It has long been assumed that the chief emphasis in Romans is on justification by faith.
This was challenged in 1963 by Stendahl, who argued that pre-occupation with justification by faith was due to the church’s morbid conscience, based on the moral struggles of Augustine and Luther, which the church has read back into Paul. Justification, according to Stendahl,
‘is not the pervasive, organising doctrinal principle or insight of Paul,’ but ‘was hammered out by Paul for the very specific and limited purpose of defending the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel.’ Paul concern is not for his own salvation, for he experienced no qualms about his, but rather the salvation of the Gentiles, that they could come to Christ directly and not through the law. Consequently, the climax of Romans is chapters 9-11, with Paul’s reflections on the relation between the church and the Jews, and chapters 1-8 are just a preface to this. Romans is about God’s plan for the world and about how Paul’s mission to the Gentiles fits into that plan.’
There is some truth in this. Of course, justification is not Paul’s exclusive pre-occupation. But Rom 1-8 can scarcely be reduced to a mere ‘preface’. Stendahl’s antithesis is too sharp. As Stott remarks:
‘Paul was indeed deeply exercised, as the apostle to the Gentiles, about the place of the law in salvation and about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. But he was also evidently concerned to expound and defend the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In fact, the two concerns, far from being incompatible, are inextricably interwoven. Only loyalty to the gospel can secure unity in the church.’
After all, Romans does deal extensively with the problem of sin and guilt. In Rom 1:18-3:20 it is Paul (not Augustine or Luther) who establishes universal guilt. In Rom 7 it is Paul, again, who speaks of his own sin of heart.
E.P. Sanders, in his 1977 work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, argued that the prevailing picture of Palestinian Judaism as ‘a religion of legalistic works-righteousness’, and of Paul’s gospel as directly antithetical to this, is completely wrong. Sanders describes the Judaism of Paul’s day as ‘covenantal nomism’ – meaning that God had brought Israel into a covenant relationship with himself by grace, and then asked for a response of obedience to the law. Judaism’s ‘pattern of religion’ is thus twofold – ‘getting in’ by God’s gracious election, and ‘staying in’ by obedience to the law. Disobedience was readily atoned for by repentance.
Sanders asserts that Paul’s starting point was not universal guilt before God, but the universal saviourhood of Christ. For Paul ‘the conviction of a universal solution preceded the conviction of a universal plight’. Salvation is a transfer from the bondage of sin to the lordship of Christ. The means of transfer is ‘participation’ with Christ in his death and resurrection. The reason salvation must be of faith is not to obviate human pride, but because if it were by law Gentiles would be excluded. The resulting saved community is ‘one person in Christ’.
Stott notes that:
‘It will readily be seen that in this attempted reconstruction of Paul’s gospel the familiar categories of human sin and guilt, the wrath of God, justification by grace without works, and peace with God in consequence, are conspicuous by their absence.’
Sanders elaborated and defended his thesis in Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (1983). There can be little argument with his assertion that Paul is concerned with the equal standing of Jews and Gentiles, both under sin and the ground on which they change that status – faith in Jesus Christ. More questionable is his statement that ‘the supposed objection to Jewish self-righteousness is as absent from Paul’s letters as self-righteousness itself is from Jewish literature.’
John Stott raises five issues:-
1. The fact that the language of ‘weighing’ (merits against demerits) is not found in the literature of Palestinian Judaism does not prove that the concept is not present.
2. It is not surprising that in Judaism entry into the covenant was seen as depending on God’s grace. It is just so in the OT. But there is a great deal in Jewish literature about works-righteousness as the basis for ‘staying in’ the covenant, and against this Paul would have waxed vehement. For him, we both begin and continue by grace alone, Rom 5:1f.
3. Even Sanders concedes that one exception can be found to his these – 4 Ezra. In this book covenantal nomism is replaced by legalistic perfectionism. But may not the lapse into legalism have been more prevalent than Sanders admits? And might not Palestinian Judaism have been more pluralistic than Sanders supposes?
4. Once again, it is not unlikely that the popular forms of Judaism varied widely from the written forms studied by Sanders. The practicing faith of many Anglicans may be very different from the form represented the Book of Common Prayer.
