The Book of Romans and Old Testament Theology

This letter quotes the OT some fifty-seven times, more than any other NT book.

The structure of Romans is manifold, as one might expect from a writing inspired by the Holy Spirit. One of the most remarkable structures is drawn from the sacrifices and offerings of the OT.

There were three main types or groups of sacrifices in ancient Israel’s worship: those that made Expiation or atonement (Sin Offering [Leviticus 4], Trespass Offering [Leviticus 5], and Whole Burnt Offering [Leviticus 1] as well as the great Day of Atonement [Leviticus 16]), those that were for Celebration (Peace Offering [Leviticus 3] as well as other variations, such as Passover [Exodos 12]), and those that were for Dedication (Meal Offering [Leviticus 2] as well offering the first fruit, first born, paying vows, and making other types of dedicatory ritual). But essentially there was the forgiveness and acceptance by God through atoning sacrifices, the celebration of being at peace with God in the fellowship or peace offering, and the dedication to worship and serve God through the dedication or meal offering.

The Book of Romans employs this basic theological pattern of Atonement by God, Peace with God, and Dedication to God, as it weaves a theological argument from the beginning of God’s work until the end. The following overview will show how the argument of the book unfolds:

1. In chapter 1 after giving the introduction and purpose of the book, Paul surveys natural revelation via creation, noting that the creation rejected the Creator for the satisfaction of baser instincts. This section is an exposition on the early part of Genesis.

2. In chapter 2 Paul announces the judgment of God according to truth, explaining that the judgment is by law and that circumcision alone avails nothing. This section is a theological explanation of the law code.

3. The point is that all have sinned—there is none righteous (chapter 3). No one is justified by works. But instead, the righteousness of God comes through CHRIST’S ATONING SACRIFICE, the propitiation in His blood. Here then is the fulfillment of the expiatory sacrifices.

4. But the sacrifice by itself was a ritual; there had to be faith operating or it was of no value. So righteousness was reckoned for faith (3:28—4:25).

5. Once there is justification by faith in the atoning blood, there then follows the celebration of being at peace with God in a new life (chapter 5). This chapter picks up on the idea of Israel’s PEACE OFFERING, announcing that because the atonement has been made, we have peace with God.

6. We are so identified by faith with the sacrifice that we are actually dead in Him—as with Israel’s ritual, the sacrifice that is slain is a substitute for the sinner. And so we are actually dead to sin (chapter 6). Just as a believing Israelite knew that blood of the animal should have been his or her blood that was spilt, that body on the ground his or her dead body, we also reckon the same, that because Christ is our substitute he died in our place. Since we actually died in Christ, we now live in him, and become servants of righteousness.

7. But we are still sinful human creatures; we struggle constantly with sin (7:1-25). Israel repeated her sacrifices, but we do not. Instead, we find emancipation from the law through God’s provision, a provision which is better than repeating the sacrifice again and again.

8. That better provision made for us is the glorious Holy Spirit who leads us into righteousness and bears witness that we are the children of God (chapter 8). If we are in Christ, we are dead to sin; but in the spiritual realities of life it is the Spirit who is alive, delivering us from sin and bondage, through suffering to glory.

9. 9-11. If all this fulfillment in Christ is so much better than the old covenant, what then do we make of the old covenant? In chapters 9, 10, and 11 Paul stops to recall the privileges Israel enjoyed, but how through disobedience she missed the fulfillment of the promises and the Lord turned to the Gentiles for the present time. But Paul affirms that there is a glorious future for the covenant promises.

10. Now, in view of the fact that we have been grafted into the program, and have peace with God through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This brings forward Israel’s DEDICATION OFFERING (see also Leviticus 2, Psalm 40, and Deuteronomy 26).

The rest of the book (chapters 12-16) lays out the application of our new covenant relationship through Christ—it is the law of love. Chapter 12 discusses the application in the assembly through the spiritual gifts offered in love; chapter 13 broadens the application to submission in love; chapter 14 applies the law of love in doubtful things, focusing on having the mind of Christ.

So the argument of the book builds upon the age-old revelation through the ritual of Israel that provided the sinner with access to God. But now Christ has come and he is the end of the Law (Rom. 10:4). In other words, the righteousness that the Law required and that the sacrifices pledged has now become a reality “in Christ,” that is, it is available through faith in his atoning blood and worked out in life by the power of the Holy Spirit (Allan Ross, The Epistle of Romans).

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