The Theme of Romans (1:16-17)

The gospel is the very essence of Paul's ministry (Rom 1:1, 9). It is also the message Paul wants to bring to Rome (Rom 1:15). In Rom 1:1-15 Paul has been telling the Romans about his call to ministry and how that ministry relates to them. But from Rom 1:16a Paul turns his attention away from his own ministry to focus it on the gospel as such. After this, nothing more is said of Paul's mission plans or the Romans (except for brief interjections -- Rom 7:1, 4; 8:12; 10:1; 11:13, 25; 12:1) until the "strong and the weak" section in Rom 14:1-15:13 and the final summing up of Paul's plans and prospects in Rom 15:14-33. Thus, the epistolary material of Rom 1:1-15 and Rom 15:14ff "frames" what appears to be a theological treatise.

Four subordinate clauses in Rom 1:16-17, each supporting or illuminating the one before:
  1. Paul's pride in the gospel (Rom 1:16a) is the reason why he is so eager to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom 1:1:15).
  2. This pride stems from the fact that the gospel contains or mediates God's saving power for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16b).
  3. The gospel brings salvation because it manifests God's righteousness, a righteousness based on faith (Rom 1:17a).
  4. Scriptural confirmation for the connection between righteousness and faith (Rom 1:17b).
Rom 1:16-17 is regarded by most scholars as the main theme of Romans. It is technically part of the proem (preface, introduction, preamble, preliminary observations) of the letter. But they also serve as a transition into the body by stating Paul's theme. But just where within Rom 1:16-17 is this theme to be found? There is much disagreement here.

Protestant exegetes have traditionally focused on either "the righteousness of God is being revealed" or "the one who by faith is righteous will live," understanding them as assertions of the theological theme of "justification by faith."

Other interpreters place the concept of "salvation" in Rom 1:16b at the center. Still others are impressed by the way in which the phrase "to the Jew first and then to the Greek" (Rom 1:16b) encapsulates two of the letter's key themes: the incorporation of Gentiles within the people of God and the continuing significance of Israel.
It is also possible to view the individual elements of 1:16-17 as each summing up different parts of the letter:
  • "Justified by faith" (chaps. 1-4).
  • "Live" (chaps. 5-8).
  • "Salvation for all" (chaps. 9-11).
However, the breadth of the letter's contents requires a correspondingly broad theme: gospel. This would be supported by virtue of its importance in 1:1-15 as well as by its leading position in the structure of 1:16-17.

Reference: Douglas Moo  The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 1996, 63-65.