One of the best things I got out of my seminary experience with Grand Rapids Theological Seminary was a class I took in the spring of 2013 on the book of Romans with Dr. Gombis. It was great to read several commentaries on this book as well as hear his lectures. That February I had decided to start teaching from the book in Sunday School. I taught two or three chapters over an eight-week session. I did this twice a year for a total of six sessions which I completed last Sunday. It was a great experience for me; I trust that the students felt the same way.
One of the best assignments we had to do in my seminary class three years ago was to summarize Paul’s arguments for the entire book. These are my own words. I used these in my introductions each Sunday when I taught it myself. I thought they might be helpful to others.
Paul begins with an introduction to himself, as a “bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” He then greets his readers with a wish of grace and peace; he explains how he has prayed for them, and has planned and is planning to see them. As an apostle called to preach to the Gentiles, he declares his obligation and eagerness to preach in Rome. Why is he eager? Because he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” Why is he so confident? Because by its very nature it is “the power of God for salvation” to all who believe, to both Jews and Greeks. Why is it powerful? God’s righteousness is revealed by faith (or out of His faithfulness), which leads to the faithfulness of those who believe. Paul then shows how the world, specifically the Gentile world, has rejected God’s rightness and has exchanged it for increasing wrongness. Despite God revealing His nature through creation, which all can plainly see, man continually decided to not give God his rightful place or be thankful. As a result of man’s idolatry, God gave them the logical consequences of this attitude, and they became more and more impure in actions and mind. Eventually, sin knew no bounds, in terms of man’s depravity and wickedness, toward God and one another.
After Paul’s presentation on the lostness of the Gentile world, he shifts his focus to his Jewish readers, stating in 2:1 that they are also without excuse. He uses a literary device called a “diatribe” in 2:1-5 to bring home to his readers that God is an impartial judge who will judge Jews and Gentiles alike according to their works. Paul begins another diatribe in verse 2:17, where he specifically addresses the Jew and demonstrates in numerous ways that the law and ethnic pride they are quick to boast about actually condemns them. Paul lists five unique aspects of their Jewish identity and provides another list of five special roles they were called to fulfill. Then he asks five pointed rhetorical questions to show that they have clearly failed. Even circumcision, which set them apart and was a clear source of Jewish pride, is by itself useless if they fail to keep the Law.
Paul asks a few more rhetorical questions, starting in 3:1, “Are there are any advantages in being a Jew?” Yes, he states, they were given God’s Word. He asks another one in verse 9, “Are we (Jews) better than they (Gentiles)?” The answer if a firm, “Not at all . . . Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” Paul then hammers his readers with a series of condemning judgments from that same Word that was given to show that all of us fall short in being a doer of the law. He concludes this section in verse 20 by stating that no one will be justified by keeping the Law; the Law’s purpose is to show us where we fall short. He is preparing his readers for a better way to find justification, through the gospel, by grace through faith. Paul uses the word “But” to contrast what he has just said about the law in the previous section. Now, totally separate from this law, God’s righteousness, through faith in Jesus Christ, has been made known to all who believe, Jew and Gentile alike, since both have fallen short. Paul emphasizes that justification (being declared righteous) and redemption (being bought back) are gifts of God’s grace through faith in the sacrificial atoning death of Jesus Christ where God demonstrated that he is both just and the one who justifies by taking care of the sin problem. In order to level the playing field between Jew and Gentile, Paul asks, rhetorically, “Where then is boasting?” There is none, because if justification comes through faith and not by works, all have equal access. Paul addresses the logical conclusion, then, in the mind of the Jew, which would naturally be, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith?” Of course not, he replies. God’s grace is in no way contrary to God’s law, as he will show by masterfully bringing Abraham into view.
In chapter 4, Paul clearly presents the fact that God had justified Abraham on the basis of his faith. His purpose is to build on his doctrinal foundation that he laid at the end of chapter three of justification by grace through faith and not by works. Perhaps just as important, he wants to show that Jew and Gentile are equal, not only in their sinfulness, but also in their identification with Abraham, who is the father of both Jews and Gentile believers. Paul focuses on Genesis 15:6, where it says that Abraham’s faith in God resulted in God crediting him with righteousness, i.e., justification by faith alone. Paul reminds his audience, who knew the story well, that Abraham’s justification in Genesis 15 predated his circumcision in Genesis 17. The fact that he was justified without (prior to) circumcision, means that the Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus Christ without circumcision can rightfully identify with Abraham. Paul then emphasized the kind of faith that caused God to give credit. The faith that Abraham had was in the God who could “give life to the dead”, meaning that he totally trusted in God’s promise to bring descendants through him and Sarah, even though physically he was a good as dead. In the same manner, faith in the God who miraculously fulfilled his promises to Abraham and has also raised Jesus Christ from the dead will result in being credited as righteous before God.
