THE MESSAGE OF ROMANS 1-8
A DEVOTIONAL GIVEN BY JACK COTTRELL AT THE MAY 2016 MEETING OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE CHRISTIAN RESTORATION ASSOCIATION
How can we discern what Paul is teaching in Romans 1-8, or what any other Biblical text means, for that matter? The issue is not just hermeneutics. Rather, to a great extent it depends on how we answer this question: who is the primary AUTHOR of the Bible? This is a watershed issue—in Christendom, in Evangelicalism, in the Restoration Movement, and in many colleges and seminaries. Christian orthodoxy usually agrees that Scripture has TWO authors: the human and the divine. But which is determinative? Which is in control? Which has the final say?
In matters of Biblical interpretation today, a common approach is that the key to discerning the meaning of a text or a book of the Bible is understanding the human context in which that book arose. I.e., the intended meaning of a Biblical text or book is supplied by the human author, in the sense that it must be something already within the experiences or thought processes of that writer. Thus to really know what a text or book means, we have to know the background and circumstances of the writer. Only then can we be sure what the writing is all about.
This is the presupposition of something today called the “New Perspective on Paul” [NPP], as represented by N. T. Wright, for example. This view says that up until about 1961, everyone completely misunderstood Paul’s writings. They assumed that Paul’s focus is on personal salvation from sin, via justification by faith in Christ’s substitutionary atonement rather than by good works. In writing about this Paul was opposing legalism or works-salvation, mainly as it was held by the Jews of his day. But the NPP says that understanding of Paul is completely wrong; it is “foreign to the apostle,” as N. T. Wright says. Why did everyone before 1961 go wrong? Because they did not understand the Rabbinic traditions that shaped Paul’s ideas; they had no access to, or neglected, the many extrabiblical Jewish writings that Paul was no doubt steeped in.
So how can we interpret Paul aright? At last, some 1900 years after Paul, and after 1900 years of misunderstanding him, someone has finally seen the light! Now we know, thanks to the NPP, that to understand Paul we must dig deeply into these extrabiblical Jewish writings from the intertestamental era (called the era of second-temple Judaism, c. 515 B.C. to A.D. 70). When we do this we will realize that the Jews of Paul’s day, including Paul himself, “were not sitting around discussing how to go to heaven” (as Wright puts it). Thus for hundreds of years Protestants and Evangelicals have missed the point, e.g., of Romans. But since we now know the human context in which Paul’s thought processes developed, we can at last know the mind of Paul, and the real meaning of his writings, especially Romans.
I have been studying and teaching Romans for over 50 years, admittedly with very little knowledge of the Rabbinic literature which the NPP glorifies. But I have had a firm conviction that the main author of Romans is not Paul but the HOLY SPIRIT, and that the Holy Spirit knows about and is addressing issues that are not limited to and restricted by what the Jewish scholars of first century Judaism believed. Paul himself tells us that the things he taught were not received from any man, but were received through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-13). Thus I believe that the message of Paul as revealed and inspired by the Holy Spirit is a message that applies to, and can be understood by, not just those familiar with the first-century Jewish context. Rather, it addresses the spiritual needs of all peoples of all ages and cultures. It can be understood by and applied to anyone, in all contexts and circumstances.
II. THE MAIN MESSAGE OF ROMANS 1-8.
The key idea is in 6:14, that “you are not under law but under grace.”
To understand this, and to understand Romans, you MUST understand the phrase, “not under law.” And to understand this, you MUST understand how Paul is using the word “law.” The main point is this: you will completely misunderstand Paul (and Romans) if you erroneously think that every time Paul uses the term “law” (nomos), he means THE LAW OF MOSES.
Sometimes that may be the case, but in his general teaching, when Paul is talking about law as a code of conduct we creatures are obligated to obey, he is referring to ALL such law codes, including the heart-code known even by pagans or Gentiles (Rom. 2:14-15), and the law commands addressed to all people in the New Covenant writings.
How do we know “law” has this universal or general application in Romans? We know this, not because we have studied the Rabbinic literature of Paul’s time, but because of the way Paul uses the term in his writings. When we examine the texts themselves, we see that what Paul says about “law (nomos) applies to Gentiles in 1:18-32; 2:14-15; and in Romans 4 he uses Abraham as the major example for his main thesis. Neither the Gentiles nor Abraham were under the Mosaic Law. Thus what Paul writes applies to everyone, including Christians, in reference to the law by which we are supposed to live as revealed in the hundreds of law commands and instructions in the NT writings. We do not need to know anything about the Law of Moses and Rabbinic writings to get Paul’s point in Romans! Forget about the Law of Moses! Our “law” includes NT texts such as Romans 12-13, and Ephesians 4-5!
