Through the letter to the Romans – Introduction.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans has the reputation of being complex. Some people will tell you it is because it is a treasure trove of Pauline theology, and they relish that. Others, that find it a slow read, may cite those very same “theologically” technical passages as contributing to the difficulty. Maybe both ways of reading it miss the point.

Reading Paul in a new way is a delicate subject. Apart from the method of interpretation of the Creation narrative in Genesis, there’s probably no other Biblical subject that raises more heated arguments than Romans and the thesis of Salvation by Faith alone. After all, isn’t that declaration at the heart of the Reformation?

To the interested reader that has never heard of the New Perspective on Paul, I heartily recommend N. T. Wright’s, “Paul for everyone” and Scott McKnight’s “Reading Romans backwards”. But, be warned, many that hold to the traditional stance will tell you these new viewpoints are dangerous because they “undermine the doctrine of justification by faith and the principle of sola fide.” If that weren’t enough to dissuade you, you’ll be in danger of wondering “whether Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was actually a penal substitution.” For that discussion, I would point you to The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry and their discussion on whether the atonement is about penal substitution or about Nicene “medical” substitution.

If you read all these different viewpoints, keep in mind that (as my daughter reminded me) the person arguing a point is liable to miss points or details in the evidence that would undermine their main argument. Are they being facetious? Probably they are being human. We all can get blinders on ourselves. Whenever we study Scripture, it is a good thing to keep in mind something Paul says in the 14th Chapter of Romans, verse 1: “Don’t pass judgment on reasonings.”

When I read the Gospel, I find that the choice of following Jesus, the path to becoming a Christian, is rather straightforward: (1) Repent, (2) believe, (3) pick up your own cross, and follow Him. That doesn’t mean that the life of a disciple is simple. But it does mean that we don’t have to “jump through a whole bunch of hoops” to make that choice and live that life. Yes, we should understand what those three steps I outlined mean, so that we count the cost and make an informed decision. And there is plenty of explanation of what is involved in each of them in the Scriptures. But, if we find ourselves getting into arguments with other believers about “technical” details of the Faith, we may very well be passing judgment on reasonings.

Just because an “authority” tells you that if you believe “A” you will end up doing “B”, doesn’t make it so. Fortunately for me, I am no authority (as Søren Kierkegaard said of himself more than once.) So, if you read on, take it all with a large grain of NaCl. (I am a scientist and engineer). All I want to tell you is how I read the letter to the Romans. To me it is a classic exposition of a logical argument. And as a scientist, I love that about it. But to “get” the argument you need to understand where it is going. If you were contemporaneous with Paul and his audience, you would know.

But first, why does it matter to us today?

There is a recurring idea in anti-Christian rhetoric that Saint Paul was the one who “invented” Christianity. The ultimate goal of this trope is to allow people to discount the controversial statements Paul makes while allowing them to embrace an uncontroversial version of Jesus.

So, my interest in re-reading Romans was to, on purpose, collect the evidence that what Paul writes is no different from what is taught in the gospels. Since God does not change, and the Gospel is the foundation of all that Paul does, it should be impossible to find in a letter of Paul any doctrine that adds or takes away from the plan of salvation that we learn from a plain reading of the gospels.

What about his audience?

This letter is written with a very important historical event in the background: The expulsion of Jews from Rome by the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was in office AD 41-54, and is referred to in the Acts of the Apostles (18:2). If Paul’s letter was written around AD 56, then it arrived there after that expulsion had occurred and after the Jews had returned when Nero came to power in AD 54. During this expulsion, Jewish Christians would also have been expelled while the Roman Gentile Christians would have remained behind. 

This separation and subsequent reunion could have led to some church “dynamics” that are in the background of the way the letter to the Romans is structured, where it appears to address Gentile and Jewish believers sometimes individually and sometimes together.

Spoiler alert

In this respect, after re-reading the whole letter, I have to agree with Scott McKnight that there is a lot to be gained from reading first the ending chapters. That way we don’t have to guess at the “dynamics” that I alluded to in the paragraph above.

Reading through the letter, we run across the concept of “boasting”, several times. We also see in Chapters 2 through 7, Paul repeatedly addressing the Law of Moses from two sides: (a) to emphasize its goodness and (b) to emphasize its inability to lead us to obey that goodness. By Chapters 9 to 11, Paul is defending his Jewish nation from being counted out by the Gentiles.

And then in Chapter 12, Paul emphasizes the power of the diversity in the body of Christ; and how belonging to that body is manifested in the way we treat those outside the Church (authorities) and each other inside the Church; culminating in Chapter 13 verse 10 (one of SK’s favorite verses) “Love works no ill to its neighbour; love therefore [is the] whole law.”

So, what’s going on?

Let me propose a hypothesis which I do not think the structure or content of the letter contradicts: It is reasonable to assume that the expulsion of the Jews from Rome meant the Jewish Christians in the Church of Rome were also expelled. Finally, they have returned. But in the intervening years, the Church has been running entirely under the direction of the Gentile Christians. The Jewish believers have lost their “status”. Now things are being done differently and they find themselves at a disadvantage.

How would you react to that? Any of us who claims we wouldn’t be bothered, or who claims that we wouldn’t strike out in frustration at fellow believers, has never read the first letter of John, or Romans. (Or, for that matter, spent a reasonable amount of time in a Church.) It is clear in both Romans and 1 John that a lot of the instruction about getting along with others, even about not hating your brothers, is directed at Christians.

Yep, there is trouble right here in River City…

So, my hypothesis is that the Jewish believers “fought” to recover their position, and in doing so they started appealing to the supremacy of their heritage. After all, the Messiah was a Jew. God’s promised plan of salvation started with Abraham. And they had been given the written Law, they had a manual for living in righteousness.

Pretty soon we start having arguments about what is “right living” and possibly about who is a better Christian… which could be behind this passage: Romans 14:1-3 (NASB) Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not to have quarrels over opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but the one who is weak eats only vegetables. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.

Arguments about dietary restrictions are eminently Jewish, particularly in a Gentile city like Rome with all its idols and their sacrifices. Paul’s answer is straight out of the Sermon on the Mount (and the parable of the unrighteous servant): Judge not lest thee be judged: Romans 14:4 (Darby translation) Who art *thou* that judgest the servant of another? to his own master he stands or falls. And he shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make him stand.

(Note, from now on, all scripture quoted will be taken from Darby’s translation except where noted otherwise. At times I add an explanatory phrase in curly brackets {} when a word or phrase can be translated several ways.)

There may have even been arguments about what it meant to keep the Sabbath or others of their traditional holidays: Romans 14:5-6 One man esteems day more than day; another esteems every day [alike]. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regards the day, regards it to [the] Lord. And he that eats, eats to [the] Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that does not eat, [it is] to [the] Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.

And Paul’s bottom-line answer to this is that, as Christians, we are living our lives because of, and therefore for, the Lord; not to be deciding what other believers can and cannot do.

Romans 14:7-9 For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. For both if we should live, [it is] to the Lord we live; and if we should die, [it is] to the Lord we die: both if we should live then, and if we should die, we are the Lord’s. For to this [end] Christ has died and lived [again], that he might rule over both dead and living.

This is an interesting way to guarantee this argument ends. You see, if people want to argue, they will always find a way to say “but I am more in the right than he is.”  But Paul has started to remind them that this “right and wrong” thing is a lot bigger deal than our petty differences of opinion. By mentioning the dead and the living, I think Paul means that Christ is King and Judge over all, believers and unbelievers. So why are we trying to elbow ourselves into his territory?

Romans 14:10-12 But thou, why judgest thou thy brother? or again, thou, why dost thou make little of thy brother? for we shall all be placed before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written, *I* live, saith [the] Lord, that to me shall bow every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God.

