Background to Romans 9-11: Key Teaching from Romans 3:1-4:25

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

Having considered the structure of chapters 3-4, we are almost ready to focus on chapters 9-11 in detail. Before we do that, we will go through some of Paul’s key teaching from chapters 3-4, which is of foundational importance in understanding the related chapters 9-11.

Chapters 3-4 and chapters 9-11 match with each other in the structure of the whole letter, so the most important part of the letter outside chapters 9-11 for understanding these chapters is chapters 3-4. As we will see, chapters 3-4 provide the context for the discussion in chapters 9-11. If our interpretation of chapters 9-11 does not fit with chapters 3-4, then we know we have interpreted it incorrectly.

The diagram below shows one of Paul’s main points in chapters 3-4:

The world according to ethnicity/Paul

Paul was writing to a church containing ethnic Jews as well as Gentiles (i.e. not ethnic Jews) and he wanted them to be united, rather than to divide into two groups according to their ethnicity. He showed them that the church contains some people from ethnic Israel and some people from the Gentiles. An ethnic Israelite couldn’t claim salvation from God simply for being an ethnic Israelite, and a Gentile wasn’t prevented from salvation simply for not being an ethnic Israelite.

The reason that the church in Rome contained both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles is that salvation is not according to ethnicity but is on the basis of who has faith in Christ. We see this taught over and over in Romans. First, in 1:16-17 we have:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live”.”

We see that the gospel (the good news) brings salvation to everyone who believes (i.e. has faith) – both Jew and Gentile (“Greek” is another word for non-Jew, in this context).

Then we have chapter 3, with Paul saying that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9), and going on to say that (3:20-30):

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe – for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

We see Paul talking about two kinds of law here: there is the “law of works” and the “law of faith”. The law of works relates to the idea that a person will try to make themselves righteous before God by obeying all of the law in the Old Testament. This strategy is doomed to fail for all of us though, as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Anyone trying to save themselves this way isn’t going to make it. The alternative is the “law of faith”, which refers to people obtaining the righteousness of God not through their own works but “through faith in Jesus Christ”. These people obtain righteousness by faith in Jesus – as they are united to Jesus through faith in him they share in his righteousness.

Another point to note is that Christians are justified by God’s grace as a “gift”, and that this gift is “received by faith”. Faith is simply accepting this gift from God, as opposed to refusing the gift, which is what people do when they try to obtain righteousness by their own works instead. When we hear the gospel, God graciously gives us all the choice of whether to try to save ourselves, or to admit defeat (with respect to our own abilities) and accept salvation from Jesus instead. A person with faith is someone who has simply reached the position that “it’s not about me, it’s about Jesus”. Because salvation operates in this way, boasting is excluded (3:27), as faith is inherently about looking away from “me” and looking to Jesus. In doing this, I am acknowledging that I have nothing to boast about, and am instead relying entirely on Jesus.

Paul goes on in Chapter 4 to demonstrate that the way for a person to reach a position of righteousness before God has always been by faith. This isn’t a new idea. “The law of faith” has always been the true purpose of the law – to bring people to faith in Christ. This was true even in Old Testament times, though then they were looking forward to the Messiah (i.e. Christ) who was to come. Paul explains that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works (“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” – 4:3). Paul therefore refutes the view of many first-century ethnic Israelites that they could rely on their own works to be considered as righteous before God.

This explains how Paul could talk in chapter 2 about “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires” (2:14), and “he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law” (2:27) – they keep the law and do what the law requires by having faith in Christ, which is what the law was always about. The good works they go on to do in their lives are not a way of obtaining righteousness before God but are a thankful response to the blessings that have come to them in Christ.

We can see that Paul wanted to remove any ethnic distinctions between ethnic Israelites and Gentiles in the church by verses like 2:28-29:

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

Paul shows that being a true Jew (a member of the true Israel) is not a matter of physical descent or works, but is a matter of the heart – a true Jew will have their heart focussed on Jesus rather than turned in on themselves. Chapter 4 makes a similar point (4:1-12):

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

So Abraham is shown to be the father of all who believe – both the circumcised and the uncircumcised (i.e. both ethnic Jews and Gentiles). Using another diagram, the situation is like this:

Ethnic Israel, Gentiles

True Israel is those who believe in Christ – they can be ethnically Israelites or Gentiles.

Abraham was given a promise by God, and Abraham received this promise by faith, as shown in 4:13-17:

“It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

Abraham received the promise given to him by faith. All who share in Abraham’s faith also receive the promise when they come to share in his faith. They can claim Abraham as their father and are therefore part of the true Israel.

In the next post, we’ll see how Paul uses these category divisions in Romans 9-11.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.