In the foregoing, I have attempted to show how Paul’s conversion is evident in his writings and how this is consistent with not only his writings, but with the “gospel” as described by any or all of the gospel writers.570 As I was thinking through the writings of Paul, it occurred to me that Romans, a book which Paul penned, is a theology of the gospel. Romans does, from a theologian’s perspective, what Acts does from a historian’s perspective. And so I tried to think through the Book of Romans with the conversion of Saul in mind. Below is a summary of the results. I believe this is an excellent opportunity for further study, meditation, and development.
The study of the Book of Romans is a lifetime undertaking, but it is helpful to gain an overview of the entire book. It is my conviction that the Book of Romans is Paul’s theology of salvation.571 I am further persuaded that the Book of Romans, in large measure, is a reflection of Paul’s own conversion. The salvation of which Paul speaks in very general terms is the same salvation which he has experienced in a very personal and dramatic way, the conversion described in Acts 9.
Paul’s introduction, found in chapter one, verses 1-18, is a reflection of his strong convictions concerning the gospel, based upon his own conversion and upon his own growth in grace and the truths revealed to him by God directly and through others. Paul is a man convinced of his mission. He is a “called apostle” (verse 1), which is an indirect reference to his conversion as recorded in Acts 9. The gospel is represented by Paul as the priority in his own life and also in the lives of those to whom he was writing (verse 8).
Paul was a man who was convinced that the gospel was to be his priority and the priority of all who believe in Christ. He was also convinced of the power of the gospel. A declaration of that power is to be found in our Lord’s resurrection (verse 4). But the gospel itself, the simple message of the crucified Christ, was viewed by Paul as “the power of God unto salvation.” No wonder he was content to preach Christ only, Christ simply, whether to Jews or to Gentiles. It was to the proclamation of this simple gospel that Paul devoted his life. Thus Paul’s preface introduced the subject of his work—the gospel—and also indicated its primary importance.
The Lord’s first words to Saul focused on his sin—of his persecution of the church. So too the premise on which Paul’s treatise begins is the sinfulness of man. One of the fundamental truths of the gospel is that men—all men, without exception—are sinners, not only undeserving of God’s favor but deserving of His eternal wrath. Paul begins with the ignorant, the heathen, in chapter 1, and then moves to the more enlightened, and finally to the Jew. In each case, however, the sin is the same in principle. God has revealed something of Himself to men, which they have chosen to reject and to replace with some “god” of their own. Paul’s conclusion is expressed in 3:9-20, using the words of several Old Testament texts. All men are sinners, who have resisted God and rejected His revelation. From head to toe (from their mouths to their feet), they practice this sin. The conclusion is that men cannot save themselves by their works, but can only condemn themselves. The law was not given as a means of salvation, but as a standard—a standard which all men fail to meet. Apart from divine intervention, man is hopelessly lost.
The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the wrath of God (cf. 1:18), is also revealed in the Son of God, who came to do for men what they could not do for themselves—obtain God’s salvation and blessings. The righteousness of God has been made available to men through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. He did meet the standards which were established by the law. He died, but not for His own sins. He died for the sins of men. In His death, the wrath of God has been satisfied. All men must do is to trust in His death for their sins. This salvation is by faith alone, apart from works.
Abraham (chapter 4) is proof that this principle of salvation by faith in God’s provision is the way in which God has saved men through the ages. While many Judaizers advocated salvation by law-keeping, Paul shows that Abraham’s salvation was both before the law (it came with Moses, much later on) and apart from his doing any work to merit it. Abraham simply believed God’s promise of a son, and this was reckoned as righteousness. This was years before the child was born and before he was circumcised. Abraham was saved by faith in that which God promised.
Chapter 5 turns our attention from the past to the future. Salvation is not a one-time experience, but it is a beginning of a whole new way of life. Thus, Paul reasons that if God saved us while we were still sinners, how much more will He do for those who are His children? The work of Christ not only procures our salvation; it also promises our sanctification. It not only saves us; it keeps us, so that we can be assured we will stand before God as righteous through His Son.
The question which might arise is this: “How is it that faith in one person (even Jesus) can save all who believe?” How can what one person does affect so many? Paul’s answer, in the second half of chapter five is this: “It was by one man—Adam—that all men became sinners; it is by one man (the second and last Adam572 that the effects of the first “Adam’s” sins were overthrown. Indeed, the works of the second Adam were greater than those of the first. Thus, it is by one man, Jesus Christ, and by one alone, that men are saved.
