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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Romans 4 - Part One

In chapter 3 Paul concluded that for Jews and non-Jews to be made righteous by God on the basis of faith instead of law-keeping did not prevent the law from doing what it was designed to do, which was to make humans aware of their sins and create in them a desire that God himself make them righteous. But up to this point Paul had provided no evidence that this righteousness by faith, which he claimed was "testified to by the law and the prophets" really was mentioned in the Old Testament. He will now turn to that task.

What is the train of Paul's argument here? Some have suggested the following:
Abraham is Paul's first example. Paul knows that if he can make a convincing case for Abraham's justification by faith, Jews might be more open to considering the claims of the gospel. After all, if the ancestral father of the Jewish nation did not attempt to earn his way into God's favor, neither should his offspring. Paul was anxious that his fellow Jews discover what he and their father Abraham had discovered- that justification comes by faith (Life Application Commentary: Romans, 81).
Now this is a perfectly correct assessment of the value of the argument in chapter 4, if Paul had been trying to evangelize Jews with it. But we have seen that this was not the purpose of the letter. Paul was writing to believers, and his overrriding concerns were twofold: (1) to minister to his hearers' spiritual needs with a "spiritual gift" (which, as I argued previously, was the text of this letter) in order to make their faith firm, and (2) to foster in the majority gentile group an appreciation for the Jewish roots of their faith. The text of chapter 4 does both of these things admirably. Not only is God not just the "God of the Jews", but also the "God of the gentiles" (chapter 3), but the Jewish patriarch Abraham is also not just the "father of the Jews", but also "the father of all believers" (chapter 4). Some commentators see Paul's purpose here to make Abraham less "Jewish." And indeed it is true that by emphasizing the chronological dimension of the Genesis story, Paul stresses that Abraham was counted righteous by God on the basis of his believing God's promise before he was circumcized, thus making him a "gentile" at the time of his "justification." But one should not overlook the implications in the opposite direction: gentile believers in Jesus look back to a man as their own spiritual father who physically sired the Jewish people, which makes of the two groups one big family.


Of the 7 occurrences in Romans (3:5; 4:1; 6:1; 7:7; 8:31; 9:14, 30) of τί ἐροῦμεν "what shall we say?", five of them introduce questions that must be answered with "No." Here it does not introduce a question, but the functional equivalent is the hypothetical statement "if Abraham was justified by works," which Paul will deny. For this reason, the translation "was gained by Abraham" (NRSV, ESV; BDAG εὑρίσκω 3) is to be preferred to the translation "discovered" (NAB, NET, NIV, TNIV, NLT, The Message), which is just another way of saying "hath found" (KJV, ASV, NASB). This may be another way of asking “Did Abraham our father in fact gain/achieve anything? Or was something rather given to him graciously on the basis of his faith? The question is not “was he justified by works or by faith?” If that had been Paul’s question, he would have written “How did Abraham our father achieve (righteousness)?” The question “What did he achieve/gain?” cannot be answered by “he achieved it by faith,” since “by faith” does not answer the question “what…?”
Since Paul here is addressing his argument to a hypothetical Jew who wishes to claim Abraham was justified by works, he calls Abraham "our forefather according to the flesh," acknowledging that both he and his interlocutor are ethnic Jews. The TNIV paraphrases and calls him "the forefather of us Jews." You’ll notice that I take the words “according to the flesh” as modifying “our forefather”, not the verb “achieve” (or “discover”).
4:2-3 If Abraham earned his righteousness by his deeds (“what did Abraham our forefather gain/achieve?”), Paul argues, he would have something to take credit for. He could boast. But since he was given it instead, because he believed God, he did nothing to earn it. The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 1 is therefore “He gained/achieved nothing!” To prove that Abraham's right standing with God resulted from believing God's promise, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6. That text says that God "reckoned" (or “credited”) righteousness to Abraham, which means it was a gift. In v. 3 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 according to the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, not according to the literal meaning of the Hebrew, which is “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Why did the Septuagint change the verb from an active “and he reckoned it” to a passive “and it was reckoned”? First of all, the ancient Jews of that period felt it more reverent to refer to God’s actions in the passive (“it was said” rather than “he [God] said”).

And secondly, the Hebrew text of Genesis 15:6 as it stands is ambiguous, having the possiblity of meaning “and he (Abraham) reckoned it (God’s promise) to him (God) as the right thing (i.e., true).” This would be saying the same thing as the immediately preceding statement (“And Abraham believed God”) in slightly different words, a kind of poetic parallelismus membrorum. But the translators of the Septuagint (and undoubtedly Paul also) wished to exclude that possible alternative interpretation, which they considered wrong. So they changed “he reckoned it” to “it was reckoned,” which makes the alternative interpretation no longer possible.
4:4-5 The example of Abraham, while very neat and persuasive, is not an exact parallel to the situation of the believer in Christ. At least, not as Paul phrases the matter here. He could have drawn a tighter analogy by suggesting that as Abraham believed God’s promise of a miraculous gift (the birth of Isaac) and because of his trust in God’s word was counted righteous, so also we believe God’s promise of a miraculous gift (forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and resurrection), and because of our trust in God’s word are counted righteous. But he did not use such words or such an analogy. Instead he focused almost entirely on the matter of whether Abraham’s being counted righteous was something given or earned. This was Paul’s main concern. This was undoubtedly because such an idea—that God would justify someone simply on the basis of his trust—was so utterly new. It is somewhat startling that by adding “(justifies) the wicked” (v. 5) Paul by the analogy characterized Abraham himself, that paragon of faith and righteousness, as “wicked” (so NIV; NRSV, ESV “ungodly”) in the eyes of God prior to his response in faith to the promise. But this is an unavoidable conclusion, once one understands the “righteousness” credited to Abraham as a necessary gift. If he was already righteous, Paul reasoned, he would not have needed this gift from God. Ergo, Abraham was “ungodly/wicked” at the time, just like all of us prior to our faith in God’s promise.
How about you? Like me, you have followed Paul’s argument in chapters 1-3 of Romans and have seen that all of us—Jews and non-Jews—although some of us may have been raised in godly homes and have tried to “be good”, all of us have fallen short of sinless lives. And whedre does that leave us? Just where it left Abraham: we are all “wicked” or “ungodly” in God’s holy eyes. We all need the gift of righteousness. We cannot possibly gain/achieve or earn righteousness from such a holy God, who demands absolute perfection. But we can and should accept this wonderful gift from a God who wants to make us righteous. If you have never done so, will you even now tell God that you accept his gift and thank him that his Son Jesus made it possible by his death for your and my sins? I hope that you will.
Meanwhile, since the choir Sunday School does not meet this week, we have time to consider only the first half of Romans 4 today and reserve the remainder for next Sunday.
God bless you all. Have a great week.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Romans 3

3:1-8 The advantage of being a Jew: God's faithfulness

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved. (Romans 3:1-8 NIV)

Paul continues his argument from chapter 2, that the essence of being a Jew is a circumcised heart (v. 29), leading to keeping God's moral and ethical commands (v. 25), not just the outward signs of circumcision and observation of the dietary laws (kasher). But if gentiles can do this as well as Jews and without need for the outward signs of Jewish life (v. 26), what if anything was the advantage of being a physical Jew in Old Testament times and in Paul's day?

Here Paul speaks as a gentile might, who drew a false conclusion based upon his argument in ch. 2 that put the Jew and gentile on the same footing before God as lawbreakers. If Jews and gentiles are equally sinners in God's sight, then there appears to be no advantage at all to being a Jew!

