One way of determining a theme of a book, biblical or otherwise, is to look for repeated words. After eliminating common words (the, and, of) what words appear more frequently than others, especially if they are scattered throughout the writing. For instance, the book of Matthew uses a phrase similar to “that it might be fulfilled” at least fifteen times. He was writing to a Jewish audience, using the prophets to prove that Jesus was Messiah.
Many teachers will tell you that the key verse of Romans is found in chapter one, verse sixteen. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” It establishes the “Jew first, then Greek” thesis that is expanded on throughout the letter. It is Paul’s thesis statement, but the key word in Romans may just be “debtor.” It appears at the beginning (just before the thesis statement), the middle, and the end of the book. The idea of obedient faith, another key concept, appears at the beginning and end, but this word is also found in the middle. So what does Paul say about debtors?
I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. (Rom 1:14-15)
This statement is immediately followed by verse sixteen. “I am a debtor. I am ready to preach. For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Paul felt an obligation. It went beyond obeying the great commission. A debt had been placed on him. Remember that Paul was a Pharisee. He had been zealous in persecuting those who followed the Way, and yet he had been forgiven that. “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor 15:9) He embraced the principle of Luke 7:47, that one who is forgiven much loves much. Because he was forgiven and then given a mission to the Gentiles, he felt that obligation very deeply.
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Rom 8:12-13)
Paul was not the only debtor because of forgiveness. Everyone who is forgiven gives up any debt to live after the flesh. The debt is not laid on God. He does not owe us salvation because of our good deeds. Rather, the debt is laid on us to live after His Spirit. We all share in Paul’s debt.
But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. (Rom 15:25-27)
After showing how both Jews and Gentiles are sinners, and both have been saved, Paul says that the Gentiles specifically have a debt owed to the Jewish people. It was the Jewish people who prepared the way for the Messiah. The Jews were the first to receive the gospel. Paul says the debt extends not just to the spiritual, but to the physical. The Jews in Palestine were in need of financial support. Paul was collecting support in Corinth and other places where he had been, and proposed that the Romans had a debt to give aid as well. Since that time the church has become almost exclusively Gentile. Nevertheless, we still owe a debt to the Jewish people, both spiritual and physical. Not necessarily to Israel because that is a secular, political organization, but to the Jewish people as we are made familiar with them.
Paul gives three instances of debts, throughout the letter to the Romans. It seems he felt his debt deeply, and expects no less of all Christians.