This summary of Paul’s theological thinking has had great influence in Christian faith and practice for centuries. St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Karl Barth found this writing to be central to their own Christian formations. In spite of the obvious historical power of this letter, Paul’s reason for writing it is not clear. One important difference between the churches to whom this is addressed and the recipients of Paul’s other letters is that Paul had never been to Rome, was not the founder of these churches, and had never met the people who likely read this letter.
Those who learn from this study today are like the original recipients of the letter to the Romans in, at least, having no personal experience of Paul.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
Yale Bible Study
Paul’s letter to the Romans has been enormously influential in the development of Christian faith, Christian theological reflection, and Christian practice. In 4th century Rome, St. Augustine ultimately embraced Christian faith when he heard a voice calling him to read from Romans 13. Twelve centuries later, Martin Luther found in Romans the heart of his radical reinterpretation of Christianity, which changed faith and practice for Protestants and Catholics alike. In the eighteenth century, when John Wesley heard Luther’s “Preface to Romans” read aloud at Aldersgate, his heart was “strangely warmed” and Methodism was born. And Karl Barth, the most influential western theologian of the 20th century, fired the shot heard round the world – or at least round the church – with his radical new theocentric reading, The Epistle to the Romans.
Oddly, for such a historic and powerful letter, no one knows for sure why Paul wrote to the churches at Rome. When we read Galatians it is quite clear that Paul writes because he is upset about the fact that some of the Galatian (Gentile) Christians are taking on some of the requirements of the Jewish law as part of their own piety. When we read 1 Corinthians it is quite clear that there are factions in the Corinthian congregation and that Paul is seeking to persuade them to deeper unity in Christ. When we read Romans it is much harder to know what Paul hoped his letter would accomplish.
One reason we may have a hard time pinning down the precise function of this letter is that unlike all the other churches Paul addresses in his epistles, he did not found the church at Rome. More than that, he has never been to the church at Rome, and so he is writing to them sight unseen. They have heard of him and he has heard of them, and he knows many of the Roman Christians personally (see ch. 16), but he is not their apostle in the same way that he is apostle to the Corinthians and the Galatians.
This suggests that he may not be responding to the kind of concrete information that he clearly has received before writing his other epistles. He has not served these people as their leader and may not be consistently informed about what is going on in their midst. The fact that he did not found this church also engenders a kind of reticence in Romans. Paul has clear theological claims in mind and undoubtedly has clear ideas of how the Romans’ faith should be lived out in practice, but he does not pretend to quite the same parental authority he exercises over his other churches (e.g., 1 Cor 4:15; Gal 4:19), nor perhaps to be so specific in his instructions on how to live out the faith.
The fact that Paul does not know the Roman community first hand suggests two possible reasons for the letter.
First, he wants them to know him and his faith. While Romans is not a work of systematic theology it does seem to present a kind of summary of some of the theological and exegetical claims that Paul wants the Romans to understand. He plans to visit them soon and the letter provides a kind of self-description that paves the way for his appearance among them.
There is a corollary to the claim that Paul writes a summary of his theology in Romans. Many have noticed that Paul seems to be dealing with precisely the kinds of issues he has dealt with in his earlier correspondence, especially Galatians and Romans. Again he wants to contrast faith with works of the law. Again he wants to suggest ways in which “weak” (very scrupulous) and “strong” (less scrupulous!) Christians can get along. Some have thought that in providing this description of his own theology Paul is acutely aware of the ways in which other churches have misinterpreted him and is trying to guard against such misinterpretations.
Second, Paul wants to establish his own apostolic authority. We do not get the sense, as we do with both the Corinthian letters and with Galatians, that people have been disputing Paul’s apostolic authority in Rome. Nonetheless it is important for him to make clear before he arrives that when he comes he will speak with the same authority as those apostles who actually did found this community of faith. And it is important to insist that what he writes in his letters carries the authority we would expect of an apostle.
An apostle is one sent (the Greek verb is apostello) to declare a message on behalf of his master. Paul’s master is Jesus Christ and his message is Christ’s message, interpreted for the Roman believers.
There is a corollary here as well. Toward the end of the epistle Paul tells the Romans the next two steps of his apostolic itinerary. In the near future he intends to go to Jerusalem in order to present an offering from the Gentile Christians to the “poor” among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. After that he proposes to set out on a westward trip to Spain – the far border of the known world – so that he might preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. (See Romans 15:22-29) He may be stressing his apostleship in part to encourage the Romans to provide him with both the prayerful and the material support that he will need for this ministry. (We do not know for sure whether Paul ever went on from Rome to Spain or not).
The third suggestion for why Paul writes to the Romans focuses on the issues that Paul raises in Romans chapters 9-11 and 14 and 15. Romans 9-11 is clearly concerned with the relationship between Gentile believers and Israel in God’s plan and promises. Chapters 14 and 15 are concerned with some kind of division in the church between those who are strong in faith and those who are weak. The issue apparently has to do above all with diet.
Some have thought that these two motifs are combined. Paul’s concern in Romans 9-11 is not just with Gentiles and Jews on the broad stage of human history. Paul is concerned with the relationship between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians in the Roman churches. The “weak” Christians, according to this proposal, are primarily the Jewish Christians who are concerned to keep kosher table as part of their faithful practice. The “strong” Christians are primarily the Gentile Christians who do not feel bound by kosher dietary laws and who probably do not understand why their Jewish Christian friends cling to their old ways.
Some students of Romans have further suggested that there is an historical circumstance that explains the possible tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman churches. This theory is based on the historian Suetonius and on Acts 18. Apparently the emperor Claudius banned most of the Jews (including we presume, Jewish Christians) from Rome and some time later the emperor Nero invited them back.
The hypothesis is that in the absence of the Jewish Christians the Gentile Christians took over both the leadership of the churches and defined its rules and principles. When the Jewish Christians came back, bringing their traditions and their dietary concerns, tension mounted within each congregation, or perhaps between predominantly Jewish house churches on the one hand and predominantly Gentile house churches on the other. By this reading the great practical exhortation of the last part of Romans is Romans 15:7. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.”
This interpretation has the advantage of bringing a great many of the themes of the Letter together as a response to a particular historical situation. It does seem curious, however, that Paul never mentions Claudius, Nero, or how nice it was for the Jewish Christians to get back to their Roman homes.
What Paul does mention, time after time, in diverse contexts and with diverse consequences, is that God is God of Jews and Gentiles alike, that God reaches out to redeem the whole creation through Jesus Christ, and that all people – Jew and Gentiles alike – are invited to respond to God’s gracious invitation through faith.
Finally, as you begin your journey through this powerful, historic letter, we offer a friendly word of warning: those who have gone before you have rarely emerged from their own journeys through Romans unchanged.
A Note on the Notebook
Paul’s Letter to the Romans spans 16 dense chapters in our edited Bible. That’s a lot of letter (the Apostle’s longest), and oceans of ink have been spilled through the centuries trying to explain it. Our course notebook takes on the difficult challenge of capturing the contents for us in a sixty-page notebook. Here are a few tips on how to use it.
- Read the scripture passage first. If you read our esteemed professors first, you’ll lose two things: the great glory that comes with grappling long enough to win a brand new discovery; and the realization that as expert as they are, Deans Attridge and Bartlett want to invite you into their conversation, not dictate your reading.
- Jot down insights and questions. You know the feeling: fresh thoughts, fresh frustrations seem vivid. But two conversations later, they’ve fled your mind. As an old choral director once said, “A short pencil beats a long memory every time!”
- Read the “Questions for Reading” second. You’ll probably have better luck with these while the reading is fresh in your mind.
- Read the body of the commentary third. While the length of these sections vary, they average just over six pages each. Mark them up at will! Jot questions and insights here, too. Weigh them next to your own theories and conclusions. Enjoy!
- Read the “Questions for Reflection” fourth. Do this as a part of your lead-in to the small group meeting. These all concern the life of faith, and it is great fun to throw them out into a circle of faithful people and share honestly.
- Memorize those “Words to Remember”! Even your most brilliant observations can evaporate. If you give you memory an anchor, you’ll remember more. By committing a verse from each section to memory, you will not only gain the content of that verse, but by association you’ll import the feelings and insights of your group’s discussion of it.
- Extra Credit in heaven for the “For Further Reading” people!
Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. tr. by E.C. Hoskyns. (Oxford, 1918/2008)
Bartlett, David. Romans. (Westminster-John Knox, 1995)
Dunn, J.D.G. “The New Perspective on Paul: Paul and the Law.” In The Romans Debate. Rev. ed. Ed. Karl P. Donfried. Hendricksons, 1991: pp. 299-308.
Elliott, Neil. The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. (Fortress, 2008).
Fitzmyer, Joseph. Romans. (Anchor, 1992).
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Reading Romans. A Literary and Theological Commentary. (Smith and Helwys, 2003/08).
Keck, Leander. Romans. (Abingdon, 2005), pp. 19-38.
Keck, Leander. “What Makes Romans Tick?” Pauline Theology, Volume III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1991. pp. 3-29.
Meeks, Wayne. “The Urban Environment of Pauline Christianity.” In The First Urban Christians. Yale, 1983: pp. 9-50.
Morgan, Robert. “A First Attempt at Reading.” Romans. New Testament Guides. Sheffield, 1995: pp. 16-59.
Stowers, Stanley. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. (Yale, 1994).
Yale Bible Study
I. Romans 1-3: Big Human Problem, Bigger Divine Solution
Paul begins his letter as he usually does, with an elaborate word of greeting to
the saints in the Church of Rome. The greeting also enunciates some of the themes
that will run through the letter, the Gospel or Good News that Paul preaches (v. 1),
which stands in conformity with God’s promises delivered through the prophets in
the holy scriptures (v. 2). That message of good news focuses on Christ, Son of
David according the flesh and eschatological Son of God (v. 3-4). From that crucified
and exalted Messiah, comes a mission to proclaim good news to the nations (v. 4).
Those who hear and respond are, like the addressees, chosen saints,
on whom the peace and favor of God may be invoked (v. 7).
Paul usually follows his greetings with a prayer, often giving thanks or praise to
God for what he has done. Another part of Paul’s letters is often a reference to his
travel plans. In his opening “Thanksgiving” (1:8-17) Paul combines both elements,
giving thanks for the “faithfulness” of his addressees (v. 8), which is renowned
throughout the world. He thereby sets up another of the major themes in the
exposition of the Good News in this letter. Paul’s travel plans consist of his earnest
desire to visit Rome and proclaim the Good News there (vv 11-15). At the end of the
letter he will return to the point, giving some indication of his present circumstances
Paul concludes his “Thanksgiving” by declaring that the Good News that he
has proclaimed and that the Roman followers of Jesus have accepted is his pride and
joy. For in it one finds God’s justice revealed, a revelation that Paul finds
encapsulated in a verse from the prophet Habakkuk, “The Just (or Righteous) One will live by faith (or faithfulness)” (1:16-17). The conclusion to the Thanksgiving concludes the preparation for the argument by enunciating the claim that Paul will defend throughout the letter: that one’s standing before God as righteous or just is a consequence of the faithful response to God’s gracious call. In that response we in fact find true and abundant human life.
