Practically speaking, the reason that Romans is placed at the beginning of Paul’s letters is not noteworthy. Although it was not the earliest, it was the longest of Paul’s inspired writings, and a quick look at his letters in any Bible shows they are ordered from longest to shortest, first to churches, then to individuals.
Theologically speaking, however, Romans most certainly deserves the foremost position, as history has repeatedly shown. John Chrysostom famously had the letter read aloud to him once or twice a week in his later years. Martin Luther called it “the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel.” 1 In fact, the Protestant Reformation began precisely because Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, finally read Romans in Greek for the first time and came to faith in Jesus alone for salvation. According to Luther, in Romans he found
…most richly the things that a Christian ought to know; namely, what is law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, righteousness, Christ, God, good works, love, hope, the cross, and also how we are to conduct ourselves toward everyone, whether righteous or sinner, strong or weak, friend or foe. 2
More than any other biblical writing, Romans is a theological textbook, addressing every major area of Christian doctrine, as Luther noted. Because the church in Rome had no apostolic founding or teaching (compare Romans 1:9-15 with Romans 15:17-24), Paul thought it necessary to give them the full account of God’s work, specifically with regard to salvation. This is especially evident in the key words law, sin, faith, and righteousness. 3 Writing with logical precision, Paul carefully laid out the gospel of salvation as the gracious gift of God’s very own righteousness (Romans 5:17) – who needs it, why we need it, how we obtain it, and what effects should occur in the one who has it. The Christian who does not know Romans well is infinitely poorer than the one who does, both in his theology and his practice.
Paul wrote Romans during his third missionary journey, probably from Corinth. It was on his next trip to Jerusalem that he was arrested, imprisoned in Caesarea, and finally sent to Rome to stand trial before Nero (see Acts 20-28). Within about four years of writing to this church, the apostle was finally able to meet with them and “impart to [them] some spiritual gift to strengthen [them]” (Romans 1:11).
- Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1976), xiii. ↩
- Luther, xxv-xxvi. ↩
- These four words, respectively, are the most-used non-personal nouns in the Greek text of Romans: νόμος (nomos, 74x), ἁμαρτία (hamartia, 48x), πίστις (pistis, 39x), and δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune, 34x), occurring almost 200 times together. ↩