Introduction to the Bible - 45 - Romans

The Epistle to the Romans

by Louis Berkhof


 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.


 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.