Three Myths about Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Myth #3

Myth #3 – Justification by Faith Is the Central Theme of Romans.

Justification by faith is part of the genetic code of Reformed theology. It was the doctrinal rally cry of the Reformers, and it has been passed down from generation to generation, having established itself as one of the unquestioned doctrines of the modern day church, and rightly so. But to give too much pride of place, even to a great doctrine of the church, can lead to misinterpretation. Since justification by faith was the central doctrine of Luther’s theology, the Reformers assumed the position of declaring it the central doctrine of Paul’s theology, too. And if that is so, then it certainly must be the central teaching of Romans. Romans, after all, is where Luther got this doctrine from, and it is the letter where Paul gives his most detailed theology of justification.

Taking their cue from the Reformers, many later interpreters have also concluded that justification by faith is the central teaching of Romans. As a result, misinterpretations of Romans have dotted the theological landscape. If one misunderstands the central teaching of Romans, misunderstanding the entire book is sure to follow.

One of the first misunderstandings that results from making justification by faith the central teaching of Romans is to regard chapters 9-11 as a theological aside, a three-chapter “rabbit trail” that Paul pursues before commencing the practical section of the letter. This conclusion is necessary because these chapters are about the place of Israel in the plan of God and do not make sense in the flow of an argument that is supposed to be about justification by faith. Lacking any way to fit this discussion into the flow of Paul’s argument, many scholars have concluded that it simply does not flow – that Paul has upset the flow to talk about a different subject. If anyone has upset the flow of Paul’s argument, it is we, the interpreters, not the inspired author. And the flow is upset at precisely the place where we mistakenly think that the whole argument of Romans revolves around the doctrine of justification by faith.

The theme of Romans
Justification by faith is not the central theme of Paul’s theology, and it is not even the central theme of Romans. Paul states the theme of Romans in 1:16-17, and a quick look at these verses reveals that they say nothing about how a person is justified:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of salvation for all who believe: first for the Jew and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Notice that verse 17 states how the righteous, or justified, person lives, but does not mention how the person is justified. It is true that “by faith” is how a person is justified, but that does not seem to be the leading thought in Paul’s argument in Romans. He makes this point in 3:21-31 and he proves it in chapter 4, but after that the discussion moves in another direction. In other words, in Romans, justification by faith is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. If we want to correctly interpret Romans, we must understand Paul’s central theological purpose. A closer look at the theme, comparing it to the structure of Romans, will make Paul’s central purpose clear.

The theme of Romans directs us to the gospel as the revelation of the righteousness of God. But the gospel also is not an end in itself in Romans. Paul articulates his gospel in Romans, but why does he do it? It is because the gospel reveals God’s righteousness. When Paul teaches that God justifies people by faith, he demonstrates that “God is just” in doing so (3:26). When he refers to the death and resurrection, he calls it the “righteous act” of Jesus (5:18). When he explains why Israel has rejected the messiah, he does so by saying they have not submitted to God’s righteousness (10:3). The entire Book of Romans is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and Paul gives his gospel to the Roman church because the gospel reveals God’s righteousness.

The central theme of Paul’s gospel, and of Romans
The question of the righteousness of God was raised in a particular historical setting. The nation of Israel had rejected Jesus as their messiah and the followers of Messiah Jesus in Rome were mostly Gentiles. God’s promises, which were given to Abraham and his seed, were being fulfilled by people who were not the children of Abraham. Worse, the children of Abraham seemed to be left out of the promises due to their rejection of Jesus. So the question was raised: is God going to be faithful to his promises, or has Israel’s unbelief canceled the promises? Paul’s answer is that God is righteous, and a righteous God will certainly make good on all of his promises.

What most discussions of the central theme in Paul’s theology lack is a discussion of what Paul himself called the central theme of his ministry, if not of his theology. In Ephesians Paul refers to the mystery that God gave him to proclaim to the Gentiles. It is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of God to form “one body” (Eph 3:6). This union of Jews and Gentiles is what Paul calls “this gospel” (v. 7). If Romans is a presentation of Paul’s gospel, then the uniting of Jews and Gentiles as “one body” in Christ should be central to the teaching of Romans. In fact, it is. That is why the theme of the letter contains the phrase, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul discusses the relationship between Jews and Gentiles with respect to the gospel, he spends three chapters explaining it. These three chapters are the climax of Paul’s argument, the very point he was leading up to all along. In chapters 9-11 Paul shows how God has brought Jews and Gentiles together as one people of God. While in Ephesians he calls it “one body” and “one new man” (2:15), in Romans he refers to it as one “olive tree” (11:17-21). Thus Paul’s gospel centers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through faith, all men can be justified and included into the one people of God, which includes both Jews and Gentiles.

Paul teaches the Roman church that the Jewish rejection of Messiah Jesus does not permanently disqualify them from the promises, despite the gentile reception of those promises through their faith in Jesus. To make his point, Paul first shows that Jews and gentiles are on level ground. Both are guilty of sin and worthy of death (1:18-3:20). Thus both are in equal need of salvation through Messiah Jesus. This salvation comes through faith in Jesus (3:21-4:25). Because it is received through faith, Gentiles can receive the blessings promised to Israel without having to become Jews. This gives hope and assurance to the believer, who has been set free from the bondage of sin and the law (chs. 5-8). If the believer is assured of future salvation, and nothing in creation can separate them from the love of God, then what does that say about the Jews? The assurance of future salvation pertains to them, too (9-11). Not only will Israel be saved, but it is through the salvation of the Gentiles that it will happen.

That is the teaching of Romans, and that is Paul’s gospel. The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel that saves Jews and Gentiles, showing God to be righteous, fulfilling all his promises. Justification by faith explains how it is possible, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. Justification by faith is a crucial doctrine of the church. It is one of the central teachings of the New Testament and of Paul. But it is not the theme of Romans, and the more we recognize that Romans is more about God and his righteousness than it is about us and how we are saved, the better equipped we will be to interpret it correctly.


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