There’s almost nothing that makes me laugh as hard as when I hear a Christian say, “The Bible clearly says…”
Man…it gets me every time.
Why? Because in addition to all the English words that are so poorly translated, the words intentionally mistranslated or left out of the English Bible, and the various pseudapigrapha [fake epistles]from Paul and Peter, and all the times Jesus contradicts Moses, there’s the additional problem we encounter whenever we come to the book of Romans.
Yes, Romans. That book that so many Christians deeply love, but for all the wrong reasons.
See, what many Christians don’t realize about this book is that it’s largely written in an argumentation style called “Prosopopeia” and if you don’t know what that it is, you’re not only not alone, but you therefore are also reading Romans all wrong.
Because “Prosopopeia” involves a back-and-forth dialog between the author of the letter [or article] and an unnamed imaginary opponent whom the author hopes to refute.
So, in other words, whenever you read the epistle to the Romans, you’re reading two voices, not one. This is the fundamental error that almost everyone makes when they approach this book in the New Testament.
Because of this, we tend to read everything in the book as if it’s all coming from Paul’s own heart. As if Paul himself embraces all the ideas presented in the letter. But that’s not the case.
For example, here’s a short section of Romans where I’ve called out the two voices for you.
NOTE: The voice of Paul is marked in BOLD while his imaginary opponent [Saul] is in ITALICS.
ROMANS 3: 1-20
1. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?
2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?
4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,
“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.”
5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.
Their condemnation is just.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off?
No, not at all.
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Now, it should be easy to notice the two opposing arguments once I mark them for you, but of course our Bibles don’t do this for us, do they?
No, they don’t. Instead, they present the entire letter of Romans as one single perspective, and this creates a lot of confusion.
So, if you’re unaware of this argumentative device being employed by Paul throughout this book, you will tend to read certain verses in this letter and exclaim: “Paul said this!” as you quote something that, yes, is technically in the book written by Paul, but might not exactly reflect what Paul himself actually believed.
However, once you notice this back-and-forth debate raging between Paul and this “Teacher of the Law” [Saul] in the pages of Romans, you’re in for quite a thrill when Paul ultimately silences his silent opponent and delivers his final argument that culminates in a glorious exultation from Paul himself as he struts and drops the proverbial microphone in the imaginary end zone of this theological battle.
Shall I spoil it for you? I mean, it’s really much better if you can follow along on your own and experience Paul’s decisive victory over his Pharisaical adversary, but if you’re just curious where it all ends and what Paul’s knock-out punch looks like, here it is:
In Romans 9 Paul sets up his end game argument with the finish line nearly in view:
“21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…” [Romans 9:21-23]
It’s a Trojan horse question: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath” created “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy…”?
Hmm…yes, what if?
And Paul develops this argument all the way through Chapter 9 and 10 and he enters the home stretch in Chapter 11 where he begins to answer a question asked all the way back at the beginning of his epistle “Will all Israel be saved?” and then he arrives at the coup de grace conclusion statement:
26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For God’s bestowals of grace and vocation are not subject to a change of heart. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.
[AND THIS NEXT VERSE IS THE BIG UPPERCUT PAUL HAS BEEN WAITING TO LAND AGAINST HIS OPPONENT]
32 For God has shut up everyone in obstinancy so that He might show mercy to everyone.”
And how do we know that Paul’s ultimate victory punch has landed square and obliterated his opponent? Because the next set of verses are spent performing a victory dance under the uprights that would make any Dallas Cowboy blush.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Yes! Yes! YESSSSS!!!!
Isn’t God awesome? Isn’t God amazing? Isn’t it fantastic how God’s plan all along has been to SAVE EVERYONE by extending unmerited forgiveness and mercy and grace to both Jews and Gentiles?
Here’s a slightly less flamboyant version of the very same idea courtesy of the great theologian David Bentley Hart whose says of this final section of Roman 11:
“This is the conclusion to the question of Roman 9:14 above which prompts the long, difficult series of reflections that ends here, and which is posed in its most troubling conditional form at 9:22 (what if those who have erred or stumbled are merely vessels of wrath, whose only function is to provide a contrast to vessels of mercy?)
“At Romans 11:11, however, Paul affirms that those not elected for service on the basis of divine foreknowledge, though they have stumbled, nevertheless will never fall; and at 11:12 and 11:25 he affirms that the estrangement of the elect and “those who stumble” is a temporary providential arrangement that allows the “full totality” of Jews and Gentiles alike to enter in; and here, finally, he affirms that there is then no actual distinction of vessels of wrath from vessels of mercy; rather all are bound in sin and all will receive mercy.” [The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart, page 311]
BOOM! [once again]
So, if you don’t understand what’s going on in Romans, you’ll of course miss all of this and end up thinking that Paul has a different point of view than he actually does.
However, once you notice this Prosopopeia you are in for quite a treat as Paul and Saul go toe-to-toe and only one fighter emerges from the ring victorious and crowing about the glorious mercy and endless grace and limitless love of Christ for everyone, everywhere, at all times.
NOTE: For a much more in-depth look at Prosopopeia and specifically how Paul/Saul develop their arguments in the book of Romans, let me recommend this excellent YouTube video presentation by the marvelous Michael Hardin HERE
Keith Giles and his wife, Wendy, work with Peace Catalyst International to help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in El Paso, TX. Keith was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church over a decade ago to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today he is the author of several best-selling books, including “Jesus Undefeated: Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment” which is available now on Amazon.