Sunday Meditations: What Is Romans About?

The timing catalyst for this post goes to Alex who wrote a fine article recently on the topic of the political dimension of Romans and how we might understand some of Paul’s instructions in light of the coming of the kingdom of God and the king. If he isn’t in your blogroll, you might consider adding him.

Romans is a pivotal book for American evangelicalism as it is often teed up as THE book that outlines man’s separation from God through sin and how we can be made right with God by accepting Jesus through faith (as opposed to works). Fundamentalists love the “Romans Road,” which you might be familiar with, yourself. Calvinists especially love Romans because the whole schema is described in terms of God’s predestination.

I learned the Romans Road when I was a child. You start in Romans 3:23 to establish the fact that everyone has sinned, and then you jump to the next verse on the Road, then the next, and as you hop around to these different verses in Romans, you articulate the basic evangelical message: everyone is a sinner and therefore condemned to Hell by a just God, but if you accept Jesus in faith, you will be saved and made right with God, which implicitly means going to heaven.

This is still a popular way people view Romans, but even for those who think this method of jumping around from verse to verse to link a narrative together is a little suspect, they generally still agree that this is basically what Romans is about. It’s about the human condition of sin, subject to God’s judgement, and how we are made right with God through faith in Christ as opposed to works.

But is this really what Romans is about? If it is, why are there so many portions of Romans that seem to be irrelevant to this topic?

  • Why does Paul point out that Jesus was descended from David?
  • Why does Paul point out the power of salvation is to the Jew, first, then the Greek (more than once)?
  • Why does Paul talk so much about the Law?
  • Why does Paul say that circumcision is valuable if you keep the Law?
  • Why does Paul explain what advantages the Jews have?
  • Why is Abraham, born prior to the Law, used as an example?
  • Why does Paul explain how the promise to Abraham about his descendants and inheritance is nullified through the Law but established on faith?

These are just a handful of questions from the content of the first four chapters. If it’s truly Paul’s intent to simply make the point that everyone has sinned and under God’s judgement, and we can be made right with God if we accept Jesus on faith, there is quite a bit of material in Romans that seems only vaguely related or not related at all.

In fairness, whatever kind of overarching hermeneutic you use for a large text, there are always going to be little bits and bobs that don’t seem to fit quite right. Doug Moo once explained to me that hermeneutics is sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together according to the picture you have in your head. There are going to be some pieces that don’t fit your configuration, so you change your idea and see if more pieces fit that concept better, and so on.

So, I have no doubt that whatever I throw out there, someone could find some pieces that don’t quite fit, and that’s fine. I do think, however, that we need to look for themes and messages in Romans that give most of the contents a cogent place, and the theme of individual, spiritual salvation does not do that.

So, what is Romans about?

First, we need to recognize that Romans is a letter to a church going through certain things. Paul did not sit down and think, “I’ll write a helpful theological treatise about salvation that’ll probably end up in the Bible, someday.” He wrote a letter to a church to assist them.

This wasn’t simply a backwater church in Asia Minor, though. Rome was the cosmopolitan seat of government of the Empire, home to many Jews as well as other peoples under the Empire’s dominion. Christian faith reached this city very quickly. When Paul arrived in Corinth (50 AD), he met Christians who had come there from Rome.

So, swiftly after Jesus’ ministry and Pentecost, we have Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, meeting in synagogues and in homes.

Although it seems strange to us, the presence of both Jew and Gentile converts to Christianity was a troubling moment for both parties. On the Jewish side, they had a very well-defined, biblical process for Gentiles converting to Judaism, which is what they perceived to be happening. When you decide to become Jewish, you become circumcised and you keep the Law – all of it. There was no concept of “moral” and “ceremonial” parts of the Law.

On the Gentile side, they were uncircumcised (honestly, I wonder how successful evangelistic rallies would have been in America if mandatory circumcision were part of it – pray the Sinner’s Prayer, fill out this card, and then this guy over here will remove your foreskin). They had zero relationship to the Law. While some Gentiles are described as fearing God, many more indulged in Rome’s infamous excesses and immorality.

So, you can imagine the tensions of bringing these groups together. On the one hand, you have the Jewish converts who insist (on scriptural grounds) that the Gentiles basically need to become Jewish, and they don’t seem to want to do that. If you’re a Gentile, you’ve come to faith in Christ and may be exhibiting dramatic signs of being filled with the same Spirit as the Jewish converts, but you’re being told that, along with this, you also need to take the sign of the covenant and follow the Law, and you have no point of reference to know if this is right or not.

One of the key themes of Romans is what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to be converts and worshippers together. It is a very practical problem the church is facing, and it has both theological and practical facets.

This is why, when we read Romans 3:23, Paul is not making a generic declaration about the state of mankind; he is making the point that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners and in the same boat. This is what you miss when you don’t read the other verses in Romans 3 and the preceding chapters.

Paul explains that the Empire is full of immorality and excesses and aren’t those Gentiles just terrible? You can almost see the Jewish audience going, “Yeah, get ’em, Paul.” And Paul points out that the Jews were the ones who received the oracles of God and the sign of the covenant, not Gentiles.

And then Paul springs the trap:

What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin

Romans 3:9 (NRSV)

Paul’s whole point is about Jews and Gentiles. Yes, granted, “Jews and People Who Aren’t Jews” does describe all of humanity, but Paul isn’t trying to get across a general point about mankind, but establish that Jews and Gentiles are both suffering for their sins, together, in the same boat – a very important point to make when Jew and Gentile believers are having tensions.

Because of this, Paul has to address the topics of what constitutes righteousness and justification. Who is in the right, and who will be judged to be in the right?

If I make a contract with you that I will mow your lawn every Friday, and I do this, then I am righteous with regard to our covenant. If you were to sue me for breach of contract, I would present my righteousness to the judge, and she would justify me (declare me to be in the right).

At the point in history that Paul is addressing, the Jews are suffering consequences as a result of a failure to keep the covenant. The Gentiles are doing some of the things the covenant requires, but they do not have a covenant with God. No arrangement with Him.

In order for both of these groups to be righteous and justified, this righteousness has to be defined in some other way than the Law. Israel has been unable to keep it, and Gentiles never had it to begin with. Thus, faith in Jesus is something that is shared by both groups, and the presence of the Spirit upon having faith in Christ is evidence of their rightness – a pre-judgement mini-judgement.

This is why Abraham is an important example – he had faith in the promise prior to receiving circumcision, and thus is the “faith father” of Gentiles just as he is the biological and covenant father of the Jews.

But there’s still a problem, here. Why is it that so many of Israel do not have faith in Christ? What does this mean for God’s promises? If God promised certain outcomes to Israel, and most of Israel continues to cling to their broken covenant trying to “covenant harder,” what does all that mean? Will God have to go back on His promises? Is most of Israel actually doomed? What does this say about God, His promises, His election, etc.? What does it even mean to be Israel if these upstart Gentiles all of a sudden share the same status and outcomes as Jewish believers?

These are not easy questions with easy answers, and the bulk of the middle portion of Romans is dedicated to addressing them. I don’t want to get too far into those weeds because they require a lot of attention, and certainly there are strong opinions on exactly what Paul means with some of his answers.

But the point I want to bring out is that all of these issues are being discussed under the umbrella of what is happening to both Jews and Gentiles in this new era of the history of the people of God – an era characterized by an imminent judgement and arrival of the kingdom as guaranteed by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And it is this eschatological outcome that is the fire under all these questions. None of these groups are desperately wondering, “How can I go to heaven when I die?” They are wondering what their present means and their future holds in light of the events that are happening around them.

This is why so many of the “faith vs. works” discussions about Romans are so impoverished. To posit that the Jews thought they could “earn their way to heaven by works” is howlingly anachronistic exegesis.

Romans does not discuss faith and works in the abstract; it talks about the role of the Law and what has happened to the people of God as a result, and what needs to happen to live through the Judgement into the age to come, and especially what this means for defining Israel as a people.

The question at the Roman church isn’t, “Can I earn my way to heaven with good works,” it’s, “Will God avert His punishment of Israel if we return to covenant faithfulness?” Perhaps followed by, “If we will ultimately fail to be justified by the Law, and instead are justified by faith in Christ just as the Gentiles are, then why did we even have it? What does it even mean to be Jewish without it?”

Theological and practical questions right at the heart of the lived-out experience of a troubled congregation in the midst of world-changing events.

And of course, Romans is full of practical advice for how this congregation is to move forward, both as a congregation, in the world at large, and in the midst of the seat of Empire.

Romans is a letter to a church – possibly the first church with a substantial amount of both Jew and Gentile believers very early on after the Jesus Event and Pentecost. It addresses their struggles, their questions, and helps them understand what’s going on and what they should do, and this guidance was so useful that the other churches also read it, and now we’ve all got it.

If all this sounds kind of bookish to you, I’d point out that it only sounds that way because of our historical distance from these issues. The Christians in Rome were not scholars and theologians – at least not at the time Romans was written. Yet, they understood what many consider to be one of Paul’s most complex writings. Why? Simply because they were living in the circumstances Paul was addressing.

If you seek greater clarity about Romans, that journey begins by getting closer to the lives of the original audience. There are many resources that can help you do this, and I’ll include a few at the end of this post, but you can actually cover a lot of ground just by asking yourself questions like, “What would this passage mean to me if I were a first century Jewish convert who had to deal with Gentiles flooding my religion all of a sudden? What if I were a first century Gentile who had no idea of whether or not my Jewish brothers were right when they tried to get me to follow the biblical directions for converting? What if I actually held contemptuous views of these Jewish believers?”

These kinds of questions help us get into the right frame of mind to let Romans speak to us, and obviously the more you learn about these people and their current events, the more you will see.

If you’re just starting to dip your toes into these waters, you might pick up N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone book on the first chapters of Romans. If you’re new to some of these issues, this will begin to push you without being too disruptive.

When you feel like being completely disrupted, I recommend Andrew Perriman’s The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. It doesn’t get as much into the details that a full-blown commentary would, but it resets the themes of Romans firmly into its own world and also makes some bold steps into looking at how we might benefit from this narrative as a contemporary church in the world.

There are, of course, so many resources on Romans that it would take a long time to list out all the ones I like for this or that reason. As you evaluate resources for yourself, keep your eyes open for whether they are talking about the issues as experienced by that early community of Jewish and Gentile believers trying to reorient themselves, or whether they focus more on doctrinal issues the way we might think of them.