The Crisis: Torah and the Gentiles

In many ways, Paul’s letter to the Romans has shaped contemporary Christianity more than any other book in the New Testament. It was in his reading of this letter, along with Galatians, that Martin Luther first glimpsed a message of grace, of God’s free gift to human beings, that had been almost hidden by the overgrowth of popular belief and church practices in his German homeland. Inspired by Paul’s clear and bold declaration of “righteousness by faith and not through works of the law,” Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral and set in motion what would become the Protesant Reformation. Since that day, Protestant Christians have nearly always been united by their conviction that Paul’s teaching in Romans expresses the heart and centre of God’s work in our world.

Precisely because of their pivotal role in defining Protestant doctrine, though, it has all too often been forgotten that the book we know as Romans is a real letters. Paul did not sit down to write theological treatises. He did not have the luxury of laying out his understanding of God’s work in a nicely ordered book, with each facet of the divine-human relationship given the attention it deserves. Just as in the Corinthian letters, so in Romans we find the Apostle resorting to a written message because circumstances have forced his hand. A crisis has emerged. Paul, though, is too far away to step in and give guidance. Frustrated by the distance that separates him from the imperial capitol, caught with pressing work that cannot simply be dropped, he resorts to a letter as a poor substitute for his face-to-face presence. In the process, Paul did in fact work out an understanding of God’s mission in Christ that the later church came to recognize as crucially important. We cannot forget, though, that this gospel of grace was crystalized for the Apostle in the heat of crisis.

Broadly speaking, the conflict behind Romans was the same one that dominated the church of the first Christian century. The conflict did not arise where we would expect it. Paul’s letters give no hint of debate over the exalted status being accorded to the man Jesus. No, the firestorm of controversy raged instead around the gentiles, the growing number of Christ-followers who came straight from a life outside the boundaries of Israel. Paul’s practice was to welcome these gentiles as full members of God’s renewed creation without asking them to convert and become Jews. The Apostle to the gentiles insisted that these pagans were already “in” as soon as they gave their trust and allegiance to Jesus. There was no need for them to keep the commands of Israel’s torah as well. To most Christians today, this seems like an obvious move. For Jesus’ first followers, though, it was shocking. Jesus’ invitation to trust and repent had been made by the Messianic king to the people of Israel. There might have been hints in Jesus’ teaching that non-Jews would come and join them. The natural assumption, though, was that they would join Israel. Even if they did not convert completely, “righteous gentiles” were expected to adopt much of torah as the pattern of their life. None of Jesus’ words had prepared them to expect that God would welcome non-Jews who continued to disregard that law’s commands. Yet this is what Paul offered his gentile hearers–membership in God’s restored community without practicing God’s law.

This torah-free mission is what Paul is concerned in Romans to defend. After years of planting and nurturing communities in the eastern Mediterranean, the Apostle was looking for fresh opportunities in the west. Rome would be a natural base of operations for that next phase of the gentile mission. So as Paul prepared to set sail, he needed to win over the Roman believers who remained suspicious of the torah-free message. Quite likely this suspicion was shared by Roman Jews and non-Jews alike. Many in the Roman churches likely began as “God-fearers” in the synagogue, non-Jews who adopted much of torah without actually being circumcised. In many cases it was the torah itself that attracted these gentiles, offering a trustworthy guide to a virtuous life that would satisfy their Creator’s will. How could Paul say this God’s will had suddenly changed? Why would God suddenly leave human beings without any pattern for living a moral life, for building a healthy community? How could gentiles learn to be citizens of the New Creation if they were told they could ignore torah?

Paul’s Defense of God’s Righteousness

Paul’s letter to the Romans is modeled on the speeches of court-room defense lawyers. His “client,” the defendant, is his missionary message that God is rescuing all who trust Jesus, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not, regardless of whether they practice torah or not. Paul states the “thesis” of his argument in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is God’s power to save everyone who believes, first for the Jew and also for the Greek.” How, though, is Paul going to defend this message? His counter-claim is summed up in the second part of his opening thesis: “For the righteousness of God is being revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (Rom 1:17).

