Probably no book of the New Testament has been more read and studied than Paul’s letter to the Romans. The book has been called “the chief part of the New Testament,” and “the purest gospel.”
But for all the accolades heaped upon it, Romans was, and remains, simply a letter. Inspired by God to be sure, penned by the most famous of all the Apostles, it is, in the end, a letter to a struggling local congregation in Rome; and the struggle was over race.
The Jewish Christians in the Roman church had a history with God through their heritage, and they believed that gave them a better standing with God. That “standing” they called “righteousness.” Righteousness was achieved because they were Jews, and being Jewish meant circumcision, observing dietary laws, and Jewish festivals. These were the means of securing righteousness, and the evidence of their standing. Unfortunately, since those were the identifying marks, other areas of obedience, like trust in God, sexual purity, respect for authority, and looking after the needs of others were short-changed.
The Gentile Christians on the other hand had no history with God. But they had been saved by grace through faith. If they could be saved without such a heritage, why did they need it? Their temptation was to get rid of everything Jewish. That, of course, included the Old Testament. Unfortunately, by getting rid of the Old Testament and focusing solely on salvation by grace, their lives ended up with little ethical direction.
In this letter, Paul walks a tightrope. On the one hand, he must insist that salvation has nothing to do with the actions of mankind (we can’t save ourselves), and everything to do with the action of God. That won’t make the Jewish Christians happy. On the other hand, he must insist that the Christian’s standing with God, “righteousness,” cannot be separated from obedience (and that won’t make the gentile Christians happy). And so, as he begins, he speaks of the good news of God, that through Jesus Christ, people have been called to an “obedience” which proceeds from “faith.”