“One can almost write the history of Christian Theology by surveying the ways in which Romans has been interpreted.” Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, xiii.
Because Romans is the longest of the New Testament epistles it has major influence on Christian theology. Fitzmyer is not exaggerating. In fact, most of Christian soteriology is based on the book of Romans. Is it possible to fully describe “salvation by grace through faith” using only the Jewish Christian letters? Even the Gospels themselves do not present a fully developed view of salvation. For many evangelical Christians, Romans is more or less equivalent to the Gospel! One of the basic ways to present the Gospel is the “Romans Road.”
The importance of the book can be demonstrated by examining popular systematic theologies. There far more references to Romans than any other New Testament book (and in some cases, more than the whole Old Testament!) Although the book only focuses on Paul, in N. T. Wright’s recent Paul and the Faithfulness of God, there are twenty-two columns of references to Romans, there are twenty-eight columns for all of the other Pauline letters.
The importance of the book can be seen in church history. Just two examples, there are others. Augustine was converted to Christianity when he opened up the Bible and randomly read Romans 13:13-14, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Augustine said “it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 153).
When Luther read Romans and was stunned by the grace of God. As he began to study Romans and to understand how the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 applied to other areas of salvation, he began to question medieval Catholic doctrine, leading to the Protestant Reformation. The study of Romans in this case led to one of the greatest dividing pints in world history!
In Luther’s own words,
This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes (Martin Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans)
Michael Bird used this same quote in the preface to his recent commentary on Romans, and it appears frequently in introductions to the book. I realize this sounds a little bit like hype, since I am introducing a series on Romans. Like anyone who rehearses this information at the beginning of a book on Romans, I have a vested interest in exciting people about our study. But a study of Paul’s letter to the Romans really is exciting and will reward those who diligently study the book.
As you have read Romans in the past, what are some of the most significant verses in the book to you? What has impacted your understanding of God his faithful actions providing salvation for sinners? Are there verses which have shaped the way you think about your life as a Christian?