A Summary of Paul's Epistle to the Romans

The Gospel of God”

A Summary of the Book of Romans

By Rev. Martyn McGeown

Romans 1:1-3:20

Paul desired to visit the Roman Christians, but he was hindered (1:10-13; 15:22-24). Desiring to impart a spiritual gift to them (1:11), he writes to them this marvellous epistle, which takes the form of a lengthy theological treatise. The epistle can be divided very roughly into two main sections—1:1-11:36 is the doctrinal section, which is followed by 12:1-16:27, the applicatory section.

The main theme of the book is found in chapter 1—the gospel of God, or of Christ (1:1, 15-16). The gospel of God is the good news, the evangel, or the glad tidings of what God has done in Jesus Christ. God has separated Paul unto that gospel (1:1), and his calling is to proclaim that gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike (1:14-15). That gospel concerns Jesus (1:3) whom Paul sets forth in the introduction.

The section 1:18-3:20 explains the absolute necessity of the gospel of Christ and why it is such a power of which Paul is not at all ashamed (1:16). In 1:18-32 Paul sets forth the total depravity of man, especially from the viewpoint of the wickedness of the Gentiles. He shows how the wicked suppress the truth of God in their idolatry, with the result that God in righteous judgment gives the world of the ungodly over to gross forms of moral perversion (“For this cause God gave them up” [1:26]).

In 2:1-16 Paul addresses the objections of the moralist, the one who does not live in the open wickedness described in chapter 1. (Paul addresses him especially with the words, “O man” [2:1, 3]). Such moralists seek to become judges of others in order to escape judgment. They seek some loophole in the law that they can exploit, and they despise God’s goodness—they know about it, but they do not value it. They have not tasted and seen that God is good. Instead, they abuse God’s goodness as an excuse to commit sin. The “better pagans” will perish without law, and those who, while having the law, break the law shall perish in the law (2:12). Paul’s point here is to show that there is no salvation in the law—there is no one of whom it can be said that he “continues patiently in well doing” (2:7) or that he “worketh good” (2:10) or that he is a “doer of the law” (2:13). Paul’s whole point in 1:18-3:20 is to show the absolute necessity of the gospel of Christ. For Paul to introduce the possibility of “works righteousness” here would be to mar his own argument. Therefore, the references to justification by the works of the law in chapter 2 are hypothetical—if someone did keep the law perfectly, he would be justified. However, no such person exists. The law, therefore, only serves to condemn the sinner who seeks salvation in imperfectly keeping it: “Thou art inexcusable” (2:1); “Thinkest thou … that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” (2:3); “Indignation, and wrath, tribulation, and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil” (2:8b-9); “For as many as have sinned … shall also perish; … as many as have sinned … shall be judged” (2:12).

In 2:17 Paul moves from the moralist in general to the Jewish moralist in particular: “Behold thou art called a Jew …” (2:17). The Jew boasts in the law, that is, he boasts that he has the law, and that God has given him the law, which is a great privilege, but only if the Jew keeps it! The Jew is no better than the lawless Gentile (who walks in darkness without the law) if he does not obey the law. Paul accuses the Jew of breaking the law. (“Dost thou steal? … Dost thou commit adultery?” [2:21-22]). From the law in general, Paul moves to circumcision in particular: “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law” (2:25). For the Jew who does not keep the law, circumcision (in which he foolishly boasts) is worthless. In fact, one who is a circumcised Jew only outwardly (but not in the heart) is not a Jew at all! (2:28-29). Indeed, it would be better to be a believing Gentile, uncircumcised in the flesh but circumcised in the heart, than to be merely a fleshly Jew who boasts in the law that he does not and cannot keep! (2:25-29).

