This Epistle consists of two clearly marked but very unequal parts, viz, the doctrinal (1:1 -- 11: 36) and the practical part (12:1 -- 16: 27).
I. The Doctrinal Part, 1: 1 -- 11: 36. In this part we have first the introduction, containing the address, the customary thanksgiving and prayer, and an expression of the apostles desire to preach the gospel also at Rome, 1: 1-15. In the following two verses the apostle states his theme: "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith," 1:16, 17. After announcing this he describes the sinful state of the Gentiles, points out that the Jews are likewise guilty, and declares that their prerogatives do not exempt them from punishment but rather increase their guilt, 1: 18 -- 3: 20. He then defines the righteousness which God has provided without the works of the law, and proves that this is revealed in the Old Testament, is the basis of a Christian experience that is rich in spiritual fruits, and proceeds on the same principle of moral government on which God dealt with Adam, 3:21 -- 5 : 21. Next he replies to the objections that on his doctrine men may continue in sin and yet be saved; that his teaching releases men from moral obligation; and that it makes the law of God an evil thing, 6:1 -- 7:25. In the following chapter he shows that on the basis of man's justification by faith his complete sanctification and final glorification is assured, 8:1-39. Having stated the way of salvation through faith, he now points out that this does not conflict with the promises given to Israel by showing that these pertained only to the elect among them; that the rejection of Israel is due to their refusal of the way of salvation; that it is not a complete rejection; and that in the end the Jews will be converted and will turn to God, 9:1 -- 11: 36.
II. The Practical Part, 12:1 -- 16: 27. The apostle admonishes the Christians at Rome that they be devoted to God and love one another, 12:1-21. He desires that they willingly subject themselves to the civil authorities and meet all their obligations, 13:1-14. He enjoins upon them due regard for the weakness of others in matters of indifference, and the proper use of their Christian liberty, 14:1-23. Then he holds up to them Christ as their great example, and speaks of his purpose to visit Rome, 15: 1-33. Finally he sends a long list of greetings to Rome and closes his epistle with a doxology, 16:1-27.
1. The characteristic feature of this Epistle is found in the fact that it is the most systematic writing of the apostle, an elaborate treatment of a single theme with appropriate practical exhortations. It contains a careful and rather full statement of what Paul himself calls, "my Gospel," 2:16; 16: 25. His Gospel is that man is justified by faith and not by the works of the law. In harmony with this theme the contents of the Epistle are Soteriological rather than Christological. The apostle points out that both Gentiles and Jews need this justification; that it is the way of salvation provided by God himself; that it yields the most blessed spiritual fruits; that it does not issue in the moral degradation of man, but in a life sanctified by the Spirit and culminating in everlasting glory; and that, though the Gentiles will have precedence over the Jews, who rejected the Gospel, these too will at last accept it and be saved. Godet calls this Epistle, "The Cathedral of Christian Faith." Because of its methodical character some have mistakenly regarded it as a treatise rather than as a letter. If it were a treatise, it might have been sent to one church as well as another, and it may be regarded as accidental that it was sent to Rome. But this is not the case. We cannot understand this, the greatest of Paul's literary productions, unless we study it historically in its relation to the church of Rome.
2. The style of the Epistle is described by Sanday and Headlam in the following words: "This Epistle, like all the others of the group (I and II Cor. and Gal.), is characterized by a remarkable energy and vivacity. It is calm in the sense that it is not aggressive and that the rush of words is always well under control. Still there is a rush of words rising repeatedly to passages of splendid eloquence; but the eloquence is spontaneous, the outcome of strongly moved feeling; there is nothing about it of labored oratory. The language is rapid, terse, incisive; the argument is conducted by a quick cut and thrust of dialectic; it reminds us of a fencer with his eye always on his antagonist." Intern. Grit. Comm., Romans p. LV.
