Paul's Epistle to the Romans is one of the most extensive statements of theology in the entire Bible, because in it he attempts to outline and describe the entire process by which mankind is initially condemned for its sinful nature, and thus doomed for a final judgment according to the actions taken in life, but is offered the chance for redemption through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul simultaneously confronts some of the most pressing theological issues at the time of the epistle's writing, such as the relationship between God and Israel as well as the redemption of Gentiles, but he also provides more general insights into how the beliefs expressed in Romans should influence and inform the everyday life of a Christian.
By examining the process of condemnation, justification, sanctification, and preservation described in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, one can begin to appreciate the enormity of Paul's contribution to Christian theology as well as continuing centrality of Jesus' message to everyday Christian faith and experience. Paul highlights the fact that the only means to salvation is through faith, and not actions, but that actions nevertheless play an important role in the outward expression of God's will as enacted in the Christian life.
Before addressing the theological content of Romans in more detail, it is necessary to address previous and ongoing considerations of Paul's message. As Brendan Byrne notes, there are two general interpretations of Romans that, while not mutually exclusive, have frequently been posited as such. On the one hand there is the presumption that Romans represents "a systematic exposition of Pauline theology, that is, […] a stately procession of theological themes (e.g. justification, sanctification, law, spirit) embedded in a theological treatise cast in the form of a letter."
This is contrasted with an approach that views Romans:
Not as an exercise in dogmatics but as a protest on Paul's part against Jewish particularism [and accounts] for the content of Romans in light of the circumstances of Paul and his addressees, specifically the relationships between Christian communities adopting differing attitudes to the practice of the Jewish Torah.
However, even a cursory examination of Romans reveals that far from representing two oppositional views, in reality one must consider "that the letter, though addressed to concrete circumstances, does offer a unified and structured exposition of the gospel and of its consequences for the life of communities of believers," especially because the elements of Romans that seemed directed to a specific historical audience nevertheless serve to reiterate the larger theological argument.
This will be seen both in Paul's discussion of mankind's condemnation due to the universal stain of sin, as well as the particular historical example he uses to illustrate the notion of justification through faith. Thus, it is necessary to treat Paul's "theological statements in view of their text-external function while simultaneously recognizing and assessing their inherent theological import," because these two levels of reading can only serve to inform and explicate each other.
This fact can be seen most clearly when one considers the first crucial element of Paul's message, which is the universal condemnation of mankind. Paul states explicitly that:
For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
While Paul is obviously arguing against Jewish particularism, this argument is largely incidental, rather than central, because as Paul states later on, the central point of his message is that "Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin [….] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Recognizing this is crucial because it allows one to understand how mankind's condemnation due to sin is universal; that is, in Romans, "sin is Sin -- not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature, but an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God."
Arguments concerning Jews and Gentiles become obsolete in the face of sin's power over mankind, because this power transcends these divisions, and all who sin are condemned to an eternity in hell.
Upon recognizing that all of mankind is condemned, regardless whether they are Jew or Gentile, one can understand why "no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law;" quite simply, it is preposterous to believe that any human action could ever atone for the universal stain of sin that covers all of mankind, because regardless of one's individual actions, the fact remains that everyone has sinned and thus is not worthy of God's glory.
Furthermore, this reveals how the concept of universal sin and condemnation is not as simple as the notion of "inherited sin," or the idea that "Adam's sin is […] somehow transmitted or imputed to all humankind."
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul uses the images of Adam and Jesus to present a kind of poetic juxtaposition, demonstrating how sin enters the world through Adam but mankind is saved from this sin by Jesus. This passage has occasionally been interpreted as Paul suggesting that mankind has "inherited" sin through Adam, but this reading does not take into account the rest of Paul's discussion.
Instead of reading verse 18, which says that "one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people," to mean that mankind is condemned solely due to Adam's sin, it is more accurate to consider the notion of "all people" to mean that "Jews and Gentiles alike are affected by sin and death."
Thus, while sin entered the world through Adam's actions, the sin which condemns all mankind is of its own doing; that is, Adam allowed for the possibility of sin in the world, and every person since has enacted this possibility. Similarly, then, Jesus' sacrifice has the power "to bring both Jews and Greeks into the blessing of the age to come (salvation)."
Paul is clear that all of mankind has sinned, and that no actions performed by mankind will ever be enough to make up for that sin. Therefore, for mankind to ever be redeemed requires a sacrifice above and beyond what is humanly possible, and this sacrifice was that of Jesus.
Just as all of mankind is condemned through its sin, all of mankind is equally "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
This justification, whereby mankind is declared righteous, "is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe," because only by faith can anyone be saved from the condemnation he or she deserves.
This statement simultaneously reiterates Paul's earlier claims regarding the universal condemnation of mankind and expresses the hope for avoiding the consequences of this condemnation through faith in Jesus, which is the only possible way of overcoming the effects of sin.
Once again, Paul helps make this point by discussing a theological matter of interest to his particular historical audience, because uses the example of Abraham to demonstrate how even he, essentially the father of Israel, was deemed righteous not by his adherence to God's covenant through circumcision, but rather by his faith. Paul notes that "Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness" before he was circumcised, such that "he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised."
Thus, righteousness, something that could never be attained through human works, is bestowed upon the individual as a result of his or her faith in Jesus, because "the mark of faithfulness to God is now no longer the law, however, but faithfulness to Christ, who is himself the model of faithfulness and what it is to be righteous."
Therefore, Paul is arguing for "justification by faith alone," because faith in Jesus and his sacrifice is the only means by which mankind can ever hope to be free from sin.
Although mankind is justified and deemed righteous through faith in Jesus, Paul does not suggest that this faith marks the end of the process towards redemption. On the contrary, while faith in Jesus is quite enough to justify mankind in God's eyes, this only marks the beginning of the process, because the next step is sanctification, whereby mankind is made righteous through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8:1-2, Paul states that "therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death."
This does not mean that mankind is set free from sin through the transformative power of the Spirit, but rather that through faith in Jesus and his sacrifice, mankind is subsequently transformed by the Spirit, such that their subsequent actions…