We have come to the first of this quarter’s lessons which actually takes up the study of the text itself. This week, we will be examining the first two chapters of Romans. The previous two weeks were introductory in nature, discussing context and historical background.
As we begin a more direct study of the Word, let’s put on our seat belts and go beyond the typical discussions surrounding the book of Romans. We have just completed a series on Galatians, so the subject matter should be familiar to us—not to mention that those of us who have been in the church for any length of time have seen similar studies on Romans and Galatians time and again.
When it comes to books such as Romans, the typical Adventist Bible study focuses primarily on establishing two main points:
- Adventists believe in salvation by grace through faith (not works), and,
- This doesn’t mean that we can do away with the law of God.
We focus on these two points so much, in fact, that some might even wonder if there is anything else to discuss in Romans. In this commentary, however, we will delve into many other important topics. In this article, I will list a series of open-ended questions exploring various aspects of Romans, and allow the conversation in the comments, if such a conversation ensues, to guide my approach to future lessons.
To do the topic justice, we will need to break the conversation into three parts: Paul and the early church, the Protestant Reformation, and Adventist history. These are the three focal points that affect where we stand today as a church.
Paul and the Early Church
In my opinion, the first issue that must be addressed in any discussion is epistemology—what are our sources of knowledge and what is the final tribunal that differentiates between them? Most Protestants today still claim to have some affinity for the Sola Scriptura slogan, but the phrase has become nearly meaningless. Everyone uses some type of lens to interpret Scripture, whether tradition, church councils, philosophy, science, Biblical scholarship, etc. What should be our source, and what lens should we use? How does this affect our reading of Romans?
Along these lines, how dependent is our understanding of the gospel on Paul’s writings? If we removed everything written by Paul from Scripture, would we still arrive at the same gospel? This is pertinent because there are 39 other authors of the Bible, and Paul is someone who didn’t even get to spend time with Jesus during His earthly ministry, like the other apostles. How does this affect our understanding of Canonical Theology?
Can (or should) the gospel be used as a hermeneutic? Many have concluded that Paul’s expression of the gospel in Romans and Galatians is the most important part of Scripture, and therefore everything else in Scripture should be interpreted through the lens of the gospel. Is this a good idea?
Finally, how compatible is Paul’s understanding of soteriology with the theory of evolution? Would we be able to make sense of Paul’s gospel without an Adam and Eve, or a Fall?
The Protestant Reformation
When it comes to the Reformation, many of us are accustomed to think of a united movement of reformers standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the Catholic Church. Historian Carlos Eire chose to title his textbook on the Reformation with the plural title Reformations—the reason being that a careful study of what took place during that time shows that, in fact, there were not one but several distinct movements. In our study of Romans through the eyes of the reformers, we have to ask whether we are looking at the gospel as understood by Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, next-generation Lutheran or Reformed theologians, the Anabaptists, etc. If Adventists are supposed to be the heirs of the Reformation, which of these viewpoints do we represent?
To what degree were the reformers influenced by Augustine, especially his notion of Original Sin, and to what degree can we agree with this? Does this impact our understanding of the gospel?
As Adventists, we have had a somewhat checkered history when it comes to soteriology. The pioneers who passed through the Great Disappointment tended to be fairly well grounded in the gospel. However, as new concepts like the Sanctuary, the Law, the State of the Dead and Hell, the Great Controversy, and the Health Message were introduced, and as Adventists were forced to defend these views before other Christians, a new generation of Adventists emerged that allowed the gospel to be eclipsed by other topics. By the way, how compatible is the Adventist doctrine of the Sanctuary with the Protestant gospel?
In 1888, Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White attempted to rearrange Adventist priorities and place Christ and the gospel back at the center of Adventism. To what extent was the gospel as preached by Jones and Waggoner similar to the one preached by the reformers? Did Jones and Waggoner go too far in their emphases, and if so, in what respect? There are groups in Adventism that believe Jones and Waggoner introduced a fuller understanding of the gospel than ever before in history. Can this view be substantiated?
Moving forward from 1888, what influence did the events surrounding Questions on Doctrine in the 1950-60’s have on Adventist soteriology? Could we identify different factions in the church with distinct views of the Gospel since that time? What impact did Glacier View have on Adventist soteriology and on where are we today, almost four decades later? And finally, no study of Adventist soteriology would be complete if we didn’t bring up the question of character perfection and the close of probation.
All in all, does Adventism have anything to contribute to the 2000-year-old discussion on soteriology?
The Fundamentals of the Gospel
With these questions in the back of our minds, let’s take a quick look at the first two chapters of Romans. The passage that quickly grabs our attention in the first chapter is,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
As Christians, we read the New Testament believing that the early church was able to unlock a tremendous source of power in the gospel which transformed them into exceptional human beings. Whatever we might deliberate about theology and soteriology, does our understanding of the gospel allow us to also unlock the source of its strength? (Since, in the end, the proof really is in the pudding.)
Paul gives away a major hint in the very next verse:
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:17)
Not just the sinner, but the just shall live by faith. This then becomes an excellent introduction to Paul’s subsequent description of the human condition. The remainder of the first chapter details the wickedness of the wicked, the fact that they know better, and that God is perfectly just in the punishments He will eventually shower on them.
Of course, none of this is anything new to Paul’s readers—Jew or Gentile—until he suddenly changes directions and turns the microscope on them as well. As different as they may have thought themselves from those performing the wicked acts, they also had dishonored God and shared the same condemnation. In the end, Paul succeeds in creating a crisis that desperately calls for a solution. One major reason why people don’t appreciate the gospel is because they have never been brought to a clear understanding of their condition.
It was because Paul had tried so hard to earn his salvation as a Pharisee that he so cherished the gospel of righteousness by faith. It was because Martin Luther struggled for years to overcome sin on his own that he was willing to risk his life for the gospel once he finally understood it. It is only as we come to recognize our own condition and our inability to change ourselves that God’s gift becomes meaningful to us as well.
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom 3:10-18)
God’s verdict to us all is,
…all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Romans 3:23b)
And His solution for us is that we can be,
…justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: (Romans 3:24b)
Thus, people tend to go through several phases:
- First, they ignore the gospel. This is where the majority of people are. For whatever reason, their standing with God and their eternal destiny is not important to them.
- Those who make it to the second phase start to realize that they would prefer to go to heaven rather than to hell. Or perhaps they are going through some difficulties, and sense a need for divine help. So they begin to look at their lives and attempt to change those things which they believe God might not be happy with. They even begin to intentionally perform good deeds once in a while. And, after having made sufficient changes, some even begin to see themselves as better people, deserving of God’s favor (this is how Pharisees are born).
- Finally, some people go on to the third phase and come to realize that their efforts to be good are unsuccessful—either because they are unable to break the hold of sin in their lives, or because their battle with sin opens their eyes to how deeply rooted sin is, much beyond the outward behavior. Usually, this is when depression and discouragement set in, along with the realization that they will very likely eventually be lost. It is here that the gospel of righteousness by faith can be truly appreciated and becomes life-changing.
With these questions, we have opened up several avenues for discussion that surround the book of Romans in general, and the first two chapters in particular. Where we go from here is up to the reader. One thing is certain: there is much to discuss—all of which is very pertinent to the present-day Adventist church.