SAINT PAUL Part VII PAUL WRITES FROM CORINTH II
St Paul Writes from Corinth, Part II
The Letter to the Romans
SIX YEARS HAVE PASSED since St Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians from Corinth. In these busy, tumultuous years St Paul has covered thousands of miles back and forth from Damascus to Illyricum the Roman province across the Adriatic from Italy which marked the Imperial border with the barbarian regions to the North. He is now the mature Apostolic missionary. His exertions in preaching, teaching, travel on foot, shipwreck, imprisonment, beatings and narrow escapes from death have taken their toll.
Yet he remains keen to bring more and more Gentiles to Christ. In the East he has established many churches, visited and re-visited them, and set over them bishops and priests he knows will do as much as can be done to keep them faithful. Now he has his sights set on Spain. But, on his way to that Western bulwark of the Empire of Rome, he plans to satisfy a long-held desire to visit the well-established church in Rome itself.
Announcing this intention, he writes to the Romans a remarkable epistle – the largest he wrote. It is a complex letter and far from being “an easy read”. When we consider the background, we begin to understand why.
St Paul has built up a vast experience in his missionary journeys. This letter is intended to mark the close of his activity in the East, and to provide a distillation of that experience from a theological and a pastoral perspective. In addition there is a diplomatic complication to be considered. In the past, Paul has usually been going to found churches or to re-visit those he has founded. But in Rome he knows he will find a largely Gentile convert church for which he has had no responsibility, a church renowned throughout the world for its success and devotion and overseen by the Prince of the Apostles. He knows also that there is a small but influential Jewish convert component in that church – just the element that has caused him so much trouble elsewhere. The fact that the letter is dictated to an amenuensis (we know his name – Tertius- because he inserts his own comment in the letter) as St Paul so often did, and that it must have been dictated over some days, and that we know St Paul to be somewhat volatile, also works to make it complex.
The Epistle is broadly constructed as follows:
Greetings – Reason for visit
Condition of mankind before Christ - Gentiles and Jews
Condition of mankind with Christ
Faith, Hope, Love, Salvation
Freedom from the Law for Christians
Activity of the Holy Spirit
Jewish Rejection of the Gospel
Moral Duties of Christians
His Plans, Commendation and Individual Greetings
Greetings and Reason for Visit
Paul’s greeting emphasises his Apostleship from Christ Himself, Christ’s Resurrection as evidence that He is the Son of God and the importance of the obedience of Faith. In expressing his desire to visit the Romans, St Paul affirms his high opinion of them : “your faith is proclaimed all over the world” (Rom. 1:8) and “ unceasingly I make mention of you” (Rom. 1:9) He wants the visit to bring some spiritual grace to them and to be comforted with them in their shared faith. He wants to preach to them just as he has done to other Gentiles in other places. He stresses the importance of faith which provides a great theme for the Epistle.
Mankind without Christ – Gentiles
Paul reviews the state of pagan mankind. He shows that knowledge of the one true God is available to them by reason, from the evidence of His works. They have however pursued mere idols and “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”. (Rom. 1:25) In view of this pagan activity they are denied God’s grace and give themselves up to every sort of depravity and shameful action. Paul reminds his readers that such people will be judged by God according to the Natural Law, written on their hearts.
The situation of the Jews he says, is quite different. They had the Law and will be judged according to it. They are circumcised to evidence their subjection to the Law. But circumcision will avail them nothing if they do not follow the Law. True “circumcision is a matter of the heart in the spirit, not in the letter” (Rom. 2:29) Here, in responding to some calumny brought against him, Paul directly enunciates the principle that we may not do evil even if some good comes of it. Paul is seeking to get the Jews thinking aright – he makes it clear that the Law effectively defines and thus introduces sins,. It does not justify. It does not save.
Mankind with Christ – Faith
With the coming of Jesus Christ salvation is available to all who have faith in Him. They have no need of the Law. He has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.
The works of the Law do not justify – faith in Jesus Christ does- it is the true circumcision.
