Paul writes The Book of Romans to the believers in the most prominent and influential city of the age – Rome. These believers, like many Christians, are struggling with a specific theological tension. Is belief enough? Or are certain works required as well? There are Jewish believers on both sides of the argument and the Gentile believers in Rome are not sure what to think. In this episode, we talk about this central question, how Paul addresses it, and how we still wrestle with it today.
Tim: Romans is absolutely one of my favorite books. Once you see what’s really going on, it’s really colorful and lively. It’s really an amazing story and a part of an amazing story. But, you have to do a little bit of sleuthing to get what the story is because most of the story is inferred.
Joey: It seems like the book of Romans would be a really important book. Rome is the competing empire of the time. It’s the kingdom most directly against the kingdom of God. So you would assume that Paul is writing to try to convince the Romans to leave the legions to the emperor and come toward the legions of God.
T: it would be a reasonable assumption to say, “hey, the apostle Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles. Rome is the center of the Gentile world, so that’s where he should go first.”
T: But he didn’t go there. It would be reasonable to assume that he’s writing a letter to get them saved.
J: Yeah, you’d assume that there just aren’t many believers or any believers in Rome and that this is mostly an evangelistic endeavor.
A Political Pamphlet
T: That’s what you would think, but that’s not what it actually is. Therefore, this is not only lively and colorful, but it’s also a bit surprising when you come to it. So here’s what I’m gonna assert to you: that Romans is a political pamphlet.
J: Okay, right.
T: When you think of Romans, you should think of the 95 Theses that were nailed to the door. It’s making a claim, it’s part of a big fight. Or, you should think of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” because that’s a pamphlet that’s widely distributed, that’s part of a big fight. That’s really what this is. It’s not trying to get people to do something that they’re not already doing, it’s picking a side and a big dispute.
J: Okay, so is the purpose of the pamphlet for Paul, to be clear, to try to stir things up and be controversial?
T: Well, really good question. I don’t think so. Now, admittedly, a lot of this is being inferred. But, we’ll dig into why I’m inferring this. But I don’t think so. My best guess is that he was asked into this fight by the people that were his allies, which are mainly Priscilla and Aquila. So, I think this is Priscilla and Aquila who are the “Grace” Jews, against the “Gentiles have to convert to Judaism” Jews. This is the big fight that causes Paul to write most of his letters, or at least the larger ones. And I think they were fighting that fight in Rome and sent to Paul to ask for him to use his apostolic authority to weigh in on their side. I think that’s what’s happening.
J: So how does Paul know those two? Or are we getting ahead of ourselves?
Priscilla, Aquila, and the Big Fight
T: No, no, that’s great. So first of all, why don’t we just look at, well, why do you think that’s the case? And I think we can look at Romans 16, which is the last chapter of Romans. Paul is closing up the letter, and he is telling you here whose side he’s on in this dispute. So, he starts with, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, they are my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. I’m anointing these two, they are on my side. They’re my fellow workers and my authority goes with them. They’re the good guys in this fight.” And then he goes on and talks about a lot of other people. Now Priscilla and Aquila were fellow Jews, as it so happens, which I think is important inthis fight because this is a Jew-on-Jew fight. And who’s in the middle? The Gentiles. And remember–Christianity is not separate from Judaism in the least at this point in time. It’s part of the Jewish faith. But, there has been an agreement which is chronicled in Acts 15, that there’s no requirement for the Gentiles to culturally become Jewish by getting circumcised and obeying the Jewish regimen. We’re all one in Christ, we all have the same law written on our hearts, and we all have the same benefits of following in the ways of God, but all the circumcision and following the rules didn’t get Israel saved. We’re saved by grace through faith. Peter says that in the Jerusalem Council. And so he says, “why put a burden on the Gentiles that we weren’t able to bear? So don’t make them do that.”
Then you’ve got James, who is the head Elder. Because this is Paul versus some believing Pharisees. This is the believing Pharisees in Acts 15, who said, “No, youdo have to get circumcised by the law of Moses.” So that’s the dispute. And Peter stands up and says, “Well, the faith came to the Gentiles through me. The Holy Spirit fell on them and they weren’t circumcised. How can we say they have to get circumcised?”
