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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: John MacArthur :: Bible Introductions

John MacArthur :: Bible Introductions - Romans

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Bible Introductions – Romans


This epistle’s name comes from its original recipients: the members of the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire (1:7).

Author and Date

No one disputes that the apostle Paul wrote Romans. Like his namesake, Israel’s first king (Saul was Paul’s Hebrew name; Paul his Greek name), Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5). He was also a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37; 22:25). Paul was born about the time of Christ’s birth, in Tarsus (Acts 9:11), an important city (Acts 21:39) in the Roman province of Cilicia, located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He spent much of his early life in Jerusalem as a student of the celebrated rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Like his father before him, Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), a member of the strictest Jewish sect (cf. Phil. 3:5).

Miraculously converted while on his way to Damascus (ca. A.D. 33–34) to arrest Christians in that city, Paul immediately began proclaiming the gospel message (Acts 9:20). After narrowly escaping from Damascus with his life (Acts 9:23–25; 2 Cor. 11:32, 33), Paul spent 3 years in Nabatean Arabia, south and east of the Dead Sea (Gal. 1:17, 18). During that time, he received much of his doctrine as direct revelation from the Lord (Gal. 1:11, 12).

More than any other individual, Paul was responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. He made 3 missionary journeys through much of the Mediterranean world, tirelessly preaching the gospel he had once sought to destroy (Acts 26:9). After he returned to Jerusalem bearing an offering for the needy in the church there, he was falsely accused by some Jews (Acts 21:27–29), savagely beaten by an angry mob (Acts 21:30, 31), and arrested by the Romans. Though two Roman governors, Felix and Festus, as well as Herod Agrippa, did not find him guilty of any crime, pressure from the Jewish leaders kept Paul in Roman custody. After two years, the apostle exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case to Caesar. After a harrowing trip (Acts 27, 28), including a violent, two-week storm at sea that culminated in a shipwreck, Paul reached Rome. Eventually released for a brief period of ministry, he was arrested again and suffered martyrdom at Rome in ca. A.D. 65–67 (cf. 2 Tim. 4:6).

Though physically unimpressive (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10; Gal. 4:14), Paul possessed an inner strength granted him through the Holy Spirit’s power (Phil. 4:13). The grace of God proved sufficient to provide for his every need (2 Cor. 12:9, 10), enabling this noble servant of Christ to successfully finish his spiritual race (2 Tim. 4:7).

Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, as the references to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1, Cenchrea was Corinth’s port), Gaius (Rom. 16:23), and Erastus (Rom. 16:23)—all of whom were associated with Corinth—indicate. The apostle wrote the letter toward the close of his third missionary journey (most likely in A.D. 56), as he prepared to leave for Palestine with an offering for the poor believers in the Jerusalem church (Rom. 15:25). Phoebe was given the great responsibility of delivering this letter to the Roman believers (16:1, 2).

Background and Setting

Rome was the capital and most important city of the Roman Empire. It was founded in 753 B.C., but is not mentioned in Scripture until NT times. Rome is located along the banks of the Tiber River, about 15 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Until an artificial harbor was built at nearby Ostia, Rome’s main harbor was Puteoli, some 150 miles away. In Paul’s day, the city had a population of over one million people, many of whom were slaves. Rome boasted magnificent buildings, such as the Emperor’s palace, the Circus Maximus, and the Forum, but its beauty was marred by the slums in which so many lived. According to tradition, Paul was martyred outside Rome on the Ostian Way during Nero’s reign (A.D. 54–68).

Some of those converted on the Day of Pentecost probably founded the church at Rome (cf. Acts 2:10). Paul had long sought to visit the Roman church, but had been prevented from doing so (1:13). In God’s providence, Paul’s inability to visit Rome gave the world this inspired masterpiece of gospel doctrine.

Paul’s primary purpose in writing Romans was to teach the great truths of the gospel of grace to believers who had never received apostolic instruction. The letter also introduced him to a church where he was personally unknown, but hoped to visit soon for several important reasons: to edify the believers (1:11); to preach the gospel (1:15); and to get to know the Roman Christians, so they could encourage him (1:12; 15:32), better pray for him (15:30), and help him with his planned ministry in Spain (15:28).

Unlike some of Paul’s other epistles (e.g., 1, 2 Cor., Gal.), his purpose for writing was not to correct aberrant theology or rebuke ungodly living. The Roman church was doctrinally sound, but, like all churches, it was in need of the rich doctrinal and practical instruction this letter provides.

Historical and Theological Themes

Since Romans is primarily a work of doctrine, it contains little historical material. Paul does use such familiar OT figures as Abraham (chap. 4), David (4:6–8), Adam (5:12–21), Sarah (9:9), Rebekah (9:10), Jacob and Esau (9:10–13), and Pharaoh (9:17) as illustrations. He also recounts some of Israel’s history (chaps. 9–11). Chapter 16 provides insightful glimpses into the nature and character of the first-century church and its members.

The overarching theme of Romans is the righteousness that comes from God: the glorious truth that God justifies guilty, condemned sinners by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Chapters 1–11 present the theological truths of that doctrine, while chaps. 12–16 detail its practical outworking in the lives of individual believers and the life of the whole church. Some specific theological topics include principles of spiritual leadership (1:8–15); God’s wrath against sinful mankind (1:18–32); principles of divine judgment (2:1–16); the universality of sin (3:9–20); an exposition and defense of justification by faith alone (3:21–4:25); the security of salvation (5:1–11); the transference of Adam’s sin (5:12–21); sanctification (chaps. 6–8); sovereign election (chap. 9); God’s plan for Israel (chap. 11); spiritual gifts and practical godliness (chap. 12); the believer’s responsibility to human government (chap. 13); and principles of Christian liberty (14:1–15:12).

Interpretive Challenges

As the preeminent doctrinal work in the NT, Romans naturally contains a number of difficult passages. Paul’s discussion of the perpetuation of Adam’s sin (5:12–21) is one of the deepest, most profound theological passages in all of Scripture. The nature of mankind’s union with Adam, and how his sin was transferred to the human race has always been the subject of intense debate. Bible students also disagree on whether 7:7–25 describes Paul’s experience as a believer or unbeliever, or is a literary device not intended to be autobiographical at all. The closely related doctrines of election (8:28–30) and the sovereignty of God (9:6–29) have confused many believers. Others question whether chaps. 9–11 teach that God has a future plan for the nation of Israel. Some have ignored Paul’s teaching on the believer’s obedience to human government (13:1–7) in the name of Christian activism, while others have used it to defend slavish obedience to totalitarian regimes.

All of these and more interpretive challenges are addressed in the notes to the respective passages.


  1. Greetings and Introduction (1:1–15)
  2. Theme (1:16, 17)
  3. Condemnation: The Need of God’s Righteousness (1:18–3:20)
    1. Unrighteous Gentiles (1:18–32)
    2. Unrighteous Jews (2:1–3:8)
    3. Unrighteous Mankind (3:9–20)
  4. Justification: The Provision of God’s Righteousness (3:21–5:21)
    1. The Source of Righteousness (3:21–31)
    2. The Example of Righteousness (4:1–25)
    3. The Blessings of Righteousness (5:1–11)
    4. The Imputation of Righteousness (5:12–21)
  5. Sanctification: The Demonstration of God’s Righteousness (6:1–8:39)
  6. Restoration: Israel’s Reception of God’s Righteousness (9:1–11:36)
  7. Application: The Behavior of God’s Righteousness (12:1–15:13)
  8. Conclusion, Greetings, and Benediction (15:14–16:27)
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