When I was young, I was taught the importance of delayed gratification – “don’t spend all your money on snacks, save it up until you find something you really want.” Of course, whenever I asked how I’d know when it was time to spend, the answer was always the same, “you’ll just know.” Its an important lesson that applies to many areas of life – education, skill development, money, love …. and Bible reading – especially Romans. Often, the thing we need to do is suspend coming to personal conclusions on the text until later (at times much later) while the author (in this case Paul) further develops his argument and brings us to his conclusion. Usually, in our present day “bottom line first” culture, I want to know up front what Paul is getting at – only Paul stubbornly insists on slowly building the argument up over several pages. I ask, “What does this mean?” Then, I remind myself to be patient, keep reading (slowly if needed) and I’ll get there. Its only after we’re at a place to take in the argument as a whole that we can say with certainty what Paul was getting at back there. So, lets take a moment and try to see (very briefly) how Paul’s first major argument in the book is pieced together….
So, here’s Romans. After a brief introduction (which also serves to hint at later content), Paul’s first argument begins at 1:16 and runs through roughly 5:11. Chapter 5 continues as a transition into his second argument which then runs through chapter 8. Chapters 9-11, form the third main section. While Chapters 12-(most of) 15 form Paul’s 4th and final section. The balance of 15 and 16 conclude the letter. One may quibble about precisely where in chapter 5 the transition is made from section 1 to section 2, etc, but these sections are generally agreed upon as forming the basic structure of the book. Each section arrives at a main point that gives context for the many powerful passages and sub-arguments that precede it and the necessary ‘working out’ that generally follows (the main point is a lens or grid through which to properly view the rest of the material). In building each section, Paul asks the reader/hearer to hold the threads of several ideas up at once before eventually weaving them together to arrive at his conclusion to the matter. Its important not to press the arguments of the individual threads too far, as often they can be used to argue precisely counter to the point Paul is trying to make. But, Paul is careful to keep us from doing that – so long as we keep reading to see where he wants us to go before we jump to our own conclusion. Its like my junior high teachers would say, “be sure to read the whole passage before answering the question.”Now, the main thrust of Paul’s first argument is bracketed by 1:16,17 and 3:21-26. The argument builds through the first couple chapters, reaches its peak in chapter 3 and gets worked out in “the story” (chapter 4) and practice (the start of 5). The question at hand is usually framed as something like “who has a privileged position with God,” given the Jewish/Gentile church factions that Paul is addressing. And this is a fair question, which is reasonably addressed by the argument, but one that I think – at least partially – misses the point. I contend that the opening argument of Romans has less to do with the righteous status (or lack thereof) of individual Christians and/or particular groups. Instead, I maintain that Paul’s opening argument is a referendum on the faithfulness of God Himself to His covenant promises. Paul is dealing with the question of God’s righteousness, itself. We might frame the issue like this… Given that we hold that Christ Jesus has given all people standing before God, and given that so many Jews have not responded favorably to this message, how is it that God is being righteous (being faithful to the covenant promises He has made to/through the Jewish people)? This is in fact the question that 1:16,17 references in quoting Hab 2:4 – in light of what God has done / is doing, how is it that He is being faithful to the covenant. Our tendency (due largely to Enlightenment/Reformation influences) is to view Scripture in light of how it effects me, the individual, whether or not the individual was ever a concern of the author in the given passage. Our closing bracket (see 3:25b-26) bears this focus out – This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (ESV).
So, with this in mind, lets look at the constructs of the argument. Romans 1:18-32 introduces Paul’s argument. Due to the specifics that Paul brings into this portion of the argument, and sensitivities in our present culture, I’ll take time in a later post to discuss what Paul is and isn’t saying with respect to homosexuality. However, for the purposes of this post I will avoid delving into the topic. In essence, Paul begins by making it clear that God is right (in view of His covenant) in bringing judgement to the Gentiles in light of their disregard of what is evident of Him and His ways in the very fabric of creation itself. The next leg of the argument (basically chapter 2), Paul flips the argument and states that (in light of His covenant) God is right in judging the Jewish people, who though possessing the markers of the covenant, have disregarded the God with whom they had made covenant as well as the precepts by which they were to abide.
So, if God is right in bringing judgment on both Jew and Gentile in light of each one breaching the covenant how does He show His righteousness on behalf of (positively) His covenant? Well, that’s where faith comes in. Because whether or not one possessed the markers of the covenant (circumcision, law, birth, etc) God vindicates those who act in concert with their trust (faith) in Him.
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. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Rom 3:21-25a, ESV
This is the point, the focus, of Paul’s first argument. Note the “all” in view here is “both Jew and Gentile” in keeping with the rest of his argument.
Now for most of us, and for the Gentile believers he is addressing, Paul could have stopped right there. But, in order for the argument to carry weight with Jewish believers, Paul must continue by showing how his argument is born out in the story. Both Paul and his fellow Jews hold strongly to the fact that God cannot be reduced to a simple list of precepts and propositions – for the Jew, God must always be the One who is faithful to His good creation. IF this idea describes how how God really acts, THEN we will see it played out in the ancient and ongoing story of how God has acted in real space and time on behalf of creation (and the people through whom God would act to redeem creation). This is what chapter 4 is on a out – since God is God of both the Jews and Gentiles – we should see how God’s actions with respect to the faith of all people is played out in the establishment of the covenant to which God has pledged His faithfulness. So, Paul invokes the covenant, but not the expected covenant with Moses, instead Paul invokes the covenant from which Moses’ covenant is derived – the covenant with Abraham. The opening of chapter 5 continues by showing how the fact of God’s faithfulness to the faithful is played out in our lives in the here and now.
So, this overview glosses over an lot of details – which I will be happy to engage with in the comments section if there’s any interest. However, I think in order for us to make sense of the many necessary details, they need to be viewed in light of the main point of the argument (stated in 3:21-25a and bracketed by 1:16,17 and 3:25b,26). To do otherwise would take Paul’s statements out of context and likely lead us to conclusions that even Paul himself wouldn’t recognize.
Pastor Jim Kushner