Paul starts by using the word “Therefore” to tie in to what he had just said about justification. In the first part, he will discuss the benefits of justification, things that are true both “already” and “not yet”. The first result of this justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is reconciliation, meaning peace with God. Paul has downplayed boasting several times earlier (1:30, 2:17, 23, 3:27, 4:2), but now presents a few good reasons to boast (exult or rejoice). The first thing mentioned is that we can boast “in hope of the glory of God.” This calls to mind the eternal hope that all believers anticipate. Paul brings it a little closer to home and states boldly that our new status as the justified-reconciled-faithful should cause us to rejoice in our trials and tribulations here and now. This is based on a logical sequence that Paul lays out, where trials lead to perseverance, and then to character, and then ultimately to the hope of eternal life. All of this is based on God’s love and is manifest in God pouring out his Holy Spirit in our hearts, reminiscent of what the prophets had spoken of in Isa. 32:15, Eze. 36:26-27, and Joel 2:28-29. (Paul mentions the Holy Spirit for the first time here, but will provide much more on his critical role in sanctification in coming chapters.) Paul continues with his theme, by reminding his readers that God proved his love through Christ dying for us when we were sinners. So, he continues, not only have we been given justification, reconciliation, and atonement (“already”), we will be given salvation from God’s wrath through Christ (“not yet.”) All these benefits should cause us to boast in God through Jesus Christ. Paul begins a new division in verse 12 with another “Therefore”. He will highlight one more major Old Testament character, like he did with Abraham in the previous chapter. This time he will make a rather complex set of comparisons between Adam and Jesus. In so doing, Paul lays a basic foundation of what God did for us through Jesus’ death. The sin of Adam (one man) brought about death, the power of sin, and condemnation for all; the obedience of Jesus Christ (one man) brings eternal life, the power of righteousness, and justification to all who believe. Paul concludes by mentioning that the Law was provided to show us how much we sin so that God would show us his abundant grace through Jesus Christ.
As a result of what he said at the end of chapter 5 about grace increasing due to sin’s increase after the Law had come, Paul addresses two objections his readers may have been thinking. He asks rhetorically in verse 1, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” His dramatic answer, which he already used a few times in chapter 3 (vv. 4, 6, and 31), is “May it never be!” (NASB), translated in other versions as “God forbid” (KJV), “By no means!” (NIV), and “Of course not!” (NLT). Paul then reminds his readers that all believers who were baptized into Christ (by faith and through the ritual of baptism) were symbolically baptized into (immersed in and identified with) His death. He provides a brief theology of baptism: by being identified with Jesus’ crucifixion and death which resulted in our death to sin’s power, we are also identified with his resurrection which gives us power to live a holy life, now (already) and at the final resurrection (not yet). In verse 11, he exhorts his readers to deliberately consider this important truth of being dead to sin so that we can live for God. In light of this new identity in Christ (in contrast to being in Adam) we are to not let sin exert its influence on us internally. Practically speaking, this means we are to stop using our various body parts (hands, feet, tongue, etc.) as “weapons” of unrighteousness, but to present all of ourselves to God as a weapon of righteousness. He concludes this section by stating that sin will “not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” At this point, Paul begins the second part of this chapter, addressing another objection that his readers may be wondering about. They might conclude that it is okay to sin since they are not under the law; however, his response is as firm as it was in verse 2, “May it never be!” He reminds them of another fact that he knows they know, discussing what it means to be a slave and tying it in with what has already happened to every believer by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. One is either a slave to sin which results in death or to obedience which results in righteousness. In Adam, we all were a slave to sin; through faith in Christ, we were set free from sin to become a slave of righteousness. His point is that no one is truly free; we are either a slave to sin or to God. He exhorts believers to choose the right way, God’s way, which will lead to sanctification, meaning becoming holy (inside and out), and will ultimately lead to eternal life. He concludes this chapter with a clear contrast between what we earn by continuing to live in Adam (death) versus what we are freely given in Christ (eternal life; already and not yet).