Note that there are suggested alternative translations for certain key words,
particularly the adjective dikaios, which may mean “just” or “righteous.” The related
verb, which we will encounter later in the text, has a similar range of meaning.
Likewise the noun pistis may be translated “faith,” which tends in our usage to have
connotations of acceptance of propositional truth, or, alternatively, “fidelity,” which has connotations of a firm determination of the will and heart. So the related verbs can be translated “to believe” or “to be faithful.” Different readings of Romans often arise from different choices in translating such key words. We shall return to this matter frequently in our study.
After his “thanksgiving” section, Paul launches into the argument of Romans demonstrating that God’s justice is revealed in the Gospel that he preaches. The first stage of the argument, extending from 1:18 to 3:20, offers an assessment of the human condition generally, finding that all, both Gentile and Jew, are involved in sinful behavior.
Before looking at the details of the argument it is worthwhile to reflect on the underlying dichotomy between Gentile and Jew. That division had marked the social world of most of Paul’s ministry and it apparently weighed heavily on the Roman community that Paul addresses. Paul believed that God through Christ had done something to erase that distinction. He was committed to the vision, based perhaps on the prophecies of “second Isaiah,” i.e., Isaiah 40-55, that God would in due time bring Gentiles to worship with the people of Israel. Many of Paul’s contemporary followers of Jesus shared that belief, but worried about whether conditions were to be imposed on the Gentiles. Should they undergo circumcision and keep dietary laws (kashrut)? And if not, did that mean that God’s revelation to Israel in the Torah was obsolete? Such questions apparently worried the Roman Christian community as well. Underlying all of these particular concerns was a fundamental conviction that being a member of the people of Israel, whose Torah enshrined a rigorous moral code, guaranteed a certain moral superiority. Some of the Roman Christians whom Paul addresses seem to have shared that conviction, however it expressed itself in practice.
The Sinfulness of Gentiles (1:18-32): Idolatry Wrecks Everything
The first stage of Paul’s argument sounds very similar to denunciations of Gentile idolatry found in Jewish apologetic literature. God is knowable from the natural order (1:19-20), but human beings have rejected what reason and observation tell them and have worshipped creatures instead of the creator (1:21-23). As a result, claims Paul, they have fallen into all sorts of other sins, particularly sexual immorality (1:24-27), but sexual sin is just a part of a much larger whole, characterized by all the vices one can imagine (1:28-32).
What role the verses on sexual sin (1:24-27) should play in forming a contemporary Christian moral vision is a matter of considerable debate. At one end of the spectrum, some Christian readers state that Paul’s statements, reflecting prohibitions on same-sex relations in Leviticus, are clear and unequivocal and Christians today should take them seriously. Others demur and note that on other moral issues on which the Bible provides an apparently clear witness, e.g., the morality of slavery or usury, the reflection on human experience by communities of faith has led to new moral insights. For such readers, Paul’s rhetorical point might best be made by singling out some other sinful behavior, where contemporary moral judgments would be uniform: genocide perhaps. Whatever one’s views on sexual morality, it is clear that Paul is not developing a treatise on the morality but pointing to realities that his contemporaries would recognize as sinful in their Gentile environment.
We shouldn’t pass by the very first verse of this section without recognizing that it begins in a way that troubles some twenty-first century readers. The body of Paul’s magisterial Letter to the Romans begins with the phrase “the wrath of God.” Mainline pulpits are full of preachers who take pains to picture a God sans anger, because judgment and wrath may be overstressed in some parts of the Christian world. However, it is important to stand back and wonder if we could really love a God who wasn’t angry at the Inquisition, American slavery, the Nazi atrocities, or genocide in Rwanda. Attempts to make God mild and positive miss part of God’s nature: when people destroy one another, God gets angry. When people turn from God, God gets angry. Or at least that’s what Paul says in Romans 1:18.
This first section of Paul’s argument would have reinforced the conviction of his Roman audience that through their acceptance of Christ and the Jewish Torah, they were on high moral ground. Paul’s next step would be to undercut that certitude.
The Problem of Moralizing Judgment (2:1-16)
Throughout Romans Paul uses rhetorical devices common in first-century scholastic literature known as the “Diatribe.” Among these devices are apostrophes or direct addresses to imaginary interlocutors, which therefore set up a dialectical situation into which the reader/hearer must insert him or herself. Paul uses that device at Rom 2:1, abruptly turning to someone who has just consented to the kind of argument that Paul has just made, condemning the sinfulness of the Gentile world. The kind of person envisioned here could be a Jewish preacher, or, as many recent commentators on Romans suspect, it could be a Gentile attracted to Jewish morality, but also steeped in the moralizing traditions of the Greco-Roman world. In either case, Paul’s move is the same, to point to the hypocrisy of the judger (2:3). In what follows it appears that Paul is not concerned so much about individual hypocrisy as about claims being made for groups of people, Jews, Gentiles, and those who combine features of each. Paul’s point is that generic condemnations certainly are erroneous. God judges individuals by their deeds, and there is no partiality in that judgment.
We should note how high the stakes are again in this section. If Paul’s first move was to point out God’s anger at idolaters, Paul uses the same language here to describe God’s disposition toward the morally arrogant judge: those with “impenitent hearts” are “storing up [God’s] wrath (2:5).” It seems that Paul sees no moral gradations that matter between the idolaters and the judgers. Both have provoked heaven’s anger.
Finally, Paul introduces here the mysterious category of righteous Gentiles who, though not having the Law, “do instinctively what the Law requires.” The apostle identifies a cause for this unexpected phenomenon: God has written the Law on their hearts. We will soon discover that whatever right behavior these can muster does not rescue them from the human predicament. But the passage provides a window to Paul’s wide view of God’s activity in the world – not sectarian but universally reaching.
Jewish Judgment on Gentiles (2:17-3:8)
Paul continues his indictment of sin and the assurance of moral superiority by turning to a specific case of one who judges others, someone who identifies as Jewish (2:17). He makes the same general move that he made in the last section, noting that actions of sinners undercut any special claims to righteousness as a group (2:18-29). But then Paul pauses for a corrective. Following his line of reasoning to its logical conclusion might have led, as it did in the second century in the teachings of Marcion, to a rejection of all things Jewish and a rejection of the heritage of Israel. Paul here and emphatically in Romans 7, 9-11, resists that move. Here (3:1-8), he insists that there are “advantages” to be Jewish, irrevocable blessings that God has bestowed on his chosen people. If there is sin among those people it is not God’s fault, but their own.
Paul holds the chosen people are held to a high moral standard, and in this section, we learn a central reason for God’s anger at their sin. In verses 23 and 24, Paul quotes Hebrew Scripture to establish the problem: “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ (Isaiah 52:5)” Along with and additional to the human suffering and broken relationships that human sin causes (see Romans 1.18-32), Paul counts God’s honor at stake in it as well.
Summary: Sin is a Universal Reality (3:9-20)
Paul concludes his indictment of human sinfulness dramatically, by citing scripture, a combination of verses from the Psalms, all of which point to universal reality of human sin. Paul’s case has reached its climax. Like a good prosecuting attorney, Paul hammers home his point until at 3:20 every human being is without recourse. Indeed, these twelve verses may be the dreariest section in all of scripture. It is just at that moment, when all hope seems lost, that the courtroom scene radically changes for the guilty masses who sit in the dock.
The Solution to the Problem of Human Sin and its Implications (3:21-26)
If sin is the problem, then what is the solution? Was it the Torah that inculcated the lofty morality and inspired the condemnations of sin articulated in the previous chapters? No, says Paul, God’s response to the reality of sin is a new act of divine power, God’s gratuitous “justification” of humankind through “redemption” that takes place by the agency of Christ Jesus (3:24). The language that Paul uses here evokes several cultural presuppositions and institutions that will run through his argument. “Justification,” which might also be translated “vindication” or “acquittal” conjures up a courtroom, in which guilt and innocence is at stake. We know that the accused are guilty, but God has somehow intervened to prevent the execution of the just sentence. “Redemption” recalls the institution of slavery common in the ancient world, a condition from which one could “redeem” or “purchase” one’s freedom, usually with saved or borrowed money. How the agency of Christ produces the desired verdict or act of liberation is now specified, using yet another set of images drawn from the sphere of the sacrificial cult. God set forth Christ as a “hilasterion,” a word that probably refers to the “mercy seat” on the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem, on which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement to effect the expiation of sin. The image suggests that Christ’s death was accepted by God as atonement for all human sin. The results of that act offered to human beings for their acceptance, “by faith” (3:25). Paul’s wording here is dense, but the overall thrust is clear. By acting through Christ’s death, God has acted justly, punishing sin through Christ and thereby making the sinner just and righteous (3:27). What humans can do is to trust in what God has done and accept his gracious gift.
Paul’s final comments in this section (3:28-31) celebrate what he claims that God has done through Christ’s sacrificial death, an act of grace that benefits both Jew and Gentile who accept God’s benefaction “ by faith.” He then asks a rhetorical question that sets up the next stage of the argument. Does this teaching abrogate the Torah? One might be tempted to think so, but Paul refuses to accept that conclusion. No, he claims, the teaching about “faith” does not abolish the Law, it confirms it! The next several chapters will be devoted to showing how that is so.
Words to Remember:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ (Romans 1.16-17)”
“There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3.23-24).”
Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior (Westminster John Knox, 2006), pp. 17-25.
Questions for Reading:
- Does it help in following the argument of these chapters to see the “dialogue” going on between Paul and imaginary interlocutors?
- Is it clear that Rom 1:16-17 introduces the “theme” of the letter? Are there other verses that seem to perform that function?
- Paul seems to want to catch all humanity in his indictment. Has he missed anyone? Where has he caught you?
Questions for Reflection:
- Does Paul’s argument about the sinfulness of humankind make sense?
- What part should scripture play in forming Christian attitudes on matters of sexual morality?
- In these chapters, Paul speaks several times of God’s anger. Do you agree with his attribution of anger to God? Do you ever experience God as angry? When? At what?
- What do you make of the “solution” to the problem of sin that Paul sketches in Rom 3:21-26? Is Paul clear and persuasive or does he make assumptions that we need to unpack?
Yale Bible Study
II. Romans 4: Faith’s Poster Boy
We have suggested that Paul insists that his teaching about righteousness or justification through faith does not abolish the law, the Torah, but confirms it. In chapter four Paul shows the correlation between Torah and faith by demonstrating that the Torah, rightly read, says exactly what Paul says: Justification comes through faith.
It would be easy to say that for Paul, Abraham is an example of justification through faith, like an illustration for a sermon. But Paul wants to go deeper than this. He wants to insist that Abraham is the embodiment of the life of faith and that faithful people since Abraham can find their identity in him. It is not just that Abraham shows believers who they should be; he shows them who they are.
Faith “reckoned” as righteousness 4:1-12
Paul is perhaps the greatest Christian theologian, but he is not a systematic theologian. His theological claims emerge from two contexts – the pastoral context and the scriptural context.
We have seen that the pastoral context in Romans has to do with the claim that no one – Jew or Gentile – is free from sin and with the claim that everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – can be made righteous through faith in Jesus (or perhaps through the faithfulness of Jesus, received through faith!)
