The Law of Romans: The Good, The Bad, and The Deadly

Most of us, if not all, have had religious tradition handed down to us and have been taught false, religiously minded ideas about the law in teaching that actually encourages us to embrace the law as a useful guide to Christian living. What could be farther from the truth? ~ Mick Mooney, God’s Law Apart From Grace, p. 35

One of the weird things about law is that just the fact of adhering to a certain set of standards—whether you can actually keep them yourself or not—makes you more apt to feel superior to those who don’t acknowledge your particular code. Look around at our culture, and you can see that it’s true. The ultra-conservative Christians act as if they’re superior to the general less-moral population, and the liberals act as if they’re the ones higher on the evolutionary scale. Vegans believe they are superior to meat-eaters, and so on.  You don’t even have to be all that extreme; if you believe in a certain set of moral principles, however “normal” they may be, you will tend to believe that you’re superior, even if you fail to keep your own moral code.

The 1st Century Christians were no different. What Paul tries to point out in the first few chapters of Romans is that 1) God’s law is apparent to everyone; 2) You can’t become righteous by keeping the law anyway; and 3) everyone fails to keep God’s law, so we’re all toast regardless of whether we try to follow laws or not. What we have is a level playing field, Jews, Gentiles, whatever.  Righteousness is not a matter of keeping the law—any law—but comes as a gift of God’s grace.

So, whenever someone uses a law—any law—to judge someone else, they first must subordinate themselves to God’s law, for which they will fail, rendering themselves ineligible to judge anyone else. So, for example, using Romans 1 to judge gays doesn’t work. All you have to do is turn to Chapter 2, verse 1, and see that any attempt to judge anyone else means you’re actually engaging in self-condemnation.

Romans 2 is deadly. It’s clear we are all condemned. It doesn’t even help if we were to be circumcised as a Jew, or not; for the circumcision that matters is not physical but spiritual.

Now by the end of Chapter 2, the Jewish Christians must have been feeling pretty bad, for Paul seems to be telling them that their Jewishness is essentially worthless. Moving into Chapter 3, Paul says that being a Jew is important because it shows the faithfulness of God; however, that doesn’t make them any better off (v 9), because as I said, we’re all toast under the Law, whether it’s written or natural.

The Good Stuff

Now Paul gets to the good stuff when he gets down to verse 21:

    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
(Romans 3:21-25 ESV)

This is a pretty meaty section, and unfortunately, verse 23 is often taken out of context, actually separating the phrase “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” from “and are justified by his grace as a gift.”  To me, to separate these 2 phrases is unconscionable. But of course, it’s hard to get some “sinner” to feel really bad about his lot in life when he’s also told that his justification—in other words, his state of being declared righteous—has been given to him as a gift.

Why withhold the Good News? For one reason, it’s really hard to control someone once you tell them that their righteousness is solely resulting from the work of Jesus, not by their own work, or by obedience to any law or religious system.  And as Paul had written to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” This is scary stuff to someone who feels a need to control you. As Mick Jagger sang, “I’m free to do what I want, any old time.” (He of course was not entirely correct, as the so-called “freedom to sin” is not freedom at all.)

In case there’s any doubt, in verse 28 Paul lays it out clearly: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

But in the closing verses of Chapter 3, it starts to get a bit confusing as Paul also says that we don’t overthrow the law by faith, but uphold it.  Paul is not hinting that we can gain anything by keeping the law; to the contrary, justification by faith affirms the fact that we cannot obtain righteousness through keeping the Law.  For it is the Law that condemns us, that declares our unrighteousness and our need for grace. As Paul explains later, in Chapter 5, the Law was actually given so that our sin would increase! This only makes sense, as the more laws we have, the more we find that we are breaking. The Law is important, but only for the purposes for which it was given; and it wasn’t given to make us righteous.

For that, we need grace.

