Jesus presented himself as the Savior. First of all he wanted to save the Jewish people. He spoke to them of the kingdom and they understood that God would reign over them just as he would reign in their lives. Their collective aspirations were not unknown to him, but he oriented them towards a more universal mission: it was truly “good news” for them.
With the beginning of the mission into Roman territory the Gospel had equally to be good news for the Greeks of the Roman Empire who were listening to the word of the apostles. Protected by solid structures that no-one questioned, they did not share the Jewish longing for liberation. In absorbing them the Roman Empire had practically reduced to nothing the pride and ambitions of nations great and small, leaving a void for religious concerns to take root. These people were interested in all that related to the human person and searched high and low in a jumble of doctrines and religions as a means of escaping Fate. So it was essential to speak to them of Christ, as the one who unravels our contradictions and gives us life.
In this letter to the Christians of Rome, capital of the Empire, Paul intends to respond to the concerns of the Greeks but without thereby neglecting the Jews.
The Letter to the Romans is for the most part a long exposition about Christian vocation. To us it will seem difficult, because that is what it is. It must be remembered that Paul’s teaching does not stem from a doctrinal system or from a theology: rather it constantly springs from his own experience. The encounter with the Risen Christ, the call made to Paul that put him at the service of the Gospel, the long experience as an apostle, the gifts of the Spirit acting in him and constant communion with Jesus: these were the sources of his vision of faith.
So Paul spoke of God’s salvation as if forgetful of the explosive Palestinian context where Jewish nationalism was at grips with the Romans and where all religious hopes were politicized. God’s salvation is the salvation of the human race, a total project, but taking place in the heart of people; all will depend on our response to God’s call: can we trust him?
Paul, marked by his own history, presents the beginning of faith as dramatic conversion. People are slaves to Sin (it would be necessary to understand what Paul means by that). We have been created to share the life of God, and as long as we do not achieve this we carry within ourselves a conscious or unconscious rebellion against God. Must we turn towards religion? We would gain very little, says Paul, with insistence that will shock many people: as long as we believe in becoming “good” through religious practices we turn our back on the only power that can free us: God’s merciful love. The only response he expects from us is our act of faith, a faith which immediately frees us.
This salvation is the one announced by the Bible, but it will disconcert those believers who do not go beyond religious practices. These belong to a first stage of sacred history that ended with Jesus’ death. Our baptism gives us entrance to a mysterious world which is no other than the Risen Christ: from now on we are “in Christ”, and living by his Spirit. The gift of the Spirit opens a new era where all is inspired by the law of love, for those who have become true sons and daughters of God.
Why Did Paul Send This Letter?
Paul had decided to leave the Eastern provinces of the empire and to reach its very heart, that is to say, Rome (Rom 15:23). But others had established and formed that community, Peter for sure, and many others who are unknown. These Christians already had their own ways and their customs. Some of them had heard comments that did not predispose them favorably toward Paul and his methods. Therefore, it is understandable that Paul wanted to prepare his coming. He may have been thinking even more about the Jerusalem Christians who were spreading rumors and slandering him (Acts 21:21). Before Paul went to Rome, he had to go to Jerusalem to bring the proceeds of the collection taken in the Greek communities for the poor of Jerusalem. Paul was not too sure of being welcomed as a brother (Rom 15:31). So, he sent this letter to Rome, knowing that it would quickly reach Jerusalem. In this letter, Paul dwells on the complementary vocation of the Jews and the pagans.
His calls for mutual understanding, that make up the content of chapters 13-15 of this letter, were important concerns of Paul at the time. Even if he addressed the Jewish community of Jerusalem in a special way, his remarks were not out of place in Rome. There, like everywhere, it was not easy to gather Jews and converted pagans in the same community. Paul was already preaching what we fail to put into practice, namely, to accept one another with our differences.
Paul probably sent this letter from Corinth in the winter of 57-58.
The Letter to the Romans in the Church
It is now impossible to speak of the letter to the Romans without saying at least a word on the place it has held and continues to hold in Protestant Churches. It has been considered by many as the key to the interpretation of the whole bible.
It is known that Luther deepened the Reformation by commenting on this epistle. He was not wrong in seeing in this letter the condemnation of a Church established in the world, where faith had been degraded, becoming no more than practice devoid of faith which saves. The Christianity of the Middle Ages was in fact a people, rather like what the people of Israel had become. A person was a Christian by birth and continued to be one; he/she could be a believer, but as one is in any culture whatever. It was thought that salvation was gained by religious rites and by the practice of good deeds that merited heaven.
It was therefore very important to remember that faith is at the heart of every conversion, and that this conversion is the response to a freely given call from God. This letter emphasizes Christ the Savior and this emphasis was sufficient to devaluate the whole religious system which at the time was crushed by tradition and devotions. There was faith, at a time when preaching rarely touched on anything other than morality with its catalogues of moral principles. There was the word of God directed towards the individual person at a time when people were quite happy to trust Church leaders. It was then, a radical criticism of the Church which ended up looking at itself instead of turning towards God, and of a Church whose whole system – political, doctrinal and repressive, blocked the horizon.
We have said, however, that this letter had its roots in Paul’s experience as a Jew, a Pharisee and as an apostle called directly by Christ. It is from that point that Paul spoke of sin and justification, of call, of salvation through faith. For their part, Luther and his contemporaries read this letter against the backdrop of their own problems – or better – of their anguish.
They magnified the perspective of sin and eternal condemnation, victims of a philosophy (nominalism) in which nothing was good or bad in itself but only if God declares it so. Because of that, everything Paul said about predestination of the Jewish people was interpreted by them as a personal predestination to heaven or hell.
When Paul spoke of justification – a word which at that time had a large and imprecise meaning – he meant that God re-establishes in us an order which is the true one; they understood instead that, if we believe, God will accept us even if nothing has been changed in us. The great perspectives of humankind and history as a battlefield of sin and grace, were reduced to a personal problem: am I really free or am I enslaved to sin or grace. Taking literally Paul’s images and comparisons, a doctrine of original sin was developed in which we all pay now and forever, for the sin of our first ancestors.
Several generations of protestants and catholics have been marked by these controversies: salvation through faith alone, or through faith and works, or through faith, works and sacraments? The love of the Father who saves and of Christ the Savior were eclipsed in fact by an obsession for salvation: how can I escape from this rigid frame in which God confines me? The concept of a just God, of inexorable decisions, which so easily condemns people into hell would traumatize the West and prepare a revolt in the next centuries, that of militant atheism.
It is not pointless for us today to know this. We are all children of our time and the remedy, if we do not wish to be enslaved, is to not give over-importance to one biblical text to the detriment of others. When you have become familiar with Paul and first with the letter to the Romans you see that for him the Father of Jesus is really father, and passionately loved. Thousands of details are to be discovered in Paul that disclose his experience of a continual communion and a life “in” the Triune God, an experience very close to that of St. John.
That will not prevent us from finding in this letter just what Luther, after St. Augustine, saw there: a genial presentation of the mystery of humanity redeemed by Christ. There is a certain forgetfulness perhaps of this letter and of this doctrine which too often has allowed Catholics to hem themselves in by their practices and their sacraments, and neglect mission.