Several years ago a former student of mine wrote from college to tell me he was reading Romans, and having a hard time following Paul’s sequence of thought. I made an attempt to break it down for him, and this was the result.
There is no better book of the Bible than Romans to expound the basics of Christian theology. However, to the modern reader, the organization and main thrust of the book can get long in archaic language and imagery.
Hence, this little guide. In no way is this a substitute for actually reading Romans. Rather, it should be seen as a help, an overall summary of the book.
It helps to see Romans as a dialogue. The apostle Paul asks and answers a series of questions that could be raised raised by different readers from different backgrounds. Sometimes he states these questions explicitly (like in the beginning of chapters 6 and 9), and other times they are implicit.
What follows is a somewhat whimsical summary of that conversation. The chapters and verses summarized by “Paul’s” lines in the dialogue can be found in red.
Paul: ‘Sup, my Roman peeps! (1:1-7)
Jews: Mozel tov
Christians: Blessings be upon you.
Paul: I’m going to talk to you a little bit about Jesus. I wanted to visit you personally…but it just didn’t work out. (1:8-14)
Everybody: No prob…we understand.
Paul: The reason I want to be there with you is so I can preach the good news. (1:15-17)
Everybody: We’re all about good news. Preach away.
Paul: Well, not so fast. You see, for the good news to be good, there has to be bad news. You have to understand that there is a need for the good news.
Everybody: We’re with you, Paul. What’s the bad news?
Paul: The bad news is that you’re sinners, and God is mad at you. (1:18)
Pagans: Now hang on just a minute…that can’t include us. God has never revealed himself to us.
Paul: On the contrary, God has revealed himself to you through his creation, you’re just a bunch of ungrateful pagans who prefer to worship animals instead of God. And that is why you end up making stupid decisions and doing a bunch of gross stuff with each other. (1:19-32)
Pagans: That’s harsh, man.
Moralists: You tell ‘em, Pauly ol’ boy
Paul: Not so fast, you hypocrites. You condemn what the pagans do…but you do the same things. Do you really think God doesn’t see that? (2:1-4)
Jews: Well, at least we’re God’s chosen people, so God’s going to give us a pass because of that, right Paul? Paul?
Paul: Think again. God doesn’t play favorites. Not to mention the fact that you had every possible advantage—having the law written down and the prophets to explain it to you, and you still rebel against God in your hearts. Just because you had the a part of your “member” surgically removed doesn’t mean you are automatically cool with God. What matters is what’s on the inside. (2:5-29)
Jews: Oi, vey…
Everybody: So we’re all pretty much up the creek.
Paul: Yeah, you could say that. (3:1-23)
Everybody: So this good news you were talking about?
Paul: Ok, there’s this man called Jesus who died so that we wouldn’t have to. The only way to escape the wrath of God is through faith in him. (3:24-26)
Jews: But what if we keep the law and are really good, and help little old ladies across the street, n’ stuff?
Paul: Ix-nay on the orks-way. Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to God the same way…through faith in Jesus. (3:27-30)
Jews: But Abraham…
Paul: Was saved by faith in Jesus. Don’t you guys read Genesis? (4:1-4)
Jews: And David?
Paul: Him too. (4:5-8)
Jews: So…you mean…everybody is reconciled to God by faith in Jesus, even though they might not be Jewish?
Paul: Why is this such a hard concept for you? (4:9-23)
Everybody: So…this faith…what exactly does it do?
Paul: Glad you asked. It means that God is no longer mad at us, as a result of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. It means our life has meaning. It means we have the hope of life after death. And it means we are free from the Old Testament law. (5:1-20)
Christians: Cool. So…if we’re free from the law, that means we can do whatever we want, right?
Christians: No, seriously.
Paul: If you’ve been freed from slavery to sin, why would you want to go back to it? (6:1-23)
Everybody: Makes sense.
Christians: Um…problem. We’re Christians, and we still sin.
Paul: Yeah, me too. (7:1-24)
Christians: So…what gives?
Paul: Remember I mentioned Jesus earlier? (7:25)
Paul: Well, remember that because of Him, we are no longer condemned before God. Instead, we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to walk as God would want us to walk, and who intercedes for us when we screw up. (8:1-30)
Christians: Ok, but certainly there are some things we can do that can make God revoke our salvation…
Paul: Nope. (8:31-32)
Christians: But certainly Satan can…
Paul: Nope. (8:33-34)
Christians: Tribulation? Distress? Persecution? Famine? Sword?
Paul: Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. (8:35-36)
Christians: But what about…
Paul: Look guys…what part of “nope” don’t you understand? (8:37-39)
Christians: Wow…eternal security is awesome!
Jews: Not so fast there. What about us? We were God’s chosen people once…and now look at us. How can you be so sure God will keep his promise to you when he has apparently broken his promise to us?
Christian: Good point. Paul?
Paul: Look here…God has not rejected Israel permanently. Rather, he has set her aside as a nation in order to reach the peoples of the world. (9:1-10:21)
Christians: Hey Jews, guess you’re out of luck.
Paul: Now don’t get cocky, Gentiles. Do you think for a minute that the God who set the Jewish nation aside, is incapable of setting you aside as well? Besides, God isn’t done with the nation of Israel. This is just a temporary hiatus. So you better be nice to them. (11:1-36)
Christians: ! ! Did we say “you’re out of luck?” What me meant was “Blessings upon you.”
Jews: It’s cool.
Christians: So…moving right along…we’re free from the law…but we shouldn’t be slaves to sin…what does that look like, Paul?
Paul: Glad you asked. Here’s the deal: because you were bought by Christ, you don’t belong to yourselves…you belong to God. So live that way. Don’t be proud. Work together with other Christians. Run away from evil. Do good. Don’t be lazy. Be joyful and thankful. Open your home to others. Party with happy people, mourn with sad people. Pay special attention to the poor and disenfranchised. Don’t get even. Try to be at peace with everybody…as much as is humanly possible. Obey the law. Don’t go head-over-heels in debt. And keep awake and alert, because Jesus is coming back. (12:1-13:14)
Christians: Sounds like a plan.
Paul: A couple other things. Don’t get involved in stupid theological arguments about stuff that doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to answer to God, so make sure what you do and say counts for something. If you consistently put others above yourself—which is the true definition of love—you shouldn’t have a problem with this. (14:1-15:13)
Christians: Okee dokey. Anything else.
Paul: As a matter of fact, yes. Pray for me, because this whole apostle thing can be pretty stressful sometimes. Oh, and say hi to a bunch of people there in Rome who know me. (15:14-16:27)
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