What’s wrong with the “Romans Road” to salvation?

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.

Image of The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom

On Amazon:

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2010), Paperback, 188 pages, $22.00
Image of The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom
Publisher: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Comments

Good points Andrew. This post reveals where I think you need to re-visit your view of the Nations in Revelation. In Revelation the Nations are always antagonistic toward God and His people. They are eventually thrown into the Lake of Fire you reference in this post. THEN the Nations appear coming into the New City for healing. This seems to indicate that God is forever offering life to the Nations. The Lake of Fire is for purging and cleansing.

Sorry, Chris, I simply don’t agree. The destruction of death and satan in John’s closing vision seems too final to think that a cycle of conflict and healing continues. But this is a post about Romans, not Revelation, so I’ll leave it at that.

Andrew, this is an important post. I warmly agree with much of what you say. Restoring the corporate and structural dimensions of evangelism are an important step along the way to a more biblical ‘Roman Road’. There are a number of related questions. The latest flurry of interest in online evangelism raises concerns (at least my concerns) about ‘disembodied’ communication rather similar to a narrow theology of ‘soul winning’.

Currently we are involved with ‘Walking Church’. It is a fresh expression of church where the heartlands of faith happen in the walking. Wood Green Mennonite Church is running (walking) a pilot, but we’re finding that the interest is growing. Our experience with Walking Church highlights the relevance of the literal road and the value of slow evangelism. In part this journeying approach enables us to connect the wider dimensions of evangelism (e.g. peacemaking and ecology) to a more accompanied, journeying approach to personal evangelism.

For me the issue with Roman Road is not primarily that it is personal, but that it is yet another formula reaching for a decision at breathless haste. What that means for perceptions of Christian witness in a Post-Christendom culture is alarming.

Thanks Andrew, these have been helpful.

Thanks Andrew - this is great stuff.

I’ve been studying the minor prophets recently (trying to summarise them for a children’s talk!), and your statement that “The good news is not primarily that people can be saved but that the creator God is in charge” reminded me strongly of Habakkuk. My summary for this was “God is in control” (even though it may not look like it). It was God who sent the Babylonians to punish Judah, and then it was God who sent the Persians to punish the Babylonians.

In making the claim (from Habakkuk, to the 21st century congregation) that “God is in control”, I very much felt as you do that “we [don’t] have much of a clue how to make that outrageous claim in anything like a meaningful fashion in today’s world.” Our world sure doesn’t look like God is in control! The parable of the wheat and the tares is a partial answer, but not complete. Does God really just sit back, deist-style, and wait for the end of the universe? I don’t think so.

I am sorry, but I can not bring myself to agree with your logic. Romans 1:16 shows where Christ died for all; first for the Jews then for the Gentiles. And I believe that The Romans Road is a great way to present that fact. But your argument to debunk this presentation of the gospel seems to negate that fact. Also in your article I see where you make the argument that Romans was written for the Jews and Gentiles of early times. I agree that when Paul’s letters were written that they were written for the people of that time, however, does that limit them to where they aren’t relevant to today’s audience? If the fact that any of the Bible was written to only the original audience and does not relate to today’s audience then what’s the point of reading it? If one part was for them (original audience) and the other for us (current audience) then that would make the Bible unreliable. Who are we (sinners) to determine was is and isn’t right about God’s word? Should we take ALL of it literal? I know that there are some parts that can’t be taken literal. )i.e., Songs of Solomon 1:15. Her eyes aren’t really doves.) But we ALL have sinned, the ONLY way to Heaven is through Christ, God does love THE WORLD, and THE WORLD was flooded. When we decide to say that some parts are relevant for us and some are not, we consequently decide that the Bible can not believed wholly. So for you to say that The Roman Roads is irrelevant because of the fact that they were not written for us is to say that we have no hope because we can’t trust that part of the Bible.

On the flip side; I believe that we as evangelist and preachers of the gospel should be living it out loud and that we should be the loudest voice out there.

Hamilton, thank you for taking the trouble to defend the traditional approach to evangelism.

