Romans - The Universality of Salvation
"As I hear the words of Paul's epistles read in church, I enjoy them as if I were hearing a spiritual trumpet blast. I am awakened, and all my insides feel warm when I hear that familiar voice, the voice that has become so dear to me; and I almost imagine him to be standing right before me speaking to me."1 These remarkable words were spoken sometime during the fifth century by St. John Chrysostom, an eminent church father remarking on the most eminent of all epistles.
The Epistle to the Romans has been rightly called "the greatest and deepest and most memorably influential compositions ever written by human pen", and "the cathedral of the Christian faith." For this epistle is so full and weighty with spiritual insights, so bursting with revelations never spoken before by human lips, so persistent in its efforts to reach to the very heights of God's plan of salvation for man—that any short sketch of Romans will admittedly fall short of capturing the full range of the Apostle's thoughts.
Romans has always been regarded as the chief among St. Paul's epistles, and so is placed first in order among them, although it belongs near the middle chronologically. The epistle was written while St. Paul was making his fifth trip to Jerusalem—which would be his last—in order to deliver alms he had received from Greece (Macedonia and Achaia) for the poor at Jerusalem.2 He expressly says that from Jerusalem he intends to go to Spain to preach the Gospel (we do not know if he ever made it), and he wishes to sojourn in Rome along the way in order to greet the saints.3
But St. Paul was filled with uncertainty concerning this visit to Jerusalem; for though he carried with him tokens of love in the form of alms, Jerusalem was the headquarters of his Judaic enemies. He knew he was walking into the lion's mouth, for even the brethren in Ephesus begged him not to go.4 But he went; he was assaulted, and he was thrown in chains.5 The suffering saint would eventually reach Rome but as a prisoner on Roman ships; and before all these things which he foresaw would happen, he found a span of a few quiet days to write this extraordinary letter to the church in Rome.
Several "seed-thoughts" or "kernel" verses are dispersed throughout the epistle which help us capture the main ideas:
+ "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'" (Romans 1:17). St. Paul uses Habakkuk's words to announce the greatest principle of Christian life: FAITH. The church of Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, or more precisely members who were originally Gentiles but whose religion grew up in Jewish soil. Therefore the Apostle was addressing people who once considered salvation to be gotten by a dry and dead ceremonialism and by adherence to an impossible Law. St. Paul shifts the center of spiritual living away from circumcision and Sabbaths to a new quality: Faith. Thus faith would be the beginning and ground for every other teaching contained in the epistle, from the inner purity of the soul to the outer salvation of the world. The greatest example he brings forth is: "For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.'" (Romans 4:3). Here he shows that "righteousness" or "justification" do not originate in the Law, since Abraham was justified 430 years before the Law even existed; and he was justified because he believed.
+ "Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life" (Romans 5:18). "ALL" is a keyword which recurs over and again in the epistle with the aim of gathering and including all mankind in the doctrines announced. Unlike the local and specialist religions of paganism and Judaism, Christianity embraces all mankind. All men are guilty before a holy God, all have fallen short of deserving salvation. And equally, by virtue of Christ's redemptive work, all men are given the great privilege of salvation.
And this universality of sin and salvation leads St. Paul to one of his great sketches of the religious history of salvation.6 The four great "stages" of salvation—Fall, Promise, Law, and Redemption—are represented in the figures of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Christ. Adam represents the discovery of sin and fall from grace. Abraham is the promise of future restoration. Moses is the representative of the Law, the realization of man's unholiness and separation from God. Christ is the second Adam, the new Man, the Savior who overturns sin, fulfills the Law, and brings all mankind into the bosom of the Father.
+ "I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin" (Romans11:1). "For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;'" (Romans 11:25,26). The universality of salvation led to a question of momentous proportions—the admission of the Gentiles—which is dealt with in the central portion of the epistle (chapters 9—11). "Is He the God of the Jews only?" asks Paul, "Is He not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also." If that were not enough, the Apostle also says that the Gentiles, without the Law, attainted to righteousness by the moral law; whereas the Jews, attempting to establish their own righteousness apart from faith, were rejected.7
This led to vexing questions in the Jew's mind. What is the meaning of a chosen people? What advantage has the Jew? What about the promises, the covenants, the laws, the temple? Firstly, St. Paul answers that a man arguing against God's ways is like a pot arguing against the potter's hands. "O man, who are you to reply against God?"8
It is God's divine right to choose whom He wishes, just as He chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of old—and now He chooses the world. Secondly, the rejection of the Jews is only partial, not total, for their rejection is the Gentiles' acceptance. Israel was like an olive branch severed from its own tree, so that a foreign branch (Gentiles) might be grafted in. But the natural branch will be grafted in once again, the Jews will be restored, in the fullness of time.9
+ "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Romans 12:1). After having laid down the great principles of the Christian faith, he moves on to mention our obligation to the duties of Christian morality; for in St. Paul's mind, and as reflected in all his epistles, every Christian moral is lent its support and value by a firm theological foundation. The "therefore" in 12:1 connects all he is about to say in the final part of the epistle (chapters 12—16) with all that went before. And the diligent reader is rewarded by the brightest and most splendid exhortations ever given to man. The call to be transformed;10 to live in unity;11 to brotherly love;12 to be subject to the governing authorities;13 to refrain from judging one's brother or cause him to stumble;14 and to receive each other in the name of Christ15 all require a sense of compassion and humility which is unique to Christianity alone. The Apostle ends with a warm doxology16 in which many have seen a lyrical summary of the message of the entire epistle.