Written to the Saints at Rome
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was written to an “informal gathering” (Shedd) of Christian believers, consisting of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. As to how this congregation was originally founded, the Bible leaves us ultimately uncertain. We do know, however, that the Roman Catholic tradition, resting mainly on the testimony of Eusebius (II. 14, 15), which claims that sometime during the reign of Claudius (AD. 42) the apostle Peter traveled to Rome, planted a church, and pastored it for twenty-five years, is not only improbable, but altogether incredible. In Romans 15:20-21 Paul states that his personal missionary policy was to avoid building upon “another man’s foundation.”
A better explanation for the congregation in Rome is that a group of Jews and proselytes who came to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, were converted under Peter’s sermon, and upon their departure, brought the gospel back to Rome. After all, Acts 2:5 tells us that during the feast “there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven,” some of whom are described in Acts 2:9 as “visitors from Rome.”
It would be no stretch of the imagination to assume that some of these “Roman” Jews were included in the “three thousand souls” who were that very day baptized, and “added to the Church” (2:41). After the pentecostal celebration, they returned to the metropolis and became the nucleus of a new congregation. Again, while we cannot be totally certain, I think that explanation is about as good as any.
Written From the City of Corinth
It is generally agreed that Paul wrote this epistle from the city of Corinth. Among the reasons for this opinion are the names of persons and places he mentions in the letter. In 16:23 Paul mentions “Gaius mine host” and “Erastus the chamberlain of the city,” both of whom were residents of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14; 2 Tim. 4:20). In 16:1 we see that Paul sent this epistle by the hand of Phebe, whom he describes as “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Cenchrea was the port of Corinth.
Written for the Preservation of the Gospel
But what, if any, was the occasion for this epistle? There is no indication that Paul was responding to congregational questions or reports of moral delinquency. Unlike his letter to the Galatian churches, the apostle is not here defending the gospel, or addressing any known doctrinal error. While the book of Romans is preeminently doctrinal, and therefore didactic by nature, most commentators agree that it should be seen as preventive rather than corrective.¹ Or it may be better to say that since their faith was being “spoken of throughout the whole world,” (1:8), Paul’s “compendium of Christian doctrine” (Melanchthon) was designed as a theological preservative, though such a preference could be a distinction without a difference. Truth is preserved where false doctrine is prevented.
Written for the Preparation of Paul’s Visit
According to the internal evidence, Paul seems to indicate that the purpose in his writing lies somewhere in the timeline and circumstances of his own missionary ministry. According to 15:25-27 Paul intends to set out for Jerusalem “to minister to the saints,” taking with him the money that the Greek churches had contributed to the “poor” in Judea (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-4). After Jerusalem, Paul’s plan was to relocate to Spain, with the intention (perhaps) of beginning his next missionary campaign in the West. This seems to be the point of 15:23, where Paul says that he had “no more place in these parts” since in verse 19 he just mentioned that, “from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.”
For Paul, his journey from Jerusalem to Spain was the perfect opportunity to finally visit the saints in Rome, and he hoped to not only visit them, but to be refreshed and equipped by them, for his mission to Spain (15:24, 28). From this perspective then, the epistle to the Romans was Paul’s way of introducing himself, and preparing this congregation for his well anticipated visit.
¹ The only possible exception I’m aware of is a group of statements found in 3:5-8, where Paul alludes to the fact that there were “slanderous reports,” accusing him of antinomian tendencies on account of his doctrine of free justification. However, at this point I am not convinced that these reports were circulating in Rome itself. Paul’s mention of them could very well be preventive in the sense that he wants to beat his accusers to the punch; refuting their arguments before they had occasion to present them.