The primary scriptural context for Romans 4 is Genesis 15 and in particular Genesis 15:6. “Abraham had faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Our translation: The Greek pisteuo can mean either ‘I believe’ or ‘I have faith’, but for Paul the context clearly is about ‘faith’ as something that includes belief but is more than that.) Now it may be that Paul was convinced that God’s righteousness was reckoned, accounted to human beings through faith and was delighted to find in Genesis 15:6 the affirmation of his prior theological conviction. It is equally possible that as he puzzled about the right, or righteous, or just relationship between God and humankind he was delighted to find in Abraham’s story the verse that gave him the vocabulary for his conviction: “faith” “reckoned” “righteousness.”
It is possible that as our chapter begins Paul is still engaged in dialogue with his imaginary conversation partner (in the “diatribe” style). If so the interlocutor says, essentially: “But what about Abraham, wasn’t he justified by works and didn’t he have something to boast about?” And Paul answers: “Not before God.” It is equally possible that Paul is simply setting up his own case using his own words: “Let’s look at Abraham who might seem to have reason to boast about his works. Our text shows us that this boasting has nothing to do with God’s righteousness.”
What Paul needs to make his case that all of humankind can be justified apart from the law is the story of someone who is justified apart from the law. And he needs to make that case from within the law, from Torah itself. The only way he can do this is to find in Hebrew scripture the story of someone who lived without the law as Moses handed it down, and the only way to do that is to find someone who lived before Moses, namely Abraham.
Let us look briefly at the three words that are at the heart of Paul’s argument here.
Faith here is primarily a matter of trust (see 4:5) and it is contrasted to works of the law which are primarily a matter of achievement, accomplishment, striving.
Righteousness is not so much uprightness as a right relationship to God; it is not earned but given and the giving lies entirely within the good pleasure of God’s own self.
Reckoning is a word we do not use much today, even in church, but it has to do with accounting, appraising. But in this context reckoning has to do with counting one’s gifts not with earning one’s salary. God is the accounter (the accountant?) but also the giver. It is by God’s choice that humankind enters into a right relationship to God. Humans acknowledge that gift through faith, trust.
Much of the rest of our section deals with what “reckoning” means in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul quotes “David” in Psalm 32 to reinforce the view that “reckoning” is not a matter of earning anything but of receiving a free gift – here the gift of forgiveness. (In Romans forgiveness is one aspect of righteousness, but not the whole of it, because the right relationship to God always includes God’s forgiveness but also includes joy, peace, obedience, life in the Spirit.)
Two final words about Abraham in this section.
First, conveniently for Paul, Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 17 so that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. That is he was justified before he took on the requirements of the Torah. Thus his righteousness does not depend on his being law-abiding in that way.
Second, because he is justified apart from circumcision, Abraham becomes the Father not just of Israel but of all who like him have faith. This brings us back to our first reminder that Abraham is not just an illustration of Paul’s claim but the embodiment of that claim. Father Abraham is the Father of all who believe – Jews and Gentiles alike.
A note about the Law 4:13-15
Paul reiterates the claim that Abraham serves as a father, and that his true children are his heirs. He further insists that the true children of Abraham are those who have faith not those who obey the law. (Note that the idea of “law” is a little slippery for Paul. Sometimes it’s the Torah, the whole story and instruction of the Pentateuch; sometimes it is the “rules” that the Torah contains.)
Paul goes on to suggest what he will suggest elsewhere, that the law is actually the occasion for sin. If there were no law, no one would disobey and there would be no need for wrath. But the law itself leads to disobedience and disobedience leads to wrath. It may be that Paul is here reading the story of Genesis 2 and 3 to suggest that until there was the commandment (don’t eat from that tree) there was no temptation to eat from the tree, no disobedience, and no divine wrath). In any case he clearly wants to say that the law is about God’s wrath, but God’s true righteousness is not a matter of wrath but a matter of promise – received through faith.
The fullness of faith 4:16-25.
Our passage reminds us that for Paul not even “faith” is the primary mode of righteousness, of right relationship to God. “For this reason it depends on faith in order that the promise might rest on grace.” (4:16) “Grace” is God’s side of the righteous relationship – it is that sheer gift of justice and loving-kindness which is not counted as a salary due but as a mercy granted generously.
Paul reads a lot into his interpretation of Genesis. When Abraham believes that he will be “the father of many nations” he believes also that he will be “the father of many Gentiles.” The Hebrew word goyim and the Greek word ethne mean both “nations” and “Gentiles” and Paul wants to insist that when Abraham becomes the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5) he is also the father of believing Gentiles. So the fullness of Abraham’s faith is great enough to include all those who have faith in his pattern – Jews and Gentiles alike.
Because Abraham believes that though he is as good as dead he and Sarah will still have children, he believes in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” In the narrow sense this is just a fancy way of saying that Abraham believes God can give Sarah a son. In a broader sense Abraham believes the whole Christian story, from creation to resurrection. He becomes not only the father of all Christian believers; he becomes the first Christian believer.
(Paul is a little generous to the Abraham of Genesis when he says that “no distrust made him waver,” since there’s a bit of wavering in the Old Testament story. But he does thereby emphasize that for him “faith” is as much a matter of trust as it is a matter of belief.)
Now that Paul has implicitly made Abraham the first Christian believer he is able explicitly to apply Abraham’s story to the stories of the Roman Christians. They too believe in the God who raises people from the dead – especially the God who raised Jesus from the dead (4:24)
Romans 4:25 ends this section but points forward to a great theme of the center of Romans. To be sure human justification comes through faith, but more than that, essential to that is the claim that our right relationship to God comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Abraham is the father of the right relationship to God. Jesus Christ is the true fulfillment of what Abraham hoped and believed.
Words to Remember:
“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ (Romans 4:2-3)”
Cranford, Michael, “Abraham in Romans 4: Father of All Who Believe,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 71-88.
Questions for Reading:
- Take a look at Genesis 15-17 and at Psalm 32. What do you think Paul “adds” to the texts he is interpreting, and what do the texts have that he does not take into account?
- How does Romans 4 grow out of the claims of Romans 1-3 – particularly the turn in 3:21-29?
Questions for Reflection:
- If the “righteousness of God” is a phrase for the right relationship between God and humankind, how might we understand that relationship in our own time and circumstance?
- Faith is a crucial part of God’s solution. According to Paul in Romans 4, what is faith? Does he give us any clue as to how we might get some of it?
- Does the contrast between “faith” and “works” still function today in our churches, families, workplaces? Does Paul’s insistence on the centrality of faith clarify or confuse the good news of Jesus for us?
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III. Romans 5: Living in Hope
In chapter five Paul presents his profound good news (Romans 1:16) in very powerful ways, beginning with the central truth for him that Christ died “for us ungodly folk” “while we were still weak (5:6).” The mass of humanity described so bleakly in Romans 3:9-20 do not merit God’s loving attention. But God gives it nonetheless, not after some human self-help endeavor, but “while we were still weak.” If the solution comes by God’s grace, the size of God’s love makes it impossible for sin ever to outrun the love of God.
These soaring themes fit well within the development of the letter’s argument. Paul has now described the basic problem that he sees confronting all of humanity, both Jew and Gentile (1:16-3.20). He has indicated the solution to that problem, which is God’s gracious act of redemption or justification made possible by the death of Christ (3:21-29), and in the last chapter, he has indicated how that grace is to be appropriated by human beneficiaries, through faith, initially exemplified by Abraham (4:1-25). Paul now draws out some of the implications of what it means to be “justified.” He makes two fundamental points, echoing some of the insights that he had developed in his dealings with his congregation at Corinth, which are now enshrined in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Throughout he balances assurance in the power of God’s salvific grace with a realism about the human condition in which that grace operates.
Justification begins a Salvific Process Lived in Hope (5:1-11)
Paul begins this reflection with a focus on the relationship between the faithful and God. Justification above all means that that relationship is secure and that there is “peace” not enmity, between the parties (v. 1). Paul’s language here recalls the traditional Jewish focus on “shalom,” not simply an absence of hostility but a profound wholeness in the relationship between two parties. As he has done earlier in Romans, he complements this image with another. By being justified we have “access” (v. 2) to God. This language conjures for modern Americans the political realm, in which lobbyists have “access” to people with political power. Paul’s metaphor may call on a different sphere, that of the cult, in which priests have “access” or authorization to approach the sacred space of the Temple (cf. Heb 11:19-22). Whether cultic or political, Paul’s imagery suggests a relationship of intimacy with the Divine.
In Paul’s dealings with his followers at Corinth, he had dealt with a situation in which some people took a message of this sort so seriously that they tended to neglect the lives that they were called upon to live in the present. That experience may inform Paul’s next move, which is to remind his Roman readers that the peace with and access to God that they now enjoy once they have been “justified” is not the end of the story. Justification provides a ground for “boasting” all right (v. 2), but that boasting should focus as much on the sufferings that the faithful endure as in their spiritual endowments (v. 3-4). The life of the justified is above all a life of hope (v. 5), thankful to be sure for the generous sacrifice of Christ (vv. 5-8), but above all hopeful of future salvation (vv. 9-10).
The distinction between “justification” and “salvation” made here is important for Paul. Pauline scholars have highlighted the distinction by noting the tension in Paul’s thought between the “already” and the “not yet,” between what God has done in Christ to establish a new relationship with humankind and what is yet to come as the fulfillment of that relationship. Paul concludes this reflection on the future of salvation by returning to the present and adding yet one more image to the theological mosaic that he has been constructing. We boast, he repeats (see vv. 2-3) in God through Christ, through whom we have “reconciliation,” a theme that Paul had developed eloquently in 2 Corinthians 5.
Among the various ways in which one might construe the thematic development of Romans, it is interesting to reflect on the triad of “faith, hope, and love,” which Paul had used elsewhere (see 1 Thess 1:3; 1 Cor 13:13; cf. Heb 10:22-24). Paul had begun the core of his argument in Romans with a focus on faith (chap. 4); he now insists on the importance of hope (chap. 5) and the theme of hopeful expectation will run through the reflections of the next six chapters. The concluding section of the letter will focus on the way in which the life of faithful hope works itself out in love, which appears as the focus of the admonitions in Rom 12:9-10.
Christ as the New Adam (5:12-21)
When Paul had wrestled with the meaning of belief in resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, he had drawn a parallel between Adam and Christ, reflecting his fundamental conviction that in the Christ event God had done such a radical act of divine power that he had effected a new creation (cf. Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). He returns to that notion now, highlighting the role of Sin in the first creation and its remedy in the second.
This section of Romans has served as the foundation for much later theological speculation on the theme of “original sin,” understood to be a condition caused by Adam’s fall remedied by the sanctifying grace poured out by God in baptism. That theology and in particular the causal function of Adam’s sin was particularly reinforced by the Latin translation of the last clause in v. 12, which offered an overly literal rendition of a Greek prepositional phrase meaning “because all sinned” as “in whom all sinned.” Paul’s thought is less interested in causal relationships than later theology would be, although he does think that Adam’s deed provided a bad example for others to follow. He is more interested in a rhetorical move of setting up a typology or comparison (what the rhetoricians called a synkrisis), with the final aim of celebrating what God accomplished in Christ.
