Pastorally, this means the entire narrative of Romans 9-11 is not about who gets saved in the deeply personal sense but about who the gospel agents are in God’s redemptive plans. It’s about where we are in the plan of God for cosmic redemption.
• Reading Romans Backwards, p. 65
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What if Romans 9-11 is really the main point of Romans?
For many years I had no idea what to do with chapters 9-11 of Romans. In fact, I don’t recall that many of my teachers ever offered much insight either. When you start with a fundamental understanding of Romans being about the soterian gospel for individuals, this section, which offers a big picture view of Israel and the Gentiles in the light of Christ, seems like a square peg in a round hole.
Most of the time, I’ve heard texts from this section used…
- To talk (usually argue) about the doctrine of election — Rom. 9:11-18.
- As part of a gospel presentation calling people to faith in Christ — Rom. 10:9-13.
- To reinforce the importance of preaching the gospel and missions — Rom. 10:14-17.
- As part of an argument for a dispensational view of eschatology and the centrality of Israel — Rom. 11:25-26.
In typical presentations of Romans, the letter is outlined something like this:
- Introduction: The gospel (1:1-17)
- The need for the gospel because all have sinned (1:18-ch. 4)
- The answer: The gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ, which leads to sanctification and glorification (5-8)
Then, if you skip chapters 9-11, you have:
- The application of the gospel for believers and the faith community (12-16)
And if that were the entire epistle, it would make sense to understand Romans as a theology of personal salvation. Ah, but there’s the rub. That’s not the entire letter. Paul snuck chapters 9-11 in there, a section in which he quotes more scripture than anywhere else in the letter, writes more fervently than anywhere else, and develops a passionate, complex argument that has nothing to do with the “Roman Road” of personal salvation.
What if we should take this section more seriously and think of it as more fundamental to Paul’s argument than we have in previous readings?
What if Romans 9-11 is not parenthetical, as so many treat it, but actually essential to why Paul is writing this letter to Rome?
What if, indeed, Romans 9-11 is really the whole point of Romans? the climax of its teaching rather than some additional “extra” that Paul throws in just to answer some questions about the bigger picture as it relates to personal salvation?
In the second section of his book, Reading Romans Backwards, Scot McKnight talks about how Romans 9-11 is designed to remind his listeners in Rome — house churches made up of both Jews and Gentiles — of the story in which they have now become participants.
The story Paul told [in Rom. 9-11] was not the story his converts grew up hearing unless they were Jewish. His Greek and Roman converts grew up on Homer or Virgil, on Hesiod or Thucydides or Herodotus or Livy, on Plato and Aristotle or on Cicero or Seneca. They knew about Romulus and Remus, about Julius Caesar and then the emperors, not about Abraham and Moses and David and the prophets. They knew Rome and Athens and Carthage, not Jerusalem and Capernaum; they knew Octavian, not David and Goliath; and they knew the laws that found their way into Justinian’s Digest, not the laws of Moses and their halakhic innovations. If the story matters, then Paul’s converts would need a fresh education in the story of Israel and the story of the Messiah and the story of the church, one not unlike the story that becomes Luke-Acts.
The importance and need for a fresh story led Paul to tell the story of Israel graciously, surprisingly, sovereignly expanding into the church in Romans 9-11. Story forms both identity and community, and the story Paul tells is one that forms a narrative for peace. It was surely the case with Israel as it was with the earliest churches, but their stories were not identical. In reading Romans backwards as a hermeneutical tool that keeps the pastoral and ecclesial situation close at hand, we contend that Paul’s narrative in Romans 9-11 both articulates and legitimizes the lived theology of Christoformity of 12-16. The story Paul tells is the symbolic universe he wants the Strong and the Weak to inhabit together. (p. 59)
Here are some of the key insights Scot sees in Romans 9-11.
- The key to reading Romans 9-11 is to notice Rom. 11:13, which begins, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles.” This indicates that Paul has been speaking to one audience up to this point, and now he is redirecting his next remarks to another audience. Scot thinks that Paul has been addressing “the Weak” before 11:13, and now he turns to “the Strong.” These were the two groups in conflict in the Roman house churches. The Weak were predominantly Jewish believers who practiced Torah and who were were upset that their Gentile brethren had begun introducing Torah-unfriendly ways into the churches. The Strong were predominantly Gentile believers who had no tradition of keeping Torah and did not feel it necessary in order to follow Jesus. They tended to look down on their Jewish brethren.
- Romans 9:1-29. As Paul talks about God’s election of Israel to be his people and his agents on earth, he emphasizes the surprising nature of God’s electing grace. As Scot puts it, “These elections demonstrate that God’s plan is not uniform, not predictable, and that individual Israelites dare not assume that they are next in the redemptive historical line of God’s plans” (p. 69). The current inclusion of the Gentiles by God’s electing grace is compatible with the surprising way God has worked throughout Israel’s own history. While remaining faithful to Israel, God has opened up an unforeseen door and invited those who were “not God’s people” to become part of “God’s people.” The lesson, as SM summarizes it, is: “[The Weak] need to make room at the table for the gentiles as those who now share elective privilege.“
- Romans 9:30-10:21. Paul also speaks to the Weak about what many of their fellow Israelites had missed, and which, surprisingly, many Gentiles were now understanding: that because Jesus the Messiah has come, right standing with God now comes through faith in him and not by keeping the works of the law. For the Weak, it was their observance of Torah that reassured them of their identity as God’s chosen people. However, God has accepted the Gentiles now without making Torah-keeping the stipulation; God has done so solely by faith! The Weak must realize this, turn their own focus toward Jesus and stop criticizing their Gentile brothers and sisters for their lack of Torah observance. In Christ, they all stand together now on equal ground with equal status, solely on the basis of faith.
- Romans 11:1-12. Paul has one more thing to say to the weak. They are surely asking, “If faith, not works, upgrades gentiles before God to the level of Israel, has Israel lost its privilege in the plan of God? Put bluntly, has (not) God rejected Israel?” (p. 77). Paul gives them examples and quotes from the scriptures to show that it is not so. God remains faithful to his promises and will not reject Israel.
- Romans 11:13-36. At this point, Paul turns and addresses the Strong. Here is SM’s summary of what Paul says to them: “To the Strong, Paul says God is faithful to Israel both in including gentiles and in promising a future redemption for Israel. The Strong cannot become arrogant and think they alone are privileged because their God, who is the God of Israel, is faithful to the covenant. In fact, God’s calling of Israel is irrevocable. That irrevocability, however, takes surprising turns, including the Messiah and gentile inclusion and a future turning of Israelites to Jesus as Messiah. Since God is faithful to Israel, the Strong are to embrace the Weak as siblings in Christ” (p. 88).
Romans 9-11 may be one of the finest examples of profound theology addressing a down-to-earth pastoral situation that we have. It is absolutely not parenthetical to the argument of Romans; it is central.