Epochal Shift & Ecclesial Unity

I began an open-ended journey through Romans a few months ago, but have taken quite a rabbit-trail since early September, chasing down some issues raised by current discussions of the Christian gospel.  Now, back to Romans.

I stated previously that Romans is not a timeless treatise of abstract theology.  It is, rather, a pastoral letter written to a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain unity in the face of emerging divisions along ethnic lines.  Jews and non-Jews are not getting along in the Roman church.

Further, Paul has made the point in 1:18-3:20 that God does not have favorites.  God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness–Jewish and non-Jewish–so that being Jewish does not give one an inside track with God.

In Rom. 3:21-26 Paul relates the radically new moves God has made in Christ to the necessity of unity among all Jesus-followers in Rome.

Many interpreters recognize that 3:21-31 is pivotal for Paul’s entire argument and that it plays a central role in Paul’s theology.  We have tended to focus, however, on the mechanics of salvation in general.  That is, we highlight the soteriological components of Paul’s presentation, such as “the righteousness of God” (v. 21), how it is witnessed by the Law and the prophets, the debate over the Greek phrase pisteōs Iēsou Christou (“faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ”) in v. 22, the notion of propitiation in v. 25, etc.

But if we pay close attention to the grammar of the passage, we’ll see that while these are important components of Paul’s presentation, he only brings them up to make the pastoral point.  He is concerned with the concrete situation in the church in Rome.  

The two appearances of gar (“for”) at the end of v. 22 and beginning of v. 23 reveal that his burden is not merely to state these realities, but to relate them to both Jews and non-Jews in the Roman Christian community.

First, Paul notes that God’s powerful saving program—aimed at reclaiming creation and the nations—is no longer being carried out through Israel.  In v. 21, he states that “the righteousness of God” is being revealed “apart from Law.”  He is not referring to the Scriptures of Israel in general, but Jewish identity.  God is working out his saving program without reference to Jewish identity.  He isn’t excluding Jews, but God’s salvation has broken the banks of national boundaries and is including all those in Christ, whether Jew or gentile.

God had called Israel to be a light to the nations, the national agent of God’s redemption of the nations.  Israel, however, had proved unfaithful to that commission, as Paul relates in Rom. 3:3.

While Israel has been unfaithful, God remains faithful and he is now unleashing his saving program through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe, Jew or non-Jew.  In Jesus and among his followers, God is carrying out his universal saving program that he had spoken about in the Law and the prophets.  God is faithful and is on the move to reclaim the nations for the glory of his name.

So, this is a new move, a changing of epochs in Jesus.  But it isn’t new at all, as it is the central mission to which God committed himself and to which he called Israel.  Because of their failure, God is now completing this mission in Jesus and among his followers made up of any and every ethnicity.

And God’s world-transforming redemptive program has direct relevance to the Roman church situation.  God’s saving program is for “all who believe for there is no distinction” between Jew and non-Jew. 

Paul had argued in 1:18-3:20 that the perversion of humanity includes both groups in the Roman church—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23).

And all those in Rome are justified as a gift.  Paul has both groups in view in the beginning of v. 24 with the participle dikaioumenoi (“being justified”).

So, once again, Paul isn’t expressing the central points of his theology here, nor merely laying out his theology for the Roman Christians’ consideration.

His ultimate aim is the unity of God’s people in Rome.  He wants them to stop passing judgment on one another and to embrace as siblings in God’s global family in Christ.  What he has to say in Rom. 3:21-26, therefore, has direct relevance to that practical end.  Following the grammar–or, paying attention to what Paul actually says–makes this clear.

5 thoughts on “Epochal Shift & Ecclesial Unity

  1. Craig Benno

    Tim..I think this narrative approach raises some questions about how we regard the actual technical specifics of Paul’s writings and how we apply it to doctrine.

    Within the framework your proposing, I think he argues the same within the Ephesians context… and when Paul tells them their faith is a gift from God…instead of being a technical argument for predestination…couldn’t it be more broadly argued that Paul is telling them that there is no boasting in Christ..rather God has drafted all in.

  2. Jaime Hancock

    I have know that I’m not alone in this reading of Romans for a few years now, but it is nice to see someone else also speaking it out. For years I have been trying to convince evangelicals that Romans is not a theology treatise, and when we treat it as such, we distort Paul’s meaning and miss what he is actually trying to teach. Unfortunately, I think that much of the Reformation handling of Paul has been based on just such a misunderstanding. Hopefully, we can begin to recapture the true richness of Paul’s message, because I think it has much to teach us.

    Keep up the good work.

    Grace and Peace,
    Jaime Hancock

  3. Allen Browne

    Good approach, Tim. Do you think it’s worth highlighting the social situation behind the Jew/Gentile issue in Rome?
    The emperor had ejected the Jews. As they now returned, would they face the same social pressures in the church? Who was really God’s people now?
    That seems to me to be the line that Paul is treading between two extermes:
    – ethnic Israel is still God’s true special people with all the benefits, and the gentiles are only secondary, and
    – God has given up on Israel and done a completely new thing, so we can give up on Israel and demean them for their failure.
    To me, that makes sense of the unexpected answer in 3:2 (given Rom 1-2), the way he addresses this question in Rom 9-11, and his choice of practical issues to address in Rom 14-15.

  4. Peter G.

    “So, once again, Paul isn’t expressing the central points of his theology here… His ultimate aim is the unity of God’s people in Rome.”

    Why is this an either-or?

    Also, I wonder if we’re not swinging the pendulum too far the other way in saying things like, “[Paul] only brings [the mechanics of salvation] up to make the pastoral point. He is concerned with the concrete situation in the church in Rome.” The three purpose clauses in 3:25-26 are all God-oriented. We don’t get something like this: “God presented Christ as a mercy seat in order to unite Jew and Gentile” (important as that is in Romans). In fact, Paul even repeats the fact that it was to demonstrate God’s righteousness. That sounds like the mechanics of salvation.

    I’m reminded of Leon Morris’s article some years ago that argued that the real theme of Romans is God. That’s certainly the case in this section.

    Good thoughts though. Thanks.

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