I’m impressed by Andrew Errington’s lively tweeted summary of the argument of Romans—so impressed, in fact, that I thought I’d try a narrative-historical version. It’s an excellent little exercise, given the complexity of the letter. It’s crucial for good interpretation to have a sense of the whole. And, of course, of the historical context.
I’ve put the two side-by-side here to highlight the differences of emphasis. Errington’s approach is more conventionally evangelical. He reads Romans as a treatise on the theme of salvation or justification on the basis of grace rather than of works.
I have tried to bring out the fact that I see Romans as a letter that addresses a particular historical situation, written from a particular historical point of view. So it is about Jews and Greeks rather than Jews and humanity. The story of first century Judaism is prominent. Paul speaks primarily as a Jew. It is Jews who are saved by the atoning death of Jesus. Realistic eschatological outcomes loom on the horizon: judgment on Israel, the collapse of Greek-Roman paganism, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire. Suffering and the prospect of severe persecution are controlling themes.
|Andrew Errington’s summary
|A narrative-historical alternative
|1:1-17 You want to hear some good news? It’s found in Jesus, the Saviour King: In him and his story God has acted to save people like you and me precisely by being righteous.
|1:1-17 You want to know who I am? I am Paul, an apostle, called to proclaim to the Greek-Roman world the good news that God has demonstrated his righteousness by making his Son judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations. Notice has been served.
|1:18-32 But first some bad news. God is justly furious at human wickedness, especially human failure to honour him as Creator; and unfortunately, people have no excuse.
|1:18-32 Of course, we Jews are well aware that the wrath of God will soon come upon the civilisation of the Greeks as a consequence of their idolatry. Their obsession with homosexual practices and their debased mores are a clear sign of this.
|2:12-29 There is, that is to say, no necessary distinction between Jews and Gentiles: judgment is by works. So the mere realities of circumcision and possession of the Law do not save of themselves!
|2:12-29 But we Jews should not think that we are off the hook just because we have the Law. Far from it. We have brought the name of our God into disrepute by our behaviour. When God judges this world, we will be put to shame by many righteous Gentiles.
|3:1-8 That doesn’t mean the Jews have no privilege at all. Yet they are not thereby safe. Stay posted on this one!
|3:1-8 Yes, of course, no question, the Jews have been entrusted with the oracles of God, etc. But our sinfulness cannot be allowed to impugn the faithfulness of God. He would not then be able to judge the world.
|3:9-20 What this amounts to is that when it comes to ultimate judgment, the Jews have no advantage, for all are under sin. No one, even and indeed especially (!) those under the Law, is righteous before God.
|3:9-20 After all, what do the oracles of God actually say? They accuse Israel of being under the power of sin. Read it for yourselves! So God must hold his own people accountable before he can condemn the Greeks for their idolatry. The Jew first, then the Greek.
|3:21-26 But the good news is: God’s righteousness, by which through the atoning death of Christ he is both just and justifies everyone who has faith in Jesus.
|3:21-26 But if the Law now at last consigns us Jews to oblivion because we have persistently failed to keep the Law, God has demonstrated his righteousness by putting Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel. Here is the evidence that he is willing to overlook or forgive our long history of rebellion.
|3:27-31 But emphatically, this means there is no room for Jewish boasting about status before God. having God on your side is not a Jewish prerogative! (Remember this is written by a Jewish man!)
|3:27-31 So we’re in the same boat as the Gentiles. We will be justified by our belief in the eschatological significance of Jesus. And it is precisely in this way that God—our God—will show himself to be God of the nations and not of Israel alone.
|4:1-25 This truth is in fact in accordance with the experience of the great father of Israel, Abraham. He was justified by faith, not works, making it a work of God’s grace.
|4:1-25 There’s nothing very novel about this. Our forefather Abraham was justified because he believed the promise about the future. So too we Jews will now be justified because—and only because—we believe that God has made his Son heir of the world to come, future ruler of the nations.
|5:1-11 The truth, therefore, is that we are justified by the grace that flows from God’s astonishing love. Reconciled to God through Jesus, we are given a sure hope for a secure future.
|5:1-11 For me as a Jew this has changed everything. Sure, it has brought suffering, persecution, but we rejoice in that because we have experienced the extravagant love of God for his people. Just when we were at our worst, in revolt against God, Christ died for us. He has reconciled us to our God.
|5:12-21 What Jesus has done, in fact, is no less than to create a whole new life-and-grace-governed humanity, of which the old, condemnation-and-death-bound humanity is a pale reflection.
|5:12-21 This is the gift that we have received. Sin and death came into the world through one man, and we are now faced with the judgment that the Law prescribes. But by the same token, righteousness and life have come through one man, and many have accepted that gift.
|6:1-14 Does this mean actual sin in our lives doesn’t matter now? No way! We have died and been raised again with Christ and so are in a whole new situation, under grace, not law.
|6:1-14 Now, obviously, this is not an excuse to keep sinning. We were baptised into Christ’s death, so the old sinful self has died. We’ve been set free from that historical cycle of sin, condemnation and death. We are now free to serve righteousness.
|6:15-23 But does sin matter if we’re under grace? Of course it does! To go on in sin would be to literally self-destruct and completely undo the trajectory we’re on to life and holiness.
|6:15-23 Let me say that again. You were once slaves to sin, you are now slaves to righteousness. You are becoming something new. You are becoming part of God’s new future. You will have a share in the life of the age to come.
