Paul’s letter to the Romans needs no introduction here, and I would imagine that virtually all Christians are at least mildly aware of its importance, both theologically and historically, within the broader Christian traditions.  In the past 30 years, perhaps the most important and controversial development in New Testament studies has been the so-called “New Perspective on Paul“–associated in particular with the pioneering (if hotly disputed!) scholarship of E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright–and here Romans has once more been central to the ongoing development of the church’s grasp of the gospel.

With spring break coming up for Harvard students, perhaps working through this profound document in-depth would make for a profitable spiritual act of devotion and learning?  Romans, in my experience, repays endless re-readings.  There is always more to be discovered, more connections and nuances to be found, and of course more of God to be tasted and experienced in the knowledge of faith.  Therefore, with a goal of encouraging you to work through Romans in a serious, sustained way, consider this remarkable “cloud of witnesses” to the abiding power of Romans:

Augustine–perhaps the most famous, influential and important Christian thinker of them all–was converted to the faith through his providential reflection upon a single verse in Romans:

“I went on talking like this and weeping in the intense bitterness of my broken heart.  Suddenly I heard a voice from a house nearby—perhaps a voice of some boy or girl, I do not know—singing over and over again, ‘Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.’  My expression immediately altered and I began to think hard whether children ordinarily repeated a ditty like this in any sort of game, but I could not recall ever having heard it anywhere else.  I stemmed the flood of tears and rose to my feet, believing that this could be nothing other than a divine command to open the Book and read the first passage I chanced upon…Stung into action, I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting, for on leaving it I had put down there the book of the apostle’s letters.  I snatched it up, opened it and read in silence the passage on which my eyes first lighted: ‘Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.’ [Romans 13:13-14].  I had no wish to read further, nor was there need.  No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away.” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 8.29)

Later, Augustine attempted to briefly summarize the letter’s significance this way:

“The Letter of Paul to the Romans, insofar as one can understand its literal content, poses a question like this: whether the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ came to the Jews alone because of their merits through the works of the law, or whether the justification of faith that is in Christ Jesus came to all nations, without any preceding merit for works.  In this last instance, people would believe not because they were just, but justified through belief; they would then begin to live justly.  This then is what the apostle intended to teach: that the grace of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ came to all people.  He thereby shows why one calls this ‘grace,’ for it was given freely, and not as a repayment of a debt of righteousness.” (Augustine, Unfinished Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Paula Fredericksen Landes, p. 53)

It was Martin Luther’s fresh reading of Romans 1:16-17, of course, that ultimately launched the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s seminal insight lay in his conception of “the righteousness of God” not as God’s punitive judgment upon human sin (which can only terrify), but rather as the saving gift of new life which God bestows upon those who have faith in Jesus.  Luther’s love for Romans never waned afterwards:

“This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.  It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” (Martin Luther, “Preface” to Romans)

John Calvin, the most brilliant and gifted interpreter of Scripture among the Reformers, could not speak highly enough of the beauty and magnificence of Romans, even claiming that those who understand it rightly gain an unparalleled access into the meaning of the rest of the Bible:

“I am in doubt whether it would be worthwhile to spend much time in speaking of the value of this Epistle.  My uncertainty is due only to my fear that since my commendation of it falls far short of its grandeur my remarks my merely obscure the Epistle.  It is due also to the fact that at the very beginning the Epistle introduces itself better and explains itself better than any words can describe.  It will, therefore, be better for me to come now to the theme itself.  This will prove to us beyond any doubt that among many other notable virtues the Epistle has one in particular which is never sufficiently appreciated.  It is this—if we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, p. 5)

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in England, disagreed fiercely with Luther and Calvin on their view of the role and meaning of God’s sovereignty over human salvation in Romans 9-11.  Yet his passion for this letter was no less than theirs, and in fact it was an unplanned encounter with Luther’s famous Preface to his commentary on Romans that led directly to his “conversion” (if it should be so understood) at Aldersgate, when his heart was “strangely warmed”:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (John Wesley, Journal, May 24, 1738, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 18: Journal and Diaries, pp. 249-50)

In recent years, the voices of testimony have only continued to highlight the uniqueness of Romans in Christian theology:

“If one were to endeavor to excise the influence of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans from the history of Christian thought, it would be difficult to set any limit on how radical the surgery would have to be, or to guarantee what would be left over once it had been completed.  Indeed, James Dunn has claimed that Romans is ‘the first well-developed theological statement by a Christian theologian which has come down to us, and one which has had an incalculable influence on the framing of Christian theology ever since—arguably the single most important work of Christian theology ever written.’  In every epoch, the church’s leaders and teachers have been preoccupied with Romans…Romans has a place in the history of Christianity unlike any other biblical book.” (Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larson (eds.), Reading Romans Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth, pp. 13-14)

“One can almost write the history of Christian theology by surveying the ways in which Romans has been interpreted.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, xiii)

“Paul’s letter to Rome is the high peak of Scripture, however you look at it.  Luther called it ‘the clearest gospel of all.’  ‘If a mean understands it,’ wrote Calvin, ‘he has a sure road opened for him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.’  Tyndale, in his preface to Romans, linked both thoughts, calling Romans ‘the principal and most excellent part of the New Testament, and most pure Euangelion, that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel, and also a light and a way unto the whole Scripture.’  All roads in the Bible lead to Romans, and all views afforded by the Bible are seen most clearly from Romans, and when the message of Romans gets into a person’s heart there is no telling what may happen.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 253)

I hope these witnesses wet your appetite for a renewed encounter with Paul’s magnum opus!  For anyone looking to go further in their personal study of Romans with a trustworthy guide to keep them company, the first stop I would recommend–outside of reading the primary source itself, of course!–would be Stephen Westerholm’s concise yet utterly brilliant overview of the letter, called Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the RomansIn this short book, Westerholm captures the essential heart of the letter and its flow of thought better than anyone else.