Both external and internal evidence clearly point to Paul as the author. We find the first direct evidence for his authorship in the Apostolicon of Marcion. The letter is further ascribed to Paul by the Muratori canon, and is quoted as his by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and a host of others. The Epistle itself claims to have been written by Paul, and this claim is borne out by the contents, so that even Davidson says: "The internal character of the epistle and its historical allusions coincide with the external evidence in proving it an authentic production of the apostle." Introd. I p.119.
The authenticity of this great letter, along with that of the Epistles to the Corinthians and to the Galatians has been well-nigh universally admitted. The first one to attack it was Evanson in 1792, followed by Bruno Bauer in 1852. Their rather reckless criticism has made little impression on German critical opinion. In more recent times the Pauline authorship has been denied by the Dutch scholars Loman (1882), Pierson and Naber (1886) and Van Manen (1892), and by the Swiss scholar Steck (1888); but their arguments, of which an epitomy may be found in Sanday-Headlam, Romans p. LXXXVI; Baljon, Gesch. v/d Boeken des N. V. p.97 ff.; and Godet, Introd. to the N. T. I St. Paul's Epistles p.393, -- failed to carry conviction among New Testament critics.
THE CHURCH AT ROME
Regarding the church to which this letter is addressed there are especially two questions that call for discussion, viz.1. It's Origin; and 2. It's Composition.
1. Its Origin. There are three theories respecting the origin of the church at Rome.
a. According to a tradition dating from the fourth, and probably from the third century, that found general acceptance in the Roman Catholic church, the congregation at Rome was founded by Peter in A. D.42 (Jerome and Eusebius) or in A. D.44 (Acts 12:17). This view is now generally given up and is even rejected by some Catholic scholars. It finds no support in Scripture, but is rather contradicted by its plain statements. From Acts 16: 9, 10 we get the impression that Paul was the first missionary to pass into Europe (A. D.52), and this is just what we would expect, since he, in distinction from the other apostles, was sent to the Gentiles. Moreover we still find Peter in the East, when in A. D.50 the council of Jerusalem is held, which does not agree with the tradition that he was at Rome 25 years. And neither in this Epistle, nor in those written from Rome do we find the slightest trace of Peter's presence there; yet Paul would certainly have mentioned him, had he been the bishop of the Roman church. It is also impossible to reconcile Paul's plan to visit Rome with the principle he himself lays down in 15 : 20, if the local church had been founded by Peter. And finally tradition tells us that Linus was the first bishop of Rome, and Clement, the second.
b. Protestants often ascribed the origin of this church to the Roman Jews that were in Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:10, and witnessed the extraordinary phenomena that accompanied the descent of the Holy Spirit. On that theory the church really originated among the Jews. In proof of this the report which Suetonius gives of the decree of expulsion issued by the emperor Claudius against the Jews of Rome, is adduced: "Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit." It is said that this Chresto must be Christ, whose religion spread in the Jewish synagogue and caused violent dissensions that were dangerous to the public peace; but this may well be, and indeed is, questioned by many scholars. Moreover it is rather doubtful, whether the Jews converted at the time of Pentecost were in a position to evangelize others and to establish a Christian church. And finally this explanation does not square with the fact that the church at Rome, as we know it from the Epistle, does not bear a Judaeo- but a Gentile-Christian complexion.
c. It seems more likely, therefore, that the church at Rome originated somewhat later, and in a different fashion. We know that before A. D.44 the gospel had been brought to Antioch in Syria and spread rapidly among the Gentiles of that region, Acts 11: 20. Soon a flourishing church was established in that beautiful city on the Orontes, a church endowed with great spiritual gifts, having in its midst an abundance of men that were well qualified for the work of evangelization, Acts 13:1. Now there was at that time a lively intercommunication between Syria and Rome, and it is certainly not improbable that some Gentile Christians, filled with the spirit of evangelization, set out from here for the capital of the world. Or if not from here, some such persons may have gone forth from the other centers of Christianity, established, by Paul on his missionary journeys. This would explain, how the great apostle acquired so many acquaintances at Rome as he names in chapter 16, mostly Gentiles, some of whom he calls his fellow-laborers (cf.3, 9, 12), while he characterizes others with some word of endearment (cf.5-8, 10, 11, 13). Some such friends they must have been who went out to meet Paul on the Appian way, Acts 28:25, while the Jews at Rome were evidently quite ignorant as to the teachings of Christianity, Acts 28: 17-29. On this theory the Gentile character of the church at Rome causes no surprise.
