Introduction: Why is Romans So Powerful?
Paul had never been to Rome, and he spoke of this goal (Ac 19:21), finding encouragement in God's promise that he "must testify also in Rome" (Ac 23:11, ESV). He wrote to introduce himself properly to tell the Roman church of his wish to visit (1:11,15). But Paul's deepest desire and mission was to bring the gospel to new regions where Christ had never been named, so that "'those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand'" (Ro 15:20–21). With this in mind, he aspired to bring salvation to Spain (15:23-24,28), an influential region beyond Rome that would benefit from a base of operations in that great capitol city. Paul knew some of the saints in Rome, and they certainly knew of him, but with Paul's enemies slandering him, he needed to set out once and for all the gospel that he preached. So rather than solving church problems like many of Paul's letters, Romans gives us an in-depth treatise on the good news that can save us all (1:16-17).
The Good News in a Nutshell
The emphasis on the gospel (or "good news") is clear right from the beginning of the letter, starting with how Paul describes himself: "set apart for the gospel" (1:1). He goes on to use the word "gospel" four times in the first chapter (1:1,9,15,16). The center of the gospel is the person, Jesus, who is: 1. God's son (1:3), 2. a descendent of David "according to the flesh" (1:3) 3. risen from the dead (1:4), 4. Christ our Lord (1:4), 5. the one who sent Paul to bring about the obedience of faith to all nations (1:5), and 6. the one who fulfilled the promises of Scripture in all these things (1:2). Paul completes the introduction to the book by proclaiming the purpose of the gospel: "it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" because it reveals the "righteousness of God" (1:16-17).
But first the Bad News...
Yet even as God has revealed his righteousness in the gospel (1:17), He has also revealed his wrath "against all ungodliness" (1:18). Everyone should be able to see enough about God to open their hearts to him, yet people bring judgment upon themselves by choosing not to honor him (1:19-21). God has reached out to reveal Himself to the world through: 1. his son's resurrection (1:4), 2. his gospel (1:16-17), 3. his wrath (1:18,24-32), 4. his creation (1:19-21), 5. his kindness (2:4), and 6. his moral law on our hearts (2:14-15). This should be good news, but ultimately it only leaves us without excuse, deserving judgment for our sin.
Bad News for Gentiles: The Gentiles of Paul's day—like the world around us today—tragically chose to trade all that was good for worthless things. In his wrath, God gave them over to their desires and allowed them to exchange: 1. the immortal God for images of mortals (1:23), serving creatures rather than the Creator (1:25), 2. the truth of God for a lie (1:25), 3. "natural relations" between a man and woman for "those that are contrary to nature" (1:26), and 4. the "renewed mind" (12:2) for a "debased mind" full of “evil, covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (1:28-31).
Bad News for Jews, too: In reading this list of sins, many of us might fall into the same rhetorical trap Paul had set for the Jews: just when it seems he's indicting all the sins we think should be judged harshly, he turns on us! "Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?" (2:3). Yes,"the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things" (2:2) yet "God shows no partiality" (2:11), judging "the secrets" of both Jew and Gentile — whoever is not a "doer" of God's law (2:12-16).
The Bad News is for Everyone, But So is the Good News: Since "all have sinned" (3:23), let "every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world" answer to God (3:20). When God now reveals a righteousness apart from the Old Law through the death of the Messiah, we must humbly receive it as a gift (3:20-24) through "faith in Jesus Christ" (3:22).