The greatest Christian leaders for the last two thousand years have maintained that Romans is the most important theological book ever written.
Augustine said that in Romans, “all the shadows of [his] doubt were dispelled.” John Calvin spoke of Romans as his “entrance … to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” Martin Luther said it was “the most important piece of the New Testament” and that it was “impossible to read, study, ponder, or meditate on it too much.” He called its central premise, justification by faith alone, “the doctrine on which the church rises or falls.”
In Romans, the Apostle Paul works through the most important and pressing questions ever considered by the human race with scrupulous logic, showing us that the gospel is the only answer to our questions and the only real solution to our problems.
His logic is so meticulous that for the first century of Harvard Law School, first-year students were required to work their way through Romans because of the careful way in which Paul builds his argument.
He starts with things most of us have observed and then explains why the gospel is the best explanation for them, along the way anticipating objections and answering them sometimes before we have a chance to raise them.
Paul’s central subject in Romans is the gospel. He tells us that in the first chapter and explains in the next passage why he is going to spend a whole book talking about it. He spends 16 chapters showing us that the gospel is all we need to live the life God has for us. It is the power to transform us into who God wants us to be. It is the hope of the whole world.
In chapter 1, Paul explains what a mess we were and why, if we are to be saved, only God could do it. Chapter 2 then unpacks why religion can’t save us, because it neither removes the stain of our sin nor repairs sin’s damage to our hearts.
We have to conclude with Paul in chapter 3 that “… ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away …” (Romans 3:10–12 NIV).
Yet there is good news for us: gift righteousness, through redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as an atoning sacrifice in his blood through faith in his name, so that God could be simultaneously righteous and the One who declares righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.
Where does that leave our boasting? It is excluded. And with it the pride that makes us feel superior to one another, resulting in division.
For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. It is the one who does not work, chapter 4 tells us, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, whose faith is counted as righteousness.
Romans 5 and 6 are our glorious reminder that since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ—and that his life in us now gives us victory over sin because, though the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord. We must, therefore, reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.
Romans 7 describes our ongoing battle with the flesh and sin. With Paul, we despair that though our minds know what we ought to do, our flesh just can’t do it. We lament with Paul that there is nothing good in our flesh and cry out with him, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” But, with Paul, we answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25 CSB)
And when we receive him, we celebrate with him in Romans 8—the greatest chapter in the Bible—that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus; that God’s plans for us are only and always good; that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose; that those whom he foreknew, he predestined, those he predestined, he called, those he called, he justified, and those he justified, he will glorify.
The confidence we have in salvation is the confidence we carry in life: If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare his own Son but offered him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
For Paul, “persecution” would mean being beheaded in Rome. Yet, still, he could say that in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Romans 9, 10, and 11 show us that we can trust that God will keep these promises to us because he kept all his promises to Israel. These chapters present a God eager to save, a God who works mysteriously yet mercifully, a God whose ways lead us to conclude: “Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
Romans 12 is the hinge of the entire book, showing us that those who believe the gospel must inevitably become like the gospel. Those who have been greatly loved become people of great love.
Chapter 13 explains how our hope in God’s eternal kingdom enables us to endure in this hostile one.
Chapter 14 expresses our motto as believers: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (v. 8).
Chapter 15 shows us that we each have a role to play in God’s kingdom, a sacred trust in carrying out his mission. Chapter 16 simply illustrates that by celebrating the beauty of the body of Christ. In it, we see a God who glorifies himself by putting our love for each other on display and by using us greatly in the world.
And, after learning the greatness of the gospel, how can we not say with Paul in his conclusion,
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ—to him be the glory forever! Amen.”
– Romans 16:25–27
You cannot read the book of Romans with expectation and not be changed by it. And then, the only question remains: Have you experienced the saving power of this gospel in your life?
The whole book screams that the reason Jesus came is that you were desperately lost without him, but in love, he came to take your penalty. He stands ready for you to surrender to him and accept him for yourself.
You don’t have to understand everything to believe. But you do have to understand this: You are lost and desperate without Jesus, but he loves you and has offered himself to you.
When this power takes hold of your life, not even the gates of hell will be able to resist its advance—in your heart or in the world.