Why Did Paul Write Romans?

Here is a technical piece a wrote a bit ago.

Why Did Paul Write Romans?

For many, Romans represents the plan of salvation in such as way that they rely heavily on the book for reaching unbelievers in the world. Growing up, I remember hearing my mother sharing with non-believers what she referred to as “The Romans Road”. On the site GotQuestions.org, The Romans Road is described as “explaining the good news of salvation using verses from the Book of Romans. It is a simple yet powerful method of explaining why we need salvation, how God provided salvation, how we can receive salvation, and what are the results of salvation.” (GotQuestions, 2007) When I began the study of this amazing Pauline letter, therefore, this was my focus; how to become better acquainted with the message of Romans so that I can more easily describe the power of salvation to those I encounter that do not know Christ. However, it became evident very quickly that, while salvation is an important aspect of this letter, there are many other factors involved.

Karl P. Donfried, editor of The Romans Debate, compiled several academic essays that assess “the impact on subsequent scholarly discussions and also to assist the student of Romans in understanding the neuralgic issues in the current analyses of this Pauline letter.” (Donfried, 1991, p. xi) These essays covered several key categories regarding the letter; to whom the letter was written, what issues were being addressed, and whether Chapter 16 was originally part of the letter. The book presents essays spanning several decades and pulled information from published works dating back to 1832. The arguments presented in these essays will be the basis of this analysis and ultimately the explanation of why Paul wrote the book of Romans. However, the debates revolving around the reason and intent for Chapter 16 will not be part of the analysis for this paper.

The first category of review will be to whom the letter was written. The obvious answer to this question would be the Roman Church. However, several essays argued against this view and provided alternative scenarios, including that Paul was writing to Jerusalem, was focused on his own benefit, or did so to record his last will and testament. Jacob Jervell, for example, argued that Romans was a letter written more for his own benefit as he was seeking support from the Roman Church, which was needed for his impending trip to Jerusalem. He continues by stating there were no concrete issues to address in Rome, especially since Paul had never been there to learn of daily interactions. (p. 54) He further strengthens this stance by showing that Paul was not asking the church for support for his planned trip to Spain. (p. 57) Instead, Jervell shows that the letter was primarily directed to Jerusalem and subsequently to the Roman church for assistance. (p. 56) In contrast to this view, T.W. Manson stated that the letter summed up Paul’s convictions. He argued that Romans is “an elaborate and detailed statement of faith offered by Paul as evidence on which the Roman church might give him a friendly reception and set him forward on his Spanish missionary enterprise.” (p. 14) He also shows that Romans, being the successful church for the time and region, would distribute this message on a wide scale, thus marking the letter as Paul’s manifesto. (p. 15) Gunther Bornkamm, who shared that the letter represents Paul’s last will and testament, presented a similar view. He goes on by saying that Romans doesn’t offer specific issues as other letters by Paul had, but that it provides new and universal meaning to the theology that Paul had been developing. (p. 25) Finally, Robert J. Karris offered data that suggests Romans has no specific reference within the Roman community, but rather is part of a letter to sum up Paul’s missionary theology and to exhort his readers. (p. 83-84) All of these essays provided compelling references and arguments.

However, I believe Romans was written to the Romans, who were experiencing conflict between the Jewish and Gentile Christians that comprised the church – thus establishing the reason for writing the letter. This view was developed in great detail by many writers, who took great care in addressing the arguments offered by opponents to this view. For example, Wolfgang Wiefel shows, by referencing many historical records outside of the Bible, that there is strong evidence supporting the view that conflict between Jews and Gentiles, regardless of their faith, had existed in Rome for centuries. This included two expulsions of the Jews from Rome and ongoing animosity once they were allowed to return. Christianity initially had a strong reliance on Jewish synagogues, which supports Wiefel’s stance, as the synagogues were the main venues that were used to propagate the Christian message. New problems arose when the Jewish Christians returned to Rome, after the expulsion edict was lifted. They found that their churches had changed from the practices they had always known, for the synagogue and the tainted message it represented was no longer used. Paul wrote to both Jew and Gentile Christians to address the resulting issues. Paul writes to these specific issues and the overall view of Jewish people in Rome, hoping to break the anti-Jewish cycle that existed in the area. (pp. 100-101) Karl P. Donfried, for his part, pulled heavily from Marxsen, who argued, “the theology of Romans – especially the constant interplay between “Jew” and “Gentile” – reflects a concrete historical problem in the church of Rome.” (pp.46-47) These arguments, as well as my review of Romans itself, convinced me that this was the purpose of the letter.

However, there are some real tensions with this view that need to be addressed, especially Romans 15:20/NIV, which states, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Many who argue that Romans was written universally or not for a specific Roman issue reference this verse, for it seems that if Paul were dealing specifically with the Romans, he would be in conflict with his own letter. Donfried asserts that, “Romans 15:20 must be understood as an apology as to why Paul has NOT YET been in Rome – his first responsibility was to preach Christ where he had not yet been preached.” (p. 45) Gunther Klein explained it by saying Romans 1:5, 11-15 and 15:15 seem to contradict the statement in 15:20 as Paul says he plans on preaching to the Romans and yet shares his principle of non-interference. Klein explains that the letter to Rome was a “demand of missionary politics” and a “basis of operation in his further work.” (pp.30-31) He goes on to say that Paul established the non-interference clause not for places where Christ had been preached, but where an apostolic foundation had been laid. Since no apostle had established his authority in Rome, Paul was not violating his clause. (pp.37-39) Therefore, the argument that Paul was writing to the Romans and the specific issues there seems credible despite this verse.

If we accept the argument that Romans being written for specific issues that existed, what does it mean for us today? Should we toss it aside as just another letter to issues that no longer affect us? I believe this is a dangerous stance to take, for the issues described in the letter can be at least symbolic for issues that exist today. Historically, Romans has had amazing effects on many recognizable names, including Martin Luther and James Wesley. J. David Hoke writes that Luther was struggling with his faith and the oppressive and impossible weight of being righteous, when he read Romans 1:17/NIV, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” He claims that this verse began Luther’s actions that formed the catalyst to launch the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. (Hoke, 1996) Hoke goes on to write, “Indeed, the entire book of Romans is an explanation of how this Gospel applies to every person. This Gospel is powerful because it has the ability to change our eternal destiny. It is powerful in that it has the capacity to impart the righteousness of God to us by faith. It is powerful in that it can produce a life worth living.” (Hoke, 1996) While many of Paul’s letters addressed specific issues to the recipients, as I believe Romans did, the themes and specifics continue to teach us today. Important concepts can help us in our walk with Christ, including God’s eternal plan, the work of the Holy Spirit, being delivered from the Law, the grace being offered through Christ, and the place of faith in our life. Rich Smith, in his study of Romans based on a study guide published by John MacArthur, says “In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul talks about how the Law convicts us and ultimately does not offer anything but condemnation. There is not a provision for grace in the Law, as seen in the Old Testament. There is a short-term solution for transgressions under the Law – it is called a sacrifice. In this section of Romans Paul tells us that Christians are no longer under the Law.” (Smith, 2007) This concept, while immediately appropriate for the Romans – especially to the Jewish Christians – still offers amazing worth to us today. It is important, therefore, to study the letter as well as understand why the letter was written in the first place. Therefore, I am grateful that Paul addressed the issues found in Rome so that I can be blessed today.

Donfried, K.P. (Ed.). (1991). The romans debate. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc..
GotQuestions, (2007). What is the romans road to salvation?. Retrieved July 20, 2007, from GotQuestions Web site: http://www.gotquestions.org/Romans-road-salvation.html
Hoke, J. David (1996, February 25). To the church an introduction to romans. Retrieved July 20, 2007, from To the Church An Introduction to Romans Web site: http://www.horizonsnet.org/sermons/rom1.html
Smith, Rich (2007, March 22). Romans 7:1-25 delivery from the law. Retrieved July 21, 2007, from Romans 7:1-25 RichSmith.cc Web site: http://www.richsmith.cc/node/183

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