In late November of last year, I wrapped up what turned out to be a two-year and two-month study of the book of Romans; a letter that many students of the Bible have regarded as the Apostle Paul’s magnum opus and one that a particular pastor even calls “the greatest letter ever written.” (His words, not mine. Given that I’m just not sure how to square those words with the plenary inspiration of the Bible, I’d rather call Romans “one of the greatest letters ever written.” But I digress.)
After spending over two solid years in a single biblical book, it can become easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. It was for that reason that I decided to cap off our study of Romans with a simple outline that I hoped the folks at our church could store away in their minds for further meditation upon the truths we explored in our study. Some have shared that this outline was helpful to them, so I thought it may be worth passing on to you.
What is Romans about?
I gave my sermon series on Romans the title “Shaped by the Gospel.” This is because a thorough explanation and application of the Gospel is really the concern of the Apostle Paul throughout the letter.
John Stott calls the letter to the Romans “a kind of Christian manifesto.” He says, “It is the fullest, plainest and grandest statement of the gospel in the New Testament” (Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 19). I believe he is right. Simply put, Paul wants to see the church in Rome shaped by the Gospel.
Paul knows that the Gospel is the greatest message anyone has ever heard; and he wants to see this rather diversely comprised church (or group of churches) understand the Gospel and appreciate it deeply, so that they will love Jesus more and live in unity with one another on mission to see Jesus glorified in the church and throughout the world as sinners come to faith in him.
How is Romans organized?
As for the flow of Romans; though this is on all counts an overly simplistic breakdown of the letter, I believe you can rightly think of the letter breaking down into 5 basic parts.
- Part 1 (1:1-3:20): Why the Gospel is Needed
- Part 2 (3:21-5:21): Why the Gospel Works
- Part 3 (6:1-8:39): What the Gospel Changes
- Part 4 (9:1-11:36): When the Gospel (Appears to) Fail
- Part 5 (12:1-16:27): How the Gospel Should be Applied
Let’s move through each part with some explanation.
Part 1 (1:1-3:20): Why the Gospel is Needed
In the opening section of the letter, almost immediately after Paul introduces himself to the Christians in Rome and expresses a deep desire that he’s had for a long time to go to Rome to preach the Gospel – he jumps directly into a devastating description of the sinfulness of the human race and of our total inability to save ourselves from the judgment of God. From 1:18 all the way to 3:20, Paul is working to show that every human being who has ever lived – whether Jew or Gentile, religious or non-religious, familiar with the Bible or not – is a depraved sinner who deserves nothing from God but his righteous judgment.
At the end of this section (3:10ff), Paul sums up his argument with a string of Old Testament passages that forcefully closes the mouth of the human race before God and makes it clear that every human being is a desperately guilty sinner in need of grace. “None is righteous,” Paul says, “no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…” Paul couldn’t be any clearer. All are sinners. All are guilty. All are deserving of God’s wrath and everlasting judgment.
Now, why all the work to make that point? Why start there in a letter that is supposed to be focused on good news? Because you’ll never know your need for God’s grace, until you know the reality, the seriousness, and the depth of your sin – and you will never know what to do with God’s grace, until you know how much of it you have been given. God wants for us all to really get the Gospel and its implications. But we won’t ever get those things, until we get the bad news of our sin.
Part 2 (3:21-5:21): Why the Gospel Works
In the second part of Romans, Paul turns to the subject of God’s perfect solution to our sinfulness, since the question that should be dwelling in the mind of every reader of Romans 1-3:20 should be, How could anyone ever get right with God?
Specifically, the question that the second section of Romans answers for us is, How can God save guilty sinners from his just judgment without violating the demands of his perfect justice? Or, How can a holy God show mercy to sinners, without setting his holiness aside?
The answer comes at the end of chapter 3 in verses 23-26, where Paul acknowledges that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and [that they] are justified (i.e. declared righteous by God and accepted as if we were without sin) by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This,” Paul says, “was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Romans 3:21-5:21 is God’s own explanation of why the Gospel is such a powerful, soul-saving message. It is God’s own explanation of the reason Jesus’ death (one of the main subjects of the Gospel) works to save sinners from God’s just wrath. What Paul tells us in that section is that Jesus’ death saves his people from the wrath of God, because Jesus in his death effectively satisfied that wrath by bearing it in our place. Jesus died under the wrath of God; the wrath that was due to us. He propitiated God (3:25) and turned his wrath away from us, by suffering under it as our sacrificial substitute.