Romans 1 In Context

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)

The Great Misunderstanding

I expect that Romans Chapter 1 is the most misunderstood chapter in the Bible.  I know that I misunderstood it for many years. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems is that we tend to read chapter by chapter, and without the clues in chapter 2, it’s easy to jump to exactly the wrong conclusions, even as to the most quoted verse in Romans, 1:16.

While by itself, Romans 1:16 seems to be a great verse to encourage the timid among us to be a strong “witness” for Christ to the world. And while that application is not unfair, this was not Paul’s point. Paul was actually writing in the context of preaching the gospel to the church. Today, as in the 1st Century, humans like to imagine themselves capable of success in their spiritual lives, and on the other side of the coin, they like to be able to judge and condemn others who don’t meet the imagined Christian criteria.

The Gospel literally blows that all to hell.

So when Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” he is telling the Romans that he takes no pride in pseudo-spiritual achievements, instead proclaiming a message that brings power for salvation, and a righteousness “of God,” which is received by faith, not by meeting any religious criteria. And through his quote, “The righteous shall live by faith,” he rather brilliantly lays the foundation for what is to come.

The Law Fails as a Viable Criterion

The Roman church was made up of Christians of both Jewish and Gentile descent. The Jews obviously felt somewhat superior as they had an obvious claim to a cultural and spiritual heritage that the Gentiles couldn’t claim. A large part of this was due to the fact that the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and the Law of Moses had been given to them. They had been law-keepers for generations. The Gentiles were, in the eyes of the Jewish believers, lawless.

Before I go any further, I’d like to recommend a great little book on the first 3 chapters of Romans, God’s Grace Apart From Law by Mick Mooney. I read it not too long ago, and there’s a good change that I’ll steal one or more ideas from him without realizing it…

Not unlike many Christians today, many Jews of the 1st Century believed that one could gain righteousness by keeping the law. And, since the Gentile Christians had no law, they had a lot of righteousness to catch up on.  So, Paul takes them on a logical journey, first explaining—and brilliantly so—the concept that we call Natural Theology. Through nature, God’s law is revealed, and the heathens show they understand it when they adopt any sort of moral code.

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20 ESV)

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them… (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)

3 Words: Context, Context, Context

Chapter 1 (again, brilliantly) shows how the unrighteous suppressed the truth, and how that led from sinfulness to sinfulness, a seeming condemnation of Gentile lawlessness. However, as  Mooney writes on page 60,

It is of the utmost importance for us to understand the purpose Paul had in writing about ‘unrighteousness’ in the opening chapter of his letter, how it has been used to cause so much damage by religiously minded Christians who have taken this part of Paul’s letter and used it out of context to condemn people in the world. … That was never Paul’s intention for writing it; in fact, Paul’s intention was the complete opposite!

While Romans 1, especially verses 26 and 27, seems perfect for using to call down judgment on a few unpopular sins, we soon see as we turn the page to Chapter 2 that this is not what Paul had in mind at all.  As Mooney continues,

Paul’s true intention was to make clear to the members of the church that they had no right to judge anyone. Rather than being judgmental, their focus should have been on living their lives out of a position of grace.

For Paul says in verse 1 of Chapter 2, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

The Basis for Fellowship

You may have heard the rather lame definition of fellowship as “fellows in the same ship.”  Well, what Paul is saying here is that both Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat. Both received God’s laws, either through the formal Torah, or the more informal natural law. And, both Jews and Gentiles failed by falling into the same sins.  Therefore, both Jew and Gentile are equal on both counts; there is no basis for pride anywhere to be found, and neither is there any basis for righteousness, based on human achievement.  Neither is in a position to judge or claim superiority; in other words, “All have sinned and fallen short…”

It seems that the church today has come no further than the 1st Century church. Christians who have no natural ties to Judaism have stolen the Old Testament Law (as it was never given to Gentiles, Gentiles have no rights to it) and use it both to claim a works-oriented righteousness, and as a tool to condemn others.

However, Christians have no right to do so, regardless of their heritage. The only thing the Law can do for you is to show you your own sin. So, as they say, good luck with that.

As Paul will continue to demonstrate, any news predicated on meeting any kind of criteria is bad news.  But wait! There’s more…

The Law of Romans – Introduction

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

I love that song, but tend to prefer Johnny Cash’s version, and especially a little-known version by Holly Nelson. Okay, back to Romans.

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


To Tithe, or Not to Tithe…

Tithing is one of those strange Christian traditions that many Christians take for granted, without having any understanding of its origins or lack of Biblical foundation.  Many Christians would be shocked to learn that tithing — that is, the practice of giving one-tenth of your income to the church — is not a universal Christian practice at all.  For that matter, it’s not even a “Christian” practice.

Here are a few truths about the practice of tithing:

  1. The word “tithe” means “tenth.”
  2. A tithe was not money (except in the event the food tithe could not be transported to where it needed to go).
  3. The Law of Moses includes more than one tithe.
  4. Tithing only applied to farm goods; people like fishermen, carpenters, and merchants did not have to pay a tithe.
  5. Tithing did not apply to income, it applied to what you had at the time.
  6. Someone with only 9 sheep did not tithe, as he had no “tenth” to give.
  7. Only Levites could receive a tithe.
  8. A farmer under the Law of Moses “tithed” approximately 23% per year for various causes.
  9. The early church did not practice tithing.
  10. The practice of tithing taught in many churches today has no resemblance to any tithe in the Old Testament.

 Very Superstitious…

When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way – Stevie Wonder

The current practice of tithing is nothing more than a superstition. Whether you believe that you’ll be blessed if you keep the rule or punished if you don’t, or if you’re troubled by the question “net or gross,”  you’re acting out of superstition. And where there’s superstition, there’s no faith.

Seriously, you might as well be concerned about spilling salt or having your path crossed by a black cat.

When pastors teach that tithing is a New Covenant directive (whether they use the word “law” or the modern “principle”), either they really suck at Bible study (in which case you should critically consider everything else they teach), or they are motivated by a fear of not having enough money.  Either way, you’ve got to wonder, and you should be concerned.

New Covenant Giving

Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving. In fact, it’s encouraged. But, giving in the New Testament is based on the idea of reciprocity: we all give, and we all receive, according to our gifts and needs. This is not socialism (a forced redistribution of wealth), or having everything in common (which was done by some in the NT, but not by all and never mandated by anyone). It’s simply relational.

The bad news for pastors (or what seems like bad news to those who lack faith) is that there is no Biblical mandate to pay a pastor or leader, or to funnel all of your offerings to a local church.  There’s also nothing precluding these things, but giving should be based on relationship and good stewardship, not on a few out-of-context Bible verses and a boatload of guilt.

Personally, I think the 10% guideline is good; however, I generally prefer to give to charities and other non-profits rather than to a church.  If I thought a church really needed the money, I’d have no problem giving it to them, but it’s not my first choice. When choosing between a) a church with a new $20,000 sound system, and b) some orphans, I’ll tend to go with the orphans. But that’s just me.

Party On, Dudes

Today I discovered a really good series of teachings on tithing, which is one of the things that prompted this post, by Joel Brueseke over at Grace Roots. It’s entitled “Freed from Tithing, Free to Give,” and I encourage you to check that out. I particularly enjoyed part 5, where he quotes from Deuteronomy 14:

“24But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the Lord your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the Lord your God has blessed you, 25 then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 26 And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.” (emphasis mine)

You don’t hear that preached too often.

Grace, and Peace

Christians shouldn’t have to live in anxiety about whether or not they are about to suffer 7 years of bad luck because they didn’t tithe, or tithe properly.

[6] The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. [7] Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [8] And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [9] As it is written,

“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”

[10] He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. [11] You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. [12] For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. [13] By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, [14] while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. [15] Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!

(2 Corinthians 9:6-15 ESV)

Grace, and Peace.