I am less concerned to debunk the Romans Road presentation of the gospel than to bring into the foreground of our reading of Romans what I think actually constitutes Paul’s basic argument in the Letter. His argument does not centre on the individual’s need for salvation but on what God is doing for and through his people as part of his “campaign”, at this particular moment in history, to be acknowledged as ruler of the pagan world. This is Paul’s “gospel” unpacked—the story of how God is proving himself to be righteous in the eyes of the nations. It entails i) divine judgment or wrath against both the Jew and the Greek, against both Israel and against the dominant pagan culture; ii) the redemption of God’s people through the death of Jesus; and iii) the prospect that in the not too distant future Jesus—and not Caesar—will rule the nations.

This “political” narrative had implications for individuals at the time—for Jews and Greeks—though not exactly the same implications. It also has radical, life-changing implications for people today, which is a point I have been labouring to get across recently.

My argument back to you would be that this approach takes the Bible more seriously and, frankly, more literally than the approach which treats it as all written primarily and directly for the universal reader. You say:

When we decide to say that some parts are relevant for us and some are not, we consequently decide that the Bible can not believed wholly.

But the point I made in the post is that that is exactly what the Romans Road does: it selects a few verses that it considers practically relevant for the purpose of personal evangelism and pays no attention whatsoever to the argument of the Letter. I am not saying that personal evangelism is irrelevant, only that it needs to be reframed if it is to be fully biblical.

I have tried to study this “romans road to salvation” as well. I hear many people and pastors talking about it. I keep coming across one very big thing that is missing. I’m not talking about the using certain scriptures to change or elaboratethe meanings that are trying to be brought out.

In Mark 16 I find these verses:

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

All the way through this Romans Road there is no mention of Baptism. Without Baptism I do not see where this romans road can really get you anywhere unless you are just trying to get someone into the churh (which is at least a start). Are we to believe that this essential part of Christian life is not important anymore?

The point of the post, though, Darin, is that there is a lot more wrong with the Romans Road model of personal evangelism than the omission of baptism. I presume that most traditional evangelists expect their converts to get baptized at some point.

I teach youth (grades 7-12) at our home church. One of the things I find is that the more mature kids are interested in the “history” and “historical implications” of certain passages. As we mature, we should ask the Holy Spirit to reveal deeper meanings to us when we read and study the Bible. However, if I try to explain to less mature students the political reasonings of Paul regarding Jews, Romans and Gentiles at the time he authored the book of Romans, I’ll lose them completely! They need to know the basics of salvation to be SAVED first, not the complete historical implications and political agendas of 2000 years ago. Its important for theologians, Bible scholars, and those well versed in the Bible to understand that we all start with “baby steps” and the “milk of the word” until we can digest the meatier meanings of God’s Word.

I understand the problem. But this sort of dilemma arises the way it does because these conversations are played out against a modern theological background, a reductionist worldview. This worldview provides the default position. It defines our beliefs, our presuppositions, sets the parameters for thought, without us realizing it, and we absorb it from a very early age in our churches.

If we developed a different world view—one which quite naturally thought and read scripture in narrative terms, for example—the distinction between milk and meat would look very different.

As long as our theological culture prioritizes personal salvation, we will struggle to make sense of the historical dimension of the New Testament, no matter how old we are. If it ever came to the point where our theological culture prioritized the historical narrative, we would not have the difficulties that you describe.

Agree!

I strongly believe in study of theology and all the degrees that come with it, but that is where sometimes becomes problematic when knowledge supercedes the most important part of the bible, God’s love for the people and His desire for ALL to be saved.. I’ve encountered a lot of people from bible schools and missing the point of why they even went and learn if all they do is argue and think they they have better idea of God’s salvation for ALL the people.

This discussion is terrific and that there is such an interest is encouraging. If the subject matter is the public proclamation of the Gospel, then why not first look at what John the Baptist told people. He got his message from God the Father. John didnt preach whatever he felt like the “modern” people of his day would hear. In a nutshell his message was Repent for the savior is here and if you do not repent then He< the savior will gather you like a dried up twig and cast you into the fire that burns forever. “Repent and bring forth fruit meet for repentance” Christ “began to preach and to say repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” “Go ye and sin no more” Paul preached to Agrippa repentance. To Festus “Righteousness, temperance and judgement to come” all in the context of you have only two choices, repent or perish. Why try to use scriptues written for the edification of the saints in the setting forth of systematic theology to unbelievers? Do it the way it is modelled by John, Peter, Stephen, Jesus, and Paul. This same savior who died for you will cast your poor soul into the lake of fire if you reject him. Repent! Much love to the saints of God.