How well Paul knew these truths experientially. When God exposed his sin, Paul recognized that he was hopeless, apart from some divine provision, a provision based upon the principle of grace, not works. He was confronted by Christ, by Christ alone, and it was in Him (alone) that Paul trusted for salvation. Paul came to see (as Philippians 3 indicates) that his works did not commend him before God, but rather served to condemn him. It was by grace and through faith in Christ that Paul was saved. It was a salvation by grace and through faith which Paul preached. And this he showed to be consistent with the Old Testament revelation.
In chapter 5, Paul has already alluded to the on-going implications and application of the gospel. It not only saves a man; it keeps him. It not only provides forgiveness of past sins; it gives power over sin in one’s life. If in chapter 4 Paul protects “grace” from the legalism of those who would introduce “works” into the gospel, in these chapters Paul seeks to protect the gospel from license. There were (and are still) those who would suggest that God’s grace, manifested in Christ, allows the “saved sinner” to continue to live in sin. God’s provision for sin is used as a promotion for sin.
Paul shows in chapter 6 that salvation requires a change in one’s practice. The gospel is that men enter into the work of Christ by faith. In Christ, we who believe have died to our sin, free from its guilt and condemnation. God’s wrath on this sin has been appeased (propitiated). But we also enter into the resurrection of our Lord, who was raised into newness of life. Just as Jesus was transformed in His resurrection, we must be transformed in the way we live. We who profess to have died to sin cannot (from a logical point of view) continue to live in sin. Sanctification (on-going growth and movement toward holiness) is an integral part of salvation. Sanctification is an imperative for the Christian, not an option. We cannot accept the gospel and reject its implications.
In chapter 7 Paul moves on to show that the sanctification which is necessary is also humanly impossible. The problem is not with the law. It establishes a standard with which Paul’s inner man agrees, a righteousness in which he delights, and to which he aspires. The problem is with the flesh. Sin is more powerful than the flesh, and thus what the new man aspires to do, it does not accomplish, and that which it seeks to avoid, it does. The dilemma is a distressing one. Who will deliver us from this body that is dominated by sin and by death?573
The solution to sin’s domination of our weak flesh is the gospel. Just as men are powerless to save themselves, so they are powerless to live in a way that pleases God. What men could not do for themselves, God has done. The solution is not death, but resurrection. Who can deliver us from these bodies of death? The same Spirit who delivered our Lord’s body from death (Romans 8:11). It is by walking in the Spirit that God’s standards can be met.
While the Christian has the power to live a life free from the dominion of sin, that freedom will not be complete until sin (and its founder and promoter, Satan) is removed from this earth, and the universe is made new—until the kingdom of God is established on the earth. Until this time, the saint will experience suffering and groaning, due to the effects of sin. The earth likewise groans. But in this time of groaning, the Holy Spirit helps us, interceding for us, expressing to God those unutterable things which cannot be put in words (Romans 8:18-27).
But if our salvation is, to some degree, incomplete, awaiting its full manifestation in the kingdom of God, it is nonetheless certain. The final verses of chapter 8 focus on the sovereignty of God and thus the certainty of our salvation. Those whom God has chosen574 have their destiny laid out, and they will be saved, and all these will reach that goal for which God has destined them.575 God has already made all the plans and the provisions, and thus the realization of His promises are sure. The completion of the salvation for which we still await is sure. When God is for us, there is nothing to prevent us from the full and final experience of His promises. With this confidence, there is nothing left to fear (Romans 8:28-39).
Chapters 9-11 deal with the relationship of the gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Why is it that so many Jews reject Christ and oppose the gospel? And why is it that the Old Testament promises of salvation through a Jewish Messiah are being welcomed by the Gentiles in greater numbers than the Jews? This is the problem which Paul seeks to explain in Romans 9-11.
The first thing Paul wants to emphasize is that God is in control (sovereign). These things are not happening by chance or through some failure of the plan, but rather they are the outworking of God’s sovereign election. God chooses to save some, and not others. That may be hard to swallow, but it is surely clear. The very objections which Paul raises in chapter 9 are those which would be raised if election were being taught—which it is! God owes no one salvation. If He gave men what they deserved, all would perish. But in His grace, He has chosen to save some. Those who are saved are tokens of His grace. Those who perish are tokens of His wrath. At this point in time, God has chosen to save many more Gentiles and fewer Jews. In His sovereignty, this is His prerogative. It is His purpose. It is all going according to plan.
This is not to say that because God is sovereign, men have no responsibility, no role in the salvation of others. Neither is it to say that the gospel should only be preached to the “elect.” The gospel is a universal offer of salvation to all who believe. And the gospel must be proclaimed in order for men to receive it. Thus, it is the responsibility of men to proclaim the gospel and of the church to send some (like Paul), forth with the gospel. The things which are taking place should come as no surprise, for God foretold Israel’s disobedience and rejection, as well as the salvation of the Gentiles.
God is not finished with Israel, however. He has, for a time, blinded Israel, as a judgment for their rebellion and sin. How Paul must have identified with this blindness. Nevertheless, their “fall” is not final nor fatal, for God’s calling of the nation Israel is irrevocable (11:29). He will finish what He promised and what He has purposed. When God has accomplished His purposes through the Gentiles, He will give sight to this blind people, and they will be saved and serve the purpose for which God called them. Israel’s future is still a bright one, as dim as it might look at present. God will finish what He started with Israel too.
How Paul could identify with this! As previously said, Paul was a kind of personification of this truth. He was a kind of first-fruits of this promise. His salvation was promise of things to come.
The final chapters of the Book of Romans have to do with the Christian’s duty to others. All Christians, like Saul, were saved to serve God, as “living sacrifices.” God has given each their own gifts, which they are to use for the edification of others. The principle which should govern our relationships is that of love. God has given the saints specific strengths. These strengths are not to be the occasion for our looking down on those who are weaker but to enable us to minister to the weaknesses of others.
There is much to say about these last chapters, but the point is that Paul believed salvation was to be more than just an individualistic experience; it was to be one which brought men into a proper relationship with God (first) and then with their fellow men. Paul’s relationship with others was radically transformed by his conversion, and so should our own be. The gospel establishes a relationship with God, with His body, the church, and with the world.
How much Paul’s conversion, his own salvation, is reflected in his theology of salvation, as laid down in the Book of Romans. No wonder the conversion of this rebel is given so much attention in the Book of Acts. It is the foundation for many of the epistles—particularly those of Paul.
570 It is worthy to note that in the Book of Acts, while there are many different “preachers” and a number of accounts of conversions, the gospel is always the same. While Saul’s conversion (and subsequent growth and ministry) was indeed independent of the apostles, his message was the same as theirs. There is but one gospel, that which is consistently preached by all true apostles: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah. He came to the earth as man and God, in one Person, manifested God to men, was rejected by them, was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. He died for man’s sins, and all who trust in Him as God’s provision for salvation will be saved.
571 This assumes, correctly in my opinion, that salvation is viewed by Paul and others as something far bigger than merely an initial experience of salvation; it is an introduction to a new life. This is consistent with the invitation of Jesus, which was not only to “believe in Him” (which, of course, is a very important element -- cf. John 6:29), but to “follow Him.”
573 Incidentally, this text helps to put the account of Luke in Acts into perspective. Once Paul was saved, the struggle of the Christian life was not instantly over. This struggle (Romans 7), with its solution (Romans 8), is depicted in Romans.
574 The word here is “foreknown,” which here does not mean, “to know about ahead of time,” but rather “to choose or determine ahead of time.” In Romans 11:2 Paul spoke of Israel as those whom God had “foreknown,” a reference to their election (cf. Romans 9). Of course God knew “about” Israel, but the point is that He knew (= chose, cf. Genesis 18:19) Israel. God would not give up on the people He had chosen. This same sense is found in 1 Peter 1:20, where Christ is said to have been “foreknown before the foundation of the world.” Christ was not “known about” by God; He was chosen by God to be the Savior. The word “foreknown” is a reference to God’s sovereignty. What a comfort that is! If our eternal fate rested in our hands (a denial of God’s sovereignty), we would be in desperate straits. But since our fate rests with God, we are secure, for our salvation is secure. That which God began, God will finish (Philippians 1:6).
575 A word of clarification here about the terms which are found in Romans 8:28-29. Foreknow refers to God’s choice of those whom He will save, whom He will rescue from their sins. Predestined refers to the plan which God lays out for those whom He has chosen. It is like selecting someone to be given a free trip to Hawaii. Foreknowledge would be the selection process. Predestination would be the planning of the trip and the making of the accommodations. The calling is the carrying out of the choice and the plan, the execution of the process. Justification is the payment, the provision for the plan. Glorification is the culmination and the completion of the plan.