|7:1-25 So the Law no longer calls the shots. In itself it was a good thing, but it belonged to the time of slavery to sin. Indeed its purpose was precisely to reveal sin as an insidious power that destroys the integrity of the human and drawing her deathwards.
|7:1-25 OK, this is getting difficult, I know. But I want to try and explain how this works from a Jewish point of view. It’s like when a husband dies—his wife is freed from the law of marriage. So when a Jew identifies with the death and resurrection of Jesus, he or she dies to the Torah.
|8:1-17 But that time has passed for Christians, because God has condemned sin in the humanity of Jesus, his Son, so that we might live in a new way, by the Spirit rather than the flesh, on a wonderful trajectory towards the glory of sonship and inheritance.
|8:1-17 Jesus died the death of a “sinner” on the cross, therefore it is now possible to live by the Spirit, no longer in revolt against God. But there’s a catch. For now, at least, this is a way of suffering. We are heirs of God because we have the Spirit, but heirs of Christ only insofar as we suffer with him.
|8:18-39 And that changes everything about life in the present: we groan and suffer, but all without fear, and with deep assurance of God’s love and goodness, because we know he has chosen us.
|8:18-39 This is why I rejoice in the sufferings that go with this eschatological transition, as I said in chapter 5. We have been chosen to be conformed to the image of the Son of God, who suffered but was vindicated and glorified. We were saved in the hope of transcending, not succumbing to, the hardships and persecution.
|9:1-29 But what about God’s original chosen people, the Jews? We need to slow down a bit. First, it’s not as though God had ever said every blood descendant of Abraham would be saved. Mysterious, and tough, as it seems, we’ve always known God chooses.
|9:1-29 So this has been my experience of the faithfulness of the God. But frankly, I am deeply troubled about the condition of my people. There is a remnant which will inherit the promise—I’m confident of this. But the nation as a whole seems set for destruction—the dark backdrop to the emergence of an international people for a new future.
|9:30-10:21 Second, the fact is, many Jews are rejecting God’s work to save everyone who has faith in his Son Jesus. The Jews (and everyone else) need to be told about him (though we mustn’t pretend they haven’t heard at all—there is real rejection going on).
|9:30-10:21 Honestly—I say this to my own people—this is not what I want. But they seem determined to reject the solution that has been presented to us. God has made his Son Lord and Christ, and all we have to do is call on his name, and we will be saved from the coming catastrophe. But we are a contrary and disobedient people.
|11:1-36 But third, this doesn’t mean God has rejected his people. There are Jewish Christians now—many even—and the mission to the Gentiles will eventually lead to Jewish inclusion. God hasn’t given up on the Jews: the Olive Tree of Israel will flourish again.
|11:1-36 So, yes, there is a remnant, chosen by grace, but the rest have become hardened. They have been cut off from the promise to the patriarchs, from God’s new future, and Gentiles have been grafted in in their place. But my hope is still that if not before then after judgment they will repent of their antagonism to Jesus and be restored.
|12:1-21 In the present, therefore, we who belong to Christ have a new way to live life: love. Love that honours God, rejoices in others, serves their needs, and patiently endures.
|12:1-21 So in view of all that, I urge you all, Jews and Gentiles alike, to present yourselves as a distinctive priestly people in the service of the living God: be one body, love one another, rejoice in your sufferings, bless your persecutors, repay evil with good, leave the judgment and putting right to God.
|13:1-14 And we who know Jesus can engage with our world in a new way, happy to respect authority and joyful in loving our neighbours. We know things are different to what people mostly think.
|13:1-14 Respect the governing authorities, they have been put there by God. Love all people, because love is the fulfilment of the Law. But prepare yourselves for a coming day of intense conflict, when you will need to be dressed for battle, profoundly Christ-like. Believe me, it’s not far off for you saints in Rome.
|14:1-15:6 As for relationships with other Christians, there is no place for pride. Opinions will differ, but that must not undo us: judgment belongs to God, each of his people matters to him, and he has entrusted us to each other.
|14:1-15:6 Don’t let your community be torn apart by the natural differences among you. Don’t let your ethnic and religious differences destroy the work that God has done in bringing together Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen in one body. Welcome one another as Christ welcomed you.
|15:7-13 In particular, this means the end of Jew-Gentile hostility. In God’s purposes the two groups are linked through Jesus; both matter.
|15:7-13 In this respect, follow the example that Christ set. He became a servant to Israel as a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to his promise, and as a result God is glorified among the Gentiles, and the nations are beginning to hope in his future rule.
|15:14-33 So, therefore, do Paul’s plans for mission to the Gentiles on the one hand, and aid for the poor in Jerusalem on the other.
|15:14-33 So you want to know who I am? I am an apostle entrusted with the task of preparing an obedient priestly people, from among Jews and Gentiles, who will bear witness to the future rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. That is the good news that I must proclaim from Jerusalem to Spain.
|16:1-27 Keep going, be careful, and be hopeful. Isn’t the news about God’s work in Jesus to save all nations wonderful!
|16:1-27 I’m not doing this alone, so there’s a lot of greetings to get through. Finally, watch out for those who cause divisions. Be wise as to what is good, innocent as to what is evil. Your greatest adversary will soon be overthrown. God will strengthen you for the difficult obedience that lies ahead.