Romans series: what to leave in, what to leave out

June 25, 2011

I’m enjoying our sermon series in Romans. It’s a challenge for me. Romans is Paul’s masterpiece, and the fullest, most concentrated statement of the gospel in the New Testament. But it’s difficult because it’s packed with meaning. No wasted words, no asides, no unimportant tangents. Every word, we should safely assume, serves Paul’s argument.

With that in mind, I’ve had great difficulty skipping over sections of the letter. If you look at the original schedule, you’ll see that I’ll have spent three weeks saying what I intended to say in one. At the same time, we don’t have time to go through the letter verse by verse.

So I thought I’d give you a brief update on what I’ve left out so far…

Which is mostly Paul’s reason for writing the letter in the first place! Sorry about that!

His main reason goes back to Paul’s thesis sentence in Romans 1:17-18: God’s righteousness. Of course, I’ve talked about God’s righteousness—in terms of God’s justifiable anger over sin and God’s way of dealing with the problem and “putting the world to rights” (as N.T. Wright likes to say). But I’ve talked about it in a very general way so far, whereas Paul also talks about it in a specific way: as it relates to God’s people Israel. This is what Paul deals with in Romans 2 and most of chapter 3 (which my sermons skip).

If God is righteous, that means two things: First, God is committed to justice—and dealing with sin, which is nothing less than a violation of God’s justice. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Jew and Gentile alike. But if that’s the case, where does that leave Israel? After all, God’s righteousness means not only that God is committed to seeing that justice is done (the usual way we think about righteousness), but that God is also a God who keeps his promises to Israel, his covenant people. Has God turned his back on Israel and the covenant—as if God said, “Well, I tried it this way, by establishing a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, but that failed, so I better try something else”?

That may be the way it appears, Paul says, but that isn’t what’s happened at all! It’s true that Israel failed to be faithful in its mission to reveal God to the world. (Given the nature of sin, how could they not?) The Old Testament prophets have a lot to say about this failure. Does that mean, therefore, that God’s promises to Abraham wouldn’t come true? That God had abandoned the covenant? No! Because now, Paul argues—in an unexpected way that few could imagine (although it’s clear from Isaiah 53, among other scriptures)—God enabled Israel to be successful in its mission: through Jesus, God’s Son, the Messiah, Israel’s faithful representative. Jesus did what did what Israel couldn’t do, so that through Abraham’s offspring the world would indeed be blessed.

Among other things, this means that the way Romans 3:22 is often translated (that God’s righteousness comes through “faith in” Jesus) is misleading. It should be translated—as the new Common English Bible translates it: “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” The Greek is ambiguous: it could mean “faith of,” “faith in,” or “faithfulness of.” The faithfulness of Jesus makes the most sense: it carries with it the meaning of both Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel, and his life of sinless obedience to the Father. The emphasis is on what Christ has accomplished for the world, not on what we accomplish—as if placing faith in Jesus were a kind of meritorious work that Paul himself loudly excludes in the rest of the letter.

Besides, translating it as the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him” avoids the redundancy of the NIV or NRSV, which reads “faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” “Faith in Jesus for all who have faith in Jesus” is an awkward thing to say.

I’m not a Greek scholar. I’m leaning heavily, as I so often do, on N.T. Wright. Specifically, his words in Abingdon’s New Interpreter’s Bible commentary.

I hope this helps. If I were teaching a Bible study on Romans, I would talk through this stuff as well. As it is, I’m preaching sermons, and I hope you’re enjoying them!

2 Responses to “Romans series: what to leave in, what to leave out”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is very interesting. I agree, though without necessarily previously having “thought it through,” that God’s promise to Abraham did come true through Jesus, his “seed.” However, Jesus did “take away the vineyard” and give it to others, which might suggest that as far as Israel “nationally” is concerned, they may have failed in their task. (But of course God knew that and had his promise in its “ultimate” meaning fulfilled.) What I also find interesting as to whether Israel nationally has “fully” failed, though, is Paul’s discussion in Romans 11, where he could be read (in my view) to be saying that ultimately national Israel would again assume a “lead role” in human redemption, and thereby not fully fail in that aspect either.

    Aside from such speculation, however, the main point I wanted to make about this post is as to “faith in” Jesus as distinct from “through the faithfulness of” Jesus. In many instances when Jesus healed people, he would say, “Your faith has healed you (or saved you).” Clearly it was Jesus who did the healing (or saving), but he seems to say that he granted his healings (or salvation) to those who had faith, so that in that sense it was THEIR faith which gave rise to the healing (or salvation). So, in the most critical sense, I think it can be said that, though it is certainly “through the faithfulness” of Christ that we can “come in,” yet it is for those who will “open the door” by faith that the entrance is permitted. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone will open the door, I will come in and share dinner with him.”

    Why of significance? In my view, although without a doubt many scriptures could be read, at least standing alone, to say that salvation is “all of God and none of man,” i.e., that “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” still, in the final analysis of scripture as a whole, sin and salvation and eternal destinations do not make sense of God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice without there being something in the “heart of man, from which come the issues of life,” that “impacts” those whom ultimately benefit from Christ’s faithfulness, via their faith. As a lawyer, I would say that “the Judge of all the earth” will “do right,” per Abraham, by “making a difference between the righteous and the wicked,” instead of acting “arbitrarily and capriciously.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      We don’t disagree, Tom. It’s “through the faithfulness of… for all who have faith in.” I’m not arguing against human volition. I’m Methodist, after all. We’re the ones Calvinists sometimes accuse of being Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian)!


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