For centuries, Romans has meant much to a host of believers. For Augustine it was the knowledge that a new life was possible in Christ Jesus. For Luther it was the settling of his mind that “the righteousness of God” could save, rather than condemn, if one placed faith in Christ. For John Wesley it was the assurance that God “had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Their individual experiences with Paul’s letter to the Romans would propel movements that helped shape their times, and ours. Sadly, most of our experiences with Romans have not been so grande. Often times we have studied the letter in order to battle others over what is meant by statements such as “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” (3.28) and “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved,” (10.9).
Our modern struggles with Romans are often shaped by the circumstances and theological perspectives of those who lived long after Paul. Perhaps that is because Romans has typically been viewed as a theological treatise, rather than a letter written in particular circumstances with an author of a particular background. That’s not to say that Romans doesn’t contain much theological material to consider and digest, but when the theology is lifted from it’s original circumstances and forced into other contexts, theological disasters can ensue. So, before we rush headlong into Paul’s letter to the Romans, let’s spend some time examining the life of Paul and his purpose in writing to the saints in Rome.
Paul’s Background & Work
Paul’s roots in Judaism are well-known. He is introduced to us as Saul, chief persecutor of the early church (Acts 7.58; 8.1-3). Paul’s Jewish credentials were beyond reproach: “though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3.4-6, ESV). Yet, the Lord sent Paul to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (Acts 26.18, ESV). Paul, Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee, sent to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles! The drastic change in Paul cannot be over-emphasized, but the tension between Jew and Gentile did not end with Paul’s conversion; this tension would shape almost all of his future work.
Paul had almost completed three missionary journeys by the time he penned his letter to the Romans. Surveying his work as recorded in Acts we see that his usual habit was to preach first in the synagogues, but typically more Gentiles than Jews would respond to the gospel message. Furthermore, the Jews proved to be Paul’s biggest opponent, persecuting him wherever he went. While proclaiming Jesus as the Christ was enough to engender Jewish opposition, Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles in those who can be part of God’s people is what truly enraged his countrymen (see Acts 22.17-22). Little wonder that Paul often spoke about the reconciliation in Christ of Jew and Gentile:
- “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20, ESV)
- “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:17–18, ESV)
- “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, ESV)
Tension In The Church
Tension in the church began immediately following the first Gentile conversion. Recall that the Lord called Peter to go and proclaim the gospel to Cornelius and his household, but it was only following the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles that Peter concluded that they could be baptized (Acts 10.47). However, when Peter returned to Jerusalem “the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” (Acts 11.2-3 ESV) Fast forward a few years we read of Jewish brethren proclaiming to their Gentile brothers in Antioch that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15.1 ESV) While Paul, Barnabas and the other apostles and leaders of the Jerusalem church were in agreement that Gentiles were not under the Law (Acts 15.6ff), tension between Jews and Gentiles in the church did not cease. Note that when Paul returned to Jerusalem following his third missionary journey, it had been reported among the Jewish brethren that Paul taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” (Acts 21.21 ESV) Of course, Paul was very aware of the tension within the church. One of his prior letters (Galatians) was written to combat doctrines similar to the one taught in Acts 15. Furthermore, one of Paul’s purposes for his third journey was to raise money for needy saints in Jerusalem. As he explained to the brethren in Rome, Paul hoped this contribution from Gentile churches for their Jewish brethren would help to ease this tension in the church (see Romans 15.25-31).
But what about the churches in Rome? We are not told how the gospel first made it to Rome, but since there were Jews from Rome present at Pentecost (Acts 2.5-10) it is entirely possible that the news of Jesus’ resurrection made it to the Imperial capital without further aid from the apostles. This coincides with other information found within Acts. When Paul first journeyed to Corinth he met there two Jewish Christians, Aquila and Priscilla, who had come to Corinth from Rome. It is likely that when the gospel was first spread in the synagogues of Rome and that the earliest churches in Rome were comprised predominantly of Jewish Christians, with several Gentile proselytes joining their numbers. But then the Jews were expelled from Rome, a historical event that is confirmed by the Biblical text (Acts 18.2). What happened to the makeup of the Roman churches during that time? We can only guess, but it is possible that they took on a Gentile flavour and that by the time the Jews were allowed to return, there were more Gentile Christians in Rome than Jewish. And that resulted in tension between Jew and Gentile within the Roman churches. But Why?
David McClister argues that 3 cultural factors help to explain the situation (From The Pen Of Paul, Second Edition. Florida College Press). First, then as now, the groups to which one belonged determined a person’s identity. Second, that notion of status permeated the Hellenistic world, so individuals and groups were constantly competing for status. Third, to the Jew there were two kinds of people: Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). And they were the privileged group because God had made them His special people. And this is absolutely fundamental to understanding the book of Romans. McClister clarifies the issue well: “the Jews interpreted their (i.e., the group’s) special relationship with God as a matter of status… It is for this reason that the Jews prided themselves in their unusual way of life according to the Law of Moses, for this distinctive way of life identified them as God’s special people. When seen in this way, their obedience to the Torah was not so much viewed as earning them their salvation but instead was understood as the ‘mark’ or ‘badge’ that identified them as the people of God. Obeying the Law of Moses makes one a jew, it makes one a member of God’s special people… This question of the status of the Jewish people with God in light of the gospel stands at the heart of Romans. The Gentile Christians argued that Jewish rejection of the gospel left them (the Gentile Christians) as God’s special people, but the Jewish Christians had Scriptural statements to the contrary on their side. To put the matter in different terms, there was an argument going on within the church at Rome. The two groups, the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, were arguing over ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ (cf. Matthew 18.1)” (McClister 202-203)
Because of the influence of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc. we are prone to see Romans as a treatise on personal salvation. It’s not. It’s a plea to unity among different groups in the church. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Romans 15.7-9, ESV) But what could unite the two groups?
The Solution: The Gospel! (Romans 1.16-17)
- The Gospel shows that both Jew and Gentile stand in equal need (Romans 1-3)
- The Gospel shows how salvation can be received by both Jew and Gentile (Romans 4-8)
- The Gospel shows God’s true will for the Jews (Romans 9-11)
- The Gospel shows how all of our lives should look in Christ
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