Approaching the book of Romans on the ultimate road trip through the Bible reminds me of a Jones family vacation. Years ago, Cathryn and I drove with the kids to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix, Arizona, where we had been enjoying a few Major League Baseball spring training games in the Cactus League. The four-hour drive was relatively flat and uneventful. Then we arrived at this gaping hole in the earth known as the Grand Canyon. As canyons go, the Grand Canyon is truly grand. Nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes. A thousand pictures of the Grand Canyon do not come close to capturing its beauty, mystery, and elegance.
The same could be said about the book of Romans, which is the Grand Canyon of the Christian faith. Like the Grand Canyon, Romans is deep and wide and sometimes mysterious. While it challenges the strongest aspects of our stubborn intellect, it will also make us humble and weepy. John MacArthur says Romans “will strip you naked and then clothe you with eternal elegance.”[i] Paul’s letter to the Romans is so grand that it could be called “the Christian manifesto.”
Romans, which Paul penned near the end of his stay in Corinth (57-58 A.D.), has left its mark on some great people throughout church history like Augustine, John Wesley, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and others. For example, Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation, said Romans is “the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel.”[ii] John Calvin accessed the power of Romans by saying, “When anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.”[iii]
Though Romans can be intimidating to read, it helps to unfold the book topically and theologically to see the big picture: Sin (1-3), salvation (4-5), sanctification (6-8), sovereignty (9-11), and service (12-16). Like from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, here is another grand view of Romans: Doctrine (1-8), Dispensation (9-11), and Duty (12-16).
After expressing his eagerness to preach the gospel in Rome (1:1-15), Paul summarizes his case by saying, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (1:16-17). Next to John 3:16, no words in the Bible do a better job of stating the overall message of salvation. Let’s dig deeper.
All Have Sinned
Like an oncologist who tells his patient that she has stage four cancer, Paul begins his formal argument for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by diagnosing the human problem. His description of the total depravity of humankind in 1:18-32 is sobering, declaring “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18).
Paul argues that Gentiles are “without excuse” because they suppress the truth made known to them by God in creation and their conscience. Accordingly, rejecting the knowledge of God, which is plain to see in the natural world, is enough to convict guilty sinners. Paul uses the haunting phrase “God gave them up” three times as a way of describing what eventually happens to truth suppressors. Allowing the natural consequences of living without Him to fall upon humans, God gave them up to impurity (1:24-25), dishonorable sexual passions (1:26-27), and a debased mind (1:28-32).
In 2:1-3:8, Paul turns his attention to the Jews, making the case that they need salvation as much as the Gentiles do. He argues that God’s judgment is truthful (2:2-5), takes deeds into consideration (2:6-10), and “does not show favoritism” (2:11-16). He gives the religious person no hope of gaining God’s favor based upon his personal morality. Furthermore, Paul states without equivocation, there is no special advantage to being a Jew, especially if the Jew does not obey God’s law (2:17-3:8).
Paul summarizes the divine verdict on all humans by saying, “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10), and “for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). A proper diagnosis of our sin condition sets us up to hear God’s remedy.
Justification by Faith
The typical Torah-loving Jew or religious person might find Paul’s statement in 3:28 stunning, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” However, this is the core of Paul’s message in Romans and transitions his argument to the next section of the book, which describes God’s provision for humankind’s sin problem (4-5).
In chapter 4, Paul illustrates justification by faith, starting with Abraham, the father of faith (4:1-8). He reminds us of what the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). He also points out that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised in case anyone thought the work of circumcision made him right with God (4:9-12). Paul drives the point home further by saying, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be the heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13-16).
But what does Paul mean by the righteousness of faith? Is he talking about faith in faith, faith in the goodwill of humanity, or faith in oneself? He means none of the above. The faith that justifies us before God, he argues, must have the right object (4:13-16). Thus, Abraham’s faith in God, not his works, made him right with God.
How does Abraham’s experience relate to us? Paul writes, “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:23-25). In other words, faith alone in the finished work of Christ on the cross makes us right with God, too.
In chapter 5, Paul transitions to a discussion about the benefits of justification by faith (5:1-11), including peace with God, access to God’s grace, hope in God, strength of character, and the Holy Spirit who fills us with love and joy. Then he brings Adam into the discussion (5:12-25). Yes, Adam!
The great apostle begins by showing that death entered the world through one man’s sin. Death is not the result of the law, but of Adam’s sin. All are sinners because we inherited Adam’s sin nature, which theologians refer to as original sin. [iv] Likewise, many are righteous through faith in Christ, also known as imputed righteousness.
Alive with Christ
In chapter 6, Paul begins speaking about believers—those who are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ—and how the process of sanctification takes place.[v] The next major section of the book, Romans 6-8, is foundational to our understanding of the spiritual life. Paul talks about how believers are delivered from the mastery of sin, free to live under God’s grace, and victorious through the power of the Holy Spirit.[vi]
The words “know,” “consider,” and “present” are keys that unlock the understanding of Romans 6:1-14. Paul wants the believer in Christ to know he is dead to the principle of sin. He asks, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” He responds with the strongest negation possible in the Greek language, translated, “By no means!” Instead, Paul argues that “we know” we are dead to sin but alive with Christ.