So what is the point of Romans 6:14, that “you are not under law but under grace”? Simply this: even though Christians (like everyone else) are under a LAW CODE (e.g., Rom. 12-13; Eph. 4-5) as a way of life, they are not under the LAW SYSTEM, which is the way of entering heaven via perfect obedience to your law code (e.g., Rom. 12-13; Eph. 4-5). Romans 6:14 is making a point not about any specific law code, but about the impotence of the law system (i.e., law-keeping as the key to eternal life). No one will actually be saved (enter heaven) by the law system, since “all have sinned.” Christians are, however, under the GRACE SYSTEM, which is the way of entering heaven via trusting in God’s promises to save us by his grace and especially by the saving work of Jesus Christ. That is the point of Romans 1-8.
III. THE OUTLINE OF ROMANS 1-8.
A. Introduction to Romans as a whole: 1:1-17.
B. The first main point: the impotence of the law system of salvation, 1:18-3:20. NO ONE can be saved by the law system, because this would require perfect obedience to one’s law code, and no one has such perfect obedience. ALL HAVE SINNED.
1. Gentiles are all sinners, and thus cannot be saved by their law code, 1:18-32; 2:14-15.
2. Jews are likewise all sinners, and thus cannot be saved via their law code, i.e., the Mosaic Law, 2:1 – 3:8.
3. All are thus sinners, 3:9-20; and as a consequence, “by works of law”—i.e., by how well you keep your law code, whichever one that happens to be—“no flesh will be justified in his sight” (v. 20).
C. The second main point: God has provided the grace system as the only workable alternative to salvation by law-keeping, 3:21 – 8:39. Salvation by grace includes three aspects:
1. The “first work of grace,” and the main element of grace, is justification, which is the judge’s declaration to a defendant: “No penalty for you!” Under grace, “one is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3:28). Justification is a legal concept; it is the same as forgiveness of sins.
2. The basis for such justification is the propitiatory work of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, 3:24-26.
3. The one MEANS of access to this saving work of Christ is FAITH in Him, APART FROM a consideration of “works of law,” i.e., how well we have obeyed our law code (3:28). (There are other conditions for receiving grace in addition to faith, but faith is the sole MEANS for receiving it.)
4. A prime example of this way of salvation is Abraham, chapter 4.
5. The blessed result of knowing you are justified by faith is assurance of salvation, chapter 5. This is affirmed in a general way in 5:1-11, and it is affirmed in a specific way in 5:12-21. The point of the latter passage is not original sin, but original grace. If we believe the whole human race can be subjected to sin and death through one act of one man (i.e., Adam), then we have “much more” (vv. 15, 17) reason to believe that everything brought on us by Adam has been and will be nullified and removed by one act of the one man who is more than a man: Jesus Christ.
D. The “second work of grace” is sanctification, 6:1 – 8:13.
1. Even though we are justified by faith and not by how well we keep our law code, we are still obligated to obey the law code given to us under the New Covenant. The grace system does not liberate us from our absolute creaturely obligation to obey the Creator’s commands.
2. But grace is at work here, too, in a way that is different from justification, namely: regeneration (spiritual resurrection) of our spiritually-dead souls/spirits in baptism, and the resulting sanctification (growth in holiness) through the indwelling Holy Spirit (who provides inward spiritual power for obedience).
3. During our Christian life on this earth, we are “half-saved” (as John Stott says), since the soul/spirit has experienced renewal, though the body is still under the power of sin. See 8:10, NASB.
E. The “third work of grace” is glorification, 8:14 – 39.
1. Our souls/spirits are glorified (perfectly sanctified) when the body dies. This is not mentioned in Romans, but is confirmed by Hebrews 12:23b.
2. Our bodies are glorified (redeemed, 8:23) at the second coming (Phil. 3:21).
3. The cosmos is glorified also at the second coming (8:18-23).
This understanding of Romans does not require the availability of and a scholarly knowledge of extrabiblical Jewish writings. All it requires is an honest and persistent study of Romans itself, within the context of Scripture as a whole.
The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” and on Scripture as such is a rejection of one of the Protestant Reformation’s “attributes” of Scripture, namely, the attribute of SUFFICIENCY. The Reformers rightly declared that Scripture is sufficient. This is true because of its divine origin (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
But there is more. The NPP’s view is not just a challenge to the Bible’s origin and nature, and to its sufficiency; it is also a denial of another of the attributes of Scripture, i.e., its clarity. How much “stuff” from outside the Bible do we really need in order to be able to understand it aright? The knowledge of such material may help with the understanding of details, but seldom if ever will it be needed in order to understand the basic meaning of Scripture.
In the final analysis, as one writer says, “At stake . . . is the very nature of revelation and its interpretation.”