The recently deceased scholar Prof. Anthony Thiselton has written a wonderful little book (2016) called Discovering Romans – Content, Interpretation, Reception from the ‘Discovering Biblical texts series. In the opening chapter he suggests eight reasons why we should read Paul’s marvellous letter to the Romans. I will outline the first four here and the second four in another post.
- Paul’s letters are what we call occasional. This means that they are grounded in a historical context and written to a particular person/church, and therefore they are responding to some particular need. After years of demanding travel and urgent writing to various churches and individuals, Romans presents as a mature reflection of the content of the gospel. In this letter, Paul is undoubtedly addressing both Jews and Gentiles, and yet still ends up relating the gospel to the whole of humanity as he relates God’s mysterious yet all conquering plan of salvation.
- In Romans 15:19-24 Paul outlines his motivation as that of a missionary. He explains that his proclamation of the gospel serves the purpose of proclaiming the gospel ‘where Christ has not been proclaimed.’ He wants to invite the Roman church to welcome and support him on his way to preach the gospel in Spain.
- A particular focus of Paul’s gospel lies on grace, or free generosity of God, and thereby mirrors precisely the teachings of Jesus. Reflecting on several of Jesus parables, such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), with the accompanying Lost Coin and Lost sheep, the emphasis is on restoring what was lost, or restoring ‘to where they belonged.’ Jesus taught God’s ‘free of charge’ grace in the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), and the Parable of the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Therefore, Paul’s gospel in Romans fits this focus of Jesus: God’s love in Jesus Christ is free of charge. This is why Paul writes from 1:18-3:31 that all of humanity alike stands in need of this generous grace.
- This letter “has a unique and privileged place in constituting a transforming agent in many Christian lives over the centuries. Of the most famous, we find Augustine, Martin Luther and John wesley. For example, in 1514 Martin Luther was already a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies, yet he writes, “I hated Paul with all my heart.” After encountering Romans in a fresh way, he wrote, “I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God….I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” In his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans (1522) Luther called this epistle “the chief part of the New Testament…the purest gospel”, and went on to propose that every Christian should know it “word for word by heart…as daily bread for the soul”, adding, “We can never read or ponder it too much.”