2. Its Composition. Quite a controversy has been waged about the question, whether the church at Rome was predominantly Jewish- or Gentile-Christian. The traditional idea was that it consisted primarily of Christians from the Gentiles; but the view that it was composed mainly of Jewish Christians gained currency through Baur and was widely accepted for some time. In support of this theory scholars appealed: (1) To the passages in the epistle, in which Paul seems to include himself and his readers in the first person plural, as 3: 9 and 5:1. But notice the same feature in I. Cor.10:1, though the Corinthians were certainly Gentiles. (2) To those passages that speak of the relation of the readers, or of Paul and his readers alike to the law, as 7:1-6. This argument is stronger than the preceding one; yet we find that the apostle employs similar language with reference to the Galatians, Gal.3: 13 -- 4: 9, while most of these were certainly outside the pale of Jewry. (3) To the character of Pauls argumentation and the dialectical form in which he presents his Gospel to the Romans. But even this does not necessarily imply that he was writing primarily to Jewish Christians, since he argues in similar fashion in the Epistle to the Galatians, and because this finds a ready explanation partly in the Jewish training of the apostle and partly in the fact that Paul was fully conscious of the objections which legalistic adversaries were wont to bring against his doctrine. Besides, he knew that there were Jewish converts in the church at Rome too, who might make similar strictures. (4) To the chapters 9-11, regarded by Baur as the kernel of the epistle, which relate particularly to the Jews. Yet in these very chapters Paul addresses, in the most unambiguous manner, the Gentiles, and refers to Israel as distinct from his readers, cf.9: 3, 24; 10:1-3; 11:13, 17-20, 24, 25, 30, 31.
When in 1876 Weizsacker again took up the defense of the older view, he produced a decisive reaction in its favor. And, no doubt, it deserves the preference, for: (1) In 1: 5, 6 Paul writes: "By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among the Gentiles (tois ethnesin) for his Name; among whom ye are also the called of Jesus Christ." (2) In verse 13 he says that he had often purposed to come to Rome "that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles." (3) When the apostle says in 11:13: "For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office," it is best to assume with Meyer and Godet that he is addressing the whole congregation in its chief constituent element. (4) According to 15:15 ff. the writer has spoken the more boldly to the Romans, because of the grace that was given him "that he should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the Gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost." On the strength of these passages we conclude that, though there was a Jewish constituency in the church at Rome, it consisted primarily of Gentile Christians, so that in ministering to it also Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles. It seems almost certain, however, that a legalistic tendency had sprung up in the congregation, but this tendency may have been characteristically Roman rather than specifically Judaistic. For further details of this controversy cf. Holtzmann, Einleitung p.232 ff.; Sanday-Headlam, Comm. p. XXXI ff.; The Expositors Greek Test. II p.561 ff.; and Zahn, Einleitung I p.299 ff. etc.
1. Occasion and Purpose. It is impossible to speak with absolute certainly respecting the occasion of Paul's writing this Epistle, although scholars are quite well agreed that the apostle found it in the fact that he had finished his work in the East and now intended to visit the imperial city, on which he had long since cast his eye. Probably an imminent journey of Phebe to the capital offered him, on the eve of his departure for Jerusalem, the desired opportunity to send his communication to Rome.