In 3:1-20 Paul concludes his devastating indictment of total depravity upon mankind. First, in 3:1-8 he answers the objection: if the law does not justify, and if having the law/being circumcised does not save the Jew, is there no advantage to being a Jew? Paul insists that having the oracles of God is a great advantage (3:2). Moreover, the unfaithfulness of the Jews does not mean that God is unfaithful to His promises. “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (3:4) is an abiding principle. We are never justified in our unrighteousness/lies, and God remains the perfectly righteous judge (3:3-8). In 3:9-20 Paul proves from several Old Testament passages that mankind is totally depraved (“There is none that doeth good, no, not one” [3:12]), with the result that “every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (3:19). This devastating verdict rules out all possibility of justification by the law, and prepares us for the good news of 3:21, “But now …”

Romans 3:21-5:21

The words “but now” (3:21) are critical, especially against the background of 1:18-3:20. In 1:17 Paul declared about the gospel that “therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” 1:18-3:20 can be seen as an “interruption” to the thought expressed in 1:17, which is now picked up again in 3:21. As a concept, the “righteousness of God” could mean various things—it could mean God’s attribute of righteousness by which He punishes sin. (Luther’s misunderstanding of the concept drove him to despair). However, that cannot be the meaning because of the context. The “righteousness” of 3:21 (and of 1:17) is given to believers—notice that it is “unto all and upon all them that believe” (3:22); that it is “manifested” (indicating that until now it had been hidden or obscured); and that it was “witnessed by the law and the prophets (The Old Testament prophesied of this righteousness). The righteousness of God, therefore, is a perfect legal standing before God by which the believer is declared to be in full harmony with and in perfect conformity with the standard of God as it is revealed in God’s Law. That righteousness is “of God”—it belongs to God, and, crucially, it comes from God. Thus, Luther was correct when he called it “an alien righteousness.” (It is not a righteousness worked by the sinner, nor is it a righteousness worked in the sinner, but it is a righteousness external to the sinner and given to the sinner, to the believing sinner).

This is the grand doctrine of justification, which is God’s legal declaration as judge by which He declares His people righteous. Paul explains it further—we are justified “freely by His grace” (3:24); justification is grounded in the cross of Christ (3:25); and in this way, God is both “just” and the “justifier” of believers (3:26). Paul conclusion is that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28). The importance of the doctrine is that (1) it excludes boasting (3:27) and (2) it is the way in which both Jews and Gentiles are saved (3:29-31).

Paul then proves that justification is not a novel doctrine by appealing to the testimony of two outstanding Old Testament saints, Abraham and David. Abraham was not justified by works. Otherwise, he could have boasted before God (4:1-2). To prove this, Paul appeals to Genesis 15:6, “And Abraham believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” The word “for” (Greek: eis) does not mean “instead of,” as if God accepted faith in the place of righteousness. Instead, the word means, “with a view to,” that is, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him with a view to the righteousness which was to come in the coming Messiah.” Abraham’s faith, therefore, was in the promise of God to send the Messiah, who would be his (Abraham’s) seed. David was justified in the same way, in that God did not impute sin to David. The Psalmist describes this as “the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (4:6). God imputes righteousness without works through faith regardless of circumcision. Indeed, God imputed righteousness to Abraham before he was circumcised (4:9-10).

Very much as he does in Galatians 3, Paul argues that all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, are recipients of the same promise (4:12-16). In fact, Paul argues that the promise is not for, and was never meant for, the unbelieving Jews (4:14—“if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect”). God has made salvation “of faith” so that “the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law (i.e., to the Jews); but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham (i.e., to the Gentiles); who is the father of us all” (4:16). Paul illustrates the faith of Abraham from his life (4:17-22), ending with an encouragement to all believers (“to whom it [righteousness] shall be imputed, if we believe” [4:24]).

Chapter 5 does not introduce a new subject, for Paul is still expounding the doctrine of justification. In 5:1-11 Paul explains some of the benefits that flow from justification, chief among which is “peace with God” (5:1-5). He then explains the role of Christ’s work of atonement (5:6-11), which is a display of God’s love (5:8), our justification and deliverance from God’s wrath (5:9), and our reconciliation to God (5:10-11).

In 5:12-21 Paul expounds the famous doctrine of original sin, and especially, original guilt. The connection to the preceding is this: God justifies us on the basis of what another, namely Christ, has done (5:9-11), but this must not strike us as unusual. God has always dealt with mankind this way—He condemned the human race on the basis of what Adam did. In 5:12-21, therefore, Paul compares two heads or two legal representatives. The key words in 5:12-21 are “one,” “many” and “all.” One, Adam, represents the whole of mankind, while another one, Jesus Christ, represents the whole body of the elect. What Adam did affects all of mankind—death comes upon them (5:12); they are condemned (5:16); and they are made sinners (5:19). What Jesus Christ did affects all of the elect—they receive the grace of God (5:15); they are justified (5:16, 18); they live (5:17); and they are made (or, constituted) righteous (5:19). There is, therefore, an important parallel between Adam, in whom mankind is condemned, and Christ, in whom the elect are justified.

Moreover, the grace of God in Jesus Christ exceeds that which was lost through the fall of Adam into sin. “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20-21).

Romans 6

Contrary to popular belief, Romans 6 is not about water baptism or about the mode of water baptism. Chapter 6 is about union with Christ, and therefore about sanctification. In 5:20 Paul said, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Now Paul anticipates an objection—“shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1). The motive seems to be good (“that grace may abound”), but the conclusion is evil (“shall we continue in sin”). The response is sharp and decisive—“God forbid!” (6:2). To the idea that the Christian could continue in sin the apostle responds with abhorrence—“God forbid! May it never be!”

The reason why the Christian may not—indeed, cannot—continue in sin is that “we are dead to sin” (6:2). There are different “relationships” to sin—the unbeliever is “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1), but the believer is “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:2). The adjective “dead” describes a state or condition of being—someone is dead because he/she died. The adjective (Greek: nekros) is used in verse 11, for example: “reckon ye also yourselves also to be dead indeed unto sin.” The verbal phrase “is dead” is better translated in many passages of the New Testament as “has died,” and it describes an action in the past—“How shall we who died to sin live any longer therein?” (6:2); “he that died is freed from sin” (6:7); “now if we have died with Christ” (6:9). In other words, we died to sin (in the past) with the result that we are dead to sin (in the present).

To have died to sin, and thus to be dead to sin, means that we are no longer under the guilt of sin (sin cannot condemn us), and (more importantly) we are no longer under the power or dominion of sin (sin cannot rule over us or in us). We see that in the exhortations that flow from this truth—“Let no sin therefore reign in your mortal body” (6:12); “sin shall not have dominion over you” (6:14). We see that also in the discussion of servanthood (slavery) in 6:16-23. The issue is slavery/bondage to sin vs. freedom/emancipation from sin.

Paul then explains how we died to sin. The answer is that we died to sin through union with Christ, which is the theme of the chapter—“into Jesus Christ” (6:3), “with him” (6:4), “together” (6:5), “with him” (6:6), “with Christ … with him” (6:8). This theme is developed in many other passages (Gal. 2:20; 3:27; Eph. 1:3-4, 6-7, 11, 13; 2:5-7, 10; Col. 2:10-13). The union we have with Christ is a legal union and a spiritual union. What happened to Christ happened to us: we died with Him; we were crucified with Him; we were buried with Him; and we are resurrected with Him.

This union, which brought about our death to sin in Him, occurred in baptism. However, the meaning is not water baptism. “[We] were baptized into his death” (6:3); “we are buried [have been buried] with him by baptism into death” (6:4); “we have been planted together in the likeness of his death” (6:5); “our old man is [has been] crucified with him “ (6:6). In other words, when Jesus died, we died, and our old sinful nature was put to death so that it can no longer dominate us. When Jesus rose again, we rose again, and we have the power and the obligation to “walk in newness of life” (6:4).

