Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has been widely regarded as the most prominent peak throughout the range of Scripture. It is dense and broad-gauge enough to stand as a theological treatise in its own right. Yet it is important to remember it is a letter. We can’t be sure of every detail regarding the historical situation that lies behind Romans but there are some observations we can make.
Most likely the church in Rome was not planted by Paul or any other Apostle. Some suggest that visiting Jews who were converted in Jerusalem during Pentecost returned to Rome (Acts 2:10) and began spreading the gospel by teaching in their synagogues and homes. Thus began the church in Rome.
By AD 49, Claudius ousted the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) as a response to rising disputes between Jews who embraced Jesus as Messiah and those who did not. As a result, the churches in Rome became majority Gentile. By the time they received Paul’s epistle, Jews were probably already gravitating back to Rome and populating the churches again.
There are moments when Paul turns his attention to Jews, but there are portions that make it clear the audience is Gentile. Paul probably assumed the mixed audience and one of the primary goals of the letter is to push for harmony between the two groups for God’s glory and for unity in the support of Paul’s continued missionary work.
Conscientious preachers will toil over deciding how long to make a sermon series through Romans. Many have preached through it in a kind of Puritan style where one phrase generates enough grist for more than one sermon. Others might consider large sections for a shorter series, giving the listeners more of a broad understanding of the major sections. The sample series suggested below aims for a medium pace sectioning the Epistle into 25 preaching units.
The difficulty with staying in Romans for a year or more (though many very able preachers have gone much longer!) is that Paul is not making quite that many arguments in this Epistle. When we myopically break down larger sections into diminutive preaching chunks, we can lose sight of the overall point the author is making. On the other hand, the danger with moving too quickly is to summarize Paul’s arguments in overly broad ways, without letting the verses really establish each case with care. A mid-range approach seeks to avoid both extremes. There is no one way to do it, but the map below seeks to zoom in at a level where each unit moves on from the previous Big Idea without too much overlap in the content.
This means the series as mapped below will demand that the preacher take on large, hefty units at various points. A few tips might help mitigate hesitations in this regard:
Try to use other venues to help with the load so that the sermon is not bearing all of the weight and to alleviate the temptation to include every insight in the sermon. Small groups, Sunday School, mid-week services, or even something like a post-sermon discussion time can serve as ways to unpack the preaching unit further.
Practice pithiness. Edit your sentences for terseness and communicate more truth in less words.
With especially tough passages, consider manuscripting at least the portions of the sermon that seek to explain complex verses. Manuscripting can tighten our communication while protecting clarity. Extemporaneous speaking gains many rhetorical advantages, but it is often the cousin of prolixity.
Come to terms with the fact that we are not going to be able to (nor should we be expected to) unpack every Old Testament reference, every phrase, or every exegetical insight. Judiciously choose what to include and save some “scenes” for the “director’s cut” or “bonus features” for another time or venue.
At some points you will be able to see a decision I’ve made with regard to handling a much debated portion of Romans. I do not intend for you to view the suggested Big Idea as my determination that this is the settled way to understand the passage. It is where I currently have settled on how to handle it, but as a preacher called of God and with access to many resources beyond this article, you will be able to prayerfully work through the difficulties to at least tentatively settle on a position.
At certain points along the way, it would be wise to explain to our listeners that there are other views as well even if we don’t survey them. With humility, we can explain that this is where we have landed at this time. Here are some brief thoughts as to how to handle this in the pulpit:
It would not be best to survey the varying positions on every single unit as you preach through Romans. It could feel too pedantic and too disheartening. The listeners might feel like no one agrees on anything so why try to determine the meaning at all. So pick your spots. Some passages are debated even among the people within your church’s theological tribe. Those would be the places I would summarize some alternate positions before laying out my own.
Make the survey of varying positions brief. Work on being succinct and clear.
Try to find commonality between the positions. For instance, whether Romans 7 is describing a pre-conversion experience or a post-conversion experience (or neither!), most of us within each of those positions would agree that there is a kind of slavery to sin that is broken at conversion and that the Christian will still wrestle with conflicting desires. You can briefly explain which of the views you take and why, but also explain that at the end of the day, there is strong agreement on certain things. The disagreements should not dishearten us because some things are loud and clear.
