Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, fourteen have traditionally been attributed to the great missionary Paul of Tarsus. These fourteen books all take the form of letters addressed to a given individual or community. In the traditional canonical ordering of the New Testament, these fourteen books are arranged in a block following Acts, and separated into three groups: the nine letters addressed to communities, the four letters addressed to individuals, and Hebrews. Within each grouping, the traditional canonical system orders the books according to length. Thus, a traditional New Testament arrangement will list the books as follows: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. This SparkNote addresses only a few of the most important letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians. Modern scholars agree with the traditional second-century Christian belief that seven of these New Testament letters were almost certainly written by Paul himself: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These letters were most likely written during the height of Paul’s missionary activity, between 50 and 58 a.d., making them the earliest surviving Christian documents—they predate the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, by at least ten years.
During the winter of 57–58 a.d., Paul was in the Greek city of Corinth. From Corinth, he wrote the longest single letter in the New Testament, which he addressed to “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Like most New Testament letters, this letter is known by the name of the recipients, the Romans. Paul’s letters tended to be written in response to specific crises. For instance, 1 Corinthians was written to reprove the Christian community in Corinth for its internal divisions and for its immoral sexual practices. But Romans is remarkably devoid of this kind of specificity, addressing broad questions of theology rather than specific questions of contemporary practice. Whereas other Pauline letters—2 Corinthians, for instance—are full of impassioned rhetoric and personal pleas, Romans is written in a solemn and restrained tone. Perhaps this solemnity can be explained by timing: Romans was the last written of the seven New Testament letters that modern scholars attribute to Paul, and has been seen as a summary of Paul’s thought, composed as his career moved toward its conclusion. But it is also true that, as opposed to the Corinthian church, the Roman church was not founded by Paul himself. At the time when he wrote Romans, Paul had never visited Rome, although Chapter 16 of Romans does indicate that he had acquaintances there. Writing to a community largely composed of strangers, then, Paul may have felt compelled to use the restrained and magisterial declarations of Roman style, rather than the impassioned pleas and parental sternness that permeate his letters to the churches at Corinth.
Because he is not personally familiar with the Roman church, Paul begins his letter by introducing himself. He has been “called to be an apostle,” and his mission is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:1–5). Paul follows his introduction with a flattering greeting to the Roman church, and expresses his desire to preach in Rome someday. Paul gives a summary of the theme of his letter: “The Gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:16–17).
Paul begins with a discussion of the state of humanity before the possibility of salvation through faith in Jesus. He tells how Gentiles worshipped idols, disdaining devotion to God, and how Jews failed to follow the law properly, acting hypocritically by proclaiming allegiance to Jewish law while surreptitiously sinning. Paul says that God’s ancestral promise to the Jews, symbolized by circumcision, does not bring automatic salvation: “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual” (2:29). Paul concludes, “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).
Paul teaches that salvation from sin is only possible through faith. Paul cites the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who received God’s blessing and passed it on to his descendents through “the righteousness of faith” (4:13). The free gift of grace, Paul continues, unearned and undeserved, is a product of God’s love manifested toward the unworthy. Whereas Adam’s fall brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’s sacrifice brought grace and life. The importance of baptism, Paul explains, is that baptism initiates a new life of grace and purity: the sinner symbolically dies, baptized into the death of Jesus, and the person who emerges is “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Christians, then, must be governed by holiness, not by sin: holiness alone will lead to eternal life. Jewish law ceases to be binding: the law arouses sinful passions, and as beings dead to sin, Christians become dead to the law. Paul urges the Romans to live not “according to the flesh” but rather by the Spirit (8:4). Through the Spirit, all believers become spiritual children of God, called by God to glory. This potential is a source of strength for the Christian: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31).
Paul’s next topic is the problem of reconciling the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ with the Old Testament promise of the salvation of the Jewish people. This section begins with a lamentation, as Paul, who was himself born a Jew, expresses his wish to help the Israelites, the supposed firstborn children of God. But he goes on to explain that the Christian covenant of grace is by no means a betrayal of Abraham’s covenant with God. Those who have faith in Jesus, who believe “with the heart,” are “children of the promise,” the spiritual children of Israel (10:10, 9:8). The genetic children of Israel, the Jews, stumbled when they mistook Jewish law for the means to salvation. But the Jews have not been entirely cast aside. Paul teaches that eventually the Jews will come to express faith in Jesus, enabling God to keep his original promise to them.