I’m cross-posting the transcript from my latest podcast, in which I attempt to read Paul’s letter to the Roman church with fresh and careful eyes. This was a very personal endeavor for me, as Paul’s presence loomed large in my religious upbringing. This might be the most boring thing you’ve ever read, but this is what catharsis looks like for me. Check out the podcast version if you want to hear me stutter my way through this text.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is, for many Christians (conservative Protestants in particular), the most beloved and load-bearing document in the whole New Testament. Of course the gospels tell the all-important story of Jesus, but it is Paul’s writing which (according to this popular view) explains and illuminates the gospel so that Christians know how they ought to interpret, understand, and believe it. And since Paul is writing to the church, his “theology” is seen as a sort of textbook for how today’s church should think and behave and – most important – evangelize. For many modern believers, Romans is their “desert island” bible book.
And to be sure, Romans is one of the most valuable texts to have survived antiquity, a spiritual treasure and an historical goldmine. It is one of the oldest writings (if not the oldest) in the New Testament, pre-dating even the earliest gospel, Mark. Scholars of many stripes affirm it as a legitimate work of Paul, meaning that we have what is almost universally regarded as an authentic text written by the most prominent apostle of the first wave of Christian churches. Romans is a profoundly valuable letter.
But it is a letter! When we read Romans, we are literally reading someone else’s mail. This is not a theology textbook. It contains theology (which simply means “God words”), but it’s not theology for its own sake, nor is it comprehensive. Paul is not writing a systematic treatise for all Christians for all time, he’s writing an apostolic letter to a community in crisis. His words are meant to address a specific First Century problem, and to help a group of First Century believers find a way through it. The biggest problem with the traditional Protestant view of Paul is that it tends to overlook or downplay the crisis context of his letters, providing its own context in which the apostle’s words are to be read and interpreted.
In the tradition in which I was raised, what I would call non-denominational evangelicalism, Romans is read and taught in a very specific way, according to an externally-imposed rubric that says the book is all about how to get saved and become a Christian so your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die. In fact, we memorized a routine called the “Romans Road” that was designed to help us explain “the gospel” to others in five easy steps. And I still remember it, it goes like this:
- Romans 3:23 – Everyone is a sinner…
- Romans 6:23a – Sin leads to death…
- Romans 5:8 – Jesus died for sinners…
- Romans 6:23b – Eternal life comes through Jesus…
- Romans 10:13 – Call on Jesus and you will be saved!
Putting aside the question of whether this list of propositions is true or helpful or coherent, even when I was a kid there was something obviously strange and wrong about our need to rip these verses out of context, chop one of them in half, and put them out of order just to tell our story. Paul does talk about sin, he does talk about Jesus’ death, and the life of the coming age and salvation. All that stuff is in the letter in some form, but it’s part of Paul’s bigger story, Paul’s argument, and – most important – it’s first and foremost for the benefit of the Roman church in crisis.
And what is the crisis? Let’s discover that together as we explore the actual letter that Paul wrote. Here is the opening salutation:
1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings – 3 the gospel about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord!
Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as an apostle of Jesus and articulating “the gospel” as he understands it: that the Jewish prophet Jesus, who was killed, was revealed to be God’s son through resurrection from the dead and is now king. This is Paul’s gospel – not a plan of salvation or an atonement theory or a theology of justification – but the simple and bold declaration that the vindicated prophet Jesus is now king of the world. It’s important to get this right now for two reasons: 1) to keep it simple, so we don’t get bogged down in some of Paul’s more convoluted arguments, thinking his gospel has gone off the rails, and 2) to draw a more organic connection between Paul and Jesus. Throughout history, many have struggled with the question of how to reconcile Jesus’ message of selfless love and humility with the way their own church presented the seemingly complicated soteriology of Paul. But I think the answer is right here in a fresh reading of Paul’s own words. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is here,” and Paul says “Jesus is king.” That’s the gospel.
Another title Paul assigns to Jesus, beside Messiah and king, is “Lord,” kyrios in Greek, and this prompts me to mention something I wish I’d pushed a little harder in the Acts podcast. Much of the language employed by Paul and the other apostles is language ripped from the political realities of their time, specifically the Roman imperial reality. Terms like “lord” and “gospel” and “salvation” are all jargon straight out of Caesar’s empire. Paul and company know this, and are surely being provocative by choosing these words. In the imperial cult, Caesar is the divinely appointed “lord of the world,” the “son of god,” and the “gospel” or “good news” of his reign is that he will bring “salvation” to the people he conquers. The early Christians frame their proclamation of the Messiah as a countercultural, anti-imperial protest. Jesus, not Caesar, is this world’s true “lord,” and the “good news” is that he brings real “salvation,” not a program of lies and violence. This is an often overlooked dimension of Paul’s writing that brings it into sharper focus. Of course, these words also have explicit Jewish parallels as well, as we’ve seen before. The fact that Paul’s words operate and resonate in these two spheres simultaneously – classical Judaism and Roman imperialism – is no coincidence. It’s a central and integral part of his whole message and ministry, which we shall presently see.
Before launching headlong into the purpose and argument of his letter, Paul takes care of a little business and mentions how badly he wishes he could travel to Rome and see the letter’s recipients in person. This is significant because most of Paul’s other letters are written to congregations in churches he himself had planted on his missionary journeys. In Romans, he is writing to a group with whom he has no personal experience, and it seems to frustrate him that he can only try to help them from afar. Then in verse 14 he gets to the point:
14 I am under obligation to non-Greeks as well as to Greeks, you see, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 That’s why I’m eager to announce the good news to you too, in Rome. 16 I’m not ashamed of the good news, it’s God power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes – to the Jew first and also, equally, to the Greek. 17 This is because God’s righteousness is revealed in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it is written, “the just will live by faith.”
Paul says that his gospel – the announcement that Jesus is king – is good news for both Jews and Greeks, because in it God’s goodness is revealed, and that, as the prophet Habakkuk has written, “the just will live by faith.” What is the point? It’s this: In the first Christian communities, as we saw in Acts, both Jewish Messiah believers and Greek converts come together to become a new and strange kind of family. Each of these groups comes with its own ideas of what it means to believe and belong. Jews have the Torah law, Sabbath and circumcision, and Greeks have the pagan practices and pantheon. The underlying tension of that early church and of the letter to the Romans is, how can these two fundamentally different groups of people possibly live together as the “people of God”? It must have seemed impossible, but Paul’s argument is and will be, that it comes not through any religious rituals or practices, Jewish or pagan, but through a living trust in the good news about Jesus. “The just shall live by faith,” not by making sacrifices or cutting themselves or building temples… And, argues Paul, this is what the prophet already said long ago. This is the message of Romans, and every argument that Paul is about to make – and some of them go in strange directions – will be in support of this central thesis. Let’s keep that in mind as we continue with Romans Chapter 1 and discover Paul’s first and most drastically misunderstood argument.
After saying that Jews and pagans are both equally saved by their trust in Jesus, he seems to go off on an angry rant against the pagans and their wicked practices. At first glance it seems to undermine his entire premise, and some modern Christians have been only too happy to use this material for their own purposes in condemning “worldly” behavior they find unacceptable. Here’s what Paul writes:
18 For the anger of God is unveiled from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth. …
22 They [pagans] declared themselves to be wise, but in fact they became foolish. 23 They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans – and of birds, animals, and reptiles. …
26 So God gave them up to shameful desires. Even the women, you see, swapped natural sexual practice for unnatural, 27 and the men, too, abandoned natural sexual relations with women, and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways.
This is one of a handful of what are sometimes called “clobber verses,” bible passages that appear to patently condemn homosexual behavior. And while we should be realistic about how a First Century apostle and former Jewish Pharisee would have felt about same-sex relations, we must also be careful and precise about the text we are reading and how it works. Paul’s words about “unnatural desires” come as part of a long screed in which he also condemns making images of birds and reptiles. In fact, Paul’s rant looks like a boilerplate criticism of pagan religious practices, including idolatry and temple prostitution, in which heterosexual men and women would “exchange” their “natural relations” for a same-sex experience as part of a religious ritual.
But whatever the case, we’ve interrupted Paul before he can make his real point. Unfortunately, Chapter 1 breaks at the end of this rant, and so most modern readers have stopped reading and taken Chapter 1 to be the “we hate pagans and gays” chapter. But of course, chapter breaks are superficial divisions added centuries after-the-fact, and Paul’s argument actually keeps on going into Chapter 2. Here’s what he says, coming right out of the “unnatural” rant:
1 So, you have no excuse – anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving like a judge, are doing the very same things!
Well here’s a different kind of “clobber verse”! Paul’s whole point, it turns out, is not “God hates pagans,” but rather “Jewish Christians have no platform from which to judge Greek Christians based on common pagan stereotypes.” That’s a very different message from the way this passage is traditionally understood. He goes on to talk about God’s judgment, and how it – just like God’s love and salvation – is impartial and universal. This is not unlike Jesus’ “sheep and goats” parable: those who do what is right to their fellow human are judged to be God’s people, and those who do not, are not, regardless of religious affiliation. This is remarkable, and something we should hold on to as we read on.
In Chapter 3 Paul strings together a series of quotes from various Psalms to further illustrate his point: no one is righteous, even those who have Torah, so Jews and Greeks find themselves in the same boat. And here we find verse 23, the first stop on the “Romans Road” that says “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” In our evangelistic presentation, this was meant to illustrate our premise that all people are guilty of sin and hence condemned to hell. But let’s pay Paul the respect of actually reading the second half of his sentence in the next verse: “and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.” Paul’s premise isn’t that everyone is hellbound (he doesn’t really talk about hell in his letters), but that Jews and Greeks are both “members of the covenant,” part of God’s family, because of their common trust in Jesus and not because of any special rituals or status.
In Chapter 4 Paul begins a new argument, the first in a series of appeals to the Hebrew Bible. He uses the example of Abraham, the great father of Judaism, and quotes Genesis 15 to make a fascinating point: Abraham lived before Torah, but God “counted his faith as righteousness.” If it was possible for Abraham to be “righteous” without Torah, it must also be possible for Greeks! For anyone! In fact, says Paul, the covenant, the promise to Abraham that his family would be great and bless the earth, came before Torah as well, and so he argues that non-Jewish believers can be grafted into this family apart from Torah, by faith in God through Jesus that is counted as “righteousness.”
Paul moves into a new argument in 5:12, shifting from Abraham to Adam. In Adam, says Paul, sin and death entered into the world. But Jesus is a “New Adam” who brings life instead of death, and grace instead of sin. Where sin increases, grace abounds, though Paul is quick to add that this is no excuse to commit more sins. Paul’s writing style can be funny sometimes, as he rants, changes his mind, and frequently answers his own questions. The apostle’s personality is all over this text, which is actually sort of endearing. In Chapter 6 he throws out a bunch of metaphors for the relationship with God that is made possible because of Messiah: we no longer resemble death, we resemble resurrection; we are dead to sin, and alive to God; we are no longer slaves to sin, we are slaves to God. We may find that last one less than inspiring, but class-based slavery was commonplace in Paul’s world and is one of his favorite metaphors.
In Chapter 7, a new metaphor. He compares Jewish Christians to abused wives who were bound to a bad husband by the law, but the husband dies and they are now free. Torah, he says, was the abusive husband, and in Messiah’s death his people have also died, and are now free from the law. Paul clarifies that this doesn’t mean Torah is bad or sinful, but that it brought awareness of sin and the consequences of sin, since no one could keep it. The law was good, but it shined a light on Israel’s failure. It brought only condemnation. But, according to Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah Jesus.” Paul goes on to describe the role of the holy spirit (which he sometimes just calls “the spirit” or “God’s spirit”), in leading and guiding the Messiah’s people. They no longer live according to what Paul calls “the flesh,” their own will and experience, but they have access to “the spirit” and live according to it. This isn’t the same as dualism or gnosticism, which literally separate matter from essence into two warring realms. It’s more of a metaphor in which these new Christians can conceptualize their living. And, frankly, it’s an attempt to answer the question of how they can possibly expect to know right from wrong without Torah.
I can already tell I’m going to run long today, but I have to quickly mention something else here at the halfway point (of the letter, if not the podcast). Something very subtle and interesting has been going on in the last few chapters, not unlike what Matthew did with the opening chapters of his gospel. In Chapter 5 Paul talks about Adam, in Chapter 6 he talks about slavery and rescue, in Chapter 7 he talks about the law, and in Chapter 8 he talks about God’s spirit “leading” believers in the metaphorical wilderness of life. Paul’s arguments seem manic and off-the-cuff, but they actually appear to follow a sequence, a sequence that hits all the same beats as the story of Israel.
Still in Chapter 8, Paul takes his argument in yet another unexpected direction, and introduces a topic that is too often ignored in treatments of this letter. The apostle explains how creation itself – the physical world of trees, mountains, and oceans – is anticipating salvation. This is verse 22:
22 Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time.
In Paul’s imagination, creation itself longs for deliverance, groaning like a woman in labor, ready to give birth to a beautiful new world. This is like the Gospel of John’s “new creation,” and it’s a radical framework that challenges the traditional, conservative view of eschatology which says the earth is doomed, and our goal is to get ourselves “saved” so we can escape to paradise. That is not Paul’s eschatology. He expects this world to be transformed and rescued, and he believes the Messiah’s people bear the “firstfruits” of that new world. This may sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but here’s the big question of eschatology: how different do faith and life look when people believe the earth will one day blossom into new life and glory, instead of burning away into oblivion? When the question of “eternity” has as much to do with nature and ecology as it does with the fates of human beings? Paul’s vision of “new creation” also provides a powerful foundation for the message of this letter: how is it possible for Jewish and Greek Christians to share a life together? It’s possible because they are both part of the same creation, with the same ultimate, glorious global destiny. Chapter 8 concludes with a beautiful poem about the confidence the apostle finds in following Messiah:
35 Who shall separate us from Messiah’s love? Suffering, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …
37 No! In all these things we are completely victorious through the one who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded, you see, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present, nor the future, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord.
Stirring words, but then in Chapters 9-11 Paul acknowledges an elephant in the room, and wrestles with a very difficult and formidable question raised by his own theology: what about Israel? What about mainstream Judaism and the majority of Jews who do not accept that Jesus is Messiah? Paul argues violently with himself on this topic for three chapters, and in the interest of time and sanity I’ll try to summarize his train of thought:
- Jews are “Israelites,” the original recipients of the promise and covenant, and the Messiah is one of their own. (9:1-5)
- But not all “children of Abraham” are true Israelites. Even in the Torah, God said “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” God’s thoughts are mysterious, and he will choose his own family – even from among the Gentiles. (9:6-24)
- During the Exile, the prophets said repeatedly that only a remnant of Israel would survive, anyway. (9:25-29)
- Pagan nations have been granted membership in the covenant while Israel has failed to keep it. (9:30-33)
- But Paul’s deepest desire is for Israel to find salvation, which is accomplished not by keeping the letter of the law but by trusting in the Messiah. (10:1-15)
- God told this “good news” to Israel through the prophets, but they did not listen, and now others are listening. (10:14-21)
- So, has God abandoned his chosen people? Not at all! Paul and half of the Christians are Jews! There is a remnant, selected by God’s grace. The remnant are blessed, and the rest have been “hardened,” but not forever. Paul believes that all Jews will see the glories of following Messiah and become “jealous.” (11:1-15)
- The family of God is like an olive tree – Israel is the root, and Gentiles are grafted branches, replacing natural branches that had to be cut off. But don’t worry – even those old branches will eventually be grafted back on as well! (11:16-24)
- This is why, Paul concludes, “all Israel will be saved.” (11:25-26)
- And it will happen because of God’s boundless mercy. (11:27-36)
You’d think Paul would be tuckered out and ready to end the letter, but you’d be wrong. Chapters 12 through 15 are a sort of practical application of Paul’s central argument, an answer to the question, “what do we do now?” Paul tells the Roman Christians to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God,” which sounds kinda creepy and religious, but Paul elaborates:
12:3 … don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to. Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you. 4 As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all parts have different functions, 5 so we, many as we are, are one body in Messiah, and individually we belong to one another.
Paul’s advice to a diverse and nervous group of Christians is to think of themselves as members of the same body – each with a different purpose, but part of the same whole. Everyone is needed, everyone has a special set of gifts, and everyone belongs. This “members of the same body” metaphor is fundamental to the way Paul’s own churches are set up, and we’ll learn more about that in some of his other letters. He rounds out Chapter 12 with some familiar advice: that those in the community should, above all else, love each other. This is where Paul sounds the most like Jesus:
10 Be truly affectionate in showing love for one another, compete with each other in giving mutual respect. …
14 Bless those who persecute you, bless them don’t curse them. 15 Celebrate with those who celebrate, mourn with the mourners. …
17 Never repay anyone evil for evil, think through what will seem good to everyone who is watching. 18 If it’s possible, as far as you can, live at peace with all people.
Romans Chapter 13 is another passage that has been read out of context with unsavory consequences. Consider verse 1: “Every person must be subject to the ruling authorities.” If Romans is a kind of universal instruction book or Torah law for all Christians, then this “commandment” has all sorts of dangerous implications. Does this mean that Christians ought to be supportive or complicit in war, genocide, and exploitation? Let’s remember the context. Paul is writing to a congregation that is having an identity crisis. How can Jews be Jews, Greeks be Greeks, and all of them be Christians? In addition to the advice he gave them in Chapter 12, Paul now advises them to be good citizens, pay their taxes, and not assume a default posture of revolution or civil disobedience. This is a general exhortation and pep talk, not a pledge of allegiance to empire.
In Chapter 14 Paul gets more specific about the challenges facing this particular congregation. He warns the Roman Christians against judging one another for their personal beliefs and practices, but also warns them against flaunting those practices in front of each other. For example, some of them are vegetarians, and some eat meat. Some observe certain holy days, and others do not. No one should be shamed or shunned because they do or don’t, and no one should think they are privileged because they do or don’t. God has declared that “nothing is unclean,” says Paul (recall Peter’s dream in Acts Chapter 10), so anything goes, but you musn’t lord it over each other. Think of your neighbor before yourself. And in Chapter 15 Paul reaches the climax of the letter, bringing all of his arguments to a glorious conclusion:
5 May the God of patience and encouragement grant you to come to a common mind among yourselves, in accordance with the Messiah Jesus, 6 so that, with one mind and one mouth, you may glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.
The fundamental spirit of all of Paul’s ramblings can be summed in a single word: unity. He is pleading with this troubled congregation to find a common denominator in Messiah, so that their diverse beliefs and lifestyles can become an asset, not a source of conflict. Their devotion to Jesus is what makes them a family, not religious conformity or ritual. Paul concludes that Jesus has made it possible for different nations to come together in praise and brotherhood instead of resentment and violence. As he says in the last line of the letter proper:
15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the holy spirit.
There follows a bunch of postscript material in chapters 15 and 16, where Paul restates his burning desire to visit the Roman church, but explains that he must go to Jerusalem instead to deliver some much needed financial support to the poor Christians there. He introduces a deacon named Phoebe, who is likely the person who will actually present and read this letter to the Roman congregation. Lastly he sends greetings to a long list of names, fellow apostles in Rome, deacons, believers, and friends. We note the overwhelming number of female names on the list, which reflects a reality of the early church that might surprise modern readers. Since the earliest Christian communities met in people’s homes, women played a major role in both hospitality and leadership. Most fascinating is a reference to a female apostle named Junia, which should have had major repercussions for the modern church, except that most of our bible translations have chosen to quietly change her name to the male moniker “Junias.” A groundless and ideologically-motivated redaction, and not the only one to be sure.
After a short final blessing in the name of the Messiah, Paul’s letter ends. I hope I’ve given you what I was missing for years: a clear and simple exposition of the letter to the Romans in full, in order, and in context. Paul is not easy to read. He rambles and pleads, throwing every argument he can think of against the wall to see what sticks. It’s just easier to chop him up and do whatever you want with the bits and pieces, but it’s not really fair or helpful. The result has been a reading of Romans that is out of tune with the real heart of Paul’s message.
In the church of my youth, Romans was an instruction manual for converting others to the faith. But as we’ve just seen, this letter isn’t concerned with how to convert the lost, it’s about how those already in the church might find love, hope, and unity. And it’s specifically concerned with a social dynamic that is virtually unknown to churches in our time, as Jewish and pagan Christians – old enemies – were trying build a life together. Of course, there is plenty for us to learn from Romans about how Paul understood the gospel and the challenges of diversity in the church, and these are relevant in any century. But we should do our best to approach the material on its own terms. The sad and ironic thing is that while Paul so desperately wants the church to discover its freedom from law and embrace the grace of the Messiah, the church, it seems, would rather just turn Paul’s words into a new kind of Church Torah. It’s our problem, not Paul’s, if we’ve allowed his words to become a burden and a stumbling block.