Romans is the first letter in the New Testament but probably the last letter Paul wrote. No doubt the position of the first letter comes from the fact that in the earliest collection of the letters they were arranged from the longest one to those of decreasing length. This fact does not diminish the point that Romans also represents a kind of compendium of Paul’s understandings of the gospel. The other Pauline letters deal with a series of individual problems in various early communities. Despite the differences in style Romans is closely related in thought and perspective to the smaller letters.
In Romans Paul does not defend his apostleship as we find in other letters. Apart from the fact that Paul is looking toward new horizons in Rome and beyond to Spain it is clear he has not yet been to Rome. It is equally clear that Paul was facing differing perspectives on the gospel most likely between Gentile and Jewish converts. He wanted in all they he wrote to secure the idea that there was only one gospel for people everywhere.
Romans 5:8 contains a simple statement of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:1-11 is a key passage that links Romans 1:1-4:25 and key elements found in Romans 6:1-8:39. In Romans the basis of hope is found in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. He is interpreting justification of the unrighteous by faith and how that leads to the renewal of life and hope. Paul brings together for the first time in the letter God’s love and the Holy Spirit. So in Romans 5:11 one can see how from the earlier chapters talk of (variously translated) “boasting” or “rejoicing” or “exulting,” we can now “boast” in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received full reconciliation.
Listen to these extraordinary, almost poetic words in Romans 5:2–5 “….we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
If you listened carefully this week many survivors of the terrible Oklahoma tornados spoke of their need to find hope. It is a common need we all struggle to secure especially in bad times but really almost on a daily basis. One writer is quoted in an interview saying, “I was writing in my journal yesterday and ended a paragraph with, ‘I think it smells like hope.’ And we have to hang onto that. We have to hang onto it most firmly when things are worse. It’s easy to believe and have hope when things are going well” (Madeleine L’Engle) .
Paul has in mind the experience of hope as much as looking toward some final hope at the end of life. And notice the language employed to speak of this hope, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5). The image of the pouring out of sustaining water is found in the Old Testament (Isa 44:3). Also one finds various “pouring out” of God given gifts “wisdom” (Sirach 1:9); mercy” (Sirach 18:11); “grace” (Psalm 45:3) as well as the “spirit” itself (Joel 2:28-29 and compare to Acts 2:17).
As one commentator has said,
"It is the manifestation of God’s giving of himself without restraint, in a way unparalleled by any human love. It is impossible for a human being to imagine the dimensions or bounds of divine love; humanity knows of it only because God has graciously willed to pour it out and make it known. Paul insists not simply that we become aware that God loves us, but that in the same experience we receive an assurance of God’s love for us, a love that becomes the central motive of our own moral being: we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)."