Introduction to Romans
Paul’s letter to the Romans is best known for its vision of God’s gracious actions toward humanity through the cross and resurrection of Christ. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16). There is something deeply wrong with us individually, and with the world as a whole, from which we need to be saved, and Romans tells us how God is saving us from it.
Romans is deeply theological, but it is not abstract. God’s salvation is not a concept for analytical discourse in Romans, but a call to action (Rom. 6:22). Paul tells how God’s salvation affects our wisdom, our honesty, our relationships, our judgment, our ability to endure setbacks, our character, and our ethical reasoning, all of which are essential to our work. Here, in the nitty-gritty of human relationships and the desire to do good work, is where God’s salvation takes hold in our world.
Written sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (AD 54–68), the letter to the Romans hints of darkness and danger surrounding the Roman house churches, which comprised both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christ. Some of the Jewish members of the congregations had been exiled by an edict of Emperor Claudius in 49 and had only recently returned, probably having lost their property and financial stability in the meantime (Acts 18:2). Anti-Jewish sentiment in the wider Roman culture surely exerted pressures upon the Christian churches. Paul’s extended reflection on God’s faithfulness to both Jew and Gentile in this letter was not an abstract pondering of the ways of God, but a skillful theological reflection on these historical events and their consequences. The result is a set of practical tools for making moral decisions leading to a new quality of life in every place where people live and work.
The letter to the Romans has been exceptionally important in the development of Christian theology. To give just two examples, Martin Luther broke with Pope Leo X largely because of his disagreement with what he perceived to be the Roman Catholic understanding of Romans. And Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans was arguably the most influential theological work of the twentieth century. In the past twenty-five or thirty years, a major theological debate concerning the relationship between salvation and good works has arisen about Romans and the rest of Paul’s letters, often called the New Perspective on Paul. The general commentaries on Romans explore these issues at length. We will focus specifically on what the letter contributes to the theology of work. Of course, we need to have a basic understanding of Paul’s general points before applying them to work, so we will do a certain amount of general theological exploration as needed.
See, for example, Ian A. McFarland, Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 138.