Romans Part Two: Deep Dive
THE GOSPEL & JUSTIFICATION | RYAN KERRISON
The epistle to the Romans; considered one of the most significant pieces of literary work, both from a sacred and a secular perspective. It is comparable to a symphony; with overtures, movements, climactic crescendos, and the like. The two main thrusts of the letter, amongst other explicitly Protestant themes, are those of the Gospel or euaggelion (good news) and the nature and method of justification and what Paul may have meant by it in the context of the day. Remembering that ‘a text without context, is just a pretext for whatever we want it to mean’, Paul’s epistle, or more accurately his letter essay, was a formal treatise and a proclamation of the harmatological condition of humanity (the sin-nature as consequence of the Fall). Following this, the summoning of all to live life in Christ, by the Spirit, and an articulation of Israel’s role and salvation, and ecclesiological (the Church) instructions for unity within the body of believers. These, within themselves, are substantial subjects, worthy of ten Deep Dives each! However, we have only a few weeks in Romans, so I will do my best to be brief but provide plenty of extra reading material and sources for you to explore this beautifully rich and significant letter for yourself!
For this Deep Dive I want to focus on ‘the gospel’ and what Paul means by this in Romans. The gospel in a traditionally Western evangelical sense has been the ‘good news.' That being: Jesus the Messiah, has come to Earth, lived a sinless life, was crucified in your place, and for your sins, and if you put your faith in Jesus, you will gain access to Heaven and be saved from eternal damnation. A kind of recipe of redemption for humankind. While this is true and we can see the evidence of this good news being declared across the world in millions of places of worship, seeing millions of people enter the church and family of God every year, it has been the mission of many scholars to review the meaning and intent of the gospel so we can fully understand all that it encompasses.
the new perspective
On the shoulders of exegetical giants such as Krister Stendahl, E.P Sanders, James G. Dunn, comes a heavyweight in his own right, New Testament scholar N.T Wright. Wright is heralded as the ‘poster boy’ for what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). This perspective finds its origin in the historical-critical category of text criticism, which like TYB, tries to examine what an author might have been trying to say in the context of when something was written. The perspective regarding the Pauline gospel in Romans, articulated by Wright is as follows:
“When Paul talks about ‘the gospel’, he means ‘the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world’… it’s good news for you and me. But that’s the derivative from or the corollary of the good news which is a message about Jesus that has a second-order effect on me, you and us. But the gospel is not itself about, you are this sort of a person, and this can happen to you. That’s the result of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.”
This perspective allows one to more easily survey the biblical narrative from Adam in Genesis through the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, concerning the Prophets, climaxing in the Messiah’s fulfilment and subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all believers. Wright takes the gospel message to a whole new dimension and highlights for us that the good news comes in the fulfillment of Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel.
In contrast, we have a more Traditionally Reformed definition of the Gospel, as articulated in history by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Johnathan Edwards. Today championed by the likes of D.A Carson and John Piper is expressed as follows:
"The Gospel is the good news of our final and full enjoyment of the glory of God in the face of Christ… this enjoyment had to be purchased for sinners at the cost of Christ’s life… And that this enjoyment is a free and unmerited gift… But the price Jesus paid for the gift and the unmerited freedom of the gift is not the gift. The gift is Christ himself as the glorious image of God – seen and savoured with everlasting joy."
In this view, the focus is on the purchased cost and price that Christ paid for our sin, which we enjoy as a free gift. The incredible depth of these respective statements is not easily overstated. However, one critique of each must be noted, and after which I shall provide you with some resources to be able to explore these ideas and thought schools independently.
The New Perspective on Paul is charged with revisiting a text to reinterpret new meaning without adequate basis for doing so. This when done carelessly, can be an issue. It can lead to neglecting the systematic articulation of the method of justification and application for a believer's life.
Trashing Tip: Check out John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T Wright & Newman’s Jesus & the Restoration of Israel for some further reading.
A critique of the Reformed perspective lays in the relationship between the Gospel and justification, and the threat of individualism. Developed from Luther’s exegetical work, in particular around Romans 7, Stendahl writes that Paul was not battling a carnal, individual sin issue as Luther was, and subsequently, there was a misfocussing of Paul’s rhetoric in Galatians and Romans. In particular, that the language of justification and gospel are covenantal and for a purpose, much less mechanical through the language of imputation and reconciliation. This was an understood concept by Paul, and not by any means unimportant. Rather, Paul’s arguments were aimed at the identification of the people of God.
So what do we get out of this? The gospel message is so in-depth that even 2000 years after its fulfilment, we are still working out the fullness, richness, depth of what ‘the gospel’ is and what the Bible is. In fact, saying that Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. I think we will still be having those moments of fresh revelation while in Heaven, with a new facet of God and His nature being revealed every second.
As you read Romans, you’ll see the term ‘justification’ over and over again, so to finish this incredible study of the gospel, I just wanted to add a brief word on justification from Wright.
“‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological (End times) definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. ‘Justification’ is … the declaration of God, the just Judge, that someone is declared right, that their sins are forgiven, and a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham.”
Answered by Piper, in a view representative of a traditionally Reformed perspective,
“Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone… Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God…Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.”
Wow! I know I’ve given you guys a lot to think about, so take your time digesting this deep dive! I’ll leave you with a few closing comments. These perspectives are not as mutually exclusive or divisive as first exposure might appear. These views are both orthodox and merely examine Paul and his arguments in different lights, with emphases on different themes and criticisms. The NPP is not around to undercut the Gospel, or to stir up strife, nor should the traditionally Reformed perspective be left as it is. Rather, may it continue to be developed and nurtured carefully as its namesake suggest. Take comfort in the fact that we as readers so far removed from the texts we are reading that we will not understand all there is to know, but we can trust scholarly work, and above all, the illumination of the Holy Spirit in bringing to life, the beautifully sacred Word of God.
The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas Moo
Romans by Craig Keener
What Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright
The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright by John Piper
The Epistle to the Romans by F.F. Bruce
Exposition of Romans Series by Martyn Lloyd Jones
Romans by James G. Dunn
The Epistle to the Romans by Leon Morris
The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West by Krister Stehndahl
Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders
Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul's Most Famous Letter by Richard Longenecker