These chapters are far from abstract theology and are instead pastoral theology for the church at Rome. The questions Paul both asks and addresses are questions Paul has heard time and again in his mission, and the questions are those either of Jewish opponents or more likely of fellow Jewish converts to Jesus. The questions of Romans 2-4 are shaped for the Weak in the churches of Rome.
• Reading Romans Backwards, p. 115
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Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (2)
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is a primary NT theological text about the Lord’s Supper. Philippians 2:5-11, the famous kenosis hymn, expresses some of the highest Christology in the NT. However, in context, neither was included in its respective epistle to teach doctrine. Rather, both passages are explicitly designed to give pastoral instruction to local congregations. The Corinthians passage is part of an exhortation for the members to practice inclusive love, generosity, and hospitality when they eat together as a church family. Paul included the hymn in Philippians to drive home their need to serve one another selflessly in a church that was in danger of schisms. Though both certainly do contain weighty theology, we miss Paul’s real point if we fail to lean into his pastoral intent.
This is the same point Scot McKnight is making about Romans. Long revered as the high water mark of doctrine in the NT, the traditional view of Romans as a systematic presentation of the ordo salutis (the conceptual order of salvation) for the sake of teaching soteriological doctrine misses the real point of the epistle, which is to encourage Roman Christians to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
Furthermore, approaching the text in that way ends up misunderstanding the theology by universalizing it and turning teachings that had a particular focus into principles that are meant to apply to everyone in the same way. In this part of the letter, it is in Romans 3 where we see this happening most specifically.
As Scot observes, Romans 3-4 continues to address the group Paul calls the “Weak” — a group of mostly Jewish believers who were critical of what was happening in the Roman congregations. With the ascendancy of Gentile believers, less and less emphasis was placed on keeping Torah as an essential aspect of following Jesus. In fact, the “Strong” insisted it wasn’t necessary and were critical and unaccepting of their weaker brethren. This was a threat to the very gospel Paul proclaimed, which taught that God’s plan was to graft the Gentiles into the line of Abraham and form both Jews and Gentiles into one new united community in Christ.
In this part of Paul’s argument, he takes great pains to answer questions and objections that must have been raised over and over again, especially by Jewish folks, as he engaged in his mission work among the Gentiles. We won’t take the time to explore all of those arguments, for they are many and detailed. However, in essence, the point of Romans 3-4 is found in these words from the passage which is its epicenter — Romans 3:21-26:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus… (3:21-24)
Keys to grasping Paul’s message may be found:
- at the beginning and at the end of this text: “Apart from the Law…” (21) and “being justified as a gift” (24),
- as well as in his repetition of the point that this is “for all” (22-23). This phrase reinforces that “there is no distinction” (22) when it comes to the “justification” and “redemption” Paul is writing about here.
Addressing the Weak, Paul makes the strong point that their right standing before God in the community of faith is “apart from the Law.” In the standard soteriological approach to Romans, this becomes universalized: “We are saved by faith and not by (good, meritorious) works.” Thus, what Paul is teaching here is sola fide and what he is opposing is works-righteousness. We cannot earn our salvation by what we do, we must depend upon what Christ has done.
Which is fine as far as it goes. But it is not really Paul’s message here. He is instructing Jews that their insistence upon Torah-keeping for maintaining one’s good standing before God is not compatible with the gospel. As McKnight writes:
Paul’s “rhetorical focus is not on Jews [in a general sense, who are promoting self-righteousness] but on the Judge [of ch. 2, who represents the views of the Weak in Rome] who claims redemptive privilege and who judges the Strong” (p. 120).
The “works” that Paul is discussing, therefore, in this section, are not general works of self-righteousness, but “works of the Law” — boundary-marking behaviors required by Torah, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws. These reinforced the elective privilege of the Jewish people, locating them “within the redeemed people of God and Israel and mark[ing] them off from outsiders” (p. 120).
The message Paul gives in this section, directed particularly toward the Weak, also includes words that the Strong are meant to hear. The emphasis on “all” and “no distinction” is meant to include both groups under sin as well as in Christ. However, it is clear that Paul first and foremost wants his Jewish brothers and sisters among the Weak to grasp that Torah-keeping is not the heart of the matter when it comes to righteousness in Christ.
In reading Romans backwards, we are pressed to keep our eyes on the Weak and the Strong — that is, Jewish and gentile believers, not Jews and gentiles per se. We are pressed to keep in mind the Strong’s insensitivity to their privilege and the Weak’s judgment of the Strong’s moral scruples. This passage destroys the “privilege” of both: the Weak are sinners, and the Strong are sinners; both need redemption; that redemption will not come from Torah observance, and status in the church does not come by way of Torah observance or Torah nonobservance; and it does come from God’s gift — Christ on the cross, who secures atonement for all who believe, Jew or Greek. So, Paul is saying, “apart from works of the law,” to speak not to Jews in general but to the Weak in their particular problems with the Strong in the churches of Rome. (p. 212)