At the Cross then, God declares Jesus guilty, so that whoever trusts in the risen Jesus as Lord can be declared righteous by God by virtue of their union with him. This means that at the Cross, God demonstrates himself as both “the just” (the righteous Judge who judges all sin) and “the justifier” (the one who acquits the guilty and declares them righteous) “of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He judges sin and frees his people from his judgment through the very same event; the propitiatory death of Jesus.
So, to the question of how a guilty sinner can be declared righteous in the sight of a holy God; the answer is that a sinner can only receive that declaration from God as a gift – by trusting in the crucified and risen Christ – who died under God’s wrath for our sins on the cross– so that we could go free from that wrath and be accepted as God’s own sons and daughters. And what this means is that the demand for God’s justice is not laid aside in the salvation of sinners; rather, it is perfectly upheld. Our sin is still judged. It is simply judged at the Cross instead of in hell, for the one who trusts in Jesus.
Then in chapter 4, Paul shows that this is actually how God has been saving sinners from “day one,” as we can see very clearly through his dealings with Abraham, who becomes the focus in chapter 4. Abraham wasn’t a better man than others; he simply trusted God and his promises and God gave him a status of righteousness and right standing with himself as a result. Abraham was justified by faith alone, just as we are today.
But the reason this way of getting right with God actually works; the reason that you and I can receive a status of righteousness before God by trusting in Jesus is because Jesus himself is the truly righteous one. He is the one who makes us righteous in God’s sight (Rom 5:19). Jesus obeyed his Father perfectly, and by that obedience earned a status of righteousness before God, one that he graciously shares with all who trust in him by faith, as a gift of grace alone.
Now, although Paul doesn’t get directly into the horizontal and relational implications of the Gospel until later in the letter (see chs. 12-16); what he does in the first five chapters radically affects how one understands who the people of God really are. Who is truly in God’s spiritual family and who is not? Paul has answered that question in these first five chapters (as does the Old Testament, by the way), albeit in a more implicit fashion. The people of God are not identified by the rituals they practice, or the calendar they observe, or the religious heritage they have been born into, even if that heritage can be traced back to the great patriarch Abraham. The people of God are marked by faith in the promises of God and ultimately in the Person of Jesus. Knowing this has a radical affect upon relationships within the church, which Paul is going to flesh out further, in the later chapters of the letter.
Part 3 (6:1-8:39): What the Gospel Changes
The third main section in Romans then, kicks off in chapter 6 and runs to the end of chapter 8. This section is all about showing the new life that God in Christ raises us up to in Christ by his grace. It shows us how believing the Gospel and being justified by grace changes a lot of things for us. It changes our relationship to sin. It changes our relationship to God’s law. And, most importantly, it changes the way we see and relate to God.
To begin with, believing the Gospel and being justified by God’s grace changes our relationship to sin. We no longer have to go on living in sin, because sin’s power has been broken over us. Paul forcefully reminds us in chapter 6 that we who are in Christ have died to sin (6:2ff). This means that sin no longer controls us. It is no longer our master. God has set us free from sin’s dominion by his grace in Christ, which means that every genuine Christian can overcome sin, and should make every effort to do so.
Secondly, being justified by grace changes our relationship to God’s law. We don’t have to follow God’s commands to try to get into right standing with him. The law was never for that anyway. But now, we can obey our Lord’s commands out of joy, knowing that what he commands is for our good. We now can serve the Lord “in the new way of the Spirit” (7:6) and “not in the old way of the written code.”
And yet, despite our newfound freedom from sin and newly structured relationship to God’s commands, Paul is also very realistic about the fact that we will still struggle with sin until the day we die (that’s 7:15ff). Even though we are free from sin’s power, and the law’s condemning authority; we still sin, doing the things we hate, and failing to do the things we know are right and good. And it will be this way until Jesus returns. (Yes, I do embrace the traditional view of 7:15ff, in case you were wondering.)
Most of all, however, as Paul in chapter 8 so beautifully teaches us, being justified by grace changes our relationship to God. It changes how we see and relate to God in our struggle with sin and suffering as we wait for Jesus to return. This is force of the glorious, memorable, and ever-relevant pronouncement of Romans 8:1:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
What an astounding statement! Even in our struggle with sin, which is ongoing and relentless – and even in our sufferings, which are many and at times overwhelming (both of which Paul talks about in chapter 8), God is for us because of Christ. And if God is for us who can be against us?