I’m paraphrasing now but then, James, the head Elder says, “Well, yeah, okay, you’re right. But, there are towns where there are synagogues and Jews, and there are Gentiles. And we don’t want there to be a schism, so let’s write a letter to the Gentiles and say, ‘You don’t have to be circumcised and follow the law, but please follow the Noahic covenant, which is don’t eat blood mixed with…, don’t be sexually immoral, and don’t make idols, you know. If you do those things, your fellow believers won’t be able to fellowship with you. So come this way for the purpose of fellowship.”
So it was a very practical thing. Alright, let’s remove stumbling blocks to intimate fellowship, and they send that letter out. So, you would think that settled it, but it didn’t. And so these guys, these Jewish people, who believed that the Gentiles should have to convert and follow all the customs, followed Paul around everywhere. And the Jews that didn’t believe also persecuted Paul. Their rationale could be many things, but probably one of them was that the Jews had a carve-out under the Roman law that they were an exception to the general rule that you couldn’t have a god that was above the Roman gods or a god above Caesar, let’s say. And they had an exception that in our case, we can do that, and so I think some of them argued that we’re gonna lose our religious exemption if we don’t make it clear that these guys aren’t part of us, and that might have been part of the drive. And part of the drive could be that “we’re losing control here, you know what’s gonna happen? All these pagans start doing this stuff and they’re whackos, these pagan whackos, we can’t let this happen, we gotta get control of this thing.”
Kylie: This all sounds very political
T: Yeah, well, political means people interacting. So, the world has always been political. You can’t live in any sphere that’s not political.
J: What’s interesting is that you’re saying this is an internal political pamphlet within the body of believers, this isn’t a political pamphlet aimed at non-Christians or people who are–
K: In a different party, basically.
J: Yeah, not the people who are committed to Caesar and the Roman way of life. This is an internal political pamphlet.
T: Yeah, completely. Let me show you maybe the most surprising thing about Romans. If you come to it with the assumption that Paul is writing an evangelism track, the first clue that that’s totally off-base is in Romans 18, which says, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.”
Well, he’s writing to the Roman believers, and they’re not marginal believers. As you would expect it, right? You’re in the middle of the Roman empire, and it’s illegal to be Christian unless you fall under this Jewish exemption, which maybe is up in grabs at this point in time. But you know, not that long after this is written, Paul’s gonna be murdered by Nero, who’s a Roman emperor. So, it’s a little dicey at this point in time. So if someone’s in Rome, which is the center of the world, and they are willing to be a Christian, that takes a lot of courage. And so it makes sense that their faith would be spoken of throughout the whole world.
J: Yeah, you know, that is a surprising verse. Because I feel like, for me growing up in church, you hear The Roman way as an evangelistic tool with the verses that say “the wage of sin is death” and all of those sorts of things. And so it makes it seem as though the book is clearly written with this evangelistic-towards-outsiders message. But what you’re saying is, that’s not the case.
T: Well, you could come in here and say, “Well, he’s preaching a sermon.” And in a crowd that you’re preaching a sermon to, there’s always at least one person that’s not a believer. You can say that but it just ignores 100% of the context of the letter.
J: Right, that’s just not what he’s saying explicitly.
T: Now, can you use those verses and apply them evangelistically? Absolutely! Of course you can do that with the entire Bible. So it’s perfectly reasonable, but that’s not what is happening here. And in terms of the context in the moment, in the time.
J: So, Paul in other contexts is addressing this question, Priscilla and Aquila are addressing this in the church in Rome but–
The Central Question
T: We haven’t said what the question is, yet.
J: Yeah, so what I was about to say is that this must have been essential for the early church or must be something that’s very important for them to figure out.