Consider this to be true, like an accountant that confidently calculates the bottom line. Then, “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions … present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (6:11-14).
In chapter 7, Paul presents the believer as free from the law (7:1-6) before describing his personal struggle to live the Christian life successfully in his own strength (7:7-25). The apostle sounds like he has fallen into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond when he writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24). The answer comes resoundingly in the next verse—“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25)—and sets the reader up for chapter 8, which introduces the Holy Spirit’s necessary role in sanctification.
Chapter 8 begins with these comforting words, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The Holy Spirit indwells and empowers believers in Jesus Christ to live His life successfully. Specifically, Paul argues that all true believers have the Holy Spirit (8:5-11). But the larger question is this: Does the Holy Spirit have you? (8:12-17). Then, the apostle raises his rhetoric by comparing the sufferings of this life to the future glory (8:18-25), showing us how the Spirit “helps us in our weaknesses” (8:26-30), and reminding believers that we are “more than conquerors” (8:30-39).
Faithful to His Promises
Romans 9-11 has puzzled many Bible students. Why would Paul include a lengthy dissertation about Israel and the sovereignty of God in his epistle to the Romans? Remember, Paul is making a case for the gospel of Jesus Christ, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). Therefore, how God is demonstrating His sovereignty and faithfulness to Israel is an important consideration. The apostle to the Gentiles argues that since God is and will be faithful to keep the promises He made to Israel, we can trust Him, too.
To even the casual gospel observer, it certainly appears that God turned away from Israel. But did God reject Israel, or did Israel reject her Messiah? Paul argues the latter, starting with a discussion about Israel’s past and how God sovereignly chose the seed of Abraham through Isaac, not Ishmael, and through Jacob, not Esau. (9:1-24). Also, though salvation came from the Jews, it was never for the Jews only (9:25-33; Genesis 12:1-3)).
In chapter 10, Paul moves from Israel’s past to her present. He begins by repeating his deep desire for Israel to return to God (10:1-4, compared with 9:1-3), and then makes this important point about salvation: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Quoting Isaiah, Paul agrees that those who preach the good news of Jesus Christ have beautiful feet. However, he expresses the Lord’s deep disappointment with disobedient Israel (10:14-21).
In chapter 11, Paul returns to the question, “Has God rejected Israel?” and repeats the strong response in Greek, “By no means!” He presents himself and Elijah as examples of the remnant God always chooses (11:1-10) and the Gentiles as branches He grafted into the spiritual olive tree (11:11-24). As for God’s chosen people, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25).
Paul concludes this mysterious section of Scripture with a doxology about “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33-36). I picture the apostle tossing his hands upward in worship and exclaiming, “Some things about our sovereign God even I don’t fully understand!”
In the final section of the book (12-16), Paul applies Christian theology to everyday life. Doctrine becomes duty, and belief transitions into behavior. Faith finds expression in practical ways, starting with the apostle urging believers to present their physical bodies to the Lord as a “living sacrifice,” proving the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God (12:1-2). Then, Paul moves to a discussion about spiritual gifts (12:3-8) and the marks of a true Christian (12:9-21).
Service to God and others dominates Paul’s heart and pen. He makes the connection between our relationship to God and governing authorities (13:1-7) and how love fulfills the entire law (13:8-14). When it comes to exercising one’s Christian liberty, love is also the governing principle (14:1-23). Love limits our liberty and leadership. We should not exercise our Christian liberty in a way that causes a weaker brother or sister in Christ to stumble. Jesus Christ is the supreme example of surrendering one’s liberty for the sake of others (15:1-7).
Paul reaffirms his ministry to the Gentiles (15:14-21) and revisits his longing to visit the Roman church in person (15:22-33). He finishes his Grand Canyon-like epistle by greeting sixteen people by name (16:1-23) and then closes with an uplifting benediction (16:24-27).
On the Jones family drive from Phoenix, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon, there was no shortcut. However, on the ultimate road trip through the Bible, there is a shortcut through Paul’s epistle to the Romans called the Romans Road, which begins with some bad news in 3:23, “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
The bad news gets worse in 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death,” meaning both physical death and eternal separation from God, also called the second death (Revelation 20:14). However, the bad news turns into good news as 6:23 continues, “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The Romans Road continues with two more turns toward salvation. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9) and “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (10:13).
[i] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8, Moody Press, p. xi.
[ii] Commentaries of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Baker, p. 1.
[iii] Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Kregel, p. xiii.
[iv] Imagine placing an order for a new laptop computer. However, it arrives with a corrupted operating system. That describes the human condition perfectly. We are born into this world corrupted by sin, which is why we need the righteousness of God applied to our life through Jesus Christ. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.
[v] The word “sanctify” means “to set apart for a holy purpose.” In the spiritual life, sanctification describes how God shapes us more and more into the image of Christ.
[vi] An understanding of positional, progressive, and perfect sanctification is needed to fully grasp this grand section of Scripture. Positional sanctification refers to our standing in Christ, having been delivered from the penalty of sin in the past. Progressive sanctification speaks of how the believer in Christ is presently being set apart from the power of sin. Perfect sanctification refers to the believer’s future in heaven when Christ will free us from the presence of sin.