Tracing Paul’s argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts on Romans.

In my previous post, I offered a picture of the context at Rome which causes Paul to write this letter. It is written to a city in which divisions between Jews and Greeks focussed on claims about Jesus have previously boiled over, and may be heating up again. I noted that more than in most letters, with Romans you need a grasp of the overall argument to see the meaning of any individual reading. Today I offer that kind of outline of how I read this letter. There are others.

The Colosseum, built after Paul’s day, reminds us how much violence was a feature of life in the Roman Empire

Paul’s first three chapters, after an opening greeting, step straight into this. Paul initially takes up and repeats the common criticisms Jews made of the pagan world, and then he echoes some not atypical Roman anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. Both are shown to deserve the criticism the other dishes out, but Paul goes on to privilege the Jewish scriptural tradition, not because it was given to the Jews, but because it was given by God. God will be faithful even when God’s people are not. In point of fact, the scripture reinforces the mutual criticism Jew and Greek heap on each other, for it says “There is no-one righteous, no, not one.” (Rom 3:10)1

From this rather dismal conclusion, that everybody is in the wrong, Paul recounts God’s call to Abraham, and how Abraham was treated by God as righteous, because he put his trust in God. The theme of chapter four is that God treated Abraham as righteous before he was circumcised, and therefore circumcision is not necessary. Abraham’s trust, that God could give him new life (a son) even though his body was as good as dead (being well past the age of reproduction) is paralleled to the Christian trust in God for life, as the one who raises the dead Jesus.

Paul goes on in chapter five to contrast Jesus with Adam. The biblical story reveals how things were changed for the whole human race through the acts of one man, and so Paul argues that equally through the acts of another man, the condition of the human race is changed again. Yet the comparison is limited: the first man was judged for one single sin. Since then countless sins have been committed, yet the relationship-restoring gift of Jesus – a life faithfully obedient even to death – is more than enough to overcome all sin.

If this is God’s gift to us, Paul goes on to say in chapter six, then we need seriously to reciprocate by giving our lives to God. If God in Christ has taken human death, the consequence of sin, to give us life, then we must leave sin behind, and live our lives with the same faithfulness that Christ has shown. Paul extends that in chapter seven with a parable of everyman, or Adam. God’s commandment, God’s law, was precisely the thing that made disobedience possible. If there is no law, I can’t break it. Once I am taught morality, I can be tempted to do wrong. What I need is a new kind of life, a new nature and not a new law.

The death of Jesus is the death of our old humanity: the mortality promised Adam as a punishment for his law-breaking is embraced by Jesus in order to bring it to an end. In his resurrection, Jesus opens up a new kind of life. That life, as Paul goes on to say in chapter eight, is the life of the Spirit, and it is not just about the renewal of humankind, but the liberation of all creation. If in his opening chapter, Paul described a creation having gone wrong, turned away from God, and into itself, in this closing chapter of his primary theological argument, he looks forward to “the hope that the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and is to enter the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21 REB).

In all of this, Paul has effectively put the law to one side. The good things the law teaches are now enshrined for us in the example of obedience given by Jesus: this is what faithfulness looks like. The bad effect of the law, tempting us to disobedience, is now dealt with by Christ, who has experienced the promised judicial punishment of the human race, and has been acquitted on appeal by God, setting the human race free. The law, therefore, has no continuing purpose. It can neither function any longer as a barrier separating Jew from Greek, nor can any Jew expect Greeks who believe in Jesus to keep its commandments. It belongs to a past humanity that died with Jesus on the cross.

On the other hand, Paul is well aware that he runs a real risk that the Greek Christians will feel themselves superior, certainly to non-Jesus-believing Jews, and probably to Jewish Christians as well. In chapters 9-11, he therefore tries to set out the ways in which the Jewish people belong to God’s purposes, and are his chosen way of getting from Adam and then Abraham, to Christ.

Paul himself is proud of being a Jew, but puts his trust not in his ethnic and religious inheritance, but in the gift of God – in the Christ to whom the Jewish scriptures have now led him. It is a a cause of sadness for Paul that so few Jews seem to accept Jesus in place of Torah as the model of faithfulness and the life-giving gift of God. Despite this, Paul still wants to hold on to the overwhelming generosity of God’s gift as being stronger than the human power to reject it. He draws this section to a close affirming his faith in God’s love, his hope for Jewish redemption, and his inability to plumb the depths of how exactly God will work it all out.

From there he passes to the practical outworking of this new life, and new set of relationships. We have already looked at the key plank of avoiding violence and vengeance, as befits those who follow the crucified Christ rather than a warrior Messiah. Paul elaborates some of the key themes of Christian living, stressing the unity of the church, and maintaining good relationships, with those outside, as well as within the church. There are a number of echoes of Jesus’ words in this: Paul is not ignorant of some of the teaching we find in the gospel. In particular, where ethnic or religious traditions give people scruples about eating certain sorts of food, it is very important to practice generosity and welcome to those who hold different views.

It is clear from a number of his injunctions that the church in Rome is (to pt it mildly) somewhat divided. Paul, however, has not given up on his hope to be sent on his way to Spain by a church united behind him. Rather than his practical need, it is the preceding lengthy exposition of the gift of God, a generosity that comes precisely to those who do not deserve it, which drives the ethical force. If we seek to be faithful as Christ was faithful, we must treat one another with the generosity God in Christ has shown to us. The thrust of the letter, as well as the very practical guidance on sharing food together, is summed up “in a word, accept one another as Christ accepted you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).2


  1. This begins a string of quotations, mainly drawn from the psalms, that roots Paul’s conclusion in the scriptures he and those he’s arguing with share.
  2. The REB, which I mainly follow here, has “accepted us” rather than “accepted you”. Some manuscripts have “us” and some “you”. (The words were probably identical in pronunciation by the second century at the latest.) Most translations go with the rhetorically rather more forceful “you”.

2 thoughts on “Tracing Paul’s argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond

  1. You use the term punishment twice. What is the ‘promised judicial punishment’? Is it ever termed ‘punishment’ as part of the promise? I don’t see Paul using this term and I can’t find it anywhere in the first testament.

    Even the stem פקד, though often translated as punish, is used only 11 times in Genesis and is never rendered as punish there. I have not done an analysis of the emergence of punish in the environment in which the NT was written. But I wonder if punish is what Paul had in mind. KJV appears to have this term once in Acts 4:21 and once in 2 Peter 2:9, a human action in the former case and the day of judgment in the latter case. It does act as a threat in 2 Peter, but he is not exactly Pauline.

    Punish is of course pervasive in the KJV translation of the OT – but punish seems to be a 16th century imposition on the English speaking world. KJV presumably infected by the Latin translations, uses the gloss for a half-dozen stems and sometimes even when there is no corresponding stem in the Hebrew. Even then, there is no stem in Hebrew that has punish as its dominant gloss in the KJV’s mind-set. There are always other choices.

    Thanks for your summaries of the lectionary.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I shall ponder whether I’ve brought too much of a Western interpretation to that reading of both the “you shall surely die” of Genesis, and the curse of Deuteronomy


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