Something to think about:

Was reading a quote today by Mart De Haan from RBC Ministries that said this..."If we see the Bible as a handbook for solving our problems, rather than a revelation of God and the story of our rescue, its moral principles will seem like a cut flower...clipped from its stem and root."

Maybe what you are saying about the "Roman Road" is that it looks like a bunch of flowers in a vase clipped from it's roots.

Salvation, whether for an individual or a National, must have an intimate encounter with the Living Lord. There is a transaction where the Spirit of God bears witness to your spirit that you have passed from death to life. When that happens...the Bible becomes not just a book of facts or knowledge but a Revelation of God and Christ who gave himself for us.

Everything in the Bible, from beginning to end is a Revelation of the Triune God who reveals Himself through Christ who is not only our Sovereign Creator but our Savior, our Comforter, our Shepherd, our King, our Advocate, Intercessor, Deliverer, and the list goes on ...and on.

M. from VA

I think The Romans Road is just a tool that can be used along with other bible verse. Don’t get to hung up on the on name “Romans Road” I don’t used the whole 5 steps in Romans. “Sharing Jesus without fear” is another good tool to use.

Hello Andrew,

I got saved at the age of eight years old with the gold, red, green and white book.

The whole point of the “Romans Road” is to keep salvation simple. We take something that is complex and make it simple.

It seems to me as if you like to take something simple and make it complex.

And since you seem like a complex man let me ask you this:

How many converts have you personally have that you so thologicaly led to the Lord?

Do you witness on a weekly basis?

The Bible says that we should preach the gospel to all creature.

And that the ealy disciples preached the Gospel every day.

It is better to have a “poor method” of evangelism than no method, or a complex method that reaps no fruit.

Michael, thanks for the comments. I understand your concerns.

I have no problems with presenting the “gospel” to people in simple terms. I think it is essential to the life and witness of the church that people hear good news, are “saved” (though I think this is a misleading term), are converted, get baptized, are filled with the Spirit, live righteous lives, do good works, and so on.

I have problem, however, with framing the gospel exclusively as a message about personal salvation because I think that seriously distorts the witness of the New Testament. The gospel that the early disciples preached every day is not the gospel that mostly gets preached in our churches.

I also have a problem with the practice of misreading and mis-teaching the New Testament in order to defend our modern constructions of what constitutes authentic Christian life and ministry. There is no excuse for that. I don’t think that these difficult theological conversations will “save” anyone, but I do think that they will help us to get to a place where we can do the simple stuff in a much more robust and credible theological framework.

I think if you’re going to pick the Roman Road theory apart, first you need to remember that it isn’t refering to “Roman Roads”. It’s a simple text giving the unbeliever a way to come to the cross in a way they will understand it so they can also come to know christ. Nothing more, nothing less. Baffling others with knowledge only discourages those who don’t understand. Basically, “KEEP IT SIMPLE” should be a rule. The milk of the Word. I am also an Evangelist, and have never tried to impress any knowledge on those that won’t, can’t, or don’t understand. I share the good news as I’m led by the Holy Spirit. Whether it’s in the grocery line, or in the back alleys of the city.

Respectfully, your post may look and sound impressive. But I didn’t finished reading it because of the unsupported opinions that do absolutely nothing for the Kingdom of God or bringing the unsaved to the cross. It was confusing to the simple minded to say the least.

Over time, I’ve learned to look at others through the eye’s of Jesus, rather than my own. By doing that, I can be of service to them and Christ, being useful for the Kingdom as best I can. Remember, just “KEEPING IT SIMPLE”, will draw others closer to God than our own carnal minds ever could…

Penguin, thanks for taking the time to comment—even if you couldn’t find the time to read the whole post!

You should at least have noted that the post addresses a particular problem: the clash between a way of constructing an evangelistic message that purports to be based on Paul’s letter to the Romans and a narrative-historical reading of Romans. That is a real and extremely problematic clash which is not solved by keeping things simple. The fact is that if we approach the issue of evangelism from the basis of a narrative-historical reading, it appears that the traditional evangelistic approach really does not do justice to the central proclamation of the New Testament. I am not saying that personal evangelism is wrong, only that we are framing it wrongly—that we are missing the massive significance of the political and historical dimensions of the New Testament witness.

Andrew, I appreciate your apparent commitment to handling accurately the Word of truth. You are willing to challenge traditional and cherished uses (and abuses?) of Scripture. I also appreciate the patience and kindness of your responses, even when people not only disagree with your ideas but become disagreeable towards you as a Christian. You are gentle and respectful. I can’t say I grasp everything you are saying. I was trained in a historical-grammatical approach. How does that compare to your narrative-historical approach? I do sense that evangelicalism’s (me included) understanding of the gospel, evangelism and Christianity is infected with an unbiblical individualism. Is salvation more than the blessed assurance that we’ll go to heaven when we die? Surely the gospel is more than personal and individual, yet it applies to individuals personally and presently, as well as to people corporately (politically) and always. I am also affected by the times in which I live. For example, I am critical of postmodernism but I am not as discerning of modernism! The disciples show how our Lord Jesus can work in and through us in spite of our limitations.

Dale, good thoughts. I’ve started writing a piece comparing the narrative-historical and grammatical-historical methods. I’ll post it in the next few days.

Thank you, Andrew. I just came across your site this week, and just finished reading “The message of the Bible in one sentence”. So, if you were talking with a person and wanted to share the gospel, what would that look and sound like? Realizing not everyone we talk with is in the same place, and so the starting place may be different, can you give an example or two?

Interesting comments by all however when Relating to the unsaved or first time hearer of the Gospel , a simple explanation of scripture and the understandable need of coming to faith in Christ is Paramount.

Therefore for the one who needs salvation the Romans Road is a practical and simple to understand approach to help bring them to an understanding of a need to accept Christ and trust Him.

Once established in the Kingdom a further understanding of scripture can be developed in all of us. I have never yet had a conversation with a person that has not yet come to Christ that really wants to know the political background to scripture.

However I do see people coming to Christ through simple and short thought provoking scripture that demands a response on their behalf.

The Romans Road is OK and ‘God meets us we we are at’ as it were. But He leads us on to a greater understanding as we get to know Him!

Be Blessed, one an all!

Cam

This discussion is terrific and that there is such an interest is encouraging. If the subject matter is the public proclamation of the Gospel, then why not first look at what John the Baptist told people. He got his message from God the Father. John didnt preach whatever he felt like the “modern” people of his day would hear. In a nutshell his message was Repent for the savior is here and if you do not repent then He< the savior will gather you like a dried up twig and cast you into the fire that burns forever. “Repent and bring forth fruit meet for repentance” Christ “began to preach and to say repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” “Go ye and sin no more” Paul preached to Agrippa repentance. To Festus “Righteousness, temperance and judgement to come” all in the context of you have only two choices, repent or perish. Why try to use scriptues written for the edification of the saints in the setting forth of systematic theology to unbelievers? Do it the way it is modelled by John, Peter, Stephen, Jesus, and Paul. This same savior who died for you will cast your poor soul into the lake of fire if you reject him. Repent! Much love to the saints of God.

The Bible is a multi-faceted book; it is God’s word “breathed” into the writers themselves. Therefore, this is a book that has many layers or levels, like an onion. Yes, it can be looked at in terms of the nations (Gentiles) versus the Jews. But, it can also be looked at on a personal level as well, hence the individual way to salvation. John 3:16 clearly states that those who believe in Jesus immediately receive eternal life. This life begins the moment a person accepts Jesus as his/her Savior, understanding that Jesus is God’s only begotten son and that His death on the cross paid for all sins (past, present, future) of everyone who trusts in ONLY Jesus to give them salvation. God accepted Jesus’ death as atonement for sin because Jesus never sinned while he lived on earth. The Old Testament stated that “without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness.” Jesus fulfilled the Law; before He came, the Law could only condemn people.

Yes, indeed the law is a ministration of condemnation. There is no other way to establish what sin is. Sin is transgression of the law. The social engneers have removed the law of God from our society and thus have removed peoples fear of God. It’s high time to bring it back and then warn them to flee from the wrath to come.