Learning to Think Biblically in Romans:
The Basic Elements of a Christian Worldview Found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Paul’s letter to the Romans has been referred to as an occasional rather than systematic theology. That is, while profoundly and thoroughly theological in content and purpose, it is not intended to be a complete treatment of Christian doctrine. Its emphasis is on the particular needs Paul is addressing, specifically an explanation of the gospel and its principle of justification by faith (1:16-17; 3:21-31). But even though the letter is not a systematic or complete treatise on theology, it is more systematic and consciously theological than many other New Testament writings. Paul writes to an audience which is mostly unknown to him, so he explains and outlines certain things he may have been able to leave unstated if addressing a familiar audience, well-acquainted with his preaching. This provides an excellent opportunity for modern readers to discover many of the themes important to Paul’s understanding and presentation of the gospel.
In this essay we will concern ourselves with principles found in Romans which are essential in the formation of a biblical worldview. One’s worldview (weltanschauung) refers to a “comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.” Thus, a biblical worldview will be a comprehensive perspective on the world and humanity’s place drawn from the revelation of the Christian scriptures. We will briefly survey the Roman epistle to discover what may be learned about creation, sin, salvation, eschatology, ethics, and theology, truths which should be included in a biblical worldview. Though we cannot expect to construct a complete worldview from only one canonical letter, this exercise will provide a concise introduction to the major themes of such a perspective.
Thinking Biblically About Creation in Romans
The letter to Rome indicates God’s creation is a manifestation of His existence and power (1:20-21). Certain truths can be known of God from the general revelation of God’s natural creation, a disclosure of Himself which speaks to everyone in every language and culture, regardless of their access to Scripture or the gospel (cf. Ps. 19:1-6). Though it is not possible to discern God’s exact nature or His will for humanity from the natural world, it is inexcusable to deny His presence and participation in it.
Though the Bible indicates men and women were originally created good (Ge. 1:26-31; Ecc. 7:29), Romans portrays human nature as inevitably and thoroughly sinful (3:10-20; 5:12). Human beings do not merely sin; we are sinners. The human race is enslaved to sin and under the power of it. Yet even in our fallen state, there remains a measure of rationality and an innate awareness of morality (2:14-15; 10:14). This inner consciousness is not sufficient to save, nor is it adequate to produce faith apart from the introduction of grace (10:17). Human intellect should not be trusted as “an impartial arbiter capable of standing outside the influence of the ego and returning a perfectly objective judgment.” But it is, nevertheless, an indication of the creative handiwork of God.
Thinking Biblically About Sin in Romans
Paul describes the problem of sin as pervasive in Romans; indeed, he indicates it is universal (3:10-20, 23). Paul’s declaration “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” captures the essence of his argument in 1:18-3:20. The consequence of this corruption is death (6:23). That people die because of sin’s curse is undoubtedly true, but even more important in relation to Paul’s argument, it is spiritual death, the loss of fellowship with and access to God, which is both the punishment and consequence of our sin (5:12-21; 6:23a; 7:9-11; 8:6-8). This condition cannot be repaired by man. Fellowship with God cannot be attained or regained simply by willing or doing (7:14-24). It is a relationship only God can restore (7:25-8:4).
Thinking Biblically About Salvation in Romans
The Nature and Mission of Christ
Romans presents salvation as first and foremost resting on the person and work of Christ. He “was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” and “was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, by the Spirit of holiness” (1:3-4). Linguistic factors suggest Paul may have been using an existing “confessional formula” in this affirmation. Regardless, the portrait of Christ in the letter to Rome is consistent with the Christology found in the rest of the New Testament. He is the Son of God who became a man and was crucified and resurrected, to save those who believe (3:24-26; 4:24-25; 5:15-21; 8:2).
The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is primarily associated with Romans, though it is affirmed throughout the canon (3:21-28; 4:1-8; 5:1-2). Paul argues no one will be saved by law since “the sinful condition of all people renders it impossible to obey.” Human beings have sinned and continue to fall short, and the most the law can do in relation to justification is highlight our need for it (5:20; 7:7-13). Therefore, since no one will be justified by deeds, whether done in obedience to God’s law or not, justification must be accomplished on another basis. Faith in Jesus, the full trust in His saving work and power, is the condition of justification (3:21-28; 4:4-5; 10:4-13). This faith will inevitably produce and be accompanied by obedience to God’s word (1:5; 6:17-18; 16:26). But justification is received on the condition of faith, not works of obedience which, like all other human efforts, will inevitably fall short of perfection (2:13; 3:20).
Christians are called to be living sacrifices, fully devoted to God’s will and service, discovering and displaying in their daily lives the perfect will of the Father (12:1-2). Rather than conformity to the standards and values of the world, believers are to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, enabled by the transformation of their minds and the sanctifying influence of God’s Holy Spirit (8:5-8, 12-14, 29). This inward transformation, changing the heart and mind to be like Christ, does not negate the need for explicit commandments. The instructions God gives Christians in the New Testament are guidelines which both inform and correct our understanding of life in the Spirit. Saints are to live in view of the day of redemption, this eschatological hope empowering daily holiness, perseverance, and prayer (8:18-28; 13:11-14).
The believer’s life should demonstrate the power of grace and its transforming influence. Romans will not allow us “to accept any abstract understanding of grace separated from concrete daily living.” Salvation is more than the pardon of past sins; it is also power for overcoming the present sin which so often ensnares us (7:24-8:4, 13). As C. E. B. Cranfield observes:
Those who know that God has graciously decided to see them as having died to sin can hardly go on living in it complacently. It is an inescapable implication of their baptism that, far from continuing to allow sin to reign over them as the undisputed master of their lives, they must – and can – rebel against the usurping tyrant and present themselves to Him to whom they by right belong. They have been decisively claimed for obedience to God, for sanctification.
