The Letter of Paul to the Romans: Introduction and Outline

The following is not intended as a scholarly introduction to Romans. It was prepared for my local congregation as supplementary material to my own sermon series on Romans; the reader may find it helpful as a general "birds'-eye" view to the epistle as a whole.


All of Paul's letters arise out of factors in the local church, although in some cases this is more obvious than others; Romans is one of Paul's most "general" letters. Yet there are local issues that frame Paul's discussion. From AD 49-54, Jews were banned from Rome, which would have disrupted the church at a fundamental level. By the time Paul wrote (probably late AD 56 or early AD 57), many of the Jewish Christians would have returned - to a church more thoroughly Gentile than it had ever been. The content of Romans indicates that the Gentiles needed to be reminded of the Hebrew roots of the Christian faith. Paul also focuses upon how they are treating their Jewish brothers and sisters (see especially chapter 14; regarding the Gentile attitude toward Israel as a whole, note also 11.17-24).

Biblical Background

Perhaps more than in any other letter, Paul expresses his gospel as the fulfillment of Israel's prophetic Scriptures (see Rom. 1.2; 3.2, 21). Above all, he draws from Isaiah (some 15 quotations) as the basis of his message. (Reading Isaiah, or at least from chapter 40 onward, would help you get a framework for understanding Romans.)

One of the fundamental issues in Isaiah is the crisis caused by a collision between God's promises and Israel's radical unfaithfulness. How can God show Himself righteous in connection with the promises, when Israel is so unrighteous? God responds to Israel's unfaithfulness with the threat of exile, but how can His own promises of blessing triumph in such a situation? Isaiah frequently presents the problem in terms of the lawcourt: first it is Israel, being accused for her unrighteousness; then it is God being placed in the box: Is He really and truly faithful to His Word?

In response, Isaiah says that God saw there was no man to help, there was no justice, no deliverance coming from the side of men, and God put on righteousness and salvation like a garment, arising to act alone - in the face of Israel's sin, without any aid. It is this "righteousness of God," particularly in terms of faithfulness to His promises to His people, which guides much of Paul's discussion, particularly in the early chapters of Romans.


1.1-17 Letter Opening

  • 1.1-7 Paul identifies himself and his gospel and greets the church.
  • 1.8-15 Paul expresses his eagerness to preach in Rome, and why.
  • 1.16-17 Theme statement of the letter: The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, from faith and for faith.

1.18-3.20 The Unrighteousness of Man

  • 1.18-32 Turning from the knowledge of God has degraded the world of men and subjected them to judgment. This would have been largely heard as a description of the Gentile world.
  • 2.1-16 God's judgment will be evenhanded, for both Jew and Gentile.
  • 2.17-29 Possession of God's law by Jews does not grant immunity; Paul draws attention to especially serious sins which a Jew would agree deserve judgment. He thereby prepares to make his charge against unbelieving Israel.
  • 3.1-8 Israel has been unfaithful with the Scriptures because she has rejected her Messiah. Although this unbelief does demonstrate God's righteousness, He is righteous in judging Israel for it.
  • 3.9-20 Paul appeals to Israel's own Scriptures to show that Israel too is under Sin. Both Jew and Gentile are under this power of Sin; possession and performance of the Mosaic law will not save.

3.21-5.11 The Righteousness of God and the Righteousness of Faith

  • 3.21-26 God has acted in Christ's death to save both Jew and Gentile. This is the demonstration of His righteousness, even in the face of Israel's sin. (See the comments above on Isaiah.)
  • 3.27-30 This divine act removes all boasting from men and places Jew and Gentile on equal footing.
  • 3.31-4.25 God's salvation in Christ establishes the biblical testimony of right standing with God through faith. Even as David was dead in sins and was forgiven through faith, and even as Abraham leaned upon God as life-giver against all odds, so we believe in the God who raised up Jesus from the dead.
  • 5.1-11 This new right standing with God through Christ leads to true hope.

5.12-8.39 From the Old Creation to the New

  • 5.12-21 Paul contrasts how Adam's one sinful act brought sin, death and unrighteousness into the world, on the one hand, to the triumphant act of obedient faith which Christ offered on the cross, thereby bringing life and righteousness, on the other.
  • 6.1-23 Redemption from slavery to the power of Sin means living in the new life of righteousness.
  • 7.1-6 Believing Israel's transition from the law to Christ.
  • 7.7-25 A defense of the righteousness of the law, and a description of the bondage of Israel under it.
  • 8.1-17 The condemnation of the old fallen creation in Christ, and the consequent new creation life in the Spirit which has been granted by union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
  • 8.18-39 The assurance granted by the Spirit in Christ: with the creation, we groan for the completion of what has begun, assured by God that we will be preserved in the face of all enemies.

9.1-11.36 Groaning for Israel

  • 9.1-5 Paul's concern for Israel, and a description of Israel's great blessings.
  • 9.6-29 God's Word has not failed, since His purposes are established in the formation of a sovereignly-chosen remnant of Israel. God is free to choose a people for Himself.
  • 9.30-10.21 Israel's failure concerning her Messiah is described in terms of pursuing righteousness by way of works rather than faith. Yet the righteousness of God is near for the one who calls upon Jesus as the risen Lord and Messiah.
  • 11.1-10 Paul reaffirms Israel's place in God's plan by pointing to the believing remnant: Israel's fall is not total.
  • 11.11-36 Paul explains Israel's fall as providing room for Gentile salvation; God's purpose is not ultimately Israel's rejection, but the world's rescue. Thus too Israel's fall is not final, and the Gentiles are to live in humility and faith, lest they too fall. God's wisdom and care for Jew and Gentile are thus mysteriously and powerfully demonstrated in Israel's fall and restoration.

12.1-16.27 Where the Rubber Meets the Road

  • 12.1-13.14 As living sacrifices to God, believers are to serve one another with their gifts, and live in submission to their calling, by loving their enemies and submitting to government, in view of the coming Day when God will deliver those who have begun to live in the light of the new creation.
  • 14.1-15.13 Gentiles are called upon to be patient with those still law-observant, even as Christ Himself came as a servant to "the circumcision" in order to build one new people of Jew and Gentile.
  • 15.14-16.27 Paul explains his pattern of ministry and his plans, and sends final greetings.

— Tim Gallant

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