The other major concern of Paul’s argument here is not with the abstract questions of how sin originated or was transmitted, but with the relationship between sin and the Law. He begins with a brief echo of the story of the fall in Genesis, noting that through one man death and sin came into the world (v. 12), and these realities eventually affected all human beings, since all have sinned, a point that he had developed at length in the first three chapters. The concern with the Law immediately becomes apparent. Echoing a theme he had sketched in Gal 3:17-19, he notes that sin was a reality before the Law was given, which made clear what sin was.
Having posited that Adam was a “type” of the one to come (v. 14), Paul then elaborates on the comparison between the first and the second Adam, concentrating on the difference between the two. The “gracious benefaction” far exceeded the transgression (v. 15). While judgment led to condemnation and death, the gift of grace leads to life sharing in the reign of Christ (v. 17-18). The next contrast is particularly interesting for understanding Paul’s notion of participation in the “faith” of Christ. Just as one man’s disobedience provided an example that led all to sin, the obedience of Jesus led to “many” being rendered “righteous/just” (v. 19). Although Paul believes that God objectively dealt with Sin through the death of Christ, the exemplary quality of the faith of Jesus is as important as the exemplary quality of the sinfulness of Adam. It is not simply by believing in him, but by sharing his fidelity that the faithful enjoy the results of his sacrifice.
Paul concludes this stage of reflection by picking up the theme of the Law that he had introduced in vv. 13-14. His comment on the Law at this point is rather negative, echoing the kinds of things he said about it in Galatians. The Law appeared so that Sin might abound (v. 20). He will explain how he thinks the Law works under the power of Sin when he comes to chapter 7. Here is his point is to emphasize the positive, the overwhelming impact of divine grace. His final sentence eloquently sums up the argument of the whole chapter and draws the essential contrast between what Paul sees as the old creation and the new. In the old, Sin and death prevailed. In the new, which is based in hope, grace prevails, grace embodied in the divine act of justifying sinners that the death of the Lord Jesus made possible.
The whole of chapter 5, rich with allusions to scripture, echoes of his own previous arguments and pregnant with themes that will pervade the tradition of Christian theology, celebrates the Christ event while it lays the groundwork for Paul’s argument about what the Law can and cannot do.
Words to Remember:
“Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5.20).”
Porter, Stanley, “The Argument of Romans 5: Can a Rhetorical Question Make a Difference?” JBL 110/4 (1991) 655-677.
Questions for Reading:
- What do you make of Paul’s language of “boasting” (v-23)?
- After hearing Paul say, “when sin increased, grace abounded all the more (5:20),” the imaginary interlocutor asks, “Shall we sin, then, so grace will increase (6:1)?” Is that a reasonable question at this stage in the letter?
Questions for Reflection:
- How do the various themes of the letter deployed so far cohere? What is the relationship between “justification,” “access,” and “reconciliation”?
- Have you ever felt that the grace of God has reached you “at just the right time (5:6)? Ponder that experience. Could a similar one lie behind Paul’s enthusiasm in this chapter?
- In an era when we think of the development of humanity in terms of evolution, of what use is the Adam-Christ typology?
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IV. Romans 6: New Lord, New Life
As we suggested, the theme of hope continues to permeate Paul’s claims in chapter six. Oddly enough, though, what moves Paul toward hope, is his ongoing discussion of the nature and power of sin.
In this context, chapter 6 introduces Paul’s very first prescriptive conversation about the lived moral life of Christians. It’s worth noting that the apostle doesn’t broach that subject until he is nearing the halfway point of his letter, and even now moral living is construed very broadly – as life lived to and under God.
Be Who You Are: 6:1-4
As he has before Paul uses a question posted by an interlocutor he invents in order to make his point about the relationship between sin and the grace-filled life: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” All of us have heard enough lectures or sermons to know that we are supposed to answer “No!” to such a hypothetical question, and now Paul tells us why “No” is the correct answer.
(It is also possible that Paul has in mind some of the disputes he has had with the Corinthian churches as we see them reflected in 1 Corinthians. Some Corinthians seem to think that because they have been saved by grace they no longer need to worry about something as old-fashioned and impotent as sin.)
It seems almost plausible to think that if we are saved through grace by faith the more we sin the more grace will be available and the more our faith will be evident. But Paul insists that this involves us in a contradiction in terms. If believers were to try to continue in sin they would deny who they really are: People baptized into Christ Jesus.
When the Roman Christians were baptized, they went down into the water in imitation of Christ’s descent into death and they were lifted up out of the water in imitation of Christ’s resurrection. More than that, really, in baptism the faithful participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Some historians have suggested that in the ancient baptism ritual, the first breathless word out of the baptizand’s mouth as she or he came up from the water was “Abba,” the Aramaic word for father. The experience would make very vivid Paul’s point that the baptized are newly “alive to God (6:11).” What they die to is sin in all its power; what they are raised to is the new life of joy and obedience as a child of God. (Remember that this letter is written to encourage the obedience of faith, not the complacency of faith. (Rom 1:5)
Some years ago two political commentators were on a panel discussing poverty in the United States. Though ideologically opposed to one another they were personally good friends. The first commentator said something to the effect that the poor people of Appalachia were poor because of their own moral failings and basically got what they deserved. His friend interrupted him: “Stop,” he said. “You’re a better person than that.”
To those who propose that Christians might as well enjoy the sinful life so that grace might grow apace Paul simply says: “Stop. That’s not who you are. You are a baptized person, and you have died to sin.”
The New Life: 6:5-11
Now Paul speaks more directly of the shape of Christian hope. If 6:1-4 featured the implications of resurrection for Christian life as lived in the 24-hour days of this life, Paul now turns to the future.
Like other Pharisees of his time Paul believes that God has promised to the faithful that God will bring a new age – an age beyond the powers of sin and death. However unlike most of his fellow Jews Paul believes that that new age has begun in Jesus Christ. For Paul, God’s final reign is, as the catchword has it, “already and not yet.”
Now he reminds the Romans that their citizenship is not only in the present age but in the age to come. Again baptism is the crux of the matter, as an enactment of death and resurrection. The “already” of Christian faith is the claim that believers have already died to sin and are already living out Christ’s resurrection life. They are no longer in the clutches of radical disobedience. The “not yet” of Christian faith is the claim that the faithful will live with Christ in the fullness of God’s glory.
In the great final struggle against sin and death, Christ has conquered both sin and death. Christians live out the victory over sin and await the victory over death in their own lives. That is how the pattern of faithful life is lived – or almost how.
Paul nuances his claim a bit further. While it is true that the final victory over death is yet to come, it is also true that even in the present time, even in the already, the faithful taste what true life, eternal life is like. For Paul living toward God, before God’s presence, is in itself a purchase on the resurrected life. “So you must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Already dead to sin; not yet living the resurrection life, but tasting it, foretasting it nonetheless.
Present yourselves to God: 6:12-14.
Paul is not so opposed to bodily life as his critics sometimes think, but he is aware that our bodily desires can sometimes dash off after sin despite the red flags our faithful selves would like to raise. Legend has it that when those who had been “baptized into Christ’s death” continued to sin, Martin Luther said, “The old Adam is a strong swimmer!” Paul understands this. His words, “Do not let sin exercise dominion over your mortal bodies” are the call to active, energetic and brave faithfulness. One can slip into sin but one has to lay hold of righteousness (though of course in doing so one lays hold of a gift, not of an accomplishment.) God has given us the present of grace, now (the pun almost works) we present ourselves and our members to God – because sin no longer (really) has dominion over us.
Why can the faithful do this “presenting”? Because they have been brought from death to life – the echo of baptism again, the reminder of what they have left behind in the baptismal waters and of the faithful obedience they can now claim.
To whom do you belong? 6:15-19.
Paul presents another of his imagined debating questions: “What then, should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” By now we know what answer the teacher wants: “By no means!”
We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, deciding our own lives according to our own preferences. Paul – and most of his contemporaries – think we are defined not so much by who we are but by whose we are. We are all under the sway of one power or another. As Bob Dylan put it, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” Our identity is determined by the sphere in which we live: our deepest loyalties, the strongest claims upon us.
The way Paul talks about that is tricky for us because with good reason we find the notion of slavery incompatible with the shape of the Christian life. But if we can allow him his metaphor for the sake of his argument, he is saying what he will say again in Romans 14. None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to herself. We are who we are because of those to whom we belong.
Examples of this ultimate allegiance from everyday life are not easy to find. Patriotism is a kind of shadow of this sort of loyalty. Loyalty to family another. School Spirit – especially among aging alumni and alumnae – something of the same.
Now Paul is again making a contrast between the old and the new. Everybody belongs to something larger than the self, but in the old days the Roman Christians belonged to sin, but now God has bought sin out and the Romans belong to God.
Imagine yourself moving to a new country, expatriated from the territory of sin. Or a new family with a whole different set of expectations and obligations. That is how different the Christian life is from the life that went before. God has bought us from the bondage of sin, a master who used us cruelly while persuading us that we were enjoying perfect freedom.
Two big contrasts: 6:20-23.
The NRSV is a little confusing in its rendering of Romans 6. What Paul means is that when the Romans were slaves to sin they could hang loose to righteousness. But hanging loose to righteousness is not such a good thing. It ends in death. And what’s more, now that the Romans are alive in God, they can look back on those earlier righteousness-free days with considerable shame. (We are bound to recall the first two chapters of Romans where Paul gives pretty much everybody some recollection to be ashamed of – idolatry, hypocrisy – equal opportunity bondage to Sin.)
What Paul contrasts to this is being enslaved to God, and now Christians can (must) hang loose to sin. Hanging loose to sin (letting go of it altogether in fact) is a very good thing. It ends in eternal life. And the way believers get from the old realm of sin to the new realm of eternal life is what calls “sanctification”. The root of the word is the same as the root of the word for “holy” or for “saints.” And while some interpreters of Paul think that for him it’s all sin or all grace, there is also this “sanctification” business that keeps us busy between this age and the age to come. (See John Wesley’s classic little book, “Christian Perfection.”)
The second contrast is again the contrast between death and life, but more interestingly, it’s the contrast between “wages” and “gift.” Those of us who live (and used to prosper!) in a capitalist society can understand the economics of sin: “You get what you pay for.” If you pay for infidelity, dishonesty, corruption, by God you’ll get your paycheck. Death.
Those of us who pray to be faithful Christians (many of us capitalists, too) have to struggle to understand the economics of grace, because the check God gives the faithful says: “Eternal Life.” And you don’t earn it; can’t earn it; don’t have to earn it. It is a gift.
So eternal life is a gift, but it is by no means an anonymous gift. It is given “In Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 7 and 8 will help us understand the worth – and the price – of the gift.
Words to Remember:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”
Wasserman, Emma, “Paul among the Philosophers: The Case of Sin in Romans 6 – 8. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30 (2008) 387-415.
Questions for Reading:
- How does Paul use the Roman Christians’ recollection of their baptism to make his point about the way they ought to conduct their daily lives?
- Do you see how Paul sees resurrection implied in both daily life and future afterlife? Does his presentation seem compelling to you?
- How does our individualism limit us as we read a text that seems to define us by who we belong to?
Questions for Reflection:
- In what ways does the Christian life tempt us to irresponsibility? Does our confidence in God lead us to moral and spiritual excesses? If so, how?
