Steven Opp is an evangelist. Remarkably, he has read my book The Future of the People of God—I imagine he is the only “evangelist” to have done so—and he wants to know whether the narrative-historical reading of Romans can be reconciled with traditional approaches to evangelism:
I work in evangelism and so Romans, which is a key text in giving the Gospel, is important for me to understand.… I’m still trying to figure out how the narrative view can coincide with the traditional “Romans Road” for presenting the Gospel to a modern individual.
The so-called Romans Road to salvation goes something like this:
1. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
2. The punishment for sin is eternal death (6:23).
3. The free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus (6:23 again).
4. People are saved by confessing with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord (10:9).
5. Those who are justified through faith have peace with God (5:1).
What’s wrong with that? Well, to start with, you can hardly call it a road. Someone has dug up half-a-dozen paving stones from Paul’s argument and laid them in a line. That’s not a road. It’s not even much of a path. Let’s put the verses back where they came from and see if we can’t get some idea of where this ancient road was actually going.
1. An essential element in Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, were no less subject to the power of sin than the Gentiles. Rhetorically, Romans 3:23 belongs to this argument against the Jews—the sort of argument that Paul would have had repeatedly in the synagogues as he travelled across the empire.
2. Yes, at one level the wages of sin is death. That is an absolute. It is true for all of us. But it is not the inevitable death of the sinner that drives Paul’s argument. It is the coming day of God’s wrath, first against the Jew, then against the Greek (Rom. 1:18; 2:5, 9, 16). The day of God’s wrath is a macro-level event, a political event. It would mean destruction for Israel and the overthrow of pagan imperialism.
3. Eternal life is not in the first place life after death. It is life after judgment. It is the life of the age to come, the age that will come after the massive historical upheavals that will constitute the wrath of God against Jew and Greek. Righteous Gentiles will find themselves justified for having persevered in doing what is good and right when God judges the pagan world. Those of God’s people, however, who lose their lives because of their testimony will be raised and will reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.
4. People were saved by confessing Jesus as Lord. I can’t argue with that. But if we reduce this to confessing Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour, we seriously truncate Paul’s gospel. The good news for Paul in Romans is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God had made him judge and ruler of the nations (Rom. 1:1-4). The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus anticipated future régime change. Not only Israel but the whole Greek-Roman world was about to have a new King, which eventually would mean the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire.
5. Works of the Law could not save Israel because the Law could not deal with the root problem of human sin; in the end it could only condemn God’s people to destruction. Only those Jews, along with a growing number of Gentiles, who took the narrow path of trusting in the way of Jesus—the way of suffering and vindication—would be justified, would have peace with God, would not come under condemnation, would find themselves on the right side of history.
So essentially the Romans Road approach distorts Paul’s argument in the Letter in two ways. First, it takes a large political narrative about Israel, pagan empire, and the future existence of the people of God and hacks it down to the dimensions of a personal narrative of salvation and life after death. Secondly, it takes a particular historical narrative and converts it into a universalized narrative that no longer has anything to do with the vicissitudes and accidents of history.
The diagram has two axes (universal-particular, personal-political), creating four quadrants. The top half of the diagram characterizes modernity, the bottom half postmodernity, but that is incidental. Modern evangelicalism, as I see it, has dragged Paul’s argument in Romans—or rather an arbitrary selection of proof-texts from Romans—from the political-particular quadrant to the personal-universal quadrant. I’m not altogether sure what would fit in the other two quadrants—I have suggested Marxism and Existentialism. Tom Wright would probably put Romans in the top right quadrant. Caesar features prominently in How God Became King but Rome is always a type of all empires in Wright’s argument, never just Rome.
In this respect, clearly, the narrative approach does not “coincide” with the Romans Road approach terribly well. But the point to be stressed is that the controlling political-particular narrative had—and continues to have—radical implications for individuals. Evangelism was and is the call to people everywhere to respond to the large-scale story about God, the people of God, Jesus, the nations, and the renewal of creation. The narrative approach does not exclude the agenda of modern evangelism. But it does radically and disconcertingly reframe it.
One of the problems with the Romans Road theology is that it not only starts but also ends in the universal-personal quadrant. It has proved very difficult for such a highly individualistic conception of salvation and the spiritual life to embrace the political and particular dimensions of human existence. Romans is primarily a bottom-right quadrant text, but it can be shown, nevertheless, to overflow into the other quadrants: the particularity of Paul’s own story as a Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, perhaps also Romans 7; the universal reality of sin behind both Jewish failure to keep the Law and the degraded system of classical paganism; and the profound but remote prospect of the final liberation of creation from its bondage to decay. If we start where Paul starts, we get everything. If we start where modern evangelicalism starts, we get very little.
So what I would say to evangelists today is not that they should stop saving souls but that their preaching should begin and end with the bigger story.
It is much more important to proclaim that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, that God raised him from the dead and made him Lord over the nations, etc., that God will finally judge humanity and consign all his enemies to the lake of fire, than to proclaim that Jesus died for my sins so that I might have eternal life, whatever we may mean by that. The good news is not primarily that people can be saved but that the creator God is in charge—and I don’t think we have much of a clue how to make that outrageous claim in anything like a meaningful fashion in today’s world.
We have domesticated evangelism. We have reduced it to the unimaginative, repetitive level of the door-to-door selling of life insurance. We should be appalled at this. Modern evangelism is virtually calculated not to disturb the status quo. Evangelism should challenge the bedrock of our culture. It should shake the bedrock of the modern church, for that matter. How are we now to respond to the proclamation that Jesus has been made judge and ruler of the nations when, to all intents and purposes, he has been dethroned by the all-powerful gods of our secular age? Evangelism, I think, ought to be a very disturbing activity for everyone concerned.