To ensure correct thinking by the Jews, Paul goes back to their father, Abraham. He reminds them that Scripture says that Abraham was justified by his belief in God – by faith, not by the works of the Law. And Abraham was at the time as yet uncircumcised, Paul stresses. Paul really hammers home this point, the promise made to Abraham and his posterity came not through the works of the Law or through circumcision, but through Abraham’s faith.
Justified in Christ
“When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son”(Rom3:10) “we exult also in God through Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation”.(Rom. 3:11)
Through Adam mankind inherited sin and death. Through Christ mankind inherits grace and the possibility of eternal salvation.
Paul points out very firmly that the baptised Christian has no obligation under the Law. He frames his statements on this point with great care, for he knows it touches Jewish sensitivities in two ways: firstly, as to the obligations of the Jewish converts themselves, and secondly, as regards the views some Jewish converts held about what was proper for the Gentile converts. Many Jewish converts had in his experience, sought to burden the Gentile converts with the Law and circumcision. Paul seeks, gently but firmly to teach the Truth.
He goes on to consider at length, the spiritual struggle between the will of the Christian believer and the temptations and inclinations of the flesh. “For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inner man, but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind and making me prisoner to the law of sin that is in my members”. (Rom. 7:23) But the grace of God through Our Lord Jesus Christ delivers him. “For what was impossible for the Law, in that it was weak because of the flesh, God has made good. By sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering, He has condemned sin in the flesh….” Those who remain steadfast in the spirit will not only be adopted as sons of God but joint heirs with Christ to the glory in which He has been raised.
No present sufferings, Paul says, can compare with that future glory.
In a very brief section of the Epistle, St Paul now opens to us one of the most consoling and encouraging revelations in Sacred Scripture : “But in like manner the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself pleads for us with unutterable groanings. And He who searches the hearts knows what the Spirit desires, that He pleads for the saints according to God”. (Rom. 8 :26-27)
This is a truly remarkable revelation of the inner life ( if we may use a human analogy) of the Blessed Trinity which leaves us breathless but rejoicing at the depth and workings of God’s love for us.
Paul reminds the Romans (and us) that for those who love God, all things work together to produce good. God knows who will be saved and glorified. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8: 31) He reminds his readers that Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for us. No peril or disaster, or evil force, can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.
The Jewish Rejection of the Gospel
Paul, so proudly a Jew himself, reveals his great distress at the rejection of the Gospel by the Jewish leaders and the bulk of the Jewish people. Their fault lies in their refusal of faith in the Gospel and stubborn self-satisfaction with the external observances of the Law alone. They rejected both the preaching and the teaching of the Lord Himself, and even after the Resurrection they refused the preaching of the Apostles. Paul reminds the Romans of the Prophet Isaias’ saying “All day long I stretched out my hand to a people unbelieving and contradicting.” But Paul rejoices in the remnant of Israel that has accepted the Gospel, the Jewish converts.
How easy it is for anyone- Jew or Gentile – Paul points out, to accept the Gospel and demonstrate their faith in Jesus Christ Thus the hardness of heart of the bulk of the Jews grieves him greatly. He urges the Gentile converts to humility and fidelity, reminding them that they have been grafted onto the stem of the true religion which has its origin in the faith of Abraham and has been brought to glorious fulfilment in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
He makes it clear that Israel will be converted when the full number of Gentiles accept the Gospel. He concludes this section of the Epistle with his now proverbial insistence that God’s judgements are incomprehensible to us and His ways unsearchable.
Paul begins to wind up his Epistle with an exhortation on the duties of Christians. His phrasing is beautiful as he urges the Romans, surrounded by pagan society, to “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed in the newness of your mind” (Rom. 12 : 2)
Quite the opposite of the grasping pagan world about them, he urges them to moderation and respect for the role and person of each of the brethren. He bids them to love one another in fraternal charity, anticipating one another with honour and practising hospitality. He seeks to have them be models of every kind of Christian virtue and “overcome evil with good”. (Rom. 12 : 21)
He encourages every one of them to be obedient to legitimate authority which ultimately comes from God. They must respect their lawful obligations to the civil government.
Paul emphasises the moral imperative of love of our neighbours and the importance of conforming one’s life to Christ in expectation of His coming.
Obviously having an eye to the possible activities of Judaizers in the Roman community, he bids all to exercise mutual forbearance. In essence he says that if a Jewish convert feels obliged to still follow the prescriptions of the Law, there is no harm even though it will do him no good, and, if the Gentile converts wish to exercise their legitimate freedom from the Law no-one should trouble them. He urges all to preserve charity and peace. In preserving the peace, he begs them all to practise self-denial and patience so that all may be one in spirit, glorifying God as one.
He reminds them of several passages in Sacred Scripture which foreshadow the role of the Gentiles, and concludes this section as follows: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope and in the power of the Holy Spirit”. (Rom. 15 : 13)
In Paul’s concluding words there is an element of apology – unusual for St Paul- “But I have written to you rather boldly here and there, brethren”. (Rom. 15: 15) This is yet another reflection of the pre- eminent position of the church in Rome, and of the fact that Paul has had no part in its formation.
Nowhere in this letter does he make direct mention of St Peter. He evidently knew that he was then absent from the capital, but Paul is obviously sensitive to any possible chance of being criticised from any quarter for intruding or acting inappropriately. It is interesting to see the normally forceful Paul dealing with circumstances calling for great discretion on his part.
He goes on to recount the missionary plans which he has, plans which will bring him to Rome which he has long hoped to visit, on his way to Spain. He will travel via Jerusalem bringing to the saints financial aid from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia.
He asks for the Romans’ prayers and looks forward to coming to them in joy, God willing, to be refreshed with them. He adds to the letter a commendation of Phoebe from the church in Cenchrae, for whatever assistance she may need.
He sends greetings to nearly thirty individuals in Rome, some of whom we know of, others we do not. Their number reveals the wide extent of St Paul’s activities and the consequent large number of contacts he has with other people who are regular travellers. The Roman Empire was a great facilitator of travel, as we know from Roman history. The same sources evidence the large numbers of people travelling from the East – Paul’s past region of activity, to the centre of the Empire.
P.S. and P.P.S.
In what we would term a ”P.S.” Paul adds a final warning to the Romans about troublemakers. ”who cause dissensions and scandals contrary to the doctrine that you have learned…. avoid them.” (Rom. 16 – 17 )
A further addition includes greetings from Timothy and other fellow workers and enables Tertius the amanuensis to speak up with his own greetings.
The great letter concludes appropriately with praise of God and its dedication to Him.
St Paul and St James
There are those who have tried to set at odds St James – faith without works is dead and St Paul- faith justifies, not works.
The suggestion is a nonsense as any honest reading of the two epistles shows. To support the proposition one would have to be soft in the head, or a knave. It is crystal clear that St Paul is talking about the prescriptive works required by the Law – the multiple observances the Jews were obliged to keep. St James on the other hand is talking about the good works of charity and proper moral life which flow spontaneously from Christian life. These are the same works that St Paul commends to the Romans as essential to Christian life.
It was this very point that the knave Martin Luther was to make one of the bases for his deformation of Christ’s Church as he invented his “Faith Alone” teaching (“sola fides”) in the 16th Century.
The Epistle to the Romans is not an “easy read” and one can sympathise with St Peter who wrote of “our dearest brother Paul” …”In these epistles there are certain things difficult to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable distort….” (2 Peter 15: 16) Across the centuries he seems to see and rebuke Luther and so many “spirit of the Council” theologians and preachers.
In this epistle St Paul is distilling all of his thinking, teaching and experience on the subjects of faith and the Law- Christian freedom and Jewish legalism. Paul takes the Lord at His word : “and the Truth shall set you free.” He applies the same distillation to Christian life of which he has had such wide experience.
This is a fitting exercise in preparation for his intended visit to Rome and her pre-eminent church. It is also timely at this stage of his apostolic work. His efforts in the East are now mature and he is looking westward for new challenges.
Little did he know how challenging the road to Rome would prove.
Copyright This article first appeared in the December, 2008 issue of FOUNDATION.