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Closing Months (4)

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Paul to the Romans (continued)

Human Sin

In Romans we find Paul’s only extended theoretical treatment of sin, setting out the universal need of salvation, for both gentiles and Jews. Romans is also important for his analysis of the subjective aspect of sin; thus sin is not only alienation from God, but conflict and division within. In chapter 7 he explores the paradoxical self-destructiveness of “self-help” remedies for sin; human willing does not prevail because the will is powerless under the control of sin.

Romans 1:28-29   28And since [the gentiles] did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. . . . 
Romans 2:17-24   17But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God . . . , 21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? . . .
Romans 3:23   . . . [In summary,] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . .
Romans 7:15-20   15I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . 18I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . .







Romans 1:18 - 3:20, and 5:12 - 7:25.


Salvation Language Revisited

In Romans, Paul employs an array of metaphors to express the inexpressible, the mystery of what God does for us in Christ. Justification by faith, earlier making its appearance in Galatians and Philippians (and mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:11), is given classic statement in Romans 3:21-26, where it exhibits clearly the features to which we have earlier called attention. Getting right with God: 

bulletExcludes works of the law (3:21);
bulletDepends on faith (3:22);
bulletIs bestowed freely as a gift (3:24); and
bulletFlows from the redemptive act of the cross (3:24-25).

     Later parts of Romans make clear:

bulletThat faith involves a participation with Christ in his death and resurrection (6:1-11); and
bulletThat justification bears fruit in virtue (6:12-15; 12:1 - 15:13).




Galatians 2:15-21; Philippians 3:9-11.   


Justification by Faith is important in itself, but one suspects that it appears in Romans, at least in part, because of a potential threat of rigorist influence in Rome—whether directly connected with the work of the rigorists in Antioch and Galatia or not.

Two other metaphors for getting right with God appear in Romans 3:21-26: (a) redemption (3:24), a metaphor from the slave market, where a benevolent person purchases a slave and then awards the slave his or her freedom outright; and (b) expiation, or means of atonement (3:25), language from sacrifice in the Temple.  Surely no reader would miss the vicarious meaning of Christ’s death here.

Compare 1 Corinthians 1:30; and 6:20 (“For you were bought with a price . . . .”)



Metaphors reminiscent of new or restored relationships with other persons include adoption into the family of God; and the reconciliation of those who have been estranged. In a stunning extension of the adoption metaphor, Paul has the whole created world participating with God’s children in their liberation from futility and decay (Romans 8:19-23). Even the term salvation is rooted in metaphor, suggesting notions of rescue from peril or restoration to health.  

Romans 8:14-18, 23.  Romans 5:10-11. 


Romans 1:16; 10:1, 10; 11:11; 13:11; compare 8:24.


Romans 3:21-26   . . . 24They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 5:1, 10   1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . . 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
Romans 8:15   For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. . . .
Romans 8:19-23   19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . . 21The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.



Compare 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.

Compare Galatians 4:5.

Christology, or

Theologizing about Christ

Concerning the exalted status of Jesus Christ, Paul breaks no new ground in Romans, but presupposes and puts to use the Christology worked out in his earlier letters:

1 Corinthians 8:4-6   6. . . One God, the Father, . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things . . . .
Galatians 4:4   . . . God sent forth his Son . . . .
Philippians 2:5-11   6. . . Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited . . . .
2 Corinthians 5:19  . . . In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . . .  
2 Corinthians 8:9  Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor . . . .

As he had done earlier in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, Paul here in Romans links his theologizing about Christ with his atonement theory. Note especially Romans 5:8, where the death of Christ shows not only the love of Christ but also the love of God (compare Romans 8:39). It may be that in Romans the focus is on what Christ had done for the believer, i.e. salvation, rather than the conceptualization of who has done it. At the same time, we ought not to overlook Paul’s almost ecstatic utterance in Romans 9:5, “ . . . Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever” [RSV, alternate translation].

Romans 5:6-8   6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Romans 8:3   [God sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh . . . .
Romans 8:32   [God] did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us . . . .
Romans 8:39   [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   



Also of some interest is the Christology of Romans 1:3-4, possibly a fragment of an early Christian creed. We might anachronistically call it “adoptionist” since it could be read to imply that Christ was not always the Son of God, but was designated Son of God in power at the time of the resurrection. 



Romans 1:3-4     3 . . .  [God’s Son] was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . .Or Spirit

The Holy Spirit

While the presence and work of the Holy Spirit are by no means neglected in Paul’s earlier letters, we do have in Romans 8:1-27 a sustained discussion of the Holy Spirit, unlike what we have anywhere else in the letters. The apostle makes it clear that the Holy Spirit gives us access to the spiritual treasures of renewal  (Romans 8:10-11). The Spirit makes possible an intimate relationship to God such as children have with their father (Romans 8:14-17), and even assists us in our praying (8:26-27).


1 Corinthians 12 and 14; Galatians 3:2-5; 4:6, 29; 5:5, 16-25; 6:8; Philippians 1:19; 2:1 2; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 3:3-6, 17-18.


Romans 8:11   . . . He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Romans 8:15-16  15. . . When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . .
Romans 8:26-27   26Likewise 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. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Paul exercises considerable freedom in the way he uses, almost interchangeably, the terms Spirit, Spirit of God, and Spirit of Christ. He uses variously (in 8:9-11) such phrases as

bullet“Since the Spirit of God dwells in you,” or
bullet“Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him,” or
bullet“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” or
bullet“Through his Spirit that dwells in you.”





Elsewhere, Holy Spirit, e.g. Romans 14:17; 15:13. 

While the fourth century doctrine of the Trinity does not solve many theological problems, it does make this interchangeability somewhat more intelligible.

Israel, Past and Future

It was an embarrassment to the early Christians that they had not succeeded in persuading the Jewish community to become followers of Jesus. In Romans 9 - 11, Paul takes his turn at bat. If he does not quite strike out, he does ground out weakly to the pitcher. He makes three mostly unsuccessful attempts in as many chapters to explain Israel’s resistance: Did God predestine Israel to be unresponsive? or was there a failure of the missionary proclamation? or did God plan it this way to allow for the entrance of the gentiles? 


Chapter 10 shows Paul’s missionary intuitions to good advantage, but even here he never quite closes the gap between Divine providence on the one hand and the empirical reality of historic Judaism on the other. The reality was:

   • The proclamation that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah of Israel did not quite match the prevailing national aspirations of the Jews; 
   • If it was a choice between Torah as the fundamental postulate, or the crucified Jesus as the fundamental postulate, Jews would choose Torah; and
   • On the Christian side, the gentile mission if it was to succeed could not carry (what it regarded as) the excess baggage of Torah obligations, so that practically speaking Christ was the end of the law, as Paul was obliged to concede.     

Not many seriously observant Jews in that day or this would respond positively to Paul’s claim that Christ was the end of the law (Romans 10:4). 
To be sure, end [Greek, telos] may mean either the termination of the law or its goal; but most Jews, looking at the non-observant gentile mission, would conclude that the law was no longer binding for Christians, and thus, terminated.



Romans 10:4  For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness [or, justification] for everyone who believes.


Despite what might appear to be anti-Jewish sentiments in these chapters, Paul speaks with affection and admiration for his Jewish heritage.

Romans 9:1-5   . . .  3I 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. 
Romans 9:21   Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?
Romans 10:12-13   12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Romans 11:12   Now if [the Jews’] stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!




Moral Issues

Paul offers advice on moral questions in an extensive section of the letter, Romans 12:1 to 15:14. As in Galatians, love/agapê is the controlling moral principle, especially Romans 12:14–21, which is sometimes called “the little Sermon on the Mount” in Paul. 

Romans 14:1–15:6 is devoted mostly to the situation of the person who is weak in faith and whose scruples should not be offended.


We also find an extensive catalog of vices in Romans 1:26-32.


Compare 1 Corinthians 8.

The section on the believer and the state is of interest because it illustrates the danger in taking contingent moral injunctions as moral absolutes. The requirement of submission to the ruling authorities (in this case, to Rome) as instituted by God may have been a sincere moral conviction of Paul. In any case, such a statement would not have done any harm to his cause with his Roman readers, and it might have given him some protection against accusations of propagating an illegal religion, at whatever time he might hope to arrive in Rome. The claim of the emperor’s divine institution becomes less plausible if we reflect that the emperor who was beginning his reign at about the time Romans was written would have been none other than the corrupt and dissolute Nero! And we do not need to be reminded that it was Romans 13:1 which provided justification for the official German church to cooperate with Hitler’s despotism in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Romans 13:1-7.





Nero came to power as the result of a plot to poison Claudius, his predecessor, and, ironically, was the one who unleashed an atrociously cruel persecution of Christians in Rome, in the course of which Paul may well have met his death.

In sum, we may still benefit from heeding Paul’s admonitions about love/agapê, surely a moral absolute if there ever was one; but we may also benefit by distinguishing between this moral absolute and contingent moral injunctions.

Romans 12:14, 17   14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Romans 13:1   Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
Romans 13:8   Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.


Travel Plans

As Paul brings Romans to a close, he reiterates his intention to make a visit to Rome, but explains that his obligation to complete the collection requires him first to make a . . .

Third Jerusalem Visit

With the completion of the collection and its delivery to Jerusalem, Paul will be free to visit the Christians in Rome, in the hope that they will speed him on his journey to Spain.

Romans 15:23-28   23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while. 25At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints . . . . 28So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain . . . .

But then, the scent goes cold: the story, AS PAUL TELLS IT . . . , ends.




Romans 15:22-32; compare 1:10-15.

What the Letters Do not Tell Us

Adhering as rigorously as possible to the letters alone as the sources for reconstructing what Paul did and said, we regrettably reach the end of the line. It was a good ride, and we say farewell. From this point, we have no answers; only questions.

bulletDid Paul finally reach Jerusalem, to deliver the collection which he had gathered from the churches?
bulletIf he did reach Jerusalem, how was the collection received by the church there?
bulletDid Paul reach Rome?
bulletDid Paul reach Spain?

The letters do not say.

Clement of Rome, writing in the last decade of the first century, declared that Paul had reached the limits of the west, i.e., Spain, and with Peter had borne witness by his death, presumably in Rome (see 1 Clement 5). We do not know whether Clement is an independent authority for travel to Spain, or whether his reference to Paul’s “reaching the limits of the west” is an inference from Romans 15:24,  28.




As earlier noted, we date Philippians and Philemon to an Ephesian rather than a Roman imprisonment.




Where We’ve Been, 

  ... What We’ve Done

The reader will probably have noted already from the abundance of material included in the present studies that we are by no means impoverished by restricting ourselves to evidence from the letters. The accompanying chart illustrates this point.






Click cumulative Sequence Chart 4.

Further, the reader, we hope, is fully aware of the provisional character of the present reconstruction. There is hardly a point at which the data are interpreted and put into sequential order where alternatives are not possible and plausible. For example, it is difficult to imagine that students of Paul will soon reach consensus on the date of Galatians or the identification of the H-Letter in 2 Corinthians (chapters 10–13).

The conclusions here offered have been reached on the basis of the interpretation of particular passages as well as consideration of the larger picture. Because of the provisional character of this reconstruction, and by the nature of the web medium, the view of Paul proposed here is an invitation for suggestions from readers toward refinement and improvement.




      Click on Discussion Forum.


Revised February 11, 2003
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