- Slavery is not a category much favored in our discussions of the good life. Yet a colleague of ours has written a compelling book about Paul called “Slavery as Salvation.” Is there any way to understand Paul’s use of the category to help us see fundamental realities in our own lives? Do you ever experience yourself as enslaved? If so, how? If not, why not?
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V. Romans 7-8: From Flesh to Spirit
Paul’s reflections on the life of hopeful faith, inaugurated by baptism and dedicated to living in righteousness has laid the foundation for his attempt to explain further his thinking about the Jewish Law and the relationship of believers to it, an issue that clearly concerned his Roman congregation. He begins with a metaphor, the logic of which is challenging, then he moves into an analysis of the human condition and its relationship to the will of God expressed in the Torah, arguing that that condition, encapsulated in the term “flesh” overpowers and subverts the good that is in the Law. He then returns to a description of the spiritual condition of people who have been “justified,” now focusing not on their legal status, but on the life they lead in the spirit, a life of hope.
Believers and Widows: Free from former subjection (Rom 7:1-6)
Paul draws an analogy between the situation of believers who have either as Jews or as Torah-observant Gentiles, been “under the Law” and a married woman. While her husband is alive, the woman is subject to him, by the laws of marriage, but when he dies, she is free to marry another (vv. 2-3). That situation is clear enough, even if the language of “subjection” is not what we would tend to prefer. How it applies to the believers’ situation is obscure. In their case a symbolic death has occurred (cf. chap. 6) and they have died (v. 4) with Christ, and by that death they have been freed to belong to another, the Christ who has been raised from the dead (v. 4). Paul abandons the limping analogy to conclude with an assertion that the results of the interaction of sin and the Law have been eliminated so that believers have been enabled to live lives “enslaved to the spirit” (vv. 5-6). The metaphors, some echoing Paul’s graphic imagery of 2 Corinthians 3, are as bold as they are complex in what is a transitional sentence. Paul at once looks back to the description of the life of “freedom” which is paradoxically enslaved to righteousness (chap. 6) and ahead to his discussion of the interaction of Law and flesh.
It is worth pausing to notice in verses 5 and 6 a structural hint at how Paul will navigate the issues of fleshly and spiritual living in these two chapters. These two sentences offer a table of contents for what follows. In verse 5, Paul writes, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions (Greek: pathemata), aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” In these words, governed by a past tense verb, Paul encapsulates 7:7-25, where he will detail the futility and misery of a life lived under the power of Sin. Verse 6 then offers the hopeful interruption of misery: “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” Here the time-frame and verb tense are present (see the use of the word “now”) and the futility has given way to a new and more hopeful Spirit slavery. This description governs 8:1-17, where the faithful “walk in newness of life.” But in the interest of realism, Paul qualifies the euphoria of the “now” time once again in 8:18. “I consider that the sufferings (pathemata again) of this present time (literally “the now time”) are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” The present life in the Spirit may offer a greater prospect of moral success, but it is not void of mortal pains, and so 8:18-40 tilt us forward toward a glory yet to be revealed.
The Power of Sin and the Goodness of the Law (7:7-12)
Paul begins the next segment of his argument with a rhetorical question that puts as sharply as possible the issue of the status of the Law. Is it the equivalent of Sin? Certainly not, says the apostle, but it can be an instrument of sin (v. 7). In order to illustrate how that might be so, Paul adopts a first person style. Some readers have found here a window into Paul’s own personal development, perhaps as a youth discovering his sexuality, but Paul may be less confessional than rhetorical, using the personal discourse for dramatic effect, a technique that the ancients called prosopopoieia, or personification. In fact the “I” that he adopts could be understood to be a Biblical character, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who is prompted to do the forbidden deed by the prohibition itself. Whomever he has in mind, Paul suggests that the Biblical prohibition on desire (NRSV “covet” – Exodus 20:17) has the effect of instigating desire (v. 8). The “I” continues its graphic story of life once lived innocent of the Law then spoiled by the command that stimulated desire (v. 9). Paul may here mingle some of his own experience and that of his Gentile converts, with an ideal situation, such as the Genesis story, conflating the single prohibition given to Adam and Eve with the entirety of the Torah. In any case, his conclusion is clear, the Law itself, the Torah of Israel, is holy and just and good, but it can become an instrument of sin (vv. 10-12). Just as the serpent jumped in to exploit the divine command to Adam and Eve, just as the parent who says, “Don’t touch that!” arouses the two-year-old’s interest, so Sin jumps at the chance to exploit Law and produce in us the desire to disobey.
The Problem of the Weak Will (7:13-24)
Starting out again with a rhetorical question, Paul continues to probe the issue of the relationship between the Law and Sin (v. 13). Again he uses the device of first-person discourse to illustrate the dynamics he sees at work between the “spiritual” Law and the fleshly self (v. 14). At this point he apparently has in mind not a persona from the Bible, but one familiar to the Greek stage, Medea, known for killing her children in an act of desperate revenge against her unfaithful husband. The Greek poet Euripides wrote a famous play on the subject of that myth and its themes were widely echoed. The Roman poet Ovid’s version of the story attributes to Medea a line that is virtually equivalent to the plea of the tortured self in v. 15 and v 19: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor, “I see what is better and approve of it, but I follow what is worse.” By conjuring up such a stock character of moral weakness, Paul attempts to highlight the problem of the human condition. Personifying the behavior traits that he believes are common, he speaks of the Sin that dwells within (v. 17) that overpowers the rational mind. If Paul were writing Romans today he might well use the language of addictive behaviors to illustrate his point. His conceptual world is, however, that of the first century, where “flesh” encapsulates what is negative about the human condition (v. 18).
Paul concludes this reflection with a nuanced view of the Law (vv. 21-23). In itself it is good, but there is another “law” operating within the human person that leads in another direction. The plaintiff call for someone to save humankind from this condition (v. 24) evokes the joyous response that God in Christ has provided a solution.
The life of the Spirit (8:1-17)
From Paul’s triumphant celebration of God’s victory over the power of Sin that informs humankind, one might suspect that he had too rosy a view of the condition of those who had been “justified.” Part of the next chapter corrects that possible misreading. Paul will insist on the “not yet” of the process of salvation, on the incomplete character of the victory that God has won, but he does so while celebrating the fact that the lives of the justified are lived “in the Spirit” and therefore transformed in the present.
Paul begins with positive affirmations. He first recalls the legal imagery of the earlier chapters. There is not condemnation for those who are “in Christ” (v. 1). He then turns to the language of the “spirit” which has liberated those who in Christ from the regime (“law” in another sense) of sin and death (v. 2). Paul believes that those who have undergone baptism and been accepted into a community of believers have indeed experienced a transformation. They no longer walk “according to the flesh” (v. 4), but according to the spirit, where there is life and peace (v. 6). Further contrasts between flesh and spirit reinforce the point (vv. 8-10), and the source of that spirit is the resurrected Christ (v. 11).
The note of celebration of what is now possible for those blessed with the Spirit leads to exhortations, a move often found in Paul whose admonitions often take the form of “become what you are.” We are obligated, he says, not to live according to the flesh (v 12) but according to the spirit. He introduces a new theme in v. 14, one which he had used previously in Galatians 4. Those who have the Spirit are children of God and they know that fact because they experience it in their prayers to God as Father (v. 15). Paul may have in mind here a version of the Lord’s Prayer, said in unison by the congregation. The very act of their prayer is a manifestation of the transforming Spirit and their prayerful recognition of their relationship with God is a foundation of their new life (v. 16). Alternatively, he may be harkening back to the baptismal imagery we developed in our comments on chapter 6, where the newly-baptized spoke the name “Abba” for the first time and became a part of God’s family.
Up to this point Paul’s argument has focused on the positive transformation that he and others experienced in joining this community, an experience often replicated in revivalist movements and denominations, and institutionalized in the sacramental system of many mainline churches. The final verse of this section (v. 17) is a reminder that the life of the spirit is one rooted in the cross of Christ and the victorious transformation does not preclude, indeed, it assumes participation in Christ’s sufferings.
Present Distress and Future Glory (8:18-30)
The reference to suffering with Christ in the hope of future glory sets the theme for the next section of Paul’s argument. He takes a broad view of the earthly condition; the whole creation is in distress, a theme with which we in our era can readily sympathize. The theme continues in another register the notion of a new creation that had formed the basis of Paul’s comparison between Adam and Christ in chapter 5. Paul puts his readers in tune with nature, suggesting that they too are groaning, in expectation of that condition as children of God that they have already celebrated (v. 23). Paul’s penchant for pregnant paradox surfaces again in his declaration that “we have been saved in hope” (v. 24). Salvation, or full integration into an everlasting relationship with God, remains for Paul a future reality and the reference to hope scores that point. Yet the tense of the verb points to the other pole of the reality that Paul wants to grasp, the relationship that has already been established with God by God’s gracious act toward humankind. Nonetheless, the emphasis now lies on the hope and the fact that the object of hope is as yet unseen (vv 24-25).
Paul ties together several of the themes that he has been developing in a poignant passage. Life is lived “in the spirit” manifest in prayer. We live in a condition of hopeful expectation for the full realization of the reality of which we now have a foretaste. Paul articulates these notions through an allusion to the prayer life of the community. He may here draw on his experience with the Corinthians, whose charismatic “speaking in tongues” he worked to appreciate and regulate (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14). Perhaps alluding to such experiences he tells of the way in which the Spirit, at work in the community, groans with the community, yearning for fulfillment (v. 26).
The presence of the Spirit in the worship life of the community, even in its yearning and longing, leads Paul to a final reflection on the assurance of God’s love. He first expresses that assurance in a carefully framed progression (vv. 28-30), that sounds themes of election and predestination. Similar themes will loom large in the reflection on God’s dealings with Israel that will follow in chapters 9-11, and they form the foundation of an important strand in Christian theology. As usual, Paul does not develop that train of thought, but sounds the themes in order to end this section of his argument on a remarkably positive note.
The Assurance of God’s Love (8:31-39)
Another rhetorical question punctuates the argument (v. 31). What shall we say? asks Paul. His answer is a poetic affirmation of the assurance of God’s fidelity. More rhetorical questions drive the hearer to the realization that God and his Christ are firmly “on our side” (vv. 32-34). A final rhetorical question, “Who will separate us from the love of God” introduces the hymnic conclusion of this section of the epistle. Though we might be “sheep destined for slaughter” nothing in creation whatsoever can separate us from the love of God manifested to us in Christ Jesus (vv 35-38). Paul probably expected his hearers to respond, as have Christians ever since, with a firm “Amen.” This firm assurance will also be necessary as Paul begins the next stage of his argument, reflecting on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan for humankind.
Words to Remember:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).”
Jervis, L. Ann, “‘The Commandment which is for Life,’ (Rom 7:10): Sin’s Use of the Obedience of Faith,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 27 (2004), pp. 193-216.
Meyer, P.W. “The Worm at the Core of the Apple: Exegetical Reflections on Romans 7,” The Conservative Continues, ed. r. Fortna and B. Gaventa (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), pp.
Stendahl, Krister, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) pp. 78-96.
Questions for Reading:
- Are the literary allusions in Romans 7 to scripture and ancient myth clear?
- How effective is Paul’s use of the first person, “I” in chapter 7? Does it matter that when he reaches chapter 8, he refers to “we” instead?
