Chapter 5: The Letter to the Romans

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 5: The Letter to the Romans

Paul’s work in the eastern world was done. For twenty-five years he had now been preaching the gospel in Asia Minor and Greece. His work had begun in Syria and Cilicia, then extended to Cyprus and Galatia, then to Macedonia and Achaea, and finally to Asia, as the Romans called the westernmost province of Asia Minor. In most of these districts Paul had been a pioneer preacher and had addressed himself mainly to Gentiles, that is, Greeks. From Syria to the Adriatic this pioneer work among Greeks had now gone so far that the gospel might be expected to extend from the places already evangelized and soon to permeate the whole East. Already ready Paul was planning to transfer his work to Spain, where the gospel had not yet penetrated

Between Paul in Corinth and his prospective field in the far West lay Rome, the center and metropolis of the Empire. Christianity had already found its way to Rome by obscure yet significant ways. Probably Jews and Greeks who had been converted in the East and had later removed to Rome, in search of better business conditions or the larger opportunities of the capital had first introduced the gospel there and organized little house congregations. The fervor of the early believers was such that every convert was a missionary who spread the good news wherever he traveled. The fact that Christianity was already established in Rome helps us to understand how Paul could think that Alexandria and Cyrene needed him less than Spain, and to realize how many other Christian missionaries were at work at the same time with Paul.

Paul was eager not only to occupy new ground in Spain, but also to visit the Roman Christians on his way and to have a part in shaping a church for which he rightly anticipated an influential future.

One thing stood in the way of these plans. It was the collection for Jerusalem. For some years Paul had been organizing the beneficence of his western churches, not to sustain wider missionary campaigns but to conciliate the original believers in Jerusalem. The primitive Jewish-Christian community seems rather to have resented the violent eagerness with which the Greeks poured into the churches and, as it were, took the Kingdom of God by force. The Jewish Christians were never altogether satisfied with the way in which Paul and his helpers offered the gospel to the Greeks, and the growing strength of the Greek wing of the church increased their suspicion. It had long since been suggested to Paul that this suspicion might be allayed by interesting his Greek converts in supplying the wants of the needy Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, and he had already done something in that direction: A more extensive measure of the same sort was now in active preparation. The gentile churches of four provinces, Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaea, were uniting in it. For nearly two years the Christians of these regions had been setting apart each week what they could give to this fund, and Second Corinthians shows how Paul encouraged them to vie with one another in this charitable work -- a hint of the importance the enterprise had to his mind. This collection for Jerusalem has especial interest as the first united financial effort on the part of any considerable section of the ancient church.

The clearest evidence of the importance Paul attached to this collection, however, is the fact that he turned away for a time at least from Rome and Spain in order to carry the money in person to Jerusalem. This can only mean that he felt that the whole success of his effort would hinge on the interpretation which its bearer put upon it when he delivered the gift there. In the wrong hands it might altogether fail of its conciliatory purpose; only if its spiritual significance was tactfully brought out could it produce the desired effect of reconciling the Jewish wing of the Christian church to the gentile.

Compelled by this undertaking to give up for the time his plan of moving westward, Paul took at least the first step toward his new western program. He wrote a letter to the Roman Christians. The letter would at least inform them of his plans and interest, and so prepare the way for his coming. In it too Paul could embody his gospel, and so safeguard the Roman church from the legalistic and Judaistic forms of Christian teaching that had proved so dangerous in the East. And if this Jerusalem journey resulted in his imprisonment or even his death, as he and his friends feared, this might prove his only opportunity of giving to the Romans and through them to the people of the West the heart of his Christian message.

Righteousness is to the mind of Paul, as he reveals his thought in this letter, the universal need. Jews and Greeks are alike in need of it, for neither law nor wisdom can secure it. But the good news is that God has now through Christ revealed the true way to become righteous and so acceptable to him. This is accomplished through faith, which is not intellectual assent to this or that, but a relation of trustful and obedient dependence upon God, such as Abraham long ago exemplified. This relation is fully revealed through Christ, and the new way of righteousness has been confirmed and illumined by his death. Persons who adopt this attitude of faith are freed by it from sin and from the tyranny of the law. The spirit of God now dwells in them and makes them his sons, never to be separated from his love.

In the failure of the Jews to accept the gospel more than one early Christian thinker found a serious problem. Was God unfaithful to his promises in his rejection of lsrael? Would the Jews never turn to the gospel? Paul explains the situation as due to the Jews’ want of faith. They are not ready to enter into the filial relation that Jesus taught and represented. But their rejection of the gospel and God’s consequent rejection of them are not in his opinion final. Some day they will turn to the righteousness of faith.

This setting forth of Christian righteousness is the longest sustained treatment of a single subject in the letters of Paul. From it he passes in conclusion to instruct the Roman Christians upon their practical duties to God, the church, the state, and society in general. Few things are more striking in these earliest Christian documents than their constant emphasis upon upright and ethical living. It is interesting to find Paul urging his Roman brethren to be loyal citizens, respecting the authority of the Roman Empire as divinely appointed, and the friend and ally of the upright man. The event proved that in this he idealized the Roman state. Yet, taking the situation as a whole, his counsel was both wise and sound for by virtue of it the church at grim cost indeed, disarmed and lived down the Empire’s misunderstanding.

The letter to the Romans is often thought of as the best single expression of Paul’s theology. But it is not less remarkable for its picture of himself. In it he appears as the man of comprehensive mind, not alienated from his own people, though he knows that his life is not safe among them, actively concerned for the harmonizing of Greek and Jewish Christianity, yet even while engaged in a last earnest effort to unite the eastern churches, eager to have a hand in shaping the Roman church and to reach out still farther to evangelize Spain. The apostle is never more the statesman-missionary than in the pages of Romans.

Many years after, when the Christians of Ephesus gathered together a collection of the letters of Paul, a short personal letter written by him to Ephesus from Corinth, probably at about the time he wrote Romans, was appended to Romans, perhaps because, while it was hardly important enough to be presented as a separate letter, yet, as something from the hand of Paul, the Ephesians wished to keep it with the rest. It was written to introduce Phoebe of the church at Cenchreae, near Corinth, to Paul’s old friends at Ephesus, whither she was going on some errand. A Christian traveling about the Roman world on business would find in many cities communities of brethren ready to entertain and help him. The value of this, in an age when the inns were often places of evil character, can be imagined. Most of all, Phoebe’s letter of introduction discloses to us the several little house congregations of which the whole Christian strength of a great city like Ephesus was made up in those early days when the church was still in the house.