Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and unsearchable his ways! Rom 12:33
St. Paul wrote this letter to the church community at Rome in 58 A.D. without knowing (or without expressing anyway) that his first visit to Rome would also be his last— he became a martyr there some years later. This letter (located after the four gospels and Acts) weighs in as Paul’s most developed thinking on Christian doctrine, with passages abounding that have tied up many a debate. Paul formulates a thesis in 1:16-17 that keeps his attention for a good eleven chapters: the gospel is the “power of God” for both Jews and Gentiles (known in Paul’s letters as “Greeks”) and “in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith.”
The first doctrinal section (1:18-4:25) starts by panning the gamut of “sinners” from most to least offensive: those who are “wicked” (1:18-32), those who pass judgment (2:1-11), those Gentiles who seem to have the law of Moses written on their hearts (2:14-16), and those Jews who follow the law of Moses (2:17-29). Paul teases from this discussion what he understands as the common denominator of all people: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (3:23). He contrasts this bleak summary with the crux of the gospel’s message: God reveals his righteousness (3:21) by the justification of people by grace (3:24) through their faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Abraham becomes a prime example of this phenomena, since his belief in God’s promise was credited to him as righteousness (4:3; Gen 15:6; Gal 3:6).
The second doctrinal section (5:1-8:39) gets into the nitty-gritty of the effects of this justification. Paul describes how the believer gains three freedoms: from sin and death (5:12-21), from sin and selfishness (6:1-23), and from the law of Moses (7:1-25). Paul then discusses how justification through faith releases the person from all bondage to live according to the Holy Spirit of God (8:1-39).
The third doctrinal section (chaps. 9-11) focuses on the implications of this gospel message for the Jews, the people of Israel. Although noting that Israel is the inheritor of God’s promise (as outlined in the Old Testament), Paul argues that since God is sovereign, God may determine who will inherit the promise, and even include the Gentiles (9:1-29), previously thought to have been left out. Paul then describes how in its history Israel did not submit to God’s righteousness (9:30-10:21). Yet, this did not cause God to reject Israel (11:1). Rather, Israel’s hardening against God will be followed by its salvation (11:25-27). God is stubbornly loving!
The last section (chaps. 12-16) is filled with exhortation and encouragement. A host of topics are covered, such as: being united in Christ (12:3-8), responding in love (12:9-21), obeying authority (13:1-7), and preparing for the time of salvation with proper behavior (13:11-14). Paul also points to the need for welcoming “anyone who is weak in faith” and being careful not to put a stumbling block in these weaker believers’ way (chaps. 14-15). Before the final prayer of praise (16:25-27), Paul tells of his plans to visit Rome on his way to Spain (15:22-33) and sends a plethora of greetings their way (16:1-24).