The Romans Revolution
by Michael Horton
© 2006, Modern Reformation Magazine, (Jan / Feb 2006 Issue, Vol. 15.1). All Rights Reserved. Subscription Rate: $29 Per Year. Click here to subscribe or call 1-800-890-7556.
Throughout these pages, readers will catch a glimpse of the enormous significance of Paul’s letter to the mostly Gentile Christians who were living in the capital of the world’s largest empire. Ever since new (or relatively young) believers heard these words, the good news of God’s riches in Christ for sinners has had no greater summary.
Nowhere in Romans does the apostle announce his purpose as providing a careful arrangement of the whole range of Christian teachings and their logical relationships. However, it is pretty clear that he intends to encourage these believers in Rome with the gospel. Unpacking the meaning of that message—“the gospel of [God’s] Son” (1:9), can be seen as his goal (cf. 15:15–21). “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 for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (1:16–17).
Of course there are local issues that demand specific attention. The relationship between Jews and Gentiles is an evident concern that Paul has for these Roman Christians as others (see especially chapters 14–15). However, instead of the context of controversy that provoked stern rebukes of the Galatians and Corinthians, gentle and general exhortations are offered to the Romans: “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (16:17). So if Romans is not a systematic theology in any modern sense, it is nevertheless a systematic presentation of the gospel. In short, Romans is God’s first-aid kit for his church in all ages. To switch metaphors, it is the map or “big picture” that draws together the most important strands of biblical doctrine.
The Big Picture
Have you ever thought of an argument as a map? Preparing for a trip, you open the road map and see the connections: If you take Interstate 5 to Highway 35, then exit on Route 102, you’ll go through Whispering Pines and Oak Hollow until you finally arrive at your campsite. Get off the map in unfamiliar territory, flying by the seat of your pants, you are more likely to end up lost, as my wife frequently reminds me with a particular relish.
Romans is like a map. It is detailed enough to engender a field called “Pauline scholarship,” yet basic enough to be understood by new Christians (Paul’s original audience). Wherever you are on that spectrum, Romans will be a reliable guide for the most revolutionary journey you will ever take. So let’s lay out in rough, “big picture” terms the arguments and connections that we find in this great epistle. You may want to read each section yourself before my summary.
Paul packs more theology into his introductions than most of us do in our sermons. Even stating his credentials as “bondservant” and “apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,” Paul cannot keep himself from summarizing that gospel itself in verses 1–6. Furthermore, although the faith of these Christians “is proclaimed in all the world” (v. 8), he is nevertheless “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (v. 15). Evidently, Paul did not think that the gospel was only for unbelievers, but was to be the regular diet of Christians as well. Although it is a scandal to unbelievers, Paul is “not ashamed” of it, “for it is the power of God for salvation…”—it is itself the instrumental cause of that faith which alone receives God’s righteousness (vv. 16–17).
The Bad News: The Righteousness that Condemns (1:18–3:20)
There are no atheists. Everyone knows that God is righteous and because the law is written on their consciences (2:14–15), Gentiles as well as Jews are accountable. In this situation of universal human disobedience after the fall, the revelation of God in nature and history (i.e., general revelation) comes as a threat, like the peals of thunder and lightning bolts at Mount Sinai. Like Adam, we are all born running from God, spinning our own line of fig leaf apparel to cover our sin. If we cannot cover up our unrighteousness, we will cover up the revelation of God himself. Either I’m not as bad as all that, we say, or God isn’t as righteous as all that. This is the source of idolatry. It is not in the absence of revelation that we fashion idols, but precisely because of that general revelation:“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18).
We do not like the God who is actually there, so we invent more user-friendly deities, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” (1:25), eventually eradicating all knowledge of God derived from this general revelation (1:28). In this state of affairs, even the most natural affections are exchanged for unnatural ones. Never mind the existence of heaven and hell; there is no longer any perceived order even in the natural world once we have unhooked it from its connection to its Creator and Preserver (1:29–32).
That’s those pagans, right? We have “Judeo-Christian values.” Paul says that such self-righteous appeals only further our condemnation. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13). It is not enough to say “We have the law”; it has to be fulfilled, and it hasn’t been fulfilled either by the Gentiles who have it inscribed on their conscience or by Israel with its stone tablets.
This does not mean that being a Jew means nothing. After all, they were given God’s Word, special rather than simply general revelation (3:1–2). The people’s unfaithfulness to the covenant they made at Sinai will not nullify God’s faithfulness to the covenant that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, our unrighteousness only provides the opportunity for God to show his righteousness (3:3–8). Paul concludes this part of his argument “that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9) by appealing to various passages especially from the Psalms: “’No one is righteous, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’ . . . Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (10–11, 19–20). Now we know what he meant in 2:13 when he said that it was not hearers but doers of the law who will be justified. Since we are all are sinners, no one will be justified by the works of the law.
The Good News: The Righteousness that Saves (3:21–8:39)
So we are moving along Interstate 5 (the path of law, which in our sinfulness leads us to suppress the truth in unrighteousness and to rest in self-security), but Paul tells us to take a sharp right, onto an entirely different highway. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21). Paul introduces us to an important hermeneutical (i.e., interpretive) distinction in his thought: “law” as a principle (“Do this and you shall live”) distinguished from “the Law” as in the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch). Even the Law (in this second sense) witnesses to the gospel. We might even say that law in the first sense does as well, since it tells us what must be done by our representative head, Jesus Christ.
The law must be fulfilled: only doers are justified (2:13). But the good news is that our elder brother has done it and has not only been justified as a private person but as a public person, a substitute and federal representative for us. This is why Paul unfolds the magnificent truths of God’s gift of Jesus Christ as our propitiatory sacrifice in whom we have justification (3:24–25). Only in this way can God be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” which ends all human boasting before him (3:26–30). In this way, the law is not set aside by faith but fulfilled and upheld: God has been faithful both to his own justice and to his promise to save his people from their sins (3:31).
Abraham is exhibit A. According to the common interpretation of the rabbis, Abraham’s obedience merited his (and Israel’s) election, but Paul tells a different story—one that actually fits the narratives of Genesis 12–22 (4:1–3). But justification is not by reward for services rendered but by grace in spite of utter failure. God does not justify the righteous, but the wicked, “apart from works” (4:4–5). In this way, the promise made to Abraham—that through his seed salvation would come to the nations, can be fulfilled. Faith in Christ, not circumcision and the keeping of the law, determine whether one is a child of Abraham (4:9–12). It comes through the promise and faith, not through the law and works (4:13–21), so that this righteousness that none of us can attain can nevertheless “be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:23–25).
This justification brings peace with God in the place of wrath, reconciliation in the place of hostility, and enters us into a different covenant with a different federal representative (chapter 5). Instead of being “in Adam,” dead in sins, guilty before God, corrupt in every respect, under condemnation and death, we are “in Christ.”
As a good catechist, Paul keeps directing us to the map, marking the connections in his unfolding argument, by asking questions. At this juncture, the likely question is, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). He answers “no” because the same redemptive work that saves us from sin’s guilt and condemnation also saves us from sin’s tyranny. Those who are baptized into Christ receive both justification and sanctification—new status and new life. Salvation is a lot greater than fire insurance.
But just when this liberating announcement begins to bear fruit in us, motivating new obedience, we find ourselves falling short of the glory of God—even as those baptized into Christ. Just as Romans 6 curbs our tendency to under-value the new life that we have been given, Romans 7 challenges our drift toward triumphalism and self-righteousness. Myriad errors in understanding the Christian life proceed from our failure to pay close attention to Paul’s map here. To be sure, the road zigs and zags: Romans 6 inspires zeal; Romans 7 addresses our flagging zeal, ending on the triumphant note again by raising our eyes from ourselves to Christ (7:25). In Romans 8, then, we gain our equilibrium again, as Paul integrates the “already” of Romans 6 and the “not yet” of Romans 7 in a theology of the cross.There is no condemnation (8:1). The Spirit is given to us as a down payment on this final possession, engendering in us the filial cry, “Abba, Father!” (8:2–17). Suffering now yields to unspeakable glory in the future, a future that includes not only the soul but the body, and not only individuals but the whole creation that groans as in birth pangs even now (8:18–25). In the meantime, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” interceding for us, and strengthening our feeble hold on Christ, cooperating with the Father and the Son to work everything together for our good (8:26–28). The rest of the chapter (vv. 29–39) takes us to the doxological summit of Paul’s epistle. Whatever trials the believer encounters, however steep the climb, whatever assaults from without and within, he or she is predestined, called, justified, is being conformed to Christ’s image, and will be glorified one day. As he summarizes the road thus far traveled, his businesslike argumentation turns to praise, captured in the line, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31).