Thus, Christian obedience is merely responsive; it is the manifestation of gratitude for what God has graciously and freely done to save the believer in Christ.
Thinking Biblically About Eschatology in Romans
Eschatology is a major factor in Paul’s letter to the Romans, but not in the way the end-times are popularly thought of and discussed. The apostle foresees the grace now reigning in believers’ lives as one day ultimately reigning throughout creation (5:20-21). The natural world, like its human inhabitants, is now cursed by the presence and power of sin, but a day of liberation is coming when the sons of God will be revealed and the natural world released from its corruption (8:18-25). This hope sustains believers even while they suffer, knowing “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (8:28). Paul includes this eschatological perspective in his discussion of ethics and behavior, exhorting the Roman Christians to greater sanctification in view of the coming day (13:11-14). The Christian’s worldview and obedience of faith is guided by the conviction God will ultimately triumph over the devil, sin, and death (16:20).
Thinking Biblically About Ethics in Romans
Paul’s letter to Rome presents the Christian ethic as based on love (12:8). The specific behaviors mandated by commandments are expositions and applications of the principle of divine love (12:9). Thus adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness are excluded, not by the Christian’s obligation to Old Testament law, but by the responsibility to Christ’s law, the law of love (cf. Mt. 7:12; Mk. 12:28-31; Lk. 10:25-37; Jn. 13:34-35; Ga. 6:2). Genuine love seeks the best interests of its object, serving sacrificially for another’s good. Therefore, acting selfishly to harm a neighbor is incompatible with the principle of love (12:10).
Paul devotes the latter chapters of the Roman epistle to expounding the Christian’s ethical responsibility (12:1-15:13). The believer’s obligations and behavior are to be inspired and guided by the abundant mercies of God which are received in Christ (12:1-2). Having established the foundation and aim of sanctification, the apostle makes application to the believer’s ministry (12:3-8), social behavior (12:9-16), attitude toward enemies (12:17-21), attitude toward the civil government (13:1-7), and actions toward neighbors (13:8-10). He then emphasizes the eschatological urgency of ethical behavior (13:11-14) before making extensive application of these principles in resolving religious tensions among believers in the local church (14:1-15:13).
Thinking Biblically About Theology in Romans
Romans deals more with the gospel and justification than with the doctrine of God Himself, but that does not deny that much can be learned in the letter about God’s nature and attributes. The letter portrays God as righteous, holy, and just (1:17). God’s own righteousness does not allow Him to have fellowship with darkness and those who walk in it (1:24, 26, 28). His justice requires him to judge sin and sinners as objects of His holy wrath (1:18, 32; 2:5-11; 3:5-6; 12:19). The Lord is loving and kind, even to the objects of His wrath and judgment (5:5-11). God desires to show mercy, but His justice must be satisfied for anyone to be justified (3:24-26; 8:3-4). He gives believers eternal life (6:23), adopts them into His family (8:15), indwells them through His Holy Spirit (8:9-11), and assures them no external circumstance or power can ever separate them from His love (8:31-39).
Romans represents God as sovereign (9:9-13, 17-18). He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He has perfect freedom to choose and to rule, and is obligated by nothing but His own nature and promises (9:14-16). He is faithful to His word (11:1-5), but His governance is above dispute or reproof (9:19-23). Human beings must submit to and meet God on His own terms; God is not required to accept anyone, nor can human beings determine the terms for divine fellowship (10:3). While the discussion of God’s sovereign election in salvation history (chapters 9-11) should challenge every reader, Paul provides ample reason to believe “the deep mystery which surrounds us is neither a nightmare mystery of meaninglessness nor a dark mystery of arbitrary omnipotence but the mystery which will never turn out to be anything other than the mystery of the altogether good and merciful and faithful God.” The gracious sovereignty of God locates the basis for confidence and rejoicing in His work alone (3:21-24, 27; 11:19-24).
The letter to the Roman saints helps us understand the themes which were important to Paul’s understanding and presentation of the gospel of Christ. This message, which reveals God’s righteousness and is His power to bring people to salvation (1:16), is grounded in theological truth, including truths about creation, sin, salvation, eschatology, ethics, and the nature and character of God. Not all of these themes are treated with equal clarity or comprehensiveness in Romans, but all are undeniably present in the apostle’s exposition of the good news of Christ.
Research published in 2009 indicated that even among those claiming to be born again Christians only 19% had what could be described as even a minimally biblical worldview. This data highlights the importance not only of being exposed to the Bible but of incorporating its teaching into our thinking and lives. Unless Christians cultivate a perspective on this world which is grounded in God’s revelation, we cannot expect to think, choose, and act in a way which honors Him. This is why biblical studies which aim to discern, define, and develop a proper worldview are both valuable and essential.
 Moo, 20.
 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1459.
 Cranfield, 32.
 Moo, 121-122, see also 189-192.
 Cranfield, 33.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 4.
 Moo, 232.
 Stott, 189-190.
 Stott, 238-241.
 Moo, 436-438.
 Stott, 320-324.
 Moo, 413.
 Cranfield, 290.
 Barna Group, “Barna Survey Examines Changes in Worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years.”
Barna Group. “Barna Survey Examines Changes in Worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years.” (March 6, 2009). http://www.barna.org/transformation-articles/252-barna-survey-examines-changes-in-worldview-among-christians-over-the-past-13-years (accessed June 18, 2012).
Cranfield, C. E. B. Romans: A Short Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
Moo, Douglas J. Romans: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of Romans: God’s good news for the world. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1994.
Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. 2nd edition. New York: Random House, 1997.