Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome is probably the most important of all the New Testament epistles. Why? Because Paul systematically presents the doctrines of the Christian faith. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such an ordered treatment. For the new convert, Romans plants his feet solidly in the most important doctrines of the faith. For the older Christian, the book is a constant reminder of the basics that have to be returned to over and over again.
For our purposes, Romans is laid out in the form of the covenant. The structure of the epistles is similar to what we saw in the prophets. They all vary somewhat, but it is apparent that the five points of covenantalism are the basic organizing structure. In Romans, Paul follows the covenant in detail.
The Covenantal Structure of Romans
True Transcendence: Romans 1:1-17
Hierarchy: Romans 1:18-11:36
Ethics: Romans 12:1-15:33
Sanctions: Romans 16:1-2
Continuity: Romans 16:3-27
- True Transcendence (Rom. 1:1-17)
Paul introduces himself as a “Bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an Apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). Without any delay, Paul makes certain that he communicates to the Romans the transcendent character of his ministry and message. Neither came from himself or man, but from God, from without. On the other hand, his ministry and message have the presence of God. In the past, we have seen covenants open on a redemptive note. Paul has been “hand-picked” by God to be an Apostle, involving the transcendent creator of the universe in the life of His messenger. So, his communication to them is distinct (transcendent) and bears the evidence of the presence (immanence) of God.
One other interesting factor about the opening section of Romans is that although it emphasizes the first part of the covenant, it also has the over-all pattern of the covenant. Note that Paul’s introductory thoughts follow these themes.
True Transcendence: (v. 1)
“Bond-service,” “calling,” and being “set apart.”
Hierarchy: (vv. 2-4)
Historical development of “promise” through the Incarnation.
Ethics: (v. 5)
Paul’s ministry to produce “obedience.”
Sanctions: (vv. 6-15)
Sanction of “grace to you” (v. 6). Special prayer of blessing also emphasizing sanction.
Continuity: (vv. 16-17)
“To the Jew first” and then the “Gentile” refers to the continuity and discontinuity of the coming of the Gospel. The true child of faith comes by faith (v. 17).
Many times the Bible includes the covenant structure on a miniature scale within one of the sub-points. Paul begins his letter this way. Romans starts where the other covenants have – with Paul’s own calling, the Incarnation, and prayer emphasizing transcendence and immanence – d but the section progresses along the five points of covenantalism. At the conclusion of Paul’s prayer, an “amen” is implied, although not expressly stated so as not to break the continuity. Paul actually inserts an “amen” at 1:25, but it seems to be in relation to “blessing God,” and not in connection to his prayer mentioned in 1:10ff. At the next two transition points, however, Paul will use the word “amen” (Rom. 11:36; 15:33).
The transition out of the transcendence section and into the hierarchy is, “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 the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Paul addresses three issues, one summing up his introduction, and the others pointing forward to the largest section of the book.
First, Paul summarizes transcendence when he says “Righteousness is revealed from faith to faith.” The theme of revelation is one of the three ways God manifests His transcendence and immanence. What is revealed? The “righteousness of God,” which is none other than Jesus Christ. In a way, this statement is the theme of the book.
Second, this draws us to the historical part of Paul’s comment: “Revealed from faith to faith.” He even adds, “The Jew first and also the Greek.” This historic progression of Jew to Gentile is the development of Old to New Testament. This opens the way for the second section of the book.
Third, Paul refers to justification by faith. This is an issue of authority, a hierarchical idea that is unfolded for the next several chapters. The full verse of Habakkuk from which Paul quotes reads, “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; But the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). The context in Habakkuk is pride. A proud man is one in rebellion to God’s authority. In contrast to him, a righteous man lives by faith, meaning he submits to the Lord. Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk leads us into the next section.
- Hierarchy (Rom. 1:18-11:36)
The hierarchical part of the covenant addresses God’s authority and history’s confirmation of this hierarchy. The following section, which runs from 1:18 to 11:36, is a development of these Deuteronomic ideas. Paul begins,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 1:18-23).
Man’s problem of rebellion to God’s authority is analyzed as manifesting itself in two ways: idolatry and adultery. Paul’s comments in the first chapter address both ideas. Turning from the Gentiles, Paul speaks in regard to the Jews, and adds in the next chapter, “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom. 2:22). These are precisely the same concepts taught by the second and seventh commandments. It was pointed out in our study of the Ten Commandments that each commandment dealt with one of the points of covenantalism, the five points being covered twice. The two commandments that fall in the hierarchy category are prohibitions against idolatry and adultery. Paul casts man’s sin in terms of these commandments.
This also means that salvation is considered in this light, specifically justification (Rom. 3-5). In these chapters of Romans, Paul quotes Genesis: “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The context of Genesis follows the theme of submission. Genesis 14 concludes with Abraham’s bowing his knee to Melchizedek, a type of Jesus Christ. Abraham’s faith was pictured as the supreme act of submission to God. Indeed, later when Abraham is asked to offer his own son, we see again the close relationship between faith and submission. To believe God is to submit to His hierarchy.
When Paul comes to Romans 6, the influence of the second section of Deuteronomy continues. He uses the analogy of slavery. One never leaves a state of slavery or submission to authority (Rom. 6:15ff.), being either a slave to sin or righteousness. Then, Paul opens the next chapter with an analogy about marriage. The marriage analogy is an extension of the laws connected to the seventh commandment and defines the limits of submission to the authority of the Law. Finally, Paul ends the justification discussion with the next chapter (Rom. 8), developing how one is empowered to submit to God through the Holy Spirit.
