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Summary of Romans: Understanding the Basics of Romans in the Bible

Here is a short summary of Romans: Paul wrote Romans at the end of his third missionary journey to establish the church in Rome in apostolic teaching so they could be a launchpad for his ministry further west. He had also been made aware of the disunity among the churches in Rome, so he wrote to ground the Roman Christians in the gospel’s teaching that all people are justified by faith in Christ and thus there is one people of God composed of believing Jews and Gentiles who walk by the Spirit. Therefore they must welcome one another and glorify God together.

Backstory to Romans

It’s the tail end of Paul’s third missionary tour around A.D. 57, and he is wintering in Corinth. Looking back over the past 20 years of ministry, Paul is pleased with the progress of the gospel in the eastern Mediterranean. He’s convinced he has achieved his goal there, and his heart has now turned west. He yearns to go to Rome, and from there to take the gospel all the way to Spain.

But first, he plans to visit Jerusalem. Over the last year and a half, Paul has been overseeing a large project, an offering from his churches for the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea. The funds are collected and representatives from the churches are with Paul. So when winter is over, Paul and companions will travel to Jerusalem for festival season (Passover and Pentecost). Once that trip is complete, Paul intends to head west.

So during those winter months, he carefully composes a letter to the churches in Rome, one he hopes will ground the churches more deeply in apostolic teaching, sort out the disunity among the churches, and prepare them to be a launchpad for western ministry.


Summary of Romans: “Paul wrote Romans at the end of his third missionary journey to establish the church in Rome in apostolic teaching so they could be a launchpad for his ministry further west.”


As the capital of the Empire, Rome was crammed with over a million people. And although it is 1,400 miles from Jerusalem, a sizable Jewish population called the city home. I imagine Paul thinking, “If ever there was a place that needs to know who the Messiah, the true King, is, it’s Rome” (albeit in Greek or Aramaic, of course).

The gospel had actually already come to Rome by the time Paul writes Romans, and there were several house churches from what we see at the end of Romans. It’s uncertain how the church got its start there. Many surmise it occurred not long after the Day of Pentecost as new believers from Rome returned home, continued meeting, and began sharing the gospel.

What’s clear is that Paul did not start the church there (Romans is the only letter of Paul written to a church he didn’t start), and it appears that no other apostle had, either. Paul’s policy was not to build on the work of others (15:20). He desires to come to the Christians in Rome to impart a spiritual gift to them and to establish them (Romans 1:11-12); thus it seems that the churches in Rome had been operating independent of apostolic oversight.

Nevertheless, it seems the presence of the church in Rome was significant enough to create quite a stir. A few years before Paul wrote Romans, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome over unrest involving one “Chrestus,” probably a reference to Christ (see Acts 18:1-2).


Summary of Romans: “Paul desires to come to the Christians in Rome to impart a spiritual gift to them and to establish them.”


Claudius had since died, a new Emperor was on the throne, and the Jews and Jewish Christians had returned to the city. Now the church appears to be fractured somewhat along Jewish and Gentile lines. Matters of food and religious calendar are keeping them from worshipping together (chs. 14-15). Gentile Christians look down on Jews, including their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ (11:11ff). Therefore, Paul writes so that with “one purpose and one voice [they] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6). Indeed, all of the rich theology in this magnificent letter aims at this objective.

Thus, Paul emphasizes that there is one people of God—all of those who are justified by faith in Christ (both Jews and Gentiles, since all have sinned) and who walk by the Spirit. Paul appeals to them, therefore, that they open their arms and welcome one another, so that they can worship God together as one.

An Overview of Romans

Romans consists of four sections: chapters 1-4, 5-8, 9-11, and 12-16. These sections build on each other and reach a grand climax at the end of chapter 11. Then chapters 12-16 provide some practical application of what’s been said.

1-4: The Righteousness of God is Revealed through the Death of Jesus.

Since Paul didn’t start the church, the opening to Romans is longer in order to establish his credentials and his reason for visiting them. So, in 1:1-7 Paul offers an extended intro and greetings which highlight Jesus’ Messiahship and Paul’s commission as Jesus’ apostle. 1:8-15 reports how Paul thanks God and prays for them, which turns into communicating his desire to come so that he may establish them and impart a spiritual gift to them.

After that extended introduction,1:16-17 states the thesis for this first section of the letter (and in some ways for the letter as a whole since you’ll see references to righteousness and God’s righteousness throughout the letter). His thesis is this: the gospel declares that God’s righteousness, his saving justice, is available for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—through faith. This thesis gets unpacked in the ensuing paragraphs until it is restated more completely in 3:21-26.


Summary of Romans: “His thesis is this: the gospel declares that God’s righteousness, his saving justice, is available for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—through faith.”


So first, Paul demonstrates why justification is by faith, and the basic reason is that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, have sinned. He begins his case in 1:18-32 with immoral pagans. Everyone, even Gentile moralists, agreed that they stood condemned. Next, Paul cleverly turns the tables on all those who applaud the immoral pagan’s condemnation (2:1-16). By their agreement they indict themselves, because whether Jew or Gentile, they too have done things they know are wrong. And to make sure his Jewish readers don’t miss the point, in 2:17-29 Paul focuses specifically on Jewish failure to keep the Law and fulfill their vocation to be a light to the nations. He states clearly that just knowing the Law does not acquit anyone who fails to keep the Law.

Paul continues his focus on Jews in 3:1-8 by anticipating potential objections to his contention that they are justifiably guilty along with Gentiles. This culminates in 3:9-20 with the final truth of the matter: all are guilty as charged and justly condemned. The Law itself acknowledges this and cannot justify anybody.

Having built his case against all people, Paul restates the good news from his thesis in a more complete manner. If all people are justly condemned and the Law is incapable of pardoning them, how can people be set free from their well-deserved condemnation?


“If all people are justly condemned and the Law is incapable of pardoning them, how can people be set free from their well-deserved condemnation?”


In 3:21-31, Paul answers that question. He says God’s saving justice is now available, not through the Law, but through faith in Jesus. It comes to us as a gift through the grace of God. In this paragraph, Paul explains how God can pardon the guilty and still be a just judge. That’s possible because Jesus’ death provided everything needed for atonement and redemption so that God can justify those who trust in Jesus.

To justify means to grant a favorable verdict, to declare not guilty. Through Jesus, God declares the guilty “not guilty,” and yet is still both just (he’s upheld the requirement that the wages of sin is death) and justifier. So justification is now available through faith in Christ, not in the Law. Therefore, it’s not by works and thus there’s no place for boasting.

At the end of chapter 3, Paul asks and answers a question he anticipates some Jews to ask, and chapter 4 substantiates Paul’s answer. The question: does justification through faith in Christ nullify the Law? Paul’s answer: no, it establishes the Law.

4:1-25 demonstrates how this establishes the law by showing that even in the Old Testament, justification was by faith. He argues this by using Genesis 15:6. Notice this verse is quoted in 4:3 and 4:22, and everything in between demonstrates that being declared righteous or justified has always been by faith. Paul even uses David’s testimony to support his point.


“Does justification through faith in Christ nullify the Law? No, it establishes the Law.”


And so, the grand conclusion is clear: those who are in a right relationship with God are those who have Abraham-like faith, and such faith is now focused on Jesus and the justification he provides.

5-8: The Law became Complicit with Sin and Death, but Jesus and the Spirit Set Us Free from Sin and Death.

Chapter 5 draws out some implications of Paul’s argument. Those implications raise a couple more questions which Paul answers in chapter 6, through the first part of chapter 8. The end of chapter 8 circles back to the themes of the first half of chapter 5, amplifying them in rich and beautiful ways.

So 5:1-11 declares the first major implication: our relationship with God is now made right. We have peace with Him. His love has been poured out in us and we have been fully reconciled to him, and thus we can be assured that we will be saved.

5:12-22 shows how the solution Jesus accomplished triumphs over the tragic human problem of sin and death unleashed by Adam and participated in by the rest of mankind. Note: this paragraph has been used to defend virtually every theological position on original sin, which has often caused us to miss the point. The point is that Jesus achieved “much more” (vv. 15, 17) than Adam did. So now there’s justification unto life available to all people and those who receive it will reign in life. Thus, sin and death are defeated and grace now reigns!


“Sin and death are defeated and grace now reigns!”


But once again, Paul anticipates some questions, and begins to work through those in chapters 6-7.

The first question is found in 6:1: if sin made grace abound as Paul says in 5:20, does that mean we should keep sinning so grace can abound even more? Paul’s answer in 6:2-14 is no way! Why? Because Jesus died to sin and when we enter into Christ through baptism, we enter into his death to sin and resurrection to new life. We have died to sin so that we should no longer be slaves to it. Paul calls us to live out this new reality by rearranging our life so that we cease taking orders from our old master, Sin, and begin taking orders from our new master, Righteousness (6:12-14).

This leads to a follow-up question in 6:15: should we sin since we’re under grace and not the Law? Paul’s answer once again is no way! He restates with emphasis that those in Christ have been set free from Sin as their master, so it makes no sense to offer him their services. We work for righteousness now. The paycheck for sin is death, but God’s gift of righteousness leads to eternal life.

Paul continues discussing why being out from under the Law actually sets us free from sin (7:1-12). It’s important to keep in mind the Law doesn’t refer to moral effort in general but to the Law of Moses. The problem, Paul says, is that the Law became an unwitting accomplice with sin and death. Sin took advantage of the Law, stirred up in us all sorts of sinful passions, and we bore fruit for death. This wasn’t because the Law itself was bad but because humans were bad. The Law couldn’t fix the problem of our fallen humanity (“the flesh”). So if we were actually going to please God, we had to be set free from the Law too, and that also happened when we were joined to Christ.


“If we were actually going to please God, we had to be set free from the Law too, and that also happened when we were joined to Christ.”


Obviously what Paul says in 7:1-12 would be very shocking to the Jews in his audience, and Paul anticipates their objection in v. 13: does this mean that the Law became a thing of death? No way, Paul emphatically declares. The problem isn’t with the Law. It’s with the raw material it had to work with, namely fallen human nature.

This is the point Paul develops in 7:14-25: sin has so infected human nature that the Law was helpless to solve the problem. Jews like Paul loved the Law and celebrated the Law (read Psalms 1, 19, and 119 for example), but knew they couldn’t fully keep the Law. And now that Paul knew Christ, he could see more clearly than ever his failure to keep the Law and felt the anguish of one who desperately wanted to but repeatedly failed. So the Law itself was good, but it actually caused sin to increase (chapter 7 is amplifying what Paul says in 5:20).

So what’s the solution? To that Paul turns in 8:1-11.

The solution to the problem of sin and death is Jesus and the Spirit. God offers Jesus as the final sin offering (8:3). And now the manner for living in a way that pleases God is to walk by the Spirit. The one who walks by the Spirit finds life and peace.


“The solution to the problem of sin and death is Jesus and the Spirit.”


So now we live by the Spirit (8:12-27). We can put to death the deeds of the body. We now cry out to God as our Father, and as children we are heirs of all that he has planned for us and for the earth itself. Today’s suffering can’t compare to the glory to come. All of creation leans forward in anticipation to its freedom when God brings his children into their full adoption, namely the resurrection of their body. The Spirit even helps us pray (8:26). So now, with the help of the Spirit, we live with great hope.

All of this is based on the unfailing love of God (8:28-39). He works for the good of his people. They are destined for glory. And we can have confidence in this because Jesus died for us and rose again. And all of this demonstrates God’s unshakeable love for us in Christ (vv. 35-39).

Chapter 8 ends with a rhetorical flourish that is beautiful and moving. It’s the kind of thing you want to sit and savor. And yet Paul knows more questions need to be answered, especially for the Jews in the audience.

9-11: Jewish Rejection of the Messiah doesn’t Negate God’s Faithfulness.

Chapters 9-11 comprise one long, tight argument addressing a very real pastoral problem that Paul faced everywhere he went, namely, what does the large-scale rejection of Jesus as Messiah say about God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel?

Paul loves his countrymen and would do just about anything to see them trust in Jesus as Messiah (9:1-5). But he also knows the Scriptures, so he’s not surprised by their unfaithfulness.

Romans 9:6 states the thesis statement for chapters 9-11. In fact, Paul returns to it at the culmination of the argument in 11:26. So even though the argument can be confusing, 9:6 helps us keep the main point in view: they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel. That is, there is more to being a true Israelite than having Israelite blood flowing through your veins.


“There is more to being a true Israelite than having Israelite blood flowing through your veins.”


In chapter 9, Paul reviews Israel’s history to demonstrate that this is the case. He shows how God always made choices concerning who the line of promise would be. Not Ishmael, but Isaac. Not Esau, but Jacob. So even though Ishmael and Esau had the right blood flowing through their veins, they weren’t the people of the promise. And all of this depended on God’s mercy.

Even in the case of Moses and Pharaoh, it was a matter of mercy. Pharaoh’s obstinance gave God every reason to remove him, but God allowed Pharaoh to operate so that God’s glory could be displayed (9:15-17). Indeed, the whole history of Israel shows God restraining his wrath so that he might accomplish his purposes of sending the Messiah and forming a people for glory in him (9:22-24).

And that people consists of both Jews and Gentiles just as the prophets promised. The reason many Gentiles are part of that people and many Jews are not is that the Gentiles pursued God’s righteousness by faith just as Paul explained in 3:21-26 whereas the Jews did not (9:25-33).

Since faith is the way to experience the righteousness of God, chapter 10 develops the theme of faith, showing that whoever (whether Jew or Gentile) calls on the name of Jesus as Lord will be saved. But even though the message about the Messiah has gone out to the world, the Jews haven’t believed it, and that’s why they are on the outside looking in.


“Whoever (whether Jew or Gentile) calls on the name of Jesus as Lord will be saved.”


Chapter 11 then asks, does this mean God has completely rejected Israel? Not at all, Paul says. Even though many Jews have rejected Jesus, there are still plenty like Paul who have believed. And this is the way it’s always been, a remnant of a faithful few.

Paul then uses an olive tree as a picture of God’s family tree. The faithful remnant throughout the entire OT is like the roots and the trunk of the tree. And the branches on the tree are those who have faith in the Messiah, both Jews and Gentiles. Jews who have rejected Jesus can be put back on the tree by faith in the Messiah. Gentiles on the tree can be cut off if they don’t persevere in faithfulness to Jesus. The only way anyone is part of God’s family tree is through faith in Jesus as Messiah.

And it’s in this way that “all Israel” (recall 9:6) will be saved (11:26). All of this testifies to the wonderful mercy of God.

12-16: Live Together in Peace as One People of God and Do Good in Society.

Now Paul turns to living out everything he’s said thus far. Romans 12:1-2 serves as the header for this section and calls us to be transformed. Then the remainder of chapter 12 calls Christians to live together in peace as one body and to live in the world as a blessing by overcoming evil with good.

Romans 13:1-14 urges Christians to live as upstanding members of society, submitting to the governing authorities, paying taxes, and loving their neighbors.

All of this application comes to its sharpest point for the original audience in 14:1-15:13. Paul instructs the various factions in the church (e.g., the weak and the strong) to quit judging others in matters of food, drink, and days. The kingdom of God, he says, doesn’t consist of such things. So welcome one another so that you can glorify God together with one voice together.

Paul then restates his aim of bringing about the obedience of faith among the nations and his desire to visit them on his way to Spain (15:14-33). Chapter 16 builds rapport by offering a host of greetings to members of the church and from Paul’s ministry team. Pay attention to all the different house churches that are mentioned and the numbers of both men and women which Paul commends. All of this shows that even though Paul didn’t start the church and hasn’t been to Rome, he’s well aware of their situation and well connected to their community.


“Welcome one another so that you can glorify God together with one voice together.”


The final words of the letter are a benediction praising God who is able to establish them according to Paul’s gospel and preaching.

Romans in 10 Passages

1. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written: ’But the righteous one will live by faith.’”[1]

—Romans 1:16-17

2. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”

—Romans 3:23-25

3. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God.”

—Romans 5:1-2


Summary of Romans: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.”


4. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.”

—Romans 6:3-4

5. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

—Romans 8:2-4

6. “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

—Romans 8:37-39


Summary of Romans: “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.”


7. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

—Romans 10:12-13

8. “For I do not want you, brothers and sisters, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved.”

—Romans 11:25-26a

9. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

—Romans 12:2


Summary of Romans: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is.”


10. “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another, according to Christ Jesus, so that with one purpose and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

—Romans 15:5-6


[1] All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard

For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.

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