The Gospel changes our standing with God and when you are right with God you are completely safe, no matter what struggles you experience and what sufferings you must endure in this life.
Part 4 (9:1-11:36): When the Gospel (Appears to) Fail
Then comes Romans 9-11. The section that one scholar (who sees much of Romans very differently than I do) says, “is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles.” He goes on, “Many have given it up [as a result]…leaving Romans with eight chapters of gospel at the beginning, four of application at the end, and three of puzzle in the middle.”
I wouldn’t say that Romans 9-11 is full of “problems,” but certainly is packed with some interpretative challenges for the reader.
In this section, Paul deals with the situation of ethnic Israel’s widespread unbelief and rejection of Christ and the Gospel; a situation in which the the saving promises of God seem to have failed.
God makes some amazing promises to those who trust in Jesus, promises like “nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love” (8:35-39). This is all deeply encouraging until you remember that God has made some pretty magnificent promises to ethnic Israel as well. Israel, the nation that God directly created from a single man, whom God chose to bless, and to use to bring eternal blessing to the whole world. Israel was the recipient of a whole host of precious redemptive promises from God, and yet here they are, Paul observes, by and large rejecting their own Messiah and in danger of the coming judgment of the same God who chose them out of all the nations of the earth.
And so the question in chapters 9-11 concerns whether the widespread rejection of Christ throughout ethnic Israel is proof that the promises of the Gospel are unreliable.
Has the word of God; have the promises of God failed in Israel? The answer is surprisingly, “Not in the least” (9:6ff). God’s purposes are marching on just as God had long planned. He is sovereign over those who believe upon Christ and those who reject him, Paul says. And he has the power to save anyone he wishes to save.
Instead of taking God off the hook for the widespread unbelief in ethnic Israel, Paul teaches us in these chapters that God has purposes even in the unbelief of the Jewish people, and that he intends to save a remnant from among them before all is said and done and Jesus returns to the world. God’s chosen people will be saved, even if right now it looks as though they are lost forever. God’s purpose of election will stand. God will save every last one of his elect people, which means that we can not only trust God’s promises to Israel; we who are in Christ can trust his promises to us as well. God is more faithful than we ever dreamed and more sovereign than we often give him credit for. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)
Part 5 (12:1-16:27): How the Gospel should be Applied
Then, after such a long and rich and detailed explanation of the Gospel; how it works, why it works, what makes it so good, what it changes, and how it succeeds even when it seems to fail; Paul in chapter 12 begins to help us apply all that we have learned about God and his grace as it’s revealed in the Gospel of Jesus, especially in our relationships with others (both Christians and non-Christians). What must we do now, in light of all we have read?
The answer comes in the final five chapters. In light of the mercies of God (12:1)…
- we ought to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord (12:1-2);
- we ought to serve one another eagerly and wholeheartedly as brothers and sisters in Christ (12:3ff);
- we ought to submit to God’s sovereignty and trust those governmental leaders he has put over us (13:1-7);
- we should love our neighbors as ourselves (13:8-14);
- we should bear with our fellow Christians in our disagreements and pursue unity with one another despite our many differences (14:1-15:7);
- we should get behind the spread of the Gospel throughout the world (15:8-33);
- we should treat every member of the church as someone who matters to God (16:1-16, 21-23);
- and we should watch out for Gospel-denying teachers who bring division to the church (16:17-20),
- and as we do these things, we should rejoice that God will get the glory in all of it (16:25-27).
To summarize this section: The Gospel should make us humble, devoted, loving, patient, submissive, and encouraging people. It should radically transform the way we treat others – beginning with those closest to us and extending even to our enemies. The Gospel is a mold that we conform to, not merely at the point of conversion but for the rest of the Christian life until our faith becomes sight. The Gospel should shape us through and through; gradually transforming us into the perfect image of Christ, making us look like the gracious Savior who suffered in our place on the Cross.
I trust that you will find holes and problems with this outline. Many things have been left unsaid and unaddressed. As I admitted, it is a simple and perhaps even simplistic outline of Romans. Yet, hopefully it is at least faithful to the general flow and organization of the letter and encourages others to dig into the one of the greatest letters ever written.