What is the main theme of the book of Romans?
As Paul traveled toward the city of Rome to present his case to Caesar, he wrote the book of Romans. He didn’t know any of the churches in Rome personally, but he would be staying there for around two years (62-64 AD).
The Roman churches were unfamiliar with how he talked about God and what he taught about Jesus. So Paul presented the most systematic of all of his letters, carefully guiding the Roman readers from the depraved mind of unbelievers to salvation in Christ and what we do differently as Christians.
Most scholars refer to Romans 1:16-17 as the main theme of Romans. Paul explains throughout the book of Romans that the gospel message is God’s power for salvation. He really highlights this in Romans 10. But he leads up to it as he begins in Romans 1-4.
Romans 1 sets the stage as Paul talks about the depraved mind and actions of those who accept creation instead of God as Creator. Because they get the God question wrong, they get everything wrong.
In Romans 2-3 he talks about how Gentiles did not have the special revelation of God’s law like the Jews, but they did have to follow their consciences. The problem is that their consciences failed them and they ended up unbelievers. The Jews received the special revelation of God’s laws and promises. But then they turned around and followed the letter of the law, missing the spirit of the law and the Messiah when he arrived.
He then explains in Romans 4 that everyone must come to faith in God. The Jews received a special path to faith in God, but they took fulfilling the law as the answer. They didn’t trust in the promised son Jesus (as Abraham believed in the promised son Isaac without even seeing him. Isaac was a type of Christ). They sought their own righteousness as the Gentiles did with their own rules of conscience and missed the point of believing in faith.
Romans 5-8 moves on to explaining how salvation and sanctification work. In Romans 5, Paul spends his time highlighting the justification by faith that we receive as believers. Then he takes an aside to talk about how sin entered the world through Adam’s transgression at the end of Romans 5.
Romans 6 talks about how we must put away sin. The main idea there is that we are dead to sin. He uses imagery of water baptism and slavery throughout the chapter to explain the switch from being slaves to sin and then becoming slaves to righteousness. This refers to the transition from salvation to sanctification.
Romans 7 is the most confusing chapter for most people. Paul describes how the law no longer has a hold on the believer. Christians are under God’s grace instead of the law. Christ fulfilled God’s law and therefore we fulfill it as we follow Christ.
But the problem is that people who just believe in the law and miss this understanding that Jesus fulfilled it, and therefore we fulfill it by following him, Christ freed us from the law and we don’t need to go through the struggle that we see in the end part of Romans 7.
Paul gives the example of the man who believes the law is good but still doesn’t do what it says. The law of the Old Testament only deals with outward sin. It does not change the heart like Christ’s sacrifice did. So there must be more to living the holy and sanctified life.
Enter Romans 8. This is the chapter about the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and character from the inside out. When we have a living, breathing relationship with the Holy Spirit, he transforms us into conquerors over sin, living to please the Lord in all things.
Instead of relying on the law we rely on the love of Christ that cannot be separated from the believer. This is how Paul describes it at the end of Romans 8. Throughout the chapter there is a reference to the Trinity as God works on our behalf. The Father purposes for us to be conformed to Christ. Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice on the cross for us. And the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in prayer so that we pray within God’s will.
Paul then takes an aside with Romans 9-11. He wants to talk about how salvation works because he sees the nation of Israel not committing to Christ, God’s only way to the inheritance. So in Romans 9 Paul focuses on the fact that God chose Israel above all the other nations. It was up to him to choose what he wished. No one can complain about it because none of us are sovereign as he is.
And yet, there’s still an unbelieving Israel. Paul makes a distinction between the spiritual Israel and the nation of Israel. The spiritual Israel is the remnant from Israel that still believes through faith rather than relying on their ethnicity or the law.
In Romans 10, Paul gives us a gift. He explains how a person comes to faith in Christ. They must first believe in their hearts and then confess with their mouth. This is the only way that people become Christians, believers in Jesus Christ.
In Romans 11, Paul explains that the remnant of Israel, believing Jews in Jesus, are regrafted into the same tree that God began with national Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This idea of grafting refers to a tree that Paul envisions. He sees the base as national Israel. But as national Israel turned to idols, there was a remnant that remained.
This remnant becomes the trunk of the tree and believing Gentiles in Jesus become the branches. Anyone who comes to Jesus is a branch on the tree. But Paul says that as God sovereignly chose national Israel he can also choose to reject anyone who stops believing in him and gets taken away from the tree.
Paul ends Romans 11 with the desire that national Israel will come to know Christ and believe as he has described. At his time national Israel, as it has today, turned away from God and lived a secular existence. As you read the chapters from 9-11 you will see how much Paul as an apostle desires for national Israel, his Jewish countrymen, to come to the Lord.
Romans 12-16 focus is on applying our salvation and sanctification. It gives practical counsel for all Christians. As in most of Paul’s letters, he has moved from exposition in Romans 1-4 to theology in Romans 6-8, the aside in Romans 9-11, and the application in Romans 12-16 for the Christian life.