ROMANS 1-8 is world-changing literature. When Martin Luther fully appropriated for himself Rom. 1: 17, “The just shall live by faith,” he effectively launched the Protestant Reformation, the spillover effects of which continue in many more areas than religion alone. But this letter does not answer only the question that Luther was asking, “How might I be saved?” It does, but on the way to answering another question that makes the most sense of the tough chapters 9-11, which many have taken to speak of divine double predestination (that God sovereignly chooses who will be saved and who will be damned, without their having any say in the matter). Though those chapters are for next week, they are worth mentioning at the beginning of the letter, because they cast light on the first eight. Paul’s discussion of the historical place and future of the Jews is the capstone of his thesis: what God is doing in the world is nothing less than making a new Israel of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ, just as he promised through the prophets. That’s the main focus of Romans, the question at the heart of all its answers: How is God constituting the new Israel? The answer: by faith, the faith of Abraham.
Paul poses and answers this question because he is looking to the Roman churches to be his springboard of mission to points west, notably Spain (15:24), making this possibly the first letter of missionary introduction and support. We don’t know from the Bible whether or not Paul actually made it to Spain, but Spanish church tradition says he did. The Roman Christians need to understand the answer to this question (What is God doing in the world and how is he doing it?) so that 1) they might support Paul in his missionary work and 2) they might be strong and well-enough united to be able to support the work of God. From the list of Roman Christians whom he already knows and greets (16: 1-15), we can see that the members are both Jewish and Gentile. But Rome has a history of anti-semitism and tension between Jews and Gentiles, such as the time that Claudius Caesar expelled the Jews from Rome not long before (Acts 18:2).
With that end and thesis in mind, here’s a crude outline of Paul’s argument through the first eight chapters:
I. Introduction of self and of main themes to come: 1: 1-7
II. Introduction of letter’s purpose: 1:8-17
III. Exposition of Universal Human Need
A. for Gentiles: 1:18-31: the moral and spiritual results of idolatry
B. for Jews: 2:1-3: 5: moral and spiritual results of the law and failure to live up to it.
C. Jew and Gentile in same straits: 3: 9-20
IV. God’s Universal Answer : 3: 21- 5: 11
A. (for Gentile and Jew) 3: 21-31
B. The same answer as God gave to Abraham: faith: 4: 1-25
C. Peace with God, Peace between Jew and Gentile: 5: 1-11
V. Living Into This Peace: 5: 12-8
A. Christ and Adam Contrasted: 5: 12- 21 Christ the Source of Life
B. Our Death to the old sinful order of society, through baptism: 6:1-14
C. Slavery to righteousness: 6: 15-23
D. Release from Law: 7: 1-6
E. How Sin Corrupted the Law and through it enslaved us: 7: 7- 25
F. How God’s Spirit Does What the Law, Human Nature and Sin could not: Chapter 8
Romans 1 is at the heart of the church’s controversy today over homosexuality, even though that is nowhere near the center of the letter’s focus or purpose. Paul mentions it in passing among many signs and symptoms of humanity’s fallenness. So it is not such a uniquely terrible thing that it is more deserving of selective Christian wrath than the many other sins listed, some of which we sometimes esteem, like greed. But I remain unconvinced by arguments that say this passage has little or nothing to do with any of the expressions of same sex attraction we may see today, such as committed lifelong same sex marriages. Graeco-roman society was as open and experienced with homosexuality as ours is becoming today; people (at least the wealthy) were considered bisexual until proven otherwise. And like most Jews of the time, Paul would not have countenanced any of it. But nor would he have singled it out any more than he does here.
The most stunning thing about his description of human bondage to sin in 1: 8-31 is Paul’s understanding of the wrath of God. No thunderbolts fall from the sky, no cracks open up in the earth. Instead, God simply “hands them over” or “delivers them up” to the evil we desire, so that they and their consequences, and what we become, are our punishment. And we would otherwise confuse this “handing over” for blessing and freedom! So, the Fred Phelps of the world who are so quick to ascribe specific events to divine punishment for specific sins are claiming more clarity and prophetic insight than the Bible writer here does!
IN WHAT WAYS ARE WE “DEAD TO SIN?” (Rom. 6) Some holiness traditions tell us to expect and to pray for anointings and experiences of the Holy Spirit that will lift us up to, or at least toward, perfection, so that we are not only dead to sin, we are dead to temptation. I am all for Holy Spirit anointing and experiences. But not even Jesus was dead to temptation until after his death and resurrection. If anything, temptation assailed him like it did no other man. Given the setting (Rome, recent Jewish riots against Christians, and the recent attempts to expel of Jews), “death to sin” can have a social meaning, as well as spiritual. Once one was baptized, whether Jew or Gentile, one was counted “dead” by the society, often the family. Then, one was dead to sin as in the sinful social order, not to temptation itself. So, Paul argues, with your bridges to the world burning behind you, you might as well move forward with the life that is life indeed.
OR CONSIDER YOURSELF A SLAVE to righteousness (6: 15-23) since so many of Paul’s Christian letter recipients would have been slaves, literally, to people. Just as importantly, slaves to sin.
PSALM 113 is a hymn of praise that celebrates God’s work in the world, from his mastery over the nations (v. 4), to his care for the poor, the oppressed, the homeless and barren, that is, to put us into life-giving relationships.
PSALM 114 shows how important the Exodus remained as a theme by which Israel interpreted its relationship even to creation. God’s liberating confrontation with the sea, the Jordan, the hills and the rocks was more than what it appears to modern eyes; it was a confrontation with the gods and goddesses of Israel’s neighbors. For the sea, the hills and other natural phenomena were worshiped as deities among these people. Ps. 114 thus celebrates not only Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but God’s victory over the deities behind Israel’s oppression among the nations.
PSALM 115 is like the previous psalm, in that it celebrates God’s victory over the gods of the nations, which in this psalm are the man-made idols. That “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them,” (v. 8) is an important spiritual principle: we become like whatever it is that we worship; we eventually take on the characteristics of whatever or whoever it is we are gazing upon with our spiritual eyes. Should that object of desire, worship and attention be violent, dominating or sensual, would it surprise us that its worshipers should become so, too? Similarly, should the object of our desire, worship and attention be like Jesus, what might we expect of its worshipers? The psalm ends with blessings for the powerful and the poor alike.
That “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence,” (v. 17) shows how murky and unclear was the hope of life after death in the Old Testament. For Ps. 115, the closest thing to eternal life is in verse 18:”But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.” In other words, eternal life was clear for the nation, the people of Israel, in a relationship of worship to the Eternal God.