The sixth book in the New Testament is Paul's letter to the church at Rome. The first four books are what we generally call gospels, or good news, because they share the life and ministry of Jesus, the Son of God who gave his life as a ransom for sinners. But this letter to the Romans also deserves to be called a gospel because it tells the story of sinful mankind and a God who imparts his own righteousness to them. This letter, the longest of Paul's writings, is the most complete exposition of what God has done for mankind, truly good news.
Author: The letter claims to be written by the Apostle Paul, all of the early references to the letter attribute it to Paul, and there seems to be little doubt among modern scholarship that this letter was indeed written by Paul. Paul was a well-educated Pharisee who was very zealous for the law and the traditions of his people and a leader in the initial opposition of the Jewish religious leaders in trying to stop the spread of the Jesus movement. Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus and became an outspoken advocate for his new Lord, following his commission from Jesus to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul is the central figure in the second half of the book of Acts, as Luke records the spread of the gospel out from Jerusalem, to Antioch and then closer and closer to Rome, the heart of the empire.
Audience: There is some debate as to the intended audience of this letter. Some manuscripts omit the two reference to Rome in the first chapter, and some lost manuscripts appear to omit the last two chapters of the letter. This has led some to speculate that the letter may actually have been written to another church, such as Ephesus, or that it was written as a general letter to be sent out to a wider audience. But most seem to accept that it was indeed written to the Roman church and that the original is what we have today. It is possible that there was a shortened version of the original that was sent out to others, but that is only speculation.
Another question arising about this letter concerns who the audience was in Rome. The church there was likely originally composed of Jewish believers, but had likely become a predominantly Gentile church by the time Paul writes to them. Did he write to the church as a whole, primarily to the Gentile believers, or primarily to the Jewish believers? I have seen arguments for all three positions, with much of that argument centering around the discussion of the Jews in chapters 9-11. Is it written to Gentiles to answer their questions about where Israel sits in God's plan, or to Jews to assure them that they have not been abandoned? Or does it do both? I have heard no compelling argument either way and so assume that it was written to the church as a whole; although as the apostle to the Gentiles, it would not be surprising if he focused just a little more on the Gentile side of the house.
Date: Most scholars date this epistle to around A.D. 56, give or take a year. This is toward the end of Paul's third missionary journey, likely after his long stay in Ephesus, when he was paying a short visit to Corinth and preparing for his trip to Jerusalem to take the offering collected by the Asian church to the poor saints there.
Purpose: This letter is easily Paul's most complete and systematic exposition of the gospel he proclaims. But why did he direct it to a church where he had had no personal involvement? Paul gives us no reason, so we can only speculate on his purpose in writing.
I have often thought that Paul's purpose in writing may have been to impart some spiritual gift to them (Romans 1:11), providing them with the gospel he would have proclaimed if he had been there in person. We do not know who was responsible for founding the church in Rome, or what kind of leadership they had prior to this. It may simply be that Paul was wanting to ensure that this church, which was central to the Roman empire and one he wanted to develop a relationship with, had a good understanding of the gospel and God's purpose for humanity. In a way, what Paul is doing here is putting into writing what he would ordinarily provide verbally to a new church he is working to establish.
It seems clear from the letters introduction and closing that Paul is hoping to establish a relationship with this church as he develops plans to take the gospel further west, into Spain. And in light of that, it maybe that Paul's purpose in writing this is to make clear to them just what the gospel is that he proclaims. It is hard to know just what rumours the Roman church have have heard concerning Paul and his teachings, and this letter could serve to alleviate any concerns they might have had in partnering with him, making it clear that the gospel he proclaimed was God given.
Major Themes: Romans has a series of major themes that build on each other: sin, righteousness, sanctification, the Jews, and practical Christianity.
Sin: Sin is the common condition for all of mankind. Sin starts with a rejection of God and focusing on the creation instead. It does not matter whether you are a Jew or Gentile, following the Law or conscience. All of us have sinned and fallen short of what God had planned for us.
Righteousness: As humans we are incapable of being good enough to be considered righteous in God's eyes. But God has provided us with a way to experience the righteousness that only he can provide. That righteousness is made available through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Sanctification: Because of our new identity in Jesus, we have died to sin and been resurrected into a new life. This life is one that is lived under the control of the Holy Spirit, a life that has no place for sin, but rather is dedicated to God.
The Jews: In turning to the Gentiles, did God reject the Jewish people? He did not! While most of them have turned from God, there is still a remnant that are faithful, and God's purpose for them will be accomplished.
Practical Christianity: As followers of Christ we should be transformed, not conforming to the standards of the world around us, but rather serving in the kingdom of God while being good citizens of the earthly kingdom we find ourselves in. As members together of the body of Christ we should love each other and help those who are weaker and struggling in their faith or life.