Tradition claims that Rome was founded in 753 B. C. It was originally ruled by a succession of kings but changed to a republic around 509 B. C. After years of political strife within the governing body (the Senate) and attacks from enemies without, the leadership of Rome was assumed by a series of emperors. This form of government was called the Principate and it is within this framework that the New Testament was written. Just as the Roman Empire and its crown jewel, the city of Rome, was a complicated but well-structured entity, so also is the letter which Paul wrote to the believers in this prominent city. Barclay wrote, “Romans is at once a very complicated and a very carefully constructed letter”. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart noted, “While theologically minded people love it, others steer away from it (except for a few favorite passages), thinking it is too deep for them”. Yet across its verses are contained some of the most foundational components of faith: righteousness, grace, the role of Israel in salvation history, and the unifying work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Paul’s concern was that the church in Rome had divided itself like the ethnic neighborhoods and craftsmen had done in the city. Division in the church was not glorifying God, nor was it conducive to the spread of the Gospel.
Paul’s letter is comprised of four parts (1:16-4:25; 5:12-8:30; 9:1-11:32; 12:1-15:12) and each part ends with a personal declaration of faith by Paul (5:1-11; 8:31-39; 11:33-36; 15:13). The first part deals with the issue of human sinfulness, how it affects everyone and Christ’s ability to bring us into a right standing with God based on faith in Him. Abraham is used as the prime example of faith in this portion (4:13-16, 22-25). The second part illustrates how Christ and the gift of the Spirit bring about the kind of righteousness the Law could only point to (Rom. 5:15-21). The third part is directed to God’s dealings with Israel, His faithfulness to them in spite of their unbelief, and the relationship of Gentile believers to the nation of Israel in God’s salvation history (11:1-2, 11-12, 17-18, 25-32). The fourth and final part instructs all believers on what righteousness looks like within the believing community and outside of it (Rom. 12:3-9; 15:1-6).
When my son Erick was in his teens he constructed a make-shift shed in our backyard. There was no foundation and I’m pretty sure the sides were held together by nothing more than a few nails. When we moved it was left behind and we assumed it would eventually fall down and be dismantled. Amazingly we discovered recently that it is still standing! Most people know that without a foundation, a building will eventually fall. It was Paul’s desire that through his letter the believers in Rome would have a solid foundation of faith. The letter offers the same to us as well. The key to reading Romans is to understand its literary format. Known as “diatribe” it is much like a dialogue in which a teacher attempts to persuade students concerning the truth of a given philosophy through a series of questions and answers. When someone raised a voice of objection the teacher would respond emphatically, “By no means!” After this a logical flow of ideas would be presented to first quell the student’s objection and secondly to show how it was incorrect. The Book of Romans is structured like this with Paul imagining some of the questions and objections he might encounter from the believers in Rome and then answering them.
The Gospel is the foundation of our faith according to Paul (Rom. 1:2-4, 16-17) and Paul believes that whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, faith in Christ has eternal benefits. As you read through the remaining chapters you will find that every idea, explanation or argument flows from these verses. Our faith is like a building. How we live and practice our faith reveals what we’ve built our faith upon. What lies underneath your building? Is it a solid foundation or is it shifting sand (Mt. 7:24-27)? The truths found in Romans are a good checklist to go by. It’s time for you to call the Building Inspector and see how your foundation measures up (1 Cor. 3:9-15)!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 7/9/2017