In the Fall of 2019 our church began a Bible study in the book of Romans. It ran through the first seven chapters of Paul’s magnum opus, but in March 2020, when the world shut down, we pushed pause on this book. When we returned to church, our Bible study shifted to Leviticus. But with that study completed, we are now returning to Paul’s largest letter. And for those interested in following along, they can find previous lessons here. New lessons will also be posted on the same page each week through the Spring.
For this blogpost, I want to offer a brief sketch of the book and how Paul’s triad of Faith, Hope, and Love organize his magnificent exposition of the gospel. For those studying Romans (again), this will help acquaint you with the book as a whole. And it also will provide a way of seeing the gospel, and what the gospel achieves, in this whole letter. Additionally, this approach to Romans may also remind us of how Paul brought unity to the church of Rome, when it was facing divisions. Today, we face the same. And thus, we need to learn as much from Paul as we can about what the gospel is and what the gospel does.
Paul’s Faith, Hope, and Love
Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of places where Paul joins faith with love and hope. Here’s a brief sample:
- 1 Corinthians 13:13. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- Galatians 5:5–6. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
- Colossians 1:3–5. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.
- 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I am sure there are others, but the point is clear: Paul regularly joins faith, hope, and love to express the gospel and its effects. Knowing his affection for this triad of Christian virtues, it is not surprising that in his most detailed exposition of the gospel, he has arranged Romans around faith, hope, and love. In what follows, I will share a few reflections on how you can see this and why an outline of the book that follows faith, hope, and love is warranted.
If you have further observations on the structure of Romans, please share them or resources about Romans in the comments.
Romans: An Epistle of Faith, Hope, and Love
Every book of the Bible demonstrates recognizable literary structures. These structures are means by which we, the readers, come to understand the Spirit-led intentions of the author. And Romans is no different. And in fact, as Paul aims to unify Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church with the gospel they share in common, he employs a noticeable structure that highlights the main points of the gospel. That is, after introducing the gospel in Romans 1:1–17, he begins with Faith (Romans 1:18–4:25), continues with Hope (Romans 5:1–8:39), and concludes with Love (Romans 9:1–15:33). This threefold outline is then followed by Romans 16, which mirrors Romans 1:1–17, with a concluding stress on the work of the gospel.
Additionally, if this structure holds, it can be further divided. Meaning, that in each of the sections (Faith, Hope, and Love), there is an indicative and an imperative. First, God gives life and produces faith in those whose sins have invited death. As Romans 9–11 indicates, God works in the life of his elect, whether Jew or Gentile. But in Romans 1:18–3:31, the focus is on the faith he grants to those who are justified by his grace (Romans 3:24–26). Following this gift of righteousness that is received by faith, Paul describes the nature of this faith in Romans 4:1–25. In other words, he calls Christian to believe like Abraham and David, both of whom received God’s free gift of righteousness. Thus, in Romans 1–4, we see faith articulated in two ways—God’s objective work of grace producing faith and God’s subjective command for his people to believe.
Second, Paul identifies hope as something that God does and that believers can do in response to his work. As the outline below indicates, there is even a repetition of saving grace that mirrors the experience of Israel. That is to say, just as Israel in the OT was created, baptized in the Red Sea, brought into covenant, received law, and struggled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land, so the New Israel—the people of God made new in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile—was created in Christ, baptized in his life and death, joined in covenant with the law written on the heart by the Spirit, and then sealed for eternity even as they struggle in the flesh.
In short, the movement of Romans 5:1–8:39 moves from “hope” (3x in Romans 5:1–5) to “hope” (5x in Romans 8:20–24), and from God’s work of salvation in history, the believer can have hope that transcends the grave. In this way, Romans 5–8 moves from God’s work to man’s response, and like the other two sections the imperatives to put sin to death, for instance, are out-workings of the hope sealed by Christ’s death and resurrection.
Additionally, there are numerous other redemptive-historical comparisons and contrasts in Romans 5–8. Some of these include Adam-Christ typology (Romans 5), the weakness of the Law and the strength of the Spirit (Romans 7–8), and the replacement of a dead and dying (marriage) covenant with a new and eternal covenant between Christ and his bride (Romans 7:1–6). In the outline below, you can see some of the suggestions. And in these, we are only scratching the surface.
Third and finally, Paul turns to love. And again, he begins with God’s work of electing love in Romans 9:1–11:36 and he continues to describe the love of the saints in Romans 12:1–15:33. As before, the imperative to love is reflective of the gracious initiative of God’s love. As John says, we love because God first loved us. In Paul, the order is the same.
After outlining the fulness of the gospel in Romans 1:17–11:36, Paul has shown God’s faith (i.e., justification by grace), hope (i.e., God’s promise of salvation), and love (i.e., God’s election from before the foundation of the world). Thus, everything we need for Christian love is found in the full gospel—a gospel that produces faith and hope by the Spirit, so that we can love one another.
Put all this together, and you get a rich understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans and a faithful model for biblical ethics. We are to love one another based upon the preceding grace of God in producing faith, securing hope, and giving love. That’s how I understand the outline of Romans, with a gospel-centered introduction (Rom. 1:1–17) and a gospel-centered commission at the end (Rom. 16:1–33).
There are certainly more details to be worked—both in structure and content—but this is a start. And for those reading, studying, or applying Romans, I offer the following outline, with a covenantal / chiastic structuring of Romans 5–8 in the middle. Again, let me know what you have found in this book, or if there are certain commentaries or studies that have helped you put this book together.
The Letter to the Romans: A Sketch of Its Structure
A Gospel-Centered Introduction (Romans 1:1–17)
Faith – Romans 1:18–4:25
1:18–3:31 – What Has God Done? – The Faith once for all delivered to the saints
4:1–25 – What God Calls Us to Do? – The Faith of God’s saints
Hope – Romans 5:1–8:39
5:1–11 – What God has done . . . HOPE (3x = vv. 2, 4, 5)
5:12–21 – Adam and Christ – Creation
6:1–14 – Baptism / Mortification – Baptism
6:15–23 – Slavery . . . v. 20 (?) . . . Serving — Exodus
The Center ?? 7:1–6 – New Covenant as New Marriage, cf. Jer. 31:32
7:7–12 – Law / 10 Commandments (cf. 7:7 = 13:9) — The Purpose of the Law
7:13–25 (24)– Law of Sin and Death — The Weakness of the Old Covenant
8:1–17 – Law of the Spirit of Life — The Strength of the New Covenant
8:18–24 – New Creation . . . HOPE (5x = vv. 20, 24)
8:26–30 – Weakness . . . Strength in God’s Enduring Plan
8:31–39 – The Security of Salvation — Christ’s Enduring Priesthood
Love – Romans 9:1–15:33
9:1–11:36 –What God has done? – God’s love for his elect
12:1–15:33 – What we do in response? – The Love of the elect for God and others
A Gospel-Centered Conclusion (Romans 16:1–27)
In the end, the point of this blogpost is not to give a full argument for this structure or to deal with all the other literary structures one might find in Romans. I am simply offering a covenantal reading of Romans that fits the context (Paul writing to unite Jews and Gentiles in the gospel) and one that holds together his triad of faith, hope, and love. In what I present here, I offer the sketch. The next step is to look at the vocabulary and other literary devices (like 31 smaller chiastic structures) to see if it holds together.
I believe it does and that organizing Romans this way provides a logical, chronological (read: progressive covenantal), and theological message that shines light on the gospel and that permits the gospel to shine its light on God’s people. Today, we know that divisions in the church are great, but that God’s grace and his gospel story are greater. In Romans, we find that the gospel history of creation, baptism, new covenant, and Spirit-led sanctification are the story of all Christians—whether Jew or Greek—is the means by which Paul trains Christians to find their identity in Christ and his story of salvation. And we need to find the same.
As we study Romans, therefore, may we look for the ways its gospel message conforms us into the image of Christ. And may the literary structure of Romans help us to grow in Christ’s faith, hope, and love.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds