The Occasion and Purpose of the Letter
Although Romans has often been regarded as the most important Pauline letter, we must remember that this letter, like all of Paul's correspondence, is occasional in nature: it was written to a specific church for a particular purpose. What is unique about this letter, however, is that it was written to a church that Paul did not found. Instead of discussing problems in the church at Rome, Paul addressed issues that pertained to his own ministry. He wrote to the Romans to introduce them to his message and ministry in the hopes that they would provide financial support (and a home base) for his mission to Spain.
The Theme of the Epistle
Paul presented his gospel as God's act of salvation for those who believe in Christ's death and resurrection. This salvation came to the Jews, but also, and equally, to the Gentiles. By allowing Gentiles into the promise, God has not rejected his people and has not abandoned them. God is, above all, just and righteous. Paul maintained, furthermore, that Scripture itself taught that salvation had always been based on faith and not on adherence to the Law.
Pauline Models for Salvation
Paul illustrated God's act of salvation in a number of ways. One model is the judicial model. In this case, Paul describes the human problem in legal terms. God is a lawmaker who has given laws; God is also the judge. All people have broken the law and must appear before God for punishment; the punishment for sin is death. Paul also describes the solution to this problem in judicial terms: Jesus agreed to pay the penalty for others. God showed that he accepted Jesus' sacrifice by raising him from the dead. To obtain salvation, humans must have faith in Jesus' sacrifice and God's acceptance of it.
The second model Paul presents is the participationist model. Here, also, the human problem is sin, but in this case sin is not an act that humans do in defiance of God's will. Rather, sin is a cosmic power to which humans are enslaved. The solution, again, is Jesus' death and resurrection, but this time it reveals God's victory over the cosmic power of sin and death. Christians "participate" in this victory through baptism. Paul believed that at baptism, the Christian was united with Christ and shared in his victory. Paul used these models as ways to explain sin, death, and Jesus' role in salvation. These models are not the only ones Paul used, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The Flow of Paul's Argument
In writing to the Romans, Paul was eager to describe his beliefs to a church he did not found. He emphasized that all people-both Jew and Gentile-are equally condemned before God because all people have sinned. Paul assured the Romans, however, that God has offered salvation from this condemnation: Christ's death atones for sin. Paul insisted that the Law could not justify a person: the covenant God made with the Jews was always based on faith, not on the works of the Law. Since the Law does not bring people into a right standing with God, the Jews do not stand in a favored position. All people are condemned, but those who believe in Christ's death and resurrection can participate in his victory over evil and death. Even though adhering to the Law does not put a person in a right standing before God, Paul makes clear that his gospel is not "lawless:" belief in Christ demands loving actions on behalf of one's neighbors.