Written by Paul from Corinth around the year 58, this is the most didactic of all his letters and the most doctrinally profound. It is also very beautifully written, from a stylistic point of view. It contains a summary (naturally, an incomplete one) of Christian teaching, starting with the Old Covenant, and an outline of God’s plans for man’s salvation after the fall of our first parents.
The letter is explicitly addressed to the Christians at Rome, whom Paul plans to visit on his way to Spain (15:25). He writes to preach the Gospel of God (1:1), for that is the mission to which God has called him; in particular he writes to the Christians at Rome “whose faith is proclaimed in all the world.”
Most of them are Gentile converts, and they are being told by Jews resident in Rome that salvation comes through the law of Moses, whereas they had been taught that it was based on faith in Jesus Christ and that it was not necessary to keep the Mosaic law. Paul feels that they need a more theological induction into that Christian teaching which they have already accepted, and this he now gives them, at the same time announcing his forthcoming visit.
There are two parts to the letter—a dogmatic part, centering on the question of justification (1:18-11:34), and a moral part, which spells out the duties and obligations of Christians (12-15).
On the matter of justification (that is, salvation) Paul starts with the fact that all men, and not just Gentiles, are sinners (3:23) and as such are deprived of God’s grace. Pagans were abandoned by God because of their idolatry, which led them into ever more serious sin, exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. They reached this sorry state because they drowned the voice of their own conscience, foolishly refusing to listen to the law God had engraved on their hearts (1:18-32). They were unable to make their way from experience of created things to the maker and Creator of those things.
The Jews . . . also cut themselves off from God (2:17ff) in spite of the gifts and privileges they received: They had the law of Moses, which prepared the ground for the coming of the Savior; this law told them God’s will, and they expounded this law to others; however, most of the Jews, even though they knew the law, did not practice it—and far from freeing them from God’s judgment this made them even more blameworthy in the sight of their own consciences.
To escape from this situation and attain salvation, the only route, for Gentiles as for Jews, is, Paul states, faith in Jesus Christ: Our Lord by his passion and death has made expiation for us (5:25) so that through faith in him (4:5) all of us can be justified. Paul uses the example of Abraham to illustrate his teaching. Abraham was justified by faith, not by works (circumcision did not yet exist) and “in hope he believed against hope” (4:18). He believed in God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations. God did not grant him this inheritance as a reward for fidelity to the articles of a contract (the Law), but in view of the faith with which he accepted that God’s promise would come true.
Paul wants to emphasize that the Old Law was oriented toward a higher and more perfect law, which Jesus Christ, the Messiah, would inaugurate with his redeeming death.
In this letter the concepts of justice and justification refer to the cancellation of a previous state of injustice or sin. The justification which Jesus Christ merits for us is the same thing as forgiveness of sins: All the sins of mankind are totally forgiven; it is not just as if God turned a blind eye to them.
This is what is called objective redemption (5:15), meaning that Jesus has overcome sin (6:6). Along with this should come subjective or personal redemption whereby Jesus’ merits are applied to the individual to free him from the stain of original sin and regain his lost friendship with God.
Justification is attained through faith and baptism (intimately linked to one another), which allows us to dies to the “old man” and be reborn to a new life in Jesus Christ. This is what baptism is about: The Christian is immersed in water, and there the “old man” is buried along with all his sins so he can die with Christ. United with Christ, we are reborn to a new life, the life of grace, which makes us true sons of God. Thus, “by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: They die with him, are buried with him, and rise with him; they receive the spirit of adoption as sons, ‘by virtue of which we cry: Abba, Father'” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 6).
This new life of grace is what makes us truly to be God’s children and allows us to share in the intimacy of the three divine Persons (8:11). We do not just seemto be, we in fact are his children, for “it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (8:16-17).
This fact of being sons of God means that we should seek to Christianize our whole life. In this letter the Christian life is expressed in mainly two ideas–holiness (sanctity) and sanctification, which parallel, on the level of personal application, the concepts of justice and justification. Holiness means striving to identify oneself with Jesus Christ and to direct toward God everything which previously had been under the law of sin and therefore had become profane, cut off from God (6:19, 22; 15:16).
The sin of our first parents (Gen. 3:17) also affects the whole of creation. Creation is in disarray, and it can be put in order again to the extent that every man is converted and directs everything he does to God’s glory. As Paul put it, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:22), but it will be set “free from its bondage of decay” (v. 21) by those who are and behave as sons of God.
The apostle also reveals that the Jewish people will be converted (11:25-26). When this will happen is a mystery of faith and of hope, for God keeps his promises, and his rejection of Israel was neither absolute nor permanent. But we do know that first the Gospel must be preached to the whole world, “until the full number of the Gentiles come in [to the Church] and so all Israel will be saved.”
In the second part of the letter, Paul draws out the consequences of these principles. The Christian, a citizen of the world, should be known for the virtues of humility and simplicity as befits someone who realizes that everything he has he has received from God (12:3).
Also, he should give an example of charity toward everyone, without any trace of hypocrisy, being understanding and forgiving, never vengeful; he should readily obey lawful authority, because that is God’s will (13:1); he should avoid passing judgment on his neighbor, unless he has a special obligation to do so (14:10); rather, he should put up with the failings of the weak (15:1), thereby imitating Christ.
Paul ends the letter by recommending to the Christians of Rome (and indirectly to us) “to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).