Series editor’s note: Throughout 2022, “Deeper understandings” will feature biblical scholars sharing some of their favorite books of the Bible. Next month, Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler will continue this theme. —Kathryn A. Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, on behalf of the ELCA’s seminaries
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).
Selecting a favorite book of the Bible to write about is like being asked to choose your favorite child. However, I have decided to write about my love for Paul’s letter to the Romans because my understanding of it has deepened over time. Every rereading of this letter yields new insights and calls me into a deeper relationship with God, self and neighbor.
As Lutherans we are familiar with Martin Luther’s transformational encounter with this text. To rediscover the power of the gospel, Luther had to get only as far as Paul’s thematic statement in 1:16-17 regarding God’s righteousness through faith for faith.
Our being in God is what binds us together with all living beings.
Because Paul’s theological insights in Romans are so deep, it has inspired more books and commentaries than any other book in the New Testament. Many, if not most, interpretations focus on the first half of the letter, in which Paul describes the new reality inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Paul’s narration of how God is known in a new way through Jesus anticipates the second part of the letter, in which he elaborates on the implications of that revelation for how we live and love.
Beginning in Chapter 6, Paul describes the lifelong process of transformation we undergo through our identification with the death and resurrection of Christ. Here Paul dwells on our participation in the divine life through Christ and the Spirit so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (4). The gospel is ultimately about who we are becoming in Christ. Indeed, it is a matter of becoming like him, “conformed to the image” of Christ (8:29).
The first few chapters of the letter emphasize God’s righteousness—that is, being rightly related to God, self, neighbor and creation through faith or trust, which is the primary meaning of the Greek word for faith (pistis). Faith isn’t simply a matter of belief. It’s a way of being in the world, a way exemplified by Jesus, who, as the incarnation of divine love, lived not for himself but for others.
In Romans 5-8, Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t simply events that happened to him. Rather, Paul describes an experience of being joined to Christ in his death so that, like him, we might be liberated from that separate sense of self—what we know as the ego. We are to love our neighbor as God loves us (13:9, citing Leviticus 19:8), and in so doing become like Christ, who “did not please himself” (15:3).
The climax of the first part of Romans is Chapter 8, in which Paul depicts how “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (2). However we might understand the nature of sin in its various expressions, the underlying cause is the illusion of a separate self.
Christ’s living and dying for us, Paul writes, is proof of the divine love that redeems and transforms us by joining us to Christ and his community and unveiling the illusion of separation (5:8). The God of Jesus is the Creator, and the divine love we know through him is the power through which all things exist. We experience this divine love as a sense of belonging and connection, as the absence of separation.
Everything Paul has written thus far about what God has done in Christ has been about righteous love—about being brought into right relation with God, self and neighbor. The whole creation, Paul writes, is waiting with eager longing for us to actualize our identity as beloved offspring of God and to embody this divine love in our relationships with others.
Christ’s living and dying for us is proof of the divine love that redeems and transforms us.
At the end of Romans 8, Paul writes that nothing will “be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (39). This means that divine love is ever-present, and hence we should abide in that creative and life-giving source of all that is, of our shared being. Our being in God is what binds us together with all living beings, and in the remaining chapters of Romans, Paul depicts the character of God’s love in the context of our relationships with others.
Throughout Romans, the righteousness and love of God described offer a way of perceiving and being in relationship. They describe a sense of shared being in God. “Let love be genuine,” Paul exhorts followers of Jesus. “Love one another with mutual affection” (12:9). In Chapter 13 he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (8).
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (15:7).