Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (2)

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

• • •

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)

8 thoughts on “Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (2)

  1. The problem with many understandings of the text seems to me to be an attempt to impose on Paul’s thought something he seems uninterested in – who God will condemn as a sinner and who not. What Paul and those he is writing to are principally interested in is what is translated in the above quote as “the righteousness of God” which, according at least to online Greek dictionaries, means “what God considers righteous”. This is not transactional at all – all being written to are believers and are not asking what to do to be “saved”, but rather it is assumed as a matter of course they would want to do what is pleasing to God, but they are unclear what it is. Paul’s answer is that in the case of both Jew and non-Jew it is faith in Jesus Christ which is the key thing, and compliance with the law does not have to be added to it for non-Jewish Christians, as some of the Jewish Christians were insisting. His point is that non-Jewish Christians are no less Christians and followers of Christ than Jewish Christians because they do not follow Torah observance as the Jewish Christians do.
    Paul’s point about sin is that Torah observance didn’t keep the Jewish people faithful to God – the Bible records that they sinned and turned against God anyway despite having the law – so they can’t claim any superiority for having it nor insist on it as a necessity for faith.


  2. I think what is needed comes through in sacred Scripture, which is the belief of someone who sees Scripture as a sacramental. Picking Scripture apart and analyzing it may be an exercise for the mind, but something else is at work in the experience of hearing sacred Scripture that we can’t mess up. There is something there that is more than the sum of the words, the sentences, the chapters, the books.

    In picking the Bible apart, do we get in the way of the holy? Can’t we just take the gift for its own sake?


  3. I think Scot is right about the argument Paul is making.

    And, once more…

    I don’t believe “righteousness/justification” is about “right standing before God”.

    Remove “righteousness” from the text of the Romans quotes and insert instead “the ability to have a relationship that leads to union with God”. That removes the language of legality from English, though some does remain – in a limited way – in the Greek, as Wright has shown (but the legal sense in Greek makes the context God’s mercy looking toward the future, rather than simply some kind of moral “right standing” before a judge). The point is that the point is not about ANYTHING that has to do with any transactional, legal exchange between God and Man. It is all GIFT from God’s side. The relational definition applies whether one is considering each person’s relationship with God or that of the corporate people of God made up of Jews and Gentiles.

    The “right standing” interpretation turns the point of what God has done for us into bare morality. I say again: morality is important, but it’s not at the bottom of everything. What God has done for us is ultimately about Ontology. The non-legal understanding of the Greek “dik-” words makes the ontological focus comprehensible – at least it has done that for me.



  4. These chapters are far from abstract theology and are instead pastoral theology for the church at Rome.

    Which doesn’t mean they weren’t mistaken for Abstract Theology and taught as such.

    When you apply the label SCRIPTURE(TM) to something and break it up into Chapters and Verses for Theological Analysis, it goes into a whole different wavelength. Which may or may not match reality.


  5. Seriously, is there any shortcut to help people break their addiction to only accepting universal propositional theological interpretations?

    One thing that would be necessary is to have something clearly articulated to put in its place.


  6. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this post is saying these texts have no universal theological implications, only that they weren’t written with that in mind, and don’t have all the universal applications that Christians have said they do. For instance, I don’t see that the post is saying that there isn’t a universally applicable kenotic theology present in the Philippians hymn; just that the application is more limited than commonly thought because it was written to address certain issue in a specific community, and we need to be more careful when applying it in our very different communities. No?


  7. “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.”

    So what do you say to someone who says, “But that’s what Theology is FOR!” Seriously, is there any shortcut to help people break their addiction to only accepting universal propositional theological interpretations?


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