The Character and Structure of Romans

David Peterson (© 2022)

Romans was written by the apostle Paul towards the end of his extensive ministry in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, from Jerusalem and Syria to the Province of Illyricum (15:19). Most likely, he composed the letter during his three-month winter stay in Corinth (16:1, 21-23; Acts 20:1-3 [“Greece”]; 1 Cor 16:6), before returning to Jerusalem. From there he hoped to visit Rome, to begin a new sphere of ministry in the western part of the Empire, journeying as far as Spain (15:25-28). The majority opinion is that this was the winter of 57-58

1.        Character

  • Romans begins and ends as a letter addressed to first-century Christians in Rome (1:1-15; 15:14–16:27). Many believers are mentioned by name in 16:3-15, even though Paul had not yet visited that city. Most were known to him from previous ministry contexts. Some could have sent him details about theological and pastoral issues that needed to be addressed in the Roman situation. 
  • Whatever the source of his local knowledge, it is important to identify the aspects of Paul’s argument that may have been specifically included in the letter for the benefit of the original recipients.

1.1       The epistolary framework

  • The recipients are not addressed as “God’s church at Rome” or as “the churches of Rome”, but as “those who are also called by Jesus Christ,” and as those who are “in Rome, loved by God, called as saints” (1:6-7). Paul portrays them as part of the wider movement among the nations that God is establishing through the preaching of the gospel about his Son. His own calling to be an apostle is clearly linked to the progress of this gospel, as he works “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles” (1:5).
  • Three critical issues are raised in this greeting and then developed in the body of the letter: the centrality of the gospel to what God is doing in the world, Jesus Christ and what God has accomplished through him as the focus of the gospel, and Paul’s God-given role in the exposition and propagation of this gospel
  • In the introductory thanksgiving (1:8-12), Paul identifies the particular significance of the Roman Christians within this wider movement, when he records his gratitude to God that news of their faith is impacting people “in all the world” (1:8). Then he reveals how he regularly prays for them and asks that God would make it possible for him to visit them (1:9-10). His immediate concern is, “so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:11-12).
  • The “spiritual gift” Paul has in mind is not some “gifting” by the Spirit, but

‘his understanding of the gospel that in Christ Jesus God has created from Jews and Gentiles one people for himself, apart from Torah. This is the way they are to be “strengthened” by Paul’s coming, and this surely is the “fruit” he wants to have among them when he comes (v. 13). If so, then in effect our present letter functions as his “Spirit gifting” for them. This is what he would impart if he were there in person: this is what he now “shares” since he cannot presently come to Rome.’[1]

  • In the formal beginning to the argument of the letter (1:13-15), Paul reiterates his desire to visit the Romans and to have “a fruitful ministry” among them. His plan is once again set within the context of his wider commitment. An important theme sentence introduces the argument to follow (1:16-17).
  • In the closing sections of the letter, the apostle highlights his divine commission to preach the gospel to the nations as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, serving as a priest of the gospel of God” (15:14-16). Paul acts as a “priest” with the gospel when he enables people everywhere to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”, which he describes as “your true worship” (12:1). His ministry makes possible “the obedience of faith” (11:5; 16:26), which involves obeying the call to believe in Christ (10:8-13, 16), and offering the obedient service that is the appropriate outcome of this faith (6:12-23). 
  • When Paul speaks again of his longstanding desire to visit the Romans, he announces his intention to see them before moving on to Spain (15:22-24). But he first wants to visit Jerusalem, to deliver the collection from the Gentile churches he founded for “the poor among the saints” in that city (15:25-29). 
  • So he appeals to the Romans Christians to pray with him, “that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, and that, by God’s will, I may come to you with joy and be refreshed together with you” (15:31-32). 