Paul finishes the hierarchical section by a lengthy discussion of “ethnic” Israel’s apostasy (Rom. 9-11). He starts by pointing out that the covenant was originally made with them and belongs to them (9:4). But they fell away because they “did not pursue it by faith” (9:32). This is another way of saying they did not submit to God’s authority. They are so rebellious that they will not return to faith and submission until the Gentiles have been converted (Rom. 11:25ff.).
This section, considered as a whole, is actually a history of salvation: first the Gentiles and then the Jews. This historic tone is consistent with the hierarchical category of the covenant. Paul proves that history confirms God’s hierarchy of salvation through faith in Christ.
Paul ends the hierarchical section with Amen. This time the “amen” is not implied, but stated (11:36). We should be careful not to put too much emphasis on Paul’s use of “amen,” because he expresses it at other points when a shift in subject matter is not implied. Not only does the structural marker indicate the section is finished, but Paul now moves from the hierarchical/authority theme to a different emphasis, indicated by his “hortatory” style. The literary shift is the primary reason for seeing the break in Paul’s thought at this point.
- Ethics (Rom. 12:1-15:33)
Consistent with the other ethical sections of the covenant, Paul lays out the program for conquest by setting forth stipulations, by correcting aspects of the image-bearing offices of king and priest, and finally by specifying his personal plan of conquest.
Paul starts with such stipulations as, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice… Do not be conformed to the world… Let love be without hypocrisy… Be devoted to one another… Rejoice with those who rejoice… Do not take revenge…” (12:1-21). The following chapter even restates many of the Ten Commandments (13:9). Clearly, the ethical tone of Paul’s letter is felt.
But Paul also addresses the two Adamic offices of the cultural mandate. First, he addresses kings. He talks of the proper obedience to kings or “magistrates” and their corresponding responsibility (Rom. 13:1ff.).
Second, he addresses priests. He discusses problems in the Church at Rome which were due to some who still wanted to apply some of the Old Covenant’s clean/unclean boundaries. Paul’s argument is: because the curse has been lifted through Christ’s death, all food is open to man (Acts 10). The wall between Jew and Gentile is broken (Eph. 2:11ff.). The Gentile’s food can be eaten because he is eaten by the Gospel (see reference to “mouth” in Rev. 3:16). To continue to maintain the dietary laws as a point of law is a fundamental denial of Christ’s Resurrection. If a person maintains them as a point of conviction, he should be given deference and treated as a “weaker brother” (Rom. 14:1-23).
Paul concludes this section by returning to some general stipulations. Then he speaks of his personal program for conquest in the spread of the Gospel by outlining his plans to go to Spain, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome (15:22-29). He closes with another “amen” (15:33).
- Sanctions (Rom. 16:1-2)
The judicial section is short and expressed in the form of a commendation, or special “blessing” (16:1-2). Paul “commends” Phoebe, a diaconess, who is entrusted with the responsibility of bringing the Word to them, Paul’s letter to the Romans. She does not hold the office of deacon: rather, she holds a special appointment. This was one of the unique functions a woman could have in the early church. Paul’s comments fall in the “sanction” category because Phoebe was sent with special blessing to bring the special blessing, the Epistle to the Romans.
- Continuity (Rom. 16:3-27)
True to the form of so many of the epistles, Paul concludes his letter with a long list of names. Why? Continuity is maintained. Remember that the continuity section establishes the true heirs. In this case, Paul “greets” several people. He expresses his approval: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also the churches of the Gentiles” (16:3); “Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia” (v. 5); “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v. 6); “Greet Andronicus and Junius, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (v. 7); “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ” (v. 10); “Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord” (v. 13).
There are many more listed here, but these are special greetings’ citations. These are the people in the local church at Rome who would most definitely carry it forward. But Paul mentions some who are not so noteworthy. He says, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned…. And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:17-20). Why doesn’t Paul list their names? He does not want to give them permanent place among the honor roll listed above. He is singling them out, however, to point out the “bastards” of the community who not only break down continuity but will lose it themselves if they don’t change.
Paul also makes a comment that goes all the way back to Genesis three, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20). God had told Eve that her “seed” would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). This curse was part of the judicial sanction and the promise of continuity in the legitimacy section. Here Paul does the same. While cursing the “trouble-makers,” he makes a promise of continuity that Satan will be destroyed.
One final comment. This list establishes the principle of Church rolls and records. The Bible is full of rolls of membership. The Book of Numbers begins and ends with one, and any time the nation is re-constituted, lists start to appear. Why? There can be no discipline, meaning excommunication, if there is nothing to be disciplined from. How can someone be cast out if he is not a member? He can’t. Today when the absence of church rolls is in vogue, the conclusion is that there really cannot be effective discipline. Sure, discipline can be abused, but the abuse does not nullify its use. Also, records keep track of any judicial proceedings for future generations. The Roman Catholic Church has a long record of all its court cases. Unfortunately, Protestantism doesn’t! Since Biblical law is applied through a “precedent” system, these records are invaluable. They help future generations to determine how to make decisions. They help to maintain the proper continuity.
Paul follows the pattern of the covenant in his letter to the Romans. His thought is so ordered by it that he even develops his sub-points in this fashion. Most students of the Bible will notice that most of the epistles, especially the Pauline ones, follow the Deuteronomic structure. But one last portion of the Bible remains to be considered, perhaps the most controversial of the Bible, Revelation. Is the last book ordered according to the covenant? It would seem that if my thesis is right, that the five points of covenantalism are indeed the structure of the covenant and of the Bible itself, then the final book of Scripture should have this pattern somewhere. Not only does the Book of Revelation have the pattern, the whole book follows the Deuteronomic pattern. And it is one of the most obvious examples in the New Testament, indeed in the entire Bible.