Sermons Series: Romans: The Gospel in All its Glory
Text: Romans 1:1-17
Title: An Encouraging Faith
Big Idea: The ministry of the gospel brings about the mutual encouragement of a living, active faith.
Preaching Tips: Show how the focus of the gospel is an obedience-producing faith (vv. 5, 8, 12, 16, 17) with which we encourage one another everywhere it is proclaimed.
Text: Romans 1:18-32
Title: A Losing Exchange
Big Idea: When God is exchanged for a lie, the self-destructiveness of sin increases.
Preaching Tips: In contrast to the previous unit, the tone here is warning. Where the righteousness of God is revealed through the lives of believers in vv. 16-17, the wrath of God is revealed through the lives of unbelievers whom God gave up to their suppression of truth (vv. 24, 26, 28). Clarify that God’s wrath at this time is shown in his handing people over to their own desires, though this is not the final judgment (2:5-11).
Text: Romans 2:1-29
Title: Secrets That Won’t Remain
Big Idea: In order to be ready for the judgment of Christ, our hearts must produce repentant obedience to God’s truth.
Preaching Tips: Hypocrisy is a heavy theme here—unbelievers suppress God’s natural revelation in ch. 1, but we can reject God’s special revelation by refusing to live it out.
Text: Romans 3:1-31
Title: The Just and the Justifier
Big Idea: High exposure to God’s Word is a great advantage, but we still need faith in Christ to be justified before God.
Preaching Tips: The “oracles of God” are beneficial but only when faith is placed in Christ who alone justifies (vv. 4, 8, 20, 24, 26, 28, 30). This would be the sermon to get your listeners clear on the term, justification.
Text: Romans 4:1-25
Title: Righteousness that Counts
Big Idea: The righteousness that God counts is faith in his provision of Jesus.
Preaching Tips: God’s accounting of righteousness is based on faith, not works (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 22-23). Lean into the narrative of Abraham’s move from dead fatherhood as it were, to becoming the father of many nations (17). The simple yet profound mechanism of faith makes this broad inclusion possible.
Text: Romans 5:1-11
Title: The Certainty of Hope
Big Idea: God’s reconciling love toward us when we were at enmity with him, absolutely proves he will complete our salvation all the way.
Preaching Tips: This hopeful passage grounds our ability to endure suffering by using an a fortiori argument—God’s full commitment to saving us is sure! Wherever your church is on “eternal security,” you should highlight God’s part as all-in. God does not engage in this salvation business with a half-hearted commitment.
Text: Romans 5:12-21
Title: Adam 2.0
Big Idea: When we reckon with the nature of our guilt in Adam, we can appreciate the sureness of our rescue in Christ.
Preaching Tips: While the doctrine of guilt in Adam is difficult to swallow, it is ironically sweet because it is by this principle of headship that our reconciliation to God is secure. This sermon should not shy from beginning on a sour note, but it sure should not end on one!
Text: Romans 6:1-7:6
Title: Our Precious Servitude
Big Idea: Living under the abounding grace of God does not mean we are free to sin, but that we are slaves to righteousness.
Preaching Tips: The concept of slavery and the possibly awkward illustration of marriage in this passage will have to be handled with sensitivity to your context but without derailing the central thrust of Paul’s point here. You will also need to have a solid grasp on your understanding of the next unit so that you will know how to explain the concept of slavery in this unit.
Text: Romans 7:7-25
Title: Our Wretched Conflict
Big Idea: Freedom from slavery to sin does not mean we will go without our fleshly desires warring against us.
Preaching Tips: Many able interpreters take the opposite view (that this is only about a pre-conversion inner battle). Aim to take the position that makes the best sense of the text while humbly recognizing other views. In the end, all are agreed that believers have the ability to defeat sin even if we occasionally stumble.
Text: Romans 8:1-27
Title: The Indwelling Spirit of God
Big Idea: Our freedom from condemnation shows up in our living by the Spirit and praying by the Spirit.
Preaching Tips: The frequent repetition of the “Spirit” in this section is firstly pitted against living according to the flesh (vv. 1-14) and then used to speak to the hopeful prayerfulness of the Christian life (vv. 15-27). This can be two preaching units, but keeping them together allows the battle against the flesh to immediately set up our need for prayer.
Text: Romans 8:28-39
Title: The Undefeatable Love of God
Big Idea: No matter what comes our way, God will use every circumstance to further accomplish his Christ-conforming purpose in us.
Preaching Tips: The stacking effect of God’s actions toward the believer underscores God’s being “for us” and the safety that provides. There are plenty of units throughout Romans that clarify that this does not give license to presume upon God’s grace. For this unit, let this marvelous, comforting truth shine bright. This unit begins and ends with trials (included in the “all things” of v. 28), sandwiching God’s work on our behalf through all of it.
Text: Romans 9:1-10:4
Title: The Unbreakable Promises of God
Big Idea: God’s Word has not failed Israel because his covenant has always been based on promise-faith.
Preaching Tips: Here is another place where you will have to determine your landing spot between various theological positions. Over the years, charitable dialogue between dispensationalism and covenant theology (for example) have shown more agreement than is commonly assumed. You do not have to have it all figured out. The key is God’s just nature and sure promises. This is relevant to any audience because if God has not stayed true to his promises to Israel, then there is little hope for the rest of the world.
Text: Romans 10:5-17
Title: The All-Inclusive Exclusive Gospel
Big Idea: The good news of Christ proclaimed must be received in faith for salvation.
Preaching Tips: This simple truth is too profound and too foundational to assume your listeners understand it. Emphasize that this way to salvation, though limiting in one sense, is also expansive as it is proclaimed to all the world.
Text: Romans 10:18-11:32
Title: One-Two Step Mercy
Big Idea: God is using a grand scale disbelief to bring about an even greater scale of salvation.
Preaching Tips: While it is disheartening to see Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, God is using it as an occasion to broaden his harvest to all the world and still hold out opportunity for Israel before the end. One step back for two large leaps forward in God’s salvation plan.
Text: Romans 11:33-36
Title: God’s Unsearchable Judgments
Big Idea: We cannot know the mind of the Lord but we can be sure that he deserves glory in all that he does.
Preaching Tips: This unit can easily be included in the previous sermon but it is rich and could be a great opportunity to take a break from large sections for a week. While the previous sermon can focus on God’s overall plan, this sermon can address the question as to why God has chosen to operate this way. The text does not answer but to say it is for our benefit (last week’s v. 32) and God’s glory (v. 36).
Text: Romans 12:1-2
Title: God’s Discernible Will
Big Idea: Our response to God’s unsearchable mercies should be to live according to his discernible will.
Preaching Tips: Another short unit, this paragraph introduces the rest of Paul’s exhortations based on the foundation laid in chapters 1-11.
Text: Romans 12:3-8
Title: You’ve Been Assigned
Big Idea: We have been assigned varying functions to humbly serve one another because we belong to one another in Christ.
Preaching Tips: Though the idea of humility comes out a little late in this Big Idea, it comes out right away in the text. The assignment of gifts is an action that negates our being too proud to serve. Without this key piece, we will not be ready to minister to one another.
Text: Romans 12:9-21
Title: Love in Profile
Big Idea: Genuine love takes real action toward the saints and toward our persecutors.
Preaching Tips: This Big Idea takes love as the subject not just because it kicks things off in v. 9 but it is reiterated in v. 10 (cf. agaptoi, v. 19) and every imperative in this long list can arguably flow from that greatest command. Each imperative can almost merit its own sermon, but we can take our cue from Paul. He is not taking long to unpack each one, so our sermon can also touch on each in brief fashion to create an overall profile of genuine love.
Text: Romans 13:1-10
Title: The Role of Government
Big Idea: We should subject ourselves to governing authorities because they are God’s servants.
Preaching Tips: Verses 8-10 may feel like Paul is moving on to another topic, but the connection is the idea of “owing” (vv. 7, 8) and the concept of God’s greater law of love in which there is no wrongdoing (vv. 4, 10). Of course, Paul does not mean that there is never a time to take God’s Word over and against blatantly contradictory edicts. But try not to over-caveat this passage to the point of muting its agenda.
Text: Romans 13:11-14
Title: Days Count Down, Not Up
Big Idea: As the day of final salvation approaches, we must put off dark desires by putting on Christ.
Preaching Tips: This shorter portion requires a good amount of unpacking. What does it mean to put on Christ? Notice that putting on Christ is not a step one takes after putting off darkness, but rather how it is continually done.
