The letter to the Romans starts by refuting the gospel of the Roman Empire. The Roman gospel wasn’t unlike empire gospel narratives of today. Since Constantine, when the church joined state power, our good news has been mixed with the narrative of patriotism. Today it is mixed with the narrative of capitalism. These are narratives of individualism and tend to abuse the world, especially when compared to the kingdom of Christ, which “will not so much as quench a smouldering wick.” The Roman Empire was a gospel. It used the same Greek words Paul adopted to describe his counter cultural Christian movement. Caesar was the Son of God, who claimed he was bringing the kingdom of God to renew the creation. His birthday was celebrated as the gospel, the good news to the world, bringing peace, safety and justice to humanity. All nations were to have faith in Caesar and render their obedience to him, or suffer the decisive brutality of his power.
A Corporate Gospel
Caesar Augustus claimed to be the saviour on the world, bringing peace and safety. He was driving back global chaos. The nations had similar creation stories to Genesis. Order came to the world as the waters of chaos were overcome. These waters often represented the unruly nations, or the barbarian people. In conquering the world, Augustus was overcoming the chaos. This was their view of salvation. It was corporate and it was bringing heaven and earth together in a leader, usually called the son of God. The son of God was the one who brought heaven’s rule to earth.
Paul was writing from a similar perspective. The Jews were hoping for a Messiah, who would come to the world for the same purpose. But he would bring order through Israel, and Israel’s exaltation.
Christ didn’t deny this, but he claimed the kingdom of God was coming in a way entirely unexpected.
Through peace. “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Peace would be the means of peace. Most rulers, even to Hitler, try to make violence the means of peace.
“I will set his hand over the sea, his right hand over the rivers.” (Psalm 89:25) This Psalm shows the Messiah coming to still the waters of enmity, and bring peace to the nations. He will bring peace to the waters of chaos and bring order and goodness to the world. This was the vision of Augustus. It was how people at that time saw salvation. But the true Messiah would do this through stilling the turbulent waters of human nature, of covetousness and rage, within the heart.
Paul, Not Luther
The question of Paul, was about how God would achieve this. If Israel was under the yoke of Rome, how was God going to fulfil his covenant promises to them, and to the world through them. This was what Paul meant by the righteousness of God, in Romans 1:17, “The gospel of Christ… is the righteousness of God to salvation…”
We have traditionally understood this in Martin Luther’s individualistic view, but this wasn’t what Paul was saying. The gospel is personal, but to Paul, it was also much more than that. Paul was speaking about the surprising way in which God was fulfilling his covenant promises of world renewal. This was God’s faithfulness, or his righteous action in fulfilling his covenant promises through Christ, for both the Jews and the gentiles.
Paul opens his letter by shifting the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises from Caesar to Jesus Christ. Paul transferred all the Greek words Caesar assumed, e.g. for saviour, gospel, Son of God, faithfulness, righteousness, peace, safety… over to Jesus Christ. Paul was “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and to the Greek.” Here is the counter cultural movement. Paul wasn’t ashamed of a man crucified naked as a slave.
The Roman system of force mocked this. But Paul saw it as the kingdom of God. Christ was marginalised and rejected. The kingdom of God, that which renews the creation, is precisely following this Christ, bringing in the outcasts of the world, and caring for those abused by our systems of power.
Paul’s question wasn’t Luther’s question. Paul wasn’t consciously struggling with works righteousness, in the way Luther was, desperately seeking how he might be set free from that. He had an entirely different background to Luther and wrote Romans from a very different perspective.
Paul’s point, was about how God was fulfilling his promises of world renewal, since the Jewish people through whom God promised to fulfil them, were still under captivity to the world powers.
Salvation also meant what it meant in Paul’s day. The term Son of God, which Paul attributed to Jesus Christ, didn’t mean one we worshipped on Sundays, tucked away in a privatised faith, one who took us to heaven in a personalized salvation. It meant ruler of the world. It meant the one who was bringing God’s new reign of peace and justice to all humanity, and thereby renewing the creation.
This was the gospel Paul was speaking of.