Why, then, does Paul refer to baptism? Is it to point to the mode—that is, is it proof that baptism should be by immersion? (As Jesus was buried, so we are buried under the water. As Jesus rose, so we emerge from the water). That is not the idea—the mode of baptism is immaterial to Paul’s argument. (How does immersion as a mode depict being “planted together,” [6:5] or “putting on Christ” [Gal. 3:27], for example?). The issue is not immersion; it is identification and union. The reason Paul refers to baptism is that water baptism should remind the Romans of this truth. Water baptism is a sign (a visible representation) and a seal (a confirmation and an assurance) of the reality. It is not itself the reality. Not all who are baptised with water (whether by sprinkling, pouring, dipping, or full immersion) are united to Christ.

Given all the benefits that accrue to us through our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (we are dead [have died] to sin; and our old man is crucified with Him), it is impossible for the believer to live any longer in sin. How could you “live in” something to which you have died, or to which you are now dead? To live in sin as a believer is to deny the truth of the Gospel.

Therefore, Paul applies the truth in 6:11-23. The implications are as follows: “reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin” (6:11) “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body (6:12); “neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin” (6:13); “sin shall not have dominion over you” (6:14). Those exhortations are largely negative—do not do these things! But there are positive implications too: “reckon ye also yourselves to be…alive unto God” (6:11); “yield yourselves unto God” (6:13); “ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (6:17); “ye became the servants of righteousness” (6:18); “yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (6:19); “now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (6:22). We are free to serve God. What a great privilege is ours!

What a rich chapter of the Word of God!

Live in sin that grace may abound! God forbid! Unthinkable! Impossible!

Romans 7

Chapter 7 is a further illustration and explanation of the truths of chapter 6.

Death changes relationships. That is the truth explained in 7:1-4. Death brings marriage to an end, and death brings our relationship to the law to an end. In a sense, we were “married” to the law. It was an unhappy marriage in which our “husband” (the law) held us in slavery, threatened us, and cursed us. We died to the law so that we could marry another Husband, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ (7:1-4). That happened “by the body of Christ” (7:4), that is, by the offering of the body of Christ unto death on the cross. This is similar to the teaching of chapter 6—“buried with him by baptism” (6:4); “planted together in the likeness of his death” (6:5); “crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed” (6:6). The purpose of our “re-marriage" (after our death to our first husband, the law) is the same as the purpose of our baptism into [Christ’s] death—“that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (7:4); “that we should serve in newness of spirit” (7:6).

This, then, leads to a question about the law—if our “marriage” to the law was so unhappy, does that mean that the law is “sin” (7:7)? Is the law, perhaps, to blame for our sinfulness? Paul repudiates that notion—“God forbid” (7:7). Two things are clear in the rest of the chapter: the law is good, and the sinner is guilty. Notice the many positive qualities of the law: “the commandment [was] ordained to life” (7:10); “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (7:12); “the law is spiritual” (7:14); “I delight in the law of God” (7:22); and “I myself serve the law of God” (7:25). Emphatically, Paul does not speak evil of the law.

When the holy law of God came into contact with a sinner, Paul, the result was death. That is, as Paul is at pains to point out, not the fault of the law, but is the fault of the sinner. Paul makes it very personal—from 7:7-7:25 he uses the personal pronoun, “I.” It was through the law that Paul knew sin (7:7), specifically, the Tenth Commandment revealed to Paul his lust (7:7). Sin, which acted like a power in Paul, “[took] occasion by the commandment [and] wrought in [Paul] all manner of concupiscence [lust]” (7:8). The law acted on Paul in such a way that it provoked him and stirred him up to greater expressions of sin. When the law said, “Thou shalt,” Paul did not. When the law said, “Thou shalt not,” Paul did. That was not the law’s fault—it was Paul’s fault. “Sin,” said Paul, “work[ed] death in me by that which is good (i.e., by the law), that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (7:13).

