The book, according to Joseph Fitzmyer, "overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the father. N. T. Wright notes that Romans is "neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision".
The letter was most probably written while Paul was in Corinth, and probably while he was staying in the house of Gaius and transcribed by Tertius. There are a number of reasons why Corinth is most plausible. Paul was about to travel to Jerusalem on writing the letter, which matches Acts where it is reported that Paul stayed for three months in Greece. This probably implies Corinth as it was the location of Paul’s greatest missionary success in Greece. Additionally Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, a port to the east of Corinth, and would have been able to convey the letter to Rome after passing through Corinth and taking a ship from Corinth’s west port. Erastus, mentioned in , also lived in Corinth being the cities commissioner for public works and city treasurer at various times, again indicating that the letter was written in Corinth.
The precise time at which it was written is not mentioned in the epistle, but it was obviously written when the collection for Jerusalem had been assembled and Paul was about to "go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints", that is, at the close of his second visit to Greece, during the winter preceding his last visit to that city (cf. ; (). The majority of scholars writing on Romans propose the letter was written in late 55/early 56 or late 56/early 57. Early 58 and early 55 both have some support, while Luedemann argues for a date as early as 51/52 (or 54/55) following on from Knox who proposed 53-54. Such an early date is improbable, and is the only serious challenge to the consensus of mid to late 50s.
The exact date and location of writing the letter are less important than how the letter fits into Paul’s life and his other works. For ten years before writing the letter (approx. 47-57), Paul had travelled round the territories bordering the Aegean Sea evangelising. Churches had been planted in the Roman provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Paul, considering his task complete, was looking for somewhere new to preach the gospel, so that he would not ‘build upon another man’s foundation’. The choice of Spain would allow Paul to visit Rome, an ambition of his for a long time, particularly considering that Paul was a Roman citizen but had never visited the city of Rome. The letter to the Romans, in part, prepares them and gives reasons for his visit.
In addition to Paul’s geographic location, his religious views are important. Firstly Paul was a Jew with Jewish and Pharisaic backgrounds, integral to his identity. His concern for his people is one part of the dialogue and runs throughout the letter. Secondly, the other side of the dialogue is Paul’s conversion and calling to follow Christ in the early 30s. The resulting evangelistic activity dominated the later years of Paul’s life. The letter therefore interweaves the concerns of Paul the Pharisee and the follower of Christ. Thirdly Paul’s missionary work caused opposition from Jews and fellow Jewish Christians. One issue was whether Jewish Christians should continue to carry out laws placed on the covenant people regarding things such as food laws. The disagreement was partly between Paul and the Jerusalem Church, including figures such as Peter and Barnabas. Paul’s upcoming visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection from the gentiles would therefore help maintain the unity of the Christian movement. The letter to the Romans written during this time includes Paul’s hopes and fears regarding his visit to Jerusalem and the relationship between Gentiles and more traditional Jewish Christians.
At this time, the Jews made up a substantial number in Rome, and their synagogues, frequented by many, enabled the Gentiles to become acquainted with the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles was formed at Rome. According to Irenaeus, one of the earliest Church Fathers, the church at Rome was founded directly by the apostles Peter and Paul. However, many modern scholars disagree with Irenaeus, holding that while little is known of the circumstances of the church's founding, it was not founded by Paul.
Many of the brethren went out to meet Paul on his approach to Rome. There is evidence that Christians were then in Rome in considerable numbers and probably had more than one place of meeting ().
Jews were expelled from Rome because of Christian disturbances around AD 49 by the Edict of Claudius. The conflict developed because Jewish Christians and Jews argued with one another over the validity of Jesus as the Messiah. Both Jews and Jewish Christians were expelled as a result of their infighting. The majority of people left in the Christian church at Rome would have been Gentile Christians. These gentile churches developed along a different trajectory from the Christian circles that grew out of Jewish synagogues.
Claudius died around the year AD 54, and his successor, Emperor Nero, allowed the Jews back into Rome. Gentile Christians may have developed a dislike of or looked down on Jews (see also Antisemitism), because they theologically rationalized that Jews were no longer God's people. Fitzmyer argues that with the return of the Jews to Rome in 54 new conflict arose between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians who had formerly been expelled.
The Roman church would have to accept that the gospel was for the "Jew first and also to the Greek" (see ).
While scholars are often able to determine aspects of the context of NT writers from their letters, it is much more difficult to understand Paul's letter to the Romans. Scholars often have difficulty assessing whether Romans is a letter or an epistle:
"A letter is something non-literary, a means of communication between persons who are separated from each other. Confidential and personal in nature, it is intended only for the person or persons to whom it is addressed, and not at all for the public or any kind of publicity...An Epistle is an artistic literary form, just like the dialogue, the oration, or the drama. It has nothing in common with the letter except its form: apart from that one might venture the paradox that the epistle is the opposite of a real letter. The contents of the epistle are intended for publicity--they aim at interesting 'the public.'