Unity of Faith
Having opened his letter in this way, Paul spends the rest of chapters 1-4 bringing Jewish and gentile believers together into a unity of faith. We have portrayed these chapters as dealing with the sin of world and then with our personal justification. But this wasn’t the purpose of Paul. In these chapters, Paul was dealing primarily with the Jewish community, of which Paul was a member.
The reason why Paul spoke of the sin of the world, was to show the Jews that they weren’t any better. Paul explained the calling of Israel. The reason they had the law, wasn’t to give them a prestige above others, but to reveal the heart of humanity to us all. The law, by strangely bringing about a hardening of heart, led to Israel’s crucifixion of Christ, revealing to the entire world our human fallenness in general. This is how Israel served the world, and, as Paul says later, we should be humble, grateful to them for this difficult calling.
But crucifying the Lord brought about the second unveiling of the gospel, that is, of the righteousness of God. Though Israel fell, God remained righteous, forgiving Israel, and us all, by grace. He thus showed his forgiveness through his suffering, setting our conscience free to receive and share his love with a world in renewal. The gospel unveils how God has kept his covenant promises to Israel and to the world.
As Paul explained later in Romans, this grace did what the law could not do. Therefore, circumcision was set aside as the marker of God’s community people, and love instead became the sign of our faith. This was the point of Romans 4. God’s people was henceforth to include the uncircumcised.
Romans 4 wasn’t about our personalised salvation, but about the new border markers of the family of God. Jew and gentile were now to include each other in one family and set about bringing God’s healing and care to their wider communities.
We see Paul’s main task in Romans, not building our individualistic faith, but building a new family.
He was breaking down the barriers of pride and exclusion, and building inclusion into our relationships. “God has accepted us, let us accept each other.” This wasn’t an “anything goes” salvation. But a salvation where joint caring, rather than legal exclusion, becomes the basis upon which God’s healing penetrates and renews our lives.
The thing Paul was overcoming, was the false narrative of our worldly gospels. Like the gospel of Rome, these other gospels bring about exclusion, and the vulnerable become isolated and crushed.
Our creeds of nationalism, gender and faith become borders of division. People, made in the image of God, become outcasts. As in all his letters, Paul was once again in Romans, bringing down these principalities and powers of world division and destruction, and building in their place a people of unusual, counter cultural care for those the world has left behind.
Paul’s soteriology wasn’t a reductionist, self-centred faith. It was a soteriology that renewed our heart towards our neighbour. It was a soteriology of the Law and the Prophets, where spiritual renewal means social renewal. The message of Paul was one where the nations become obedient.
This reflected Paul’s daily shema prayer, “Hear and do O Israel, you shall love the Lord (which means being creational, rather than selfish) …” Love for God and love for neighbour. Now, all nations were included in the renewed Israel, obeying God through the Spirit.
We see the purpose of soteriology. It is to overcome the unjust and destructive nature of isolation.
Isolating ourselves from others, like Rome did to the needy, is a form of hostility, even if passive. A reductionist soteriology is hostile, because it isolates us from the worldly, the sinner, the suffering and the foreigner. The kind of injustice this generates breaks the world into segments, wounding the heart and bringing hatred into relationships. The church, above all else, is to set out as healers in this kind of world, fashioning our lives after the reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ.
Romans is a brilliant tapestry about the journey of Israel from Egypt to the promised land. Paul announces the gospel with this history as it background, showing that Jesus Christ fulfils Israel’s hopes. Israel passes through the Red Sea in Romans 6, into a holiness that is community focused, comes to Sinai in Romans 7, finds the law a road block to God’s purpose, but then in Christ they come into the promised land in Romans 8, which is the renewal of the whole creation.
Romans 9-11 traces Israel’s election, to serve the world by falling, but to be restored with the world through faith. Romans 12-14 were written with the Babylonian exile as its backdrop, about a renewed people in diaspora, submitting to “Babylon,” while transforming the world’s powers through a renewed fellowship. The whole soteriology is focused on God’s promises to Israel, about a renewed creation.