I’ve mentioned from my time in Romans thus far the importance of “reading Romans backwards”, as Scott McKnight would suggest. This is important because of how Romans is positioned as a narrative. That is, Paul is weaving a story regarding that which he describes as his “Gospel”, “the Gospel of God… regarding his Son (1:2).” This is further described as being the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (translated: has faith, or faithfulness)” (1:16), for “in the gospel a righteousness (translated in line with just, or justification, which means to make right what is wrong) from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last…” (1:17).
Here Paul establishes the Gospel of God regarding his son as something, a truth, that is being “revealed”. The “therefore” of 2:1 then brings us into the problem- people who know this truth about the Gospel, those who “did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God”, judging others in regard to the reigning subject of this Gospels doing- the righteousness of God. The context for this judgment stems from 1:18-32 which underscores two important facets of this revealing-
- What is being revealed is the “wrath” of God (1:18)
- The wrath of God is being revealed “from heaven”, where the mystery of this faith resides, against “all the godlessness and wickedness” (1:18)
- Thus God, who’s nature has been made plain to “them” (who believe) through the ”invisible qualities (his eternal power and divine qualities) which have been clearly seen from what has been made (creation) (1:19-20), has “given them over” to the “desires” of their hearts which “exchanged the glory of the eternal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (1:21-23) Important to recognize glory here in imaging terms and in light of God’s presence in the world, linking us to, for example, the glory that resisdes with Moses on the mountain.
Already we are getting important pieces of the narrative puzzle that help paint a fuller picture of what is going on “from first to last”. Some important notes here. There is a common practice of reading these opening chapters in light of the salvation of the individual, reading faith in terms of “belief” or knowledge of God, reading “righteousness” out of context with the shared term justification as being made “morally” right in terms of works, and pairing Gods wrath with the total depravity of the individual person as its target, thus making salvation about the saving of the person from God’s wrath by way of a believing faith that, as we will see in Chapter 2, can only be given as it was with Abraham, therefore justifying us as “saved” in an eternal a internal sense by faith rather than works of the law. To read these early verses this way is to arrive at the end of Romans with a muddled sense of the larger narrative, missing how the Gospel moves into the world and thus speaks to the life of the individual residing within it regarding vocation and image bearing (in the sense of what the Gospel is saving us from and what the Gospel is saving us to). And so much of this comes down to how we understand these terms such as faith, righteousness, law, and later election, ect, to operate in a more holistic sense. Knowing what is causing Paul’s audience, and Paul himself, anxiety bears out much reward in regard to what I see as better (or more faithful) readings of Romans, as too often we adopt anxieties about our own individual salvation (how can we be assured of our salvation) that flow from our particular understanding of these terms as speaking to the plight of moral righteousness, thus narrowing Paul’s words to a function of a Gospel of “assurance” where we (the elect) are being saved from God’s wrath in order to go to heaven (or to the new creation)as opposed to the anxieties that we find in the larger narrative of Romans regarding the movement of God’s glory (image and presence) into the gentile world by way of a renewed covenantal faithfulness in light of the promises of the God’s covenantal faithfulness which we see evidenced in the story of Israel, a subject that has divided these communities now receiving Pau’s words.
In reading Romans Backwards we can see how division (16:17) concerning the Jew-Gentile question (14/15) has created an obstacle to the unifying power of the Gospel concerning Christ’s power (rule) in the world by way of a Church divided over matters of identity. The grand call to love (12/13) has translated to the trading of one image for another, which then also creates obstacles which are causing “fellow believers” to stumble in matters of what the Gospel declares righteousness or justice, which are covenantal terms. And all of this lies in service, for Paul, to the proclamation of the good news of this righteousness (the truth that death has been defeated and the new creation project has begun) being taken to the whole of creation in line with the original vocation of humanity that we find demonstrated in Genesis, which is the call to fill the earth as God’s image bearers. The promise of righteousness here is not “moral” righteousness, although in the bigger picture it does involve obedience to God’s kingdom rule, but the promise of new creation, of making what is wrong in the world right. And as Paul’s larger narrative indicates, this “Gospel’ encompasses a two-fold promise- “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (15:20), meaning that the Powers, the embodiment of revealed evil, which God’s wrath is being poured out on, will be defeated and destroyed, and that we can be, are being, and will be “rescued” from that which enslaves us in our trading of one image for another. It is in this that a way forward has been made within this promise through the “faith(fullness) of Christ, which, as it turns out, is the true subject matter of chapter 1.
Not unironically, when we read faith as a saving and believing faith which is given to the individual we are actually placing ourselves in the place of Christ, which is the very thing the image trading metaphor wants to resist in Chapters 1-3. In covenantal terms, which is the appropriate reading of righteousness, including the later usage in chapter regarding the faithfulness “of” God (as opposed to faith in Crist), the righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness to the covenantal promise. This is the true force of the Gospel power and the Gospel work, and it is how it points from first to last to the promise of a renewed creation that is, according to Paul, both anticipated and already here. When we live opposed to this being true by way of “judgement” of others as being outside of its reach we/you, as it says in chapter 2, “store up wrath against yourself”. Hugely important to note the trajectory here- God’s wrath is being poured out on evil itself, which will be paired with Paul’s understanding of the very real spiritual forces or Powers in terms related primarily to that which operates contrary to love. By exchanging one truth (imaging) for another we bring the judgement of evil on ourselves, which is expressed primarly through our judgment of others in ways that demonstrate something other than the self giving love Christ reveals. As Paul says in 2:4, in doing so (judging others) “do you (then) show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.”
A couple final notes here regarding justice. This contempt for “kindness” mirrors the same resistance that we see made apparent when Jesus’ arrived in Jerusalem bearing witness to a different kind of justice than they expected, one formed through sacrifice, love and forgiveness. The resistance and contempt they felt towards the idea of Jesus’ death is birthed from this idea that God’s justice does not feel just nor does it seem to bring the kind of justice we desire in the here and now. And so we exchange one image for another, making God in our image as opposed to bearing the image of God in the world, leading to the judgment of others. We see justice as the condemnation of evil through the wrath of God and miss that such knowledge comes in the form of Christ’s righteousness, meaning the proclamation of the new creation reality. We are satisfied by justice meaning due punishment rather than seeing justice as the thing that empwers us to imagine a restorative work.
Second, the force of Romans in terms of reading backwards from the resurrected and ascended Christ into the reality of our everyday world where injustice seems to reign, is that the fuller narrative of the promises of God, revealed most fully and completely in Christ, provides us the means of living the new creation values in the here and now. God’s judgment of evil is also what reveals God’s embodying of the good and the right, which is not merely moral action but the proclamation that true justice has arrived in Christ. Not in the form of repayment of sin, something that would have alligned with the appeal of justice as a “Roman”virtue, but in the fuller idea of what is wrong being made right in the very world we occupy togteher. This is what lies at the heart of our continued exchange of one way for another, which should hit hardest when we see Romans speaking directly to those who know and believe the truth. This is where Romans speaks in line with the prophetic voice as an external and communally laden judgment of the state of the failed witness, unfaithfuness to the covenant. What brings hope is that Paul speaks in the prophetic voice of expected rewnewal “so that” the true image bearing witness might flow into all the world and participate in what God is making new “through us” as living sacrfices called to be a light in the darkness. In this sense the far greater judgement is of that which is good and right. This what the pouring out of wrath on what is wrong, God’s work in Christ, frees us to do.