Paul is about to remind his readers of a key truth to help them better understand what he said at the end of chapter 6 regarding believers being set free from sin to become a slave to God (v. 22). He will explain to Jews who understand “the Law” and also to Gentiles who understand “law” in general terms a simple idea that the way laws apply are directly impacted by death. Paul will compare what is true of a person’s freedom under marriage laws with what is true of a believer’s status in being set free from the Law. While married, a woman is under obligation to her husband; his death gives her freedom to marry another. And so, Paul says, in the same way, when believers are identified with Christ’s death (as illustrated by baptism), they are set free from the obligations they previously had under the Law, for the purpose of being joined to the resurrected Lord. Why is this so important? Because when we were “in the flesh” (in Adam), our sinful desires, which the Law clearly pointed out were inherently sinful, produced nothing but death. In contrast, believers have been released from the Law so that they could truly obey and serve God with their hearts in the “newness of the Spirit”, not merely on the outside. In verse 7, Paul addresses his readers’ anticipated objection and misunderstanding that the Law itself is sinful. He rhetorically asks, “Is it”? His answer: “May it never be!” He uses the first person here to describe his own experiences and to identify with all humanity under Adam. The Law had value in that it pointed out our sinfulness. Sin, as a powerful force with a life all its own, used the purpose of the Law and twisted it to increase human desire to disobey those laws. As a result, sin deceived us and killed us. So, it is the law, Paul concludes, that is holy, and right, and good, even though sin caused death through and in spite of it. At verse 14, Paul will demonstrate the powerlessness of the Law by itself to counteract the power of sin in a believer’s life, his own included. Like all other members of the human race in Adam, he will always struggle with the power of sin. Even though all those in Christ have indeed been set free from sin, as clearly described in chapter 6, verses 4-11, 17-18, and 22, his physical body is still affected, as long as he remains in this body. He states, in very personal terms, the inner conflicts that all who believe in Christ experience. We don’t know what we are doing, or why we do it. We don’t do the things we know we should do. We do the things we know we should not do. This serves to display the value of the Law, in showing our true human (in Adam) nature. Sin still is very much present in the believer’s life. Apart from the work of Christ within, there is really nothing good in our hearts. Despite the radical and irreversible change in our true identity in Christ and inner desires to obey God, we will always see the flesh popping out. Paul is disgusted with this conflicted condition, as are all of us who are in Christ. He asks, “Who will rescue me from this?” The answer is Jesus! In the next chapter, we will see God’s powerful solution – His Holy Spirit.
As a result of the truths he has been carefully explaining up till now, Paul can confidently state that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Why is this true? Because in Christ (as opposed to in Adam), we have been set free from the law of sin resulting in death (physical and spiritual separation from God). The Law, Paul notes, was good, but was limited and weak; it could never by itself transform our fleshly nature or fully meet God’s requirements. However, as a result of the atoning death of Christ, God freely provided justification to all who believe. As a result of this change of status, there is a corresponding change of orientation and behavior in all who have been justified. In Adam, we naturally concerned ourselves with fleshly things (which led to death); in Christ, we are to supernaturally concern ourselves with the things of the Holy Spirit (which leads to life and peace). Those who by faith are identified with Christ, Paul says, are not merely “in the flesh”, but are “in the Spirit,” or rather are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit, as described by Jesus in John’s gospel (14:16-17). Since the Spirit lives within every believer to comfort, lead, and empower, He will give Jesus’ followers an abundant “resurrection” life. This enables us to live out our obligation to “put to death the deeds of the body”. Paul states that this radical, new, irreversible change of identity is also indicative of being an adopted child of God. As God’s children, we are heirs, also; fellow heirs with Christ. This identification with Christ brings not only blessing, but suffering. Even so, Paul concludes, it is worth it in the end. For at the resurrection, when all things culminate, God’s glory will be revealed to His people and to His creation. This should give us hope, perseverance, and patience. Along the way, the Holy Spirit will help us to pray, by interceding for us according to God’s will. Even better than this, Paul highlights, is that God will continue to cause all things, both good and bad, to work out for the ultimate good of all who He calls, for His glory. In fact, because He chose each one of us who believe in Him long before we even knew it, He will ensure that we are transformed into Christlikeness at the end. As Paul approaches the dramatic conclusion of this chapter, he again asks a series of rhetorical questions. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Based on what He has already done through Christ on our behalf, the obvious answer is, “No one!” “Is there anyone who can bring up charges?” Again, the response is, “No one!” The believer has been justified. “Who is the one who condemns?” Same answer. Finally, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The implication is that nothing can, as he lists seven things, such as tribulation, persecution, peril, and the like, most of which he had personally experienced, to illustrate. He concludes that God’s love makes it possible to “overwhelmingly conquer” all of them. He leaves us with this amazing truth, that nothing in heaven or earth can possibly separate any believer from God’s love in Christ.