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.