Rome was not only a strategic city in Paul’s day—it was a powerful city. From politics to ideologies, the city of Rome was at the center of the world and in God’s providence, God raised up a church in this important location at this juncture in history to accomplish his purpose. The church at Rome found itself as part of the story of redemption. Paul’s letter was holy Scripture that not only would encourage the church in Rome—but would be used to encourage the Universal Church through the ages. For God so loved the church in Rome that he sent his Son to die for her and then mobilized his apostle to write to her.
In the opening words to the church in the city of Rome, Paul makes a statement that should cause us to pause and reflect. Paul writes, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:7). When Paul addresses the believers (the church) in Rome, he refers to them as “those in Rome who are loved by God.” So, why did God not love all of Rome?
God is Sovereign
The first thing we must understand when it comes to salvation is that God is not obligated to save one single person in human history. God’s love is a sovereign love. Not even one person is worthy and deserving of God’s love. When discussing the love of God, some people become contentious—making the case that God loves the entire world without exception and without any measure of distinction. Often this debate will find its way to Romans 9 for clarity. However, long before arriving at Romans 9, we see the sovereign love of God on display in Romans 1:7.
While God was not forced to love one single person in Rome, he chose to love specific people in the city—effectually setting them apart and calling them to be saints. When contemplating the sovereign love of God for guilty and wretched sinners—it causes the value of our salvation to increase dramatically especially when we consider the free choice of God and the inability of fallen man to make any choice for God. Who is to call into question the love of God? Does God have freedom to choose to love whom he wills (Rom. 9:14-15)?
God’s Love Is an Electing Love
The love of God for the church in the city of Rome is clearly distinct from any generic love that God has for the entire city of Rome. In a general sense, we can say that God loves Rome (as God loves the world in John 3:16). However, in a special way God has chosen to love the church in Rome and this is God’s electing love.
This love speaks of God’s initiative in salvation. The church in Rome loved God, but not until God first love them (1 John 4:19). The language of this text points back to how God loved the nation of Israel. It was not based on the size, power, or value of the nation of Israel. God’s choice for Israel was based on his redemptive plan and mercy alone.
Deuteronomy 7:7–8 — It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,  but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The language used here by Paul connects the love of God for the church in Rome with the love of God for the nation of Israel and will be key as he develops these truths over the first half of the letter. Too often people minimize the depth of theology in God’s love and seek to generalize it—making God into a generic god of salvation to the entire world as opposed to the covenant keeping God of Scripture who sovereignly saves his people for his glory. James Montgomery Boice explains:
Some think that people become believers by their own unaided choice, as if all we have to do is decide to trust Jesus. But how could we possibly do that if, as we have seen Paul say, each of us is “dead in . . . transgressions and sins”? How can a dead man decide anything? Some have supposed that we become Christians because God in his omniscience sees some small bit of good in us, even if that “good” is only a tiny seed of faith. But how could God see good in us if, as Paul will later remind us: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12; cf. Ps. 14:3)? Why, then, does God love us? The answer is “because he loves us.” There is just nothing to be said beyond that. 
God loved the church in Rome and as we consider the realty of God’s love—we must look to our local churches and see the expression and reality of God’s love among us. It’s not that God simply loved the church at Rome and we can only read about it from the pages of holy Scripture. We too are part of the story of redemption. For God so loved us that we too should be humbled and look to our purpose to live for his glory. Paul would later write in this very letter to the church in Rome, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). For God so loved the church at Rome that he saved her for his glory. That same truth can be embraced for us—and our local churches today.
Jerry Bridges has rightly stated, “The great God not only loves His saints, but He loves to love them.” The next time you hear someone profaning the doctrine of election—before you engage in a doctrinal dispute with them—take time to pray for them that they would see and understand Romans 1:7 long before you turn to Romans 9. Since God’s love is sovereign—and therefore unmerited, eternal, and unchanging, we can find comfort in the very words that Paul writes in Romans 8:33-39:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol. 1 Justification by Faith Romans 1-4, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), 65.