But if the question is asked, why the apostle wrote this letter to the Romans, why he gave it the particular character that it has, we find that there is a great variety of opinions. Some regard the Epistle as historical and occasional; others, as dogmatic and absolute. There are those who hold that the particular form of the letter was determined by the condition of the readers; and those that would make it dependent on the state of Paul's mind. Some believe that the apostle in writing it had in mind his Gentile readers, while others hold that he had special reference to the Jewish constituents of the church at Rome. The different theories respecting the purpose of the letter may be reduced to three.
a. According to some the purpose of the letter is dogmatic, the Epistle containing a systematic exposition of the doctrine of salvation. But if Paul meant to give in it nothing but an objective statement of the truth, the question may be asked, why he should send it to Rome, and not to some other church.
b. Others affirm that the aim of the Epistle is controversial, Paul giving an exposition of the truth with special reference to the opposition of Judaeism to his gospel. Now we need not doubt that there is a polemic element in this Epistle, but the question may well be raised, whether the apostle did not combat legalism in general rather than Judaeism.
c. Still others believe that the purpose of the letter is conciliatory, aiming at the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church at Rome. This theory also contains an element of truth, for Paul certainly was very solicitous about that unity, when he wrote this Epistle; but it is a mistake to regard the promotion of it as his sole purpose in writing.
It seems to us that, with Holtzmann, Sanday-Headlam and Denney (in Exp. Gk. Test.), we should combine these various elements in stating the purpose of the Epistle. Paul had long cherished a desire to visit the city on the Tiber. Through his friends and associates he had received some intelligence regarding the church that had been founded there. And now that he is about to depart for Jerusalem, he has evil forebodings; he may never see Rome; and yet he deems it desirable that the Roman church, which had not been founded by an apostle, should not only be notified of his intended visit, but receive a full and clear statement of his Gospel. Hence he prepares for the Romans a careful exposition of the Gospel truth. And knowing, as he did, the legalistic tendency of the human heart, accented, as it often was in his time, by Judaeism, -- a tendency that probably found a fruitful soil among the moralistic Romans, he clearly exhibits its antagonism to the doctrine of salvation, at the same time carefully guarding and assiduously cultivating the unity of the believers at Rome, of the weak and the strong, of Jews and Gentiles.
2. Time and Place. As to the time, when Paul wrote this Epistle, we can infer from 1: 13 that he had not yet been in Rome, and from 15: 25 that he was still a free man. Therefore he must have written it before Pentecost of A. D.58, for then he was taken captive at Jerusalem. On the other hand it is clear from 15:19-21 that the apostle has finished his task in the East and is now about to transfer his ministry to the West. Hence it follows that he composed this letter at the end of his third missionary journey, i. e. in the fall of A. D.57, or in the spring of A. D.58. This also agrees with the fact that the apostle in the Epistles to the Corinthians (116: 1-4; II 8, 9) is still occupied with the collection for the saints at Jerusalem, while this work is finished, when he writes to the Romans, 15:25.
If this date is correct, then the Epistle must have been written at Corinth. And there are some data that corroborate this conclusion. The bearer of the letter is a member of the church at Cenchrea, one of the ports of Corinth, 16: 1; and Gajus, the host of Paul, is most likely the person mentioned in I Cor.1: 14. Moreover the salutations of Timothy and Sopater or Sosipater in 16: 21 is in perfect agreement with what is said in Acts 20:4 regarding the presence of these men at Corinth, when Paul started for Jerusalem.
Touching the integrity of the Epistle to the Romans two questions have arisen: 1. Is the doxology, 16: 25-27, in the right place, or does it belong between 14: 23 and 15:1, or is it spurious? And 2. Are the chapters 15 and 16 genuine or spurious?
