Romans: What Is Its Structure?
Paul begins his letter with an introduction, emphasizing his call to proclaim the gospel as an apostle (v. 1). He then spends the next several verses introducing a proper understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially his resurrection and its importance for “all nations” (vv. 2-5). Later, this radical inclusiveness receives a powerful echo in v. 16 when Paul declares that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”(1) Paul thereby celebrates and presents Jesus Christ as a Savior for all of redeemed humanity.
In the verses that follow, Paul’s letter takes a decidedly personal turn as he warmly greets the believers at Rome and expresses his earnest desire to visit them. He’s heard of their faith (v. 8), prayed for them (v. 9), as well as sought an opportunity to visit with them for their mutual encouragement and edification (vv. 10-13). In verses 14-15, Paul notes his obligation to reach all for the sake of Christ, thus his desire to visit the center and crossroads of the Roman empire, as well as his future and soon-to-be-disclosed mission to Spain (Romans 15:15).
Theologian Guy Waters’ assertion that “Paul’s thesis statement in Romans 1:16-17 provides the main point of the letter – the ‘righteousness of God’” is well attested. Ash concurs, referring to these as the letter’s two “manifesto” verses.(2) Moo strengthens the same conclusion, noting that “vv. 16-17 are technically part of the proem of the letter [and] serve as the transition into the body by stating Paul’s theme.”(3) From this, a fourfold structure emerges, one upon which most theologians agree. This post outlines the four.
The Just Wrath of God for Sin (1:18-3:20)
The opening “proem” concluded, Paul establishes the universal human need for the righteousness heralded in his ‘manifesto’ verses, vv. 1:16-17. He indicts the entire human race as guilty before God in 1:18-3:20. Waters notes three stages in the revelation of this indictment: “Paul’s indictment against humanity, particularly Gentiles (1:18-32), Paul’s indictment of Jewish humanity (2:1-3:8), and Paul’s concluding verdict on all humanity (3:9-20).”(4) In other words, no one is exempt; all are guilty and stand condemned before God.
Interestingly, Paul grounds this guilt not in ignorance or ambivalence, but in humanity’s deliberate suppression of the knowledge of God and his goodness. The level of this knowledge varies among people, even nations, but “everybody has some knowledge of God and of goodness, whether through the created world (19f.), or through conscience (32), or through the moral law written on human hearts (2:12ff), or through the law of Moses committed to the Jews (2:17ff.).(5) Paul presents humanity’s rebellion toward God as total. None are righteous before God; none seek him; and none do good (3:10-12). Paul simply could not describe a more dire condition.
The Grace of God (3:21-8:39)
Stott refers to the “But now” found in 3:21 as “one of the great adversatives of the Bible.”(6) It allows Paul to move quickly from diagnosing the human condition as hopeless apart from God’s mercy to the deliverance he so freely offers in the gospel. Paul reveals that God reconciled the demands of his justice (3:25f.) with his love for fallen sinners (5:8) at the cross of Christ. This reconciliation resulted in the good news of salvation for “all who believe” (3:22), regardless of ethnicity. He then argues that since this salvation is entirely wrought by God’s gracious work in Jesus Christ, it precludes our boasting before God, discrimination between Jews and Gentiles, and disregard for God’s law.(7)
Invoking both Abraham and David, Paul then turns his attention to an Old Covenant defense of justification by faith alone. Waters notes that Paul makes “two fundamental points about Abraham in relation to believers today:
First, Paul stresses that Abraham received the “blessing” of justification by faith alone while he was yet “uncircumcised” (4:9). Circumcision therefore did not justify him, but it was a “sign” and “seal” of the righteousness that he had already received from God through faith in God’s promise (4:11). Abraham, therefore, the “father” of those uncircumcised persons who “walk in the footsteps of [Abraham’s] faith” (4:12). Second, Paul stresses that Abraham’s faith is a faith in God’s resurrection promise (4:13-25). It is in Romans 4:25 that Paul explicitly ties our justification to Christ’s resurrection.(8)
Paul’s defense thereby demonstrates justification by faith alone not only as the teaching of the Old Testament, but also the ground of believing Gentile inclusion into the covenant community of God.
Waters notes Moo’s chiastic explanation of Romans 5:1-8:39, placing both Romans 6:1-23 and Romans 7:1-25 at the center of the chiasm. Citing Moo, Waters notes:
In 5:1-11 and 8:18-39, Paul’s concern is assurance in the work of Christ and the work of Christ mediated by the Spirit, respectively. In the two innermost sections, 6:1-23 and 7:1-25, Paul deals with the problem of sin and the law, respectively. The unifying theme of this section, then, is the assurance that God’s presently justified people may now have that they will persevere to, and certainly attain, future glory.(9)
This assurance, resting on grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, immediately occasions an obvious question. Paul anticipates that many will ask how Christians should, assured of salvation through the gracious work of Christ alone, live regarding God’s law. If they’re already assured forgiveness and future glory in Christ apart from their works, why should they obey?