The key phrase here is one that resurfaces like a refrain throughout Paul’s letter: “the righteousness of God (dikaiosune theou).” This ambiguous phrase could refer to God’s own righteousness, the justice and faithfulness that is displayed in his acts. Or “the righteousness of God” could be the right behaviour that God produces in the lives of human beings. As the letter unfolds it appears that Paul has both ideas in mind. In fact, the two sides of “the righteousness of God” neatly combine the two Romans’ two basic concerns about Paul’s message:

  1. If gentiles are welcomed into God’s kingdom apart from Israel’s covenant, does this not make God unjust to Israel?
  2. If gentiles are welcomed into God’s kingdom apart from torah, does this not mean that God is promoting sin?

To the Romans, Paul’s message and mission work seem to undermine both facets of the “righteousness of God.”

In order to defend his gospel Paul will need to answer both challenges. He will have to show that his interpretation of God’s act in Christ does not portray an unjust God, one who betrays his own people Israel. At the same time, he will have to show that his message does not just leave his converts to wallow in their sin. He will have to show how, on his version of events, God can actually create the restored human community of justice and love that was always Israel’s end goal. Paul will have to show that his message does not cast God as the enemy of righteousness, but that we see in Paul’s gospel how “the righteousness of God is being revealed.”

What Is Not the Issue?

Some readers will notice by now that I haven’t mentioned Luther’s classic opposition between “salvation by works” and “salvation by faith alone.” Why not? Because that simply was not the debate behind Paul’s letter. The Roman believers (as well as Jews in general) knew very well that they did not earn their salvation by doing good works. They would be the first to praise God for his grace and mercy in saving sinful people. Neither did pious Jews think they were sinless, perfect. All of these caricatures of early Judaism dissolve as soon as one reads some of the writings those Jews left behind, books like the Psalms of Solomon or the Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran or even the tractate Avot from the Mishnah. Where did this distorted picture of early Judaism come from? In large part it arose from the Reformation rhetoric in which Luther and others read Galatians and Romans as direct responses to the excesses and abuses of Rennaissance Catholicism. So if some Catholics that Luther faced treated salvation as a reward for their strenuous labour of good works, it was easy to assume that Paul’s opponents had the same mindset. Add to this the anti-Semitism that blanketed Europe through the 19th and early 20th-centuries, and it seemed natural to portray the Judaism of Paul’s day as a legalistic perversion of God’s will for Israel.

As scholars have begun to penetrate this legacy of distortion, though, it becomes increasingly clear that Paul and the Romans actually agreed about most things. They agree that God’s offered rescue cannot be earned, that we can only embrace it in an attitude of grateful trust in God. They also agree that this rescue is meaningless if it does not give birth to a morally changed community. Those who are rescued by faith in Christ must live differently as a result. For the worst kind of hell would be one in which sinful human beings were immune to God’s judgement but were allowed to go on abusing one another in an orgy of selfish violence. Paul and the Romans both presume (in good Jewish fashion) that God’s goal is a cosmic community in which the harmony and life of the first creation is finally restored. Paul and the Romans agree, too, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, whose death was a unique sacrifice “for us.” It is only on this basis, they agree, that God is now able to rescue his people from their sins and begin to remake them in his own image. All of this is common ground when the Apostle begins to dictate his letter.

Paul is not, we must remember, motivated to write to the Romans because they have fallen into deadly theological error. He could have done that at much more convenient moments in his career, and he had no reason to wait until this late date. Instead, he is writing to gain their support for his mission (Rom 15:19-29). He views the Romans as his brothers and sisters in Christ, as faithful believers, and he hopes they will embrace him the same way (Rom 1:7-15). This is not to deny that Paul hopes to teach the Romans something. He clearly does think their theology can be corrected in places. But the Romans’ salvation, the validity of their faith, is never in question. The problem is, rather, that their misunderstandings lead them to suspect Paul’s torah-free mission to the gentiles. Paul’s task in the letter is to defend God’s offer to include non-Jews in God’s kingdom, even if they never adopt Israel’s law.

