The Louvre in Paris is home to the Mona Lisa—one of the most famous paintings of all time. It was done by Leonardo Da Vinci in the early sixteenth century. If you want to understand what went into the painting and why it is the way it is, the place to start would be with understanding Da Vinci, the Renaissance, etc. You wouldn’t be doing yourself any favors if instead you plunged into the history of Van Gogh or Picasso.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a heavyweight in terms of its depth and richness. In theological terms it can be intimidating and even overwhelming at times. In a word it is profound. In light of this, one of the best ways that we can help ourselves to get a handle on Romans is to avoid looking at it through the lens of the Reformation or 21st century evangelicalism. The best way to understand Romans is by looking at it in its first century context. This means we ask questions like: Why did Paul write Romans? What did he hope to accomplish? What situation(s) is he addressing? In this sense, we become like archaeologists who understand the past not looking at it through the lens of the present, but by excavating through the present layer of soil to get down to the layer of the period they are studying.
Paul is the writer of Romans. He is a Jewish man who is a staunch follower of Jesus, a Roman citizen and an apostle to the Gentiles. Those are all important colors in his Romans’ palette but not the primary one. The primary color has to do with the righteousness of God. It is not how God make’s man righteous (although that it certainly an important part of it) but that God Himself is faithful (righteous). Following N.T. Wright and others, Romans is a letter wrapped around the thread that God has been faithful in fulfilling His promise to bless the world through Abraham and his descendants (i.e., Israel).
To the Gentiles, this was generally not seen as a problem. To the Jewish people, this was fraught with difficulty. They wanted to know how it could be true that God had been faithful to His people if by Paul’s reckoning the bulk of them were outside of Christ and unblessed (see 9:1ff and 10:1ff)! Something of this tension was present in the church as well as witnessed by the continued attempts of many to cling to a Jewish national identify and to think that Gentile disciples needed to do the same (Acts 21, Galatians, Romans, etc.). All of this tells us that this was the issue in the first century rather than faith versus works, the salvation of the individual, or something else.
If we divorce Romans from its historical context, it’s easy to end up with a stripped down version that caters to our own perceived needs rather than what God wanted said and preserved for the centuries. Romans is a tree that undoubtedly has many branches but it main trunk is His faithfulness in fulfilling His promise to bless the world through Abraham.
Romans will stretch our minds and fill our spirits!