Paul addresses this very question twice in Romans 6 (vv. 1, 15), posing some variant of the rhetorical question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” In both instances, his response is vehement: “By no means!” Citing their baptism (1-14) and conversion (15-23), Paul teaches that genuine union with Christ precludes such a dismal view of God’s law. God’s grace doesn’t preclude our efforts in holiness; it propels them.
Stott rightly notes that three pertinent points comprise Paul’s companion teaching in Romans 7. First, Paul argues that Christians “died to the law” in Jesus Christ; they are therefore already freed from its penalty and are presently being freed from its power. Christians are “now free not to sin but to serve in the way of the Spirit.”(10) Second, Paul shows that while the law exposes and diagnoses our sin, revealing us as sinners and justly deserving of condemnation, it is not culpable for our condition. The law is holy. Lastly, Stott notes Paul’s description of the inner, moral struggle within the believer. Considerable debate surrounds the identity of the person described by Paul in Romans 7. Whereas Stott does not view Paul’s description as autobiographical, Waters does - and more convincingly. According to Waters, Paul “vindicates the law from blame (7:12) and lays all culpability upon himself.”(11) He also makes it clear that the “work of sanctification that Paul has earlier outlined is an imperfect one in the believer’s present experience” and this “imperfection is a constant reminder to ground our assurance of future glory in the justifying work of Christ.”(12)
Romans 8 shifts Paul’s focus from the persistence of indwelling sin to the power of God’s now indwelling Spirit. He explores the multifaceted ministry of the Spirit of God, promising that this work will not go unfulfilled but rather culminate in the glory of our final salvation. Of this, Paul writes, the believer can be supremely assured.
The Mysterious Plan of God (Romans 9:1-11:36)
At first, these chapters might appear as something of an excursus from Paul’s teaching in chapters 1-8. In fact, they’re not. They’re a logical extension of his teaching. As a Jew writing to a church partially composed of Jews, Paul is burdened for a proper understanding of God’s promises to the Jewish nation and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In exploring these themes, Paul seeks to vindicate the character of God before his readers, as well as expound upon his hope for ethnic Israel.
Waters notes four stages of Paul’s argument. First, in Romans 9:1-29, Paul shows that “the word of God has [not] failed” (9:6a). This is because “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”(13) In other words, true membership in the covenant community of God is rooted in faith, not ethnicity. Those who share the faith, not simply the DNA, of Abraham are his true descendants according to the promise.
Second, Waters shows that in Romans 9:30-10:21, “unbelieving Israel sought to ‘establish their own’ righteousness by the works of the law and ‘did not submit to God’s righteousness’ that comes through faith in Christ alone.”(14) For Waters, this not only demonstrates Israel’s culpability, but also occasions the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, something designed in God’s providence to provoke Israel to jealousy.(15) This jealously, it seems, will prompt a future reconsideration of Jesus Christ by the Jewish people; God is far from done with Israel.
Third, in Romans 11:1-10, Paul celebrates that many Jews have, like him, believed in the name of Jesus Christ. While it is true that God’s hardened some, he’s shown mercy to others. He remains sovereign in our salvation, from first to last.
Finally, regarding Romans 11:11-26, Waters notes that not all Reformed commentators are in agreement about Paul’s teaching and culminating promise that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). While some may take this as a more extreme promise of all Israelites without exception, an explanation along the lines of those offered by Waters, Stott, and others seems much more faithful and likely. As Stott notes, “Indeed, God will ‘have mercy on them all’ (32), meaning not everybody without exception but rather both Jews and Gentiles without distinction.”(16) In view of this promise and reality, Paul erupts into doxological praise (33-36).
The Life of Righteousness (12:1-15:13)
Having established the vertical righteousness of all believers, Jew and Gentile, Paul discusses its horizontal application to those whom, whether Jew or Gentile, he now refers simply as “brothers.” He encourages them toward godly transformation by the renewal of their minds by which they may discern God’s will for them. He then expounds upon believers in various, illustrative, and representative relationships. As a premiere example of their call to love one another in the Lord, he finally urges them toward a collection benefitting their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem (as a symbol of solidarity with the Jewish believers there) and partnership to take the gospel message to Gentile Spain, two additional purposes for his writing.
(1) Stott, John R. W. (2004) Message Of Romans: God's Good News For The World. Intervarsity Press. 36.
(2) Ash, C. (2009). Teaching Romans, Volume One – Unlocking Romans 1-8 for the Bible Teacher. London: PT Media. 24.
(3) Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 64.
(4) Kruger, M. J. (Ed.). (2016). A biblical-theological introduction to the New Testament: the gospel realized. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 182.
(5) Stott, 37.
(8) Kruger, 186.
(10) Stott, 39.
(11) Kruger, 188.
(13) Ibid, 190.
(16) Stott, 41.