For those Christian churches that follow the Common Lectionary, throughout the summer and fall of this year lessons from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans will accompany the readings from the Gospel of Matthew. Preachers will likely choose the Gospel readings as their texts for their Sunday sermon. Paul’s letter to Rome had once been the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, and its thesis of justification by faith rather than by works of the law (Romans 3:28) had moved millions of believers into a fresh understanding of the essence of Christian religion and piety. From Martin Luther’s lectures on this New Testament letter, to Karl Barth’s commentary (published just after the First World War), Paul’s writing had been the primary inspiration for Protestant theologians. Why is it discussed so little today, and why would many preachers today be so hesitant to take a chapter from this letter as the text for their homily?
Of course, anyone who sits down to read this letter will realize immediately that it is by no means easy to understand or to follow Paul’s train of thought. Much of it seems esoteric and abstract in its theological argument. There are, however, two other reasons for the dismissal of Romans from its long-lasting central position. First, this letter has frequently and most widely been interpreted as fostering a particular Christian personal sense of sinfulness and forgiveness—a piety that has lost its appeal in the modern world. Second, Paul’s message of justification by faith apart from the law (especially Romans 9–11, the discussion of Israel’s failure to accept the preaching of the Gospel) has been used as the justification for the Christian rejection of Judaism; while some people today would still find satisfaction in such an understanding of these chapters, most Christians are embarrassed by them and would like to distance themselves from what appears to be a kind of anti-Semitism.
In 1941, as a 14-year-old boy in Nazi Germany and in the second year of the Second World War, I had to choose a verse from the Bible for my confirmation. My choice was Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” I certainly did not fully realize then the implications of that statement. What I realized at that time, however, was the vision of an alternative that would enable me to hang on to my Christian identity in spite of all the compromises that were required to survive in evil times. Yet, I still thought I had to obey the authorities of the state and serve my country. Little did I know that it was this faith, of which the Epistle to the Romans speaks—the utter reliance upon God’s loving acceptance—that would be the only thing that finally remained, when all the heroism and all the great deeds had been shattered and brought to naught. Even less did I know then what was implied in Paul’s statement, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Paul was writing to the new community of Jesus’ followers in Rome that was, it seems, largely composed of Jewish-Christians, for whom fulfillment of the law remained an important issue. They must have heard of Paul’s work as a missionary to the Gentiles and of his message that Gentiles, who joined the new communities, were not obligated to observe the law of Israel. If this law is no longer valid, they might have asked, how could the members of the community demonstrate through their moral achievements and through their obedience to the law that they were saved and that they belonged to a community that was different from the rest of the sinful and evil world? Was the establishment of justice in this world no longer possible through the striving for righteousness and moral uprightness?
The tradition from which Paul came—that of the zealous Pharisee—demanded indeed that justice be established through the obedience of the law by the pious individual (Romans 2). Paul had realized, however, that even the most successful effort of the most religious person would at best only create a righteous individual or a group of devoted adherents but would not bring about justice for a new community—to say nothing of justice for the entire world. On the contrary, moral perfection of the individual could only imply boasting of one’s accomplishments (Romans 3:27–31), regarding oneself better than others. A new universal community would require abandoning the quest for individual righteousness—no matter how perfectly one has fulfilled the law—and would instead require a commitment to serve others, no matter who they are, through works of love.
Thus Paul insists that God is willing to accept anyone as righteous as long as one believes that God is a God who gives rather than a God who demands. That God is love was epitomized for Paul in God’s giving of Christ to die for the unrighteous (Romans 5:6–8). This is what Paul calls the “righteousness by faith” (Romans 3:21–26), which also establishes a new criterion for righteous human action—concern for the 044well-being of others and even the giving of one’s self instead of the search for one’s own righteousness. To do whatever benefits other human beings leads to the establishment of justice in this world. That, however, Paul argues, does by no means imply that the law is abolished. On the contrary, the entire law can be summed up in the one commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8–10).
Paul, who could call himself a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham (2 Corinthians 11:22), was painfully aware of the fact that many people in Israel (“my own people, my kindred according to the flesh,” [Romans 9:3–4]) were rejecting the message of justification by faith in Christ apart from the law and the radical contraction of the entire law into the commandment of loving one’s neighbor. It is out of this personal anguish that he wrote Romans 9–11. Does this mean that God was therefore rejecting the law-abiding people of Israel? Paul’s answer is an unqualified “no.” “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises” (Romans 9:4). Even though they are enemies of God as regards the Gospel, “as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28–29).
If Christians believe they are justified by faith apart from works of the law, they must also realize that the only visible symbol of their status of acceptance by God is that they love their neighbors—all their neighbors, regardless of their religious persuasion, and that they ought to pay special respect to their Jewish neighbors, whom Paul calls the beloved of God according to God’s promises.
For those Christian churches that follow the Common Lectionary, throughout the summer and fall of this year lessons from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans will accompany the readings from the Gospel of Matthew. Preachers will likely choose the Gospel readings as their texts for their Sunday sermon. Paul’s letter to Rome had once been the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, and its thesis of justification by faith rather than by works of the law (Romans 3:28) had moved millions of believers into a fresh understanding of the essence of Christian religion and piety. From Martin Luther’s lectures on this […]