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Romans 5

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What follows is an excerpt from my book The United Church.  

ROMANS 5:18–21

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

INTRODUCTION

Divisions have marred the Church from its inception. While infighting, denominational squabbles, and socioeconomic and cultural differences split the Church today, the first generation of Christians contended with rifts of their own. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul felt compelled to address these divisions personally in an effort to maintain ecclesiastical unity, demonstrating just how little has changed over the past two thousand years. Unity across ethnic, economic, cultural, and political ties has been an elusive goal since Christ first prayed that we “may be one” (John 17:11). Yet the difficulty in achieving this ideal should not discourage us from seeking to honor our Lord and his prayer.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

We cannot appreciate the modern applicability of Romans until we understand the situation into which Paul first wrote this great letter. Unfortunately, direct evidence regarding the state of the Roman church during this time is sparse. While tradition connects Peter and Paul to Rome, there is no evidence that either of them actually established the church there, and its origins remain shrouded in mystery.[1]

The authorship of Romans, however, is uncontroversial. The letter itself claims Paul as its author (1:1), and, unlike some other Pauline epistles (e.g., The Pastoral Letters, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians), there are no serious arguments against Pauline authorship.[2] Acts suggests that Paul composed Romans during his three-month stay in Corinth in the middle to late 50s (cf. Acts 20).[3] He was completing his third missionary journey and preparing to return to Jerusalem to deliver money collected from the predominantly Gentile churches that he had founded, perhaps hoping that the offering would help heal the social-theological rift between Jewish and Gentile Christians.[4]

Paul wrote to a community divided into several diverse house churches disunited by Jewish-Gentile tensions. In AD 49, Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome—likely in response to rioting over Christian preaching in the Jewish community—and, since the government did not distinguish between traditional and Christian Jews, the Roman church remained without Jewish influence until Emperor Nero rescinded the decree in AD 54.[5] Upon their return, however, Jewish Christians found a Gentile church that had departed from its Jewish origins and remained largely indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the Jewish minority,[6] a situation exacerbated by Jewish insistence that Gentiles observe Jewish customs.[7]

Resolving community disputes, however, was not Paul’s sole motivation in writing. The fields of Spain, “ripe for the harvest,” proved irresistible to Paul, and he longed to bring the gospel to its shores. Yet, a successful missionary journey to Spain required a western base of operations, thereby necessitating the establishment of a relationship with the Roman church. Paul likely hoped that Rome could function in the west as Antioch had in the east, but, to make this a reality, he had to introduce himself to the Roman church by sharing the gospel message he had been preaching.[8]

Given the situation in Rome, he would also have felt compelled to present from the very beginning his understanding of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers and to emphasize that his position as apostle to the Gentiles did not absolve him of his continuing responsibility to his fellow Jews. In Galatians, Paul suggests that Antioch had failed to fully support his efforts to wholly unite Jewish and Gentile believers (cf. Gal 2:11–21), so he would likely have wanted to prevent a repeat of this disappointment in the west. He therefore frames his gospel message in Romans around the Jewish-Gentile relationship, emphasizing that what God had done for the whole world through Jesus Christ marks the fulfillment of his promise to Israel through the patriarchs.[9]

We must therefore interpret Romans in this light and abandon past efforts to cast this letter as an exposition on abstract theological principles.[10] The idea that Paul’s only purpose in writing Romans was to present a comprehensive view of his own theology to introduce himself to an unfamiliar community or to equip the church to continue his lifework after his death[11] is misguided, not because it gets it wrong, but because it fails to get enough of it right. While Paul undoubtedly needed to introduce himself, he tailored his message to the life and struggles of the Roman believers to whom he wrote.

Nevertheless, the breadth and seemingly disjointed nature of Romans easily gives rise to the belief that it serves as Paul’s magnum opus, an expression of a fully developed theological system.[12] While Romans does move progressively through a series of seemingly unrelated topics, upon further examination, we will find it to be quite united in its theme and purpose.

OVERVIEW OF ROMANS

To understand the passage at hand, we must appreciate where it fits within the overall flow of Romans. It is therefore important to trace Paul’s overarching theme from beginning to end.

Opening with a brief introduction, Paul provides the letter’s foundational statement in 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”[13]

These two verses provide a dense summary of the entire letter, and it is this summary that Paul slowly unpacks over the course of sixteen chapters. The phrase “righteousness of God,” a foundational theme throughout Romans, captures the first-century Jewish belief that God would be faithful to the promises he made to the patriarchs. Many first-century Jews saw the story of Israel as an incomplete narrative searching for a conclusion, a conclusion wholly dependent upon God’s faithfulness. To these Jews, this phrase spoke of God’s loyalty to his covenantal promises and garnered hope for a future fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (e.g., Ps 33:4; Isa 40–55; Jer 32:41; Lam 3:23; Hos 2:20).[14]

Paul argues, however, that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant for which the Jews were searching had, in fact, already occurred through Jesus Christ. In doing so, Paul stresses to the Gentiles that God had not simply abandoned his promises to Israel but had in fact remained faithful to them, while simultaneously stressing to the Jews that God had opened up Israel’s covenantal promises to the nations. The Gentile believers did not, therefore, replace Israel, but rather now share in the blessings that had belonged to Israel all along. In turn, however, the Gentiles have access to the Jewish blessings without themselves becoming Jews.

This is the theme that runs throughout Romans, beginning with Paul’s exposition on the universal sinfulness of all men, both Jew and Gentile (1:18–3:20), and followed by his teaching that salvation is now open to everyone, regardless of ethnicity (3:21–5:21). Here, Paul explains that justification comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ (3:21–31), connecting God’s work among the nations with his promises to Abraham (4:1–5). God’s way, Paul argues, is grace (4:1–8), and faith justifies apart from the Mosaic Law (4:9–17). The justifying faith of Abraham is therefore now available to all apart from law and ethnicity (4:1–25). Indeed, justification comes exclusively through Jesus Christ’s reverse of the universal Adamic curse (5:1–21).[15]

This foundational presentation of the gospel must therefore naturally work itself out in the lives of believers (6:1–8:39), and it is in this light that Jews and Gentiles should understand their relationship with one another in God’s overarching plan of salvation (9:11–11:26). Then, beginning in 12:1, Paul provides practical instructions for communal Christian living in light of this message (12:1–15:13), before concluding the letter in chapter 16.[16]

There is therefore unity of purpose in Paul’s message throughout. He does not simply move from one topic to another in order to provide a general exposition on his own theology, as might a modern university professor writing a textbook for next year’s term. Rather, underpinning the entire letter is a discussion of God’s overarching plan of redemption, his faithfulness to his covenantal promises through his “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.”[17]

It is therefore misguided to view Romans as Paul’s pontification on individual salvation.[18] Paul’s focus is not on how God will save the individual, but rather how he will “put the world to rights.”[19] God’s work serves to undo Genesis 3 and 11—which was the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant all along—effectively reversing the effects of sin, reuniting the resulting fractured humanity, and bringing about a new, restored creation.[20]

In this context, the famous discourse in Romans 3 about man’s sinfulness takes on fresh meaning. That passage is not, as is sometimes supposed, a general discussion about human sin and God’s righteousness, nor does it reduce Israel’s failure to simple unbelief.[21] This is to reduce Paul’s writings to mere discussion on individual salvation. Paul takes a much larger view, arguing that God’s purpose in making his exclusive covenant with Israel was, ironically, to bless the entire world. That is, God established this covenant for the purpose of addressing the world’s problems as a whole, to “rescue the creation from evil, corruption, and disintegration,” and particularly to “rescue humans from sin and death.”[22] Israel’s unfaithfulness to this commission is her true failure.[23]

Romans is a retelling of the story of God’s work to bring salvation to the entire world through Israel (cf. 4:13). It is a coherent, flowing argument that points far beyond a path for individual salvation, taking instead a much larger, cosmic view of Christ’s redemptive work.[24]

Paul argues that God meant the Abrahamic covenant to correct the world’s ills, to undo the curse of Adam and to bring blessings to all nations.[25] To Paul, rescuing people from sin and uniting Jews and Gentiles into a single family of God always went hand-in-hand in the divine plan. God’s strategy to bring about a restored creation was always to do so through Israel, specifically through the Israelite Messiah.[26]

The coming of Christ did not usher in a new dispensation, as if God finished one plan and picked up another. Paul did not bring the gospel message to the Gentiles because he was frustrated by Israel’s obstinacy, nor did he ever see the Gentiles as displacing the Jews. Rather, Paul believed that God’s purposes for Israel had been fulfilled through Christ and, as a result, it was time for the Gentiles to share in—not usurp—Israel’s blessings.[27]

This sets the stage for chapter five, the main focus of our current study, where Paul argues that mankind is justified through Jesus (5:1–11), contrasting the righteousness made available through Christ with the sin brought by Adam (5:12–17). As sin entered the world through one man, Adam, so righteousness entered the world through one man, Jesus Christ.

