Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This brief article serves to precede another that will follow, which highlights a particular point in Romans 5-7 and its relation to history and God’s revelation.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans includes so many important elements that it is quite unsurprising that they are often considered separately. Even so, their separate considerations often occur to their estrangement from the letter’s whole. For instance, one might elaborate upon an important and central feature of the letter, such as justification by faith, but still fail to trace how that feature is joined to the rest of the letter and its intended message. For some, it is regrettably sufficient to name and assert the doctrine without ascertaining its revelatory role and context. You would almost think (and I do exaggerate) that this doctrine finds its context in the Protestant Reformation, rather than in the biblical history of revelation. Accordingly, some readers forget that the letter is single and is united in its parts unto a still larger argument. The larger purpose of Paul’s epistle, it seems, is stated in the closing lines of the letter:
Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith: To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen (Romans 16:25-27).
Here, Paul’s confirms this letter intention in the reader’s mind. Believers are born anew and established by the gospel that he preaches. That is, the gospel is certainly associated with the salvation of individual believers; nevertheless, Paul also and especially highlights a fact that remained radical and contested in his own day: the gospel was the means of salvation among all people.
If the implications of the gospel seemed radical in Paul’s day, this is not because his first readers were so very different from those of us who read him in the present; but it is to say that some of them entertained certain religious expectations that made Paul’s letter controversial. More to the point, those expectations were often established in a misreading of the scriptures themselves. What we have in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, then, is something quite similar to what we have in some of Paul’s other letters: an attempt to distinguish the old and new covenants while, simultaneously, connecting the New Covenant to its preexisting plan of redemption. In this way, what is now obsolete—the Old Covenant—still aided and promoted answers to promises that found their origin in the Jewish scriptures.
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This means, of course, that Romans has much more in common with books such as Galatians and Ephesians than is sometimes detailed. Romans does not simply restate doctrines that are to be affirmed in the churches, as if it is merely the best summary of New Testament doctrine; it is quite more than that: it recalls the definite way in which God has now brought salvation to all men, how covenants with Jewish patriarchs and national Israel have effected a salvation that is now available to all. It spans large ravines in the history of revelation: it reveals what was, in fact, previously hidden (Romans 16:25). Accordingly, it explains what God is now accomplishing in the church by attaching and then detaching the present (in Jesus Christ) to what God has accomplished in the past (by the Mosaic Law).
As strange as it might appear to a modern generation, fixated as it is with false notions of unqualified and universal salvation, this gospel message had its detractors among both Jews and Gentiles in the first century. This is really unsurprising, for religion is easily employed to serve the interests of men, unfurled (but only in part) to confirm the smaller interests of kin and country. (And so, in Joshua 5:13-14 we read Joshua’s unsurprising question met with a reasonable if also surprising answer, after he meets the Angel of the Lord near Jericho: “Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come.”) Rather plainly, though, this particular epistle orients the gospel unto its worldwide audience, but also shows why the present and universal offer of the gospel is the only possible application of God’s good news.
To this end, Paul here writes of the gospel as the now standing revelation of what once took the form of a hidden fact, a mystery. What was formerly hidden is now revealed in the news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the salvation of disparate and disaffected peoples in one body, the church.1cf. Ephesians 2:11-15 Integral to this gospel is its accompanying fact, that the news “is made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). The public resurrection of Jesus Christ, then, is the sufficient cause for a public proclamation of the gospel, but also its universal confession—what Paul calls the obedience of faith. Or we might state this in its reverse: faith in Jesus Christ is universally commanded because the gospel is the proclamation of a public fact—his resurrection.
Notes & References
|cf. Ephesians 2:11-15