THE LETTER OF PAUL TO THE ROMANS

INTRODUCTION AND THEME

(Rom. 1:16-17)

Introduction and Theme to Romans

Part One

INTRODUCTION

Significance of Romans for the Church

In the history of the Church, few books can claim to be as significant as Romans. It was Romans 13:13,14 which spoke to St. Augustine after he heard the little child say, "Tolle, lege!" or "Take, read!", Augustine who energized Christianity to overcome the devastation of the Dark Ages. It stirred Martin Luther to strike out against some of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of his day.[1] John Wesley, while hearing a preface to Romans read in a Bible study, felt his "heart strangely warmed" and became the catalyst for spiritual renewal in England, helping her escape the fires which engulfed revolutionary France. When a young Swiss pastor stood up to preach and had nothing to say because of the devastating effects of Protestant liberalism upon his faith, Karl Barth found his message in Romans.[2] This book vies with Ephesians for the distinction as being the crowning jewel of the Pauline corpus.


First Clearing Up A Misunderstanding of Romans

Before we can study Romans, we must first clear up a major misunderstanding about Romans. Too many of us view Romans through the lenses of the great religious controversies of the last 500 years between Protestants and Roman Catholics: the lenses which view the Roman Catholics as claiming we are saved by works and the Protestants as claiming that we are saved by grace. Too many have bought into this false controversy: Roman Catholics shy away from Paul's letters and head straight to James and the Gospels, whereas Protestants take Luther's false controversy and look at the rest of the NT through that controversy.

The truth though is that Paul lived 1500 years before this false controversy. That controversy was the furtherest thing from his mind. The result is that both groups have suffered terribly because of it, most of all because we have not been able to enjoy the richness of what Paul is presenting to us in Romans. It is our responsibility to go back to the actual situation Paul was addressing 2,000 years ago and tap into those riches.

    Romans has been used by many Protestant evangelicals to condemn the Catholic Church's teachings on the sacraments. The Protestant evangelicals claim that you must choose between sacramentalism and faith. One of my Professors of Evangelism at SWBTS (Ft. Worth) claimed that whereas Baptists are saved by grace through faith, Catholics claim that we are saved by grace through sacraments which he claimed were works with no faith involved. That is very strange indeed because Luther himself, the patron saint of Protestantism, who trumpeted faith was also a sacramentalist. The only differences between him and the Roman Catholic Church regarding sacraments were simply the number of sacraments and the nature of the Lord's Supper. Regardless, though, he was a sacramentalist; for him there existed no contradiction between faith and sacramentalism which at least some conservative evangelicals claim. To be consistent, if these conservative evangelicals claim that Catholics believe in justification by works because they are sacramentalists, then logically they have also condemned Luther who was a sacramentalist. A person can't have it both ways.

    It is illuminating that this past year the Lutheran World Federation admitted that the Lutheran Church had been wrong for the past 500 years about Catholicism and justification by faith. Catholics do believe in justification by grace through faith. Catholics like Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, believe that the grace from the cross flows through the sacraments. It is received by faith--grace through the sacraments received by faith. See: JOINT DECLARATION ON THE DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.


Historical Setting for the Letter to the Romans

Back though to Romans. Why did Paul write Romans, especially since so much of Romans can be found in a nutshell in Galatians? Paul is coming to the end of his third missionary journey, the bulk of which he spent three years in the city of Ephesus on the western shores of modern-day Turkey. After concluding his ministry in Ephesus, Paul headed to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia and Achaia (the 2 Roman provinces which today make up Greece). The purpose of this leg of the missionary journey was to collect funds for a relief offering for the poverty-stricken saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-26). On his way to Jerusalem Paul remained three months in the province of Achaia (Acts 20:1-3) whose capital was Corinth where Paul had conducted the bulk of his second missionary journey. From Corinth he most likely wrote Romans.


Major Purposes for the Letter to the Romans

  1. Healing the Division in the Church

    Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles had created a real division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church.[3] Paul desired that the relief offering from the Gentile Christians mend the break in their relationship with the Jewish Christians and create real unity between them. For Paul this ministry was not just for the sake of getting along. What was at stake here was the message that Jesus was Lord of all people, of both Jews and Gentiles.[4] If Jesus had been accepted only by the Jews, then He would have seemed to be the God only of the Jews. If He had been accepted only by the Gentiles, then it would appear that God’s promises to the Jewish fathers had been nullified. What was at stake here was not only the unity of the church but also the message that Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe, of both Jew and Greek.

    From a human perspective Paul, more than any other person, was responsible for the chasm which was existed between the Jewish faction of the Church and the Gentile faction. What was it about his message that created this chasm? His insistence that the Gentiles didn't have to become Jews in order to become followers of Jesus the Messiah/Christ, especially his insistence that a person is justified by faith and not by works of the law. By stressing the universal reality of faith, Paul was attempting to heal the breach between the Jewish and Gentile factions of the church. This will be even more noticeable in the ethical section of Romans (especially 14:1-15:12).


  2. God's Faithfulness to Israel

    Paul's claim was radical for his day. Had not God in the OT chosen the nation of Israel to be His special people? Hadn't God Himself given the Israelites His Law which included not only moral constraints but also dietary regulations and observances of certain feast days? Jesus was the Messiah, the one whom God had promised to David, in fact a son of David who was to rule over the throne of Israel forever (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13). By rejecting works of the Jewish Law as a way to be justified, Paul for all practical purposes seemed to be rejecting Israel as God's chosen people.


    If Paul is right (Gentiles don't have to become Jews by keeping the Law in order to be followers of the Messiah), then has God abandoned Israel? Paul's response is a resounding "No!" God has not rejected Israel. They are still "beloved for the sake of the fathers" (Rom. 11:28). Paul will devote three chapters (9-11) on this very topic. Israel may be in a holding pattern in God's plan; however, He has not rejected them as His chosen people.

  3. Establiahing a Beachhead in Rome for Evangelization of the Western Part of the Roman Empire

    Finally, Paul for all practical purposes has evangelized the eastern realm of the Roman empire, all the way from Jerusalem to the western shores of Greece/Dalmatia (Rom. 15:19). Having no desire to preach the gospel in regions where it had already been preached, Paul desires to take the gospel to the westernmost reaches of the Roman empire, to Spain (15:24). At the beginning of his missionary journeys, the city of Antioch in Syria served as the sponsoring church. This church most likely supported him not only in prayer but also financially. Later Ephesus served as the sponsoring church for his evangelistic efforts in Asia Minor. Paul though now wants to evangelize Spain which is too far for the Ephesian and Antiochene churches to sponsor. He needs a sponsoring church.

    As Paul is headed east to Jerusalem, he is looking west. He sees one major church in the west which just might serve his purposes the way the churches at Antioch and Ephesus did—the church at Rome. This church was not simply to serve as a way station for him; it was also to support him just like the other 2 churches had supported him (Rom. 15:22-24). Paul writes this letter then to present to the Roman church his gospel of the salvation Jesus gives in the hopes that this church will choose to sponsor him in his evangelistic efforts in the west. It is the greatest and lengthiest exposition of the gospel in the entire Bible.

      Just a side note. According to Clement of Rome (ca. 95 AD) Paul made it to Spain. Apparently Paul was successful in enlisting the Roman church to be his sponsor for his mission endeavors in the west. I am not sure if he knew the impact of what his and Peter's relationship to the Roman church would mean for the future. We do know that Paul considered his ministry among the Roman Christians to be the climax of his ministry (see 2 Tim. 4:16, 17).

THE THEME OF THE GOSPEL: THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD (Romans 1:16-17)

    For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Paul first claims unabashedly that he is not ashamed of the gospel.

    The word gospel is based upon the Greek word euaggelion (euaggelion) pronounced “you-an-GEL-ee-on.” The Greek word is made up of 2 words: eu which means “good” and aggelion which means “message.” It is a good message, not a bad message or a neutral message but a good message.

      Some people treat it like it was bad news because they don't want to hear the gospel; it makes them feel bad because it tells them that they are originally in a hostile relationship with God.

      John Calvin, the sixteenth-century Reformer who began the Presbyterian church, treated it as neutral news. He claimed that whereas God chose some for salvation which is good news, he also claimed that God chose the rest for damnation which is bad news. The bad news of Calvin negates the good news leaving us with neutral news.


    In response to the mischaracterization that the Gospel is just simply bad news, we agree that the gospel assumes there is bad news out there (we're in trouble spiritually unless God intervenes); yet it is essentially good news because in Jesus Christ, God has intervened on our behalf for our salvation. In response to Calvin, Paul claims though that he is preaching only good news. God's salvation is not intended for a select few, even if a select few are all that end up being saved. It is intended for all people of all time. (Later when we study Romans 8, we will touch on the doctrine of predestination.

According to the second part of verse 16, why does Paul say that he is not ashamed of the gospel?



The word translated “power” in verse 16 is the Greek word dunamis (du-na-mis) from which we get the 2 words “dynamite” and “dynamo.” Of these last 2 words, which one best describes the power produced by the gospel? Why?



    According to Paul, what matters more, the spiritual power produced through a person or how eloquent or persuasive that person was (1 Cor. 4:19-20; 1 Thess. 1:5)?


    (In 2 Corinthians Paul actually deals with this issue in more depth. He really didn’t give a rip how slick a minister was; he just wanted to know whether or not their ministries transformed lives. Transformed lives demonstrate the validity of the priest/minister and the legitimacy of the people's faith the priest/minister is ministering to.)


According to Paul what does this power produce?



[This power produces this in the following way:

  1. it transforms us as mere creatures into the sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 8: 14-16)
  2. it then produces the image of Jesus Christ in us (Rom. 8:29-30)
  3. it raises us from the dead so that we will be exactly like Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:11)
  4. it will also radically transform the universe so that it will become an appropriate, suitable dwelling place for the people of God (Rom. 8:18-25).]

How does a person receive this power or what should be the response of the person to the gospel?


END NOTES

[1] Although we don't like to admit it, the Church was guilty of at least some abuses in Luther's day. Even the Church itself of Luther's day admitted it by muzzling Tetzel and then launching the Counter-Reformation. As long as we are the Church Militant and not the Church Triumphant, there will be humans with human errors in the Church.

[2] This encounter led to Barth's writing his commentary on Romans, considered a seminal document in Protestant 20th-century theology. It helped create the "Confessing Church" in Germany which opposed Nazism. One of its greatest members was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great Christian martyrs of the 20th century.

[3] An example of this can be seen in Luke's story of Paul actually bringing the relief offering to Jerusalem. The leaders of the Jerusalem church, who included James the step-brother of Jesus, in referring to the Jewish element of the church in Jerusalem, claims "And when [the leaders of the Jerusalem church] heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, 'You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come" (Acts 21:20-2). Even though Paul intended to bring the relief offering to help create peace and unity between the 2 factions, the Jerusalem leaders realized this was more of a pipe dream. The division ran much too deep, especially on the side of the Jewish Christians.

[4] See Romans 15:8, 9; 2 Cor. 9:12-14.

[5] 2 Samuel 7:12-13: "When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever."

Recently a new approach to the study of Romans has surfaced in Protestantism. For those who are familiar with the Protestant interpretation of Romans (initiated by Martin Luther), this approach is a radical departure from that traditional interpretation. Luther misinterpreted Romans because he was fixated on Tetzel's misuse of indulgences; he unfortunately viewed Romans through those lenses. He missed the historical element needed to interpret this incredible document. This insight is the heartbeat of one of the most recent and influential commentaries on Romans in the Word Biblical Commentary by James G. Dunn. It takes seriously the role of Israel in God's plan of salvation; however, it doesn't seem to address adequately the issue of justification by faith vs. justification by law.