Questions for Reflection:
- While Paul clearly meant for Romans 7:7-25 to describe a past reality, before the onset of faith (“while we were in the flesh” in 7:5), many Christian readers through the ages have recognized their own experience in those words. E.g., “the good that I wish I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not wish (7:19).” Do you experience Christian life more in a Romans 7 or a Romans 8 way?
- Have you ever experienced the Spirit doing what Paul gives it credit for in chapter 8: guiding your everyday life (8:4)? helping you pray (8:26)?
- What role does “hope” of an afterlife with God play in your Christian belief and practice? Important? Not so much? Sometimes yes, sometimes no?
Yale Bible Study
VI. Romans 9-11: History Matters!
In the last half of the twentieth century there was considerable debate among New Testament scholars and theologians about the significance of Romans 9-11 for Paul’s general argument in the epistle.
Some scholars held that these chapters are a kind of parenthesis probably inspired by the references to hope in Romans 8. Paul pauses in the midst of his discussion of hope, love and especially faith to say (quite) a few words about the relationship of Israel to the Gentiles. Then with chapter 12 he returns to the matters at hand.
Other scholars – perhaps most notably Krister Stendahl in the article suggested with our last readings – argue that Romans 9-11 is really the heart of the matter. Romans is of course about justification by faith and about living in hope through the presence of the Spirit, but above all Romans is about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the great drama of human history.
In the 1960s Stendahl spoke at Yale Divinity School and told a group of students that preachers misunderstood the main question their congregants were asking. Preachers preached as though the most pressing question for the listener was: “How can I be saved?” In fact, said Stendahl, the most pressing question for the listener was: “Does history have any meaning?”
His claim reflects the anxieties of a time of cold war, civil rights unrest and strife both in and about Vietnam. But it also reflects his reading of Romans. Romans 9-11 is Paul’s answer to the question: “Does history have any meaning?” And of course Paul says, “Yes,” and then shows why he believes this to be true.
There is a further debate whether this discussion of the relationship of Israel and Gentiles in God’s providential plan was written in part to deal with particular tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. Whatever the precise circumstances that inspired Paul to write these chapters, the movement of the argument is fairly clear.
Because Romans 9-11 is a large chunk of the epistle to the Romans we want here to summarize the three themes that Paul presents in these chapters.
Election by God 9:1-29
We have suggested that Paul is a practical and biblical theologian rather than a systematic and philosophical one. Romans 9 provides many of the key texts for the Christian understanding of election (closely related to the question of predestination), but the reason Paul struggles with this issue is intensely pastoral. He is saddened by the fact that while many Gentiles seem to be turning to Christ in faith, Paul’s own fellow Jews for the most part are refusing to do so.
Paul’s response is also biblical, because he opens Romans 9 with a lament that echoes Moses’ lament over the children of Israel.
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (Rom 9:3)
“So Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘Alas, this people has sinned a great sin, for they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin – but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)
Wrestling with the text, not only Exodus but the whole of the Old Testament, and wrestling with the problem – why doesn’t Israel believe? – Paul makes three claims in these verses.
The first claim is that God is entirely faithful to God’s promises. “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” (9:6) However, God’s promises need to be understood in a new way. God’s promises are not any longer reserved for those who belong biologically to Israel; they are extended to those who join Israel by faith, according to God’s promise.
What Paul cannot imagine is that God would break a promise.
Paul recalls his own claims about Abraham in Romans 4 and says that the true children of Abraham are those who are heirs, not to his flesh, but to the promise. We know from reading chapter 4 that this means Abraham’s true heirs are those who are made right with God through faith. Paul recalls the story of Jacob and Esau to suggest that while Esau seemed to have the “right” to Isaac’s blessing and to God’s, it is not by right but by God’s electing mercy that God’s people are chosen. The section ends with the terrifying verse from Malachi 1:2-3. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”
Paul’s second claim emerges in response to what he rightly imagines will annoy readers who are seeking to understand his first claim – that even in making odd choices God is faithful to God’s promises.
Paul’s rhetorical respondents raise two questions. “Isn’t this choice of Jacob over Esau and of faithful Gentiles over Jews arbitrary on God’s part – and therefore unjust?” And, “If this is all about God’s election, how can anybody possibly blame those who aren’t chosen for not being believers?”
Paul’s answer to both questions is that God is God. (Paul’s God sounds a little like the God of Job 38:2-3 “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?. . . I will question you, and you answer me.”) But more than that Paul claims that God’s election is a sign of God’s mercy (not of God’s judgment); it is more a matter of who is brought into the family than who is left out. And Paul claims that the purpose of this is, not only the salvation of the saved, but the glory of God. God has done all this “to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of his mercy.” (9:23) Whenever we read Paul for more than a few verses we discover that while he is concerned for the justification of individuals and the salvation of the world he is, above all, concerned with the glory of God.
Paul’s third claim is that God specifically keeps the promise even to Israel “according to the flesh” because a remnant of Israel has come to faith.
Here again Paul turns to our Old Testament, to the prophets. He has already quoted Hosea in 9:25-26 and now he turns to Isaiah. Isaiah also puzzles about unfaithfulness among the people of Israel and finds that God’s promise can still be fulfilled as long as a remnant of the faithful remain. Paul begins to suggest that – for the present at least – God does not need all of Israel to be faithful in order for God to be faithful to Israel. A remnant will do. (In Romans 16 we learn that Paul in fact has a few Jewish kinfolk among the Christians in Rome – a remnant from his larger family, Israel.)
Israel’s choice 9:30-10:21
In 10:4 Paul says that “Christ is the end of the law.” We will soon look at the exact meaning of that phrase, but what it does make clear is that Paul thinks people – including the people of Israel – have to choose between the centrality of Christ and the centrality of the Torah.
Sometimes in his writings Paul seems to suggest that the law leads to sin, or increases sin. (There is a fair amount of this kind of argument in Galatians). But here he says something rather different. (9:30-33) He says that the law may have been good but it is not good enough. You have to choose whether you will accept God’s righteousness through faith or work toward God’s righteousness through the law. The Gentiles who chose faith got it right and the Jews who chose the law got it wrong. (Needless to say any Jew who chooses faith will also get it right; and in Galatians some Gentiles seem to be choosing the law and getting it very wrong, from Paul’s perspective.)
When Paul says in the first verses of chapter 10 is that Israel is zealous for God but ill informed. Because they are ill informed they are still seeking to find God’s righteousness through obedience to the law. Yet “Christ is the end of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who has faith.” (Our trans.)
In making his claim Paul uses the Greek word telos, which has come into English in our not exactly every day word “teleology.” The word can either mean “the end” – like finis, finite, kaput; or it can mean “the end” as a goal – “the ends justify the means.”
So Paul can either be saying: “Christ put an end to the law; did it in.” Or Paul can be saying: “Christ is the goal to which the law points.” (This is how Matthew reads the good news about Jesus). Many words have been written arguing about this translation, but either way one thing is absolutely clear: The law is no longer the way to receive the righteousness of God. (If it were, Gentiles would be excluded from God’s righteousness unless they became Jews, and Paul will have no part of that).
Many Christian preachers preach “Pauline” sermons which insist that a right relationship to God is not a matter of striving but of accepting, not of achieving but of receiving. That may well be right, but in this passage Paul is not making a general claim about the strategies for faithful living. He is making a specific claim: Torah obedience is no longer the way to a right relationship with God. Christ is.
In Romans 10:5-13 Paul again recruits Moses (the giver of Torah!) to support his end of Torah claims. He does so by a complicated reading of Deuteronomy 9:4 and Deuteronomy 30:12-14. By the time Paul is through with the text Moses is no longer saying that the Torah is written on the hearts of the faithful but that the word of faith in Jesus – the word of the Gospel – is written on the hearts of the faithful. It is clear that Paul would flunk an Old Testament course in any respectable twenty-first century seminary because of the freedom with which he reads the older texts. He would say, we suspect, that he has good theological and exegetical reasons for doing so.
Then Paul raises another set of rhetorical questions: “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (10:14)
The imaginary interlocutor gives Paul the opportunity to make two points.
The first point is that right faith is a matter of right hearing – hearing the Gospel and trusting what is heard. This is a claim that has both heartened and terrified Christian preachers from the first century to the twenty-first. It should actually hearten and terrify us all, reminding us that in the Christian story words matter – enormously, and not just the words of the official clergy, either.
The second point is that after all, Israel has no excuse because they have heard. Paul again quotes Moses and Isaiah. Isaiah 65 gives him both the claims he wants to make. God has reached out to those who are not the nation of Israel – the Gentiles. And God has tried to reach out to Israel without success: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Yet still Paul believes God does not give up on the covenant people Israel.
God’s surprise (11:1-36)
In Paul’s letter to the Romans one of the key words is a very simple word indeed: “All.” Remember the words that sum up the opening argument of the epistle, chapters 1-3: “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, (all) are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (3:23-24). Now in the discussion of the place of Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation the term returns again, same theme, slightly different emphasis: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (11:32)
In the first part of Romans Paul wants to stress that all people, including the Gentiles, have sinned and are therefore in need of justification. In these chapters Paul wants to insist that all people, including Israel, still live under the promise of God’s mercy and are therefore to be included in God’s great justifying act through Jesus Christ.
Again in speaking of Israel, Paul insists on the absolute faithfulness of God. God does not break promises, ignore covenants, or reject the people God has chosen. (11:1)
Then he makes three points about how God will show that faithfulness.
First he revisits the claim that a remnant of Israel has remained faithful.
In chapter 9 Paul identifies himself with Moses, willing to be cut off from the book of life for the sake of his people. In chapter 11 Paul identifies with Elijah in 1 Kings 19, somewhat self-pityingly announcing to the LORD that he alone of all the Israelites holds true to the faith. By identifying with Elijah Paul clearly claims himself as one of the remnant, comforts himself by the reminder that he is not the only Jewish believer in Christ as Messiah. Elijah had seven thousand others, and Paul must have a minor multitude. And then somewhat sneakily he identifies the Jews who have not believed in Jesus with Elijah’s Israelites who worshipped Baal. Whatever the details of his criticism of Jews who have not joined the churches, we can be sure that Paul thinks that they and the Baal worshippers have one thing in common: they have got God wrong.
But Paul does not leave it there. Our whole section, 9-11, is framed by the claim that God’s electing purpose is at work in history, and Paul thinks he can see how that is happening. Israel’s rejection of Jesus has in fact opened the Gospel to the Gentiles. Now surely the roles will be reversed: the Gentiles’ inclusion will make the Jews jealous, and now not only a remnant will believe – Israel will believe. What a day of rejoicing that will be! Paul will return to this claim at the end of the chapter, but first he has a parenthetical word to the Gentiles in Rome.
Second Paul reminds the Gentiles that they are latecomers to the family of God.
In Christian churches we often hear the question: “Can the Jews be saved?” but the question for the first century church was: “Can the Gentiles be saved?” The Jews, after all, lived with the immutable promise of God.
