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15 April 2020

Righteousness and Wrath in Rome

SYNOPSIS:  Paul introduces his Gospel to the house churches of Rome and establishes the basis for dealing with conflicts between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Photo by Nicole Reyes on Unsplash
By Nicole Reyes on Unsplash
The return of Jesus at the end of the age is not a major subject in the epistle to the Romans - The theological focus is elsewhere.  However, several passages deal with future events connected to the end of the age, especially, final salvation, the  New Creation, and the Resurrection of the righteous. These topics are brought in as part of Paul’s larger discussion concerning salvation, law, grace, Jews, and the "nations."

The letter was written to introduce the gospel preached by Paul to the house churches in the city of Rome. In part, this was to prepare them for his intended visit prior to taking the Gospel to the western regions of the Empire.

Paul's letter deals with tensions in the Roman churches between Gentile and Jewish believers. This must be borne in mind when evaluating his lengthy arguments about salvation, the Gospel, the wrath of God, and so on.  While he does present the most thorough surviving explanation of his gospel, a key goal of the letter was to deal with conflicts between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The theological “center” of the letter is found in chapters 9 through 11 where Paul answers the question – “Has the Word of God failed?” Since most Jews have rejected the Gospel, does this mean God has abandoned the Jewish nation? The real “heart” of the letter is found in chapters 12 through 15 where Paul gets down to practical matters; for example, controversies over holy days and dietary restrictions.

Of special relevance to the Gospel preached by Paul are the passages concerned with salvation, wrath, faith, and judgment recorded in chapters 1 through 8. There, he discusses their present and future aspects.  For example, upon faith in Jesus Christ, a believer is set in right-standing before God and delivered from His wrath, although the full benefit of this will not be received until some point in the future.

Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash
Colosseum - Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash

Paul introduces himself to the Christians of Rome as, “Paul, bond-servant of Jesus Christ, called apostle, separated for the Gospel.”  This Gospel was promised in the Hebrew scriptures and concerned the Son of God, the one “who came to be of the seed of David according to flesh, was marked off as the Son of God by power, according to a Spirit of Holiness, by means of a resurrection out from among the dead” (
Romans 1:2-4).

The resurrection of Jesus was the irrefutable proof of his messiahship and the validity of the Gospel proclaimed by Paul. His salutation and explanation of his reasons for visiting Rome are given in the next paragraph (Romans 1:5-15).

Righteousness and Wrath

After his introduction, Paul gives the thematic statement of his letter. The Gospel is the very power of God “for salvation to everyone who believes,” whether Jew or Gentile.  The message Paul proclaims empowers men and women by faith to receive salvation:
  • (Romans 1:16-17) – “For I am not ashamed of the joyful message; for it is God’s power unto salvation to every one that believeth, both to Jew [first] and to Greek; For a righteousness of God is therein revealed — by faith unto faith: even as it is written — But he that is righteous by faith shall live.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God “is being revealed from faith for faith.” “Being revealed” translates the present tense verb apokaluptetai, meaning, “to reveal, disclose, unveil, uncover.” The Greek present tense signifies action in progress, not a singular event at a specific moment, but an ongoing process.

As the Gospel is proclaimed, God’s “righteousness,” His faithfulness, is actively revealed. This is especially evident when Jews and Gentiles respond to it in faith. Thus, there is a present aspect of the righteousness of God. Verse 17 reads more accurately, “The righteousness of God is being revealed from faith unto faith” (ek pisteĊs eis pistin). The source of this faith (“from faith”) and its target (“unto faith”) are not given at this point.

In contrast, at the very same time His “wrath” is “being revealed” (apokaluptetai) against all “who possess the truth in unrighteousness” - Two processes are taking place as the Gospel is proclaimed.
  • (Romans 1:18-19) - “For there is being revealed an anger of God from heaven — against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who, the truth, in unrighteousness, do hold down; — Inasmuch as, what may be known of God is manifest among them, for God unto them hath made it manifest.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The key clause more correctly reads, “wrath of God from heaven upon all ungodliness…” (ap ouranou epi pasan). It is the negative counterpart to “from faith unto faith.” Anyone who embraces the Gospel in faith, Jew or Gentile, is empowered for salvation. In contrast, “wrath” is already being revealed against those who refuse it (Romans 1:18-32).

Paul Preaches to Gentiles
Paul Preaches to Gentiles
Elsewhere, Paul often links the “
wrath” of God with the final judgment. However, here he describes a present aspect of this “wrath.” This “wrath” is evidenced by the very sins practiced by those who reject the Gospel, above all, the sin of idolatry (Compare - Romans 2:55:9Ephesians 5:6Colossians 3:61 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Thus, the “wrath” of God is being poured out even now because of the deeds of sinners:
  • (Romans 1:22-25) - “Professing to be wise, they were made foolish, And exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of a corruptible man, and of birds and fourfooted beasts and reptiles: Wherefore, God gave them up in the covetings of their hearts unto impurity, so as to be dishonouring their bodies among them — Who, indeed, exchanged away the truth of God for the falsehood, and rendered worship and service unto the creature rather than unto the Creator — who is blessed unto the ages.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
God delivered rebellious humanity to the very sins for which men and women lusted, even though they “acknowledged the righteous sentence of God that they who practice such things are worthy of death, not only are doing the same things but are even delighting together with them who are practicing them.” Humanity now wallows in idolatrous sin because of the wrath of God; the sins committed by rebellious men and women prove they are under the “wrath of God.”

Demonstration of Righteousness

This section in chapters 2 and 3 presents sin as the great leveler - both Jews and Gentiles have fallen short and stand under the just “sentence of God.” All are “inexcusable” because of sin. This section is important to the overall message of the letter. Jews and Gentiles stand or fall before God on the same basis.

Driven from the Garden
Driven from the Garden
Without Divine intervention, every man and woman regardless of race stands condemned, whether “within law” or “apart from law,” Jew and Gentile alike. Without exception, all will experience God’s final wrath on a coming “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” This must be so, for “there is no respect of persons with God.”

On that future day, God “will render unto each one according to his works.” Now, the future aspect of divine wrath is stressed. This event will occur on the “day on which God judges the secrets of men according to Paul’s Gospel through Christ Jesus.” Elsewhere, Paul links this “day of wrath” to the day on which Jesus arrives “from heaven” (Romans 2:162 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

This event will be the day of the “revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” The same Greek noun used elsewhere for the “revelation” the “revelation” of Jesus from heaven at the end of the age (1 Corinthians 1:72 Thessalonians 1:7).
Using a list of scriptural proof-texts, Paul demonstrates that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” All have “sinned and lack the glory of God,” therefore, men and women are not set right with God “from the works of the Law.” Instead, the Law serves to “expose sin” for what it really is.
However, the “righteousness of God” is now being revealed by means of the Gospel, “through the faith of Jesus Christ unto all who believe”; that is, “from the faith” of Jesus “to the faith” of the believer. Thus, God declares righteous those who believe “by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” and this apart from the "works of the Law" (Romans 1:16, Romans 3:9-24).

The Greek term rendered “faith” or pistis can signify “faith” or “faithfulness.” The latter is likely the sense intended since Paul speaks of the “faith” or “faithfulness of Jesus.” This is likely shorthand for the faithful obedience of Jesus unto death (Galatians 2:15-21, Philippians 2:6-11).

This has been done “with a view to a showing forth of His righteousness in the present season.” The emphasis is on the present reality of God’s righteousness - His faithfulness is on display in the here and now whenever He declares a man or woman to be in right-standing because of the “faith of Jesus Christ," as weall as their faithful response to it (Romans 3:19-30).

Abraham, the Heir of the World

In Chapter 4, Paul introduces Abraham as the great exemplar of faith.  God declared Abraham “right” and reckoned his faith as “righteousness” while he was still uncircumcised and, thus, apart from the “works of the Law.” Therefore. Abraham is the father of all men that are “from faith,” circumcised or not.

The real point is that the true “children of Abraham” are the men and women of faith. Neither circumcision nor ethnicity has any bearing on membership in the covenant people of God. God justified Abraham prior to his circumcision, a rite required by the later Torah, therefore, right standing before God cannot be dependent on the “works from the Law.” Whatever the purpose of the Law was, it was not given to put individuals in right standing before God.

Circumcision did not justify Abraham; instead, it was “a sign,” the “seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while yet uncircumcised.” Thus, he is “father of circumcision to them who are not of circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of the faith while yet uncircumcised.” Therefore, “not through the Law is the promise to Abraham or to his seed, he to be heir of the world; but through a righteousness of faith.”

Earth Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Earth Photo by NASA on Unsplash

References to the “promise” and “heir” point to future realities, things not yet received.  And the promised inheritance is the 
possession of the entire world or kosmos, not of just a tiny plot of land in the Middle East. Not always noticed is how Paul universalizes the original but limited "Land Promise" to include the entire “world” (the Greek term can potentially include the entire universe or kosmos).

This promise is to Abraham and “his seed” includes all who walk in the same faith as Abraham, circumcised or not. The promised inheritance is through faith and grace and, therefore, the “promise is firm unto all the seed.”

God appointed Abraham the “Father of many nations,” not just the father of Israel. This was because he believed the God “Who causes the dead to live and calls the things that are not as things that are.” In the first instance, Paul applies this clause to Abraham’s belief in the promise that God would grant him “seed,” that is, Isaac, even though Sarah’s womb was effectively “dead.” By implication, this links the promised inheritance to the future resurrection when the righteous dead are raised, a concept Paul raises in chapters 8 and 11 of Romans.

At the start of the letter, Paul introduced the past resurrection of Jesus (Romans 1:2-4). The connection of the inheritance promised to Abraham to the future resurrection is strengthened by verses 23-25.  The record of Abraham’s justification was not “written for his sake alone” but, also, For our sakes also to whom it is to be reckoned, even to them that believe upon Him who raised Jesus our Lord from among the dead; who was delivered up on account of our offences and was raised on account of the declaring us righteous.”

Salvation and Wrath

Since believers have already been “declared righteous through his blood,” they “will be saved through him from the wrath.” Although believers have already been “set right,” like the “inheritance” and “promise,” essentially, “salvation” remains a future reality.

If we have been “reconciled unto God through the death of his Son,” how much more “will we be saved by his life.” For though “through one man,” Adam, “sin entered into the world and through sin deathhow much more they who the superabundance of the grace and the free-gift of righteousness do receive will reign through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Note well - The future tense of the verb, “will reign.”

Just as “through one fault the sentence was to all men for condemnation, so also through one recovery of righteousness the decree of grace is unto all men for righteous acquittal unto life…and through the obedience of the one,” that is, through the obedience of Jesus Christ. Through him, the “many will be constituted righteous.” Just as “sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness unto everlasting life through Jesus Christ.”

In this paragraph, condemnation because of sin is in the past for those who believe, and right standing before God is a present reality. However, final salvation and everlasting life are yet to be received in the future. Precisely when this so is not stated at this point.

Future Hope - Resurrection and New Creation

For those who are in Jesus, “there is now no condemnation.” This is because the “law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set them free from the law of sin and of death.” What the Law of Moses could not do because of bondage to sin, “God by sending his own Son…condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who walk according to spirit and not according to the flesh” - (Romans 8:1-25).

The flesh “prefers death, whereas the Spirit prefers life and peace.” The carnal man produced by the sin of Adam is “hostile toward God for it cannot submit to the Law of God… and they who have their being in flesh cannot please God.” Paul’s talk of “flesh” and “spirit” is his way of contrasting the old Adamic life under bondage to sin with the new life free from servitude to sin found in Christ Jesus.

Paul is not speaking of two present “natures” locked in mortal combat in an individual, the so-called “old man” versus the “new man.” Rather, in view is the past life of the “flesh” versus the present new life of the “spirit.” Believers have “not their being in flesh but in spirit, if at least God’s Spirit dwells in them,” and, “if anyone has not Christ’s Spirit the same is not his.” It is God’s Spirit that enables the believer to walk righteously (Compare - Galatians 5:13-18).

Though our present physical bodies may be “dead by reason of sin,” if the Spirit of Him that raised Jesus from among the dead dwells in us, “He that raised from among the dead Christ Jesus will make alive even our death-doomed bodies through means of his indwelling Spirit.” Once again, Paul brings in the future resurrection and included is the idea of bodily resurrection. Final salvation is realized at the time of the resurrection and it will include the redemption of the individual’s body (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:12-28).

Though believers have been declared righteous through Jesus Christ, receipt of final salvation is not a foregone conclusion.  Believers are obligated to live, “not according to flesh.” If they do, they are “going to die, whereas, if by the Spirit they put to death the practices of the flesh, they will attain unto life.” It is those who are “led by God’s Spirit that are God’s sons.”

The Spirit of God within believers “bears witness together with their spirit that they are children of God.” This means they are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” But to be co-heirs with Christ necessitates suffering in this life, so that “they may also be glorified.” Believers must bear in mind that the sufferings of “this present season cannot be compared with the glory about to be revealed.”

Even the Creation itself has been made subject “to vanity” because of sin. All creation is sighing together and travailing-in-birth-throes until the present; it “ardently awaits the revelation of the sons of God,” that is, the resurrection of the righteous. At that time, the “creation itself also shall be freed from the bondage of decay into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God”; that day will mean nothing less than the New Creation (Romans 8:20-23).

On that day, not only creation but, also, “we ourselves who have the first-fruit of the Spirit, and sigh within ourselves ardently awaiting the adoption, the redemption of our body.” Paul connects the New Creation to the bodily resurrection of the saints. This is the “hope by which we were saved.” But “hope beheld is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? If, however, what we do not behold we hope for, with endurance are we ardently awaiting it” (Romans 8:23-25).

Throughout the first half of the letter, the focus is on our future salvation. And Paul connects it to the New Creation and the Resurrection. Put another way, New Creation and bodily resurrection are two sides of the same coin.  Believers who have been declared righteous in Christ, who have received the Spirit of God, and who continue to live accordingly, will receive final salvation at the time of the New Creation and the Resurrection. And, by implication, both events occur at the same time.

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