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Romans, Theology of

Romans, Theology of

While a study of Paul's theology in Romans may be undertaken without regard to the setting of the letter, it is more profitable to consider the probable reason for his writing and what he sought to accomplish by highlighting his specific theological agenda. Briefly, the church at Rome, which originally had strong Jewish Christian leadership (its founders may have been Roman Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem at Pentecost who carried the gospel back to Rome), defaulted to Gentile leadership at the expulsion of Jews from Rome by edict of Emperor Claudius in the 40s. Following his death Jewish Christians returned with the result that there was bad feeling between the two groups in the church, the Gentiles with their larger numbers and leadership assuming superiority, the returning Jews claiming their own priority because they had been there first and had a more noble heritage. The resulting contention was of concern to Paul the missionary because it weakened the formerly strong outgoing mission of the Roman church by dissipating energy with internal strife. The major thrust of Paul's theology in the letter, therefore, is to bring them back to their earlier enthusiasm for evangelism and missionary activity by leveling their pride and leading them forward to a new commitment to Christ and his sovereign plan of salvation. Chapter 15 is a critical key in understanding Paul's major theological mission thrust in the letter.

Typical of all his theological writings Paul in Romans uses the technique of gentle persuasion, not heavy-handed fiat (even in Galatians, after a righteously indignant introduction, he settles into the rhetorical technique of persuading the Galatian Gentiles of the logic of his case). While the Lord anoints apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the formation and nurture of the churches, he does so "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" ( Eph 4:11-12 ). Individual churches and their members accordingly are expected to react intelligently and responsibly to reasoned propositional theological appeals, thus "owning" Paul's agendas as congregations and individuals. Since Paul's theological agendas usually deal with recurring problems in churches then and now, his letters, originally addressed to specific occasions, providentially take on the nature of general pastoral epistles that are relevant to every age. While fine commentaries on Romans can bracket the question of historical setting (Cranfield's commentary is an example; he deals with the setting only at the end of his study), subtle nuances of Paul's theology appear only when the reader has the original occasion in mind. The theology of Romans has as its central focus the mission theme of evangelism. Paul's missionary agenda affects the presentation of his theological rhetoric as he attempts to persuade the Roman readers to forsake a bad course of interfamily strife that is draining their energy, for a good course of outward-looking evangelistic action.

Introduction: A Theology of Servant (1:1-18). Paul's basic theology centers on the generous nature of the Triune God as preeminent Servant, from whom all genuine human generosity is derived. Paul quickly moves off his own role as servant in verse 1 to honor the archetypal source of all generous servanthood in Christ, who is designated Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (v. 4). A trinitarian theology is immediately invoked that focuses on the resurrection of Christ as the culminating event "in power" of divine generosity, which is spelled out in verse 5 and establishes the theme of the entire letter.

The societal nature of the enterprise of bearing the gospel to the nations is heightened by Paul's sense of the interrelation of his apostleship with the Romans, that they be mutually encouraged by his visit and that he reap a harvest in Rome as he has elsewhere (vv. 8-15). The social nature of Paul's theology reflects the social nature of the Triune God and God's societal mission of redeeming creation. This introductory societal and mission theme is summarized in Paul's digest of the mission theology (vv. 16-18): On the positive side, the gospel is powerful to save everyone who has faith, Jew and Gentile alike; but it also has a negative cut like the sword of Hebrews 4:12, for those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness receive the gospel as the wrath of God against their ungodliness. Accordingly, the theology of Romans is seen to cut both ways in realistic exposition of God's holy nature: God is the God of grace to those who accept the gift of the Son in faith, and the holy God of wrath to sinners who reject the gift of the Son; to those who join the family, life; to those who reject the family, judgment. The mission of proclaiming the gospel will for Paul always articulate the theology of up and down, life and death, and these vectors will be seen to be connected to preaching, hearing, receiving, or rejecting, all under the sovereign election of God (v. 18 should be taken with v. 17, both being explanatory of v. 16).

Diagnosis: The Knowledge of God and the Sinful Fall of Humanity (1:19-3:20). Paul's theology of the double effect of the gospel creates the first half (a b) of a chiasm (a b b a), the second half of which (b'a') he proceeds to develop. As righteousness by faith is represented by letter a, and divine wrath against ungodliness by letter b, Paul now expands on the wrath of God against wickedness as b (1:19-3:20), followed by a lengthy exposition of righteousness by faith in Christ in 3:21-8:17 (a). Paul's doctrine of the wrath of God ( 1:18 ) is slighted in modern liberal and process theology, but is crucial in his overall view of the nature of God, for God is holy and perforce must deal with wickedness. Paul takes ungodliness and wickedness and the wrath of God seriously, and this affects his theology of atonement in a. The exchange of the truth about God for a lie by sinful humanity and the worshiping of creation rather than the Creator (1:23) brings about a giving up of human beings to divine wrath (three Romans 1:24 Romans 1:26 Romans 1:28 ), even though deep within they knew of God's eternal power and deity and are without excuse ( Romans 1:19-21 Romans 1:28 ). There are no grounds for a natural theology in 1:19-20 in light of the larger context of the passage, for while men and women know better they go on sinning and are under the condemnation of death ( 1:32 ). In 1:18-32 Paul succeeds in leveling all humanity in general as guilty before God.

So serious is God's giving up humans to their own folly that Paul now details their fall, all the way to 3:20. In 2:1-16 he reveals the indefensible position of the moral person, whether Gentile or Jew, who criticizes others yet is equally guilty and is therefore also liable to divine wrath. Paul is not teaching a general works theology in this section, which would be antithetical to his justification by faith in Christ alone theology in the letter as a whole, but is addressing his Gentile and Jewish readers who have been guilty of hypocritical judgment. Christians need to be exhorted to persevere in belief and behavior appropriate to their confession, else they may not prove to be elect. Believers cannot presume upon God's grace and act like the devil; hence Paul can warn his readers like the writer to the Hebrews ( 6:4-12 ; 10:19-39 ) that better things are expected of them than to act inappropriately as followers of Christ. Only doers of the Law will be justified before God, whether Jew or Gentile; hence prideful superiority among Christians is unacceptable. Paul is consistently addressing a practical theological theme of the letter, that performative discipleship begins at home. Paul addresses Jewish believers more directly in 2:14-16 and again in 2:17-3:8 for their pride and ineffectiveness as witnesses, and then makes the notable observation that being a Jew in the true sense is a matter of inner not outer circumcision ( 2:28-29 ), thus establishing an inclusive category of Jew-Gentile that Jesus had already intimated in his teaching on inward intention ( Matthew 6:4 Matthew 6:6 Matthew 6:18 ). Jew and Gentile believers are on the same footing within the church and are brought to the level of humility. (In chaps. 9-11 Paul will level the Gentile believers specifically for discounting the fact that ethnic Jews still are being welcomed to faith.) Yet in spite of the special advantage of the Jews in being entrusted with the oracles of God ( 3:2 ), they are now no better off under the leveling justice of God ( 3:9 ). This point gives Paul the opportunity to return again to the theme of the larger picture and the universal leveling guilt of humanity ( 3:9-20 ). The entire somber section on God's wrath against universal sin that began at 1:18 concludes with a string of quotations from the Old Testament, attesting the historical continuity of the nature of God's holiness against human sin. Paul's theological argument is now complete on the negative side and his boasting and strife-ridden Roman audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians are properly brought down from pride to humility.

At this point, the lowest in the letter, Paul now introduces the major positive thesis of his argument and the only one that can provide the foundation for the restoration of the Roman believers and their mission responsibility. They must get back to the all-sufficient work of Christ and have done with any kind of boasting other than in him. This leads to Paul's third principal theological point.

First Fundamental Prognosis: Justified by Faith in Jesus Christ (3:21-8:17). This is the first prognosis of hope (in 8:20 ; Paul says that God subjected the creation to futility because of human sin, but "in hope" ) and is signaled by the "but now" of 3:21. This hope is spelled out in view of the believer's personal relationship to Christ. Later, in 8:18-11:36, hope is described in cosmic dimensions, for individual believers are part of the cosmic plan of salvation, and Paul's theology is characterized by a theme of the one and the many. In our present unit, Christ is the one who performs a vicarious and redemptive work for the many. In the first section Paul asserts that the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ excludes boasting ( 3:21-31 ). It is in faith in Christ and in his faithful work that salvation for Jew and Gentile resides (but note that objective faith in Jesus rests on Jesus' subjective faithfulness). In him the Law is perfectly kept through his active obedience; in his passive obedience on the cross divine wrath is propitiated, turned into grace. The believer is accordingly saved by the twofold work of Christ: in his life of faithful perfection, which is imputed to the Christian, and in his death and resurrection, which remove the penalty of eternal separation from God. Boasting is therefore excluded ( 3:27 ), for both Jew and Gentile are justified on the ground of the faith in Christ, who has kept the Law for us.

