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…

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