The questioner wonders why God ever bothered to free Israel from Egyptian bondage or give the law through Moses on Mt. Sinai. If all this could produce was a slightly different route to guilt before God, why do it?
The imaginary speaker may also have a second question in mind: whether it is worth all the effort to be a practicing Jew—in Paul's case a Jewish believer in the messiah— instead of a free-thinking, free-living gentile pagan. For as a Jew he realizes that Jewish life is not all privilege: there is effort required to be a faithful Jew. The pagan Romans must often have asked themselves “Why would anyone go to all that trouble and become such odd-balls in society?” Anti-Semitism was rife in Roman society, and is especially prominent in the writings of the elite. Jews were looked down on and not only viewed as a curiosity, but suspected of all sorts of foul play, since their social life was largely concealed from the non-Jews of the city. Jews had to work hard—just as Christians did later on—to gain the right to live according to the laws of God, even if they could never become fully acceptable in Roman society.
Paul’s answering words “much in every way” (v. 1) will be elaborated later in ch. 9. Here he needs to refer to only one principal privilege: the Jews were made custodians of (“entrusted with”) God’s written word (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ “the oracles of God”).
Let's first try to understand what Paul's answer is for the first way of understanding the question. Of what value to God's plan and to the gentile world was the election of Israel and the giving of the law to them? It was not God's will to have angels from the sky proclaim his will and his nature to all nations. Instead, he wanted his righteous nature and his will to be embodied in full view of their neighbors. For this he needed earthly custodians of this revelation, even at the risk of having them prove disobedient and have to receive chastisement from time to time.

These words of God were entrusted to Israel. They were not to be hoarded, but used for the benefit of all peoples of Earth. Even before the rise of the Jesus-believers, Jewish authors indicated their consciousness of this fact: they were God’s means of saving the gentiles. In a similar way, Paul and the other apostles were entrusted with the gospel (1Cor 9:17; Gal 2:7; 1Th 2:4). The Jews were stewards of the OT scriptures, as Paul (ὑπηρέτης, οἰκονόμος) was of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1-2). They even made up edifying stories of biblical characters bringing pagans to faith, such as the colorful tale of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath, found in the Jewish intertestamental writings.
But what about the second question? Of what value to the Israelites themselves was this scenario? Having the scriptures as a guide to life allowed Jews in Old Testament times to know what pleased and displeased God much more accurately than the “law of the conscience” which was all that the gentiles had to guide themselves. And obeying God, even if one could not do it perfectly, brought satisfaction to Jewish souls as well as the possibility of fellowship with God in prayer and worship. Just read the Psalms and see for yourself what joy they had in worshiping and learning from God! There is a Jewish festival today known as Simḥat Tôrah "the joy of Bible Study".
Even though in the centuries before Jesus, Jews understood that they couldn't obey God's laws perfectly, that they could not be "sinless," they aimed for a high standard short of sinlessness, which they called "blamelessness."  Psalm 119:1 reads:
Blissfully happy are those who are blameless (Hebrew tamîm) in conduct, who live according to the law of the Lord.

In Paul's day the advantage of having full access to the word of God in the scriptures also belonged to Jews who were believers in Jesus. We have to realize that for the Church in Paul's day the scriptures consisted entirely of what we call the "Old Testament," and even if it was read aloud in Christian meetings in Greek, not Hebrew, the conceptual "language" behind the Greek was still Hebraic, that is to say, "Jewish." Concepts like sin, transgression, repentance, atonement, forgiveness, and holiness, were very un-Greek and un-Roman. New believers in those days needed a thorough training in Old Testament and Jewish customs and thought patterns in order to follow the readings from (Old Testament) scripture given in worship services. Jewish believers in Jesus had a decided advantage when it came to understanding God's written word, which they could use to help their gentile brothers and sisters in Christ.
Of course, one needs also to balance this advantage with the greater responsibility that accompanied greater knowledge. As Jesus' brother James put it in his general epistle: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers [of scripture], my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 2:26-3:1 NIV). God holds people accountable for how much they know of his will. Does this discourage us from knowing more of scripture? No. But it warns us that God expects us to live up to the knowledge we have, which others do not yet have.
But Paul does not linger to elaborate on this advantage. Quickly, he moves on in verses 3-8 to another question: What effect does Israel's failure to recognize Jesus as their messiah have on God's faithfulness?

Beginning with v. 3, Paul rejects a false belief that God's faithfulness to his promises can be nullified by Israel's unfaithfulness. He will address this matter again in much greater detail in chs. 9-11.
By "entrusting" (Greek πιστεύω pisteuō, the same verb used for putting faith in Jesus) his words to Israel, God as it were put his faith in Israel as custodians. Some Israelites proved unworthy of this trust by disobeying the very scriptures given to them. We know this from the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament, as well as from archeological artifacts that show idolatry practiced in Israel itself during the monarchy. But God's initial "faithfulness"—his commitment to them, his "faith" in them—continued uncompromised by the failure of some of them. God's commitment is like that which he commanded Hosea the prophet to show: Hosea married a woman destined to become an unfaithful wife and a prostitute (Hosea 1); yet God commanded him to go and fetch her from her prostitution and make her his wife again (Hosea 3).
In all periods of Israel’s history, beginning in Egypt under Moses, there was always a part of Israel that was “unfaithful,” just as in its darkest hours under King Ahab there was always a part that remained “faithful.” In Old Testament times, the unfaithfulness of Israel took the form of idolatry and a failure to obey God's law. Idolatry technically was grounds for the rejection of the nation, since the ten commandments were the basis of God's covenant with Israel at Sinai. Yet through all this time, God remained "faithful." He would not reject the nation he had chosen. And although he eventually sent them into exile in Babylonia, they were still his people, and he brought them back under Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra. As Paul explains in ch. 11, the gifts and election of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).
Paul is careful to say (v. 3): “What if some (Greek τινες) (Jews) have been unfaithful (that is, have not believed in Jesus),” for he is well aware that the initial Christian movement in its entirety, those who began it all and continued to be its foundation and bedrock—the apostles and prophets, were all Jews. All but one of the New Testament writers were Jews.
The believers in Rome, both Jew and gentile, were well aware that the majority of Jews in the city seemed permanently resistant to the gospel. God had made a covenant with Israel. But in contracts and international treaties, if one party violated the terms of the agreement, the other party was absolved from all its responsibility. Was this also true with God’s covenant with Israel? Was he now free to become “unfaithful”?

Throughout Israel's previous history her disobedience and unbelief brought temporary punishment, but repentance and restoration were always available. Israel is God’s “prodigal son,” and like the father in that story God is always at the roadside looking for him to return. So far, the faith in Jesus as the messiah has been limited to a small stream of Jews. But in Romans 11 Paul says that in the end the spiritual blindness that has characterized Israel during the present age will be lifted. The repentance will be nationwide. As Paul says in ch. 11:
“Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their failure to believe now means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!” (Romans 11:11-12)
But Paul hastens to add (v. 4) that, even if not just part of Israel, but every human being, rejected God’s truth in favor of Satan’s lie, God himself would always remain the Truth, the standard by which all falsehood is judged.
In verses 5, 7-8 Paul brings up several specious arguments that conceivably could be brought by mischief-makers who wish only to confuse clear-thinking believers. “If good results from evil, how can a good God punish that evil?” This, Paul’s readers know as well as he, is mere sophistry, not serious thinking about God and about good and evil. That is why Paul adds in v. 5 "I speak in a human way." He gives his answer in v. 6: If your premise were to be accepted, God could not judge anyone, since the ultimate good, namely the ultimate Kingdom of God, will come in spite of all the evil in the world.

A prime example of good coming from evil is found in OT history. Joseph's being sold as a slave into Egypt by his brothers was a terrible evil. Yet through that act, God gave Joseph favor with the pharaoh and raised him to power in Egypt enabling him both to save pagan Egyptians and his own family (the nucleus of the future nation of Israel) from dying of famine. Yet although good resulted from an evil act, this did not prevent God from judging the brothers' sin. God would have been just in judging the evil of Joseph's brothers, but they came to Joseph in sincere repentance and were forgiven by his grace. Only two things deterred Joseph's (and God's) righteous judgment: the brothers' repentance and Joseph's and God's grace. These two concepts—repentance and grace—are also key to Paul's gospel as it applies to the Jewish question.
In the next section (v. 9-20) Paul speaks as a Jewish non-believer for half of one verse (9a). But beginning with the words "No, not at all" he returns to being Paul and answers his interlocutor.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? — [Paul:] No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 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. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:9-20 ESV)

