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What I think Romans is about

I had a very enjoyable and encouraging couple of hours this evening teaching a class on Romans at Chelmsford Cathedral. Much of it was a discussion of the differences between Reformation readings that make justification by faith the organizing centre of the Letter and New Perspective readings that see Romans as Paul’s retelling of the story of Israel. I wasn’t there to present my own view of the text; but to help clarify my thoughts I prepared the following rough summary of how I see the argument in the Letter unfolding. We start with Paul’s only explicit statement of why he has written to the churches in Rome.

Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans because he was under obligation as an apostle to the nations to ensure that the Gentile churches constituted an acceptable “offering” in response to God’s demonstration of mercy towards his people, in accordance with the Old Testament pattern—that they were, therefore, fit to serve divine purpose at a time of eschatological crisis and transition. (15:8-21)

That purpose was ultimately that Israel’s God would judge the idolatrous nations, impartially, according to their works, and rule over them throughout the coming ages; he would judge and rule not directly but through Jesus, whom he had appointed by his resurrection from the dead. (1:1-4; 15:8-12; cf. Acts 17:31)

But God could not judge the nations without first holding his own people accountable, who should have been a light to the blind, etc., but had shown themselves to be as much enslaved to sin as the Gentiles. So wrath against the Greek would be preceded by wrath against the Jew. (1:18-3:20)

This created a fundamental theological dilemma. If Israel faced the wrath of God—that is, destruction—how would God stay true to his promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world? Through the concrete way of radical trust pioneered by Jesus, whose death was an atonement for the sins of Israel. This shift from Law to faith opened the door to the direct participation of Gentiles in God’s purposes. (3:21-4:25)

This whole narrative—from the death of Jesus through to the defeat of pagan empire—would be the means by which the God of Israel, the one true creator God, would demonstrate his righteousness, his rightness, before the eyes of the nations. Those who had faith in this vindication of God would themselves be justified on the day of eschatological transformation.

The way of radical trust, however, was bound to be a way of suffering. Believers had been set free from sin in order to participate actively, with eschatological intent and in the power of the Spirit, in the suffering and vindication of Jesus for the sake of the future life of the people of God. They had the absolute assurance that as they pursued this way of suffering—Jesus’ narrow and difficult path leading to life—nothing would separate them from the love of God. Not least for the churches in Nero’s Rome this would be an inescapable part of what it meant to offer themselves as an acceptable sacrifice. (5-8)

For Paul it was a matter of considerable anguish that Israel had for the most part rejected this way of trust. Did this mean that the word of God had failed? No, because a remnant would escape destruction, along with those Gentiles who had been grafted into the rich root of the patriarchs. But Paul remained hopeful that following judgment Israel as a nation would turn and be saved. Sadly, it didn’t happen. (9-11)

For the Gentile churches to play their part in this painful drama of judgment and restoration, they needed to present themselves as living sacrifices, an offering of the nations to the God of Israel. They were one body, mutually supportive under persecution; they were to love their enemies and not seek to avenge themselves; they should not provoke the governing authorities; they should be spiritually prepared for the coming day of persecution; and the strong in faith (Gentiles) should support the weak (Jews). (12-14)

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