Romans: Essential Reading

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, shivers run up and down our spines. Or at least they should. 

Paul is probably in Corinth and he’s preparing the church in Rome for a personal visit on his way to Spain.

The year is probably 57 C.E., and that’s what makes us shiver. It’s one of the earliest records we have of Jesus, written just a couple of decades after the resurrection. Paul knew people who knew Jesus, and his own blinding encounter with the resurrected Jesus has made him a firm believer. In Romans, his zeal to proclaim the Gospel is on display.

Martin Luther said the letter to Romans is essential reading. 

“This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament,” Luther wrote in 1545. “It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy (themselves) 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.”

Moreover, reading the letter to Romans allows us to share a crucial development in our faith. Almost single-handedly, Paul – once a devout Pharisee – transforms the followers of Christ from a tiny sect of Judaism into a universal church, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”


For many years, when I tried to imagine what it was like for a distant church to receive a letter from Paul, I saw great celebration when the epistle arrived. I saw Church members gathering to read the letter aloud, perhaps during a meal. And no doubt, I thought, they would post the letter on their door frames so passersby could read it. That was the least that could be expected for a missive that was “the purest gospel.”

But, on reflection, I don’t think it happened that way.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – Nero – had been on the throne in Rome for about three years when Paul wrote the letter.

This stark reality, notes Donghyun Jeong, assistant professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, makes Paul’s letter quite provocative. The letter is addressed to Christians

“in the imperial center and proclaiming that his good news concerning Jesus, the son of Israel’s God (Romans 1:1, 1:9), is the real gospel. By implication, this is not the good news of Augustus, the son of the deified Julius Caesar. Paul was “not ashamed of” this gospel because he firmly believed that this is truly “the power of God for salvation” (1:16).

The historian Tacitus portrayed Nero as a torturer and executioner of Christians. Suetonius also recorded Nero as a tormentor of Christians, and Turtullian called Nero the first persecutor of Christians. The mere mention of Nero’s name invokes images of Christians being fed to lions and other ravenous beasts.

Clearly the Christians of Rome did their best to hide who they were. They gathered in sleeper cells in the midst of their enemies and required new believers to know the code – a partially drawn ichthus or fish – before they were allowed into the community. They knew that their safety depended on the strictest secrecy, and they relied on one another’s complete discretion. We know Christians gathered stealthily in the safe house of Priscilla and Aquila, and Paul shows his complete trust in the recipients of his letter by mentioning them by name. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me.” (Romans 16:3-4a)

We know that most of the Christians in Rome were Jews but many former pagans seeking respite from their dark lives were also attracted to the message of salvation.

We also know that the Jewish Christians were not thrilled with the new arrivals. These gentiles had not grown up as monotheists, praying to the One God. Their males were not circumcised. They were just – different. At the same time, the gentile Christians saw no reason they should be treated differently from the Jewish Christians and serious dissentions rose in their ranks.

Let’s pause and reflect on that.

For me, it seems odd that a group whose safety depended on mutual trust would splinter into factions. It seems unsafe because sooner or later the quarreling would call attention to the group. It also calls into question whether both sides fully understand Christ’s call to neighborly love.

These may have been among Paul’s concerns when he wrote the letter. For Paul, the letter is a prelude to his hoped-for visit to Rome where he hoped to bring Gentiles and Jews together in a fuller understanding of the good news.

“The inclusion of the Gentiles is a crucial component of Paul’s message,” writes J.R. Daniel Kirk. “Human obedience to God must be as broad as Jesus’ lordship. It is not enough for God to save Israel, as fulfillment of God’s promise in scripture; instead, both Gentiles and Jews must live into the new reality that has begun with Jesus’ resurrection-enthronement.”

L. Ann Jervis, professor of New Testament of Toronto, says the gospel is too big to be splintered.

“The gospel as a power is a very unusual power;” she writes. “it is a power that is not self-protective but self-giving. It is a power that uses its power to save; to save everyone. It comes first to the Jew and also to the Greek (all who are not Jews). It is a power available for all, which nonetheless respects God’s history and commitment to the Jew.”

Paul’s first words in Romans are both a preview of what he will say in the following chapters as well as a testament of the contributions of both gentiles and Jews to his Christian faith.

“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish — hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome,” he writes. (Romans 1:14-15)

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel;” he declares. “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)

Luther’s 1545 introduction to Romans is a celebration of what is to come as we continue our study of the epistle over the next few weeks:

“We find in this letter, then, the richest possible teaching about what a Christian should know,” Luther declares, “the meaning of law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, justice, Christ, God, good works, love, hope and the cross. We learn how we are to act toward everyone, toward the virtuous and sinful, toward the strong and the weak, friend and foe, and toward ourselves. Paul bases everything firmly on Scripture and proves his points with examples from his own experience and from the Prophets, so that nothing more could be desired. Therefore it seems that St. Paul, in writing this letter, wanted to compose a summary of the whole of Christian and evangelical teaching which would also be an introduction to the whole Old Testament. Without doubt, whoever takes this letter to heart possesses the light and power of the Old Testament. Therefore each and every Christian should make this letter the habitual and constant object of his study. God grant us his grace to do so. Amen.”


Preached May 7 at St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Rye Brook, N.Y.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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3 Responses to Romans: Essential Reading

  1. anfearfaire says:

    It is interesting, Mr. Jenks, how you boldly proclaim several early verses of Paul in Romans Chapter 1. It is confusing, however, how your church, your Synod, and ELCA tend to ignore, reinterpret, and/or disregard what Paul has to say in Romans 1:26-27
    For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
    And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
    Let us face facts, we are all sinners, we are to love fellow sinners… but through the Blood of Jesus Christ we are washed of our sins. If, sin is not a sin, or if folks do not recognize their deeds as sin, then Christ suffered in vain.

    Mr. Jenks, your church in its Statement of Welcome states that what God through Paul calls sin is in fact, “Not a Sin.”
    I am grieved that St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of today is not the one I attended and supported for some 50 years of my life.

    Greetings from a former member who left in search of the “Truth.”

  2. anfearfaire says:

    It is indeed unfortunate that Paul never made his journey to Spain. It seems his obsessive desire to personally bring funds back to Jerusalem that sealed his fate. I often wonder why he could not have sent a few of his close associates with the $$$ to the Apostles in Jerusalem. Regardless, it was this trip back to Jerusalem which ultimately sealed his fate.

    El pensador de Rodón

  3. anfearfaire says:

    Mr. Jenks. Please specify where you are quoting this: “in the imperial center and proclaiming that his good news concerning Jesus, the son of Israel’s God (Romans 1:1, 1:9)
    None of the multiple scores of English translations of the Bible use this wording for the Chapter and verse you specified. And why are stating “the son Of Israel’s God.’
    Is not God the God of both Jew and Goyim.

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