The apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is, perhaps, the complete literary work on the gospel ever written. In fact, English theologian, philosopher, and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge once referred to Romans as “the most profound work in existence” — not only among the Pauline letters or the New Testament canon, but also among literature as a whole. “I hardly believe,” he continues, “that the writings fo the old Stoics, now lost, could have been deeper.”1 The historical significance of Romans is so vast one would be hard-pressed to rightly gauge the extent of its impact. The echo of Romans has, perhaps, reverberated the loudest during the period of the Protestant Reformation, with the fearless reformer himself, Martin Luther, commenting:
The Epistle [to the Romans] is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.2
What makes Romans precious, therefore, is not merely its doctrinal eloquence on the most divine points of the gospel but also its practical expression of that selfsame gospel. Encapsulating varying literary forms and styles throughout, Paul speaks to the heart, head, and hands of the Roman Christians. In so doing, he articulates what fills the church’s voice in worship, as well as animates the church’s vocation in the world. The apostle’s determination, then, was to “set out his understanding of the good news of Christ so fully, including its practical implications,” writes J. D. G. Dunn.3 This he did in order to affirmatively “indicate to others,” he continues, “clearly what was the gospel he preached, why as a Jew he preached it, and how it should come to expression in daily life and community.”4 One is, perhaps, nowhere more confronted with the animating presence of the gospel in the life of the church than in the recognition of the unfettered fellowship it generates.
Paul’s argument in the first three chapters of Romans is the absence of advantage one has over another when it comes to the faith that justifies. “What advantage does the Jew have?” Paul asks, further inquiring, “Are we any better off? Not at all! For we have already charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin.” (Rom 3:1, 9) Notwithstanding one’s race, nationality, background, creed, etc., “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) There is no distinction or parsing of the tragedy of man’s rebellion. Sin’s blame and condemnation is the burden everyone must bear. “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded,” Paul concludes. (Rom 3:27) The mantle of self-righteous swagger and superiority is obliterated by the divine edict that shuts every mouth and subjects every man to God’s judgment. (Rom 3:19)
In an answer to the dearth of righteousness mankind is able to offer in response to the law, “the righteousness of God has been revealed . . . through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Rom 3:21–22) The gospel of God satisfies every shortfall as a result of sin, stirring the people of God to savor the God-given remedy for their criminal condition. Nothing arouses or aligns a church more than a corporate acknowledgment of the same need and the same Savior who more than meets that need. Nothing enraptures a church in worship more than news of the righteousness of God freely bestowed on “everyone who believes.” (Rom 1:16–17) Such is what Paul proclaims in the good news that Christ died and rose again as the “atoning sacrifice” for all the “sins previously committed.” (Rom 3:25–26; 4:23–25; 5:1—6:23) This pronouncement of inseparable love serves to occasion manifold comfort, confidence, and camaraderie in God’s church.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, arranged and edited by T. Ashe (London: George Bell & Sons, 1888), 228.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1954), xiii.
J. D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Romans,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 840.