Judgment is God’s territory. And to finish the thought, Paul is going to use a phrase that has a doubly important meaning to his listeners: the stumbling block. For we know Jesus cited the prophet when He said He was that Stone that makes men stumble and the Rock that makes them fall. But at the same time, He had warned his disciples that they have no place being a stumbling block to “these little ones”.

Romans 14:13-14 Let us no longer therefore judge one another; but judge ye this rather, not to put a stumbling-block or a fall-trap before his brother. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself; except to him who reckons anything to be unclean, to that man [it is] unclean.

I love the way Paul ends the argument, with the central theme of the letter: Faith. That which ushered us into salvation is the rule by which we live, and it is the filter by which we should look at all our choices.

Now, to remind us why this is so important: Paul says, this is the way we do the work of the Kingdom.

Romans 14:15 For if on account of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer according to love. Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ has died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in [the] Holy Spirit.  For he that in this serves the Christ [is] acceptable to God and approved of men.

To reiterate:

Romans 14:19-23 So then let us pursue the things which tend to peace, and things whereby one shall build up another. For the sake of meat do not destroy the work of God. All things indeed [are] pure; but [it is] evil to that man who eats while stumbling [in doing so]. [It is] right not to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor [do anything] in which thy brother stumbles, or is offended, or is weak. Hast *thou* faith? have [it] to thyself before God. Blessed [is] he who does not judge himself in what he allows. But he that doubts, if he eat, is condemned; because [it is] not of faith; but whatever [is] not of faith is sin.

Our faith is our guide. Why? Because we have the Holy Spirit within us. In us, the promise of Jeremiah has come true, which Jesus reiterated: God Himself will teach us. But our faith can never be used as an excuse to make another brother stumble. That is why Paul said in Chapter 12: Honor others above yourself.

By the time the letter concludes Paul will finish dealing with this issue of strife within the Church:

Romans 16:17-19 But I beseech you, brethren, to consider those who create divisions and occasions of falling, contrary to the doctrine which *ye* have learnt, and turn away from them. For such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For your obedience has reached to all. I rejoice therefore as it regards you; but I wish you to be wise [as] to that which is good, and simple [as] to evil.

It is typical Paul that he enforces symmetry. The way he began the letter, mentioning in Chapter 1 that all have heard of the faith of the Roman Church (and in saying so, Paul mentions the obedience of the faith), now he ends by telling them that all know about their obedience.

I think this is the key to understanding the structure of the Letter

I also think this is why Paul talks about “boasting” so many times. Yes, the Jewish believers could have been boasting about their Law. But the Gentile believers would have countered by boasting about their freedom. Remember the Council of Jerusalem and Paul’s disagreement with Peter when “Judaizers” arrived at Antioch (Galatians 2:14-21). Paul knew this whole subject had been a point of contention and would be again.

Evidence that this was a repeating problem in the early Church comes from how many times Paul has to teach about the futility of the Law as a means of salvation, and even from the existence of the letter to the Hebrews and how it compares and contrasts the Old Covenant with the New.

If this is so, then Pauls’ main purpose in writing this letter is indeed, as he will say in Chapter 1, to preach the Gospel to these believers. Because it is only when the Gospel seizes our hearts, and we live in obedience to it, that we can truly live as one, as the Body of Christ.

Unaddressed, this division in the Church could have destroyed it. And, as he hints a couple of times, it would also have ruined their ability to carry out their mission by destroying their witness about the life-changing power of the Gospel. Furthermore, if the Jewish believers reverted back to relying on the Law, then they would be denying the power of faith and the role it has in salvation. After all, John 3:16 says it: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

So, as we go forward, keep this background in mind. I don’t think Paul set out to write a theological treatise on Law versus Faith or to systematize the technical mechanism by which salvation occurs in the believer. I think he is preaching the Gospel to a people who were getting divided along ethnic and cultural lines, and forgetting that God’s plan of salvation was the same for all people.

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