The hypothetical questioner built his new question on Paul's affirmation of Jewish advantage in being custodians of God's word. But in reply to the question: "Does this make us (Jews) better off (in terms of building a perfect record of good deeds)?" Paul's answer is that, despite the advantage possessed by Israel of having God's word, the scriptures, Jews are no better off in regard to earning salvation. He repeats the verdict of chs. 1-2, namely, that all people (Jews and non-Jews) apart from Christ stand under the judgment of God because of their failure to live lives of perfect obedience to God's laws. They are "under the power of sin."
To prove that Jews too, with all the advantages of possessing God's word, were as universally guilty of sin as the pagan gentiles, Paul appeals to statements made in the Old Testament scriptures (Rom. 3:10-18). In presenting the way of salvation to our non-Jewish friends, we often quote these OT verses which Paul cited here, but in their original contexts these verses (Psa 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; 53:1-3; 140:3; Prov 1:16; Isa 59:7-8) refer not to pagan gentiles, but to wicked Jews.
As if to make sure that his hearers realized that the cited verses were not just describing non-Jews, Paul adds in v. 19: 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. Since it was the Jews who were "under the law," the passages from the "law" (Old Testament) quoted have to be addressed to them. And thus, added to the gentiles, "the whole world" has become accountable to God.
In v. 20 Paul anticipates an imaginary rebuttal: that although the “law” (i.e., the Old Testament scriptures just quoted) declares all sinners are guilty before God, that same law provides God’s remedy for sin in the sacrificial system and in the requirement of repentance. This seems to have been the view held by many if not most Jews in Paul's day, and it would have been known even to gentile Christians who had any contact at all with the synagogues.

This ancient Jewish basis for confidence in God's forgiving their sins has been given classic formulation by E. P. Sanders under the name "covenantal nomism." Such Jews did not believe they could enter the kingdom of God on the basis of their good deeds, but by being members of the covenant community and utilizing the means of obtaining forgiveness: (namely) repentance, confession of sin, and making the sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses. They relied upon the grace of God and his provision for their forgiveness. They strived to keep the commandments, not in order to earn salvation, but in order to live out their status as saved members of the covenant community and thus "stay in" the community of the saved. Sanders concluded that the old view of the Protestant Reformers, that Jews in Paul's day relied on their good deeds to secure a blessed afterlife, was a serious misreading of the views of  Jews in the days of Jesus and Paul.

This, of course, raised the question: What then does Paul mean when in his letters he criticizes the Jews who do not believe in Jesus for seeking salvation by "the works of the law"? Was Paul himself misled? Or did he deliberately misread the beliefs of his opponents? Most scholars—and certainly all evangelical ones—would reject either of these two answers. But building on Sanders' insights, the British New Testament scholar James Dunn has innovated what is called "the new perspective on Paul", according to which the "works of the law" that Paul rejected as having any role in salvation were not the ethical commandments (such as the Ten Commandments: do not lie, kill, steal, commit adultery), but circumcision and the dietary laws, what Dunn calls the "Jewish boundary markers," the visible signs that one belonged to the chosen people of God.

But in my opinion it is more likely that the expression "works of the law," as Paul uses it, was not restricted to these "boundary markers," but certainly included also the ethical commandments of the law. And insofar as it may have focused upon the Jewish boundary markers, this also entailed the entire sacrificial system.

Some scholars who buy both Sanders' and Dunn's ideas seem to believe that Paul's chief objection to covenantal nomism was that it was inappropriate for his gentile converts. But Paul's (and God's) argument is that it is inappropriate for Jews as well!
If indeed covenantal nomism was the view of Paul's non-believing fellow Jews, his reply to them here in Romans is that the law of Moses belongs to the pre-messianic age. And it can never make sinning people right with God, but only demonstrate to them that they are "accountable" (that is, "guilty" ὑπόδικος) and liable to God's judgment. Paul argues that the very “works of the law” that they depend upon, including the sacrificial system itself, condemn them, since ironically recourse to that system required that a person first confess his particular sin and guilt (Lev 5:5-6; Num 5:7), and only afterwards make his sacrifice. These sacrifices, like the law as a whole, belong to the pre-messianic era. As Paul had written earlier to the Galatian churches,

“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:23-25 NIV)
The NIV's paraphrase "was put in charge" renders what is literally "was our tutor (or guardian)". This supervision or guardianship role of the law extended beyond merely its ethical commands. It included the sacrificial system, which also was preparatory, finding its perfect fulfillment in Jesus' death and resurrection. The sacrifices in the tabernacle and in the Jerusalem temple had never been able take away sin, but were merely an anticipation of the messiah's future sacrificial death which would be the true work of atonement. Now that the messiah had come and fulfilled what the Old Testament sacrifices only foreshadowed, anyone who claimed them as a means of escaping God’s judgment on his sins was merely admitting both his guilt and his lack of a remedy outside of the messiah. As the writer to the Hebrews put it so clearly:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that were to come—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4 NIV adapted)
While the attitude that Sanders and Dunn call "covenantal nomism" might have secured forgiveness for pious Jews prior to the advent of the messiah, it was completely inadequate and powerless afterwards.