An Argument in Four Stages

After his thesis statement, Paul’s defense moves through two “rounds” of argument. In each “round” the Apostle responds to the Romans’ two basic objections in the same order. So the letter body falls neatly into four stages:

  • Round 1 (Rom 1-8)
    1. Is God not unjust if Israel’s covenant brings Jews no advantage? (Rom 1-5)
    2. Does God not promote sin if torah is no longer binding? (Rom 6-8)
  • Round 2 (Rom 9-15)
    1. Is God not unjust if gentiles are saved while most of Israel is left out? (Rom 9-11)
    2. Does God not promote sin if people do not have torah as a moral guide? (Rom 12-15) “

Impartial Justice and Covenant Faithfulness (Romans 1-5)

First Paul argues, in chapters 1-5, that his Gospel does not imply that God has betrayed the covenant. Yes, he admits, God is treating Jew and gentile on the same basis. The covenant made centuries ago at Mount Sinai does not give the Israelite access to any special grace or privileged access to God’s kingdom. But this is, Paul argues, just what Israel has said all along–that God is an “impartial” judge who gives kings and beggars exactly the same justice. Indeed, it is Paul here who argues that God’s judgement has to be made on the basis of what we have done, not on the basis of our membership in Israel’s club. Otherwise God’s justice (the righteousness of God) would be overturned. Yet (and here again Paul can count on the Romans’ agreement) none of us has acted well enough to escape punishment if God were to hold it all against us. Both the gentile world and Israel herself has displayed over and over again an incorrigible tendency to make idols out of whatever is at hand, to rebel against our creator’s life-giving will, and to scar ourselves and one another in the resulting violence. The Romans’ traditional Jewish theology thus leads to an impasse. God must judge all of humanity on the basis of their actions, but if he does so the only possible verdict will be “guilty.” There is indeed a threat to God’s own just character here, but it is his own moral dilemma. Having promised to rescue Israel, how can he make good on that promise without violating his just character as an impartial judge of all humanity?

At this point Paul reminds the Romans of the sacrificial death of Christ. The Romans knew that this was the site where God made final atonement for Israel’s sin. Paul adds now that the cross is where “God’s righteousness” was established. Until that moment God had to leave many sins unpunished. Otherwise he would had to have destroyed Israel along with the rest of sinful humanity. In the innocent suffering of the Messiah, however, atonement could finally be made. God found a way to avoid his people’s destruction, while at the same time avoiding any hint of special treatment. For through the sacrifice of the cross both the Jews and the gentiles find the atonement they require to enter God’s renewed world. By trusting in that atoning sacrifice they find that forgiveness and life is available beyond their terrible failure to live God’s way.

Again, the new thing here is not that human beings need God’s grace and forgiveness. A “righteous” life under torah had always included access to mercy when one inevitably sinned, both through repentant prayer and through the temple sacrifices. There was never a question of earning salvation by obedience, still less of an obedience that was perfect. Through chapters 2 through 4 Paul seems to be in dialogue with a singular “you” who is a deliberate caricature, a hypocrite who assumes an unjust privilege simply because he is a Jew. That imaginary figure allows Paul to highlight for his audience the need for God to deal impartially. It is not that hypocrite who claims perfection, though. It is Paul who emphasizes that God cannot leave sin undealt with when the world is put right. He deliberately ignores Israel’s traditional means of grace–prayer and sacrifice–because these cannot be God’s final answer to human brokenness. The gentile world would be unjustly excluded.

