The Crystal Clarity of Romans — Menu

Introduction—”We should expect to find Paul’s chief points of doctrine boldly stated, and nothing material hidden behind subtleties that only a scholar amongst the recipients could understand.”

Part A—Neither pagan ritual nor studious law-keeping can get us to God.

Part B—Only the work of Christ, apprehended by faith, brings us to God

Part C—The extraordinary love that we saw in action when we were estranged from God assures us that it will continue now we are reconciled to him.

Part D1—A new way to think: identification with Christ gives reason and motivation to withstand sin.

Part D2—Another new way to think: pragmatically compare the old way of life with what is possible in the new.

Part E—In Romans 7, it is unnecessary to precisely identify “I”. Whoever “I” is, a law-based approach to sanctification is certain to fail.

Part F—The new way of the Spirit replaces the never-competent Law.

Part G—Our present frailty and suffering is not a contradiction of our glorious standing in Christ.

Part H—God’s glorious purpose will not be thwarted.

Part I—The Clarity of Romans 9‒11

Image attribution: https://morguefile.com/photos/morguefile/1/crystal ,by lisaleo

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The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — Intro & Menu

Introductory Comments

After the Apostle Paul had dictated to Tertius the last words of his letter to the Romans, he said with a sigh to his amanuensis, “I know that’s going to be near impossible for them to understand, but, behold, Tertius, I show you a mystery. In time to come, the Lord will raise up commentators: Cranfield, Dunn, Haldane, Jewett, Schreiner, Wright, Uncle Tom Cobley, and all, and then at last the Lord’s people will come to understand what I meant.”

Not! The Church owes a debt to all those men named (except, perhaps, Uncle Tom Cobley), and to others before them. They have sharpened our understanding of various aspects of Paul’s letter. However, Paul dictated what he did in the confidence that his words and doctrine could be understood by the ordinary people of the church in Rome. Of course, we who live in a different time and speak a different language need some expert help to arrive at a more-or-less correct translation, but it is my contention that, since Paul had every intention to be plain and clear, what he wrote is largely self-interpreting. If we just start at the beginning and keep following Paul’s train of thought, we arrive at an understanding that is more than adequate to shape our faith and practice.

Our understanding of some details can be honed as new linguistic or cultural background comes to light, or someone offers a likely-looking ”new perspective” on this or that, but I am confident that no such new insight, nor discovery of a hitherto overlooked chiasm or other rhetorical device, will ever cause a Copernican revolution in the interpretation of Romans. Anyone who thinks that it might do so, has, I am sure, simply failed to pay sufficient attention to the flow of Paul’s own argument.

Likewise, the ever-increasing number of Romans commentaries is not an indication that it is difficult to understand; just that it contains some extraordinary depths within its plain wrapping. However, Paul’s approach was surely the same as when he preached to the Corinthians: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Anyone who approaches Romans with the mind-set that Paul’s principal meaning does not lie right on the surface, will certainly misunderstand it.

This new series of posts follow on from my “Crystal Clarity of Romans” series which covered chapters 1 to 8. Now, in chapters 9 to 11, we come to a place where, because of his depth of emotion, Paul does not set out the points he is making in a measured, linear way. He is never outstandingly good at that, and here he is more erratic than usual—which is a good thing, because it reminds us that we are dealing with profoundly important matters, not just theological abstractions.

It is still not difficult to understand him—his points still connect logically with each other, with his emotional state, and with what he has said in the preceding eight chapters. Nevertheless, I have entitled this set of blog posts “The Clarity of Romans 9–11”, omitting the word “crystal”. Paul’s meaning remains clear, but more work is required on the hearer’s part.

New Perspectives

After completing this series of posts on Romans 9 to 11, I plan to publish a post which I am already drafting, asking (with particular reference to N.T. Wright) what difference the new perspectives on Paul ought to make to our understanding of Romans, as against traditional Protestant understanding. My interim conclusion is that the traditional understanding of “justification by [personal] faith” remains correct, but the “creation and covenant” framework of Paul’s thinking, as made explicit by Wright, is an important addition to the vocabulary of discourse about Romans. It can guard Protestantism against the error of treating Romans as though it is almost entirely about individual salvation, with everything else as incidental, whereas the doctrine presented by Paul is cosmically greater than that, and individual salvation just one part.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that this “new” perspective quite deserves to be described as “new”. Made explicit in a new way?—yes, but having worked my way through Romans for this blog post series, it seems to me that anyone following Paul’s arguments from beginning to end, as I attempted to do, ought not to fail to intuit the greater background story. It can be synthesized from the totality of Paul’s teaching in Romans, and you don’t need to deliberately adopt a Jewish mindset to do so. Just use your Western, logically-trained mind and pay attention to what Paul says

Acknowledgements

Unless otherwise identified, English Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Greek text is from from the The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Society of Biblical Literature and Logos Bible Software

Image: “Clarity” flickr photo by Odd Wellies https://flickr.com/photos/rhubarbcrumbleandcustard/2722250234 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — I Israel’s Unbelief does not make God’s Promises Unreliable

The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — IA1-2

{I} 9th Subsidiary Thesis: Israel’s Unbelief does not make God’s Promises Unreliable (9:6)

It is not until 9:6 that Paul tells us the thesis he is defending in this part of his letter, a thesis that links all three chapters, 9, 10, and 11:
Οὐχ οἷον δὲ ὅτι ἐκπέπτωκεν ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. (Ouch hoion de hoti ekpeptōken ho logos tōu theou.)
It is not as though the word of God had failed (9:6a). The preceding 44 verses, beginning at 8:1, give us the context that shows why Paul needs to state and defend this assertion.

The section of Romans that we have as chapter 8 began with the claim, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1), and it ended, after Paul had added even more evidence that this was so, with the soaring statement that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

It is evident, then, why the plight of Israel flew to Paul’s mind immediately after he had presented the Romans with such strong reasons for confidence in their eternal standing with God. Two millennia previously, God had made glowing promises to Abraham and his descendants, but it was already clear by the time Paul wrote that most first-century Jews had rejected Jesus and so were outside the sphere of God’s current blessing. The question that might have come to the Romans’ minds was, “If the Lord didn’t keep his promises to Israel, why should we be sure he won’t let us down, too?” That is the implicit question that Paul will answer in chapters 9‒11.

{IA} Proof A—God is, and was Always, Sovereign in the Giving and Fulfilment of the Promises (9:6b-29)

{IA_1} The Promises to Abraham were not Unbounded (9:6b-9)

οὐ γὰρ πάντες οἱ ἐξ Ἰσραήλ, οὗτοι Ἰσραήλ οὐδ’ ὅτι εἰσὶν σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ, πάντες τέκνα, ἀλλ’· Ἐν Ἰσαὰκ κληθήσεταί σοι σπέρμα.
(ōu gar panties hoi ex Israēl, houtoi Israēl, oud’ hoti eisin sperma Abraam, pantes tekna, all’ En Isaak klēthēsetai soi sperma.)
not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (9:6b-7).

  • The quotation from Genesis 21:12 provides the Scriptural evidence for the claims that Paul is making here and in verse 8.

τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, οὐ τὰ τέκνα τῆς σαρκὸς ταῦτα τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ, ἀλλὰ τὰ τέκνα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας λογίζεται εἰς σπέρμα·
(tout’ estin, ōu tā tekna tēs sarkos tauta tekna tōu theou, alla tā tekna tēs epaggelias logizetai eis sperma)
—This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants(9:8).

  • Q.E.D.
  • 9:9 adds further background and needs no comment.

{IA_2} Uncompelled Election is seen in God’s Preference for Jacob over Esau (9:10-13)

οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ Ῥεβέκκα … κοίτην ἔχουσα …, μήπω γὰρ γεννηθέντων μηδὲ πραξάντων τι ἀγαθὸν ἢ φαῦλον, ἵνα ἡ κατ’ ἐκλογὴν πρόθεσις τοῦ θεοῦ μένῃ, οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ καλοῦντος, ἐρρέθη αὐτῇ ὅτι Ὁ μείζων δουλεύσει τῷ ἐλάσσονι
(ōu Monon de, alla kai Rebekka … koitēn exousa,… mēpō gar gennēthentōn mēde praxantōn tī agathon ē phaulon, hina hē kat’ eklogēn prosthesis tōu theou menē, ouk ex ergōn all’ ek tōu kalountos, erresthē autē hoti Ho meizōn douleusei tō elassoni)
—Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger” (9:10-12).

  • “..before they … had done anything good or bad…” Someone determined to disagree with Paul, and reading the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, might suggest that perhaps God foresaw the future acts of the two men and made his choice on that basis. That is not how Paul sees it. He sees it as a matter of the uninfluenced choice of God, “not because of works but because of him who calls”.
  • Some Greek texts have kakon (wicked) rather than phaulon (worthless). Whichever word Paul actually used, it would have made no difference to his conclusion.

καθὼς γέγραπται· Τὸν Ἰακὼβ ἠγάπησα, τὸν δὲ Ἠσαῦ ἐμίσησα.
(kathōs gegraptai, Ton Iakōb agapēsa, ton de Ēsau emisēsa.)
As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (9:13).

  • Commentators have suggested that this kind of “loved”/”hated” contrast was a Semitic idiom, and the “hated” does not mean the kind of deep antipathy that at first it seems to.
  • I don’t have the expertise to support or contradict that idea, but I think it is irrelevant to understanding the sweep of Paul’s meaning in this section. Even if the quoted Old Testament sentence is indeed making use of a Semitic idiom, Paul’s Gentile-background hearers in Rome may not have known that. Therefore, Paul’s words probably sounded as shocking in their ears as they do in ours today.
  • Regardless of how severely or gently Paul himself understood the words he quoted from Malachi (Malachi 1:2-3), he quotes them to support his assertion that God makes choices between people (or classes of people), and those choices are not influenced by anything outside of God himself. The quotation indeed serves that purpose, and we can leave the theodical task to Paul in the three verses that follow. (See next post).

A Note Concerning “Purpose”

It doesn’t make any difference to our ease of understanding the main point Paul is making in this Jacob vs Esau passage, but I think all our translations err by translating hina hē kat’ eklogēn prosthesis tōu theou menē in ways that may allow the impression that God’s purpose is to elect. That’s not the understanding that the Romans would have gained from Paul’s words, which more literally say, “…in order that the according to election purpose of God might stand”. It is God’s purpose that will stand, and, as it happens, the path toward that purpose involves the election to mercy of people who have no merit that could earn that favour.

And what did Paul understand God’s purpose to be? Though he does not use the word “purpose” in it, there is a passage in Romans 15 that tells us the answer: “Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (15:8-9).

Putting that passage together with 9:11, God’s purpose is to save, and election is just a means to that end. As Michael Bird writes, “When we think of God’s purposes, we are not to think of an abstract order of decrees, but God’s intention to bring salvation to the world through Abraham’s seed, through Israel, and the Messiah”. (Bird, Michael F. Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, p.328)


Image attribution: “Abrahams Dankopfer_ 1653_(Kunsthistorisches_Museum)” flickr photo by pixelsniper https://flickr.com/photos/89375755@N00/40563690965 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Next: Justice gives us no Entitlement to Mercy

The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — IA3-5

{IA_3} Justice Gives us no Entitlement to Mercy (9:14-16)

Τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν; μὴ ἀδικία παρὰ τῷ θεῷ; μὴ γένοιτο·
(Tī oun eroumen; mē adkikia para tō theō)
—What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! (9:14)

  • Paul begins his defence of God’s justice.

τῷ Μωϋσεῖ γὰρ λέγει· Ἐλεήσω ὃν ἂν ἐλεῶ, καὶ οἰκτιρήσω ὃν ἂν οἰκτίρω.
(Tō Mōusei gar legei: Eleēsō hon an eleō, kai oiktirJēō hon an oiktirō.)
—For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (9:15).

  • Why, having just asked, “Is God unjust?” does Paul answer with this quote?
  • The obvious meaning of Paul’s answer is, someone who has received mercy did not receive mercy because justice gave them a claim to it, but because they were pardoned contrary to strict justice.
  • Likewise, justice does not give a guilty person a right to expect mercy, and if he or she does not receive mercy, they have no just grounds for complaint.
  • The quotation comes Deuteronomy 33:19, and the  preceding context showed the Lord’s patience in not wiping out the Hebrews despite their making of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Justice could have destroyed them immediately, but in this instance the Lord opted for mercy, and the decision was wholly his, most definitely not based on the merit of those who received it.
  • The knowledge that Jewish-background believers in Rome had of the Torah is therefore likely to have helped them understand Paul’s point. Gentile-background believers would not have had that advantage, but, with some reflection, could have grasped the significant point anyway.
  • Unstated here but proven in the first three chapters of Romans and summed up in 3:23 is the fact, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Therefore, implicit in Paul’s argument here in Romans 9 is the consequent fact: none of us has a just claim that God should show us mercy.

ἄρα οὖν οὐ τοῦ θέλοντος οὐδὲ τοῦ τρέχοντος ἀλλὰ τοῦ ἐλεῶντος θεοῦ.
(ara oun ou tou thelontos oude tou trechontos alla tou eleōntos theou,)
Therefore, [it is] not of the [human] willing or running, but of the mercy of God (9:16).

  • Exactly so. In the court of divine justice, it cannot be otherwise.

{IA_4} God’s Withholding of Mercy from Pharaoh Illustrates the Point (9:17-18)

λέγει γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ τῷ Φαραὼ ὅτι Εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦτο ἐξήγειρά σε ὅπως ἐνδείξωμαι ἐν σοὶ τὴν δύναμίν μου, καὶ ὅπως διαγγελῇ τὸ ὄνομά μου ἐν πάσῃ τῇ γῇ. ἄρα οὖν ὃν θέλει ἐλεεῖ, ὃν δὲ θέλει σκληρύνει.
(legei gar hē graphē tō Pharaō, hoti Eis auto touto exēgeira se hopōs endeixōmai en soi tēn dunamin mou, kai hopōs diaggelē to onoma mou en pasē tē gē. Ara oun  hon thelei eleei, hon de thelei sklērunei.)
—For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens … whomever he chooses (9:17-18).

  • Verse 17 starts with “for”, and this is important.
  • The “for” follows Paul’s statement, “It is not of [human] willing or running but of the mercy of God”. The example of the hardening of Pharaoh is therefore relevant because it is a case where God chose not to show mercy. It underlines Paul’s point that such decisions are entirely in the unforced hand of God.
  • Remember (9:14-16), Paul has already shown that anyone’s deliverance is always a matter of mercy, not of justice, so God’s decision to withhold mercy from Pharaoh cannot be deemed unjust.

{IA_5} God has the Sovereign Right to Choose as He Does (9:19-23)

Ἐρεῖς μοι οὖν· Τί οὖν ἔτι μέμφεται; τῷ γὰρ βουλήματι αὐτοῦ τίς ἀνθέστηκεν; ὦ ἄνθρωπε, μενοῦνγε σὺ τίς εἶ ὁ ἀνταποκρινόμενος τῷ θεῷ; μὴ ἐρεῖ τὸ πλάσμα τῷ πλάσαντι Τί με ἐποίησας οὕτως; ἢ οὐκ ἔχει ἐξουσίαν ὁ κεραμεὺς τοῦ πηλοῦ ἐκ τοῦ αὐτοῦ φυράματος ποιῆσαι ὃ μὲν εἰς τιμὴν σκεῦος ὃ δὲ εἰς ἀτιμίαν;
(Ereis moi oun, Ti oun eti memphetai, tō gar boulēmati autou tis anthestēken? Ō anthrōpe, menounge su tis ei o ho antapokrinomenos tō theō? mē erei to plasma tō plasanti Ti me epoiēsas houtōs? ē  ouk echei exousian ho kerameus tou pēlou ek tou autou phuramatos poiēsai ho men eis timēn skeuos ho de eis atimian?)
—You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (9:19-21)

  • It might seem to us that Paul could have given a “better” answer here by pointing out that God forces no one to sin, and that the guilt of our freely-chosen sin means none of us have a rightful claim on God’s mercy. However, that is not where Paul takes us in his answer. His priority is to make sure that his Roman hearers first understand the sovereign privilege of God. He would have them and us take that as the bedrock of our thinking as we wrestle with difficult matters such as those in this chapter.

εἰ δὲ θέλων ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι τὴν ὀργὴν καὶ γνωρίσαι τὸ δυνατὸν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ἐν πολλῇ μακροθυμίᾳ σκεύη ὀργῆς κατηρτισμένα εἰς ἀπώλειαν, καὶ ἵνα γνωρίσῃ τὸν πλοῦτον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ σκεύη ἐλέους, ἃ προητοίμασεν εἰς δόξαν
(ei de thelōn ho theos endeixasthai  tēn orgēn kai gnōrisai to dunaton autou ēnenken en pollē makrothumia skeuē orgēs katērtismena eis apōleian, kai hina gnōrisē ton plouton tēs doxēs autou epi skeuē eleous ha proētoimasen eis doxan?)
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (9:22-23)

  • Paul presents this as a possibility, not a certainty, but that makes no difference to the intended impact on us of what he asks. If what he suggests were indeed so, we as creatures would have no grounds for quibbling with God about it.
  • The purpose of 9:22-23 is therefore to press home the lesson from 9:19-21 and pin us to the wall with it. If we are not willing to accept this truth, we are not thinking rightly about God, Paul implies.

Image attribution: “IMGP4615 Themis” flickr photo by RaeAllen https://flickr.com/photos/raeallen/4442238548 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next: Hosea and Isaiah Foretold Gentile Inclusion and Majority Israelite Unbelief

The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — IA6

{IA_6} Hosea and Isaiah Foretold Gentile Inclusion and Majority Israelite Unbelief (9:24-29)

οὓς καὶ ἐκάλεσεν ἡμᾶς οὐ μόνον ἐξ Ἰουδαίων ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐξ ἐθνῶν

(hous kai ekalesen hēmas ou monon ex Ioudaiōn  alla kai ex ethnōn)

—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles (9:24).

  • Notice that Paul deems the call into the Christian faith as something distinct. He was born into a chosen people of God who were heirs of God’s call to Abraham, but that did not translate automatically into an entry into the new people of God, the Church.

ὡς καὶ ἐν τῷ Ὡσηὲ λέγει· Καλέσω τὸν οὐ λαόν μου λαόν μου καὶ τὴν οὐκ ἠγαπημένην ἠγαπημένην· καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῷ τόπῳ οὗ ἐρρέθη αὐτοῖς· Οὐ λαός μου ὑμεῖς, ἐκεῖ κληθήσονται υἱοὶ θεοῦ ζῶντος.

(hōs kai en tō Hōsēe legei, Kalesō ton sou laon mōu kai tēn ouk ēgapēmenēn, kai estai en tō topō hou errethē autois ‘Ōu Laos mōu humeis, ekei klēthēsontai huioi theou zōntos.’)

cAs indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved. And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God”  (9:25-26).

  • 9:24 spoke of “…us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles”. In verses 25 and 26, Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea to underline the point he is making.
  • When you read the prophecy in the book of Hosea itself, though, it seems at first reading that it’s talking about the ten northern tribes of Israel, not the Gentiles. That’s not how Paul understood Hosea. This diagram shows why.
Hosea's Prophecy

Ἠσαΐας δὲ κράζει ὑπὲρ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ· Ἐὰν ᾖ ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης, τὸ ὑπόλειμμα σωθήσεται· λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμνων ποιήσει κύριος ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. καὶ καθὼς προείρηκεν Ἠσαΐας· Εἰ μὴ κύριος Σαβαὼθ ἐγκατέλιπεν ἡμῖν σπέρμα, ὡς Σόδομα ἂν ἐγενήθημεν καὶ ὡς Γόμορρα ἂν ὡμοιώθημεν
(Esaias de krazei huper tōu Israēl, ‘Ean ē ho arithmos tōn huiōn Israēl hōs hē ammos tēs thalassēs, to hupoleimma sōthēsetai; logon gar suntelōn kai suntemnōn poiēsei kurios epi tēs gēs.’ kai kathōs proeisēken Esaias, ‘Ei mē kurios Sabaōth egkatelipen hēmin sperma, hōs Sodoma an egenēthēmen kai hōs Gomorrah an ōmoiōthēmen.‘)
—And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.” And as Isaiah predicted,“If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah.” (9:27-29)

  • Q.E.D.—The fact that only a remnant have believed is consistent with prophecy.

Summing Up “Proof A”

In explaining why God’s promises to Abraham have not failed, Paul has so far made the following points.

  • God had shown early on that the promises belonged to a subset of Abraham’s descendants (Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau), not to all physical descendants.
  • In any case, the extending of mercy is a prerogative that God reserves to himself. No one can claim mercy as a matter of justice.
  • Furthermore, God has absolute right as Creator to do whatever he wishes with any part of his creation, us included.

You may choose to disagree with Paul here because you believe that the Scriptures that he relied upon were written at a time when people’s understanding of the loving character of God had not developed the way it now has for us, as we have pondered on the meaning of the sending of Christ. Therefore, you may believe that, in what they reported, they ascribed motives and actions to God that in fact were not God’s. I think you are wrong, but you may choose to believe that. That’s a subject for a different discussion. However, that belief should not hinder you from seeing clearly what Paul intended to teach the Church through this passage. As ever, Paul’s meaning is clear.

Image source: “Sumac on Ruhamah (7)” flickr photo by Martin LaBar (going on hiatus) https://flickr.com/photos/martinlabar/21885076815 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

The Crystal Clarity of Romans — Intro

Overview

“Perspicuity refers to something that can be seen through, i.e., to lucidity, clearness of style or exposition, freedom from obscurity: the perspicuity of her argument” (Dictionary.com), and I contend that Paul’s grand meaning in Romans is perspicuous.

Certainly, there are debates about whether the righteousness that was reckoned to Abraham and to us describes just a change in our judicial standing or also a qualitative change in our nature. Certainly, there are debates over the identity of the wretched man in Romans 7, and over other details.Certainly, the world has seen many better-disciplined rhetoricians than Paul, Nevertheless, I believe that any confusion over his grand meaning has arisen because scholars have so obsessed over details that they have lost sight of the forest in their preoccupation with trees and twigs.

In this series of posts, I will attempt to show that the substantive meaning of Romans is indeed perspicuous, despite the ill-directed efforts of some scholars who have made it seem otherwise.

In these posts, the Greek text is from The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition.  Copyright © 2010 by Society of Biblical Literature and Logos Bible Software. If the English translation source of a passage is not identified, it is my own; otherwise it is identified by one of the standard abbreviations – ASV, ESV, KJV, NIV, etc.

I have included transliteration of most of the Greek passages mainly for the benefit of my teenage grandson, who often takes an interest in my tweets and blog posts.

The image at the head of this post was found at commons.wikimedia.org. Attribution: Trish Steel

Introductory Comments

There was a message that was clear in Paul’s own mind, and that he wished to communicate to the Christians in Rome, who were believers from both Gentile and Jewish backgrounds. When he despatched his letter, he obviously thought he had written something that was fit for purpose, something intelligible to ordinary Jews, Greeks, and Romans who had an everyday grasp of Greek and an ordinary grasp of the culture that surrounded them. We can take it that his intent was the same as the one that he expressed to the Corinthians, “οὐ γὰρ ἄλλα γράφομεν ὑμῖν ἀλλ’ ἢ ἃ ἀναγινώσκετε ἢ καὶ ἐπιγινώσκετε”, “For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand” (2 Cor. 1:13 – English translation is from the NIV).  Therefore, we should expect to find his chief points of doctrine boldly stated, and nothing material hidden behind subtleties that only a scholar amongst the recipients could understand.

There is a pattern in Romans, first seen at 1:16-17. Paul delivers a key statement or a related cluster of statements. In each statement, he uses bold, memorable language that he can expect will ring in the hearers’ ears even as he continues on to prove and defend the statement. As he develops each proof, he may say things that sound like modifications of the key statement, but they never are. He has stated his thesis emphatically and so he is entitled to expect that, when his hearers note a seeming dissonance between the thesis and some subsequent sentence, their interest will be piqued and they will do him the courtesy of waiting to see how he resolves the dissonance. The dissonances are not signs of confusion in Paul’s own thinking – quite the opposite.

The Grand Thesis

The first major cluster occurs at 1:16-17, where Paul asserts five things.

  1. “δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν” (dunamis gar theou estin eis sōtērian) – [the gospel] is the power of God for salvation
  2. “παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι” (panti tō pisteuonti) – to everyone who believes
  3. “Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι” (Ioudaiō te prōton kai Hellēni) – to [the] Jew first, and to [the] Greek.
  4. “δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται” (dikaiosunē gar theou en autō apokaluptetai) – righteousness of/from God is revealed in/by the gospel
  5. “ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται· Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται” (ek pisteōs eis pistin, kathōs gegraptai ho de dikaios ek pisteōs zēsetai) – the key to this revelation and this righteousness is faith.

Those five points constitute the major thesis of Romans. Beginning at 1:18, through to the end of chapter 11, Paul will develop and defend them, then apply them in chapters 12 to 16. As I summarise that content, I believe I can show that Paul’s grand meaning is indeed crystal clear, and the points of uncertainty irrelevant.

However, before I go on to do that, there is a point of debate that needs to be discussed. What meaning did Paul expect his Roman hearers to ascribe to the word pistis? Some have suggested that ek pisteōs refers obliquely to the faithfulness of Christ. If that is so, then perhaps by eis pistin is intended the life of practical faithfulness which ought to be true of Christians.

I think, certainly not. Firstly, although Paul’s overall doctrine of the Christian life agrees with James that faith without works is dead, pistis in Paul undoubtedly is usually best translated by “faith” or “belief”, and so eis pistin evokes delivery into a state of confessing belief, with the believer’s subsequent faithfulness not an issue in the immediate context. Therefore, it is unlikely that Paul has inserted a different nuance into ek pisteōs. Secondly, though of course, Paul’s hearers did not necessarily know the meaning Paul usually ascribed to pistis, Paul’s use of the word earlier, in verse 12, shows that he took for granted that the Romans would understand the word the same way, too. He says, “τοῦτο δέ ἐστιν συμπαρακληθῆναι ἐν ὑμῖν διὰ τῆς ἐν ἀλλήλοις πίστεως ὑμῶν τε καὶ ἐμοῦ” (“that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” – NIV).

What a shallow “encouragement” that would be, if the Romans and Paul were to sit down and swap yarns about their own faithfulness. No, obviously it is the object of their mutual faith, Jesus Christ, who will be the source of the encouragement. Paul hopes to learn even more of Christ as the Romans share their experience with him, and he expects the Romans will be encouraged in the same way by what he (Paul) can share with them. Pistis clearly means a state of confessing belief.

I have just spent three paragraphs trying to adjudicate on a point of controversy. A thorough commentary would give even more time to the question. Does that mean, as is often alleged, that Paul’s message is difficult to understand? No. We 21st Century readers need to pause and take that time, but his original hearers would have understood immediately and been ready accordingly for Paul to continue his exposition.

Note, too (as verses 7 and 12 show), that Paul is writing to people who already had faith. Whether the gospel had come to them via Petrine, Pauline, Johannine or other channels, they had believed that God had made this Jesus, who had been crucified and then had risen, both Lord and Messiah, and they had repented and been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. (Cf. Acts 2:36-38). Therefore, Paul does not write to induce faith but to expand the understanding of those who already had faith, so that they might better understand what God had given them.

If, therefore, you start your study of Romans from a point of studious critical neutrality, you are almost certain to miss the point. You will not hear Paul’s words as the Romans did, and so you will not comprehend his meaning. These treasures are, indeed, revealed from faith to faith. It is not at all unscholarly to bring your pre-existing faith to your study of Romans. It is very nearly essential.

New Perspectives

After completing a series of posts on Romans 9 to 11, I plan to publish a post which I am already drafting, asking (with particular reference to N.T. Wright) what difference the new perspectives on Paul ought to make to our understanding of Romans, as against traditional Protestant understanding. My interim conclusion is that the traditional understanding of “justification by [personal] faith” remains correct, but the “creation and covenant” framework of Paul’s thinking, as made explicit by Wright, is an important addition to the vocabulary of discourse about Romans. It can guard Protestantism against the error of treating Romans as though it is almost entirely about individual salvation, with everything else as incidental, whereas the doctrine presented by Paul is cosmically greater than that, and individual salvation just one part.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that this “new” perspective quite deserves to be described as “new”. Made explicit in a new way?—yes, but having worked my way through Romans for this blog post series, it seems to me that anyone following Paul’s arguments from beginning to end, as I attempted to do, ought not to fail to intuit the greater background story. It can be synthesized from the totality of Paul’s teaching in Romans, and you don’t need to deliberately adopt a Jewish mindset to do so. Just use your Western, logically-trained mind and pay attention to what Paul says

Next: First Subsidiary Thesis (1:18): Sinful Humanity is Under God’s Wrath

The Crystal Clarity of Romans — A

{A} 1st Subsidiary Thesis: Sinful Humanity is Under God’s Wrath (1:18)

Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων
(Apokaluptetai gar orgē theou epi pasan asebeian kai adikian anthrōpōn tōn tēn alētheian en adikian katechontōn…)
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (NIV)

NIV does not translate the gar (“for”), but it is essential to the rhetorical sense. It shows that Paul is about to give a reason in support of his grand thesis, a reason that we could sum up as this: humanity has a desperate need for righteousness from God, because wickedness has brought down his wrath.

The first clause of that summary of mine is an inference, but put yourself into the sandals of a Roman hearer. It is the clear rhetorical implication of Paul’s words as he sweeps on from the grand thesis of 1:16-17 and into verse 18, especially as the apokaluptetai of verse 18 echoes the same word in verse 17, and asebeian kai adikian anthrōpōn contrasts with dikaiosunē theou. This understanding, therefore, would have guided the minds of the Romans as they listened to Paul’s ensuing words, and it should guide ours.

{A1} The Sin that Draws Down Wrath (1:19-32)

In verses 19 to 32, Paul gives evidence in support of his statement about the godlessness and wickedness of humankind. I think he also, in verses 24, 26 and 28, explains how—at least in part—God’s wrath was being revealed: παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς (paredōken autous ho theos)—God gave them up. However, even if so, that is incidental to his main purpose, which is to prove the depravity and hence the under-wrathness of humankind.

It is not at all his purpose to rank some sins and therefore some sinners as worse than others. Those who use 1:19-32 for that end have smugly missed the point. As John Calvin says on his commentary on this passage, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” That is, we are all in there somewhere. That is the point Paul is labouring, and that is the point that his hearers in the Roman church would have taken from his words.

{A2} The Impartiality of God (2:1-16)

Even though there is sufficient in the list of sins in 1:29-31 to convict Jews as well as Gentiles, Jewish hearers of Paul’s words in 1:18-32 might be excused for thinking that the warning there applied only to Gentiles. After all, 1st Century Judaism was free from idol-worship, and Jewish society was not characterised by sexual laxity. Did their place as the chosen people of God gave them automatic shelter from God’s wrath? Paul now sets about disabusing them of those illusions. (In verse 17, it will be made explicit that the “you” he is addressing is primarily a Jewish “you”, and this is also intimated in the phrase “first the Jew, and then the Gentile” that recurs in verses 9 and 10.)

Paul opens this section with a sentence that is designed to shock Jewish hearers, a sentence that begins (in the Greek) with “therefore” and so links what Paul is now saying back to the stark warnings of 1:18-32. “You, therefore, have no excuse … because you who pass judgment do the same things” (NIV). And notice, particularly, how ἀναπολόγητος (anapologētos) in 2:1 echoes the same word in 1:20 – “without excuse”. Gentile? Jew? No difference – no excuse!

He continues, “…when you … pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3, NIV). “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (2:9-10). And, as for relying on the special favour God has shown the Jews, “…do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (2:4)

This all leads to verse 11, which gives the summary point of this part of the exposition: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν προσωπολημψία παρὰ τῷ θεῷ (ou gar estin prosōpolēmpsia tō theō)—“For God does not show favoritism” (NIV), and Paul enlarges on this in verses 12 to 16, whose essential points are asserted in verses 12 and 13 in an expansion of verses 9 and 10: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Noting a Dissonance

Paul’s hearers may at this point notice a dissonance. They still have in their minds his grand thesis, which asserts that righteousness comes via the gospel from faith, to faith, but there is no mention of the gospel or faith here. They have also heard, in 1:18-32 and 2:1-5 a litany of mortal sins that seems to condemn everyone, but now Paul seems to be setting out an alternative path to righteousness, that of living a moral life that, wittingly or not, conforms to God’s moral law.

We later readers know, of course, that Paul himself will have completely resolved that dissonance by the time we get to 3:20, but his original hearers didn’t have that advantage. What they did have was the grand thesis that had been so emphatically stated, and the stark warnings of 1:18 to 2:5. They had also just heard summarised, in verse 11, what was clearly a major plank of the argument Paul was building at this point: “God does not show favoritism”. Some at least, therefore, of Paul’s hearers may have immediately recognised that the words we have as verses 9-10 and 12-13 were there in support of verse 12 and so had only an indirect relationship to the grand thesis. Whether it is a matter of condemnation or approbation, God does not show favouritism. Gentiles and Jews will be treated alike on the day of judgment.

Other hearers who did not get that far in their thinking would nevertheless simply have noted the question and listened on to see whether Paul resolved it later.

{A3} True Jewishness (2:17-29)

Lest any Jewish hearers should have missed the point, Paul now lays it home to them in verses 17-24: many sins which they condemn in others are just as endemic among Jews. Paul has just stressed the impartiality of God. In the light of that point, the unmistakable implication is that just being a Jew will not get you past the bar of God’s judgment.

This leads on to Paul’s explanation in verses 25-29 of what circumcision and Jewishness truly means. He springs the surprise on his hearers that God would view an uncircumcised but law-obeying Gentile exactly as though he were a Jew, and rightly so, because outward circumcision is just a symbol of what is supposed to be an inward reality. If the inward reality is not there, no outward symbol can create it.

Paul also mentions for the first time the role of the Spirit in bringing about true, inward circumcision. The Spirit’s work will be developed in important ways later in the epistle, but here the mention is incidental to the main point of the paragraph, which is found in these words: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly… No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart.”

This mention of the work of the Spirit is not incidental, however, to the persuasive power of Paul’s argument. The Romans were already believers; they were already indwelt by the Spirit; they had already experienced the circumcision of the heart that the Spirit brings. Therefore, whether they had come to faith as Jews or as Gentiles, their own experience would have lent force to the case Paul is making, and especially as they observed the transformation in each other that the Spirit had wrought. The epistle is not an abstract doctrinal treatise; its words were spoken into a real situation, to real people with a living, breathing faith and experience, and it is vital to our interpretation of Romans that we keep that in mind.

Still Thinking about the Dissonance

A hearer alert to the flow of Paul’s rhetoric will have realised that Paul is still on the topic of the impartiality of God, though the mention of the Spirit may have given them another clue as to how the resolution was going to turn out. Other hearers may not have realised that, but nevertheless Paul’s words would have prepared their minds for the further development of the case he is making.

{A4} A Digression (3:1-8)

Paul starts chapter 3 with a sentence that seems to suggest that he is about to enumerate reasons why, despite all he has said in the previous chapter, the Jews still had worthwhile advantages: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” However, he digresses to combat some errors and accusations that evidently had been put about by people who had previously heard and misunderstood his teaching. This digression interrupts the rhetorical flow of his main argument, and I do not think it is necessary to consider its detail here. I think his original hearers would also have sensed that it was a digression, and it would not have affected their comprehension of his overall argument.

{A5} Pressing the Point Home (3:9-20)

Paul has demonstrated the ubiquity amongst Gentiles and Jews of sin that is sufficient to earn God’s wrath, and he has stressed the impartiality of God. En route, he has let it seem that obedience to the law might provide some with a path so that they could be declared righteous, but now, in these final twelve verses of this part of his argument, he will remove that misconception and further underscore his argument with multiple quotations from the Scriptures.

First, he reiterates that Ἰουδαίους τε καὶ Ἕλληνας πάντας ὑφ’ ἁμαρτίαν εἶναι (Ioudaious te kai Hellēnas pantas huph’ hamartian einai)—“both Jews and Greeks, are all under sin” (3:9, my translation). Then he quotes numerous Old Testament passages that support that conclusion. In the sources, some of the quotations refer to the whole human race (Psalm 14); some to the Jewish nation (Isaiah 59:3,5,7-8); and some to subsets: David’s enemies (Psalm 5:9), the wicked (Psalms 10:7 and 36:1), and evil and violent men (Psalm 140:1-3).

These quotations are sufficient to prove that Paul’s allegation is exactly what is taught in the Scriptures, in the very law on which some of the Jews might have been depending as their path to righteousness! Therefore (coup de gras), “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (NIV). QED!

New Perspective on Paul

Paul’s conclusion remains true and cogent whether we understand Paul as Luther did, as characterising the Judaism of his day as seeking to obtain salvation by works-righteous law-keeping, or we follow the NPP scholars and see first century Judaism as in fact very conscious of grace, and accept that Paul knew it and wasn’t trying to misrepresent it.

His conclusion is also true and cogent whether, as we follow his subsequent argument in the remainder of chapter 3 and the rest of the epistle, we conceive of salvation in traditionally Protestant individualistic terms, or with some NPP scholars we see it in more corporate terms. Either way, whatever the destination, Paul has proven the point: studious law-keeping is not the way to get there, and it is not necessary to adopt the outward covenant forms of Judaism to become part of the people of God.

Next: Second Subsidiary Thesis: (3:20-24) The Work of Christ, Apprehended by Faith, Brings us to God