The Bible in a Year – 20 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 October. Romans chapters 1-3

The letter to the Romans deserves its reputation for being both probably the most important of the New Testament letters for an understanding of Christian belief, and at the same time the most difficult to follow.  For it consists of one long philosophical argument with many interwoven strands. It is written in long and complex sentences and uses may technical theological terms such as ‘law’, ‘sin’, ‘justified’ and ‘righteous’. Each of these may mean something quite different from their common English usage, and need careful explanation. Therefore a brief ‘thought’ on a long excerpt of this work can never do justice to all the themes that appear in it. Today, I will try to explain in my own words what Paul is aiming for in his writing to the Christians in Rome. This covers all these opening chapters, but especially chapter 3.

The church in Rome consisted of both Jewish Christians and converts from paganism, or agnostics.  Wherever that happened in the early church there was a tendency for the Jewish Christians to think themselves better, because they knew the jewish scriptures – the “Law” – and their men were circumcised in accordance with the tradition started by Abraham over a thousand years earlier.  In some places they even tried to insist that the converts should also be circumcised if they were going to follow Christ (who, let it not be forgotten, was a Jewish rabbi who probably did not intend to found a new and different religion).

Paul, although a Jewish rabbi himself (as he had explained to the Corinthians), was thoroughly convinced that in Jesus the distinction between Jews and Gentiles had been abolished. Until now, he says, the Jews have had the Law to show them how to live rightly in relation to God and other people; but that did not ‘justify’ them unless they actually kept the Law, and in practice no-one ever did, for (as Paul puts it in one of the most famous verses of the Bible), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

It was always true, Paul says, that anyone could have been righteous (i.e. in an unblemished loving relationship with God) by living in a way compatible with Jewish laws, even if they were unaware of them, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13).  The second half of his argument is that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, unique in human history, have opened the way to a completely new understanding.  Anyone, whether or not they are Jews by family descent or circumcision, whether or not they know the details of the Law, can be declared righteous simply by having faith in Jesus.

The problem with that is, that as soon as you tell anyone that they don’t have to obey the rules, they won’t bother.  That is human nature, at every level of our lives. So Paul also has to explain that while failing to keep the Law does not stop you from being righteous, deliberately not bothering even to try to keep it does break that righteous relationship with God.  Love for God, as with love for another person, must include at least the intention to act in a loving way, even if we sometimes fail.