What is it about Paul’s letter to the Romans that has made it the source of spiritual revival and reformation in the church down through the centuries?
The Sabbath School lessons for this quarter focus on one of the most beloved documents in the New Testament—Paul’s letter to the Romans. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, Romans has played a significant role in sparking spiritual revival and reformation. It was through reading Romans that Augustine, the famous 4th century church father, surrendered his heart to Christ and became a Christian. It was the study Romans that helped Martin Luther to first understand the gospel and thus sparked the Protestant Reformation. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and the Great Awakening, also traced his conversion to understanding Romans. Paul’s letter to the Romans even contributed to the spiritual reformation that occurred in the Seventh-day Adventist church with the preaching of A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner in the 1880s and 90s.
It is no wonder that Romans has been likened to “spiritual dynamite”! Martin Luther was so convinced that the message of Romans could change a person’ life that he stated: “It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes” (Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans).
While Martin Luther was certainly prone to rather bombastic statements, his comments do have some merit since Romans is unique in several ways from the rest of the New Testament Scriptures. Here a little historical background is beneficial.
Likely written in Corinth around A.D. 57 near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey (See Rom. 16:1, 23), Romans is unique among Paul’s letters in that it is written to a Christian community that was not founded by Paul nor is it a letter written in response to specific problems in the community (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1; Gal. 1:6). Why then did Paul write Romans?
Having spread the gospel all across the eastern half of the Mediterranean, Paul wanted to take the gospel to the western Mediterranean, and especially to Spain (15:24). Whereas Antioch had been the home base for Paul’s missionary activities in the east, he wrote to the mixed community of Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome in hopes that they might become the base for his new missionary activities in the west (15:24). One problem, however, stood in Paul’s way. Many Jews opposed Paul’s ministry. They feared that his message of justification by faith downplayed the importance of obedience to the law, and in some cases even led to sinful living (cf. 3:8; 6:1; Acts 21:20-23). In hopes of clearing up such misperceptions, in Romans Paul provides his fullest and most detailed explanation of the gospel. He systematically explains the problem of sin (1:18-3:20), God’s solution for sin in Christ and how it is received only through faith (3:21 – 8:39), and finally how the Christian life should be lived in the Spirit.
Before turning our attention to Paul’s detailed explanation of the Gospel, we first consider what we can learn about Paul and his gospel in the opening salutation of his letter (1:1-15).
Questions for Discussion:
- What insights do we learn about Paul and his convictions Romans 1:1-15?
- What if the only portion of Romans that survived to the present were the first fifteen verses. What could we learn about the gospel in these verses?
- In verse 6, Paul says we are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” How does a person experience that sense of belonging?
- While he wants to share his understanding of the gospel with the believers in Rome, Paul also hopes to be spiritual encouraged by their faith as well. Why is mutual encouragement valuable to Christians?