Text: Romans 14:1-15:7
Title: One Church, Varying Opinions
Big Idea: We should welcome one another in harmonious unity even when we disagree about matters of opinion.
Preaching Tips: You could easily break this down into a couple of sermons but keeping it together allows 14:1 and 15:7 to bracket all of these details.
Text: Romans 15:8-13
Title: A Sure Hope for All Peoples
Big Idea: We can rejoice in the sure hope that God has extended the merciful promise of salvation to all peoples of the world.
Preaching Tips: The hope is sure because we can have peace about it while we rejoice in it (v. 13). Our charge to welcome one another in the previous pericope is based on this greatest act of welcoming the world can ever know.
Text: Romans 15:14-33
Title: All Hands on Deck
Big Idea: Ministers of Christ and the saints advance the gospel together through sacrificial service.
Preaching Tips: Here it can be pointed out how Paul pours into saints and in return he sees them support him as well as each other. We can learn from this kind of interdependence for ministry today.
Text: Romans 16:1-23 (24)
Title: Welcoming and Watching
Big Idea: Welcome all who serve Christ, but watch out for those who don’t.
Preaching Tips: You will have to decide how to explain to your listeners why v. 24 does not appear in some translations. This could be a worthy side note to introduce them to textual criticism—it’s important. But it would be wise to not let it overshadow the passage’s agenda. The concept of welcoming/greeting brackets this passage. The Greek words for “welcome” and “watch out for” both carry a sense of “looking” lending great unity to all of these verses.
Text: Romans 16:25-27
Title: The Glorious Unveiling of the Gospel
Big Idea: God is glorified in the strengthening of believers through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Preaching Tips: This final sentence of the Epistle begins and ends with ascribing glory to God, sandwiching the way in which God attains this glory through the good news now made clear. Not only is it summative, it is wonderfully hortative.
There are several subjects that will challenge the expositor who commits to preaching through Romans.
While the subject of the Mosaic Law is not the central theme of the Epistle, it permeates almost the entire letter, touching many of the subjects throughout. Most of the time, when Paul refers to “the law” he means the Law of Moses. We would do well though to discern the different possible uses so that we do not inadvertently skew certain passages. Solid commentaries will help you with this. But your audience might struggle to see the relevance of talking about the Law so often. Preachers should demonstrate the deeper issues at stake when discussing the role of God’s Law in dealing with humanity. You don’t have to be a first century Jew to be confused about this.
And just as this subject is replete throughout the letter, the related issues in our day-to-day lives are myriad:
How is God pleased?
Are “do’s and don’ts” just for legalists and harsh fundamentalists?
If something exposes my condemnation does that make it irrelevant when I am given another way out of that condemnation? What changes?
Can Romans help us understand Law in a way that will help us read our Old Testament better?
Any sermon series straight through Romans will showcase rhythms of harsh then hopeful sections. The unit most focused on the theme of God’s wrath of course is 1:18-32. But then 2:1-29 turns the Judge’s eye on the inward secrets of those who profess godliness. We visit the difficult concept of guilt in Adam when we arrive at 5:12-21. At 10:18-11:32 we see Paul’s treatment of Israel’s self-condemning rejection of Christ and then at 13:1-10 we see the theme of God’s wrath as it is partly administered in the world through human authorities.
We need this. We will never really see the beauty of the gospel (10:15) if we don’t grapple with the ugliness of sin and rebellion. Yes God loves the world (John 3:16) but he demonstrated that love by giving up his Son to save us out of the wrath that is upon us (John 3:36; Romans 5:8). Don’t give in to the temptation to clean-up these hard passages. Paul didn’t. We need the entire gospel or we have no gospel at all.
It has been argued that Paul’s exhortations beginning in 12:1 flow from the study of God’s grace throughout the first eleven chapters. “By the mercies of God” reflects back on the overarching theme of the first “volume” of the Epistle and serves as the basis for the imperatives of the second. The portions dealing with wrath and judgment help us understand God’s mercy and grace. This is the good news which is the whole point of the Epistle not to mention Paul’s entire ministry (1:1).
Concerning Romans, John Murray wrote: “As we read the epistle we cannot escape the emphasis that falls upon the grace of God and, more specifically, upon justification by grace through faith.” We sing of God’s grace often, but Romans is sure to deepen our understanding of salvation in ways that will make our songs sweeter.
It will be up to you to determine where certain texts refer primarily to ethnic Israel and where the text means to address Christian believers in general. You will also have to wade into the controversial waters of explaining the way in which God maintains his promises to Israel. Think about your church’s denomination or faith statement or perhaps the theological “tribe” with which they might generally identify. These factors should not force your exegetical hand as you do the work, but you should be aware of the expectations and assumptions into which you will speak. Thankfully, we have seen more and more agreement on key matters in this area over the years though there are still some real distinctions to navigate. In the end, we can emphasize that God never breaks his promises and that all peoples can come to the cross.
One area of take-home value throughout Romans is our interdependence upon one another in the church. In the first unit, Paul longs to see the believers in Rome, in order to be encouraged by them. He’s already celebrating their faithfulness everywhere he goes. Ministers are encouraged by churches as churches are encouraged by ministers.
Paul then goes into a long exposition of the gospel in order to circle back to our interdependence in chapter 12. There he addresses how we are to serve one another in specifically assigned ways and how we are to devote ourselves to one another in sincere love. We are to welcome one another even when we differ on matters of opinion (14:1-15:7)—that’s tough to practice! Ministers and saints support one another and this takes sacrifice—it’s hard (15:14-33).
We would do well to help our listeners think through some of the ins and outs of actually living this way. It’s easy to “amen,” but challenging to embody. We really need to learn how to serve and depend on each other.
One way to encourage this might be to take a cue from Paul’s final stretch in chapter 16 where he commends people by name. We can sometimes be quick to call out false teachers by name but slow to commend saints within our own circles. You should ask permission before using names, but it can be encouraging to folks when preachers point out all the good that’s going on in our churches and whom we can thank for it. It calls us to model our lives after them and gives us real examples to look to.
As we’ve seen, there are several units where the central thrust has to do with wrath or judgment. But there is no shortage of application material here. Think about unbelievers who might be present. Say something to the believers who carry a message of hope to those in their lives who are still under wrath. You will even have the opportunity to help your professing believers examine themselves—are they really Christians?
For example, Chapters 2-3 touch on the insider who judges the truth-suppressors. This person has high exposure to the “oracles of God” but this does not produce salvation. It is faith in Christ. Some of our listeners might think they’re in when they really haven’t thought it through yet. Application is not always homework for the hands and feet. It’s also for the mind and heart. Take them there.
This series will provide ample opportunities to touch on topics that are at the forefront of our minds today as ever. From issues concerning sexual deviance (1:26-27; 13:13) to how we are to view secular (even wicked) governing authorities (13:1-5). From paying taxes (13:6-7) to supporting missionaries (15:24). From raw honesty about the nagging presence of the flesh (7:7-25) to a provocation toward Spirit-dependent prayer (8:26-27). From influential but dangerous teachers (16:17-19), to sometimes lesser known but exemplary saints worthy of commendation (16:1-16, 21-23). For the doctrinal depths that Romans will force you to plumb, it is not difficult to see how each person listening can have their lives shaped and affected in tangible ways.
My Encounter with Romans
Preaching through Romans provides an occasion to drill down on rich and profound contours of the gospel, but there is no lack of contact with real-life issues facing your listeners on a regular basis. In John Stott’s introduction to his commentary on Romans, he wrote: “I have not been altogether surprised … in the course of writing this exposition, to observe how many contemporary issues are touched on by Paul in Romans.” Listeners will be challenged to think deeply but also to live in ardent obedience for God’s glory in specific ways.
This means we can prayerfully expect a different church on the other side of this series. A church that has been challenged to revisit their previous theological assumptions. A church that is goaded to lean into harmony with others who are different from them. A church that will know better how to navigate our dual citizenship in this world. A church with a keener taste for missionary endeavors.
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and according to the preaching of Jesus Christ, be glory forever!
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT), Baker, 1998.
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans (New International Commentary on the NT), 2nd ed, Eerdmans, 2018.
C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, vols. 1 & 2 (International Critical Commentary Series), T&T Clark, 2004.
 John Murray, Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1960), p. xiii.
 John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (The Bible Speaks Today) Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020. p. x.
Lucas O’Neill is a Clinical Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). He has pastored Christian Fellowship Church (Itasca, IL) for over ten years, and is the author of "Preaching to Be Heard" (Lexham Press, 2019).