Paul reminds the Gentiles (and those of us who are Gentiles today) that we are the latecomers to this drama. He uses a horticultural image to suggest the distinction between the natural branches of an olive tree and the grafted ones. Gentiles are those grafted on to a tree not originally their home. As is so often the case with Paul and metaphors this one gets confusing when he starts talking about grafting the original trees back on the branch, but the main thrust is clear. Don’t boast, you Gentiles; you are here by sufferance (or grace). Have faith, you Gentiles, that one day Israel will be back fully in the family as well. “If there rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead.” (11:15)
Third, Paul reaffirms that the end – the telos – of God’s plan is that Israel should be included in redemption, too.
The claim that Israel’s acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God will mean resurrection from the dead is not just a rhetorical flourish. Remember that Paul thinks we live with one foot in the present age and one foot in the age to come. When the age to come comes in its fullness, there will be life from the dead…the resurrection of the dead, the reconciliation of the world. Paul longs for Israel to accept the Gospel both for Israel’s sake and for the sake of that great day coming when God will be all things to all people – Jews and Gentiles alike. (See 1 Cor 15:28)
We suggested in the introduction to this series that Paul hopes to travel to Spain and wishes to enlist the support of the Roman churches for that trip. Spain was the far western edge of the known world, and it may be that Paul hoped that when he preached the gospel in Spain the whole world of the Gentiles would have heard, might come to believe and embarrass Israel into believing as well.
This complicated section of the letter closes with an explosion of praise that might be helpful to us. Perhaps you have experienced the frustration of not understanding something about God – the apparent inconsistency of suffering, the vast injustices on earth, and others. Paul gives this one his best shot. He grapples for three chapters to explain God’s ultimate plan for Jews and Gentiles. Then, when all has been spoken, he throws his hands in the air and says, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?’ ‘Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.”
Words to Remember:
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?’ ‘Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).”
Baker, Murray, “Paul and the Salvation of Israel: Paul’s Ministry, the Motif of Jealousy and Israel’s Yes,” CBQ 67 (2005) 469-84.
Meeks, W.A., “On Trusting an Unpredictable God: Hermeneutical Reflections on Romans 9-11,” In Search of the Early Christians: Selected Essays of Wayne Meeks (New Haven: Yale, 2002), pp. 210-29.
Questions for Reading:
- Is Paul exemplary in the way he reads scripture? Faithful Israelites become like worshipers of Baal, for example, or the Torah that Moses praises in Exodus becomes the preaching of the gospel after Torah has been completed? Can you detect a purpose in the way he reads?
- How do the ideas of predestination and election change when we see them, not in the context of individual salvation, but in the context of God’s larger actions in history?
Questions for Reflection:
- How do you think Romans 9-11 fit with the material we have read in Romans 1-8? Is this an aside or a fundamental conclusion to what has gone before? How so.
- In the light of Romans, how do we think about the relationship between Christians and Jews in 21st century North America? Is Paul helpful to us here, or is his framework so different from our own that we need to start somewhere else entirely?
- Given the way he closes this section with praise, Paul doesn’t seem to think that God owes humanity answer to every mystery of life. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?
Yale Bible Study
VII. Romans 12-13: The Transformed Community
Having dealt with the issue of God’s fidelity and the future of Israel, Paul turns to exhortation, encouraging his Roman audience to live in accordance with the principles to which they have committed themselves in Baptism (cf. chap. 6). As mentioned in the Introduction, some commentators on Romans find in these latter chapters Paul’s primary concern, to address divisions within the Roman community occasioned by external persecution as well as internal differences. Other commentators find instead a set of generally conventional admonitions, echoing some of the themes that Paul had sounded in his earlier letters, especially to the Corinthians. Both factors seem to be at work. Some issues that Paul addresses seem very specific to the Roman situation, and Paul no doubt has been informed about those local concerns and he knows the history of the community. Yet the issues that he addresses lack the kind of urgency that would suggest a community seriously divided over them. Paul certainly tailors some of his common hortatory themes to the situation in Rome.
Introduction: A Life of Moral Worship (12:1-2)
How can we hope to live more faithfully? Romans has given us two metaphors already to understand our moral lives. Chapter six introduced us to life lived in slavery to God; chapter 8 presented the Spirit as the means by which God’s law can be fulfilled in our lives. Now, in chapter twelve, Paul offers the prospect of transformation. The gift comes at a dear price, though: nothing short of handing one’s body over to God. Paul uses cultic imagery to suggest that sacral character of the life of faith. Yet the “handing over” is not a physical blood sacrifice, but a yielding of a lived life to God. Faithful bodies are a “living sacrifice,” a form of worship that is “in conformity with reason” (logikên). That somewhat more philosophical note characterizes the second general appeal, that the faithful should have their “mind” (nous) attuned to the will of God.
Our twenty-first-century western eyes might immediately imagine that Romans 12.1-2 describes an individual act, but the transformation Paul describes is more than that. It is communal, a truth that is indicated by the exhortations that follow – all aimed at life lived well and lovingly together.
The Body of Christ (12:3-8)
For Paul, as for contemporary Stoic philosophers, the “mind” is not something distinct and separate from the body; neither is the “body” primarily the physical dimension of the single individual. As Paul had urged his followers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 12), he now urges his Roman audience to think of themselves as part of a social body (v. 4), in which the members have diversity of functions or “charisms” (v. 6), all gifts from God.
The list of gifts here differs slightly with the one in 1 Corinthians 12, indicating the obvious truth that these are representative lists. For the Romans there are prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and the compassionate (12:6-7). We do not hear behind this paragraph Paul’s specific concern in Corinth that ecstatic gifts were being prized over more mundane and useful ones. Nonetheless, Paul exhorts toward humility and sober self-judgment. All are to lend their gifts to the community in humility, not for distinction but for the good of the whole.
Mutual Love (12:9-21)
The image of the one body grounds a series of eloquently phrased admonitions to mutual love, hope, endurance, and hospitality (vv. 9-13). Belonging to the Body of Christ will show itself in many ways, in prayers for persecutors (v. 14), perhaps an allusion to the Roman situation, but also to true sympathy for other members of body, sharing in their joys and sorrows (v. 15), maintaining humility and not requiting evil with evil but pursuing peace with all (vv. 16-18). These admonitions recall some of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and Paul may have been inspired by oral traditions about Jesus’ teachings. The conclusion reinforces the call to a non-violent response to persecution and grounds that call with an appeal to verses of Scripture that assert that vengeance is in the hands of God (v. 19: Deut 32:35, also cited in Heb 10:30), and that doing acts of kindness to an enemy is the proper way to repay him (v. 20: Prov 25:21-22). The concern not to repay evil in kind may have special relevance in a situation where the Roman community of believers has been subject to external pressure.
Obeying Authority (13:1-7)
Paul now turns to what is clearly a local concern, the relationship to civil authority. He begins by reinforcing the legitimacy of civil authority, claiming that it is ultimately ordered by God (v. 1), so that resistance to it is ultimately resistance to God (v. 2). Paul then offers a functional explanation of what civil authority is supposed to do: to repress crime (v. 3), for the sake of which they bear the sword (v. 4). Hence obedience to such authority is not simply a matter of expediency, but also of moral principle, of “conscience” (v. 5). At this point Paul raises a specific topic that may have occasioned the whole admonition about civil authority, the requirement to pay taxes of various sorts (vv. 6-7). If the general principle obtains that one must be subject to authority, then the particular case is also clear.
This brief passage on the authority of the political order has played various roles in the history of the relationship between Church and State. Kings and autocrats of various political persuasions have usually welcomed the notion that their authority has a divine foundation. In contemporary debates the affirmation that the state has the “power of the sword” offers support to those who favor capital punishment and who resist religious appeals to its abolition. Yet this chapter is no more a handbook of Christian political theory than is the first chapter of Romans a treatise on sexual ethics. Christians who have wrestled with the realities of oppressive political systems of the left or right have also heard other scriptural testimonies about political power, such as the prophetic witness of Ezekiel against an unjust king and the Book of Revelation about the demonic character of the state. Scripture as it often does speaks not with a univocal voice, but it challenges its readers to discernment.
The Heart of Paul’s Exhortation (13:8-10)
Paul moves back from the specifics of paying taxes in deference to civil authority to the general principle that underlies all of his hortatory program, both in Romans and elsewhere: the requirement to love one another (v. 8). To reinforce the point, he again turns to scripture, claiming that the prohibitions of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13-17; Deut 5:17-21), all are summarized in the positive injunction of the Holiness Code (Lev 19:18) that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
In this little paragraph Paul neatly pulls together several themes of Romans generally. Within the immediate context of the exhortations, the appeal to the Holiness Code of Leviticus reinforces the introductory framing of the moral life in cultic terms (cf. 12:1). More importantly perhaps Paul reinforces one of his most dramatic claims in the early chapters of Romans, that his gospel does not abrogate the Torah, but it confirms it (cf. 3:31). The trope of finding the whole Law summarized in a single verse or two is a standard Jewish move, also found in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus (Matt 19:18-19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:25-28, all also appealing to Lev 19:18). Both by his form and his content Paul shows himself to be a faithful heir of his Israelite heritage.
The Eschatological Framework (13:11-14)
Balancing the appeal to scripture is Paul’s sense of the situation in which he and his addressees find themselves. Throughout Paul’s correspondence we find evidence of his acute sense of living in the last stage of salvation history, when the “shape of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), just before the return of Christ as glorious judge (1 Thess 4:15-18). His language here is more evocative and poetic: “night is far advanced, the day draws nigh” (v. 12), but the point of existence in this eschatological state is clear: we must “walk in the light,” not by engaging in self-indulgence of whatever sort, but by “putting on Christ” (v. 14).
It was this passage that St. Augustine read at Cassiciacum, when he heard what he thought was a child’s voice saying “tolle, lege” – “take up and read.” Even if neither Augustine nor many other readers of Romans shared Paul’s sense that the world was coming to an imminent and cataclysmic end, they have heeded his call to “put on Christ” and follow the command to love.
Words to Remember:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12.1-2).”
Elliott, Neil, “Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda,” in Paul and Empire, ed. R.A. Horsley (Trinity Press International, 1997) 184.
Questions for Reading:
- How much do you sense that Paul is addressing specific concerns of the Roman congregation in chapter twelve and how much is he repeating common themes?
- What part of this congregation’s experience do you that Paul imagined that prompted him to address government so directly in chapter thirteen?
Questions for Reflection:
- Paul looks for signs of Christian transformation, not in the moral lives of individuals but in the Roman congregation’s deference to and care for one another in community (ch. 12). How would you rank your group/congregation/family on the transformation scale? How about yourself as a part of those communities?
- What is your understanding of the relationship between Christian commitment and duty toward the State?
- Is Paul’s view of civil authority in Romans 13 one to be universally emulated or is it subject to brotherly/sisterly discernment and evaluation? How are his circumstances different than our own? (e.g., empire versus democracy)
Yale Bible Study
VIII. Romans 14-16: The Generous Welcome
The last three chapters of Romans continue to spell out what it means for the faithful “to present (their) bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (12:1) While chapters 12 and 13 deal primarily with the relationship between believers and outsiders (the government; the enemy), chapters 14 and 15 deal primarily with the relationship among Christians in the Roman churches.
We have suggested that Paul may have some specific knowledge of what is going on in the Roman churches – perhaps especially knowledge about the relationships between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He also is presenting his gospel to a community he has never visited, so it is not surprising if he brings his experience with other churches – especially the Corinthians – and uses that experience to shape his exhortation to the Romans.
