Romans: Why Did Paul Write It?
Theologian John Stott notes that a “casual reading of Romans betrays the fact that the church in Rome was a mixed community consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, with Gentiles in the majority (1:5f., 13; 11:13), and that there was considerable conflict between these groups.” The nature of these conflicts was probably not so much ethnic or cultural as theological, with each group holding different perspectives regarding the relationship of law and gospel.
While not the only aim of Paul’s writing, it appears fairly certain that he intended to address the theological division between these two groups. Stott notes credible precedent in referring to the “Jewish Christians in Rome as representatives of ‘Judaizing Christianity’, since they regarded Christianity ‘as simply a part of Judaism’ and required their followers to ‘observe the Jewish law, while the Gentile Christians he calls ‘supporters of a law-free gospel.”
This division explains Paul’s respective references to the ‘weak’ in faith and the ‘strong’. Stott continues:
The ‘weak in faith’, who scrupulously observed the ceremonial regulations like the food laws, condemned Paul for not doing so. They may have also regarded themselves as the sole beneficiaries of God’s promises, and were not at all in favor of Gentile evangelization unless the converts were prepared to be circumcised and observe the law in full. To them Paul was both a traitor to the covenant and an enemy of the law (that is, an ‘antinomian’). The ‘strong in faith’, on the other hand, who like Paul himself were champions of a ‘law-free’ gospel, made the mistake of despising the weak for being still in unnecessary bondage to the law. Thus the Jewish Christians were proud of their favoured status, and the Gentile Christians of their freedom, so that Paul saw the need to humble them both.
Paul was therefore uniquely suited to the task of bridging this divide, and reconciling the members of this church to one another. As Stott notes, Paul was both a “patriotic Jew” as well as the appointed “apostle to the Gentiles.” Who better to mediate, to replace the heat of conflict with the light of understanding? Of course, doing so would benefit two additional aims in Paul’s writing: to seek the unified financial assistance and general support of these believers in his apostolic mission to Spain (Romans 15:15, 26).
To end the division, Paul employed two themes. The first, according to Stott, was Paul’s emphasis on “the justification of guilty sinners by God’s grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, irrespective of either status or works.” This is what we might term the theme of vertical righteousness (referencing our status and relationship with God). Stott’s second theme is more horizontal, and pertains to the effect of this new status on our relationships with one another. He continues:
Paul’s second theme is the consequent redefinition of the people of God, no longer according to descent, circumcision, or culture, but according to faith in Jesus, so that all believers are the true children of Abraham, regardless of their ethnic origin or religious practice. So ‘there is no difference’ now between Jews and Gentiles, either in the fact of their sin and guilt or in Christ’s offer and gift of salvation…Indeed, ‘the single most important theme of Romans is the equality of Jews and Gentiles.’
Paul’s understanding thereby assumes the “continuing validity” of both God’s covenant, now seen to include both Jews and Gentiles, as well as his law. Obedience to the latter, understood in view of the gospel, is not a pathway to justification according to Paul, but rather the expression of Spirit-born sanctification.