I remember when I was in seminary, and we were interpreting John 16.33, the professor said that when Jesus says, “I have overcome the world” he clearly meant “I have overcome Satan.” After class, a classmate of mine was livid. He said, “So John 3.16 should mean God so loved Satan.”
In his “Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans”, Martin Luther, the great German reformer, wrote:
“This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”
After such a lofty beginning to the preface, Luther continues by telling the reader what various common words in the letter mean – words like law, sin, grace, etc. But the problem is that, like my classmate, Luther understood all these words in one-dimensional ways. To Luther, the word ‘law’ meant ‘Old Testament Law’ no matter what. And similarly with the other words.
So great was Luther’s influence on the later Christians, that his interpretation of Romans was taken as – pardon the pun – gospel truth till the middle of the 20th century when the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made scholars look anew at these critical words. Unfortunately, this has not affected our translations.
So to begin with, I am going to ask you to close your bibles. You may open them later. But for now, as I read my translation of the passage, I request you to close you bibles and open your minds and hearts.
"But now, separate from legislation, the righteousness of God has been openly declared, being witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ toward all who believe. For there is no distinction and given that all have sinned and are rendered deficient with respect to the glory of God, they are being declared righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God exhibited for himself as the place of reconciliation through the faithfulness of his blood in order to declare his righteousness through the tolerance of previously committed sins. That time of the tolerance of God was an indication of his righteousness so that in the present he could be righteous and the one who declares righteous those who exist through the faithfulness of Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded! By what sort of principle? Of works? No! Rather by the principle of faithfulness for we assert that a person is declared righteous by faith separate from legislation. Or is God only of the Jews and not of the Gentiles? Indeed also of the Gentiles! And since God is one he will declare righteous the circumcised because of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through faithfulness. Do we annul the Law through faithfulness? Ridiculous! Rather, we uphold the Law."
You may open your bibles!
Over the next few weeks, we will be going through key passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Some, if not many, of you will perhaps be familiar with what Evangelical Christians call ‘The Romans Road’ – a set of verses from this letter that walks one through the whole doctrine of salvation – who needs it and why, who provides it, how and on what terms, etc.
It is my task today to speak on a passage that contains the first verse of the Romans Road. Can anyone cite it for me?
In order to understand these letters, we normally have to answer many questions: When was it written? By whom? Under what circumstances? What is the social and cultural background of the recipients? And many more. But we do not have the time for all of that today.
But let us ask some questions about opinions: First, what according to you is the central concern of the letter? Second, how well organized is Paul’s presentation of his central concern?
On the issue of the second question, many Christians hold the view that Romans is as close to a systematic theology as Paul ever wrote. However, Romans is by far the most difficult of Paul’s letters to interpret. In fact, new Testament scholar, N.T. Wright has this to say about the letter:
"Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision."
Among the possible answers to the first question, the one about the central concern of the letter, are ‘justification by faith’ or ‘the doctrine of salvation’ or ‘life in the Spirit’. This cuts across denominations and traditions. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians would agree about these views.
So it might surprise you to hear me say that these are concerns that have arisen much later. For example, we might see ‘justification by faith’ as central only because for Martin Luther and John Calvin it was central. Or we might see ‘life in the Spirit’ as central only because for Charles Finney it was. But these are not the central concerns of the letter or of Paul.
What then is the central concern of Paul? Why, in other words, did he bother to write such a long letter? We do not have the time to discuss this thoroughly. But we can get a little glimmer if we look at the immediate context of the cherished verse from the Romans Road.
Did you catch those words when I read then? “Toward all who believe, for there is no distinction and given that all have sinned and are rendered deficient with respect to the glory of God, they are being declared righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is saying, “Just because the Law was given to the Jews, does not mean that only the Jews have sinned. No! Jews and Gentiles have sinned. But God must have one way by which he will declare sinful humans righteous because God is one. And so all must be declared righteous by his grace through Jesus.”
This makes sense of the latter part of our passage where Paul explicitly mentions Jews and Gentiles. If it were not for the central concern that I will soon mention, the entire passage is disjointed, first speaking of all having sinned and ending with some random comments about Jews and Gentiles and the oneness of God.
But you see Paul was answering a deeper, more important question: Is God to be trusted? What do I mean? For most of the last twenty centuries, the Church has claimed that all the blessings given to Israel have been transferred to the Church. Towering figures like Augustine, Ambrose, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Moody, Hodge, Spurgeon, Clarke and others have held to this view.