The Weak and the Strong in Faith (14:1-23) (maybe extend to 15:13)
One theme that ties Romans 14 and Romans 15 together is the theme of “welcome” – welcome now not for the stranger but welcome for the fellow Christian. “Welcome those who are weak in faith…for God has welcomed them (14:1,3).” “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7).”
The first admonition is to those who are “strong” in faith to welcome those who are “weak” in faith. When Paul refers to strength and weakness in this way he means something quite different from our common impressions about what makes faith weak and strong.
We are inclined to say that someone who is strong in faith is governed by a set of religious principles that dictate behavior in a whole range of circumstances. The strong in faith keep Sabbath (or Sunday) faithfully. They may abstain from alcohol. They avoid rough language. The list goes on and on. Those who are weak in faith, we think, do not set for themselves such high standards of behavior – they hang a little looser to the demands of religious texts and communities.
For Paul those who are strong in faith are those whose confidence in God’s grace is such that they do not think they have to be overly scrupulous about their daily behavior. If they are justified by faith (like Abraham) they are not justified by their diet or by their Sabbath keeping, so diet and strict Sabbath keeping are a matter of indifference – at least where salvation is concerned.
The weak in faith, says Paul, are those who think they need to bolster their fundamental faithfulness by a few useful add-ons. They may be saved by faith, but they also watch their diets and their Sabbaths as a kind of insurance policy, lest faith prove not quite enough in the end.
There are clearly two key distinctions between weak and strong that Paul holds up – perhaps because he knows that the distinctions are causing some friction among Roman Christians. The first is the distinction between meat eaters and vegetarians. Some Christians think that eating meat violates their conscience, others do not. (For somewhat different reasons we have this discussion in many Christian families today.) The second is the distinction between those who observe one day as more special than the others – and apparently acknowledge that specialness by fasting. (14:6)
It may be that these distinctions mark the difference between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians in Rome. Jewish Christians may be vegetarian – at least when there are shared Jewish/Gentile meals – in order to assure that they are eating according to kosher rules. And Jewish Christians may be more inclined to be strictly sabbatarian – perhaps including fasting as part of their Sabbath observance.
But we know that issues over meat eating are also rampant among the Gentiles of the Corinthian churches (where the weak in faith won’t eat meat that has been used in temple sacrifice). And Judaism is not the only religion or philosophy that recognizes special days or encourages fasting.
In any case the exact nature of the dispute is not as helpful to us as is Paul’s twofold response to that dispute. Paul begins his discussion of the remedy to the situation by pointing out that in actual practice the strong and weak are not as divided as they might seem. They are united in the fact that they both those who eat meat and those who eat vegetables, both those who fast and those who pray, bless the Lord in prayer. As he so often does Paul corrects their ideology by pointing to their practice.
Then he moves on with one of those apparent asides that sums up so much of his gospel. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord.” The identity of the faithful is finally found not even in their faith, and certainly not in the distinction between those who are strong in faith and those who are weak. The identity of the faithful is found in the Lord – in life and in death. And therefore certainly in the sometimes disputatious churches of Rome.
Paul then provides the practical implications of his claims. Here is how the strong in faith are supposed to welcome the weak.
The strong in faith do not judge the weak. The quotation from Isaiah 49:18 and 45:23 claims that God alone is judge over all, and therefore reminds the Romans that they have no place claiming superiority, claiming the right to judge, one over the other. The text recalls for us Matt. 7:1 “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” Though there is no clear indication that Paul knows the tradition of Jesus’ teaching here, Jesus is saying what Paul says: God is the final judge; leave judgment to God. For Paul that is part of true welcoming.
The strong in faith do not cause the weak to stumble. Here we are reminded of Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 8:7-13. If a “strong” Christian feels free to eat meat, that’s fine. It is not fine for a strong Christian to entice a weak one into eating meat, because that violates the faith of the weaker one. “Because those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith.” (14:23) Paul ends this section with another summary that can provide a guide from that day until this about the true nature of sin (which is not defined as the “weak” think as breaking one of a series of rules). “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Building up the neighbor, building up the church 15:1-13
Paul continues to stress the theme of welcome, especially the obligation of the “strong” to welcome the “weak.” Now he turns to Christ as the great example of one who did not defend his own perquisites at the expense of others but who took on himself the weakness of others. As usual Paul reflects on the meaning of Christ’s self-giving by finding a word in the Old Testament that provides a lens through which to view the Gospel: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen upon me.” (Rom. 15:3; Ps. 69:9)
Remember that from Romans 12:1 on Paul has been talking about right worship. Now he reminds the Romans that right worship is always worship together. Their “logical/spiritual” worship is to live in harmony with one another. “In accordance with Jesus Christ” means in accordance with who you are as members of Christ’s body. All this so that with “one voice” “together” they may glorify God.
(It would be an interesting exercise to see how often Paul mentions the glory of God in this epistle, often as the kind of liturgical climax to a set of instructions or claims. Karl Barth started a kind or revolution in the theological world in his commentary on Romans which insisted that the heart of this epistle, the heart of Christian faith, is the glory of God.)
Paul returns to the great theme of “welcome” which has framed chapters 14-15. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (15:7) There is the “glory of God” again, and the Greek here is appropriately ambiguous.
On the one hand Christ has welcomed the Roman Christians – for the glory of God. On the other hand, the Roman Christians are to welcome one another – for the glory of God. Be who you are, Paul keeps saying. Be Christ; welcome one another as he welcomed you.
Now explicitly the “one another” suggests that Jewish Christians welcome Gentiles and vice versa. Christ’s ministry was to the circumcised but for the sake of the Gentiles so that (as in chapters 9-11) Jews and Gentiles alike are part of God’s plan. Again Paul uses scripture to make his point, quoting a kind of mélange of Old Testament verses all of which use the key word “Gentiles” to remind the Romans that they have been welcomed, according to God’s plan, into the very covenant people of God.
And then the benediction that brings together so many themes of Romans. We’ll provide our own translation and put in italics the words that recapitulate so many of Paul’s great claims.
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faithfulness, so that you may grow in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Travel Plans: 15:14-33.
Romans 15:14-21 brings us back to the beginning of the epistle and to one of Paul’s reasons for writing. He needs to insist that he has authority to speak to the Roman churches and that they have an obligation to listen, because he has been appointed an apostle to Gentiles (and to Gentile territory). He has not wanted to go too far in asserting his authority because others founded the Roman churches but, as if we the Romans had not guessed. He did not want to be too reticent either.
Romans 15:22-33 speaks concretely of Paul’s travel plans and his hope for the Roman churches in relationship to those plans. (See the introduction to this study). In brief, he is about to carry the offering he has been collecting from Gentile churches to present it in Jerusalem. This is a climax of his own ministry – itself a sign of the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the community of faith, and he seems a bit nervous that his gracious gift may not be gratefully received (15:32). Then he hopes to go to Spain so that the Gospel can be preached to the ends of the earth. And he further hopes that the Romans will help speed him on his way, providing the blessing of their prayers and, probably, their financial resources, too.
Final Greetings: 16:1-27
The very last verses of Romans, 16:25-27 appear and disappear in different places in different manuscripts, leading some scholars to think they are an add-on to the original text. And 16:17-20 seem an odd interruption in the flow of the farewell greetings and are strikingly different in tone from most of the epistle to the Romans. Perhaps they, too, represent a kind of scribal add on.
What we have that is clearly Paul’s is interesting in itself for several reasons.
First there is the length of the greetings. We can suspect that since Paul is trying to commend himself to the Roman Christians he is not so subtly listing all those who can vouch for him.
Second there is the commendation of Phoebe who is a diakonos of the church in Cenchrae (the first time the term “church” is used explicitly in this epistle.) The Greek word is the masculine form of the term for “deacon” or “minister” or “leader.” While the issue of women’s ordination is not yet up for discussion (largely because no one has yet been ordained to Christian ministry), it is at least clear here that Paul uses for Phoebe a term that is used elsewhere for male leaders of the church, and he does this without hesitation or distinction.
Third the list of people greeted includes names that seem to be both Jewish and Gentile, fitting nicely with our guesses about the mixed congregations, or the mixture between two kinds of congregations, in Rome. The Jews probably include Paul’s “kinfolk” Andronicus and Julia who were believers before he was and who are (male and female alike) to be counted among the “apostles” if not among the Apostles.
Fourth the reference to Prisca and Aquila suggests several features of the Roman community. We know that Paul knew them in other contexts and that they were helpers to him – Paul was not the only peripaetetic Christian. According to Acts 18:1-3 Prisca and Aquila were among the Jewish Christians Claudius has banished from Rome. Now they have obviously returned, perhaps providing evidence that the “welcoming” Paul insists on includes them. And finally the fact that a church meets in their house reinforces our sense that the Roman Christians met in a variety of house churches, some perhaps mostly Gentile and some mostly Jewish.
In 16:21-23 Paul’s fellow workers sign off on the letter and we discover that Tertius “wrote” the letter, which almost certainly means that Paul dictated it to him. Even the most dedicated apostle imaginable did not travel, minister, or write alone. Not a bad conclusion for a letter that urges Christians to acknowledge other Christians “as Christ has welcomed you.”
There may be a climactic rhetorical function for these verses that go even beyond the window they give us to the Roman community. Paul has spent fifteen chapters laying out in great detail his glorious gospel. For the listening community in the house churches of Rome, chapter 16 may be a visual aid. Aristocrats and slaves sit in the same room as brothers and sisters; Jews and Gentiles of many nations are learning to love one another; men and women serve and pray together in a very gender-segregated culture. It may just be that Paul is implicitly saying, “If the first fifteen chapters still haven’t convinced you, and you need proof that the gospel works, just look around you. There’s not another place in all of Roman society where you would see this. The lion is lying down with the lamb. I am surely not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God!”
Words to Remember:
“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7).”
Donfried, Karl Paul, “A Short Note on Romans 16,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 89, No. 4 (Dec. 1970), pp. 441-449.
Horrell, D.G., “Solidarity and Difference: Pauline Morality in Romans 14-15,” Studies in Christian Ethics 15.2 (2002), pp. 60-78.
Lampe, Peter, “The Roman Christians of Romans 16,” in The Romans Debate, Revised and Expanded ed., Karl P. Donfried (ed.), (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991), 216-30.
Questions for Reading:
- How might Paul’s hopes for the visit to Jerusalem and to Spain affect the claims and hopes he brings to the Roman churches?
- Again note Paul’s extensive use of scripture to make his points. We tend to be hesitant about “proof texting” (all those references to the “Gentiles” from this text and that). Is that what Paul is doing here, or something more?
- Genealogies and greetings are our favorite parts of scripture to skip. They seem content-less. How does the list of greetings in Romans 16 help us to better understand the Roman community and Paul’s ministry?
Questions for Reflection:
- How do we see the distinctions between Christians (even perhaps between the strong and the weak in faith) today? And how might Paul help us overcome those divisions?
- Of course we will not simply play Bible land and pretend to be the first century church(es) in Rome, but what can we learn both from the instructions in 14-15 and from the greetings in 16 about ways our ancient brothers and sisters can help us be faithful Christians and communities today?