Paul's letter to the Romans
Paul, to the Gentile Christians of Rome
Martin Luther interpreted Paul's letter to the Romans as rejecting Judaism because it was essentially a 'religion of works' rather than a 'religion of faith'. In actual fact Judaism is not, and never was, a religion of works, in Luther's sense of winning God's favour through meticulous obedience to a divinely-dictated discipline. If Paul, himself well-versed in Judaism, had come to teach otherwise, he was either grossly self-deceived, or guilty of mischievous misrepresentation. In neither case would he deserve our respect.
A letter from Paul, the bondsman of Jesus Christ, summoned
to be an apostle - set apart to proclaim the good news from
God, as foretold by the prophets. This centres on God's
Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: in the realm of the flesh he was
born of the family of David; in the realm of the Spirit he was
appointed God's Son in power when he was raised from the dead.
Through him I have experienced the grace of God; and I have
been commissioned to kindle faithful obedience in his name among
Gentiles, including yourselves. You also have been
called to belong to Jesus Christ. Upon you, God's people
in Rome, summoned into commitment, I pray grace and
peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We note that Paul is writing to Gentile Christians in Rome. He is not in a position to approach them as their founding apostle, and he is especially careful at the beginning of his letter to emphasize what he and they have in common. Paul defines the gospel very early as centring on the resurrection of Jesus. For him, in the light of his mystical experience of the risen Christ, this is simply a fact, corroborated according to 1 Corinthians 15:3 by the testimony of the apostles in Jerusalem.Let me begin by thanking God through Jesus Christ for you. News of your faith has spread throughout the world. God knows - God whom I serve in the proclamation of his Son - that you are always in my mind and in my prayers. I do not cease to pray to God that it may at last become possible for me to visit you. I have longed to see you. I have desired to bring you some spiritual gift to strengthen you - to receive encouragement from you, and you to be encouraged by me. I would like you to know that I have often planned to come to you but have always been prevented. I have wanted to achieve something amongst you, just as I have elsewhere. I am under necessity to serve both Greeks and barbarians, the learned and the simple too. So I must proclaim the gospel to you in Rome as well as to the rest. The gospel never disappoints me. In the gospel God's power is at work for salvation as people's faith is kindled - Jews first, and also Greeks. In the gospel God's righteousness is made visible, God's faithfulness creating faith. As the scripture says: 'It is the one justified by faith who shall gain life. (Hab. 2:4)' [8-17]
In the past, most commentators took the sentence more traditionally translated: 'I am not ashamed of the Gospel' to be Paul's introduction to what the rest of the letter is about. They saw Paul as here announcing that he would be offering a full abstract of the substance of his regular preaching - in order to prove himself to the Romans. Yet nowhere else did Paul attempt a treatise of that kind. His writing was always ad hoc - dealing with practical situations in the churches he addressed. We will be arguing that his approach to the Romans was in fact of that same pattern, and that this perspective leads to a far more coherent understanding of his letter.On the other hand, God's condemnation of those who, by their godlessness and their depravity, have managed to cover over the truth, is open and obvious. It is not as though they could plead ignorance. God's nature can be read in the world he has made. They knew him, but accorded him no honour and no gratitude. So they have finally reduced themselves to a state of blindness and irrationality. They may claim to be philosophers but they are simply stupid. To quote the psalm 'they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of humans, or of birds or animals or even snakes (Ps 106:20)'. No wonder, then, that God has abandoned them to their passions and to the dishonouring of their own bodies - the inevitable outcome for those who exchange God's truth for a lie, and deify creation rather than the Creator. [18-25]
Those who reject the possibility of a good life before God are without excuse: the created world itself speaks the truth of its Creator. But finally they lose touch with reality, and God leaves them to the equally tangible consequences of their folly. The instructional letters in the Christian canon tend to follow a convention of painting strong pictures of both the good life and the bad. "This is where you were heading . . . but this is where you have arrived by the grace of God . . . see that you hold to this and avoid that."That is why God has given them up to shameful cravings, why their women lust after women, and why their men are consumed with passion for one another. Men do degrading things with men - and receive in their own persons a fitting reward for their folly. In other words, because they have not acknowledged God, God has left them to their irrationality and their appalling behaviour. They are filled with every sort of depravity, evil, greed, and malice. They are envious, murderous, contentious, treacherous, and malevolent. They are scandal-mongers and slanderers, enemies of God, insolent, arrogant, and boastful. They are creatively wicked. They show no loyalty to parents, no sense, no integrity, no love, no pity. They well know God's verdict: that people like that deserve to die - and yet they make no attempt to change, and they applaud others who are just like themselves. [26-32]
It is reasonable to question whether Paul could possibly have intended this as a picture of typical behaviour outside Christian communities. It would surely be grievously exaggerated. But the historian Suetonius, writing the lives of the Roman emperors, tells stories that make this catalogue of viciousness seem rather mild. Paul is making his point through the disgust certainly felt, not just by the Christians of Rome but also by decent Roman citizens, at the behaviours of the powerful, and the goings-on in high places. In particular, three of the last four Roman emperors up to Paul's time were publicly notorious for orgiastic behaviour both heterosexual and homosexual - and incestuous as well. And of course there was no mutual love in such dealings, but only the expression of power over other people's bodies.
paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis