The mystery letter of St. Paul to the Romans

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 12, 2019 | In Scripture Series

Excluding the Book of Revelations, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans wins top honors as the most difficult book in Scripture. It is no wonder that St. Peter made the following comment:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him…as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction. [2 Pet 15-16]

We must be careful with St. Paul, then, and this is nowhere more evident than in Romans. Paul himself employs a remarkable rhetorical style specifically to encourage this care. He makes a point and then, anticipating the simplistic conclusion readers may draw, immediately counters it with expressions such as: “What, then? Are we to conclude such-and-so? By no means!”—and he goes on to explain a fresh aspect of the mystery of salvation. For that is what Romans is all about: Salvation in Christ Jesus.

In writing to the Romans, a church Paul did not found, he is eager to fulfill his mission of preaching to the Gentiles in the capital city of the Roman Empire. His great point is that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). The whole purpose of the letter is to explain that all of us, both Jews and Gentiles, are guilty before God owing to sin, and that the only escape is through the free gift of God in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.

Jews and Gentiles

You can imagine the importance of this truth in a period in which God’s chosen people, the Jews to whom Christ came, thought of themselves as a people set apart and made righteous by the Law. But Paul explains in chapters 2 through 5 that the Law, while good in itself, actually awakens us to sin, and so the Jews turn it into an occasion of sin, even while the Gentiles, who do not have the Law, actually know the moral law through nature, and likewise are guilty of transgression. Pointing out that Abraham was called and received God’s promise before he was circumcised, Paul teaches that, for the Jew who does not obey God, circumcision becomes uncircumcision, and for the Gentile who does what is good, uncircumcision becomes circumcision—a mark of truly belonging to God.

St. Paul recognizes the advantage which the Jew has in that he has received the Law and the prophets, but insists that the Law cannot justify because, in fact, it convicts of sin. It is true that the Gentiles were left in their sins, but the Jews through their disobedience are no better off. Therefore, as all have sinned, no one has occasion to boast:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. [3:21-25]

As is common throughout the Letter, Paul poses a rhetorical question here immediately, to avoid a misunderstanding which still arises frequently even today: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). Continuing in chapter 4, he points out that it was precisely Abraham’s faith that was credited to him as righteousness, and that Abraham is therefore the father of not just the circumcised but of all who believe, for “I have made you the father of many nations” (Gen 17:5, emphasis added). Paul then goes on to teach that as Christ died for us while we were still estranged from him, how much more, now that we are reconciled, will we be saved by Christ’s life:

Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [5:20-21]

The baptismal mystery

In chapter six, Paul explains all this in terms of the baptismal mystery, which is our participation in both the death and life of Christ, our dying and rising with Him. Therefore, all Christians—whether Jew or Gentile in origin—have been baptized in Christ’s death and buried so that we might rise with him, no longer walking in sin but in newness of life: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). He then insists that we must not “let sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (12): “Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life” (13).

Sin, Paul says, will have no dominion over the Christian. But he immediately asks one of his rhetorical questions, again so applicable to us today: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (15). Rather, we must be either slaves to sin or to righteousness, and the choice is clear: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23).

In chapter 7, Paul recognizes that this decision is made in the midst of interior conflict between the good that we desire and the evil that we do: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law” (7:22). He cries out: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (24). And the answer is expressed this way: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (25). Then, in chapter 8, Paul explains that we now have life in the Spirit and live in a sure hope even of the redemption of our bodies; we have in fact a spirit of adoption as children, and so as heirs, of God—which means we are destined for glorification. In comparison, the sufferings of the present age are as nothing.

There are many famous passages in this section which describe our yearning and the yearning of all creation to be freed through the redemption of the children of God, of which we are the first fruits. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words…according to the will of God” (vv. 18-27). One Providential passage is especially apt for every situation in which we find ourselves: “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (28).

But there follows immediately the very mysterious passage, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined; …he also called; …he also justified; …he also glorified” (29-30), which is surely one of those passages St. Peter had in mind when he described some things in Paul’s letters “hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (in this case, by devising simplistic and even monstrous theories of predestination). I will mention only in passing that the best explanation of this passage I have ever heard is that God is outside of time; everything is present to Him always; and His dealings with us always include and depend upon our free response. We must beware of facile solutions to deep mysteries, lest St. Paul ask another of his rhetorical questions!

Conclusion of the discourse

Chapter 8 ends in that beautiful passage in which Paul affirms that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39), and then the remaining eight chapters of the letter are divided into two parts. The first, covered in chapters 9 through 11, explores the great mystery of God’s Providence, as seen in his election of Israel, His wrath at Israel’s faithlessness, and His corresponding mercy to the Gentiles. Again, Paul emphasizes that salvation for all comes through faith in Christ, citing a number of passages from the prophets which point to the Messiah and the salvation of all who trust in Him.

It is in this sequence that Paul states clearly that Israel will still be saved in the end. Here we spot another rhetorical question: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1). Paul teaches that there is a remnant “chosen by grace” at the present time, and says again of the Jews: “So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!” (11). For “if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (12-13).

Indeed, Paul teaches that the Gentiles must not boast. If some of the dead branches (the Chosen People) have been cut off so that others (the Gentiles) could be grafted on, how much more will the children of the Promise be grafted back in their turn:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written: “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” [11:25-27]

It is no wonder that Paul ends this theological conclusion with an exclamation of wonder: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (33).

In the second major part of this long concluding section, Paul then goes on to offer counsel to the Christians in Rome, discussing the marks of the true Christian, and emphasizing the need for humility, being subject to those in authority, loving one another, refraining from judgment, making sure not to scandalize a weaker brother, and in summary living for the good of others, to please others and not ourselves (chapters 12-14). He also explains again his reason for writing and his hope to visit the Roman Christians very soon. We know now that he was taken to Rome only in captivity, and yet he taught there, both in and out of prison, for several years.

The letter concludes with personal greetings to those he knows who are in Rome, a warning against those who “create dissensions and difficulties in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them” (16:17), and a final doxology—“to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ!”. In fact, the entire letter is a praise of the marvelous richness found in God through Christ. And that richness, we are firmly given to understand, includes “things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (again, 2 Pet 15-16). This happens, of course, whenever they refuse to heed that Church which, owing to its full apostolic authority, has alone been entrusted with the mysteries of God.


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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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