It is right and good to finish reading Romans with chapters 5 through 8, because these chapters are not only the high point of the letter but the solution to the problems vexing the Weak and Strong relations in Rome’s house churches.
• Reading Romans Backwards, p. 141
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Romans 5-8: The Gospel for Weak and Strong
To summarize Scot McKnight’s impressive approach to reading Romans, I offer the following outline:
- First, we read Romans 12-16 to understand the pastoral context of the letter (the conflicts in Rome between the Weak and the Strong)
- Then, we read Romans 9-11 to see how Paul gives them a sweeping overview of God’s surprising grace that both chose and blessed Israel and is now incorporating the Gentiles into the people of God. It contains important lessons for both the Weak and the Strong, showing them that neither has the right to become arrogant and look down on the other.
- Third, we read Romans 1-4, which Paul addresses primarily to the Weak. He argues against their condemnatory attitudes toward the Strong and instructs them that God’s redemption of everyone depends not upon keeping the boundary-marking practices of Torah, but by faith in Christ.
- Finally, we read Romans 5-8, which includes passages addressed to both groups and encompassing “all.” This is Paul’s comprehensive vision of God’s redemptive grace in Christ through the Spirit that will transform individuals and, ultimately, all creation. In pastoral terms, Paul calls them back to the gospel — to Christ and the vivifying, renewing power of the Spirit (rather than Torah) — which is God’s way of making them and their relationships new. If they take the gospel seriously, both Weak and Strong will seek peace.
I will not attempt to detail Scot’s analysis of the dense and profound gospel teaching of Romans 5-8. I encourage you to read Reading Romans Backwards for that. But let me give an overview of the way he sees these chapters addressing various groups with gospel truth.
- There are “all” sections (5:12-21, 8:1-8) that help everyone (both Weak and Strong) who reads Paul’s letter to step back and get an overview of Paul’s comprehensive vision of God’s saving grace in Christ.
- There are “you” sections (6:11-23, 8:9-15) that are aimed primarily at the Weak, challenging them to trust in the power of the Spirit and not keeping the Torah to transform them.
- There are “we” sections (5:1-11, 6:1-10, 7:1-6, 8:16-17, 8:18-39). These are the most extensive passages in Romans 5-8 and in them Paul identifies with and addresses the Strong. His teachings here essentially mirror the teaching of the “all” sections but personalize them and help them see how God’s gift in Christ and the Spirit sets them free from their former slavery to Sin and the Flesh.
- Finally, there is an “I” section (7:7-25), famous for a long history of debate regarding its interpretation. Paul is addressing the Weak here and, to do so, he sketches the experience of a character (perhaps the Judge of ch. 2) who finds that trying to keep Torah cannot bring about the transformation he seeks.
So then, Romans 5-8 seeks to encourage both Weak and Strong to abandon their feud by focusing on the good news of God’s grace in Christ, the power of the Spirit to transform them both, and their common hope of being made new together in a new creation. In the end, it’s not about Jewish privilege or Gentile pride of status. It’s not about keeping the Torah or looking down on those who have emphasized the importance of that. It’s about welcoming each other to the table and focusing together on God’s surprising and vivifying grace that makes them one in Christ.
We conclude our series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book by giving him a final word of summary and application.
To read Romans well, we read it as pastoral, ecclesial theology for a specific church in a specific time. To be sure, Romans fares well in other contexts, but, until we profile those contexts and the message of Romans for those contexts, we don’t know what to make of it for other contexts. Romans, like no other book in the entire Bible except for Philemon, is more relevant for the churches of the United States than any book in the Bible. The message is a lived theology of Christoformity manifested in peace among siblings — all siblings, not just siblings like me. The message shouts to the American church that its classism, its racism, its sexism, and its materialism are like the Strong’s social status claims and the Weak’s boundaried behaviors. They divide and conquer. The message of Romans is that the Weak and the Strong of our day — and I say now what I have not said, that everyone thinks that they are the Strong and that the other is the Weak — must surrender their claims to privilege and hand them over to Cruciformity. (p. 180f)