This post marks the official return of my series on the New Covenant approach to the Law, or how “law” is taught in the New Testament. You might recall that some time back I wrote a few posts examining Jesus’ teaching about the Law (that is, the Old Testament Law aka The Law of Moses). Now I’m turning to Romans, which is considered by many to be Paul’s theological masterpiece.
Of course, Paul did not set out to write any kind of stand-alone systematic theology in the way we think about it today. Paul was writing to the church in Rome (which had not yet visited) and wanted to discuss issues pertinent to that church. I doubt he believed that it would survive several centuries and become foundational for much of Christian theology.
From what he writes, we can assume that the church in Rome was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, and that there was some friction between the two groups. If they had shared today’s mentality, I am guessing they would have split into 2 or more individual churches, but that’s not how they did things back then, which I’m sure provided plenty of subject matter for teaching.
Although Romans is the first of Paul’s letters to appear in the New Testament, it was not the first to be written. It is believed, for example, that Romans may have been written as many as 10 years after Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which also deals with issues of the Law and Jew-Gentile relations. So, we know that the Church in various places had dealt with issues of Jew-Gentile relations and the applicability of the Law for some time. (You’d think that perhaps I’d deal with Galatians first, being it was written first, but I’m not going to. It might be helpful, however, to get a copy of Ken Blue and my book The Gospel Uncensored, which deals with Galatians in detail, and explains how the letter to the Galatians is as applicable today as it was in the 1st Century.
I Won’t Back Down
We should note that Paul makes it clear that he is “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Often we hear the next verse in the context of preaching to the unsaved, but that is not Paul’s intent here. He anchors his teaching in the need to preach the Gospel to the Christian in Rome, going on to explain, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)”
It would seem from this introduction that Paul expected that the gospel he would preach would be a sensitive issue among some of the Christians in Rome. When Paul wrote “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” the implication was there that at least some in Rome were ashamed of it. And, he was not challenging the Roman church to evangelize the unchurched, he was challenging them to believe it themselves. Paul’s attitude here toward his message is a continuation of that expressed in his letter to the Galatians (although perhaps expressed in a gentler fashion), and is not unlike that expressed by Tom Petty in his song “I Won’t Back Down”:
Well I won’t back down
No I won’t back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down
The Relevance of Romans
One of the issues we tend to ignore when reading the New Testament is that there were significant cultural differences between the Jews who had converted to Christianity and the Gentile Christians. At least some Jews tended to think of Christianity as a mere extension of Judaism, for a number of good reasons. As Paul explained in various places, we are all heirs to the Abrahamic Covenant, the Gentiles were grafted onto their vine, etc. However, the church quickly became about the Gentiles, with the Jewish Christians being mere remnants of Judaism. Things changed quickly as the Jews came to realize they had as much changing to do as the Gentiles. Tension.
And to make matters worse, the Jews were used to a certain lifestyle, governed by the Law of Moses (and the rest that they had made up and added to the Law), that they identified as being holy. The logical assumption then was that the Gentile customs were unholy (and some, of course, were). But the Gentile converts were never given the Law to follow. The Jews were proud to be slaves (in a manner of speaking), but that didn’t impress the Gentiles. So, there was judgment on both sides.
It seems that—just as with the Galatians—the church today still suffers from the same flawed thinking evidenced by the First Century Church in Rome. It is particularly ironic that the way many people interpret the first chapter of Romans shows just how much they think like the 1st Century Jewish Christians in Rome, by misusing the Law. One of the problems comes in with the way we generally study the Bible, in nice little bite-size portions. You just can’t do that with Romans; reading the 1st Chapter without the commentary of Chapter 2 actually leads you to start thinking like the people Paul is writing to. Again, Paul’s intent here is to evangelize the church, not the unchurched; when he says things like, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he is talking to the Roman church, about the Roman church (and of course, the rest of us).
So, Romans is a very important letter for the church today, and perhaps for reasons some of us haven’t considered.
NEXT: Romans in Context