If there was anyone in the world who knew how to be saved, and was confident in his own salvation, it was Saul—that is, until he met Jesus. Not much is known about Paul’s life before his conversion, but the world has never been quite the same since his conversion. It has been said that, after Christ, Paul has had the greatest impact on Christian thought.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is his exposition of the Gospel. Ellen White writes,
In his epistle to the Romans, Paul set forth the great principles of the gospel. He stated his position on the questions which were agitating the Jewish and the Gentile churches, and showed that the hopes and promises which had once belonged especially to the Jews were now offered to the Gentiles also. (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 373)
Most Bible commentators chart Paul’s life using the timeline provided by his three great missionary journeys. By matching the names of his recipients with the names of individuals present with him, commentators are able to place Paul in certain cities at certain times with a reasonable degree of confidence.
Using this textual method, we understand that Paul wrote this letter to Christians in Rome from the Greek city of Cenchreae, which was near Corinth. Paul established a church in Corinth on his second missionary journey, A.D. 49-52 (see Acts 18:1-18). On his third missionary journey, he visited Greece again (Acts 20:2-3) and received an offering for the saints in Jerusalem near the end of his journey (Romans 15:25-26). Therefore, the Sabbath School lesson contributors concluded that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in the early months of A.D. 58.
Paul’s motivation for writing Romans arose from visiting the Galatian churches. Paul discovered that, during his absence, false teachers had convinced the members to submit to circumcision and to keep other precepts of the law of Moses. The lesson contributor writes that Paul wrote a letter (Romans) to forestall the same tragedy from happening in Rome. It is believed that the Epistle to the Galatians was also written from Corinth during Paul’s three months there during his third missionary journey, perhaps shortly after his arrival.
The problem of false teachers in the church is not a new one, and Paul (along with other biblical writers) was firm in his opposition to such teachers in his day. Christ Himself warned the disciples that false teachers would arise and attempt to lead many away from the truth. In this quarter, I will share some of the great debates that occurred in Christianity throughout the middle ages over Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
This October marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and thus it would be well for us to reflect on the state of Christianity at the time when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. Christian theology has always been tied to history, and an understanding of historical background is important in the study of the New Testament, the Reformation, as well as of our church today.
It is beyond the scope of this series to give a detailed account of the history of the reformation. However, it is helpful to understand the conditions that were in place in the 16th century, without which, the Reformation might not have happened. Moreover, social, political, cultural, and religious factors affected the trajectory that Protestantism took after the reformation, and this helps explain many of the challenges that Protestantism has faced since.
One of the most important cultural developments of the period that set the stage for the Reformation was the rise of Renaissance Humanism. The main characteristic of this movement was a desire to return back to the ancient classics, to a time that was considered to have been more enlightened. There was an interest in original sources and a disdain for subsequent commentary and interpretation of those sources. This naturally led to a reexamination of early religious writings as well, and it became evident that there was considerable variance between these writings and contemporary religion. The Scriptures themselves were re-translated, not from Latin documents, but from the original languages.
This was also an era of trade and exploration. New lands were being discovered without ships falling off the edge of the earth, proving that the wisdom of the past could be wrong. The recent invention of the Gutenberg printing press made it possible to quickly disseminate information; as a result, the level of literacy began to rise. The feudal system of the Middle Ages gave way to sovereign states, and the increased sense of nationalism began to foster a disdain for the political influence of the pope.
Recent plagues had wiped out as much as half the population of Europe. As a result, the people had been brought face-to-face with the shortness of life, and were increasingly interested in the afterlife. At this time however, there was widespread corruption in the church, as well as a theological pluralism that left people confused. The theology of the Via Moderna, for example, viewed salvation as God taking human works, which intrinsically lacked merit, and infusing them with merit the way a king might attribute monetary value to a piece of paper.
In this context, Martin Luther’s call to return to the Scriptures, to embrace a justification that is by grace through faith alone, and to turn from ecclesiastical authority to a priesthood of all believers, resonated with people and princes alike. In addition, the political climate was such that the pope could not immediately stifle the budding movement until, soon enough, it had grown too large to stop.
Just as in Paul and Martin Luther’s day, our church too is engaged in deep conversation. At times, that conversation can feel much like a shouting match, as each side gathers their ammunition and unloads on the other. Sometimes it can feel that the threats from within are greater than the threats from without. Paul’s letter to the Romans likewise reflects very real concerns about issues that had an impact on the lives of his readers.
As we study this lesson, may I suggest that you think deeply about your experience with Jesus and your experience in the local church. Perhaps a deep understanding of salvation has eluded you, and as a result, you feel unsure about your standing with God. Or perhaps you have heard conflicting “gospels” at your local church, and are unsure which gospel is the one that is based on Scripture.
It is therefore important to carefully understand the context in which the letter to the Romans was written. The “Bible” in Paul’s day was the Old Testament. We will look at how Paul used Old Testament metaphors and stories to build the elements of his gospel exposition. Taking a closer look at the passages in Romans, we will examine the phrases and words that Paul used to convey his thoughts. Finally, we will integrate all these themes to understand how Paul expected the Christians of his day to live in righteousness by faith.
The writer of Romans is the Apostle Paul, but the author is the Holy Spirit. In our study, we must recognize the Divine authorship of Scripture. As we analyze what God endeavored to communicate through Paul to the Romans and the larger church of his day, we must also recognize that the message of Romans is just as relevant to us today as it was when the Romans first read it.
There isn’t any record of the reception the letter received when it reached Rome. However, the fact that we have the book in our hands today testifies to the faithfulness of the Christians who initially received it and recognized its Divine authorship. The preservation of the letter through the ages and its power on the Protestant Reformers who were the precursors of our pioneers is also a testament to Scripture’s power to inspire and to enable righteous living by faith in Jesus Christ.