Paul then goes on to explain the struggle that he, a regenerate man, experiences in his own life. We know that Paul writes as a regenerate man because (1) he employs the present tense (“I am;” not, “I was”), and (2) he uses language that could only refer to a regenerate man: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (7:22); “with the mind I myself serve the law of God” (7:25). (Arminianism errs here, appealing to Romans 7 as proof that the natural man has good desires, and, therefore, “freewill.” Other passages, such as Romans 8:5-8, make such an interpretation impossible).

The struggle in Paul (and, therefore, in every believer) is between the inward man (7:22) and the flesh (7:25), or, as other passages explain it, between the flesh and the Spirit (Gal. 5:17), or the old man and the new man (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:5-10).

Paul makes some very strong statements: he is “carnal, sold under sin” (7:14); “sin dwelleth” in him (7:17, 20); in him (that is, in his flesh) “dwelleth no good thing” (7:18); “evil is present” with him (7:21); another law in his members “[is] warring [waging war] against the law of [his] mind, and bringing [him] into captivity to the law of sin which is in [his] members” (7:23). In short, Paul is in “the body of this death,” from which he longs for deliverance” (7:24).

At the same time, Paul speaks as a regenerate man: he hates to do evil, and he desires to do good (7:15, 19), but he cannot find the power: “to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not” (7:18). “I would do good,” says Paul, “but evil is present with me” (7:21). Paul even “delights in the law of God after the inward man” (7:22) and with the mind [he serves] the law of God” (7:25). That is the real, spiritual struggle in the heart of every child of God, a struggle about which the unbeliever knows nothing.

Paul ends the chapter with an anguished cry, but not with a cry of despair, but with a cry of hope, and even of triumph: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25a).

Romans 8

Chapter 8 begins with the victory cry: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). No condemnation! Justified, redeemed, forgiven, all because we are “in Christ Jesus”! What does one who is “in Christ Jesus” look like? He “walk(s) not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (8:1b, 4).

Having set forth that beautiful truth in verse 1, Paul explains how this wonderful situation has come about. The law did not accomplish this, because the law “was weak through the flesh”—it is because of the weakness of our flesh (i.e., our sin) that the law (which is “holy, just, and good” [7:12]) is called “the law of sin and death” (8:2). The law can only curse and condemn the disobedient sinner. The gospel, on the other hand, is called “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2), which has set the believer free. God accomplished in the gospel what the law was powerless to do in two great wonders, the Incarnation of His Son and the atonement of the cross. God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). Notice the careful wording—Christ did not have the “likeness of flesh” (that would be to deny His true humanity); Christ did not have “sinful flesh” (that would be to deny His sinless perfection); but Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Paul expresses the atonement of the cross in these words: “[God] condemned sin in the flesh,” that is, God condemned sin in the flesh (the human nature) of His Son.

Paul then contrasts the flesh and the Spirit, and by “flesh” he means the weak, sinful nature of man. The carnal (fleshly) mind is “death” (8:6), “enmity against God” (8:7), and unable to please God (8:8). The spiritual mind is “life and peace” (8:6). He makes application to his readers—“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (8:9). There follow warnings against carnality (8:9, 12-13), and promises for the spiritual (8:13). The spiritual characteristics of God’s adopted children are set forth in 8:14-17, where the apostle’s aim and purpose is to assure God’s children of their adoption.

Because God’s children suffer affliction in this life, the rest of the chapter is designed to comfort believers, and to encourage them to be patient. Suffering for Christ precedes glory with Christ (8:17). The glory to come is incomparably great (8:18). Even the creation itself joins in eager anticipation of the glory that shall follow—if the creation groans in hope, how much more shall not we patiently wait for the promised glory (8:19-25)? Besides, the Spirit within us helps us to pray, and God answers those prayers according to His will, while we know that all things work together for our good, for us who are the called according to His purpose (8:26-28).

To be continued …