3:21-31 God's righteousness

Rom. 3:21 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

The various modern English Bible translations differ in vv. 21 and 22 as to whether they add the word "the" or not before "righteousness" and "law". Is the righteousness God's own rectitude or a right standing that he gives? Is this apart from "the law" of Moses, or apart from "a law," i.e., any code of morality? These differences are significant, and yet the Greek text cannot tell us which is meant.
I prefer the NIV's combination, which you have heard read: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify." The reading “a righteousness of God” means not God’s own righteousness which is one of his attributes, but a right standing with God which he can give to believers. “Apart from law” means that this righteousness is achieved apart from keeping any moral code, not just the law of Moses. While none of these three renderings results in heresy, I would say that the NIV’s combination is closest to what we know elsewhere to be Paul’s view of justification.
In v. 21 Paul writes that it is only "now"—with the death and resurrection of Jesus the messiah—that this righteousness has been disclosed, but according to Paul's understanding of two OT passages which he will be quoting soon, the idea of persons being counted right with God (that is, “righteous”) on the basis of their faith is implied in Israel's scriptures, even if it was not understood until now.
In v. 22, all the modern translations say—in various paraphrases—that righteousness from God comes “through faith in Jesus Christ to/for all who believe”. And here we must be careful. For here the Greek actually has the definite article and a genitive meaning "of": “through the faith of Jesus Christ”, not “in Jesus Christ.”
What could Paul have meant by “through the faith of Jesus Christ”? You remember from our discussion of ch. 1 that the word for “faith” in biblical Greek (πίστις) can also mean “faithfulness.” And many interpreters argue here that it was the faithful obedience of Jesus that Paul means here. It was through Jesus’ faithful obedience unto death that God’s righteousness can now come to all who believe.
Paul’s use of the word “all” in v. 22 ("all who believe") refers to both Jews and gentiles who believe in Jesus. That is why he immediately adds (v. 22) “for there is no distinction”: God gave the Jews an advantage by making them custodians of his written revelation, but they are equally sinners in the eyes of God; and with regard to the requirements for receiving his gift of righteousness they must come the same way that we gentiles do—by faith alone, without making any claim based upon Israel's law.
“All (i.e., both classes) have sinned” (v. 23), and “all (i.e., both classes) are given right standing with God freely by God’s grace through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus (v. 24).
Both Jews and gentiles need the same “justification” (right standing) and the same “redemption”. Both require God to be gracious, that is, to show his mercy to the undeserving. This and other passages in Paul refute the idea that, if God's election of Israel still exists, it must mean that there are two routes: one for Israel through the law and without belief in Jesus as the messiah, and one for gentiles through belief in Jesus.
The two different prepositions used in v. 30 "by faith" for Israel and "through faith" for the gentiles merely reflect different modes of acquiring faith. Israel already had the spiritual preparation provided by the centuries of God's revelation in the Old Testament, enabling them to only add the recognition of Jesus as their promised messiah and come "by" the faith already promised to them. On the other hand, the pagan gentiles had no such preparation— they come to God "through" the faith prepared for Israel. This distinction, which Paul tries to express by varying his prepositions, is not intended to give Israel a special route to God that is a detour around the messiah Jesus. There are not two routes to God, but historically there were two on-ramps (v. 30) to the single route: one for those with the advantage of better prior information about God and those without. It may help you to think of the analogous situation today of two persons, one of whom grew up in a loving and Bible-knowledgeable family, and the other in an atheistic one. Persons in the former position can certainly choose not to follow in their family's path, but they have a better chance of knowing the relevant truths and seeing their outworking in their parents and siblings.
In v. 25 Paul proceeds to explain what he means by “the redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις apolutrōsis) that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24). The redemption was accomplished by Jesus’ sacrificial death, which is expressed here by the word for “atoning sacrifice” (ἱλαστήριον hilastērion) and by the phrase “in his blood.” God has “presented” (NIV) or “put forward” (NRSV, ESV) Jesus as this atoning sacrifice (hilastērion), but it must be received “by faith”, or, as the NRSV puts it so nicely “effective through faith”.
What does Paul mean by “put forward” or “presented”? The last part of the verse explains that: Jesus’ death for us not only accomplished our salvation, it also vindicated God for crediting righteousness long before Jesus’ death to those Old Testament saints who believed. Their sins were not expiated by animal sacrifices, but God “passed over” them in view of what he knew his Son would accomplish. Old Testament saints like Moses, David, and Elijah had their sins forgiven, as it were, on credit. When the proper time arrived, God "presented" Jesus as the atoning sacrifice that made good all that "credit" extended in Old Testament times. God didn't need a congressional bail-out! He paid  the debt with the blood of the Lord Jesus.
In v. 26 Paul unites the two notions inherent in the phrase “the righteousness of God”: by doing all this, God was able to prove the rightness or justice of his behavior and at the same time give right standing (“justify”) the one who is "(the beneficiary) of the faithfulness of Jesus” (τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ). Once again Paul uses πίστις pistis as to denote the faithfulness of Jesus as our obedient Dying and Rising Savior.
Paul closes this section of his presentation in vv. 27-31 with a triumphant conclusion. God is able to solve all the problems by this plan. In the process he also eliminates any grounds for human boasting, bypassing law-keeping and substituting the principle of faith. By operating on this principle God is able to use two different historical operations—two "on-ramps" (the election of Israel and the election of gentile believers) to accomplish the salvation of those who believe. He is not only the God of the Jews, nor is he only the God of the gentiles. He is the God of both. When Paul writes in v. 30 "he (i.e., God) is one," he alludes to the Jewish creedal statement, the Shema Yisrael, that was recited daily by observant Jews. "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is One." Therefore God is at liberty to unite the two groups on the basis of faith in his Son. In a real sense, gentile knowledge of God is always mediated through Jewish knowledge of God. As the Christian bumper sticker puts it, "My boss is a Jewish carpenter."
And finally, in v. 31, the big question: does this role of faith in the saving of both Jew and gentile now "invalidate/abrogate" (katargoumen) the law? No. By showing that the law's proper role was always to guide in behavior and alert to sin, we give to the law its proper role. This verse properly leads into the next chapter, since Paul now must find an example in the "law", i.e., the Pentateuch, to rebut the charge that salvation by faith left no purpose for the law.
Normally, we evangelicals read these verses as a defense of the teaching of justification by faith. But when we understand that Paul also anticipates much hostility to Jewish things among the gentile believers in Rome, we see this in a different light. Paul doesn't want Jewish believers in Rome to try to force gentile ones to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. But he also doesn't want the majority gentile believers to belittle Israel's scriptures or to fail to see how vital Israel's law was and is in its proper role of showing human sinfulness and making necessary both the messiah's atoning sacrifice and God's free gift of right standing to believers. When we come to chapter 12, we will see how Paul addresses the question of whether or not the law of Moses has a role in guiding a believer's moral life.
Our study of chapter 12 is still another few months away. But you don't have to wait for the class to read the chapter! And I hope I have made you a little curious. After all, we all want to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Romans 2 (Wini Hoffner)

This week we are pleased to have Wini Hoffner as our "guest columnist", whose excellent study of Romans 2 we use here.


We have seen that the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans is “the Gospel”.
Rom. 1:16  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.
Rom. 1:17 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.”
As Harry pointed out last week, what Paul means by “the gospel” is the good news of God’s entire plan of salvation and righteousness for all humankind, Jew and gentile alike, including his plan for the last days.
And so Paul speaks about the sin of all people in chapters 1-3. For the gospel is the good news of God’s salvation work of saving us from sin’s penalty, bringing us from death to life.
But the gospel is also the good news of God’s provision through his Spirit for us to live sanctified, holy lives. And so Paul speaks about freedom from sin’s tyranny and life in the Spirit in chps. 6-8.
The gospel also includes the good news of God’s plan for the restoration of all creation back to its original perfect state.
Rom. 8:19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
Rom. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
Rom. 8:21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
The gospel is “good news” for Jew and gentile alike and so finally in chps 9-11 Paul shows that God will be faithful to his promises to Israel. There is a future for ethnic Israel in God’s plan. Although Israel, because of their unbelief, is set aside for a time so that the gentiles might come to salvation their rejection is not final. We will go into this in detail when we get to chapters 9, 10, and 11.

I. The Universal Reign of Sin

The first thing Paul addresses in his defense of the gospel is the problem of sin.
In v. 18 of chapter 1 Paul begins his argument that because of the universality of human sin God is justified in condemning all humans —Jew and gentile alike.
The wrath of God is being revealed”, he says in 1:18. We see evidences of the wrath of God every day all around us... evidences of his displeasure with the sin of all mankind. But this is just a foretaste of the wrath of God that is to come at the end-time. Paul gets to this in chp. 2.
Here Paul addresses the subject of God’s righteous judgment... the inescapable, inevitable response of a holy God to unholy sin.
In chapter 2 Paul adopts the style of a debate with an unseen critic. This style is a type of composition which the ancients called a diatribe, in which questions or objections were put into the mouth of an imaginary critic in order to be demolished.
Who is Paul’s imaginary critic?
Many commentaries say that this entire chapter is addressed to Jews. But is it clear that in Paul’s mind his critic could be either a Jew or a gentile. This is obscured by many Bible translations which leave out a vital word in verse one -- “O man” (or “O human”). 
Rom. 2:1  Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. (RSV) (also ESV)
Paul is emphasizing here that God’s standards are the same for Jew or gentile, male or female. His judgment is impartial.
So to this imaginary critic Paul says:
Rom. 2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Rom. 2:2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.
Rom. 2:3 Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Rom. 2:4 Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Rom. 2:5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (RSV)
Paul is attacking all who pride themselves on their moral superiority, Jew as well as gentile... people who have a knowledge of right standards but who do not in fact do them.
Jews in Paul’s day had more knowledge of the requirements of God’s moral law. But a few verses later Paul will point out that gentiles have in their consciences a “law to themselves”, on the basis of which they will be judged.
In v. 3 Paul questions his critic, perhaps with a bit of sarcasm:
Rom. 2:3 Do you suppose, (actually believe) O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Do you think that because of your own superior moral knowledge, your own self-righteousness, that God owes you heaven?
Or (v.4) Do you think that because you have lived a long life without any sign of God’s judgment that it is never going to come?
No, Paul says. This very patience of God---this delay in his ringing down the curtain of history---is actually intended to give people a chance to repent before it is too late!
How is God’s judgment different from our own?
  • It is based on truth.
  • It is righteous (i.e., just and fair) judgment.

God’s wrath against all evil is already revealed in his laying the world’s sins on Jesus at the cross, but his righteous judgment on those who stubbornly refuse to repent and believe in the Savior will only be revealed at the second coming, which Paul in v. 5 calls “the day of wrath.”
Question for your thought: What harm to our own souls comes from judging others?
Judging others with smug self-righteousness is evidence of a stubborn, unrepentant heart. Those who judge others are so busy looking at the sins of others that they don’t see their own sins. And so they are:
Rom. 2:5 storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
This “day of God’s wrath” will come at the end time. And the following verses Paul describe what will happen on that day.
Read the following verses
Rom. 2:6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
What does this mean? Is this “works righteousness”?
Verse 6 is a quote of Ps. 62:12. This is logical of God as a just judge, and it is plainly stated in scripture. Each person is judged according to what he has done, not according to what he knows. Even Christians, who know that they owe their salvation not to their own deeds or merit, but to God’s mercy and grace, must never lose sight of the fact that they will face an evaluation of their lives and service when Jesus returns.
2Cor. 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.
What is the “doing good” of verse 7? It is perfectly obeying God’s perfect standard.
God’s standard is perfection. And it is by that standard that he judges all people. People who do evil works will suffer wrath. People who persist in doing good will gain eternal life. In both cases, it is that standard that Paul has in mind, not the people who meet that standard.
In vv. 12-16, Paul himself gives the best explanation for what he means in vv. 6-11. No one can meet that standard. That is the problem. And so he says:
Rom. 2:12  All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
A Jew’s knowledge of God’s law is not going to save him. And a gentile’s God-given conscience which shows him right from wrong is not going to save him. People are condemned, not for what they know, but for what they do with what they know.
As Doug Moo points out in his commentary on Romans:
We must remember that Paul is in the process of building a case. It can be summarized like this:
Salvation for both Jew and gentile is available only by doing good. (2:6, 11, 13)
The power of sin prevents both Jew and gentile from doing good (3:9-19)
Therefore: No one can be saved by doing good. (3:20)
II. The Law

Having established the fact that all humans, Jew and gentile alike, will be judged according to how their actions meet God’s perfect standard, Paul now changes course and addresses an imaginary Jewish critic. someone who prides himself on his superior knowledge of the law and his special relationship to God.
Rom. 2:17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.”
The “boasting” of vv. 17 and 23 (or “bragging” in NIV) does not mean inappropriate conceit, but rather overconfidence. They assume that God will always look on them with favor because of their special relationship to him as his chosen people and because of their special knowledge of him through the law. Surely these privileges make them right with God. Paul points out the very opposite is true. These special privileges make them even more responsible to carry out God’s will.
Paul says to his Jewish critic “you consider yourself a guide to the blind” and “a light to those in darkness..” Paul may here have had in mind a passage on the blindness of some who are supposed to be guides like Is. 42:18-20:
Is. 42:18 Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see! … 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. (RSV)
And of course Jesus made this accusation of the Pharisees in Mt. 15:14:
Matt. 15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (RSV)
The role of Israel as teacher among the nations is referred to in other ancient sources, such as Josephus and Philo. How can they teach others, Paul asks, when they themselves are guilty of the same sins as those whom they purport to teach?
Paul enumerates the sins in vv. 21b-22.
Some commentators say that this is a figurative list, an exaggeration. Surely Jews did not rob temples, for instance. John Zeisler, however, points out that the charge of temple-robbing may
allude to a case noted by the Jewish historian Josephus, in which there had been embezzlement of funds given as contributions for the temple in Jerusalem. If so, then it was a Jewish temple that had been robbed. On the other hand there is some evidence in contemporary or near-contemporary sources that on occasion some Jews were not above stealing or receiving valuable items from pagan temples, despite the ban on such actions in Deut. 7:25ff.

At any rate, the point is that Jews are no better than others. Their privilege of having the law and knowing it does not offer them automatic protection. One has to do the law.
Furthermore, Paul charges, to boast in having the law but to break it is to dishonor the name of God.
Rom. 2:24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.”
James tells us to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word.
We know God’s Word; we are exposed to good teaching of the Word; we are memorizing the Word. But is this enough?
Questions to think about: Is it possible for a Christian to “presume” upon God’s mercy and grace in a similar way? How?
Do our actions reflect what we know and believe? We are known as Christians. We bear the name of Christ. Do our actions as Christians honor or dishonor the one whose name we bear? If our lives do not reflect what Christ is like then we discourage other believers and give nonbelievers reason to speak evil of him.
Paul continues his argument that a Jew who breaks the law is no better than a gentile. In fact a gentile who keeps the law is as good in God’s eyes as any law-abiding Jew. He makes this point by talking about circumcision--the sign of the covenant.
Rom. 2:25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.29 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.
Circumcision is the physical mark that shows one belongs to the covenant people--people chosen by God as a special possession. Surely it ought to make some difference in the way that God treats people. Surely at the judgment one who is circumcised will be recognized as a member of the people of God.
No, Paul says. Circumcision has meaning only when it is accompanied by a heart’s desire to obey the law.
“The heart in biblical usage is not specifically the seat of the emotions. It includes other aspects of the inner self, most particularly the will and the mind. Circumcision of the heart is thus synonymous with being a Jew inwardly, with having an inner commitment to God and to his will.” (Ziesler, p.93)
Any gentile who has such a total commitment to the law will be regarded by God at the Judgment as having been circumcised and so belonging to his people.
This “circumcision of the heart” is not new theology invented by Paul. There are many passages in the OT that show that God has always wanted circumcision of the heart--inward circumcision.
For example:
Deut. 10:16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.
Jer. 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.
Ezek. 36:26-27 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Circumcision of the heart is always accomplished by the Spirit of God.

Throughout this chapter Paul is showing that God judges every human being impartially on the same basis--what he or she has done, and that no one is good enough to save himself or herself.
So far Paul has not told us how we can be saved, but he is scattering hints throughout these opening 2 chapters.
Here in chapter 2 he said:
Rom. 2:13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Rom. 2:16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
The statement that “God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” is part of the Gospel, Paul declared.
In this statement we see the merging of the two sides of the Gospel--the grace of God juxtaposed with the severity of God. The Gospel is the good news that God has made righteousness available to sinful men through Christ. But the Gospel also declares that all who stubbornly refuse that gracious gift will be judged by the One through whom it was made available.
The savior is the judge.
The judge is the savior.
All must meet him as judge, but before they do he comes to meet them with the gift of his own perfect sacrifice for their sins--a sacrifice that satisfies God’s just and righteous judgment. The Gospel never lowers the standards of God’s requirements. It makes them possible of realization.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Romans 1

1:1-7 When you or I start a letter, we first write the date at the top, then we start with "Dear…" It isn't until the end of the letter that we add our names. An ancient letter had a different format. And by "ancient" I mean this format goes back thousands of years before Paul. Hittite, Babylonian and Canaanite letters used the same structure and sequence of elements.
The introduction to a typical letter in Paul's day would contain the name of the writer and any appropriate term describing his relationship to the addressee(s), in other words the information Paul puts in verse 1. It would then contain an identification of the addressees and a salutation as in 1:7.

But Paul does here something he only does in one other of his preserved letters (in Galatians): he inserts material not immediately germane to the letter conventions. This is the material in vv. 2-6,which is directly relevant to what Paul wishes to emphasize to this particular church. And it is precisely what we can gather from his inclusion of the discussion in chs. 9-11, a discussion that he has with no other church, namely the importance of the role of Israel in God's plan to save gentiles. Here in the opening lines of the letter Paul stresses Jesus' Jewishness — he was the "son of David"—something that Paul mentions to a gentile church only in Galatians 4:4, where he writes that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (NRSV, ESV, etc.).
In addition, since Paul's letter is a special kind of letter, he uses his self-identification in verse 1 as a springboard: a series of relative clauses each built upon the preceding ("which … who … through whom …among whom you …") allows him to make a transition through the gospel (v. 2-3a) to Christ himself (v. 3b-4), and then doubling back through the apostolic recipients of his grace and apostleship (v. 5), to "you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ" (v. 6). In this way he establishes a link between himself and these people, most of whom he has never met. This is how he "introduces" himself to them.
1:1-2 How is it that Paul describes himself to the Roman hearers in these opening lines?
a servant of Christ Jesus: Greek doulos can mean anything from a slave with no rights or property to a high official in government who is the "deputy"of the king. "The servant of Yahweh" is a common designation of prophets in the OT, and of Moses himself. Paul might be alluding to his enslavement ot Christ (no rights, totally belonging to), but I rather think this is an honorific title in this context, intended to show the Roman Christians his authority. A physician at the scene of an auto accident might well introduce himself as "Dr. So-and-so," so that his expertise might immediately be used.
called to be an apostle: The Greek noun apostolos designates one who is dispatched on a mission with the full authority of the one who sent him. There were a limited number of persons in Paul's day who could lay claim to that title. Like the Twelve, Paul received his apostleship by the direct call of Jesus, when he appeared to him from heaven on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
set apart for the gospel of God: It was on that same occasion that Jesus gave him a special mission, which he refers to here. He was entrusted with a gospel ("good news") that came from God himself. This gospel was anticipated ("promised") in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. Like other Jews of his time, Paul uses the term "prophets" to refer to all portions of the scripture, not just what we call the prophetic books.
1:3-4 The gospel that Paul was set apart to propagate concerned God's Son. Paul doesn't use the name Jesus until v. 4. The gospel is much more than what Paul says in these two verses. What he limits himself to saying here is that at its center was the activity of God's Son who was born a descendant of King David, and was shown to be the powerful Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. And thus he is fully known as "Jesus" [human], "the messiah" [promised], and "our Lord" [divine].
1:5 It is to a call from this person that Paul owes his own apostleship. It was the duty and privilege of Paul's apostolic calling to bring about “obedience of faith” among the gentiles. Paul always understood his commission to be primarily to non-Jews, although as opportunity allowed he shared the gospel with Jews as well. This is important here, because Paul will now use that as a direct link to his hearers in Rome.
1:6 In several of Paul's other preserved letters he addresses his hearers as "called to be saints"—"saints" means "holy ones" (Greek ἅγιοι hagioi, 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1). This appellation "holy ones" derives from the Jewish background of the faith. In the law of Moses the priests were commanded to maintain their consecration ("be holy").According to Deuteronomy23:14 the entire wilderness camp was to be kept holy, since God dwelt in its midst. In Joel's prophecy (3:17) the end-time city of Jerusalem would be entirely holy to God. Since in Paul's understanding the end times had been inaugurated among the believers in Jesus (1Cor. 10:11 "the ends of the ages"), it was logical that all the believers were holy to God and should maintain that holiness in their daily living.
1:8-10 It was a common convention in Graeco-Roman letters, even pagan ones, to include a pro forma prayer at the beginning of the letter. But we may have no doubt that in Paul's case this was no mere form. Prayer and dependence on God's guidance through answers to prayer formed the very backbone of his itinerant mission.
His prayers always begin with thanksgiving. Paul's gratitude wasn’t for what God had done for him personally, but for those to whom he ministered. Not thanks for good health and easy circumstances, but for conversions, for growth among the converts, for new opportunities to serve and witness.
The faith of these people in Rome was "proclaimed throughout the world", meaning the Roman world. Since "all roads lead to Rome," people from all over the empire came there sooner or later, and there in the capital city these believers were a "light to enlighten the gentiles" (Isa.42:6; 49:6; 52:10), as Jesus was (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23).
We tend to think of verses like this as meaning that the faith of the Roman believers was “talked about” all over the empire. Perhaps. But Paul uses a strong word here, “proclaimed” (καταγγέλλω kataggellō). It is a word used 18 times in the New Testament, and in all the other 17 places it is used of a gospel proclamation, not just chit-chat. Paul may be implying that believers all over the empire are using the fact that a Christian community exists in Rome as part of their appeal to their own friends and neighbors to join the faith. How do non-believers observe "faith"in believers? Sometimes in tough situations, where we don’t panic or complain—sickness, loss of employment, mistreatment by others. In situations like those, faith can be a very visible thing. But it is likely also that the Roman believers talked to others about their beliefs and how it had affected their lives.
1:9-12 The mention of thanksgiving leads Paul to the subject of his prayers for these Christians in Rome. He wants badly to visit them, but only if it is God’s will. He prays that he may succeed somehow in coming to them “in God’s will.” His word “somehow”(so NRSV, ESV; omitted in NIV) has a certain irony. He had no way of knowing that the “somehow” part of his prayer would be answered by his being brought there as a prisoner awaiting trial before the emperor! God takes us at our words in our prayers.
His motive for asking to come to Rome wasn’t just curiosity or to receive their financial support. Paul wanted to be able to strengthen (στηρίζειν stērizein v. 11) their faith through the ability that the Holy Spirit gives to him.
1:11 Commentators have long debated what Paul had in mind when he wrote: “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:11-12 NIV). Some think he means imparting one of the gifts of the Spirit that he discusses in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. But Gordon Fee (God’s Empowering Presence, 486-89), is probably right that the gift he envisages is the content of this letter,elaborated upon personally if he is able to reach Rome. It is the content of this letter that will strengthen their faith and provide mutual encouragement. At the end of this very letter (16:25-27) Paul commits his hearers to God who is able to strengthen (στηρίξαι stērixai, 16:25) them according to the gospel he spent the entire letter talking about.
What does he mean by “strengthen”? Paul wants to create a loyalty to Christ that will be so strong, that the persons who have it will never be dissuaded, never abandon their discipleship. We have all known people who were enthusiastic Christians for a while, but then suddenly abandoned their faith. Such people were apparently never "strengthened" in their faith, as Paul prayed the Roman believers would be. The “strengthening” isn’t a once for all experience, but a lifelong process. When Christians cease exercising their faith, cease filling their minds with scripture and proving God in prayer, that is when the chinks in the armor of faith begin to appear.
1:13 One purpose of this letter was to prepare the way for Paul's visit. In it he needed to convince the believers that he had a need and a right to visit them as "apostle to the gentiles". But he had been missionarizing for decades now, and had never come to Rome. This must have perplexed — maybe even irritated these people. Were they not in the very heart of the empire? Was their location not strategic for a mission to the gentile world? Why had he not come before now? For some time prior to AD 57 when Paul wrote this letter, he had on several occasions planned to visit the believers in Rome, but circumstances prevented it. At the end of the letter (Rom.15:17-23) he tells them that it was his other pressing ministries in the east that prevented an earlier visit.
Another purpose of the letter was to make them aware of his need for financial support for the Spanish mission. The woman who delivered Paul’s letter was a well-to-do deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, near Corinth. Her name was Phoebe. She had contributed financially not only to her local church but also to Paul’s missionary travels. Her physical presence in Rome would also encourage them to support Paul’s Spanish mission. Some people believe gathering support for this mission was part of what he meant here by "reap some harvest among you".
1:14-15 Paul's commission from Jesus obligated him primarily to a mission to non-Jews (i.e.,gentiles). He subdivides gentiles into "Greeks and barbarians".This is just a way of saying cultured and uncultured gentiles. The pair of words “wise and foolish” may be intended to reinforce this subdivision.
Paul hopes that these gentile believers in Rome will realize without his having to say so directly, that they too have an obligation: to help him to fulfill his mission to the gentile unbelievers in Spain, and will provide him with both monetary and prayer support. But now it is high time to begin his long explanation of his gospel.
1:16-17 The reason why—in spite of several aspects of his gospel that many had found embarrassing, offensive or illogical—Paul isn’t ashamed of it, is that it proves able to do what no other message can do. It can save Jews and gentiles from their sins and make of the two one new body in Christ. Paul calls it "the power of God" because only God is able to do such a thing.
The expression "power of God"has an interesting history. Its primary reference is to the resurrection of the dead, as seen in this quote from Jesus to the Sadducees who openly denied the final bodily resurrection: “Isn’t this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scripture [that speak of it] nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24 ans parallels)
Only God can raise the dead. Only God can give new life to sinners, dead in their sins (1Cor1:18, 24; 2:5; 2Cor 13:4; Col 2:12).
The gospel is God's saving and life-giving power offered to sinners, but specifically: "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." One of the paradoxes of Paul's thinking is his ability to hold simultaneously to the absolute impartiality of God ("to all alike—Jew and non-Jew") and to Israel's priority ("to the Jew first, and also to the Greek").
Jews were the first in time to believe in Jesus—his immediate circle of Jewish followers. Also in Paul's ministry he usually made converts first in the synagogues among Jews and gentile "God-fearers", and then expanded his ministry to the town as a whole. One can see how it was only through Jewish converts that gentiles were reached with the gospel.
But it is wrong to limit the words "to the Jew first" to the prior offer of the gospel to Jews. It is wrong to conclude that the Jews had the first chance in Palestine, but they blew it, so that God has washed his hands of them. This explanation doesn't do justice to the comprehensiveness of Paul's commitment to "the Jew first", or to his confidence that in the end "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11).
1:17 The conjunction "for" (Greek γάρ) which introduces this verse signals that it offers an explanation for one of the statements in v. 16. But which one? If it is the first, it answers the question "Why are you not ashamed of the gospel, Paul?" If it is the second, then it answers the question"How is the gospel God's power to save?" Which one of the two questions we think Paul is answering will determine how we understand his phrase “the righteousness of God.”
If we think he is answering—"Why are you not ashamed of the gospel, Paul?"—we will interpret the "righteousness of God" as God's "justice"(so translated in the Roman Catholic NAB version)—there is nothing unjust or unfair in his doing what he is doing. He is justified in condemning some sinners and saving others. He is justified in allowing pagans to become members of his family without circumcision and allowing most of the living Jews to reject their messiah and fall under his wrath. In this view this verse sets the stage for all that Paul will argue from this point until the end of chapter 11. It is a long theodicy—a defense of God against the charge that he has acted unjustly. Paul often refers to God's "righteousness" in the sense of his just behavior (Rom.3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26).
The second view—that the word"for" explains how the gospel can be God's power to save—takes the "righteousness of God" as a right standing with God that he gives to believers. Paul also speaks elsewhere of God's "righteousness" as a gift that he confers (Phil.3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21).
A third view of what the "righteousness of God" means, relates it to God’s eschatological purpose of a righteous world. In Paul’s “already—not yet” view of the Last Days, it can be said that the anticipation of the future worldwide righteous kingdom of Christ at his Second Coming is the righteousness of God possessed “already” by believers. That includes both our justification (being saved from sin’s penalty, chs. 1-11) and our living out the inner righteousness (saved from sin’s power, chs. 12-15).
The phrase "from faith to faith"which describes "the righteousness of God" has caused readers to scratch their heads from time immemorial. The key to the meaning is the recognition that the Greek word for "faith" here also means "faithfulness." God's saving righteousness comes to us "from faith," i.e., because of the faithful obedience of Christ in dying as our sinless substitute, and it comes "to faith" in that only those who believe can receive it.
Paul's next words "as it is written" introduce a passage from Habakkuk, which he quotes not from the precise wording of either the Hebrew or Greek versions, but in a slight paraphrase of his own.
Habakkuk’s words can be cited in support of Paul’s claim that God is just in saving pagan gentiles. For Habakkuk too had a problem with God's justice: How could he use the idolatrous Babylonians (much more sinful than Israel) to conquer and carry off into exile the less sinful Jews? The situation is remarkably similar to the gospel riddle of God's temporary abandonment of Israel to unbelief and his acceptance of raw pagan Greeks and Romans as his children. In both cases the righteous person “by faith” credits God with the wisdom and justice that are manifestly his.
Paul's rewording of the quote from Habakkuk can also be made to support the second suggested meaning of the righteousness of God. For the prophet and God's ancient people Israel would continue to "live" through the faithfulness of God, the God whose covenant with them wasn’t to be invalidated by his permitting the Babylonians to capture Jerusalem and carry away its people to exile.
1:18 With the word “for,” beginning in 1:18, Paul develops his argument that (1) because of the universality of human sin God is justified in condemning all humans and impartially choosing some to be saved by his mercy, and that consequently (2) all humans—both Jew and gentile—are in need of the gift of right standing with God, a standing that only Jesus the messiah can give through the gospel. This covers both of the possible meanings of “the righteousness of God” in 1:16-17. Just as God’s righteousness “is revealed” in the gospel, so also is his wrath against universal human sin. This deliberate parallel—highlighted by the identical verb in the Greek (ἀποκαλύπτεται apokaluptetai) in vv. 16 and 17—shows that both are anticipations of eschatological wrath and righteousness respectively, and excludes the notion that God’s wrath against sin was or could have been known outside of the gospel.
In his speech to Greek philosophers on the Areopagus recorded in Acts 17, Paul explained that God overlooked pagan idolatry through its long history, until the death and resurrection of Jesus and the promulgation of his gospel—“but now he commands all people everywhere to repent …” (Acts 17:30). The period of God’s amnesty ended with the point in time ("now") when he offered a basis for a complete pardon in the gospel.
The fact that Paul doesn’t say that God has only now become angry against human sin, but rather that only now has it been revealed (ἀποκαλύπτεται apokaluptetai) by the gospel, shows that the wrath was there all along, only unperceived, and that it will be exercised in the End Time.
God’s wrath (or anger, ὀργή) is the flip side of his love. And just as his love (ʾahaḇāh, Hebraicly understood) isn’t just a warm feeling, but a specific act of choosing and including some (those who believe), so also his wrath (ὀργή) isn’t just an emotional state, but a specific attitude of rejecting and excluding others (the unbelievers).

The text says that God's wrath is directed against the sins ("all ungodliness"), not the sinners. But so long as the sinners have no way of removing their sin, that wrath will inevitably affect them as well. The seriousness of God's wrath is shown by his judging human sin in the sacrifice of his only Son. That Son cried out in the moment of his dereliction: "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" (Mat. 27:46). "Forsaken!" There is the ultimate rejection and exclusion, the ultimate act of God's wrath.
Notice the prominent emphasis that Paul places on the word "all": "against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth". God isn’t selective in what form or forms of wickedness he hates: not just murder, not just homosexual practices, not just the idolatry of greed, not just white-collar crime. Nor is he only angry at Europeans or Americans or Muslims. Paul’s point is that God is utterly just and impartial. He will hold every person responsible for his behavior, regardless of his religious affiliation or creed: Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or nominal Christian. Apart from the salvation that is available to all in Christ, there is no distinction. But that salvation itself—given freely in Christ’s death and resurrection, and received by simple faith—is the great distinction that separates the only two real classes of people in the world: the forgiven and the not (yet) forgiven.
The last part of verse 18 raises a question in our minds: What is the “truth” that people suppress by their unrighteousness? We aren’t talking here about some set of facts, knowledge of which is suppressed like some huge abrogation of the First Amendment protecting free speech. No, Paul uses the word “truth” here in a more profound sense, harking back to the pre-Fall condition in the Garden of Eden. For him, “Truth” means the correct relationship between Creator and creature. When Jesus said "I am the Truth", he didn't mean "I'm the answer-Man; I'm 'Dex'". He meant: "Look at me, how I live, how I speak and act. I am the Unfallen Adam. I am the Truth." It is this relationship to the Creator that was distorted by the first human sin, and continues to show itself in the sins that Paul will now begin to list and which he typifies by pagan idolatry.