T: Yeah, and in fact, I would say it’s central. This is a central question. A material central question. And the central question is the question that was debated at the Jerusalem council. Do you have to believe AND or just believe? Which is it, believe and or just believe? Paul’s side is to just believe, in order to be made righteous in the sight of God. But Paul segregates and says that you then have a choice whether to walk in faith or not and if you want to actually experience the righteousness you were given, then you have to walk in obedience. But you don’t have to do that to be made righteous in the sight of God. Acceptance is 100% given, approval depends on you. Okay, so, Paul separates the two. The opponents collapse the two, in order to be accepted, you have to also live an approved life. They go together. That’s one package. You can’t do one without the other. You have to do both.
J: And in the book of Romans is the ‘and’ circumcision? Is it other things? Is it anything or several things? Is the debate between a specific thing on the other side of that ampersand? Do you need anything other than faith?
Gentiles and Jews: Just Believe or Believe and…?
T: Well, let’s just actually go to Acts 15 and read it first-hand. I can tell you, but it might be better just to read it. We’ll just start with the whole context, Acts 15:1, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren.” So the context here is that Paul is in Antioch, which is North, so down is elevation down because Jerusalem is always up. So they are going elevation down to Antioch and teaching the brethren. This is Jewish brethren teaching Gentile Jewish brethren. Because in Antioch, there were Jewish and Gentile both. And here’s what’s taught to them: “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” So here are people who had received the Holy Spirit, but now they’re hearing that that didn’t count, they also have to be circumcised.
Now, when you say circumcised, does that mean just that one thing? When you’re circumcised, that is a sign of coming into the Abrahamic covenant. And if you come into the Abrahamic covenant, you also inherit the Mosaic Covenant, which to a Jew means you’re now part of this agreement between God and Israel. Which is, if you obey the law, you’re blessed, and if you don’t obey the law, you’re not blessed. It’s really the whole thing, and you can see that in verse 5 because we’ll just keep reading on verse 2 here: “Therefore when Paul and Barnabas–so Barnabas is the Apostle Paul’s buddy here–had no small dissension. A big fight. No small is big, right? Had a big fight and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go to Jerusalem, which is the epicenter of Judaism and of Christianity, to the apostles and elders about this question.” The apostles would be the guys that went with Jesus, they were his disciples. And the elders would be the head of the Jerusalem church. So we’ll go to the authorities about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church–so now the church at Antioch is sending them to Jerusalem–Paul and Barnabas passed through these various places, Phoenicia and Samaria. And along the way, they’re describing the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy to the brethren. So here the brethren would be the Jewish believers. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church. Now here the church is the Jews who had come to faith in the Messiah, Jesus is the Messiah. The church and the apostles and elders, and they reported all the things that God had done with them and through them. This is what’s happening out with the Gentiles. So there’s all this joy, ‘wow, this is amazing.’ But some of the sects of the Pharisees who believed–
K: So they’re part of the church.
T: They’re part of the church, but they’re Pharisees. Okay, so some of the sects of thePharisees who believed rose up saying, “it is necessary to circumcise and to command them to keep the Law of Moses?” So your question is, it’s one package. When you get circumcised, you gotta obey the law of Moses. So politically speaking, it is “you gotta join our party, or you can’t be saved, you gotta be part of us and get in our circle and come under our authority.” Actually, in this particular case. So then in verse 6, it says, ‘Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter…” So it’s a big dispute, and the Pharisees are the educated, credentialed, and important people. So, you don’t just blow them off. And so the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter, and when there had been much dispute–so this is a big argument. Peter rose up and said to them–now Peter is the apostle with the most authority–and he said to them, “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago, God chose among us that by my mouth, the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. It was through Peter that the Gentiles received Christ. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us. Now, as you go through Acts, what you’ll find is that the Jews got the Holy Spirit when they were baptized and the Gentiles got the Holy Spirit when they believed. So God is telling the Jews something. You need to repent, you already believe in God and now you need to repent. The Gentiles, I’m just giving it to them, just through faith. He’s actually making a distinction for a point. And this is the thing Peter points to, “I just told them and they believed and the Holy Spirit came.” He made no distinction between us and them in purifying their hearts by faith. This is Peter still talking, “Now, therefore, Why do you test God? Putting a yoke on the neck – a yoke is what you put on an animal, how you harness an animal so it can pull against a wagon – so why are you making these guys pull a wagon, why do you put a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” This is pretty amazing here that Peter is saying this, because you read the Gospels and Peter’s always totally out to lunch.
J: He is always the doofus that can’t get it right.
Paul: The Apostle
T: He just can’t get it right. And here he’s like, “I now realize that the problem was me, I couldn’t bear this.” But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved in the same manner as they. Well, that’s pretty powerful, right? Now, as an aside, this is all written by Luke, who was a companion of Paul and was in the middle of all these fights, and I think it’s highly reasonable to infer the reason he wrote Acts was to document that Paul’s authority is real and that the other side if you will, agreed with Paul at least at one point. And I think the reason he wrote Luke was to legitimize Acts.
K: He was with Jesus, or at least telling us. Was he with Jesus?
T: No, he just tells the story of Jesus.
K: So he sets himself up as a writer, a storyteller and then goes on to tell the story of Acts.
T: Yes, that’s right. So he legitimizes himself as a documentarian. And then he gives the documentary that he started to do in the first place. Because as you’ll go through and read Paul’s letters, you’ll see that this fight is either central or weaving through everything he writes. What you’ll see is that one of the main detractions is against Paul’s authority, he’s not a real apostle, and they give all kinds of reasons why he’s not a real apostle. He doesn’t accept money, which means that nobody’s paying him to do it. So he’s not real for that reason. He didn’t really walk with Christ, so he’s not real for that reason. If you have a political fight, one of the main things you wanna do is undermine the legitimacy of your opponent.
J: Right, right. The quickest way to success there. Yeah.
T: Which is the same thing they did to Jesus, right? So these guys didn’t get their exemption from Rome by being political Duce. They’re very astute. And their maneuvering.
The Battle Continues
J: Yeah, as you’re talking about this, it occurs to me that we said this issue of “is it just belief or belief and” is so central to the early church. It occurs to me that it’s really just been a central struggle for the entirety of Christianity. You mentioned the 95 Theses and a lot of Martin Luther is like, “Look, it’s faith alone. We don’t need faith and indulgences or other things.” And even today, in our modern church context, this seems like a similar struggle. But we’re reading through this section of Acts and early on in Romans, and it seems pretty clear what the answer to this is. Why is it so tempting for us to go back to this question where it seems fairly settled here?
T: Well, because we’re human. And what humans like are certainty and control, which they can’t have.
K: Yeah the law is a great measurement, right? For us to say like, I’m doing the things I’m supposed to do.
T: We can’t have certainty and control, so we want the illusion of certainty and control. And that’s why idolatry is attractive. One of my favorite idolatry passages is Isaiah 44, and it’s actually quite humorous to me. God says, “Come on, come on, really? Look, you cut a tree down and you take half of it and you make it into firewood, and you take the other half and you make a statue. And then you say, this will save me. Come on! That’s not even reasonable.” But that’s what we do as humans. We’re like “yes, but I can control this thing. And you’re scary, so I’m gonna have this illusion of control so that I can have this thing that saves me that I’m in control of. So now I’m in control of my own security. And I prefer the illusion to reality.”
K: Isn’t that the whole reason that Israel wanted a king too?
T: I think Israel wanted a king because they wanted to shirk responsibility. So that’s another thing we do as humans. We want agency, we want to make our own choice, but we don’t want the consequences of that choice. So I’m gonna cede my agency to you, but I intend to actually keep it. So I’m actually ceding the consequences of my choices to you, but I’m gonna keep my choices, sorry. And God says, ‘no, actually, you’re giving your choices up and you’re going to hate it.’ And they say, ‘Yeah. Well, we just don’t want the responsibility.’ And then, of course, they become slaves and they hate it. But it’s just, that this is what we do all the time as humans. That substance, I can take that substance and it will make me feel good and I can control it, I can stop at any time. Well, that’s your first step to addiction, right?