Election and Covenant: Is God Unfaithful? (9:1–11:36)
For most of us, Paul missed a perfect ending at Romans 8:39. Yet once again Paul anticipates the understandable question that all of this confidence in God’s plan raises. Throughout the epistle he has explained how the blessing of Abraham has come to the nations as well as to Israel, just as promised. Yet is the church plan B and if so, what of plan A? In other words, all this talk about election, redemption, justification, and glorification is all well and good. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (8:33). But just who is “God’s elect”? Wasn’t that Israel and if so, how can we, Gentiles, be sure that there isn’t a plan C from which we can be excluded?
Romans 9 is therefore not an abstract discussion of predestination, but a concrete argument answering a concrete and practical question. Israel “according to the flesh” is not simply reduced to a byword now that Christ has come. To be sure, the nation stands under a divine curse or anathema, for which Paul is willing to substitute himself if that were possible. The covenants given to Israel included “the covenants of promise” (Abrahamic, Davidic, new covenant), not just the covenant of law (Sinai), and led to the salvation of the world by a Jewish Messiah (9:1–5). But it is not that God’s word has failed; rather, it has been fulfilled through this redemptive history. Throughout the ages, God has always maintained the prerogative of election. Here, Israel’s national election (which is conditional) and the election of individuals to salvation (which is unconditional) must be kept distinct. Even among national Israel, God has exercised his right to elect one and reject another even before their birth, Paul says—“in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call” (9:11). God is completely free in showing mercy (vv. 14–21), and if he were merely to be just, no one would be chosen (vv. 22–23), but as it is God has elected people not only out of Israel but from among the nations for salvation (vv. 24–29). Israel’s hardening at the moment affords opportunity for the gathering of the elect Gentiles, but this hardening is only partial (since there is a remnant, according to 11:5–7) and only temporary (vv. 25–26). Thus, God remains faithful to his covenant promises even by preserving a remnant among Israel, as from among the nations. God has always worked this way, says Paul. There has always been an elect remnant. There is no plan B or C, but one plan with its twists and turns: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (vv. 25–26, 32). This leads again to a crescendo of praise in verses 33–36.
Enjoying the Trip (12:1–15:21)
It is in view of all of these mercies of God in Christ that we are therefore called to be “living sacrifices” to God, transformed by the word (Rom. 12:1–2). While we all share equally in the one grace of salvation, we have differing graces or gifts in the body, so we are called to love and serve each other with humility, contributing in tangible ways to the material and spiritual needs of the communion of saints (12:3–21). Beyond that sacred fellowship, we are to submit to our secular authorities (13:1–7), owing no one anything but love (13:8–14), without passing judgment on each other and producing divisions over “things indifferent” such as food and drink. Neither legalism nor license, but love, should prevail, imitating Christ’s example of self-sacrifice (14:1–15:7). It is a highway that we travel not by ourselves nor for ourselves, as if to reach a lonely destination, but one that we share with others in love and sacrifice. Yet even in exhorting us to follow Christ’s example, Paul returns to the uniqueness of Christ’s work of service that none but he has rendered (15:8–13). In this epistle, as in his ministry, Paul has fulfilled his embassy “to be a minister in Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:16). Individually (Rom. 12:1) and corporately (15:16), even Gentile believers are made “living sacrifices” through the priestly service of the apostle.
When we actually get on the road, we see that doctrine is practical. Like a good map, sound theology will direct us to our destination, where we live together in real communion in Christ’s cross and resurrection, justification and new life (chapters 3–6), even while we are simultaneously sinful and do not fully realize that communion (chapter 7). It will anchor us in what God has done, so that that which we do is always “in view of the mercies of God.” So there will be real power for godliness and genuine community, not that of our own making. Grounded in God’s sovereign grace, we will at least have our bearings for the road up ahead.
Dr. Michael Horton is professor of apologetics and theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California).