In verses 18 through 21, Paul declares that condemnation comes to all nations through the sin of Adam, but justification comes to all nations through the righteousness of Christ. Paul argues that God, in fulfilling his promises to Abraham through the Messiah, has dealt with the problem of Adam’s sin, bringing into being a new humanity “for whom sin and death has been conquered.”[28] In doing so, God has fulfilled the purpose of his promise to Abraham, thus demonstrating his covenantal faithfulness.

So now, after discussing where our passage fits into the larger cultural context of first-century Roman Christianity and the larger literary context within Romans itself, we can bring into full focus the passage at hand: Romans 5:18–21.

If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.

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[1] See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 4. Some have suggested that Roman Jews, converted to Christianity in Jerusalem during Pentecost (cf. Acts 2), established the church, but this is mere speculation. Ibid., 3–4.

[2] Consistent with ancient practice, Paul used a scribe, identified as Tertius in 16:22, to write Romans. Scribes of the day were given various degrees of influence over that which they wrote, ranging from word-for-word dictation to the liberal formulation of the author’s thoughts into the scribe’s own words. Ibid., 2. For more information on the role scribes and secretaries played in first-century letter writing, see Randolph E. Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[3] Moo, 3; N. T. Wright, “Romans,” (NIB; ed. Neil M. Alexander; Nashville: Abington, 2002), 396.

[4] Moo, 1–3.

[5] Ibid., 5; Wright, “Romans,” 406.

[6] See Moo, 5; Wright, “Romans,” 407. Indeed, the attitude of the Gentile believers that Paul describes in Romans fits with the anti-Semitic culture of the time. Many Romans, including many Roman Christians, would have been glad to see the Jews expelled from the city. It would therefore have been easy for the Gentile believers to conclude that God had brought about theologically what the Emperor had initiated politically, that is, “that God had in fact written the hated Jews out of the covenant altogether.” Wright, “Romans,” 407. Paul therefore writes against a Gentile attitude that would both marginalize Jewish believers within the Church and abandon attempts to present the gospel to non-believing Jews outside the Church. Ibid.

[7] Moo, 19. On this point, however, we must be careful not to collapse the complex Roman situation into a simple factious dispute between Jewish and Gentile believers over the Mosaic Law. This is easy to do, and is in fact quite convenient, as it allows Protestants to set up the Jewish faith as an archetype for the perceived legalism of medieval Roman Catholicism. Even in the first century, however, some Jewish Christians, like Paul, believed Christ loosened the requirements of the Mosaic Law, while some Gentile believers were eager to secure their place as recipients of the Abrahamic blessings by observing Jewish customs. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1:141, 1:397. Therefore, we should recognize that theology underpins the Jewish-Gentile divide in Romans. The ethnic distinctions themselves are much less important. Ethnic divisions can be quite complex, and, while the cultural mores stemming from ethnicity can cause significant points of division, the adherents of such mores do not always align neatly with the ethnic groups with which they are generally associated.

[8] Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 5.

[9] Wright, “Romans,” 402, 407.

[10] See Ibid., 395.

[11] See Harrison, 5.

[12] See Wright, “Romans,” 395.

[13] See Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 33.

[14] Wright, “Romans,” 397–98.

[15] See Morris, 33–34.

[16] See Ibid.

[17] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 126.

[18] Indeed, the extreme worry over the individual’s eternal fate is largely absent from the writings of Paul’s contemporaries and has only really characterized Western Christian thought since the Black Death. See Ibid., 56.

[19] Ibid., 99.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 67.

[22] Wright, “Romans,” 399.

[23] Wright, Justification, 67.

[24] Wright, Paul, 1:371.

[25] The existence of an historical Adam has become a matter of great controversy within evangelicalism over the past several years. I affirm the existence of an historical Adam in some form, but I don’t believe the debate has any real bearing on this text. Paul’s focus is on the historical Israel, not the historical fall per se, and so one’s position on the debate should not change one’s reading of this text. Discussion of this topic, however, is far beyond the scope of our purposes here, and I will make no further attempts to address it.

[26] Wright, Justification, 99.

[27] Wright, “Romans,” 401–02. Likewise, Paul’s argument does not allow for two simultaneous, parallel peoples of God, as some forms of dispensationalism suggest.

[28] Ibid., 524.

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See Also:

Foreword to the Applying the Bible Series


1 Comment

Christopher Ebhomenye · September 15, 2018 at 9:32 am

Understanding of Romans 5:18-19 in the light of God’s salvation plan

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