Coming to Romans, Paul’s enormous and paramount theological exposition, one can’t help but notice it’s level of sophistication and development. Especially for those who have spent time with Paul, set in the light of his body of work, Romans has the look and feel of someone looking back on their life and bringing together this grand summation of years worth of thought, study and investment. Not surprisingly, more than a few scholars consider this the crown jewel of New Testament writings, the enormity of its subject matter looming large not only over its setting, but over both ancient and modern theological development. It wouldn’t be far off to suggest that much of the diversity of theological opinion, denominational and doctrinal development owes itself to the book of Romans, especially to its focus on atonement and salvation.
It’s no small task for anyone to tackle Romans. If there is a book that demands time, patience and a commitment to each and every word and sentence structure, it would be this one. The beauty of the book though is that it is also immediately accessible. It holds an ancient context, but it’s not necessarily drowning in that ancient terminology and context. This is at least partly due, I think, to Paul’s desire to position this letter towards Jewish Christians, but by way of setting it within the greater witness to the Gentile world. He is contextualizing their faith as a universal faith in God by means of a shared pattern of witness. Mostly though, I think this is because of how well thought out and considered Paul’s argument ultimately is.
Given the sheer amount of division that does exist for modern readers within the Christian faith though, there are a couple of things that I felt were worthwhile for me to consider and to keep in mind as I engaged and wrestled with the text on a personal level:
1. Romans is speaking to those “who believe”, Jewish Christians who are in a strained relationship with Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians .
2. Romans is basically a carefully thought out and structured argument, and it is worthwhile noting how many times this argument leads to a similar question for his readers- But then what about sin? The reason this question emerges so often, and so naturally, is because Paul’s words evoke a common human response to these kinds of boundary reconstructing ideas. Whenever we think primarily in terms of insiders and outsiders, words that challenge our thoughts about who is in and who is out are going to challenge our position on the inside. The core thrust of Paul’s argument is helping his audience reconcile this concern.
3. Romans can be easily recontextualized. Because of its interest in building a recognizable “pattern of witness” (how it is that God’s grace moves into the world), we can easily (as readers) apply this same argument as believers in Christ to our own communities in relationship to the “outsiders” that come into our viewpoint.
4. It is really important to distinguish between the kind of Sin language Paul is using and “sin” as moral action. They are to a point connected and interchangeable, but to catch the force of Paul’s argument we need to see Sin in light of Paul’s understanding of Powers. Sin is the Power of Sin and Death that precedes us, which is the darkness under which all manners of sin emerges. And the force of Sin for Paul has to do primarily with division. Sin is the great divider and Christ is the great unifier. This is why sin is expressed within community, so as to set the healing of this divide within the grander narrative of Life and Death, Darkness and Light.
4. Above all, Romans is hopeful. It is life giving in its efforts to reshape these boundaries in Christ, and illuminating in the peace that this truth of a Gospel for all carries with it. It is interesting in healing a divide that exists, both in us, in our communities and in the world.
Paul’s Context and Concern
One of the great things about Romans is the access we have to both its context and concern. There is little to no controversy surrounding authorship, and we can also know fairly decisively that it was written from Corinth during Paul’s 3rd missionary journey (moving East to West to Rome and then eventually to Spain). At some point he had to stop off in Jerusalem to deliver money to a Church, which is where he speaks of Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2), the one likely to have delivered the letter to Rome.
A noted aspect of Romans is the way in which Paul moves away from some of the marked concerns found in his previous letters (of both disputed and undisputed authorship). Gone is an emphasis on the developing Church, on particular teachings and on eschatology. Of main concern to Paul in Romans is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, which he sees as integral to the ensuing discussion of Law, the Abrahamic Tradition, Sin, Grace and Salvation. If there was a singular focus to pull out of this it would be that of division within the Gospel and within the Churcc and the problem this poses for the Gospel witness as a unifying force in the Gentile world. Unity is needed in the immediate so that this witness can continue with Paul from Rome to Spain. (15:22-24) But Paul is thinking larger than this, towards the grander vision of God’s great story of liberating creation from bondage to the Powers of Sin and Death.
The Gospel and the Power of Witness
There is little more powerful a greeting than one will find than Paul’s grand opening statement and summation of the Gospel in 1:1-7. The level of sophisticated expression and understanding here becomes immediately clear, setting the stage for Paul’s razor sharp focus on setting this Gospel straight into their context with confidence and grace.
The key concern of their witness to this Gospel (1:8), and establishing this witness as a sign of God’s saving work in their midst (salvation) then rises straight to the surface, with Paul expressing his longing to “reap the harvest” of this witness 1:13 in person. Paul then goes on to establish this witness within the context of the “Powers” (of Light and Dark, Gospel and Sin, Death and Life), an important framework through which to understand his unfolding argument about the Jewish-Gentile relations. It is in this Power that the Gospel moves from Jew to Greek to all, the basic pattern of “witness” that Paul is interesting in defining and protecting (1:14-16).
God’s Righteousness and Wrath
God’s righteousness is “revealed” (which speaks to this theme of “knowledge” that is prevalent in Paul’s writings and the whole of the New Testament) from faith to faith, which is the Power of witness in its full expression (1:17). God’s wrath moves in tandem with this witness, being “revealed” from Heaven (as) against all “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (it is important to recognize that His wrath is not against humankind here, but against the Powers of Sin and Death), which gives us an early foundation for Paul’s ensuing discussion of Jewish-Gentile relationships, with the Law existing to reveal this wrath “so that” this wrath is able to reveal Christ.
At the moment though, Paul is wanting to point out that this knowledge of (righteousness and unrighteousness) does away with excuse, because what is invisible (that which is now being revealed) is (actually) already clear, even in creation, having been made known to us from the beginning (creation). This will become important for Paul’s unfolding of this Law and Christ dynamic because of the way it helps to erase further distinctions between those under the Powers as “righteous” or “unrighteous”, the natural human tendency that flows from these kinds of recognizable boundaries.
To underscore this point (about righteousness and wrath working in tandem), Paul continues with this train of thought in 1:19-23, bringing us back to this notion of being under the Powers by suggesting that it is not what we do or don’t know that places us under these Powers, but that God “gave them up” (gives us up) to the exchanging of one truth for another (1:24; 1:26; 1:28). This is once again a theme Paul will return to later, which becomes important for recognizing how the work of Christ works to abolish the boundaries (between grace and works, in and out, righteous and unrighteous) we work so hard to establish.
But here we find a great “therefore” statement that prepares us for this frame of perspective. Therefore, because God gave them up, “you” (then) have no excuse (everyone who judges). What you see (what is revealed) is the same Power that all of us stand all under. By judging others (against this righteous and unrighteous paradigm), those who judge are effectively setting themselves under the judgment of their own wrath “being stored up” (2:5). The point for Paul is that there is in fact no partiality in God, therefore we should not be distinguishing between those who know and those who don’t know, the basis on which we draw these boundaries.
Our Hypothetical Works and The Question of God’s Partiality
This moves into a hypothetical example of God judging according to “works” (that we are evil or good depending on what we do, and judged or saved according to God’s wrath and salvation) in 2:6-11. The point of this section is the same as above. It is to point out that there is no partiality with God, emphasizing that ultimately what this reveals is that we are all (then) condemned in the same way according to works (2:12). This is the nature of standing under the Law (which in their understanding is the knowledge that supposedly separates us as the righteous), and this stands as antithetical to the pattern of witness and the movement of the Gospel, which moves from faith to faith and arrives from outside of our perceived boundaries.
Paul now moves to reconfirm the train of thought he started with in describing this Gospel-Wrath paradigm. The point of the Law is that it reveals the Sin that we are already under (have been given to) so that Christ can be revealed in its midst as the one who saves us from it. And what makes this knowledge known is our witness, the same witness that we see in Creation, a Creation that stands equally in bondage to the Powers of Sin and Death. Again, this speaks to the idea of a whole world under bondage to the Power of Sin and Death and the injustices that flow from this. Paul takes this then and sets it directly into his concern for the witness of the Gospel in its “Jews-Gentiles-all” movement (2:17-29). As Paul says, a Jew is one inwardly, not outwardly, made by the Spirit, not the works of the Law 2:29. This is the point of their inheritance as a people of God. In the same way, this saving work (of Christ) arrives external to us, and the only advantage anyone gains is our witness to this. This witness is the true gift (3:1). The grand proclamation then becomes, “Let God (His Saving Work) be true though every one (of us) were a liar (3:4).”
But What About Sin Then?
If (3:5) it is true that the Law reveals our unrighteousness so that God’s righteousness (the Gospel of Christ) can be revealed, this exposes the question that is going to keep coming up over and over again for those (his readers) trapped within the boundaries they have tried to maintain, build and erect for themselves. If sin reveals God, why not then keep sinning? This is a just and fair question according to Paul (3:8).
To which Paul, seemingly anticipating this question, doubles down in moving this grand exposition forward. He declares, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of Sin (3:20).” BUT, the “righteousness of God has come apart from the law (3:21).” This is where our freedom comes from. Although they arrive in tandem, they are not the same. God is not using this Gospel-Wrath paradigm to distinguish between who is righteous and who is not, he is using it to declare that all of us stand under the same Power (of unrighteousness), a wholly different Power from that of Sin and Death, and therefore we recognize Righteousness as a gift, not something earned. It is something “propitiated” (3:25) or given, in the sense that it places us (instead) under the power of righteousness. This is how God is revealed (through our witness of being under the Power of the Light) in the midst of the Darkness that we have been given to. We (therefore) uphold the Law in order to reveal Christ, only we don’t do so to establish our righteousness according to the Law of works, but rather we do so that the Law can reveal the unrighteousness that holds us bondage. This is the answer to the question of Sin. We must first recognize Sin as the Power of Sin and Death before we can understand the ways in which we are participants in sin (its expression in our lives), because “Righteousness is not our due (accomplishment), it is our belief (faith). (4:4)” that we are no longer under the Power of Sin and Death.
The Abrahamic Tradition, The Law and The Power pf Christ Revealed
Now moving more specifically into their own (shared) Jewish context, Paul brings up Abraham. The point of Abraham was to make him the father of “all” (no distinction). And yet, as Paul points out, this righteousness was afforded him before his circumcision (4:11).” For if it is “the adherents” of the law who are to be heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (4:14).” This doubles down on the idea that Law reveals wrath, not grace. It is wrath (God’s wrath towards the Power of Sin and Death) that reveals grace. And it is (in fact) this witness that informs Abrahams own life and ministry as hope, not defeat, strength, not weakness. He did not “weaken” in faith when he considered the failures of his own body (under this Wrath) to have a child (4:19). Rather, in hope he believed against hope that what God declared to be already true of him would come to be. It therefore is counted to us who believe (the idea of trusting in what is already declared to be, the Powers of Sin and Death already defeated) 4:24, something that Paul translates as “peace” (5:1) and hope (5:2).
It is for this reason that our awareness of being under the Power of Sin and Death (the very real suffering that we find in our world and in the world around us that awaits for this great truth, God’s Saving Work, to be carried to its fullness) carries this positive force. Suffering leads to endurance leads to character leads to hope, a hope that does not shame (through distinction) 5:3-5.” The point of the Law, which reveals God’s wrath against the Powers of Sin and Death, is to declare the grand movement of God’s saving work in our midst. That’s the Power of Christ, that is how it is revealed, in weakness not power. Blood (Death) and salvation (Life) are held in tandem in Christ’s movement to place Himself under the same Powers of Sin and Death that holds this world bondage, and he does so that we can be placed under the Power of Righteousness and thus declare that Life is greater than Death (5:10), and that we are no longer held in bondage.
One Sin, One Death, One Death, One Grace For All
For Paul, understanding Sin in its context becomes hugely important here. Sin was in the world before Law (The Powers of Sin and Death) 5:13, the Law simply revealed what was already there and obvious to a world in bondage. This distinguishes from the sin (works of the Law) that witness to the Powers which holds us bondage. The way he explains this is by reaching back to the beginning. One Sin=Many Sins (all), One Death=Much Grace (all) 5:15-17. One Sin leads to Sin and Death as the state which holds the whole world bondage in all of history, and one obedience (death) leads to life for all, a whole world no longer under bondage, thus where sin increases, grace abounds (5:19-21).” This is how we break out of this tendency towards distinction. This is how we break from the Power of the Law that we use to judge others according to their works of righteousness, even as it judges us as the unrighteous at the same time, a destructive cycle that pushes back against the witness of the Gospel.
So Then, What About Sin- The Motivating Force of God’s Witness
And yet we remain stubbornly insistent on upholding these boundaries created by the Law. In Chapter 6 we find the same question emerging, “so do we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” (6:1) To which Paul responds, if you find yourself still wondering about this grace, do you not know the truth of our baptism? This truth, which you also uphold, declares that we are no longer under the Power of Sin. Death is no more. We are dead to sin but alive to God. This is the Power of the Gospel. So then, let this be your motivation to not then go on sinning. It is all the motivation you need. Don’t stand as if you are defeated. Live as though Sin has no dominion over you (6:14). If you want to be free of your questions and your doubts, live as though the Gospel has no distinction.
Still not enough for his readers, the question persists, but what about sin then?
Paul doubles down. Your slavery to sin, he says, comes from telling yourself that you are still under Sin, when we are in fact not (6:15-16). Present yourself, then, as a slave to righteousness so that you can present others as slaves to righteousness, not sin. If you can’t get past yourselves, then think about how your insistence on avoiding this freedom in your life affects the ability of others to be able to stand in this freedom. For “when you were slaves of sin, you were free in righteousness” (6:20), but what good did it do if you don’t believe it? Sanctification, this grand idea that reflects growing in righteousness in ways that can bear witness to the truth of God’s saving work, is what unveils for us the promise of eternal life (the promise of the new heavens, new earth, that God is making right what is wrong). If you are doubting this saving work then consider the sanctified life. This can bear witness to the truth that precedes this life. After all, Paul insists, we live according to the “Spirit” not a “written code” (7:6). The gift of our witness is an external truth.
Sin and Division, Christ As the Unifying Force
Here is the matter of factness of this idea in simple terms. Sin produces Death (7:13), and it brings us under the Power of Death by way of the Law. If you have ever struggled to reconcile the way of your life and the way of this world (in its suffering and incomplete state), you will be left with this convoluted truth- “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” 7:15. This is the Power that Sin holds. It creates division. It separates mind (knowledge) and body (action) (7:25). It creates two laws divided against itself, the law of works and the law of grace. In this sense, as the One who brings Life to All, the Law divides but Christ unifies this division by declaring no “condemnation” in the law of the Spirit, the same Spirit that did away with the Law (Powers) of Sin and Death.
Therefore, set your “mind” on the things (the work) of the spirit 8:5-7 rather than your own work. This gives life to the “body”, healing the divide “because of righteousness (Christ)”, not Law 8:10. And this unity will then spread out into the division that our boundaries (for the Gospel) have created. This is the grand statement. All “who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of god.” This is the knowledge that comes from setting our minds on the work of the Spirit, and this is the peace and hope that it uncovers for us. This is our motivation, our faith, our trust. This is what witness does (and is) as an external force in our lives and in this world. This is, as Paul moves to evoke the language of adoption in 8:14-17, the great vision of God’s Kingdom for all. For the Jewish Christians in view of Paul, this is why God’s grace moving to the Gentiles without condition is ultimately the most hopeful expression of the Gospel they can find, because it sets our faith and hope on what God is doing in the whole of Creation, not what we must do to enter God’s Kingdom.
A Present and Future Hope
We doubt in the present for all the reasons Paul has described, cherishing our distinction over and against God’s saving work in the world, and thus are left wondering about how it is that we move from Sin to Grace. But if we need further motivation for Paul’s argument, consider this. The present is not worth comparing to the restoration that is to come.
We wait then with Creation (8:18-22), which is under the same bondage as we are. And we wait while our witness (as the firstfruits, the first awareness) bears witness to Creation of Christ’s Redemption (8:23). It is by doing this that we can then be reminded that God is working in our midst, working to make what is wrong right. This forms in us hope. A hopeful spirit, which is the gift of our witness. We hope for what we do not see so that the Spirit can help us and this world in its weakness (working all out together for good) 8:28. And we hope knowing this- this knowledge of both Sin and Grace precedes us because the Knowledge of God precedes us.
This is the catch. God foreknew us (8:29) for the sake of the world (firstborn among many brothers 8:29). This is the Jew-Gentile-Spain-World witness paradigm that Paul is trying to establish. All these external factors that emerge from Sin- condemnation, charges, separation, division, suffering? In all these things we are more than conquerers through Him who loved us 8:37 (8:38-39), and this truth arrives “for” the sake of the world.
God’s Election as a Cyclical Problem
In Chapter 9, we find Paul in anguish as he thinks about his Jewish brothers. We hear him desperately praying that they would see how this Gospel reach is actually hopeful for them. It means that “Gods purpose of election” that is born out of this foreknowledge has continued and is continuing (9:11). But his audience keeps questioning it, seeing it as unjust that the heritage they have in the upholding of the Law is seemingly worthless if grace abounds the way Paul says it does. Is it unjust that gentiles reap the reward of God’s salvation, Paul asks? By no means.
Here Paul digs deep into their shared Jewish roots, taking them back to Moses. God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on who I have mercy, and compassion on who I have compassion.” Here is the thing about this statement. It means that our salvation is not dependent on us. This has been Paul’s argument all along. “This is why the scripture said to Pharoah… I raised you up so that I might show my power (be revealed) in you, that my name will be proclaimed in all the earth 9:17.” This is the relevance of the hardened hearts, the notion of God giving us to the bondage that we read earlier. It means that God will have mercy and harden who God wills, because Christ is the Power by which we move from Death to Life.
Which leads to the central question that Paul anticipates. How then can he still find fault, if it is not our will, if this sin (using the Law as measure) is not ours? Paul answers by coming back to the argument he has been building. Wrath and Sin reveal salvation. To see it any other way leaves you trapped in an endless cycle. It leaves them bound by the law (9:19-29). It creates division, but offers nothing to heal that division. To demonstrate this division, he goes on to say, if God has called us from outside the bounds of the law (the elect), and if the law has condemned those within it (non-elect), what shall we then say? That Gentiles have achieved salvation and Jews have not? That’s the end result of this way of thinking. Boundaries beget more boundaries, ultimately condemning ourselves in our judgement of others. And they are trapped in this cycle because they did not (and are not) pursuing this question in accordance with “faith”. In this case, Jesus and the Gospel become a stumbling block rather than the saving grace it actually is.
The Remnant As A Hope For All
Moving into Chapter 10, Paul continues by saying that his desire is for them to be saved, because Christ is the “end” of the law. And he puts his hope in this desire because the righteousness that is based on faith does not say “who will ascend and who will descend”, but rather “the word is near you.” This means that the confession of salvation is already ours. Mouth and heart work together in this sense (10:8-10), healing the divide that exists between mind and action. This gives way again to the power of a witness that precedes us. “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” 10:21. And yet the truth is, Christ has defeated the Powers of Sin and Death.
To think this way though requires them to reconsider the way they are seeing their (the Jewish Christians) Covenant with God in the pages of the God-Human Story. Chapter 11 returns Paul to the argument of their history (from Creation to Abraham to Moses to Elijah). What about the Jews then (at least he is beginning to uncover the true motivation here)? Consider Elijah and the idea of the “remnant”, a big theme in Israelite history. What does the remnant say about the rest of the them? 11:7 “Did the non-elect stumble in order that they might fall” Paul asks? “Not at all” he declares. Rather, through their trespass (Sin, Law) Salvation has come to the Gentiles (Sin Revealed so that Christ can be revealed). So now, if their Sin means riches for the world, and the failure of the Jews means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean?
This is a powerful question that speaks to the grand vision of Life from Death (11:15). And it would have arrived with a particular force, because the idea of the remnant throughout Israelite history always arrives as an external truth. It comes not as a statement about who is in and who is out, but as a witness to what God is doing in making what is wrong right. It arrives as God’s work in the midst of the Sin that holds them in bondage (exile). It raises up out of the Powers of Sin and Death to say that Death holds no Power in the light of God’s vision of Life, that Darkness does not prevail against the Light. In this sense, the witness of a Gospel “for the world” is as hopeful for them as it is for all, lest they just be relegated to the confines of their own shared story.
The Dough, The Branch and God’s Saving Work
Then Paul moves to break this argument wide open with a couple analogies. The first is that of dough. If the dough offered as firstfruits (the initial witness of God’s saving work) is holy, so is the whole lump. What infects the dough infects the whole of the dough, and what saves the dough saves the whole of the dough. Likewise in the picture of a tree. If the root is holy, so are the branches. So if you think that salvation to the Gentiles undercuts the salvation that comes from the Covenant Promise with God’s people, consider how much more will the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree as the first fruits of God’s witness for the world (11:24). This, Paul says, is the mystery of your (Israel’s) salvation. This is the freedom he has found as a Jew. A partial hardening for the fullness of the Gentiles (11:25), which also becomes the salvation of Israel. This is how Sin reveals God to the world. This is the hopeful promise (11:28-30). “For God has cosigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.” 11:31-32
So if you need and are looking for motivation in not sinning, in living into this Grace, this should be all you need. Therefore, don’t hesitate, but present your bodies as a living sacrifice in the same Spirit of Jesus. A sacrifice for all, in the witness of the Grace handed to you. Regardless of how much faith one does or does not have, writes Paul, don’t think of yourself more highly, but rather think soberly for the the sake of the many members (all with a different function) 12:3-5. This is the unity that we find in Christ. This is how the dough and tree works. Let this inform your life in the everyday with love as the genuine mark (of God’s saving work). Love sums up the entire Law as its fulfillment (13:9), so if you want to outdo, outdo in love. (Love… 12:9-21), and leave wrongdoing up to God. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome with God.
This is why Paul evokes the most practical of realities, the fact that we live in this world together, defined as it is throughout Israel’s history of living under earthly authorities in a not yet world, a world that is being made right but is not yet right. The necessary push , Paul suggests, which fits comfortably with his other writings and certainly the book of Acts that demonstrates this push and shove between God’s Kingdom for the world and living under authorities that seem opposed to God’s Kingdom, is that love must carry the way forward. Chapter 13:1-7, speaking on earthly authorities, is a generalized statement that fits firmly into this declaration to be overcome with God, not evil. To approach our life in this world in any other way leads back to the kind of boundaries, distinctions and judgments that leave us all under the Power of Sin and Death. It leaves us condemned by our own judgment. This is why Paul speaks about living with these authorities (lest we deteriorate into anarchy), and participating in the life of the world with God’s Witness in mind and heart. What God intends (in Paul’s words speaking to “government” as the intention of God), is a Gospel for the world, which arrives in this already-not yet place in which the Powers of Sin and Death still appear to hold sway. This then, as he moves towards this image of putting on the “armor of light” in 13:12, is how we bear witness to the light. Let justice carry justice, knowing that God’s justice (the making right what is wrong) stands above this and is concerned for the whole of creation, bringing a light to the world. This passage is about how the light can emerge when we live together in community without distinction. So then, Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” as that which can protect against distinction as we occupy this space together in the world. 13:12.
A FURTHER UNDERSTANDING OF FAITH AND WORKS AND SALVATION IN ROMANS 10-12
From Roman’s 10-12:
“Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because” if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So the concern here is regarding salvation, but making a distinction between salvation by works of the Law and salvation by faith, understanding that these two things are different, and this difference connects to Paul’s prayer that they (the Gentiles, whom Israel is questioning because, if they can be saved apart from the Law, where does that leave Israel in their collective failure under the Law) would be saved. Paul says, what faith does is it says “all” who believe can be saved. Pushing this further, Paul then addresses the relationship between hearing and believing. How can they believe if they haven’t heard (thus positioning Israel as for the salvation of the gentiles), to which Paul points out that hearing doesn’t necessarily translate to believing, as Israel’s history can attest to.
But then Paul points out that they have heard, and their witness has been good despite Israel’s failure. And why? In order to “make you jealous of those who are not a nation.” In a twist of irony, Paul pulls up Isaiah to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” Israel has heard but didn’t believe (they seeked and God didn’t find them faithful). Now Paul gets to the heart of the matter. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” How is it that He hasn’t, as the Jewish Christains are so concerned about? He brings up the 7000 who “remained” at the time of Elijah to explain that they too are a remnant. They are an example of “Gods witness”. “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
The inference here is that their (collective) failure under the Law was in fact grace, and that grave is evident in them. Their stumbling was grace. They were made to be jealous for the salvation of the gentiles. Now he switches to the Gentiles, telling them not to be prideful and assume themselves to be above the Jews just because “some branches” were cut off so that they could be grafted in. There is a double inference here, the first being that if God cut off the branches he can also graft them back in, which is in reference to what he is doing with the remnant, and if he cut off the branches for their sake, that means he can also cut off them. Turning his attention back to the fate of Israel, he now says this. I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in… in this way, all Israel shall be saved.”
Now here is the kicker of a line- “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake;”, meaning that they stumbled so that the gentiles may be saved. “But as regards (their) election, they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors.” For the sake of their ancestors. If you follow Paul’s argument, he is making a parallel distinction here. In Israel’s failure salvation comes to the gentiles. But in the salvation of the gentiles Israel is being saved “for the sake of their ancestors.” In this way, all Israel will be saved. Paul goes on then to say, regarding this great difference between Law and Faith, hearing and believing, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
What Paul is doing here is saying that they (Israel) were raised up to be witnesses of God to the world, but Israel failed to hear themselves, and complained that no one was listening. So what about Gods promise. Faith is Gods work, he says. And if they want proof, just look at themselves. They are a remnant of Israel standing as a witness to the Gentiles, and their witness to the Gentiles is allowing them to stand as a witness to Gods work in their ancestors. The point of Paul is ultimately Christ is the work of this faith on their behalf, with God proving faithful despite their lack of faith in Gods promise. This is what causes Paul to then make an appeal to them to live into the new life they have in Christ, not by works, but by the faith (God’s faithfulness in Christ).
If we were to back track on these chapters and take the statement where Paul says they will be grafted in “if they remain faithful”, we lose the ENTIRE thrust of Paul’s argument. Everything he says becomes meaningless, because this separation he makes between the Law and Faith no longer has meaning. Everything hinges on Israel being faithful, both the fate of their ancestors and the Gentiles. There is no hope to be found, it’s all just one big roll of the die. Maybe the Gentiles will be cut off, maybe they won’t. Maybe Israel will be faithful, mabye they won’t. It’s all entirely uncertain, and offers no real hope except to fall back on their ability to believe, and in through their belief bring about God’s promise. That is not how the chapters unfold. There has to be a better way to understand that one phrase in this whole entire section than conditionally, because otherwise none of it makes any sense and Paul might as well have not said anything at all.
Faith, Doubt, and the Light of the World as Strength for the Weak
For Paul, there is something going on in the midst of all this that speaks to the work of Christ on the Cross. In setting Himself under the Power of Sin and Death, Christ aligns himself with the state of the world. All of this happens so that “he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (14:9), through the Resurrection but by way of the Cross. This is why it says, as we live together (Jew and Gentile), “don’t judge the faith of another” but instead “pursue peace” 14:19 (the purpose for Paul’s instructions in 13:1-7). What happens in this discussion of Law and Grace is that we find weaker and stronger faith. This is determined by those who trust in salvation by grace, and those who question (doubt) their salvation by faith. Blessed are the ones who have no doubts towards this end, writes Paul, because they don’t have to worry and carry that burden (14:23). And yet for those who do, for those who carry the burden of the law in their desire to see Christ, they are who the strong are for. The strong are meant to continue to declare to the world that there is no distinction in Christ.
There is nothing we have to do and accomplish to know that we, our situation, this world, is under the saving work of Christ. The declaration is that He is making what is wrong right, and we can hold on to that no matter what. The reason that was written (remembered) in the “former days” was to give us this endurance, this assurance. If you feel the burden, know that this burden is carried by Christ and bears witness from the beginning. This is why it is not the right of the strong to impose their faith onto the weak (those wrestling with this truth) in a way that discourages and distinguishes. It is simply the job of the strong to bear witness so that it can do its work in helping people come to see and stand under the saving grace of Christ that has already been accomplished. And the way we can do this is by speaking to these stories that uphold this witness in the world. That is why those stories are helpful (15:4), because they give us the foundation to live in harmony as both Jew and Gentile. “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfullness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (15:8-9)
Which leads us to this powerful declaration and prayer.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the holy spirit you may abound in hope.” 15:13
For Paul, all of this is somewhat particular. In 15:14-32 he says that he is proud of his and their witness and he preaches to them now so that the Gospel can be made known to the Gentiles in Spain in the same way. But it is also general and sweeping in nature. This same argument, although applied to the Jewish-Gentile discussion, is meant to flow out into the whole of the world. It is meant to witness to God’s saving work in the whole of Creation. It is meant to unify all that has been divided under the Power of Sin and Death, us against ourselves, Jew against Gentile, a salvation for the world. His final admonition? Watch out for those who cause division (16:17), because that is where the appearance comes from that we are still under Darkness. Instead, hold onto the One that declares that we are no longer under the Power of Sin and Death, but rather under the great vision of God’s New Creation, a vision that God has for the whole of the world.