What if Romans 9-11 is really the main point of Romans?

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

• • •

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.

18 thoughts on “What if Romans 9-11 is really the main point of Romans?

  1. Thanks for this.

    The (on conventional readings of Romans) puzzling text in 15:8, that seems to function as a summary of the entire letter as Paul is wrapping up, would lend support to this proposal.

    Who’d have thunk it, that that brilliant and systematic thinker, Paul, would have put the center of his argument in… the middle of his letter? Perhaps it’s not a digression or an emotional outburst. Perhaps it’s the hinge on which the rest pivots.


  2. Keesmat and Walsh studied under N.T. Wright. One of Wright’s books is dedicated to Walsh.



  3. I will never understand how ‘the Good News’ got so twisted that it ended up with some people in the form of ‘hyper-Calvinism’ with ‘double predestination’ as a doctrine . . . . . it is so merciless, so void of loving-kindness



  4. –> “I know some IMonker find my comments self centred.”

    I find almost EVERYONE’S comments here self-centered. It’s rare to see one that’s not filled with “This is how I see things” verbiage. And whenever I encounter a comment that’s along the lines of “I see so-and-so’s point,” it’s almost immediately followed by a “…but I take issue with x-y-and-z.” People just can’t help themselves but get a little self-centered and opinionated. So don’t shy away because of how others perceive you. They just aren’t looking into the mirror hard enough…LOL.

    –> “That is how my life is.”

    You are indeed going through a long rough season, which I think entitles you to a bit of amped “self-centeredness.”


  5. Hello Susan,
    I think, I hope you may be wrong about this: “I know some IMonker find my comments self centred. ”

    We each of us are on a journey and none of us can see that far ahead, which might be merciful, but when younger people read what the older generation goes through in the ‘passages of life’ for that ‘stage of life’, at least when it is their turn to cope with the on-set of geriatric issues, the young will not be so shocked when it happens to them, and it will happen.

    You speak of the human condition, Susan. And if this is any kind of a Christian gathering on-line, then I know you have the prayers and good wishes of many people who come here to share their own thoughts. I can’t speak for each individual, no, but I find this group of commenters together with Chaplain Mike to be good people who don’t take lightly that someone is suffering. In time, each of us will experience our own version of ‘the human condition’ for better for worse, and sometimes the ‘worse’ is helped when people listen and care and pray ‘with’ you. I have found this to be true. The seasons come and go and in time, we all will come to know what ‘for better or for worse’ means. So you are among good company here, Susan. On the whole I believe Imonkers to be a kindly people. . . . opinionated? sure . . . . but that’s okay. . . . . that’s okay. 🙂


  6. Jesus = Good News for all.
    The Gospel = Good News for all.
    Some of Paul’s writings = often interpreted as “Not So Good” News for all.

    I believe Paul’s letters are in the Bible to ILLUMINATE the Good News of the Gospel rather than words to be twisted and used by denominations for their own purposes. With that mindset, I try to read his epistles/letters while asking this one question: “What’s he saying that illuminates the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

    Thus… I like McKnight’s take on this section of Romans. To me, it affirms that Jesus’ coming was indeed Good News for everyone and NOT words to be twisted or interpreted as exclusive and “not so good” news.


  7. Hi Christiane,
    I have just finished my evening prayers and was closing down my computer when I clicked on IMonk and saw your message to me.
    I slipped in a tiny post in reply to Dana last Saturday that I had been away at my daughter’s for a couple of days.
    This break was refreshing but true to form I slipped into despondency during this week, not helped by a nasty head cold.
    I think living alone is part of the problem but that is how it has to be.
    The weather has been bitter this week, there was snow in the district and I have stayed home and had the company of friends through the telephone. I didn’t want to share my germs around.

    On our return to my home town my daughter and I called in on John just as he had finished his evening meal. He didn’t know either of us and looked quite confused. Naturally this upsets my daughter. She loves her dad very much.
    I know some IMonker find my comments self centred. That is how my life is.

    I read this site every day and learn so much from all sides. I find I can’t contribute to the mix.

    I had a quick read through the Romans passage and sometime in the past I have marked chapter 10 v 10
    ‘For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation ‘ , and then continuing on to the end of verse13.

    I must go to bed. It is 1.20am and I need sleep.

    Play nice everyone.


  8. Nothing substantive to add, but I am fascinated by this series, and will have to break down and actually read the book.


