It’s commonly believed that if you misunderstand Paul’s epistle to Romans – you will misunderstand the rest of the New Testament. It’s not surprising therefore that many of the major Christian theological debates and schisms are rooted in some rather fundamental misunderstandings about the purpose and the contents of the message of Paul in the book of Romans.
The problems begin with mis-perceiving the very purpose of that book. Typically, the “Romans” is construed as a map to some sort of a “road to salvation”, which is not too bad of an idea in general. But then comes the first problem: “salvation” is construed from the standpoint of penal substitution. That is, salvation means going to heaven and not going to “hell”, after death. As Dr. NT Wright points out, this is an extemely oversimplified soteriology which is based more on pagan ideas about afterlife and about placating angry gods than it is on actual Biblical narratives. With this view, Romans chapters 9 and 11 (about Israel’s place in God’s New Covenant economy) do not have any logical place in the epistle. They stand out like a sore thumb. Even many Calvinist-leaning scholars, who base their hyper-sovereignty of God theology on Romans 9, readily concede this point.
But what if we change how we see the book of Romans in a major way? I suggest to you that rather than being focused on heaven-vs-hell artificial dichotomy, the “Romans” traces the history of God dealing with humankind in the area of DIVINELY COMMISSIONED VOCATION of humankind, and that humankind united with their creator is the exclusive instrument THROUGH WHICH God will work out his plan of salvation. Human vocation has always been to function as a nation of kings and priests, who serve as divine conduits of salvation to the ENTIRE WORLD. In other words, Romans is primarily about our vocation, and only then about our salvation.
With this proposed view, the entire epistle to Romans flows together without any logical hiccups, and the story of Israel in chapter 9 through 11 fits with the overall narrative perfectly well. After all, the story of Israel is an important piece of God’s history of working through humankind. This view is gaining a rapidly increasing popularity within the modern New Testament scholarship. Once you begin to see things this way, you will be surprised how you could have ever seen it any differently.
Now, about the word “salvation”. In Romans, as in the rest of the New Covenant Scriptures, “salvation” means “rescue”. In context, this in turn means “bringing about the benevolent rule of God which is characterized by beauty, abundance, and order”. Salvation, thus construed, is meant to keep increasing in scope and in effectiveness – ultimately culminating in human immortality, in all nations being blessed in every aspect of their existence, and in God’s majestic and life-giving power and glory witnessed first-hand by every living thing.
As you see, this is a much broader perspective than the typical individualistic “fire insurance” sort of salvation policy. The idea of “salvation” as “going to heaven” (as if you aren’t there already if you are in Christ) and not going to “hell” (whatever that even means to an average believer) are firmly anthropocentric.
With the traditional Western church view of salvation, your personal safety and security are in the center of things. Here, you are firmly on level one of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Transactional, punishment-based, criminal-law model of so-called “salvation” can’t even touch Maslow’s levels 2 through 5 (i.e., love, acceptance, living on purpose, altruism, long-term planning, self-actualization, etc.). This perspective is exactly what makes this model of Christianity largely irrelevant for grown-ups who aren’t very interested in solving cryptic and heavily speculative afterlife dilemmas, and who instead are interested in finding the kinds of things that can be proven to actually work in THIS life.
In contrast, the model of salvation which I am proposing here is the answer to the longings of the entire creation, who eagerly waits in anticipation for the revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19; the term “sons” is gender-neutral here). Nothing is left out, and nothing is left to chance. God saves us from every problem, he presents us with solutions to every single need of not only human species, but to the needs of the entire creation. And God does that through US – his earthly family.
The effectiveness of how fast that happens is directly dependent on how well we are yielded to God’s global and all-encompassing vision, and how we we learn to unlock the most important puzzle of our faith walk: “Christ ALREADY in YOU, which is the hope [confident expectation] of glory [manifest excellence of God-caliber and of God-scope]”.
This understanding is tightly tied to the understanding of what is biblically meant by “righteousness”. The meaning if the term “righteousness” in Romans and in the rest of the New Covenant Scriptures has been obscured from us for centuries – primarily because of our fundamentally legalistic Western understanding of the entire story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
In the ancient Hebrew mind, righteousness is the outcome of things being set aright, as the result of God being faithful to his covenant promises. “Righteousness” means “being set right”, “being as it should be” as the result of God’s intervention. It’s a fundamentally ontological term (i.e., pertaining to actual things), rather than a juridicial / judicial / forensic term (i.e., pertaining to a purely legal / crime-and-punishment perspective on things). Righteousness is not a moral term either (i.e., pertaining to one’s valuation of things from a standpoint of some subjective moral standard).
Unfortunately, starting with Latin church fathers the Roman ideas of “iustitia” (forensic justice) became a de-facto understanding of the word “righteousness”. This, the entire Western church understanding of “righteousness” became fundamentally legalistic. Which led to salvation being viewed as a legal transaction of some sort. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the only Christian institution that I know of that preserved the original understanding of the ontological meaning of righteousness on the level of official church teachings. The more recent “saint movement” within the so-called spirit filled circles in Protestantism picked up on precisely this worldview.
Righteousness is when things function in the right way, according to their original design by God. Nothing less than that is acceptable. You can not impute wholeness to a broken glass. That’s nothing more than clever theological wordsmithing. It doesn’t fix anything. However – if you fix the glass in such a way that it’s as if it had never been broken – that’s when righteousness is manifested. What was broken has now been set aright.
This view is the entire “why” behind Jesus and the early apostles walking in divine power that brought as much healing and restoration as it did. And that power never stopped being available to us.
That’s why the REAL “Roman road to salvation” leads up to what the Eastern Orthodox to this day consider as the ultimate destination of all the faithful: theosis, or experiential union with God. “Theosis” literally means “deification” in Greek. It doesn’t mean that you get to become Yahweh, of course. It does mean that you get to actualize the implanted divine nature within you to the extent that it’s hard to see you as merely human. At that level, we become fully capable and fully awake spirit beings wearing a fleshly suit. We thus become divinely commissioned agents through which God will set this world right. We can mend what’s broken on a plane that mere Christian or any other religion can’t even touch.
How to get there is a different story. But as long as we keep this purpose in mind, we finally become teachable as to the “how to get there”.
Reread the book of Romans with this understanding in mind and see if it makes better sense to you. To me – this finally told me the REAL story of the entire Bible, as well as my place in it. There are a lot more wonderful and truly breathtaking (or breath-giving) details to it of course, but that’s the gist.
If you want to re-read Romans from this perspective, here are some word definitions to keep in mind.
Forensic system of thought.
Sin – transgression.
Death – separation from God.
Problem – guilt and punishment.
Remedy – someone else getting punished.
Your part – mental assent to a set of truth propositions.
Forgiveness – guilt absolution.
Righteousness – judicial justification.
Bottom line: if that’s the sum total of our Gospel – nothing of any visibility really got fixed. What’s broken is still just as broken.
Ontological system of thought – this will help you see the real meaning of righteousness, as demonstrated in the Gospels and Acts:
Sin – dysfunction.
To sin – to malfunction.
Condemnation – participation in dysfunction. (Greek Kata-krino – adverse decision. By default. It’s us, not God.)
Death – ultimate breakdown.
To die – cease to function.
Sin and death – dysfunction and ultimate breakdown.
Forgiveness – removal.
To forgive sins – to remove what’s preventing optimal God designed functionality.
Righteous – optimally functional.
Righteousness – optimum functionality.
Justification – re-adjustment of functionality
To justify – to functionally re-adjust
With this view, legal / forensic aspects of atonement / salvation are subsumed within this much larger picture. I am certainly not denying that certain legalities needed to be taken care of – but what I am saying is that they are not the main focus.