The Basic Argument of Romans 1-11

The Basic Argument of Romans 1-11

Introductory note: We do not intend to argue or to defend (e.g., with “proof texts”) any theological point here or anywhere else on this website—partly because of intense personal distaste for argument, and partly because we are certain that such arguments accomplish nothing good. We want rather to present our view of what we believe Paul is saying in Romans 1-11, and to offer these ideas for your consideration. If they make sense to you, that’s wonderful. If not, that’s fine. We’re still brothers/sisters.

We believe it is possible to understand Paul’s thoughts in Romans 1-11 (the more theological portion of the letter, vs. the more practical advice in Romans 12 ff.) only by reading all the material in a single sitting. The earlier chapters make sense only when seen through the lens of the end of chapter 11.

On several occasions we have heard people opine that Romans is a difficult book to read, that it is dark, somber, even brutal. Many Christians dislike this letter. Their opinions arise, we believe, for two reasons: (1) they become bogged down in the second and third chapters, which appear to be rather ruthless, without following Paul’s arguments to their ultimate conclusions at the end of chapter 11; (2) they make the extremely common mistake of assuming that statements referring to this world, to this age (e.g., much of chapters 9-11), are instead referring to the afterlife.

A helpful principle for understanding Romans is to continually remind oneself of Paul’s introductory repetition of the word gospel (εὐαγγέλιον)—which we strongly believe ought to be translated in English Bibles (as fortunately is often the case) as good news, since the term “gospel” has regrettably been coopted by centuries of religious encrustations. What Paul is about to discuss is good news.

If, while reading Romans, it starts to seem like bad news to you, that means you haven’t understood what he is really saying. For it is very good news indeed!

Immediately after introducing the subject of the good news and its power to save all who trust in God, however, Paul begins what appears to be a hellish diatribe against just about everyone.

Paul first paints an abysmal picture of the status of pagans whose ignorance of God he says is completely inexcusable, because there are sufficient hints within the created order to reveal God’s existence and nature (roughly 1:18−2:16). Then he turns his guns on the Jews (roughly 2:17−3:20), suggesting that they are in the same dire straits as the gentiles. In so many words Paul says that the gentiles are essentially doomed; and then he says that the Jews are likewise doomed. No one can measure up! Everyone is without excuse and deserving of wrath!

Then he begins to add incredibly hopeful statements into the discussion beginning around 3:23−24, with the astounding assertion—especially in light of the seemingly hopeless state of both gentiles and Jews—that not only have all people sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, all people are made righteous by his gift of grace! (Even though that’s unambiguously what it says in the Greek, you won’t see that in many translations except in an occasional footnote.) In chapters 4 through 8 he theologizes and rhapsodizes on the unimaginable grace of God, and how that grace manifests itself in our lives here and now, and how it is wholly different from a relationship based on rules and obligations. In the midst of these discussions Paul drops a few other zingers that we tend to pass over without taking them seriously, or that we tend to water down or even disbelieve because they contradict traditional beliefs—e.g., that what we do is unrelated to our standing before God (4:5−8); and that, just as one man’s (i.e., Adam’s) sin led to condemnation for all, one man’s obedience (that of Jesus) has led to righteousness and life for all (5:18).

Chapter 9 begins an extremely important excursus concerning Israel. But that digression merely provides the opportunity for Paul’s grand coda at the end of chapter 11—just as on occasion Beethoven, after lulling listeners into thinking he was just about finished with a movement, might introduce an entirely new theme for just a few bars, fooling people into thinking he was going to head off on a different tangent, only to use that new theme to morph directly into a glorious finale. Similarly, Paul slips smoothly from what is going on with Israel in its general refusal to acknowledge the Messiah, into that glorious proclamation toward which he was heading from the beginning of the letter, and which the first eight chapters portended:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. —11:32 RSV

And that, my friend, is good news! It’s so good that many of us feel the need to explain it away or dilute it. Although we are eager to accept literally the gloom and doom pronounced over so many billions of people in chapters 2 and 3, we often want to find excuses for this and similar statements in Paul (e.g., 5:8), asserting that “Well, he didn’t really mean that.” But we believe this climactic statement is the end toward which Paul was heading throughout all of chapters 1 through 11. And it is such a jarring, wonderful, glorious announcement that Paul becomes speechless in wonder and praise, able in the end only to pronounce a doxology:

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen. —11:36 RSV