  9. Or perhaps not necessarily by her….

    “…it appears clear that Paul sees the reading of his letters as the responsibility of the recipients, and not of an agent sent by him…Where does that leave Phoebe? It appears as though she was not in fact the lector of Romans, and so (N.T.) Wright’s statement that she was ‘it’s first expositor’ is perhaps an overstatement. However, it remains the case that Phoebe was known to Paul, had a role of church leadership, and was entrusted by Paul with a key letter on which the next phase of his ministry depended. The phrasing of Romans 16.1–3 makes it clear she fulfilled the usual role of letter carrier, and as such she would have had an important role in answering questions and ensuring that the letter was understood correctly—so a better phrase might be ‘authoritative interpreter.’ In both his paper and his blog comments, Peter Head confirms his support of this perspective. Given the challenge of public reading from a text which likely would have had very little ‘help’ for readers (such as space between words, paragraphs and so on), the letter carrier would probably have functioned as coach to the lector.”- Ian Paul



  10. I suspect to a large degree the reason we’re still trying to figure out what Paul was saying in Romans is because the letter was meant to be “performed” (by Phoebe?) rather than read.


  11. Wow a little light reading on a Friday morning! heh heh heh

    Just some random thoughts-

    *Isn’t it interesting that after two thousand years we’re still arguing about what Paul “means”? You’d think we would have figured it out by now. Of course everyone thinks they have! They just can’t get anybody else to agree.

    *I wondering how much Paul’s thinking here is being shaped by his apocalyptic belief in the imminence of the Kingdom? Seems to me your view of the responsibilities of the believer, Jew or Gentile, will vary depending on whether you think it will all shortly be wrapped up or if you think we’re in it for the long haul. Paul clearly expected the Parousia within his own lifetime.

    *It seems to be there is an internal tension between the concept of Election and the concept of evangelism. If God has a predetermined Elect why evangelize at all? This is where our modern sensibilities conflict with Paul’s ancient sensibilities. There are passages where Paul clearly believes there is a predetermined Elect. There are also passages where he thinks the Gospel is freely available to all. Post-Reformation we automatically see a conflict and both “sides”, Calvinist or Arminian, quote those passages that agree with their position and rationalize the ones that don’t. Paul clearly didn’t see a distinction. Yes there is as predetermined Elect and yes the gospel is freely available to all. Not either/or but both/and. Paul didn’t think the way we think. That’s the nub of the problem of interpreting Romans when we assume that he did.


  12. A simpler way to think about this is that the *whole* of Romans is about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome.

    The reason for the start of Romans is to get the Jews all fired up about how sinful the Gentiles are… only to turn the tables on them and point out that they, themselves, are every bit as bad. The reason Paul stressed justification by faith is to make the point that Jews and Gentiles are on the same footing because they’re both justified by faith and not by works. The section on struggling with the sinful nature is specifically addressing the burning question in the community in Rome of what moral obligations remain valid if we’re saved through faith.

    I’m convinced that Paul never intended Romans to be approached as if it were a work of systematic theology. But because we’re reading it in such a different cultural context, we end up thinking that the issue that was central in Paul’s thinking (Jews vs. Gentiles) is only a minor part of the letter, and as a result we misinterpret the whole thing.


  13. There is an facinating interview on The Bible for Normal People podcast (episode 93) on the subject of Romans. The podcast is entitled Resisting Empire in Romans. I think it dovetails with this series on McNight’s book.

    Here’s the description of the podcast: This week Biblical Scholar Sylvia Keesmaat and Theologian Brian Walsh talk about what Paul was up to in the book of Romans. We visit topics like salvation and politics and how maybe those words don’t mean what we thought when it comes to the New Testament.


  14. You have highlighted some of the argument that I did not, but the main point Scot is making has to do with WHY Paul is making this argument in the first place.


  15. Paul in Romans seems to me to be making a clear distinction between the promise to Abraham and the covenant with Moses. One does not replace the other, they are two different promises with different outcomes and scope. His thesis seems to me to be that only the faithful (I.e. Christian) remnant of Israel (crucially as a group, not individually) are the inheritors if Abraham’s promise, and gentile Christians are grafted on to that promise through their (Abraham-like) faith in Christ. The fulfilment of that promise is salvation in Christ.
    The covenant with Moses founded on law is specifically with Israel, and gentiles have no part in it and were never intended to. The fulfilment of that promise is the restoration of Israel for the Jews, which Paul says will come later when the nations are gathered in and the Jewish people as a whole; indeed Paul suggests that the purpose of Israel’s fall and refusal in part to believe was to bring in the nations to God, and when this is achieved all Israel will believe (as Christ-believing Mosaic Covenant Jews) and be saved.
    (That’s how I read it anyway.)


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