1.2       The body of the letter

  • Within the body of the letter, there is a lengthy and sustained theological argument (1:16–11:36), before Paul turns to exhortation (12:1–15:13). The challenge is to understand how these major divisions relate.
  • Most obviously, Paul expounds the gospel he outlines in 1:3-4, 16-17, drawing out the implications for believers (3:21-26; 5:1-11; 6:1-23; 8:1-39; 12:1–13:14). He wants his readers to enjoy all the life-changing benefits of Christ’s saving work. 
  • Alternating with his exposition of the gospel and its implications, there are reflections on matters relating to the law and God’s purpose for Israel: circumcision and the written code, faith and works, the covenant with Abraham and his offspring, the process of election and the blessing of the nations, food and Sabbath laws (2:1–3:20; 3:37–4:25; 5:12-21; 7:1-25; 9–11; 14:1–15:7). Paul regularly pauses in his exposition of the gospel to address specifically Jewish concerns, using a more defensive, argumentative style.
  • The hortatory section begins in a general way (12:1–13:14), but it moves to issues more specifically related to the situation of the Roman Christians (14:1–15:13). The climax of the section is the challenge to live in harmony with one another, each one seeking to “please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (15:1-2). Christ himself is the inspiration for this pattern of behavior, since he became “a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises to the fathers, and so that Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy” (15:8-9). 
  • The salvation-historical nature of Paul’s argument in this section specifically recalls the long section in chapters 9-11 about Jews and Gentiles being blessed together in the purpose of God. This in turn is a development of certain arguments in chapters 1-8. So, Jew-Gentile questions are significant for a consideration of Paul’s purpose in writing both the doctrinal and hortatory sections of this letter.

2.        Structure

Four important literary factors should be considered in discerning the structure of Romans: alternation, refrain, progression/digression and recursion.[2]

2.1       Alternation

  • In the body of the letter, Paul systematically alternates between two distinct types of material: 
  • In one strand, he confirms or establishes his gospel and its implications for the salvation and transformation of believers. He focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection and the need for “the obedience of faith”, without distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. 
  • In the other strand, he defends his gospel in the face of objections arising from the priority of Israel in God’s plan, addressing the particular concerns of first-century Jews: their Scriptures, their pattern of interpretation, their self-understanding, and their traditions. 

2.2       Refrain

  • In Romans 5–8 Paul employs “a repeated refrain that gives unity to the section and is suggestive for identifying divisions within the text.”[3] In 5:1, 11, 21; 7:25 the phrase “through our Lord Jesus Christ” is used, and in 6:23; 8:39 there is a variation (“in Christ Jesus our Lord”).
  • But if the simpler expression “the Lord Jesus Christ” (with variations) is treated as the refrain, a broader pattern emerges. This phrase is found in the epistolary framework three times (1:3, 7; 15:30) and in the body of the letter eight times (5:1, 11, 21, 6:23; 7:25; 8:39; 13:14; 15:6; cf. 4:24, “Jesus our Lord”). 
  • The confession of Jesus as Lord and Christ is fundamental to Paul’s gospel, and each of these declarations seems to mark a significant development in the argument. “The Lord Jesus Christ,” serves as a formal boundary marker for all the literary units from 5:1 to 15:6, with the exception of 11:36, where a doxology ends the section. 
  • Observing Paul’s pattern of alternation in the light of his repeated refrain, the following structure emerges from the body of the letter:

Confirmation of the gospel                 Defense against Jewish objections

1:18-32                   2:1–3:20

3:21-26                                                           3:27–4:25

5:1*-11*                                                          5:12-21*

6:1-23*                                                            7:1-25*

8:1-39*                                                            9:1–11:36

12:1–13:14*                                                     14:1–15:(6*)7

*Instances of the refrain

2.3       Progression/Digression

Thomas Tobin argues that the expository and argumentative sections of Romans are “interrelated to one another in four fairly complex ways.”[4]

  1. The expository material develops in a linear fashion to give a coherent account of Paul’s gospel and its implications for Christian living. In these passages, “Paul consistently moves beyond the previous argumentative section to a new stage in the argument.”[5]
  2. Each of the argumentative sections takes off from some aspect of the preceding expository section. So, for example, 2:1–3:20 picks up the theme of God’s wrath against human sin from 1:18-32, and establishes that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under God’s righteous judgment; 3:27–4:25 picks up the theme of faith from 3:21-26, and argues that justification by faith apart from works of the law is the scriptural pattern laid down for Abraham and his offspring.[6]
  3. Tobin designates four “larger arguments” (1:18–3:20; 3:21–4:25; 5:1–7:25; 8:1–11:36) that are intended as an articulated whole. They are “linear in the sense of being sequential and interlocking.” The equal sinfulness of Jew and Gentile (1:18–3:20); the righteousness of God available equally to Jews and Gentiles (3:21–4:25); the law and sin (5:1–7:25). 8:1-11:36 then deals with issues related to the interlocking eschatological fate of Jews and Gentiles, which have arisen from the arguments in 1:18–7:25.[7]
  4. These larger arguments are also linear in the sense that Paul places them in a temporal sequence. The framework “is intentionally and essentially temporal or historical in character,” progressing from all humanity under sin (1:18–3:20), to the new situation established by Jesus (3:21–4:25), to the ethical implications of Jesus’ death (5:1–7:25), to Paul’s eschatological vision (8:1–11:36).

2.4       Recursion

  • In an essentially oral culture, certain devices provided clues to the organization, emphases, and development of a work for the listener. Amongst the elements of oral patterning available to Paul were recursive patterns often described as “chiasms.” 
  • Numerous examples have been observed in single verses and larger segments of the letter. For example, a concentric structure of Romans 5–8 is proposed by Moo, observing the verbal parallels between 5:1-11 and 8:18-39.
  • However, the parallels noticed by Moo can also be accounted for by recognizing a broader, recursive structure in the expository sections, where there is an overarching concentric symmetry(ABCDC’B’A’):

A               Idolatrous worship, 1:18-32

B                                  Standing in grace, 3:21-26; 5:1-11

C                                                    Transfer from death to life, 6:1-11

D                                                                     As those made alive, present yourselves to God, 6:12-14

C’                                                  Transfer from sin to righteousness, 6:15-23 

B’                                Walking in the Spirit, 8:1-39

A’              Spiritual worship, 12:1-13:7

  • This structure observes significant linguistic parallels between 1:18-32 and 12:1-2, where true worship is contrasted with the various forms of false worship that characterize human life. The exhortations in 12:3–13:14 bring Paul’s exposition of the gospel and its fruit to a practical end by illustrating what true worship entails. 
  • The tragic predicament of 1:18-32 has been reversed by “the mercies of God,” particularly expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus. Cultic language is significantly applied both to the death of Jesus (3:25; 5:8-9; 8:3), and to the response of those united with him (6:13; 12:1).
  • In this recursive structure, Romans 6 has a pivotal role. There is symmetry between 6:1-11 and 6:15-23 in Paul’s argument, using different terms. The first passage explains how those united with Christ in his death and resurrection have been transferred from death to life. The second speaks of their release from sin’s dominion and a new slavery to righteousness. 
  • The first passage summarizes the message of 1:18-32, 3:21-26, 5:1-11 about the new life made possible for those who put their faith in Jesus. The second prefaces the argument developed in 8:1-39, 12:1–13:14 about believers offering themselves to God, using language revisited in 12:1 (cf. 6:13, 16, 19).
  • The two halves of Romans 6 are woven together in 6:12-14. In an unmistakable chiasm, Paul provides a succinct summary of his gospel and emphasizes the obligation laid on believers to live as those who have been brought by Christ from death to life:

A               Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires.

B                                  And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. 

C                                                    But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, 

B1                                and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. 

A1              For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace. 

  • Chapter 6 is the fulcrum for Paul’s movement from the justification and salvation of sinners by the death of Jesus to the inherent obligation to offer their justified and renewed selves to God. This movement facilitates the restoration of true worship and righteousness among the nations.
  • There is also evidence of a recursive relationship in the defensive material in the form of a ring composition (ABCC’B’A’):

A               Judgment and identity: revealing the true children of God, 2:1–3:20

B                                  Faith, not law, as the defining characteristic of God’s people, 3:27–4:25

C                                                   Law not a source of life: Adam’s sin, 5:21-21

C’                                                  Law not a source of life: human experience, 7:1-25

B’                                Faith in Christ, not law, as the way of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, 9:1–11:36

A’              Judgment and identity: resolving conflicts in the Christian community, 14:1–15:13

  • Judgment and identity are key themes in the outer ring of Paul’s argument (2:1–3:20 and 14:1–15:13). In the first passage, the propensity of self-righteous Jews to pass judgment on others is highlighted and external circumcision is contrasted with that which is inward and real (2:25-29). In the concluding passage, those whose consciences are constrained by Jewish convictions regarding food and festivals, are warned not to pass judgment on the “strong”, and the strong are warned not to despise the “weak.” Circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath were Jewish identity issues and Paul relates these to the new people of God in Christ. 
  • An inner ring of Paul’s argument in 3:27–4:25 and 9:1–11:36 is concerned to establish the relationship of the people of God in Christ to Abraham and the patriarchs. God’s people are now defined by faith in Christ and not racial descent or obedience to the law. Paul explains how Abraham can be the father of both Jew and Gentile. Then he surveys the history of Abraham’s descendants to reveal how God’s election and mercy have been at work to establish a remnant chosen by grace from among the physical descendants of Abraham. At the same time, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Paul pursues his ministry to the nations in the hope that he may somehow arouse his own people to jealousy and save some of them. 
  • The core of Paul’s engagement with Jewish issues is in 5:12-21 and 7:1-25. Here he addresses the expectation that through the law, Israel would undo Adam’s sin and death as its penalty: the law would expel sin, guarantee righteousness, and bring life. Paul confronts this belief with the failure of the law to achieve these things and reiterates the need for Jesus’ death. Paul first exposes the failure of the law in salvation-historical terms (5:12-21). Rather than alleviating the problems of sin and death, the introduction of the law only ensured the multiplication of Adam’s transgression and the increase of sin (5:20). In 7:1-25, the personal and experiential dimension of this crisis is explored.

