12th December 2002
This talk is the last in a series of twelve in which we have studied the whole of Paul's letter to the Romans.
We will briefly look at the last three chapters (14-16), and then look back over the book as whole to how it all fits together. One possible problem with a detailed bible-study series such as this one has been, is that you can get into a situation where you can't see the woods for the trees: you pick up the idea that Romans 6 is about X and Romans 7 is about Y, but you don't get the broader vision of how all fits together. That's what we want to address tonight.
Actually, I'm not planning to cover this, since we always run out of time. My guess is that the bird's-eye overview of the whole book will be more useful to most people; and I'm getting tired of always preparing two or three times as much material as we have time to use.
More than any book of comparable length in the bible, Romans makes a single, sustained, developed argument. If focus so much on individual passages that we miss that, then we miss the point that Paul was trying to make.
The argument, pared down to basics, looks like this: God is angry with all of humanity, and his anger is just because everyone falls short of living up to even what little they know of him (ch. 1-3a). So he has offered a way to righteousness by grace, approriated through faith (ch 3b-4). This needs to be explained in detail (5-8) both to defend it against misunderstanding, and to bring out the amazing positive consequences. The next issue is how this new way of salvation relates to the old way of the law (9-11), which is seen as being a shadow of the reality, or a tutor to lead us to the reality. Finally, we are presented with some down-to-earth consequences of the new way (12-15a), showing us how we should now live in the light of what God has done.
Now we'll look at each section in a little more detail.
Apart from the usual letter-writing formalities, Paul's focus seems to be on the statement of his manifesto, right up front:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ``The righteous will live by faith.''- Romans 1:16-17
It's not unreasonable to describe the whole of the rest of the book of Romans as an exploration of this opening statement.
Paul starts on a negative note, by exploring in detail the reason that the gospel is necessary: because of the pervasive sinfulness and failure of humanity. As he analyses three groups in detail, the same argument pertains to each: that the people Paul describes are not living up to the light given them. The pagans of 1:18-32 have very little understanding of who God is; but they do not respond even to the little understanding that they have. In contrast, the Jews in 2:17-3:12 have a great deal of understanding, but their trust in that understanding rather than in God himself.
That's why this whole section will later be summarised as follows:
There is no difference [between Jews and gentiles], for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,- Romans 3:22b-23
Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.- Romans 1:20-22
These disturbing words serve as a warning to every group that sets itself up against God: hedonists, moral relativists and those who deliberately cultivate atheism, including certain groups of scientists. God's word is that everyone, whether they have heard the gospel explicitly preached or not, has the opportunity for some understanding of who God is.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.- Romans 2:1
This is reminiscent of James's warning: ``Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.'' - James 3:1.
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.- Romans 2:28-29
Here and later in the latter, Paul works towards a new, spiritual definition of Jewishness: it is not to do with outward signs such as circumcision, nor to do with being physically descended from Abraham (``Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel'' - Romans 9:6). This theme is developed more fully in chapter 9
Having painted a very black picture in the first two and a half chapters, Paul now explains God's solution to the situation. This is perhaps the main part of the letter to the Romans: it's certainly the longest, as Paul has a lot of ground to cover in order to make himself properly understood.
First he simply states God's solution to the problem of sin: that ``a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known'' (3:21). Chapter 4 is devoted to exploring the example of Abraham, before moving on to the consequences and benefits of God's solution in the first part of chapter 5. The second half of that chapter contrasts Adam with Jesus. Chapter 6 expounds on the change that God works in us when we accept his gift of righteousness, and the first part of chapter 7 illustrates this through an analogy with marriage. Finally, the remainder of chapter 7 describes the torment of struggling with sin, and so sets up the glorious chapter 8, a rhapsody on the theme of the Holy Spirit's work in us, our ultimate destiny, and our total security in God's love.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.- Romans 3:21-22
The whole of chapter 3 - indeed, the whole of Romans - turns on those words ``but now'', which introduce a transformation in the tone of the book. To this point, all has been doom and gloom; but these words sweep all that away with their glorious pronouncement of God's initiative.
Chapters 4-8, in their different ways, explore the ramifications of this new righteousness from God.
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ``Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.''
Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!- Romans 4:2-3, 10
Here, Paul is appealing primarily to the Jewish Christians in Rome, who will have found it hard to accept justification by faith because of their extensive background in the Old Testament law. Paul carefully shows that Abraham, a key OT figure, was justified by faith: indeed, it must be so, since the law had not been given when Abraham lived.
Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. [...] If, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!- Romans 5:1, 10
Our peace with God does not rest on our degree of sanctification (an unsteady process in which we hope to make progress, but are usually rather up and down); but rather on our justification, which is a once-for-ever finished work that God has done.
If, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.- Romans 5:17
Adam is seen as the father of the old life, and Jesus of the new. They are similar in that each of their actions affected multitudes; but different in that while Adam's sin brought a curse, Jesus' sacrifice brought blessing.
All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.- Romans 6:3-5
Paul emphasises the radical transformation that God works in us when we accept the free gift of righteousness: here it is likened to being buried with Christ and then raised with him; elsewhere, Paul describes the transformation as ``a new creation'' (2 Corinthians 5:17) and as ``You were dead [... but God] made us alive with Christ'' (Ephesians 2:1-5).
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.- Romans 6:15, 18
Twice in chapter six (verses 1 and 15), Paul addresses the obvious objection to salvation by grace: that if God credits us with righteousness whatever we do, does it matter what we do? Shall we continue in sen? The answer is a swift and conclusive negative (``What a ghastly thought!'' - J. B. Phillips.) The transformation in our identity precludes any such behaviour: in a fundmental sense, we are no long sinners - we are ``slaves to righteousness'' because that is our nature.
You died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.- Romans 7:4
The analogy of a marriage shows us how we are freed from the impossible demands of the law. While a husband lives, a wife who leaves him for another man is an adulteress - and we are ``married'' to the law, which will never die. The solution to this dilemma is that we die (sharing in Christ's death), so dissolving the ``marriage'' and freeing us to belong instead to Jesus.
In my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.- Romans 7:22-23
Paul is not unrealistic - he recognises that even though we have a new nature, the old nature is still lurking in the background. It is dead, but - like a chicken with it's head cut off - it's still running around the farmyard. The next chapter will show us the solution.
(Some claim that in this passage Paul is describing the plight of someone who is not yet a Christian. We won't comment on that :-)
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.- Romans 8:5
The Holy Spirit lives in those who have received the gift of righteousness, and a part of what follows from that is that our minds become set on what the Spirit desires. This theme is developed further in chapter 12.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.- Romans 8:19-21
In this passage, Paul takes us on a brief diversion into a profound mystery: it seems that the fate of all creation is tied up in our own destiny, and that its redemption will come with ours. This is a glimpse into cosmic wisdom.
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.- Romans 8:38-39
These dozen verses form the peak of the book of Romans, and maybe even of the entire bible. Paul piles assertion on assertion, and in the end question on question, raising his prose to the level of poetry as he expounds our security in God. That security comes not from any sense that we are confident in our ability to hold on to him, but that we trust him to keep hold of us. (As John Stott has pointed out, the doctrine known as ``the perseverance of the saints'' should be renamed ``the perseverance of God with with saints''.)
At this stage, there is a change of gear. Having started slowly and darkly with the exposition of humanity's sinfulness, then picked up the pace with Paul's get ``but now'' of 3:21, the book of Romans has been gathering momentum all the way to the climax at the end of chapter 8. Now that we've reached that peak, Paul starts to explore the consequences of the doctine he's been expounding. First, he describes God's dealings with Israel in history, in the present and in the future (9-11); then he goes on to talk about some of the practicalities of the new life (12-15).
God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ``Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'' But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ``Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?' ''- Romans 9:19-20
The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the ``stumbling stone.''- Romans 9:30-32
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved [...] for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.- Romans 11:25-29
More than any other section of Romans, this part of the letter seems to flit between subjects without a clear thread tying the different ideas together. Paul is surveying a swathe of issues that arise from living the new life in the Spirit. This section bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount in that both are very down-to-earth, practical how-to-live teaching sessions. But it's crucial that when we interpret, understand and attempt everything Paul describes here, we do so in the light of the first eight chapters.
I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.- Romans 12:1-2
It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.- Romans 13:5-7
As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.- Romans 14:14-15
Finally, the meat of the letter is behind us; all that remains is for Paul to tell his reader what his plans are, and to pass on greetings to various people known to him - although even these functional passages are peppered with seemingly unrelated insights.
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. Rather, as it is written: ``Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.''- Romans 15:20-21
Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.- Romans 16:8-12
In all honesty, I find it difficult to draw much significance from the bulk of this chapter. What meat there is seems to be mostly in parenthetical comments such as `` such as ``The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.'' (16:20, italics added).
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/romans/14.html.