Paul’s letter to Romans “has been the most studied of the apostle’s writings — indisputably Paul’s theological chef d’œuvre….With only slight exaggeration, one could claim that debates over the main ideas in Romans split Western Christianity…. [Nevertheless], for those who may have time to study in greater depth only one Pauline letter, Romans would not be my recommendation, even though it is the most important.” So says eminent Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament.
If there’s a theme for today, it’s given to us in an understated way by 2Pe 3:16 – “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand.” Yeah. Well, onwards. I can read hard things, to borrow a current meme.
Romans is unique, in several ways.
First, he did not found the church in Rome, nor had he visited it before, and he doesn’t know the community as a whole. However, he does know some people, and he emphasizes this in order to build and facilitate this potential relationship with the Roman community. Romans contains more greetings than any other letter. It’s like Facebook, “look how many people we both know!” These all come from chapter 16, and I’ve excised the little descriptive phrases attached to each name, for length.
Greet Prisca and Aquila…Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus…Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you…Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me…Greet Ampliatus…Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys…Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus… Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus…Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord…Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother– a mother to me also…Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them…Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them…All the churches of Christ greet you…Timothy, my co-worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my relatives… I Tertius, the writer [amanuensis] of this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
So, Romans doesn’t seem to be an occasional letter correcting issues as much as, say, Galatians or 1 Corinthians, although Paul does address Jewish/Christian relations, as well as the idea of Torah vs. Jesus.
Second, Paul’s purpose in writing the letter is pretty simple; he’s trying to raise money. He intends to travel to Spain to spread the Gospel, stopping first in Rome where he hopes the Saints there will propempein him, that is, outfit him for the trip, provide for his trip. The letter is Paul’s funding letter trying to make a good impression, explaining his views of the Gospel, so they will be favorably disposed towards him. He’s sending ahead of him Phoebe “our sister, a deacon of the Church at Kenkrai” (a port of Corinth) as an advance representative. (16:1-2)
He hints at his financial expectations in the thanksgiving: he had wanted to visit earlier “to reap some harvest among you as well as the rest of the Gentiles” (1:13)… The term “be sped on my journey” (propempō) is used technically for outfitting expeditions (cf. 3 John 6). His expectation to be refreshed (synanapauomai) among them also suggests monetary support… the greetings [in chap 16] demonstrate Paul’s extensive contacts within the community, thus serving to recommend him. More pertinently, Paul recommends to the Romans the deacon of the church at Cenchrae, Phoebe (16:1–3). Paul says that “she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.” The term “helper” (prostatis) is often used of financial patrons. Paul now expects the Romans in turn “to help her in whatever she may require from you.” His language unmistakably refers to financial matters. Phoebe has helped support Paul’s mission in the East, and he now sends her to Rome to organize and prepare for his expedition to the West. Since he was known to this church only by name, his understanding of the gospel and of his mission needed to be expounded in detail. Before he could ask a new community to support his mission financially, he had to let it know what it would be backing. Romans is, therefore, Paul’s letter of recommendation for Paul.- Johnson and Penner, The Writings of the New Testament : An Interpretation
Romans is also unique in its density and length. Note that the traditional order of Paul’s letters in the Bible is by length, longest to shortest, not chronology. Except for Hebrews, which is put last, because they weren’t sure Paul wrote it. He almost certainly didn’t. Romans, being longest, comes first, right after Acts.
Romans is also unique in its style. This is not anywhere near my speciality (even further than normal, since I’m really an Old Testament guy), but the scholars say that this letter most closely follows Greco-roman literary and rhetorical patterns. It is a scholastic diatribe, a single argument from beginning to end. Conversational style, rhetorical questions, answered by me genoito (KJV “God forbid” imaginary interlocutor.
In some ways, Romans is the most stereotypically Protestant book; it’s typically been read as a compendium or summary of the Gospel, the core. It contains oft-referenced Protestant touchpoints, such as grace/works and the creature/creator dichotomy (which Mormons are often accused of violating, even though it’s about idolatry and submission to God.)
We can roughly outline Romans this way (following Brown.)
- 1:1-15 Introduction and address
- 1:15- 11:36 Doctrinal sections
- 12:1-15:13 “Preaching” section, full of advice, directives, suggestions, etc.
- 15:14-33 Paul’s travel plans
- 16 closing greetings and doxology
(See also this outline/chart from BYU Studies)
Textually, from an LDS perspective, there is lots of JST in Romans, adapting it to our day and understanding. (If you want a refresher on what the JST is and isn’t, probably, see my article here and look for the JST section.)
What should I read about Romans?
Most of my knowledge about Romans comes from more general work on Paul. That said, here are some suggestions. From an LDS perspective, there has been some recent work.
- Adam Miller’s recent Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans
- This is a paraphrase, a loose translation of Romans, little more.
- Jim Faulconer’s Life of Holiness: Notes and Reflections on Romans 1, 5-8
- I’ve found great utility from Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on Paul, which heavily color this post. (This goes on sale frequently.)
- In terms of commentaries, I don’t have huge exposure to Romans. It will not surprise you, though, to find me recommending N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans found in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, a multi-volume set. (You can get it two ways, with parallel NRSV/NIV+ commentary, or just commentary.) Romans is within the same cover as Acts and 1 Corinthians. Here’s a sample, with Wright’s intro and chapter 1. Well worth reading and buying.
- And of course, anything talking abou the New Perspective on Paul will talk about Romans.
If any epistle is bound to spark discussions of works and grace, it’s Romans. So please read my long non-Romans-specific background on those doctrines here, with plenty of resources and suggested readings and discussion of the New Perspective.
What is Romans about?
As I understand it, Romans is really about one thing- Is God fair?
This question is answered within the framework of Jew vs. non-Jew, Torah vs. non-Torah.
That is, had God changed the rules of the game halfway through? Was salvation only for Jews and people who converted? If so, then only a people knew the right rules to play by. And if not, then why did God give the Torah with all its rules in the first place? What was the point of keeping Torah if it ultimately didn’t matter to keep Torah? Did non-Jews get to play by different rules? These are the kinds of thought questions Paul is answering in Romans. Throughout, Paul uses “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” as shorthand. (And remember that “works” and “works of the law/Torah” are roughly synonyms for “circumcision” and those ritual differences between Jews and non-Jews.)
Ultimately, Paul turns to Abraham to solve the problems he has raised. Abraham was and is a huge figure in Judaism. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. (Minor notes here, way at the bottom.) God again promises Abraham descendents numerous as the stars. In spite of the many difficulties in doing so, Abraham believes him and goes through with it. “He believe Yahweh, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Note, Abraham is not circumcised at this point, yet God has just declared him “righteous,” while still a Gentile!
In other words, Paul says, Abraham is the spiritual father of both the Jews AND the Gentiles, because he was declared righteous on account of his faith while still a non-Jew! Jews and Gentiles have the same rules for salvation, then, which comes through justification by faith, as it did for Abraham. Of course, what is that faith? Not merely belief! “Faith doesn’t mean belief. It includes belief, but it means a living response of trust, obedience, loyalty, to this creator who has a claim upon one’s existence and the willingness to respond to that claim. ” -Johnson, lecture on Romans.
Tidbits and specifics
Paul offers two very interesting passages (this one and the one I looked at in 2 Corinthians) to those struggling with their personal demons. First off, Paul describes his despair at his behavior and self-control in a way that just about everyone can relate to. (This is embedded in an argument about the Law of Moses, and I have edited for topical purposes…)
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” Romans 7:17ff.
Paul concludes by crying out, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Rom 7: 24 He clearly feels the pain of being in a fallen body, subject to desires and whims he does not want and feels he cannot control.
I suspect that the English translation of Nephi’s lament in 2 Nephi 4 is meant to echo Paul here, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. (2 Ne. 4:17 BOM)
That said, we should understand that Paul’s letters are not a spontaneous outpouring of deep personality, and as useful as these may be for our struggles, we should be careful about reading Paul’s letters as deeply personally revealing. Romans in particular follows Greek rhetorical patterns. Not the direct expression to Paul’s personality and life, but the rhetorical Paul, argumentative Paul.
Luther based his teaching heavily on Romans 1-8, but 9-11 were skipped, a throw-away. On the other hand, Calvin read 9-11 as being about individuals and predestining plan, but got it wrong.
Chapters 8-11, with their discussion of “predestination” or “foreordination” are not generally about individual salvation, but the “historical relationships between [Gentile and Jewish] nations in working out of God’s plan”- Johnson, lecture. Reading these chapters to be about individuals is what has lead to the five points of Calvinism, called TULIP.
An acronym referring to the five theological tenets affirmed at the Synod of Dort [1618-19] (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, the Perseverance [or divine preservation] of the saints).- Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 117.
10:9 KJV- “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” This is easy to misunderstand. “to confess” here means “to declare publicly.” It’s not merely a mumbled phrase, or a private thought, but a public declaration, a proclamation. I think two parallels are useful.
First, in an LDS context, baptism is not only an ordinance, but a public sign of our commitment to keep God’s commandments and live in a certain way. Baptism itself does not save you, any more than merely voicing the sounds “Jesus is lord” saves you. Baptism is a sign of commitment, entrance into covenant, willingness to obey and continue. (Otherwise, as Joseph Smith said, you might as well baptize a bag of sand.) If we declare Jesus to be our Lord, our boss, doesn’t that entail carrying out the jobs he assigns us? It’s not saying he’s our boss, but actually doing the work that shows we’re his “employees” (or slaves, to go back to the New Testament greco-roman context.)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt. 7:21 NRS)
“Why do you call me ‘Boss’ but don’t do what I tell you? (Lk. 6:46, my paraphrase)
Second, and more interesting is the Islamic šahada or “witness”, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Part of the conversion process to Islam involves public declaration of your faith and commitment. you initially witness (šahada) to that faith and commitment by making public declaration of your faith, “I testify/witness that (‘ašhadu ‘an) there is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” To become a Muslim (and thereby be “saved”) you recite the šahada “with sincerity and conviction.” Obviously, these words are not magic. You are not saved simply because you know the right syllables to mumble. Rather, recitation is a token that you have become someone who submits (muslim) to God’s will and lives and acts accordingly.
Returning to Romans 10:9, although other scriptures in the New Testament make clear what this is talking about, the šahada provides a better parallel, in some ways. Becoming part of God’s people means accepting his yoke, accepting Jesus’ divine role, and bearing public witness of those things.
If there’s one chapter I wish we’d read often, it’s Romans 14. Here Paul talks about those who are “strong” and “weak” in the faith, but in a Greco-roman polytheistic context. At issue is different sharply differing views about how to rightly interact with that culture as Gentile and Jewish Christians, and how to disagree agreeably. He begins, “Some believe in eating anything [such as meat sacrificed to idols, 1Co 8 and here], while the weak eat only vegetables.”
Paul is in all probability appealing to Gentile Christians to exercise restraint in the way they behave, so as not to alienate or antagonize Jewish Christians…Whereas in Galatians he had to warn Gentile Christians against taking the Jewish law on to themselves to try to consolidate their membership in the Messiah’s family, here the boot is on the other foot.
If we are correct in assuming that he is writing Romans not long after the Jews had returned to Rome in ad 54, [Jews had been expelled in 52] we can see why this appeal would be urgently necessary. Jewish Christians, seeing Gentile Christians in Rome doing things which from their point of view were associated with paganism, might look on in horror. They might conclude that they had made an awful mistake, call down curses on this new movement (verse 16), and give up the faith altogether.- Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16
Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. (Rom. 14:4-5 NRS)
While there are certainly some standards taught clearly and consistently by authorities in the LDS Church, there are many questions then and how about how far certain things go. And Paul says, in essence, “make up your own mind, but have a reason. Know why you’re keeping whatever standard you keep. and don’t judge others who keep a different personal standard.”
Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God….Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
There’s a host of issues for LDS today, I think. To take one, look at food issues related to the Word of Wisdom. Do you consume food made with alcohol or not? Do you cook with alcohol or not? Drink caffeine or not? Eat white flour, chocolate, and strong spices or not? Each of those things has been the subject of general authority discussion or even General Conference talks in the past, and still has some degree of division in the Church. I make up my mind, I have my arguments, but (here’s the important part) I’m not convinced I’m more righteous or living a “higher” law because of my choices. If you drink caffeine, don’t condemn those who don’t. And if you don’t drink caffeine, don’t condemn those who don’t. But make sure you know why you’re doing what you choose to do, since “each of us will be accountable to God.” (Rom. 14:12 NRS)
Paul moves on into a more subtle discussion that’s hard to follow today, since his examples no longer apply as it centers on the issues of meat, both kosher laws (“unclean” vs. “clean”) as well as idolatry (since most meat sold had been sacrificed to idols.)
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died…. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.NRS)
Paul says, in essence, “I know the kosher laws don’t apply, and these Greco-roman deities aren’t God. But for someone weak in the faith who doesn’t fully understand that, how should you act in their presence?”
Nor was it only food that was causing the potential problem. It was the keeping of holy days (verses 5 and 6). Pagan societies kept special feast days and holidays, of course, but Paul is probably referring to Jewish practices. Some Christians would keep the major Jewish festivals; others would not. For Paul it had become a point of indifference. What mattered was that whichever decision you made you did what you did in honour of the Lord. (Someone today who lounged in bed on a Sunday morning, claiming that Paul said it didn’t matter, would I suspect get a sharp retort from the apostle.)
So what is the situation in Rome, and what does Paul expect them to do? By starting off with an instruction to welcome the ‘weak in faith’, he seems to be assuming that most of the Christians are ‘strong’, probably Gentile Christians, quite likely people who had been converted through his own work further east and had now travelled to Rome. Some people in that category are named in chapter 16. These people, it seems, would have agreed with Paul that a Christian could in principle eat anything.
By ‘weak in faith’ he doesn’t mean that the religious devotion of this group is thin and watery. Nor does he mean to imply that they have a shaky grasp on the basic points of Christian faith, or a wavering belief in them. His point, rather, is that they have not worked out, or not as fully as he and some others have done, the consequences of believing in God as creator and Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. For Paul, believing this meant that all foods were now ‘clean’ (as Mark 7:19 points out that Jesus had implied) and that, though keeping holy days might help devotion, a Christian was free to observe special days or not, provided this was done with a desire to honour the Lord….
Paul is addressing a situation which will be depressingly familiar to many who work within the church as well as many who work outside it. In this verse he seems to turn from one party to the other. Here is a Christian with a strict conscience, whose background, upbringing and temperament all incline him towards a very serious view of his moral responsibilities. As far as he can see (and that phrase is important), the Christian is surrounded by a very wicked, corrupt pagan world. The best thing to do is to shun it completely; and if that means not touching meat, so be it. He then notices that this woman over here, who apparently claims to be a Christian as well, is buying, from the market, meat which has obviously come from a pagan temple. How appalling! She’s letting the side down! She and her family are deeply compromised! The only response is condemnation.
The Christian woman, meanwhile, has been taught the deep and rich truth that the one true God is the creator and redeemer of all things. The whole world belongs to him, including every piece of meat you might ever buy or cook. She knows perfectly well that she is called to holiness, to a lifestyle very different to that of the pagan world around. But she knows equally well (perhaps she has been reading the closing paragraphs of Colossians 2) that outward regulations about what you can and can’t touch, taste and handle don’t actually go to the heart of genuine holiness. For that you need the complete renewal spoken of at the start of Colossians 3. She gets tired of being sniped at and criticized by people who don’t seem to have learned what is, for her, one of the most basic and liberating of the gospel’s lessons. They seem small minded, timid, unable to see beyond their own front doors. When she thinks of people like that, she despises them.
Both are natural reactions. Each grows out of a firm grasp of one part of Christian truth. But towering above the truths that these two characters have embraced there stands a further truth which needs to be grasped even more firmly, and lived out even more energetically: that there is one Lord, and it is before him and him alone that every Christian lives and dies, stands or falls. This is the great emphasis of this particular paragraph.
The church seems to need to learn this lesson over and over again, often in respect of new and different issues. Precisely for this reason, giving examples is difficult, since part of the question is always whether this issue actually is a case in point, or whether it is something about which there can be no two opinions. Let’s pick two extreme cases to make the point.
Supposing a Christian were to say, ‘I know the Old Testament tells us not to steal; but Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:21 that “All things are yours!”, and I think that means we should be free to help ourselves to anything we want. I know some people still have a tender conscience about such things, and I respect that; but I hope they will respect me too. I won’t despise them for their small-minded legalism if they won’t condemn me for my liberty in the gospel.’ I think most of us would be able to answer such a person, and at the heart of our answer would be the comment that stealing or not stealing is not one of the things about which Christians can legitimately differ. It is forbidden. The Old Testament prohibition is powerfully reinforced in the New.
On the other hand, supposing a Christian were to read the book of Leviticus, and to discover there a clear command forbidding the wearing of clothes made from two different kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19). Someone with a tender conscience might feel morally obliged to go through their whole wardrobe, sorting out clothes made from one material only and throwing all the others away. We might even suppose (I said these were going to be extreme examples) that the person then began a protest movement, organizing pickets outside shops that sold the wrong kind of clothes and encouraging Christian friends to join in, as a witness to biblical morality. We can imagine the attitudes not only of non-Christians looking on, but of Christians of virtually every kind. Why are you making a fuss about that? Surely God isn’t concerned about the fact that the shirt I’m wearing is made from cotton and polyester? Did Jesus or Paul or any of the early Christians say anything about such a trivial matter? Get a life!
In the first case, there would be almost universal agreement that stealing is not a matter about which we can say, ‘Some of us believe this, others believe that, so we mustn’t condemn or despise one another.’ In the second, we would almost all want to say that mixing fabrics in clothes is a matter of complete indifference….
Paul’s supreme concern in this passage is the danger of so clearing your own path that you end up making it impossible for your neighbours to walk down theirs. It is all too easy, in sorting out our own lives and finding our own way forward as Christians, to make things harder, not easier, for those around us….
The way forward is to recognize that things can and do become unclean, or even evil, not because of what they are in themselves but because of how people regard them. This is rather like saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s obviously not a principle which can be applied to all ethical questions and situations. Paul is talking specifically about what people eat and drink, in a context where that was very contentious. We have to use wise judgment ourselves, as we saw in the previous passage, as to which of today’s issues come into the picture at this point. What he says in verse 14 is that food can and does become unclean—at the point at which someone considers it so; and, in verse 20, that it can and does become evil (a stage beyond ‘unclean’) if when you eat it you cause someone else to trip up.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16
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