Romans: Not what I expected

paulRomans is not at all what I had always thought of it as. When I began by School of Biblical Studies in YWAM 8 years ago I thought that Romans was the book I needed to know because this was the most theological book of the bible. I will not doubt in the strict sense of the word that Romans is a book that reveals more about who God is and is therefore a book about theology. However I always felt that how the theology of Paul worked was based around how to get Saved as an individual.

Of course this was of huge concern to me coming into the school because I had encountered some very strong (and I mean hyper) Calvinistic folks right before coming to do my CSBS. So I wanted to be sure Salvation was in fact by faith. Strangely my dilemma with Salvation by Faith was that I felt that there must be some kind of importance in my own heart, and mind, regarding the decision to actually have faith. I was shocked really after getting to Romans and after spending a few years coming back to Romans to the same issue.

Romans was a book written to a specific community of Jews and Gentiles in the first century AD. It was not written directly to me about Salvation. In fact it was not even written to them simply about how individuals get saved. Though there are passages that can be used to clarify how Individual Salvation works. I was shocked to find that it is a book written to groups, groups that Paul wished would learn to have fellowship together and call themselves the true Israel of God.

So then, the book references so much from the OT, stories, symbols, practices. It is a book certainly written with the Jewish people in mind. They are one of the communities he is speaking to. He uses the stories and symbols not at random to prove theological points. Instead he uses them (often in order) to show that there is an ongoing story of Gods redemptive work in the world. How that plan started when the race of man fell, or rather rejected God and his original plan. So God starts with plan two so to speak. Abraham, the rest of the patriarchs, Exodus, Law, Land, Temple, Exile, and eventually he climaxes with Christ. He retells the story to show that God had a plan to use the family of Abraham, to give him land, law, influence. But that just as Adam rejected Gods plan so Israel rejected Gods plan, they embraced pagan lifestyle. But what about the Jew during the time of Paul. They did not reject Gods Law. Some say they made an idol of it. That is very simplistic. However, I think it is not far from what Paul himself thinks is the problem in his own day. Paul’s thoughts on the Law are not limited to such a simple reduction. Its perhaps one of the most perplexing parts of Paul. I have written at length in other posts about that specifically. But in summary here I think Paul believed there were multiple functions that Law played both pre-Jesus and post-Jesus.

It did pronounce judgement. It did serve as revelation of God and witness to surrounding nations. It did intend to shape identity of Israel. Some focus in on specific uses of the Law because so many wish to simplify what Paul says about the Law. But to ask Paul to give one purpose for the Law would actually be very crude. Paul was a Jew. Jews in the first century saw a great many uses of the Law. One of which was that by paying close attention to it, study, and practice would bring about Gods blessing in the form of his deliverance and vindication of Israel. In short, Law brought salvation. Paul because of his faith in a faithful Jewish Messiah believes this has already taken place in Jesus. But of course Paul’s twist is that when God did what he had always promised to do in the Messiah he did it not just for the vindication of Israel in the Flesh but for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Passages that always terrified me in Romans could be narrowed down to two references to the OT. First is when Paul is telling the story of the Exodus and Pharaoh and the second is when he is talk about how God had always made distinctions between the people of Jacob and the people of Esau. The combination of God hating Esau, and God manipulating the heart of Pharaoh made me scared to press in any further. But why did Paul use those quotes of OT passages? Pharaohs heart was in fact hardened by God to bring about his salvation for all people, Jews and Egyptians alike. And God did not actually hate Esau or his family. Paul quotes this as a reminder that God simply made a distinction between Israel in the Flesh and its fleshly enemies. God had a plan for ethnic or fleshly Israel. That is why there is a distinction. They are being called to account for why they failed to carry out Gods plans of blessing the nations around them. Thus, the reference to Esau and Jacob is not about blind favoritism. It is about who had the greater responsibility. Paul goes on to say that it is in fact these tribes and nations that are coming into the Israel of God by faith, that they are being grafted in.

In short one of Paul’s most profound points is that being the people of God, the Israel of God, the Elect, is not just about privileged but it is about responsibility. This is my summarizing title for the book of Romans.

“The Story and the Future of the People of the One God”

Thus Paul is not doing Theology so much as he is implementing the use of Jewish story telling, with the key themes being eschatology, election, and monotheism.

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Categories: Bible, Church, Context, CSBS, Doctrine, Faith, Romans, School of Biblical Studies, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Romans: Not what I expected

  1. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide

    I am involved in a group studying Romans just now. It is a mixed group including both believers and non-believers and we are finding it a very useful study in elaborating on what impact, in very practical terms, becoming a Christian should have on a person’s life. Last week, for example, one of the participants expressed their surprise that the Bible should include a passage talking about responsibility towards government.

    • Yes, I think many are shocked at Paul’s thoughts about serving the common good and supporting the established government as Gods agent for order in the world. Even if it is the Roman Empire which was known for corruption and violent force. Paul’s challenge to work within the existing political structure for the good of others is so good and sometimes lacking for Christians in America. đŸ™‚

  2. Lyn Wattam

    I also find Paul’s understanding of the Torah to be fascinating and I agree with you that his view of the Law was considerably more complex then numerous Christians would like to think. Here’s a cool quote from a book I’m reading, where the author, Richard Hays, discusses Romans chapter 3: “…those who are entrusted with the oracles of God are thus given the paradoxical privilege of learning from those oracles the truth of their own depravity, a truth that remains hidden from the rest of humanity.” I just found it fascinating how Israel was given the unique revelation of covenant unfaithfulness and actual true sin which the nations did not know because they didn’t have the covenant. Israel was given the unique revelation of the problem in order that they might be the bearers of the unique solution in Jesus the Messiah!

    • I’m reading 2 books by hays as well. Moral vision of the new testament and conversion of the imagination. Also I’ve been reading Paul and the faithfulness of God by nt wright. Awesome book. Thanks for consenting bro.

  3. raymaseman

    I recently started reading Romans for the first time after realizing it is not what I thought it was (part of my ongoing discovery that the Epistles of Paul in general are not what I thought they were).

    A distant relative cited Romans Ch. 1 as evidence that homosexuality is not Christian. I had seen Romans cited this way before, but had never looked at it. I did this time and found that Romans 1 contains a whole catalog of sins of contemporary (to Paul) non-Jews, and acknowledges that these sins are violations of Judaic/Mosaic Law.

    But then, in Chapter 2, it looks like Paul makes a case for the dangers of obsessing about the Law. I think he is partly talking about the temptation to make an idol of Law, but it seems like he goes beyond that to talk about a focus on Law causes groups and individuals to fail to acknowledge their own sins, by turning their focus on judging others (rather than letting God judge). More importantly, though, a focus on the Law obscures an understanding of the Salvation and Grace offered through Christ.

    • The trouble with Romans is there is a huge temptation to use what Paul says as your relatives have or even as you have, to either prove or disprove a whole range of issues. Culturally the debate about homosexuality in scripture is one of those hot issues. But we need to be careful that we don’t just use Paul or any scripture for our own agenda. Paul has much to say which could inform the issues of today in a very healthy way but we should not twist his words to say what we wish he was saying. I think when it comes to the passages you have mentioned both about homosexuality and law that they should be read within the framework of the story Paul is telling about the fall of humanity, the embrace of dehumanizing tendencies (homosexuality only being one of them) which are contrary to mans basic function of creating life as God the creator does. Then the covenant with Abraham, then later the law and its true purposes. Then he goes through the rest of the story to climax in Christ and in Christ because of the Law of Love we actually uphold the old Law as well because all of the Laws of the Old Mosaic Covenant were about either loving God or loving neighbor. But sir, you are right about judgement 100%. Paul wishes to encourage his readers in Rome to reserve all judgement for God. He specifically comes to judgement in the practically playing out of life in chapter 14. Each person must give an ‘account’ of their own life before God.

      • raymaseman

        Yes.. that was what I liked about Ch. 2 and onwards (I am still reading). Obsessing about Law easily turns into pushing an agenda.

        And letting go of trying to usurp God’s judging role can be liberating and makes it easier to actually love one’s neighbor. (Not that giving up judging is easy to do in every case).

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