Romans is the first of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, but not the first written. Still, it stands at the head of the New Testament letters as a testimony to it sweeping teachings about the nature of the gospel.
The letter was written to a church (or churches) in Rome. Since a prominent theme in Romans is the unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians, one can only suppose that this was an issue that Paul felt he needed to address. At times Paul’s language can be very hard to follow in Romans, but keeping in mind this major theme may help keep the focus on the big picture. One can trace Paul’s thinking in the first few chapters. He announces that what he has to say about Jesus is something for Jews and Greeks to hear, for both deserve God’s wrath and condemnation: Greeks have the law written on their heart so they are without excuse, and Jews have the law but don’t keep it. Both populations have fallen short of God’s ideal and so both are in need of the same gospel, which focuses on the resurrected Jesus.
What is remarkable in Paul, here and elsewhere, is that he claims that this very message is embedded in the Old Testament itself. Unlike the Old Testament or his own Jewish contemporaries, Paul did not think that being a faithful Jew was God’s focus at all. Nor did he think that law keeping would usher in a new era of Jewish dominance in the world. For Paul, the fact that God sent his son to be crucified and raised from the dead shows that the real problem is much deeper than keeping the law. The real problem was that sin is simply part of us and that sin leads to death. By dying on the cross Jesus conquered sin and by rising from the dead he conquered death.
Paul lays out this main theme throughout much of in chapters 1-11. Then, in chapter 12 he switches gears from talking about what the gospel is, to what God’s people should do in response to this good news. He tells his readers, in view of God’s great mercy (the topic of chapters 1-11), that they should now present their whole lives to God as a living sacrifice. What follows from this point on in the book is a series of instructions about how those of the body of Christ should act toward each other.
Romans has an unfortunate reputation of being a dry, theological treatise. The difficulty of tracing Paul’s thinking contributes to that notion. But, like all of his letters, Romans is a heartfelt pastoral plea to act in light of the reality of the gospel. All of Paul’s letters, even Romans, are of great practical value, even now.