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One way of reading Paul’s letter to the Romans

6 November 2010

The Gospel and how it works out:  a reading of Romans

 Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most substantial and mature of  his writings that have been kept for us – we do not know what has been lost.  

It has had an enormous influence in the history of Christianity, both before and since Martin Luther.   It has been read in many different ways. 

Romans is a writing by a free,  deeply feeling person,  busy with an innovative mission in the world and living ‘in Christ’.  The text reflects the complexity and energy of the apostle.   It is not easily summarized.  It cannot be grasped all at once.    Every time one reads it, something new is found in it.  Especially if we go to Romans with a new question or concern, it shows itself  in a new light – and gives us new light. 

Not that it can or does mean anything and everything.  A new  reading, if it is  listening to the text rather than manipulating it,  gives us a different taste of the same, not something quite novel.  

So I hope it is with this reading.   I am looking at the letter when I have just been reading some of Peter Rollins’ striking works (How( not) to talk about God and The Fidelity of Betrayal etc ) and as part of my preparation to preach on the help  chapter 8 gives us with praying.  

The text forces us to look for some kind of pattern or sequence.   That is because it is a complex, sometimes bewildering text.  There are all sorts of strange details which act  like whirlpools, to suck us in so we never get out.   Then we miss the overall message, getting hooked on some little thing.   Some say that even justification by faith, which is a major point in the letter, can be a whirlpool, sucking us in so that we see nothing else in the letter.  Historically, Romans 13 has been taken on its own to teach people to be submissive to bad governments, and to be hostile to basic democratic principles, freedoms and responsibilities.  Chapters 9-11 are read by some to validate a Christian Zionism, where support for the state of Israel is in danger of displacing Jesus Christ as the touchstone of Christian faith and action.  And some people do not get beyond chapter one, which they use to justify objections  to homosexual clergy.   All these are whirlpools.  They grip us and make us dizzy so that we do not hear the Gospel in this letter.

 Is there a clue or a thread that will guide us through?   We need  heuristic devices.

I offer here a way of  reading  Romans, which might enable us to see the wood for the trees.     I have not seen it before, though I have several times worked through Romans by myself and in groups.    Is it helpful?

The pattern

There is a rhythm that goes through the letter, in an unsystematic but discernible way.  The letter is made up of phases, in each of which the pattern recurs in some variation.   Each phase of the pattern  starts with (i) the gospel, the good news of the reality of God, (Father, Son and Spirit, to use language only slightly anachronistic and not misleading) and God’s action.   The second movement (ii)  confronts and engages with  some contradiction to the Gospel, or some way in which its promise is not immediately fulfilled, so that those who believe and seek God run into difficulty.  The final movement (iii)  in each  phase resolves the issue in a restatement of the Gospel, which grows out of grappling with  the difficulty, and thus prepares for the next phase which starts from the Gospel in its latest restatement.  So the letter recapitulates all the earlier phases, not letting them be discarded. 

So roughly:

Phase 1

  1.  Romans 1. Paul, set apart for the Gospel, (v 1) is not ashamed of the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, of Jew and Gentile (v 16). 
  2. The Gospel is contradicted and blocked by sin universally (1.18-3.19, 21)
  3. Sin is overcome by God in Christ Jesus, by expiation through his blood (3.24-25).  So the Gospel overcomes the contradiction, the denial and blocking of it by sin.


Phase 2  

  1. There is forgiveness, freedom from the guilt and power of sin in Christ  (2.24ff)
  2. This cannot be enjoyed as a possession or with boasting as though it were an achievement by the forgiven person: it is a gift
  3. So the Gospel life is by faith as response to the gift of God – and that is  a criticism and liberation from the way of boasting and trying to make something of oneself   (4.1-25).  This is manifest in Christ but it has from the beginning been God’s way of working, so Abraham is the father of faith.


Phase 3

  1. Justification by grace through faith is thus known as peace with God in which we stand:  it is not a mere hope, but a remaking of the whole being (5.1ff)
  2. But sin is still powerful,  for it is a power in human being;  and it can get new power when it misunderstands the Gospel of free generous and effective forgiveness to persuade believers not to care about sin, because they are assured of salvation (6.1ff)
  3. So though justified and at peace with God, the Christian struggles with sin, finds he does it when he does not really want to and is discouraged by its power.  (7.1ff)   This brings him to the same conclusion as before – the wages of sin is death (3.23, 6.23) – but with a new depth of wretchedness and frustration:  Who shall deliver me from this body of death?  (7.24).  The Gospel is reasserted: Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ (7.25)

Phase 4

  1. The Gospel means freedom in and for the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,  a power above all the weakness caused by sin exploiting the way we are (‘flesh’)  (8.1ff)    In this chapter Paul explains exuberantly  the fullness of  life in Christ with the Spirit, and with the Father.  The Spirit of God in Jesus gives life to mortal bodies – ie now, this side of death (8.9-12).    The Spirit bears witness that we are children of God with all that entails (8.12-17).   The Spirit gives first fruits of stedfast  hope for the liberation of all creation into the glorious liberty of the children of God (8.18-25).  The Spirit prays with us in the depths (8.26-28) .  This is life in and with the Spirit of Christ and the One who raised Jesus from the dead.  
  2. Always the Spirit is in conflict and struggle.  Always we can live ‘according to the flesh’ rather than the Spirit.  Without the Spirit, we would have a spirit of slavery and fall back into fear (8.15).   Life in the Spirit does not exempt us from suffering in the present, and sharing the frustration of creation, its failure quickly to reach the goal of freedom in harmony with God (8.18-25).   The Spirit assures us we are children of God who can pray, Abba, but the Spirit does not save us from the fundamental weakness of not knowing how to pray as we ought.  We are in this relation with God but we cannot work it out well. 

There is no free and easy Christian life on offer anywhere.  There is no way of being Christian where the second of the three stages of the pattern can be jumped or left out. 

  1. There is suffering, delay, frustration, weakness:  God, Father, Son and Spirit does not abolish them, but in the most intimate, deep, way (groaning too deep to utter) God works his way with us and for us through it all. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is present at every stage – in the writing of this chapter the problem (point ii.) is no sooner mentioned than it is being met by God who is inside the problem, not simply above it or after it.  In this way, this phase is different from some of the earlier phases, where the stages are much more sequential (eg Phase 1).  Is that just the way it is written, or does the writing reflect the way it is – this is going on in our mortal bodies, being made alive by the Spirit of life in Christ, and in our spirits and hearts,  which God knows better than we do?

The end of the chapter (8.28-39) continues to speak of all three stages, very mixed up.   But here the writing rises to a renewed and more exuberant celebration of the full and sure salvation which God is achieving in Jesus Christ, so that Paul is confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Phase 5

  1. This phase seems to be a break in the flow of  the argument. It is often treated as though it does not belong in it.  So some people pass over  it; and others make a lot of it by itself, talking about ‘the future of the Jewish people’  without much reference to the rest of the letter.  It is not hard, however, to see that Paul thought it belonged to the one central argument and flow of the letter.   See the clues in Romans 1.1-16 and 15.14-33.

Paul builds directly from his affirmation of the love of God in Christ, to express his own love and commitment for God’s people, the Jews, to which he belonged (9.1ff)

  1. The love of God in Christ seems to be unavailing and blocked by the way the Jews do not respond to it.   Paul’s mission, his representation of the salvation of God in Christ for Jew and Gentile, seems to run into the sand in view of their reaction to it.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, affirmed Paul, but we are separated from one another,  not only by our own unfriendliness,  but by the structures of history within which we live, our division into Jew and Gentile (for example).   In our world we have seen how terrible this division is.   We do not see it as Paul did exactly – for we have largely come to accept that Jews and Christians and others go their different ways and by coming too slowly to accept  differences with tolerance and non-judgment, we live at peace and show a real, if low-level love to each other.   But there are other relationships, between individuals and groups where we fall out with neighbours and so deny the Gospel of the love of God which makes an inseparable friendships.   Paul wrestles with this perennial human problem – how to love others as God loves us – in terms of the issue he lived  everyday in his mission and his own person. 
  2. Paul works through the stubbornness of the separation, not giving up.   He looks for the coming together in Christ of Jew and Gentile, so that God is all in all.    He is able to imagine an outcome we find it hard to embrace, for what has happened between his time and ours counts against his vision.  But he was right to risk having a vision that was consistent with the love of God in Christ, rather than give up and abandon the Gospel.  That is a challenge to us in our own time and place to be inspired by the love of God to look for reconciliation in the world into the abundant life God offers.   And at the end Paul comes to another wonderful affirmation of God and his way:  Romans 11.29-36.

Phase 6

  1. Now (12.1 – 15.23 and indeed 16.27)   Paul talks about how the Christians he is addressing are to work out the Gospel in their living.   The issues of Phase 5 are brought down to earth, where they are.  First, and directly following 11.33-36,  he appeals to them by ‘the mercies of God’.  These mercies  have been so extensively described in all the earlier phases, that they need no more than a reminder here – but there should be no doubt about their  weight and content.  The Gospel is not presented in this chapter in terms of a story of God in Christ – that has been done – but rather in the response of their whole life in the body.  And that is not an individual life, but is lived in the body of the church, and in the world.   The Gospel is (to be)  told through the medium of their living – as Paul had said to the Corinthians, Christians were a letter written not with ink but in the medium of their own living. 

Through this experiment and display of Christian living the Gospel is played out in the world.  It is is quite simply – but not  too simply? –  summed up in 15.7: Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.   The welcome is the mercies of 12.1, and for the glory of God, is the reasonable service. 

  1. The second stage is not so  obvious in this phase as it is in some of the earlier ones.   The contradiction of the Gospel is not identified for lengthy analysis.   But the possibility, and even actuality,  of the contradiction of the Gospel runs through  this section.  Paul is giving advice, direction, encouragement:  none of that would be necessary, if the Roman Christians were not normal human beings, who find it sometimes easier to be conformed to this world, rather than transformed by the renewing of the mind to work out the good acceptable and perfect will of God (12.2).   All the way through, as Paul says: This is the good way, but  we have no difficulty in thinking of examples of Christians, like ourselves, who have left undone those things we ought to have done and done those things we ought not to have done.   We are told to love our enemies, but that is very difficult; often it seems rational, just and prudential to pay back evil for evil, or at least to look after our own interests as strongly as we can (12.16-21) 

Paul sometimes said some blunt crude things to people, but he obviously tries to sugar bitter pills.  So in 15.14,  he says he is satisfied that they are full of all goodness and are able to instruct one another – if that is so, was  he needed?  (cf the telling switch between two parts of a sentence in  Romans 1.11-12).   Even if he is not needed, he will write boldly to remind them of what they already know.   It is true that we can forget or be careless about what we know perfectly well.  Much wrong and sin is done by  those who know what is right and at one level want to do it –  perhaps we forget it, miss the opportune moment or  just don’t get round to doing it. 

The same mixture of affirmation, criticism and encouragement appears right at the end in 16.17-20. 

  1. Just as the second stage runs all through this phase, so does the third.  The Gospel is preached as joy and peace in believing in and through the practical instruction given here:  15.13.  Paul tells them about his mission, the concrete form the Gospel is taking in his own distinctive apostleship, so formative for Christian faith then and even now:  15.15-21; 15.30-33.  And so the whole letter is summed up in a doxology, a word in praise of the glory of God in Christ Jesus and our hope in him:  16.25-27

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