Teaching Teenagers the Book of Romans

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The book of Romans is one of the most beloved books of the entire Bible. It is held by many as the pinnacle of Christian theology, as espoused by the Apostle Paul. Not only is the book of Romans a favorite for many, it is also one of the most difficult books to interpret in the New Testament (perhaps Revelation aside). Between Paul’s discussion of sin and the Christian (Romans 7), predestination and election (Romans 9), and Israel and the Church (Romans 10-11), it is no wonder that pastors and theologians alike are often at odds over how to interpret Paul’s treatise.

Even Paul’s main purpose in writing the letter is largely up for debate. Some hold that Paul wrote primarily to give a theological treatise of the gospel (“[the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” 1:16b). Others argue that Paul’s purpose is to unite Jew and Gentile in the Roman church. Paul appeals to Jews to remember that they are equally in need of Christ, and to Gentiles to remember their Jewish roots of faith. This unity would have been crucial to a predominantly Gentile Roman church that was now welcoming back the Jewish diaspora that had been expelled from Rome at the hands of Claudius (“to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” 1:16c). Still others will say that Paul’s main purpose is a missionary one – both to reap fruit in Rome (“I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” 1:15), and to gain support for further mission work in Spain (“For I am not ashamed of the gospel,” 1:16a).

Needless to say, the complexity of the book of Romans can be daunting, discouraging even the most biblically trained among us from embarking on a teaching series through this book.

Roman’s Big Picture

Despite the tall order Romans presents, I find myself coming back to its beloved passages time and time again as I teach my students. Over my nine years as a Student Pastor, I’ve taught Romans both in its entirety, and through selected passages. What has helped me most in tackling this rich epistle has been a constant reminder of Paul’s main argument and flow.

The reason there is such a divide over Paul’s main point in Romans is the variety of themes that show up throughout the book. Three major themes are most commonly noted as Paul’s focus of his book: The Gospel, Unity of Jew and Gentile, and Mission.

  • The Gospel is certainly a central motif in the book of Romans, as is evidenced by Paul’s train of though throughout the letter:
    • 1:18-3:20 discusses the sin of all men
    • 3:21-5:11 deals with salvation by faith
    • 5:12-8:39 emphasizes our freedom from sin and victory in the Spirit
    • Chapters 12-15 show how gospel indicatives lead into gospel imperatives for the Christian life (12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”).
  • Unity between Jew and Gentile is an apparent desire of Paul’s as he gives specific attention to both groups.
    • Paul reveals the sin of the “ungodly and unrighteous” (1:18-32) versus the Jews who “pass judgment” and “rely on the Law” (2:1-29)
    • Chapters 9-11 discuss the election of Gentiles over Israel, and the place of both in God’s New Testament people.
  • Mission seems to be a predominant theme as Romans gives us some of the most famous missions verses for the New Testament Church:
    • 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
    • 10:14-15 “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
    • 15:20-21 “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.”

Rather than trying to select one of these major themes as more important than the others, I find it more helpful to see them as interconnected themes that make up the main thrust of the book of Romans. Romans is certainly the most comprehensive theology on the gospel in the New Testament; but Paul did not set out to write a systematic theology just for the heck of it. Paul never writes theology disconnected from everyday life; in fact, it is always the present day problems of the church that lead him to address theological issues. For Paul, a deep understanding of the Gospel will naturally lead into a life lived in the Spirit (Romans 8,12-14), promote unity within the church (Romans 9-11), and result in mission beyond our immediate locale (Romans 15). In fact, reading Paul’s intro and conclusion side by side reveals parallel bookends dealing with all three of these major themes. The chart below demonstrates ten of these parallel statements between Romans 1:1-17 and 15:13-16:27:

1:1-17

15:13-16:27

1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures

16:23 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known

1:4-5 Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship

15:15-16 because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God

1:5 to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations

15:5 to bring the Gentiles to obedience

16:26 to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith

1:7 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

1:8 I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world

16:19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you

1:9-10 without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.

15:30-32 strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, …so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

1:13 in order that I may reap some harvest (karpos) among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.

15:28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected (karpos), I will leave for Spain by way of you.

1:13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented),

15:22-23 I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you

1:14 I am under obligation (opheiletes) both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.

15:27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it (opheiletes) to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.

1:15 I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

15:20 I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation

Additionally, looking at Romans as a whole is helpful to chart Paul’s argument, and discern how to best break up the book for a teaching series. For every book I study, I find it helpful to produce a book chart to know where I am headed, and remember where I have been. Doing so for Romans reveals that Paul presents his argument in two main sections: 1:18-11:36 Gospel Indicatives; and 12:1-15:13 Gospel Imperatives. Additionally, Paul’s intro and conclusions form a chiastic structure (the outer elements standing parallel with one another, then working towards the center; A corresponding with A’, B with B’, and so on). By further breaking down these sections into major movements, and including the parallel statements in Paul’s intro and conclusion, we can produce an outline that looks something like this (see a full outline here):

A/B 1:1-7 Opening Greetings/Opening Doxology: Paul, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel to bring about obedience of faith among all the nations; grace to those saints in Rome

C 1:8-15 Paul longs to visit Rome and impart a spiritual gift and be mutually edified by their faith

D 1:16-17 Thesis for Paul’s letter: The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, the Jew first and also to the Gentile; the righteousness of God being revealed through faith

I. 1:18-11:36 Gospel Indicatives

A. 1:18-3:20 The wrath of God against Jew and Gentile
B. 3:21-5:11 All men are justified by faith alone in Christ alone
C. 5:12-8:39 Freedom from sin and victory in the Spirit
D. 9:1-11:32 Election of both Jew and Gentile
1. 11:33-36 Doxology

II. 12:1-15:13 Gospel Imperatives

A. 12:1-13:14 Be transformed by the renewal of your minds
B. 14:1-15:13 Build one another up and live in harmony

D’ 15:14-21 Thesis for Paul’s life: Paul is a minister of Jesus Christ among those whom Christ has not yet been named
C’ 15:22-33 Paul plans to visit Rome to be sent by them to Spain, after he returns the Gentile collection to the Jewish saints in Jerusalem – serving them in material blessings after sharing in spiritual blessings
B’ 16:1-24 Closing Greetings: Greet the saints in Rome; watch out for those who create divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine
A’ 16:25-27 Closing Doxology: To the only wise God, who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel – the mystery that has now been made known to all nations – be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!

