This is the third part of our Bible study series on Romans. For those just tuning in, this blog and podcast series is a summary of the highlights of our summer-long study of Romans. None of this will be as exhaustive as a commentary; rather, I am striving to give you some key insights that may often be neglected in studies of Romans. To do this, I am going to highlight some things in each section of the outline offered in part two of this series.
Following Romans 1:17, the thematic verse of the book, chapters 1-3 center on the idea of righteousness: in particular, God’s righteousness versus humanity’s unrighteousness. In verses 1:18-32, Paul first unpacks the Gentiles’ unrighteousness in idolatry and the consequences of that idolatry. (He will move on to include the sins of Jews afterward.) Note that the gentiles’ sins of sexual depravity in v.24-32, commonly cited against homosexual practice, is actually a consequence of the gentile’s main sin of idolatry. Notice the causal language in the beginnings of verses 24, 26, and 28. This distinction is important, especially because v.18 begins with the wrath of God, so obviously a lot is at stake here. This verse sometimes has been cited in ways that elevate the sin of homosexual practice above other sins, when really in this passage homosexual practice among consenting adults is a description of the dishonorable/immoral consequence of the deeper, more fundamental sin of idolatry. I dive more into this topic in a separate article written with churches in mind, here.
In Rom. 2:1-3:20 Paul shifts his attention to the Jewish church members of the church and their sins of pride and hypocrisy, living out their faith as if mere obedience to the technicalities of the law rather than from a posture of humble obedience and love of God. The purpose of all of this, keeping with the purpose of the letter, is to humble both groups of believers, Jew and Gentile, moving them toward seeing how God is working through both groups now to reach the ends of the earth.
The unifying factor and key verse of this section is Romans 3:21-31:
Rom. 3:21 But now, the righteousness of God has been disclosed apart from law and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Rom. 3:27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
As mentioned earlier, the background of this letter is important, as well as the work of scholarship that has illuminated that for Paul, “works of the law” refers to those boundary markers that set Judaism apart from other nations: circumcision, dietary laws, and holy days. What Paul is not saying here, then is: “We’re saved by believing hard enough, rather than by our good works.” He would agree that we are not saved by our good works, but that is simply not the “works” he’s talking about. He is saying, rather, “We all–Jews and Gentiles alike–enter into God’s family by way of Jesus, no longer by circumcision and the other boundary markers that were a requirement before. To understand this better, read Galatians; it really is in many ways a more concise version of Romans, but of course Romans’ additions to our body of knowledge about our relationship with God is important. The two letters are complimentary to be sure.
Thanks for tuning in; next time we will look at an argument Paul makes about the role of faith and how God’s promise to Abraham is being fulfilled in the church’s obedience to Christ by faith.
God bless you, and happy studying.