In this week’s class we faced a near impossible task—have a discussion through the main points of Romans chapters 1 through 4, and keep it within the 2-hour time frame for our class. We made it by the skin of our teeth. Whew! And now, similarly impossible, a blog post hitting the main points, without writing a book.
I think a fair summary, in brief, is that Paul has laid out as thoroughly as possible the sinner’s absolute inability to come to God on his own for salvation, and God’s gracious provision of Jesus Christ to save sinners.
Paul opens his letter with greetings and a brief personal note to the believers in Rome, sharing his longing to come meet them in person. He then gives his thesis statement which is the launching point for the rest of the book.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” — Romans 1:16-17
Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, not in a sense of embarrassment, but in the sense that he is fully confident in the gospel because he is fully confident in the God who is the author of the gospel. Yes, there was a great deal of personal risk in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Romans considered it to be atheism because the Christians weren’t worshipping any other gods—including the Emperor, and the Jews considered it blasphemy because the Christians declared that Jesus was God. Today in the modern world we may not risk life and limb, but we do risk embarrassment, ridicule, mockery, derision, and loss of friends. And yet, our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world do risk their lives, and many are martyred for their faith.
But Paul, fully aware of the risks, was willing to keep preaching because he believed that the gospel is God’s power that saves believers—that makes them believers—by giving them the gift of faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Because the gospel relied not on sinful people to accept it, but on the work of Christ and the righteousness of God to keep his covenant promises, Paul knew that he would not be disappointed by the gospel. Therefore we also can be fully confident that God will be true to his word, and by trusting in his plan of salvation, revealed in the gospel, we also will not be disappointed, because God keeps his covenant promises.
From 1:18-3:20 Paul gives an in-depth argument for the complete, total, absolute inability of human beings to turn to God on their own. He begins with mankind in general, demonstrating that they [we] have no excuse for ignorance of God since “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” in creation (1:19). Beginning in Chapter 2, Paul focuses his argument and takes aim at the Jewish Christians who may have been trusting in their Jewishness to save them.
This was a concern in the early church because, as Paul acknowledges, the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed first to the Jews, not only during and after the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but also in the “oracles of God” which were entrusted to the Jews in “the Law and the Prophets” (the Old Testament), as well as the Covenant, and the sign of the covenant—circumcision (3:1-2, 21). And so, there was some confusion about whether Gentile believers needed to become Jews in order to be Christians. Since Jesus was the Messiah proclaimed throughout the centuries to the Jews, was Judaism the “vestibule” through which every believer entered the “church”? They were still sorting out many details of what it meant to be a Christian, and this was one of them.
But Paul makes such a thorough argument because some also trusted in circumcision to save them, when in fact it did not save them! Circumcision was the sign of the Covenant that God gave to Abraham after he believed by faith in God’s promise. By the covenant sign of circumcision, God was validating Abraham’s faith, and giving him a visible indication of the spiritual reality that Abraham was his own, set-apart person. Abraham belonged to God, not because of circumcision, but because God had given him faith to believe.
Circumcision was also to be the sign of the Covenant Community of God. Every infant male born into this community was circumcised: not because they asked to be, not because they earned it, and not because they circumcised themselves, but because God commanded their parents to do so. The children thus marked were members of the covenant community and grew up sharing the blessings of that community of God. They (eventually) enjoyed the blessings of proximity to and participation in Temple worship and the sacrifices; they were raised under the Law of God, learning of his holiness and how his people are therefore to live; they enjoyed the protection of the civil laws of the nation and the blessings of God upon the obedience of the good kings and their people; they were raised in and lived with God’s promises and taught to look for the Shepherd-King who would finally and fully deliver his people from their sins.
And yet, it seems that many Jews missed the mark, and instead of trusting the God who gave them the sign of circumcision, they trusted in the sign itself. They believed that circumcision made them Jewish, forgetting that God made them who they were. They believed that simply being circumcised gave them their ticket into heaven. They thought they somehow had an edge over the Gentiles believers in Jesus. “We are Jewish, and Jesus is our Jewish Messiah, so we are exempt from obeying the Law. We’ll teach it to others, because we ‘get it,’ but we don’t need to follow it ourselves.”
They’ve been listening to the sermons and thinking of all their Gentile friends who needed to hear them, while not realizing that the messages applied to them too.
Paul dumps them right out of their boat when he writes that “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (2:25). If you break the law, you might as well be uncircumcised. This rocked their world. No golden ticket. No special entrance to the kingdom. Why? “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (2:28-29).
“True Jewishness,” according to Paul, that which makes someone “God’s own,” is visible not by an outward mark made in our bodies, but by conduct that flows out of a heart that has been made right with God. Circumcision of the heart is an operation in which God himself wields the scalpel. The sign of the Covenant was an outward sign of the hope that God would indeed perform his divine heart-surgery on this child. The child was raised in the Covenant Community with every possible external advantage to point him to his need for and God’s gracious provision of a Savior. But only God could make him a “True Jew.”
The same is true today. The sign has changed from the bloody rite of circumcision to the cleansing sign of water in baptism. In Presbyterian churches we baptize our infants: not because they ask, earn, or perform it themselves; but because the parents trust God, hoping that he will perform the needed heart-surgery, circumcising the child’s heart—granting faith as a gift of grace—that they may believe on Jesus Christ for salvation. (An adult who confesses faith in Jesus, but has never been baptized, is baptized as an outward sign and validation of the inward spiritual reality of what God has done for him in Christ Jesus, and his identification with Christ and the Covenant Community.)
In the meantime the child is raised with all the blessings of living in the Covenant Community: participation in corporate worship in church; some degree of Christian education, from family devotions to Sunday school; being brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; with access to the means of grace; raised in and living with God’s promises and taught to look to Jesus, the Shepherd-King who did finally and fully deliver his people from their sins.
Great blessings all; but none of them guaranteeing salvation. We must not assume our Covenant children are believers unless they make a credible profession of faith and demonstrate their faith by conduct that flows from a heart that has been made right with God. The sacrament of Baptism is a blessing, signifying and validating the spiritual reality that the child belongs to the Covenant Community of God’s people, in the sincere hope that he or she will one day come to true and saving faith in Christ.
So, Paul makes it clear that no one can keep the Law and earn salvation, and there are no excuses. He has given us the “bad news” of our fallen condition. Now, in 3:21, he turns to the “good news.”
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” — Romans 3:21-25
The good news of the gospel is that, though all have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness, earning wrath instead of blessing, our justification—our being-made-right-with-God—is a gift given to us by grace, through what Christ did for us on the cross: redeeming us, and propitiating God’s wrath. Justification is the answer to the question that Paul has had in the background through the first three chapters of this letter: “How can a sinful human be made right with a holy God?”
Redemption: Christ purchased us from the marketplace of sin at the price of his own blood, meaning: his life. (Remember Hosea 3?)
Propitiation: Christ’s sacrifice of himself in our place paid the penalty for our sins, and turned God’s wrath away from us and toward himself, thereby satisfying God’s wrath. God, being holy and just, could not simply sweep our sins under the rug. The penalty for sins is death, and the penalty must be paid.
Since our sins have been paid for and God’s wrath has been spent on his Son in our place, God can then turn to us and declare us innocent—justified—made-right-with-him—and forgive us.
Put another way, there are two actors and two recipients of the action in our justification.
- Jesus acts toward us by giving us redemption through his blood, and he acts toward God the Father by propitiating his righteous wrath.
- God the Father is the recipient of Jesus’ propitiation, and therefore he acts toward us by giving us justification.
- We don’t do anything but receive these gifts of God’s amazing grace: redemption from Jesus, and justification from the Father. The only thing we have contributed is the sin that made our salvation necessary.
Our lesson finished as we went through Romans chapter 4, where Paul explains that Abraham is the father of all who believe, not only the Jews, because he believed God by faith before he was given circumcision as a sign and seal of his righteousness (before he “became Jewish,” so to speak). All Christians everywhere, regardless of their lineage, are saved by the same gift of faith by which Abraham was saved. Abraham was fully convinced that God would do what he had promised, and therefore his faith was counted to him as righteousness (4:21-22). Therefore, we who believe in God (trusting his promise of salvation), who raised from the dead Jesus Christ our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (4:24-25), will also be counted to be righteous by faith.
To sum up:
We aren’t saved by any rituals which we do to please God. Our baptism, whether as infants or as believing adults, doesn’t save us—that’s only a sign indicating a greater spiritual truth. We aren’t saved by our church attendance; time spent reading, studying, or memorizing God’s word; prayer; service in the church; giving of tithes; feeding the poor; visiting those sick or in prison; clothing the naked—these are merely good works that may or may not flow out of a heart that has been made right with God. It isn’t the justification that saves us—that’s only a declaration of what God has done for us in Christ. It isn’t the righteousness that saves us—that also is only a declaration of what God has done for us in Christ.
We are saved not by a what, but by a Who: our Divine surgeon, who alone can circumcise our hearts. All have sinned, and those who are made right with God have been given the gift of faith—totally unmerited by us—by grace, because Christ died on the cross to purchase us with his blood and to turn away the Father’s wrath. Look not to your deeds, dear one, look to Christ.
Lord, I confess that thou alone art able
To purify this Augean stable.
Be the seas water and all the lands soap,
Yet if thy blood not wash me, there’s no hope.
—Robert Herrick (1591-1674)