Connecting Romans to Our Teens

Given the flow of argument in Paul’s letter, we can conclude that Romans is a book that proclaims the glories of the gospel, producing unity within the church, and prompting mission to the unreached. Though there is much to be said about Romans and endless truths to be mined from this theological mountain, we must remember to always connect our theology to our living. Paul himself saw how the gospel connects our minds to our hearts (“be transformed by the renewal of your mind”, 12:2) and is demonstrated most clearly through our unity and mission.

Our teens desperately need rich doctrine to understand the beauty of the gospel; but doctrine disconnected from the realities of life lacks the “power” which Paul so emphatically preaches about – power that produces transformation (12:1-2), both individually (6:1-8:39) and corporately (14:1-15:13), both in the private sphere and public (12:1-13:14), and compels the church further on her mission (15:14-33). The more our students are able to see that the gospel is so incredibly deep that it addresses relational problems, social issues, and missional needs, the more they will see that the gospel truly is “salvation to everyone who believes” and will no longer be ashamed of it in their own lives.

Practical Notes

When teaching through Romans to students, I tend to give more time and attention to the front end (1-8) than the back end (9-16). However, regardless of how we go through the book, we must always remember to never disassociate our theology of the gospel from our living out of the gospel. As a young preacher, I was easily excited by the depth of Paul’s theology in Romans 1-8, but I often ran into the error of emphasizing knowledge over transformation (more on this below).

Problem Passages

There are a number of problem passages one might stumble over when teaching passage by passage, verse by verse, through Romans. The first, and most hotly debated, is in Romans 7. The most common belief within Reformed circles is that Paul is talking in the present, demonstrating that he has an on-going struggle with his sin. Those outside the Reformed circle tend to interpret this inner battle as that of the non-Christian, sin being at war with one’s own conscience internally.

I’ve found a third, less common interpretation, to best account for the complications in this passage. In 7:1, Paul clearly addresses Jews “who know the Law”, and for the rest of the chapter shows how the Law is no longer capable of producing victory over sin. Whereas the Gentiles were slaves of sin, giving up their “members as instruments for unrighteousness” (6:13), the Jews were slaves of self-righteousness, giving themselves over to a legalistic work ethic by the Mosaic Law. Paul’s purpose is to show that neither produce life; only the Spirit gives freedom. Regardless of one’s interpretation, it is important to look at all the evidence before assuming we know what Paul is talking about and running to what is familiar.

Another set of problem passages comes in Romans 9-11 as Paul addresses the place of Israel in the Church era. Is Israel no longer part of God’s plan of salvation? Have they missed their window of opportunity for belief? Romans 9 is another widely debated passage on God’s plan of election, Arminians holding that Paul is merely arguing from history for God’s elective purposes for individuals within Israel, and Calvinists arguing that God’s election continues on today in the very same way it was demonstrated in Israel’s history. Romans 11 is similarly difficult and the question of what to do with the phrase “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). Dispensationalists point to this as evidence for God’s future plans for Israel in redemptive history, whereas Covenantalists argue that Paul is simply talking about a future saving of God’s chosen within Israel.

I’ll be honest, when teaching through Romans to students – and even to adults! – I’ve either greatly condensed chapters 9-11, or skipped them all together. My desire is not to shy away from difficult theological topics, or to argue that students are incapable of thinking deeply about them. Quite the contrary; I’ve taught election and predestination extensively to my students. The point, though, is that we do not want to get so caught up in theological debate that we detach our minds from our hearts. Paul certainly saw this as important enough to address in his letter, but we must not forget his overall goal: to proclaim the gospel in all its depth for the unity of the church and the mission of God’s people (this is where having a book chart or outline is incredibly helpful to keep from running down rabbit trails).

Paul’s purpose is not to divide the church over which eschatological camp they fall in. His desire was much the opposite: to unite the church by reminding Jew and Gentile that both are part of God’s gracious plan of salvation. So regardless of what we teach and how we approach these problem passages, we must teach them in a way that unites, not divides; that does not let the secondary get in the way of the primary; that leads to both greater knowledge and greater transformation as we live by the Spirit.

Notable Resources

Below is a list of resources most helpful to me in my study and teaching of Romans. Moo is by far the most helpful when it comes to a fair interpretation of the text, and dealing with all of Paul’s intricacies. He even has a series of video lectures you can access online for free. Keller’s Romans For You is a great resource for applying Romans practically, but due to the brevity of the volumes, he often comes up short when dealing with the various interpretations of any given passage, usually opting for the popular reading without much critical analysis. Schreiner is sometimes helpful, but rarely goes beyond what’s already been said in Moo’s work. For a more academic analysis of the background of Romans, Donfried’s The Romans Debate is the most comprehensive work.

Donfried, Karl. The Romans Debate. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991.

Keller, Tim. Romans 1-7 & 8-16 For You. The Good Book Co., 2014.

Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 1996.

Moo, Douglas. Lectures on Romans

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