So as Paul tells the story, God’s extension of an invitation to the gentiles is not a theological embarrassment. It is a theological necessity. It is the one way God could be true to both sides of his own character in dealing with a rebel creation. True, the upshot is that Israel has no “boast,” no superior privilege except the honour of having been God’s instrument. Israel’s anointed rescuer has become, at the same time, the rescuer of all humanity. The Jewish Messiah has become a new Adam. So that the paradox of God’s covenant kindness to his people and his universal justice could finally be reconciled.

A New Duty and the Power to Fulfill It (Romans 6-8)

Turning to chapter six, Paul shifts his focus to address his audience’s inevitable objection. It is all fine and well for God to resolve the human crisis in this universal offer of salvation, but how is he then going to fix the world? The law that formed Israel’s covenant responsibility was not just a set of arbitrary rules. Torah was both her duty and her reward. In the law God’s people had been given a training course in right action, a pattern of community life that approximated God’s original intent for human relationships. If the people kept that law fully, they would experience something approaching the New Creation. So when the prophets looked for Israel’s final redemption that day always included the people’s finally becoming able to obey. The law would be written on their hearts, not just so that they can jump through an arbitrary hoop, but so that their obedient lives would together re-make the human experience of life together. So what happens to all of this when Paul offers gentiles membership in God’s people apart from Israel’s covenant, telling them that they do not have to keep torah? They may avoid final judgement, but they seem doomed to simply bring their corrupt lifestyles with them to shatter the goodness of the Messianic age. No wonder the Romans think Paul’s gospel makes God promote sin!

The Apostle’s answer to this is to insist that the relationship established between the believer and Christ carries an inherent duty of obedience. Believers may no longer face the curses of Deuteronomy on those who violate torah. But they have escaped judgement by becoming the subjects of a new king. They have escaped the first Adam’s curse by becoming the second Adam’s subjects. In essence Paul insists here that he agrees with the Romans: God’s rescue in Christ must bring about changed lives or it is no rescue at all. Yet that obligation, Paul says, need not come from the legal framework of torah. For those who are “in Christ,” their very life carries with it an obligation to live like the one “in” whom they live.

Once again, though, Paul is not content just to defend his version of events. He insists that, in fact, the believer’s spontaneous duty to “obey righteousness” succeeds where torah finally failed. In chapter 7 Paul dramatizes that failure by adopting the persona of a person who comes fresh to the law from a pagan life. The Romans may even have seen their own story in this “speech in character,” for most of them would have come to the law’s requirements as adults. In any case, he adopts the persona of someone who has found in torah the guide he needs. The problem he meets, though, is that he finds his will paralysed. He knows how he should live, but he cannot follow through. Paul’s point here is that the law itself is not what has allowed anyone (including the Roman believers) to live a transformed life. If God has invited gentiles to join in his restored people without taking on torah, its regulations were never the key ingredient in God’s renewal of his people’s life. What makes the decisive difference is the Holy Spirit at work within believers. This is what the Romans themselves have experienced, since they all received God’s Spirit. For the first time they can actually please God with their actions. Far from promoting sin, then, God is inviting gentiles to receive this life transforming presence.

The Tragedy of Israel (Romans 9-11)

At this point in Paul’s defense speech (remember, he is most likely dictating!) Paul has already addressed both of the Romans’ main suspicions. He is well aware, though, that not everyone will be convinced. So at the opening of chapter 9 he returns to their first question: Does Paul’s gospel not make God act unjustly toward Israel? Here he begins by addressing the real, emotional pain and outrage that he too feels as he sees synagogue after synagogue shut its doors against his message. Many Jews have embraced the message that Jesus is Messiah, but many more have turned a deaf ear. As this pattern of resistance became more and more pronounced, many Jews (including Paul) began to feel the same grief that Jeremiah did watching his neighbours follow their false prophets straight into the slaughter and suffering of the Babylonian exile. They assume, with most Jews, that those who reject their Messiah’s message will be destroyed. They have set themselves against God’s anointed and when the new age of God’s restoration dawns they will find themselves shut out. Who would not grieve?

Yet this was in itself not a theological problem. Israel had been reduced before to a small, faithful remnant, when the bulk of the nation refused God’s invitation. It had happened to the Exodus generation and it had happened again under Jeremiah’s broken-hearted gaze. But Israel had chosen her own path. God’s judgement was not in question. It not even have to raise a theological problem when gentiles began to embrace the Messiah their Jewish neighbours had rejected. The prophets had hinted that gentiles would be included in God’s restored society. The theological problem was raised by Paul’s insistence that those gentiles did not need to keep torah. How could God turn his back on his own covenant people who have struggled long and hard to be faithful, only to lower the bar for gentiles so that they could flock in with a sort of discount salvation. Now it was not a matter of Israel getting special treatment. God seemed, on Paul’s reading of things, to be patently unfair.

So what is Paul’s answer? He starts by insisting, in the strongest possible terms, that he shares the Romans’ grief over the apostasy of so many Israelites. Paul sets himself in the role of Moses who, seeing the people’s sacrifices to the golden calf, wants to offer himself as a substitute to carry God’s punishment in place of the sinful nation. Paul loves his people just as much. At the same time, Paul emphasizes that there is a limit to our claims on God. Even if God did make things easier for gentiles, do we human beings really have any right to question it? Paul points to a string of biblical examples in which God’s choices might be regarded as unjust, favouring one son or one nation over another. The tradition of Israel always returned to the insistence that the creator, in the end, owed his creation nothing. The potter did not have to answer to the clay. These verses have often been used to argue for “double-predestination,” the doctrine that God sets some people up to be damned. That is hardly the Apostle’s point here, though. Paul is not describing how God actually deals with people in the present, but establishing a theological principle—God could damn some people if he wanted to. He would be entirely within his rights.

Still, Paul is not content to stay with this answer. In chapter 10 he moves on to add that in fact God did not make things any harder for his Jewish brothers and sisters than for gentiles. The Jews have had just as many chances to hear the message as did the gentiles. The Jews were not asked to do anything the gentiles were not. Here Paul re-asserts the principle from chapters 1-5 of God’s impartial even-handedness: He has provided exactly the same opportunity for Jew and gentile alike. Both are given a way around the dead-end of the torah, invited to trust in the new way opened up by Israel’s Messiah. The appearance of injustice comes simply from the fact that so many Jews have chosen to reject God’s invitation. It is their own free decision, and God is not unjust if he makes them bear the consequences of that choice.

God does not owe Israel any explanations, but we can also see that Israel’s tragedy is her own fault, not God’s. Where does this leave God’s commitment to his covenant people? One might assume that Paul would say the old commitments are now over and done with. But even here Paul thinks God is doing something unique with Israel. After all, the frequent Jewish rejections of Jesus have gone hand-in-hand with a massive (and surprising!) influx of gentiles into this new Messianic community. Paul (like most Jews) is content to live with the contradiction that human beings make free, responsible choices, but that these are also part of God’s over-arching design in history. So even in her widespread rejection of God’s Messiah, Israel is still playing an honoured role in bringing rescue to the nations. Paul insists that her downfall is nothing for gentile believers to gloat about—not because the audience is full of gloating gentiles but because the Romans are afraid that Paul gospel will make others gloat. Rather, Israel will always remain the central “vine” into which the other nations have been “grafted” to receive life.

How Should We Then Live? (Romans 12-15)

Finally Paul returns to the problem of how to make the gentiles righteous. In chapters 6 to 8 he showed the Romans that his gospel did give believers a reason to live rightly. What is more, his message still offered believers the Spirit of God, the real key who makes human beings able to do right. They have motivation and ability apart from torah. But what are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to know God’s will? How can they tell wrong from right? This is a much more pressing question in the first-century than it often appears to us. Many of us assume that human beings have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. We urge people to “just follow your heart” assuming that this beating organ is some kind of innate moral compass. That optimistic assumption is hardly shared by our first-century ancestors. With the break-down of the older towns and city-states, first-century urbanites found themselves afloat without the instinctive bonds and inbred taboos of small local communities. The pundits of the day lamented, just as many do today, the moral deterioration visible all around them. The “heart” and its “passions” were viewed, not as a moral anchor but as the engine driving our basest cravings. If greco-roman society looked to any saviour it was to “reason,” the logos. Stoic philosophers would hold forth in the agora urging the common folk that their rational minds could take the reins and control their bodily passions, like a deft-handed charioteer steering a team of unruly stallions.

It comes as a shock to many of us that Paul seems to agree wholeheartedly. He begins this last phase of his argument depicting the believer’s changed lifestyle as a kind of living sacrifice offered to God. Notice, though, where this changed life starts: with the “renewing of your minds” (12:2). It is the mind, the nous in Greek, that Paul assumes will direct our feet toward righteous action. Nor is the mind’s renewal a matter of the Spirit implanting non-rational instincts within us, or placing a knowledge of right and wrong in us directly. For once the mind is “renewed” it still has to “discern,” work out rationally, what God’s will is (12:2). Here is Paul’s final answer to the Romans’ second suspicion about his gospel. Believers can know God’s will even without torah if they apply their minds to reason it out.

In the balance of chapters 12-15, then, Paul demonstrates for the Romans how this rational ethics can work. From whether to pay your taxes to whether to eat meat, Paul offers the Romans reasoned arguments about how God wants them to handle everyday ethical problems. In all of this (as in most of his ethical teaching) Paul deliberately stays away from quoting the laws of torah. This is not because he thinks torah is useless for moral education. But he wants to show the Romans that, even if we are now beyond torah’s jurisdiction, we can still know God’s will. Here again, it is important to keep in mind the direction of Paul’s over-arching argument. Too many scholars still assume that the issues addressed in these chapters are live ethical debates among the Roman believers. So they construct elaborate conflict scenarios in which (say) Jewish members are trying to force food restrictions and Sabbath observance on their gentile compatriots. Yet we have little evidence elsewhere in the letter for this kind of conflict. All of his argument so far has assumed an audience unified in its suspicion of his law-free message. He has made neither reference nor appeal to some sympathetic (gentile?) faction in the city. I suspect, instead, that Paul’s (remarkably brief) discussion of these issues is meant to show the Romans how to reason about ethics when live debates do arise. The one exception may be the issue of taxation which Paul addresses at some length in chapter 10. In any case, Paul’s answer to the problem of ethical guidance is not the one many modern Christians would expect. He does not say “read the law,” and he does not say “the Spirit will show you.” Instead he says “think about it!”

Paul’s Message to the Romans

The reading of Romans I have sketched out here preserves the Reformers’ emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith. But it places that doctrine back in its original context. The fundamental human problem is not, for Paul, how to gain forgiveness. The fundamental problem is how to get in on God’s restoration of the world. For that we need forgiveness when we go wrong as well as the power and understanding to actually learn a New Creation pattern of life. Paul’s message is that God has provided both, and provided them for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Romans already understood that God offered forgiveness to those who believed in Jesus, on the basis of the cross. They were not trying to earn salvation by good works, any more than Jews at large did. The Romans were already “believers.” The problem was simply that they (Jews and gentile God-fearers both) were thinking too much in terms of a continuation of Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai, the covenant of which torah was a part. As a result, many of the Romans held back support from Paul’s torah-free mission to the gentile world. Paul’s argument in Romans is that the death of Jesus began a fundamentally new covenant relationship between human beings and their Creator. It was a relationship that elegantly allowed God to forgive and restore Jew and gentile alike without injustice to either. The grace and mercy Israel had enjoyed for so long could now be extended to everyone who would trust in Jesus as their king. The changed life that Israel had always struggled to live out could now be made a concrete reality in everyone willing to reason out God’s will and practice acting it out with the Spirit’s help. All so that human beings from every people can be included in God’s restored cosmos.

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