And many of us have followed suit. To counter this, there has been the view that God made two covenants – one with Israel and one with the Church – and that a Jew benefits from one of them and a Christian from the other.
But neither of these views is what Paul espouses. Paul is in a quandary. If God is to be trusted, what happens to the promises made to Israel before Jesus showed up? We Christians tend to spiritualize them and apply them to Jesus or the Church in almost an ad hoc manner. But if our approach is right, then how can we trust God to not apply promises we think are for us to some other group? If he could simply annul promises to the Jews, then on what basis can we trust him not to annul promises made to us? So Paul must conclude that the promises made to Israel must still be valid.
What happens then to the redemption that is in Jesus? Is it only for Gentiles? This would support the two covenant approach.
But Paul would have none of this. He says that because God is one, his plan must have a unifying theme to it. And the unifying theme is – mind you – not faith in Jesus, but as I have translated, the faithfulness of Jesus.
We have a unique problem. Before I open that can of worms, let me mention something you have probably heard before. The Greek language had four words that are translated as ‘love’. Three of these appear in the New Testament. These are ‘storge’, ‘philia’ and ‘agape’. The fourth word, ‘eros’, does not appear in the New Testament.
When we read our English bibles, we are unable to determine what word lies behind each occurrence of the word ‘love’. And some of us have probably heard a sermon or two on the interaction between Jesus and Peter by the sea after the resurrection, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” using both ‘agape’ and ‘philia’.
And as I said, we have a problem. Hebrew has many words that are translated with the Greek word ‘pistis’. The more common ones are ‘aman’, ‘batah’, ‘mibtah’ and ‘yahal’. Key here is that ‘aman’ refers to ‘belief’ whereas the form ‘emunah’ refers to ‘faithfulness’. But both are translated with the word ‘pistis’.
So how do we know what is intended? Just as Hebrew modified ‘aman’ to ‘emunah’ and English modifies ‘faith’ to ‘faithfulness’, Greek also does something similar. And it is here that Christians, notably Martin Luther and his spiritual descendants, have not been careful.
Romans 1.17, which is a quote from Habakkuk 2.4 where the word ‘emunah’ is used, should be translated ‘the righteous by faithfulness shall live’. And this tells us that when Paul uses a particular construct – for those of you who love grammar, a genitive construct – he intends to use the word ‘pistis’ to mean ‘faithfulness’.
And he does so in our passage seven times – in vv. 22, 25, 26, 27, twice in v. 30 and finally in v. 31. He uses another construct once in v. 28.
Once we realize how all encompassing the idea of Jesus’ faithfulness is in this passage, we are able to make sense of v. 25, where Paul writes, “Whom God exhibited for himself as the covering of the ark of the covenant through the faithfulness of his blood.” Most translations use the phrase ‘mercy seat’ or ‘propitiation’ or ‘sacrifice of atonement’ to translate the Greek word ‘hilasterion’.
However, ‘hilasterion’ referred to the lid that was placed on the ark of the covenant. But no sacrifice was offered on the ark! The altar of sacrifice in fact was not in the holy of holies. It was outside. We do injustice, and have done so since Martin Luther used the German word ‘Gnadenstuhl’ to translate ‘hilasterion’. The phrase ‘mercy seat’ is simply a cop out for it raises more questions than it answers. The ideas of sacrifice miss the point because as we have seen no sacrifice was ever linked to the ark of the covenant.
Rather, the ark of the covenant was where the tablets of the Law were kept. And God promised Moses that he would meet him between the seraphs on the lid. In a hugely metaphorical way, but hugely powerful way, Paul is saying that Jesus is now the locus of interaction between God and humans – both Jew and Gentile. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness humans and God are reconciled.
So now we are in a position to understand what Paul is writing in this passage. God is one. So his plan regarding Jews and Gentiles must have a unifying theme. And we know that Jews and Gentiles have sinned. Both are in need of God’s intervention. And because God is God of both Jews and Gentiles, he must be concerned about both and have a plan that includes both. God’s plan cannot be such that it accords preferential treatment to anyone. In other words, it cannot depend on any human or divine piece of legislation.
And so God redeems people on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus and not on the basis of the works of Jews or Gentiles. Both Jews and Gentiles can only depend on the faithfulness of Jesus for through his death God has shown all humans the place where we are reconciled to God. This reconciliation is effected by the faithfulness of Jesus and is embraced and made real by an act of faith by both Jew and Gentile.