5. We know that Paul had a horror of boasting. This has traditionally been taken as a rejection of self-righteousness. Sanders, however, interprets it as directed against Jewish pride in their favoured status, Rom 2:17, 23, which would be incompatible with the equal standing of Jew and Gentile. But the distinction is too neat. It is clear from Phil 3:3-9, for example, that Paul rejected a self-righteousness that was compounded from both status-righteousness and works-righteousness.
In conclusion, self-righteousness is, in fact, so universally pervasive that it would be astonishing if Palestinian Judaism were the one exception to this degenerative principle. Jesus himself combatted self-righteousness, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and in that of the labourers in the vineyard. He saw little children as models of the humility that receives grace as a free gift apart from merit.
It is universally agreed that the Letter to the Romans is antithetical; that it was written over against some alternative. But what was this alternative that Paul was rejecting? We must let Paul speak for himself, and not allow traditions old or new to get in the way. And what Paul says is that ‘no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law’, 3:20, and that sinners are ‘justified freely by his grace’, 3:24.
Some modern scholars think that Paul’s thinking is inconsistent, even self-contradictory, especially in its treatment of the law. Paul is thought to teach both that the law has been abolished, and that it has a permanently normative character. But careful exegesis will show the extent to which Paul rejects the law as a means of salvation, but accepts it as a guide to holy living.
James Dunn has articulated the ‘new perspective on Paul’. According to Dunn, when Paul declared that no-one could be justified ‘by the works of the law’, he was not thinking of ‘good works’ in a general sense, but of circumcision, sabbath observance, and food laws, which functioned as ‘identity markers’, defining Israel’s sense of distinctiveness and privilege over against the surrounding nations. Accordingly, Paul was negative about ‘the works of the law’ not so much because they were thought to merit salvation, but because they led to pride and exclusiveness in relation to the Gentiles. But again, exegesis shows that Paul does not limit his references to ‘the law’ and ‘the works of the law’ to these boundary markers, and does not just attack favoured status but all boasting in good works.
Nevertheless, the ‘new perspective’ does offer a timely insistence that the Gentile question is central to Romans. ‘The redefinition and reconstruction of the people of God, as comprising Jewish and Gentile believers on equal terms, is a critical theme which pervades the letter.’
James D.G. Dunn writes that ‘in light of the new perspective on Paul the issues at stake in Romans receive a fresh clarity. The various themes are already sounded in the substantial elaboration of the more common introduction: (Rom 1:2-7):-
- the gospel of God;
- continuous with the prophecies of the Holy Scriptures;
- focusing on Jesus, both Son of David and Son of God;
- with his resurrection marking out a new eschatological epoch;
- and his lordship validating its outreach, not least by Paul himself, to all the Gentiles;
- among whom the Roman believers in particular are to be counted as numbered among the elect and beloved people of God.
Hence the overarching emphasis on the gospel for Jew and Gentile, is sounded both in the initial thematic statement (Rom 1:16) and in the climax of Rom 15:7-12.
Hence also the repeated emphasis is on the gospel for all-“all who believe,” (Rom 1:16 3:22 4:11 10:4,11-13) “all injustice,” (Rom 1:18,29) all under sin, (Rom 3:9,12,19-20,23 5:12) “all the seed,” (Rom 4:11,16) “all Israel.” (Rom 11:26)
The issue is not so much the universality of human need and of the gospel’s sufficiency as whether and how the gospel, Jewish in origin and in character, reaches beyond the Jewish nation to include the nations beyond (“all” = Gentile as well as Jew, Rom 1:18-5:21). And conversely, the issue is whether the gospel now drawing in Gentiles in such numbers remains a Jewish gospel and is still the gospel for the Jews (“all” = Jew as well as Gentile, Rom 9-11). Of course this is a particular expression of the larger theological claim about the universality of human sin and of the gospel’s provision, and it is wholly legitimate to validate such a larger theological claim from Romans. But it is important to recognize that the larger claim is derived from this particular expression, that is, both to recognize its historical specificity (including the continuing Jewish character of the Christian gospel), and to be alert to the possibility that individual elements in this particular expression are determined primarily by that context and thus are less amenable to generalization.’
Stott, The Message of Romans, 24-31.
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters