Occasion and Purpose of Paul’s Letter to the Romans

1. What was the occasion and purpose of Paul’s writing to the Romans?

I submit that there are occasional, practical, and theological purposes for Paul writing to the Romans.  These are interrelated in that the occasional purposes (wanting to unite the Roman believers and garner their support for Paul’s mission to Spain) present certain practical concerns (how Jews and Gentiles can serve and worship Christ together, and how they relate to the Mosaic Law), which in turn require a theological understanding (how righteousness comes by faith apart from law).[1]

First, Paul wants to unite the Roman believers (14:19; 15:5; 16:17).[2] Their unity is based on their faith in Jesus Christ. This unity was threatened because false teachers would (inevitably if not already) deny the saving effect of their faith through intellectual questions about how their faith relates to requirements of law, ethics and conscience (3:1-7; 6:1; 9:19; 16:18-19). So Paul raises and answers these questions and gives warning not to succumb to the false teachers’ insinuations (3:8). Paul’s purpose is not to evangelize the Romans or to write a summary of the gospel. If it were, then he would introduce them to Jesus Christ (as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).[3] Paul’s purpose is not to provide a summary of his prior teaching (contra Manson, Bornkamm, and Karris[4]).  Thus he does not treat in detail a myriad of more important life issues, such as marriage and divorce, sexual purity, worship guidelines, communion, church organization, or the return of Christ.

Second, Paul wants to garner support for himself and his mission to Spain (15:24, 30). The objection that this cannot be a main purpose because of its placement only at the end of the letter is ably answered by the rhetorical analysis of Wuellner.[5] Jewett takes this further, demonstrating how the necessary theological arguments build to their climax in chapters 15-16. In his words, “This purpose was to elicit the cooperation of the Roman house-churches in Paul’s missionary activities, thus serving the ultimate purpose of divine righteousness in regaining control of a lost and disobedient world.”[6]

Third, Paul wants to solve certain problems that can prevent Jews and Gentiles from serving and worshipping Christ together.[7] To this end he demonstrates that our common faith predates the establishment of the nation of Israel (4:9-16), that united worship has always been in the plan of God (15:9-10), and that loving humility makes unity possible between people of different cultures, religious backgrounds, and scruples (14:1-15:6).[8]

Fourth, Paul wants to teach that believers, Jew and Gentile, are not under the Mosaic Law (6:14-7:6). This was practically important because the law was consistently used by Paul’s detractors to deny the believer’s freedom in Christ (Acts 15:5) and to separate Jew from Gentile (Galatians 2:12-14). Not being under law is important to allow for effective evangelism (Paul’s mission) through cultural flexibility (I Corinthians 9:22) and it is spiritually important to avoid entrapment in sin (Romans 7:8-13). Since the Mosaic Law enjoined ethics, government, and religion; freedom from law begged serious questions regarding ethical living, relationship to worldly governments and religious practice. Paul answered these questions in chapters twelve through fourteen.

Finally, Paul wants to teach how righteousness comes by faith apart from law (1:17; 3:21-4:3; 9:30-10:4). Theologically, this is essential, and Paul structures his letter on this foundation. If it is not true, then faith in Christ is insufficient for salvation, and believers are still under law (8:1-4). If the recipients of Paul’s letter don’t accept this truth, then all his other purposes will be frustrated.

[1] Schreiner attempts to make “glorifying God” an overarching purpose [Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 23]. This is certainly true (Rom. 15:7; 16:27), though ultimately not useful. Any other primary motivation in the mind of Paul could be named as overarching purpose for Romans, since it guided everything Paul did; for instance, love (8:39), or obeying Christ (16:26). It is more useful to isolate the specific purposes that make Romans distinct from Paul’s other letters and activities.

[2] This is practical and applies to the Jew/Gentile Christian divisions growing today, as well as the ubiquitous church divisions based on differing cultures, practice, and scruples.

[3] We should not confuse Paul’s defense of the gospel with the gospel itself. It is not faith in the doctrine of justification that saves us. Rather, it is faith in Jesus Christ (who is presented in the Gospels) that results in justification (which effect Paul defends in Romans). Throughout this letter, Paul assumes his readers know about the person and work of Christ, and believe in him.

[4] Karl P. Donfried, Editor, The Romans Debate: Revised and Expanded Edition  (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991),chapters 1, 2 and 6.

[5] Ibid,chapter 9.

[6] Ibid, 276-277.

[7] Contra Watson (ibid, 206), there is not enough evidence to conclude that the congregations in Rome were already divided and Paul was trying to get them to combine. Karris is excellent here: “I would suggest that Paul’s imperatives and arguments to the entire community indicate that he is not trying to create a community out of the disarray of “the weak” and “the strong” communities, but is concerned to show how an established community can maintain its unity despite differences of opinion” (ibid, 79).

[8] Chapter 14 should not be interpreted with the weak being the Jew and the strong being the Gentile, or even with the weak being those who practice the law and the strong being those who don’t.  Paul purposely words the discussion here to include broader issues of conscience. Being a vegetarian is not the issue.  Being bound in conscience to eat only vegetables is what fits the description of weak.

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