Idolatry is a fundamental—and culpable—misunderstanding of who God is and what he expects of his creatures. Its beginnings are found in Eve’s inadequate reply to the serpent’s insinuation about God’s character. Is God selfish and unjust in what he requires? Or are we? Does he have a right to expect complete obedience by his creatures? Or do they have a “right” to selectively obey and disobey without having to face any unpleasant consequences? Ultimately, it boils down to the succinct question:“Who’s in charge here, anyway?” Who gets to define what justice is?
1:19 Beginning in v. 19 and continuing through the end of ch. 1, the description of the people shows that their source of knowledge of God doesn’t include the scriptures. Paul is describing here the gentile world that doesn’t have access to the Bible, not the Jews who do. This is what Paul in his rhetoric is saying to these ancient Romans. But the Holy Spirit also speaks to us today as well. There are more ways than one to have no scripture. How many people do you know who know virtually nothing about the Bible’s message? How are they any better off than the raw pagans that Paul describes here to the Romans of his day? How much more knowledge of God does a 21st century person have whose entire knowledge of the Bible’s content consists of what can be gleaned from TV or the newspapers or from “World Lit”classes in high school? Would such people be able to explain to you why God is justified in sending a single person to Hell, or on what basis he might be able to forgive some?
How would a pagan Roman respond to Paul’s words: “God himself has made clear to them what may be known about God” (v. 19)? He would gladly agree that his own knowledge of the gods is complete—he might be proud of that!
1:20 But he wouldn’t agree that there was only one God, and that this one God had made it all clear to him. And he wouldn’t admit that this knowledge leaves him “without excuse” (v.20) when it comes to God’s judgment. This would also be the response of the typical modern American or European unbeliever.
Here, I believe, we reach the crucial point,where we must ask who in Rome Paul wants to hear these words. This letter wasn’t an open letter, posted in the Roman Senate building, or some “95 Theses” nailed to the door of a public building to be formally debated. No, this was a letter sent to believers who happened to live in the moral cesspool that we call ancient Rome. To use an expression common in Christian churches Paul was “preaching to the choir”. I won’t say that Paul is setting up “straw men” to debate with: that wouldn't be fair to him. But he is definitely relying on the correct mental attitude of his Christian audience and therefore doesn’t feel he has to construct water-tight arguments. Instead he is essentially paraphrasing statements about the pagan world found in the Psalms and other polemic portions of the Hebrew Bible. This is what most Jews in Paul’s day believed about their gentile neighbors but would never think of saying to them. This is “insider” talk. You and I certainly agree with Paul that what God has revealed to all humans about himself through the created universe is enough to leave us all without excuse, if we don’t worship and serve him and him alone. So also did his Christian readers of this letter. And that is what mattered to Paul. He may use the outward literary forms of Greco-Roman argumentation here, but his opponents are entirely imaginary and have no real existence in the house-churches of Rome,where the letter was publicly read.
The purpose of the letter wasn’t to convince outsiders. It was intended to describe to Christians in Rome the gospel that he had been preaching and would like to preach in Spain, God willing. And parts of it were intended to correct the thinking of gentile Christians who despised the Jewishness of the gospel.
That is why for the most part Paul is content to defend his claims by merely quoting the Old Testament. He knows he can depend on his listeners to accept any claim that can be supported by an appeal to the scriptures. He couldn’t depend on outsiders to be convinced in this manner.
1:21 Beginning in v. 21 and continuing for several verses, Paul shows the effects that this fundamental rejection of true knowledge of God as Creator and Moral Guide has had and continues to have on the pagan Roman lifestyle. He uses past tense verbs here ("knew", "glorified","gave thanks"), not present tense ones, so that he may be implying that the world’s present condition is the result of events in the past, perhaps even those recorded in the Book of Genesis prior to the Noachic flood. In fact, some scholars plausibly explain much of Paul’s discussion here in the light of what Jews in his day conceived of as God’s requirements for the gentile word based upon his dealings with Noah and the covenant he made with him (Gen.9:1-17).
These benighted gentiles who have rejected the knowledge of God given to all people in the creation fail to “glorify him as God”. What does Paul mean here by claiming that the pagans don’t "glorify Him as God”? Surely, he knows that the pagans have a form of worship, that they sing hymns and offer sacrifices and gifts to their gods. Is this not “glorifying”? And when they present sacrifices at harvest time, is this not being “thankful”? These are difficult questions to answer. But perhaps the words “glorify him as God”are important in order to stress that they don’t glorify God as he desires them to: not just by ceremonies, but by consistently righteous behavior. If in the Old Testament already God has cautioned even the Jews themselves that the true sacrifices God wants aren’t slaughtered animals and clouds of incense, but contrite hearts, confessing and forsaking sins, and doing deeds of kindness, is this not also what he requires from the pagans, if they propose to justify themselves by their deeds? I think we can assume that to be the case. Once again, we find that in order not to misconstrue Paul’s words we have to keep in mind that he is speaking to believers who know the Old Testament scriptures and who understand his claims in those terms, even if they are left unstated.
1:22-23 And although some in the upper classes of Greek and Roman society admitted the illogic and crudity of venerating statues of the gods, in general it is safe to say that the main critics of idolatry in Paul’s day were the Jews.
This critique began already in Old Testament times. It reached its peak in the denunciations and ridicule heaped on idol worshipers in the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah, and continued in Jewish literature from the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
In v. 23 the gentile pagans exchanged God's "glory" for images. The Jews indeed knew God’s true glory. But how does Paul (or his Jewish source) conceive that the pagan gentile world once knew God's glory? If we say "through the created world" (Psalm 19), then by constructing images of that created world by which to worship the divine, the pagans weren’t exchanging anything! If, on the other hand, we take the argument back to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew God's glory firsthand. Yet their descendants exchanged that glory for idols. I think we have to conclude that Paul means that the pagan world refused and continues to refuse to see the Creator's glory not just as the fruits of nature, but as his perfect righteousness revealed negatively in their consciences, and that theyrefused to honor to honor him by conforming to those righteous standards of living.
1:24-25 Paul follows the typical Jewish explanation of all immorality as flowing out of idolatry. In the Old Testament (e.g., in the gold calf worship in Exod.32, and in the Balaam story in Num.22) even among the Israelites the worship of idols was always accompanied by sexual immorality. So here v. 25’s mention of exchanging God’s truth for the big lie, which Paul explains involves worshiping a created thing or being instead of the Creator, and leads to following their evil desires into “sexual impurity” (NIV) and the dishonoring of their God-given bodies among themselves.
1:26-27 Since all forms of sin consist in a perversion of what is righteous, Paul chooses one example to highlight this aspect of sin. Not because it is the worst of sins, but because its nature as an illogical perversion is the clearest. When Paul calls the pagan indulgence in homosexual practices “unnatural” or “contrary to nature”, he doesn't appeal to “nature” as something abstract and independent of God. On the contrary, this is just another way of appealing to the Creation Order as described in Genesis 1-2, the way things were intended by the Creator. Homosexuality is "unnatural" in that it doesn’trepresent what God intended when he made men and women with physical bodies that have a “natural” way of interacting with each other and “natural” desires for each other.
Paul follows the OT and Jewish tradition in seeing all homosexual relationships as sinful. The creation account reveals the divine paradigm for human beings, indicating that God's will is for men and women to be joined in marriage. And whenever there is even a hint of homosexual behavior in the Old Testament, it is vigorously condemned (Gn. 19:1-25; Jdg.19:13-20:48; Lev. 18:22; 20:13), not because it is outside of “marriage” or is “uncaring”, but because it is “contrary to nature” (παρὰ φύσιν).
Paul also calls the impulses to such behavior “dishonorable passions” (NIV; πάθη ἀτιμίας v. 26). Utilizing the word “dishonorable” would have resonated with the Roman sense of honor as opposed to shame. Paul’s word “consumed" (ἐξεκαύθησαν, literally, “burned up”, v. 27) gives a strong image of a powerful and self-destructive inner desire.
The sin described in this verse isn’t pederasty (homosexual conduct of grown men with boys), which was popular among the Greek philosophers, but men engaging in sin with other (grown) men. Modern defenders of homosexuality can find no justification here for the claim that Paul condemns only abusive homosexual relationships such as sex with children. He has in mind what he knew of such trysts among the Greek men and women, many of which could be justified as “caring” by modern defendersof the gay lifestyle. But the scriptural judgment is that they are “unnatural” and therefore contrary to the will of the Creator, who made us male and female for a good reason. And like idolatrous worship, they are a perversion of the Truth of God; they are a Lie.
1:28 “Furthermore, since they didn’t think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a worthless mentality, to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:28 NIV)
1:29-31 A worthless mentality leads to worthless behavior (in vv. 29-31). Paul mentions examples, some of which were denounced by the pagan philosophers as well: covetousness, envy, malice, strife, murder, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, hatred, insolence, boasting, disobedience to parents, unfaithfulness, lack of pity, and ruthlessness.
1:32 When the Paul writes that people who reject the true knowledge of God and are given over to a panoply of sins are “deserving of death,” he doesn’t mean capital punishment, but God’sown sentence in the Garden of Eden, “you will surely die”(Gen. 2:17). In New Testament terms this means eternal death, begun already in the present life in the form of separation from God. The word “deserving” recapitulates his argument in the preceding verses: they are without excuse.
But v. 32 is the real “kicker”:the deepest depravity of moral thinking isn’t shown by thosewho do such things, but those who deliberately defend those actions as noble and acceptable, even though their consciences tell them that persons doing such things are worthy of God’s condemnation.
I tremble at the fate of “moral theologians” who relativize God’s absolutes and transform actions clearly prohibited in the scriptures into noble behavior committed because “God made me this way.” Would it be fair of me to justify my murdering someone by saying "God made me this way"?
We all wrestle with fallen natures that flood our minds with strong desires and impulses. But God intends us to resist them, not indulge or justify them. It isn’t “merciful” to trivialize deeds that displease God. To do this is to be like a physician who denies that the patient with a life-threatening disease needs any treatment. True mercy is in helping the doers to find God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It is our privilege and joy as believers, mercifully and with understanding for those caught in the tentacles of compulsive sinful behavior, to provide help from the scriptures and support their resolve to break with that behavior.
Perhaps your church provides opportunities to give this kind of lay ministry to people with destructive compulsive behavior. It is a ministry of mercy we should all be devoted to.