Paul now proceeds to show the continuity between the old and the new by citing Abraham as a primary example of the person of faith and humility ( 4:1-25 ), making the point that the faith principle was operating before Abraham became technically a Jew by circumcision. The Abraham of faith is therefore to be seen as the father of both Gentile and Jewof the Jew because David personifies the grace and faith principle operative in the Mosaic period (vv. 6-8), and of the Gentile because Abraham was a Gentile before he was circumcised (vv. 9-25). Though different typologies were operative during the Abrahamic and Mosaic periods, and though Christ is the superior typology in this age because he embodies the old in himself as the new, the nature of God and salvation remain essentially the same. God is always the God of grace and of holiness, and faith is always "faith that works, " that evinces behavior appropriate to faith (hence, there is no conflict between Paul's emphasis on faith and James 2:18-26 , since each emphasizes one pole of the equation ).

The Old Testament example of Abraham is complemented in 5:1-21 with a fuller comparison of two principial personalities, Adam I and Adam II. While Abraham functions as a secondary figure as patriarch of righteousness by faith for Gentile and Jewish believers, Adam and Christ represent archetypal progenitors of the human race where works are the primary focus. In this chapter Paul presents a theology of representative behavior that affects the entirety of human history. The first Adam forsook the image of God for which he was responsible, and by his work of sin spread death and sin to all (vv. 12-14). The far greater work of Christ the second Adam is a righteous work of grace and life (v. 17). The "much more" is qualitative, not quantitative, for only those who believe reign with Christ (the second "the many, " is to be understood in this sense). Since the Roman believers are showing signs of weakness, and since salvation is integrally tied to eschatology in process of realization, Paul appeals to his readers at the beginning of the chapter (vv. 1-11) to lay hold in practice (existentially) of what they have in principle (essentially). It is necessary for them to walk out their faith and demonstrate in fact the peace they have in principle; so verse 1 should likely be rendered, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." This is supported by the emphasis on hope in verses 2-5 and the processive tenor of verses 9-10. Paul's theological challenge is to put into action a faith that works and endures to the end.

The existential appeal to proper behavior continues on a more personal level in chapter 6. Here the already and not yet aspects of Christian living and salvation are illustrated by the foundational work of Christ in his death and resurrection. Christians cannot continue in sin that grace may abound (v. 1) because participation in Christ's death and resurrection through the baptism of faith enjoins the believer to walk in newness of life (vv. 2-11). This appeal continues to the end of chapter 6 and through 7. "You have it, so have it!" Paul's theology of salvation is thoroughly eschatological and hortatory; redemption in the believer's life has been inaugurated, and if one truly has it, he or she will walk it out and faithfully persevere.

The exhortation of 6:15-23 is for the Romans to live no longer as slaves of sin but as slaves of God; in 7:1-6, to live as those freed from a former marriage by death of the previous partner so that one may marry again (in this case, Christ). One is no longer under the condemnation of the Law, though the Law is holy, just, and good; but since the vestigial remains of sin still hang over the Christian there must be a concerted exercise of the will to claim the victory that is realized in Jesus Christ our Lord ( 7:7-25 ). The Christian struggles between the times of Christ's first and second comings; hence inner conflict is inevitable, as is the need for continual exhortation. Paul continues his appeal in 8:1-17, reminding his readers that the whole Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been engaged to give the believer victory over sin. Paul seems to mix the types of conditional "ifs" in this section, the first three ( Romans 8:9 Romans 8:10 Romans 8:11 ) being of the first class that indicates certainty, while the last two ( Romans 8:13 Romans 8:17 ) function as third class and connote likely possibility but not certainty. It is a delicate point Paul is making, but it is the same as Jesus' insistence on not only hearing but doing his words and bearing fruit ( Matt 7:15-20 ), and like the warning in Hebrews that faith must be faith that works in faithful mission ( 10:19-39 ). The Romans must start showing evidence of evangelistic zeal.

Further grounds for their revival of this responsibility are now spelled out by Paul in the next large theological section of the letter, which describes the cosmic scope of what God has done in Christ.

Second Prognosis: The Cosmic Plan of Redemption (8:18-11:36). Theological confidence is the compelling thrust of this unit, which is designed to overcome even Paul's questions about God's plan of salvation. In the prologue ( 8:18-39 ) the apostle comes to terms with present suffering and coming glory and the tension that arises between them. The latter overwhelms the former, 8:20 being the centerpiece: although God has subjected the creation to futility because of human sin, he has also subjected it in hope. Since the groaning of creation and the groaning of believers is undergirded by the divine groaning of the Spirit in intercession for the saints, there is reason for hope and victory, for nothing in creation "will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" ( 8:39 ).

But Paul confesses he still has a problem, and he proposes to work this out before the eyes of the Romans to demonstrate how theological reflection on the sovereignty and goodness of God can sustain the confidence of 8:31-39 and lead to the doxology of 11:33-36. Paul's personal difficulty lies with the failure of his kinsmen by race to rally around the gospel message and follow after Christ, who is the culmination of their covenant promises ( 9:1-5 ; again in 10:1-4 and 11:1 a). His first theological answer to the why of 9:1-5 is to reassert that not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel ( 9:6-13 ), a point made earlier in 2:28-29. His second reply invokes the sovereignty of God, God's freedom to decree what he wills, to choose whom he wills, and affirms the goodness of all God does, since there is none higher than he ( 9:14-33 ). Whether it is Jacob over Esau, Moses over Pharaoh, or now the Gentiles over Paul's own kind, it is by God's sovereign grace that even a remnant is saved.

Yet there is an added ingredient in the formula of election, for God does not choose capriciously but through valid secondary agents, and in each case the nonelect are seen to be lacking in faith: Esau, Pharaoh, and now Israel who have not pursued righteousness through faith, but as it were based on works ( 9:30-33 ). This emphasis on human choices leads into chapter 10, where Paul lays great stress on personal responsibility. Paul and the early church have been faithful in proclamation but, as in the Old Testament with Moses and Isaiah, Israel has rejected the good news. That is Paul's second answer to his earlier cry.

The third answer, found in chapter 11, returns to the hope that overcomes futility (cf. 8:20 ). God has not totally rejected Israel; Paul himself is evidence to the contrary, as were the seven thousand who did not bow the knee to Baal in the Old Testament, which attests the graciousness of God; and even now "there is a remnant chosen by grace" ( 11:5 ). If Israel's present default means grace for the Gentiles, "how much greater riches will their fullness bring" ( 11:12 ). A warning to the Gentiles now ensues (vv. 13-32), again attesting that Paul is addressing prideful factions in Rome and leveling them before the awesome sovereignty and freedom of God. Paul does not specify how many from ethnic Israel will return, or the time of their return, but what is clear is that just as a complement ( 11:25-26 ). The exact meaning of "all" in verse 26 is in question. Since "all" in 5:18-21 and in 11:32 does not imply every single member of a group, so here "all Israel" in context most likely means the whole (unspecified) remnant of Israel will be saved, the point being, against Gentile arrogance, that God still has a place in his sovereign plan for Paul's ethnic people. The gospel is for Jews and Gentiles ( 1:16 ). So moved is Paul by his own theological argument against his earlier doubts and misgivings, that he breaks into a doxology that sings the praises of the inscrutable God of grace, who is sovereign and from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

Concluding, then, the formal theological section of his letter, Paul is seen to have been mixing theology and exhortation to his factional Roman readers in order to bring them around to proper thought and action. So far Paul has dealt with the intellectual ground of theology in the work of Christ, though not without appeals to application; now he turns to exhortations to actual performance in detail.

The Practical Theological Remedy: Servants Who Are Faithful in Mission (12:1-15:13). As the previous eleven chapters deal with the vertical question of humility before the all-sufficient work of Christ, Paul's final appeal focuses on faith that works horizontally both within the body of believers and beyond in the wider world of mission. Practical theology begins with the believer's embodying servanthood in living and humble self-sacrifice ( 12:1-2 ), in loving and creative relation of the one to the many, not seeking to please oneself but one's neighbor, as Christ did not seek to please himself ( 12:3-21 ; 14:1-23 ; 15:1-13 ). At the same time Paul exhorts the Roman believers to live within the civil structure of common grace as agents of light in a world of darkness ( 13:1-14 ).

Paul's Mission Theology and Purpose for Writing Boldly (15:14-16:27). Finally, Paul discloses the real purpose of his writing such a carefully drawn out and persuasive argument: to enlist his Roman readers in supporting a mission to unreached Gentiles in Spain and the delivery of a love gift to suffering Jewish Christians in Jerusalem ( 15:14-33 ). Seeing to it that everyone hears of the power of the gospel is the heart of Paul's theology ( 1:16 ). As an example of the kinds of people he has in mind to carry out this honorable task, Paul lists twenty-nine people of various ethnic and social backgrounds and gender who are exemplary and well-known to the Romans ( 16:1-16 ). By contrast, his readers are to avoid contentious and unorthodox persons and to be wise and discerning ( 16:17-20 ), for in the end what matters is that theology bring about obedience of faith among the nations, to the glory of God ( 16:25-27 ; the opening theme of 1:5 ).

Royce Gordon Gruenler

Bibliography. K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans; F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans; F. Godet, Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; H. Hendricksen, Romans (2 vols.); E. Kä emann, Commentary on Romans; H. C. G. Monle, The Epistle to the Romans; L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans; J. Stott, Romans.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Romans, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.