(4)        Conclusions about structure

The following thematic headings show how the two major strands of argument in the body of the letter are related and progress within the epistolary framework.

1:1-17                        Paul’s desire to visit the Romans: the epistolary introduction

1:18-32                                God’s righteous judgment against sin revealed

2:1–3:20                             Judgment and identity: revealing the true children of God

3:21-26                           God’s saving righteousness revealed: the redemptive sacrifice that makes justification possible

3:27–4:25                      God’s saving righteousness revealed: faith, not law the defining characteristic of God’s people

5:1-11                              The fruit of justification: present and future

5:12-21                           Adam’s transgression and Christ’s gift: grace, not law the source of life

6:1-23                              Dying and rising with Christ: freed from sin’s claim to be slaves to God and to righteousness

7:1-25                              Released from the law to serve God in the new way of the Spirit

8:1-39                              The new way of the Spirit: life and adoption, perseverance and hope

9:1–11:36                      The way of salvation for Jews and Gentiles: the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ 

12:1–13:14                    True and proper worship: love and obedience to God’s will

14:1–15:13                    Judgment and identity: resolving conflicts in the Christian community

15:14–16:27           Paul’s mission plans and final messages: the epistolary conclusion

(5)        Some preaching implications

  • Paul’s pattern of ministry and purpose in writing can be introduced in 1:1-15.
  • God’s saving righteousness (1:16-17) should be preached as an introduction to the passage about judgment (1:18-32) to show the link between these two major themes.
  • The segment on judgment and identity could be preached as two units (2:1-16; 2:17 – 3:20). The latter focuses more specifically on Jewish identity issues and relates the ‘true Jew’ to Gentiles who have experienced the benefits of the New Covenant.
  • 3:21-31 is clearly a preaching unit, because of the way it develops the gospel summary in 1:16-17; 4:1-25 is a unit because of the way it explains saving faith.
  • 5:1-11 and 5:12-20 are different preaching units, because of their contents and style.
  • 6:1-23 is best dealt with as a single unit, observing the recursive structure.
  • 7:1-25 is best dealt with as a unit, because of the inter-locking and developing argument.
  • 8:1-17 and 8:18-39 are distinct preaching units, because of their thematic focuses.
  • Three preaching units may be seen in 9–11: ‘Israel’s Failure and God’s Electing Grace’ (9:1-29); ‘Israel’s Failure to Pursue righteousness by Faith’ (9:30 – 10:21); ‘Hope in the Face of Judgment’ (11:1-36).
  • 12:1-21 is a unit, which explores what it means to live in the light of God’s mercies, and 13:1-14 continues this theme in relation to societal responsibilities.
  • 14:1 – 15:13 could be preached as a unit dealing with the resolution of conflict in the Christian community.
  • 15:14-33 returns to the theme of Paul’s ministry among the nations and its implications for believers.
  • 16:1-27 offers interesting insights into the kind of people Paul was addressing and concludes with a doxology that summarises the message and purpose of Romans.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994)488-89. 

[2] I am indebted to Grant S. Nichols and Richard J. Gibson (“Four Keys to the Literary Structure of Romans” [unpublished]) for these insights. 

[3] John D Harvey, Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998)104

[4] Thomas H. Tobin, Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts: the Argument of Romans (Peabody: Hendricksen, 2004), 85.

[5] Tobin, Paul’s Rhetoric, 86. 

[6] Tobin (Paul’s Rhetoric, 88) notes the disproportionate length of the argumentative sections and infers the need to understand Paul’s message “not primarily in terms of themes or subject matter but in terms of issues between himself and the Roman Christian audience he was addressing.”

[7] Tobin does not include 12:1–15:7 in this material and thus concludes that Paul’s argument moves in the direction of “a universalizing eschatology, which is explicitly the subject of 8:18-30 and 8:31–11:36.”