Whole libraries could be filled just with the books that have been written on Paul's theology in Romans. And now, we shall attempt to condense two thousand years of commentary into a few paragraphs. Wish us luck.
Unlike Paul's other letters, there's really no clear reason why Paul is writing to the Christian community in Rome. Sure, he says he just wants to introduce himself and prepare for his upcoming trip. We don't know about you, but Shmoop doesn't usually write dense, 9,000-word letters to everyone we're about to meet. Sorry, we just don't have that kind of time on our hands. There are just too many Cheers reruns to watch.
So Romans is clearly more than just a nice, "Hey, how's it going?" It's introducing themes that would have been relevant for the Roman Christians and would have also given them a sneak peek of Paul's views on some of the issues most central to his theology. And if that wasn't Paul's intention, well then, he really went above and beyond.
Paul is mainly concerned throughout Romans with pondering how salvation comes to the world. Deep, huh?
One of the biggest questions that Paul is struggling with is why in the heck the Jewish people don't believe in Jesus. For Paul, faith in Christ is a no-brainer. It's obvious. But he also can't understand why, if God's goal was to bring salvation to the Jews through Christ, this hasn't happened. Is God some kind of failure? Say it ain't so!
Don't worry. It ain't. At least according to Paul. Though he goes back and forth on the question of why the Jews don't all believe yet, the only answer he can come to is that God sure is mysterious sometimes (11:33). Paul is also pretty sure that God will work it all out somehow, some way. He is God, after all.
The good news about the Jews' lack of faith is that Jesus is now open for business with the Gentiles. This is also good news for Paul because, as it turns out, he's pretty good at being an apostle to the Gentiles.
Now we're onto other issues, though. Do Gentiles who follow Jesus have to obey Jewish laws as well? Do they have to officially convert to Judaism? Do they have to be circumcised? Keep kosher? The list goes on and on.
Paul settles all these questions by advocating a more in-between point of view. Nope, the Gentiles don't have to do this stuff. He concludes that if the Gentiles have the law alive in their hearts, there's no need for them to slavishly live out each and every one of its precepts. Don't judge a book by its cover. It's what's on the inside that counts. Thousands of other feel-good statements apply here.
Because of Jesus, God is now giving away his grace to the whole world free of charge. So, how do we take of advantage of that? By believing in Christ, of course. Sounds pretty simple.
Wait just a second. For Paul, belief in Christ isn't just a feel-good statement; it's a whole way of life. Because Jesus died, we also have to die (metaphorically—whew!) to the ways of this world. We're then reborn into a new life in Christ where we turn into radically different people. Okay, that doesn't sound very simple.
Well, it is and it isn't. Paul thinks that if we allow Jesus to come—really come—into our lives and that we live "in Christ," then we will necessarily change. But if we keep worrying about silly little things (like if we should be eating bacon or what day we should be observing the Sabbath), then we're missing the point.
This leads us into one of Paul's most influential arguments in Romans—faith vs. works. It's the ultimate smack down.
Paul believes that true faith—that radical orientation towards Christ—is the only thing that can change our lives. It's also the only thing that can really bring us into a relationship with God. Get some faith going and you and the Big Guy will be besties in no time.
But on the other hand, Paul is pretty hard on what he calls "works." That just means anything that people do because they think it's holy and good, but that doesn't really help them to be a better, more holy person.
For example, let's say you always go to church on Sundays. You're there, first thing in the morning, sitting in your pew. You're always sure to tell people you went to so they'll know how amazing and churchy you are. Sure, you're not always paying attention or getting something out of the service, but you go because it's the right thing to do. It's what God wants, right?
Wrong. That's a prime example of works without faith. In this case, you think that just simply going to a church every Sunday is a holy act. But is this act bringing you closer to God? Are you enhancing your life with him? If the answer is no, then Paul wonders why you are even bothering. He also wonders why you're getting so braggy about the fact that you go to church and are bored for an hour every week. Hey, Paul can be harsh.
It's not that going to church every Sunday is a bad thing. Just like being circumcised or keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath on Saturday aren't bad things either. But if we're simply doing those things to a check off a box on some weird "List of Holy Things to Do," then Paul thinks you haven't quite gotten this whole faith thing down yet.
Get it? According to Paul, life in Christ is not a series of things you have to do in order to get in good with God. It's a complete orientation toward God and what he wills for your life. That doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. But it does mean our actions are getting us nowhere unless they have faith backing them up.
Basically, Paul's letter to the Romans boils down to getting everyone to live in harmony. Paul wants to find some middle ground between Jews and Christians. He also wants all Christians, no matter what their background, to be able to get along and live together without arguing about silly stuff all the time. Hey, an apostle can dream, can't he?
For Paul, all this stuff is really important. Christ came to bring peace, and so it's not a very good sign when his followers can't even make peace among themselves. Paul also knows that the future of the church is dependent on its internal strength.
Besides, if Christians are busy fighting with each other all the time, it's gonna be pretty hard to take over the whole Roman Empire by the third century. Understand, guys?