1. The place of the doxology at the end of chapter 16 was doubted as early as the days of Origen. External testimony favors it, since it is found there in most of the MSS, while some have it at the end of chapter 14, and a few, in both places. Zahn is of the opinion, however, that internal evidence decidedly favors placing it at the end of chapter 14, because: (1) Paul's letters are often interspersed with doxologies, but never end with them. (2) It seems unlikely that Paul should add a doxology, closely connected with the body of the letter, after a list of personal greetings not so connected with it. (3) The doxology is closely related to the subject-matter of 14: 23 and 15:1. (4) It is far harder to explain its transfer from the 16th chapter to the 14th than the reverse. Einl. I p.268 ff.
Some, as f. i. Davidson and Balj on, doubt the genuineness of the doxology, but: (1) It is found in all the MSS. (2) The thought expressed in it is too rich and varied to be an interpolation. (3) No possible motive can be found for forging such a doxology.
2. The 15th chapter is regarded by some as spurious, (1) because it is not found in the canon of Marcion; and (2) since the appellative applied to Christ in verse 8 is considered very strange as coming from Paul; the expression in verse 19 is not characterized by the usual Pauline modesty; and the verses 24, 28, 29 are held to be in conflict with 1:10-15, because they imply that Paul merely desired to pay a short visit to Rome, when he was on his way to Spain. But the first argument has little weight, since Marcion omits many other parts of the New Testament, and several that are generally admitted to be genuine; and the difficulties mentioned under (2) easily yield to exegesis.
A far greater number of scholars reject chapter 16, (1) because Marcions canon does not contain it; (2) since it is contrary to the apostles custom to end his letters with so many greetings; and (3) because Paul was not in a position to know so many persons at Rome. To the first argument we need not reply again (cf. above) ; and as far as the greetings are concerned, it may be that Paul intentionally greeted so many persons at Rome to bring out clearly that, though he had not founded the church there, he was not a stranger to it, and to cultivate a certain familiarity. It deserves our attention that the only other Epistle in which we find a list of greetings is that to the Colossian church, which was like the church of Rome, in that it was not founded by the apostle. And taking in consideration the extensive travels of Paul in the East, and the constant movement of people in all parts of the empire to and from Rome, it causes no surprise that so many of the apostles acquaintances were in the capital.
Some who doubt the destination rather than the genuineness of this chapter surmise that it or a part of it originally constituted an epistle, or a fragment of one, that was addressed to the Ephesians. They point out that Phebe would be more likely to journey to Ephesus than to Rome; that, in view of what is said in Acts 18:19; I Cor.16:19; II Tim.4:19, there is a greater probability that Aquila and Priscilla were at Ephesus than in the imperial city; and that Epenetus is called "the first-fruits of Achaia unto Christ, 16: 5. But none of these proofs are conclusive. Moreover Dr. Gifford points out in the Speakers Commentary that of the twenty-two persons named in verses 6-15, not one can be shown to have been at Ephesus; while (1) Urbanus, Rufus, Ampliatus, Julia and Junia are specifically Roman names; and (2) besides the first four of these names, "ten others, Stachys, Apelles, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Hermes, Hernias, Patrobas (or (Patrobius), Philologus, Julia, Nereus are found in the sepulchral inscriptions on the Appian way as the names of persons connected with Qesars household (Phil.4:22), and contemporary with St. Paul."
The Epistle to the Romans is one of the best attested writings of the New Testament. Its canonicity was never doubted by the Church, and it has been remarkably free from the attacks of Rationalism up to the present time. Before the beginning of the third century there are nineteen witnesses to the canonicity of the letter, including some of the apostolic fathers, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Justin Martyr, the Muratori Canon, Marcion, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. Both friends and foes of Christianity accepted it as authoritative.
It is the most systematic of all the writings of Paul, containing a profound and comprehensive statement of the way of salvation, a statement made with special reference to the legalistically inclined Romans. That salvation can be had through faith only, and not by the works of the law, not by one's works of morality, on which the man of the Roman type was inclined to place his reliance, is at once the great central doctrine of this epistle and its permanent lesson for all ages.