The Gospel of Romans
I have been issued a challenge by some of my Reformed friends to explain certain passages that they take to be a clear endorsement of their theology. I want to make clear at the outset that I have great respect for many Reformed thinkers, and certain aspects of Reformed theology. Some of what I value most of my own journey of faith and education has occurred as a beneficiary of Reformed mentors, and for what I have learned from them I am eternally grateful. Hence, I am well aware that Reformed theology is a broad stream, and my quarrel is not with Reformed theology per se. I do, however, see certain formulations of Reformed theology as ignoring the clear statements and the simple message of scripture in several very important ways. Some of those issues will become clear to those who are acquainted with Reformed theology. For those who are not familiar with Reformed theology, and especially for those who find such disagreements unsettling and intimidating, I invite you to read on. This will not be a dense theological treatise (though some will certainly consider much of what I say to be "dense" in a pejorative sense). I read Romans as a beautiful and exciting reflection on the salvation we are gifted in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. I invite you to journey with me, and to be drawn to worship again, as we reflect on our so great salvation.
The challenge was specifically with reference to Romans 9 and 10, but it is my considered opinion that these chapters must be understood in the context of Romans as a whole, as well as Paul's thought as a devout and learned member of God's chosen people. For this reason this will be a unworthy skimming of the whole of Romans.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is commonly recognized as a theologically dense piece of work. The readings of his theology are almost as abundant as are the commentators. One critical factor that is easily overlooked in current popular readings is the integral connection to Israel’s history that is formative for Paul’s writing. Paul lived and breathed Judaism, which is not only a theology but also a history. However his earlier understanding of Judaism was radically transformed by an unexpected encounter with Yahweh.
Large volumes have been written in an attempt to explicate Paul’s theology as laid out in Romans. I will not attempt do justice to his theology here, but I want to show how an awareness of the context of Paul’s thought has significant ramifications for an understanding of some very specific aspects of his theology. The first rule of scripture reading is to let scripture speak, so we will note some phrases that seem to be a significant departure from orthodox Christian theology. In those instances we will do our best to take Paul at his word, and save the theologizing for later.
Paul identifies himself as an apostle sent to “call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5). Those whom Paul addresses are “among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul is “not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . . . For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by his faith” (1:16-17).
Then Paul outlines why the wrath of God against godlessness is being revealed. The root of this godlessness turns out to be a refusal to recognize some of the basic knowledge about God that is clearly shown in creation (1:19,20). After nearly whipping the reader into a frenzy over the degradation and debauchery of these godless infidels, Paul turns the tables on the reader, saying “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1). Paul makes it abundantly clear that everyone shares the same judgement for failing to adequate recognize God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Those who do not repent will all have to face the wrath of God’s judgement (2:5).
Then he makes some startling statements: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (2:6-7). And “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (2:13). Paul says both that righteousness is by faith from first to last and that the declaration of righteousness and the reward of eternal life are based on what is done, not only what is heard. However, the ensuing passage indicates that keeping the law is good, but not enough. In fact, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20). We are tempted to complain “Come on, Paul. Make up your mind!!” He says both that “it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” and that ““no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” He also says that eternal life is a reward for those who seek glory, honor, and immortality by persistence in doing good. Those are troublesome statements for people who have always been taught that salvation is by grace, through faith, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). The problem is only exacerbated by the knowledge that it is the same Paul who makes all of these statements. I propose to leave these statements in tension while we go on to hear more of Paul's thought. It may be that we will learn how to resolve these statements, but in any case, pre-understanding is both necessary and detrimental to understanding. In order to really hear Paul we need to avoid knowing what he is saying before he says it. Let’s listen some more.
Paul then makes his well-known statement that most children who go to Sunday School learn early. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:23-24). Paul says all have sinned, and there is no limiting qualification on who is justified. The basis of justification is God’s grace. Immediately following Paul again says that justification happens by faith in Jesus, apart from works (3:26,28,30).