Its one thing to encourage you to outline, another thing entirely to actually do it. Let me show you how I went about outlining the beginning of Romans. However, before I dive in, I must admit that outlining a book is a bit of a circular process. It’s a bit like the way I do math… guess and check. I’ll explain why it’s like guess and check as I go.
Start with the Big Picture
My first step is to read the whole book and try to get an idea of what the main point is. If you are reading to find the main point you will naturally make a rudimentary outline in your head. You may not have it broken down into Roman numerals yet, but finding the main point means that you recognize, to some extent, what is the central truth the author is arguing for and what are sub-points that either demonstrate or refer back to the main point in some way.
Fortunately, I already wrote a post which explains what I think the main point of Romans is. I believe the primary reason Paul wrote Romans was to teach the Gentiles, and the Jews for that matter, what the gospel is, particularly how God is able to save the nations while remaining just and true to his promises to Israel, with the hopes that understanding how the gospel works will lead to a greater sense of unity between the Gentile and Jewish believers in Rome. Hopefully I will find that the letter is structured in a way to coincides with what I believe to be the main point. If not, then my check didn’t work out and I will have to reconsider what the main point is.
Let the Letter be Your Guide
Right off the bat I know that because I am reading a letter I can expect my outline to look a certain way. Almost every letter in the New Testament follows the same form. They each begin with an opening greeting or salutation, followed by the body of the letter, and concluded with some sort of final greetings and words of encouragement. As you might expect, the body is the most significant part of the letter because it is the part that the author lays out his primary argument. However, you can often find significant information that either prepares or concludes his argument in the opening and conclusion.
Because a letter is almost always structured this way, you can typically expect your outline to contain only 3 Roman Numerals. For Romans it will look like this:
I. Introduction (1:1-17)
II. Body (1:18-15:13)
III. Conclusion (15:14-16:27)
Trusting Your Translation
One thing you might not know is that our original Greek manuscripts are missing some of the most important reading tools; paragraphs and punctuation. In fact, they don’t even include spaces between the letters. Times were tight back then and you didn’t want to waste paper with needless things like spaces, commas, and periods. Entire blank lines for a new paragraph would have been considered the peak of frivolity.
Luckily we live in the lap of luxury today and our publishers always include spaces and punctuation and almost always include paragraphs (The New American Study Bible does not show paragraphs in the typical sense but they do bold the verse number when they think a new paragraph has started). While we have to remember that the punctuation and paragraph markers are not part of the original text, we can and should thankfully take advantage of the benefit they offer the modern reader. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to compare several translations to see if they ever disagree on these important tools.
An outline should almost always follow the paragraph structure. For instance, if you have three paragraphs, you will have three bullets in your outline. The only thing left for you decide is how these bullets are related and how you should summarize them in a catchy way that you can remember. I am using the ESV Bible which breaks Romans 1:1-17 into three paragraphs (1-8, 9-15, 16-17). This is how I organized them.
A. Address Line and Introductions (1-7)
B. Greetings (8-15)
C. The Preview (16-17)
Check Your Work
As I said, making an outline is a bit circular so you basically have to use a guess and check method. By circular I mean; you have to know what the letter is about to make an outline but if you don’t have an outline you don’t really know what the letter is about so you guess and check. I read the letter and guess, then make an outline, and then check.
The introduction is probably the hardest part to guess and check because the author won’t necessarily address his main point in the introduction. However, you will often find it alluded to. Fortunately, in Romans it is not simply alluded to, but strongly foreshadowed by the introduction.
A. Address Line and Introductions (1:1-7)
Paul begins his efforts to provide a basis for positive Jew/Gentile interaction as early as the address line. He explains that he is set apart for the gospel which will be the ultimate basis for a positive relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Further, he begins by appealing to the Jewish Scriptures and Patriarchs. However, he reveals that the gospel bridges the Jew/Gentile gap by showing that the very Christ who descended from David has sent him to bring out the obedience of faith of all the nations.
B. Greetings (1:8-15)
The second section consists primarily of greetings. However, Paul again hints at his overarching purpose of reconciliation through the gospel. He explains that just as it is his ambition to preach the gospel in Rome, it is also his responsibility to preach the Gospel to all gentiles: Greek or barbarian, wise or foolish. He is already eroding any possibility that they would consider themselves worthy of the gospel, but instead forcing them to realize that they are simply a small fraction of the larger church of God.
C. The Preview to his Argument (1:16-17)
The third section lays out Paul’s goal in the clearest terms yet. He is planning to demonstrate exactly how the gospel works to bring the Jew and the Gentile into the same salvation. Both the Jew and the Gentile are saved not because of their own worthiness or righteousness, but simply because of the righteousness of God. And the righteousness of God is given, as will be explained more fully in chapters 3, 4, and 5, to all those who have faith in Christ.
So far it checks out. We will definitely have to revisit the main point and outline again once we get to the body. But for know we can at least move forward with a pretty good idea of what to look for in the next section.