Joseph Fitzmyer argues, from evidence put forth by Stirewalt, that the style of Romans is an "essay-letter. Philip Melanchthon, a writer during the Middle Ages, suggested that Romans was caput et summa universae doctrinae christianae ("a summary of all Christian doctrine"). While some scholars attempt to suggest, like Melanchthon, that it is a type of theological treatise, this view largely ignores chapters 14 and 15 of Romans. There are also many "noteworthy elements" missing from Romans that are included in other areas of the Pauline corpus. The breakdown of Romans as a treatise began with F.C. Baur in 1836 when he suggested "this letter had to be interpreted according to the historical circumstances in which Paul wrote it."
Paul sometimes uses a style of writing common in his time called a "diatribe". He appears to be responding to a "heckler", and the letter is structured as a series of arguments. In the flow of the letter, Paul shifts his arguments, sometimes addressing the Jewish members of the church, sometimes the Gentile membership and sometimes the church as a whole.
The main purpose of the epistle to the Romans is given by Paul in , where he reveals that he is set apart by God for the purpose of preaching the Gospel. He wishes to impart to the Roman readers a gift of encouragement and assurance in all that God has freely given them (see ; ).
The purposes of the apostle in dictating this letter to his Amanuensis Tertius is also articulated in the second half of chapter 15:
In chapters nine through eleven, Paul addresses the faithfulness of God to Israel, where he says that God has been faithful to His promise. Paul hopes that all of Israel will come to realize the truth since he himself was also an Israelite and had in the past been a persecutor of Christ. These verses could also be saying that, even though Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, since they still believe in God, they will be saved. In Romans 9–11 Paul, talks about how the nation of Israel has been cast away, and the conditions under which Israel will be God's chosen nation again: when the Body of Christ (believers in Christ's payment for sin) stops being faithful ().
From chapter 12 through the first part of chapter 15, Paul outlines how the Gospel transforms believers and the behaviour that results from such a transformation. He goes on to describe how believers should live: not under the law, but under the grace of God. If believers live in obedience to God and to rightfully delegated authority, study the scriptures, (and share them with others) and love everybody, believers are not going to need to sin. As Paul says in , "love (ἀγάπη) worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of law".
The concluding verses contain a description of his travel plans and personal greetings salutations. One-third of the twenty-one Christians identified in the greetings are women, some of whom played an important role in the early church at Rome.
Martin Luther described Paul's letter to the Romans as the "most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul".
The Romans Road refers to a set of scriptures from Romans that Christian evangelists use to present a clear and simple case for personal salvation for each person.
Romans has been at the forefront of several major movements in Protestantism. Martin Luther's lectures on Romans in 1515–16 probably coincided with the development of his criticism of Roman Catholicism which led to the 95 Theses of 1517. In 1738, while reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, John Wesley famously felt his heart "strangely warmed", a conversion experience which is often seen as the beginning of Methodism. In 1919 Karl Barth's commentary on Romans, The Epistle to the Romans, was the publication which is widely seen as the beginning of neo-orthodoxy.
It is often the starting point of those who argue against the Protestant understanding of Romans, specifically in regard to the doctrine of sola fide, to point out that the same apostle who wrote Romans is also quoted in Philippians as saying "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" ().
A critique of the traditional Protestant view of Paul's salvation theology was given by Lutheran scholar and bishop Krister Stendahl in his 1976 book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. The following is an excerpt:
The main lines of Pauline interpretation — and hence both conscious and unconscious reading and quoting of Paul by scholars and lay people alike — have for many centuries been out of touch with one of the most basic of the questions and concerns that shaped Paul's thinking in the first place: the relation between Jews and Gentiles.
Especially in the Protestant tradition — and particularly among Lutherans — it is Paul's epistle to the Romans which holds a position of honor, supplying patterns of thought...
A doctrine of justification by faith was hammered out by Paul for the very specific and limited purpose of defending the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel...
We tend to read him as if his question was: On what grounds, on what terms, are we to be saved? ... But Paul was chiefly concerned about the relation between Jews and Gentiles — and in the development of this concern he used as one of his arguments the idea of justification by faith...
If we read Paul's answer to the question of how Gentiles become heirs to God's promises to Israel as if he were responding to Luther's pangs of conscience, it becomes obvious that we are taking the Pauline answer out of its original context...
Paul's primary focus on Jews and Gentiles was lost in the history of interpretation... Justification no longer "justified" the status of Gentile Christians as honorary Jews, but became the timeless answer to the plights and pains of the introspective conscience of the West.
Catholics accept the necessity of faith for salvation but point to for the necessity of living a virtuous life as well:
Who [God] will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.
To argue their claim that sincere profession of Christ takes precedence over good works in God's eyes, Protestants hold up Romans 4:2–5 (emphasis added):
They also point out that in Romans 2, Paul says that God will reward those who follow the law (as opposed to antinomianism) and then goes on to say that no one follows the law perfectly (see also Sermon on the Mount: Interpretation). Romans 2:21–25: