The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans is considered by many to be Paul’s finest work. It is doubtless the most closely reasoned presentation of Paul’s theology. Indeed, even when Romans is considered apart from its spiritual and theological value, it still stands as one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time. Its impact has been felt throughout history like no other particular work. Because of its great significance, the world is overflowing with books and commentaries on Romans. It has been written on and preached about probably more than any other book in our Bible. And yet, it is quite impossible to exhaust the riches of spiritual insight contained here. We could—and should—study Romans for a lifetime and never close the book on the subject. It remains just as fresh and alive today as it was two-thousand years ago.
This study will approach Romans as more of a survey than a deep, detailed exposition. We will emphasize the themes of Romans and learn how Paul weaves these themes into a sort of grand-theme—the scheme—of God’s plan of salvation for the world. It is my goal to present the central message of Romans as a sort of interpretive grid that we may place over and draw out the finer points of Paul’s theology here and elsewhere. If we can get the big picture, the smaller pieces of the puzzle will slip into place.
Of course, it is very important to make theology more than a theoretical, academic exercise. We must allow the Word of God to break in upon our lives and transform our ministry and mission. So, we shall also spend some time applying the message of Romans to our present situation and, hopefully, showing that Paul’s vision of God’s everlasting purpose is just as relevant today as it ever was.
Paul’s theology of salvation in Romans falls into the following broad outlines: First of all, both Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith apart from physical circumcision and the deeds of the Law. Second, God is fulfilling the promises declared by the prophets to Israel through an extended scheme of hardening Israel in temporary unbelief and extending mercy to the Gentiles until they reach universal fullness thereby provoking Israel to jealousy and precipitating Israel’s return and restoration. Third, faithful Gentiles are being formed together with faithful Israel into a living sacrifice that must be presented “holy and acceptable unto God.” This task belongs to Paul as a sort of “priest” to God on behalf of the Gentiles. Finally, this justification of both Jews and Gentiles by the grace of God permits—indeed, requires—full table-fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in communion and community.
It will probably help us to understand Romans better if we consider the book as a whole and then pay closer attention to the details of the text as we move through each section, chapter and verse. As noted above, Paul weaves many themes into Romans. This can make the book difficult to understand and easy to misread. Even the apostle Peter commented on this! We cannot untangle all the knots. Now and then we must simply step back and marvel at the big picture that Paul weaves so carefully into a breathtaking tapestry. Those pesky knots hold the threads together. This book is beautiful, and very moving, when rightly understood.
Romans is written to Gentiles. Paul makes that clear almost immediately. It is written to instruct Gentile believers in the basic tenets of their faith and to show them in vivid prose God’s overall scheme of redemptive history. God plans to redeem the world through His sovereign, predestined plan of salvation “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). In doing this, God is forming one holy nation made up of Jews and Gentiles united together to be the catalyst of redemption and resurrection in the world. However, there is a considerable obstacle to this plan. The Jewish and Gentile contingents within the church are almost hopelessly divided. Certain Jewish Christians are insisting that the Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the Law to obtain full and “perfect” status as Christians, and this is understandably resented by the Gentiles. Division is the inevitable result.
This is particularly true in Rome where there was a certain degree of hostility to Jews anyway. The Jews had only recently returned to Rome after being expelled by Caesar. So, the Gentile believers, who formed the majority of the church in Rome, would have rightly resented the “older brother” condescension of the returning Jewish believers. Paul sensed this and sought to defuse it. While Paul strongly reinforced the Gentiles’ persuasion that they were saved by grace through faith apart from circumcision and law-keeping, yet he also took great pains to warn the Gentiles against developing their own brand of arrogance that would try and turn the tables on the Jewish believers and exclude them from table-fellowship in a tit-for-tat reprisal. Paul is passionate that this sort of division must be prevented. Indeed, Paul sees the eschatological unity of Jews and Gentiles in the church as the precondition of full and final redemption.
Old Covenant Judaism had developed a two-tiered system to allow God-fearing Gentiles close to the covenant without full inclusion. Devout Gentiles could approach the temple as far as the Court of the Gentiles, but if they trespassed further into the temple, they were at risk of death. Gentiles could not come all the way into the presence of God unless they became full converts to Judaism through circumcision and law-keeping. Paul flatly refused to preserve this distinction and division. He insisted that the Gentiles were fully accepted with the saints as heirs of the promise made to Abraham that he should inherit the world. Furthermore, Paul insisted that the acceptance of Gentile Christians could never be based upon adherence to Old Covenant norms. Their acceptance rests in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Christ alone has perfectly kept the Law. For Paul, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law, and all who are baptized into Christ fulfill the law in Christ by the Spirit.
Romans cannot be understood without understanding this ever-darkening backdrop of Jewish-Gentile controversy within the early Christian church. This controversy underlies every book of the New Testament. Indeed, the point of the New Testament is the New Testament, the New Covenant fulfilled in Christ. The question of how the New Covenant included Gentiles was the great burning issue of the day. A good portion of this story is told in Acts and Galatians, but the problem is everywhere you turn for the church in the first-century.
The problem really revolved around the temple at Jerusalem. As long as the temple was standing the controversy could not be fully resolved because observant Jewish Christians were concerned about ceremonial ritual purity and thus could not contaminate themselves with Gentile Christian fellowship. The Law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers simply would not permit it. The argument was so fierce that even Peter was drawn unwillingly into its hypocrisy in Antioch, an embarrassing lapse that made Paul nearly apoplectic with indignation. Paul’s recounting of this story with clear voice and rising tones in Galatians 2 makes it rather obvious that the incident still rankled.
Within the context of this controversy, we encounter another major theme of the book, which is the priesthood of believers and, more specifically, the priesthood of Paul himself. Paul does not spend a great deal of time explaining this, but he very plainly describes his ministry as a priestly ministry. Paul tells us that he serves as a priest presenting the Gentiles to God as an acceptable sacrifice, and thus, he will not permit his offering to be disqualified by self-appointed Judaizers. These Judaizers seem to view themselves as New Testament gate-keepers standing guard at the entrance of the church just as the Levites guarded the gates of the temple. Paul will not abide their impertinence, no, not for a moment. We hear his impassioned cry, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God elect? It is God that justifies!” (Romans 8:33). One wonders if he had a name or two in mind.
Another prominent theme is the vindication (justification) of God. Paul’s critics leveled the charge that his gospel made God a liar. Most Jews insisted that the promises of God were made to ethnic Israel for her return from exile and restoration to the perfect worship of the one true God in the temple according to the Law of Moses. And though the prophets certainly foretold that the Gentile nations would be blessed by Israel’s return and restoration and come to worship the one true God, their blessing would be secondary and derivative. The Judaizers did not agree with Paul that the Gentiles should be fully included in the Abrahamic covenant by faith in Christ alone. This was heresy!
However, Paul insisted that a Spirit-interpreted reading of the Law and Prophets was now necessary because of the radical and unexpected work of God in the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ made all things new and called for a radically new understanding of the Law and Prophets. This was the “mystery” that Paul spoke about so often, “that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). For Paul, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets to all who believe, and the New Testament church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles together in one body, is the true Israel born again by the Spirit. Thus, God is vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus and His promises are sure.
This point of view requires Paul to explain what is going on with Israel’s unbelief and rejection of Christ as Messiah. He spends considerable time doing so. Indeed, chapters 9-11 are really the heart of the epistle. Paul insists that the Gentile believers understand the mystery so their confidence in the sovereignty of God will be strengthened, and they will come to see the central role they play in the full and final realization of God’s redemptive plan.
Moreover, the theme of God’s vindication leads Paul to assert that believers also are vindicated (justified) in Christ. We are lifted up into the Holy of Holies to serve as holy priests in the presence of God in Christ. God, who is just, has become the justifier of those who believe. We are acquitted in the law-court of divine judgment. We are made righteous in Christ. The Law could never produce such righteousness because of the weakness of the flesh. Only through confidence in the faithfulness of God in Christ can we access such perfect righteousness. All of this will come into clearer focus as we go along.
As we trace our way through the themes of the book we come to the question of communion and community. Table fellowship is an underlying motif throughout Romans. Inevitably, Paul is a practical man. He is never interested in theology for theology’s sake. It is always how theology is lived out in everyday life, how the Word becomes flesh, that is uppermost in Paul’s mind. This is certainly the case in Romans where the driving force of his theology leads inexorably to the very practical matter of how Jewish and Gentiles Christians can and must eat together. The church is united or divided around this question, the question of how to join together in koinonia.
Paul’s theology is a theology of unity through diversity. Paul examines this point explicitly in Romans 14. Paul understood that the church could never be formed into one harmonious whole until the question of ritual purity and dietary exclusivity was resolved. Paul is concerned with the practical implications of the new, Spirit-filled community formed from justified Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. This immediate proximity of Jews and Gentiles in Christian fellowship created temporary difficulties while the church remained in its immaturity awaiting the removal of the Temple and its obsolete rituals. This is the concern of the final chapters as he seeks to teach the church how to be a unified community while still divided by convictions and culture.
Romans is written in three basic sections. Chapters 1-8 are an extended discussion of justification by grace through faith. Chapters 9-11 are an extended discussion of God’s predestined plan of salvation for Israel and the Gentiles. Chapters 12-16 discuss the Gentiles as an acceptable, corporate sacrifice unto God and the practical implications of living as such. The central text of the book is Romans 12:1, 2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul is concerned that the Gentiles be offered up by his ministry as an acceptable sacrifice unto God. This is the primary motif and the subject title of our study: A Living Sacrifice.
This overall message of the book must be understood in order to understand its component parts. We have often lacked in our understanding of the book because we have not grasped the central message. We cannot “spot-read” and “proof-text” passages and accurately present Paul’s doctrine of salvation. Many errors have arisen because of this tendency. As we consider Romans verse-by-verse, let us keep the overall theme in mind. Paul writes to persuade us that the church is gathered together out of every nation into one body in Christ. And because Christ is our spotless sacrifice, we are accepted as a living sacrifice in the presence of God on behalf of the world. This gracious acceptance of free justification in Christ is the basis of our communion with God and must be the basis of our communion with one another.