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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Romans 9-16

As we complete Paul's Letter to the Romans, there are two major portions on which I'd like to focus our attention. First, chapters 9-11 contain Paul's impassioned effort to outline a logic by which his fellow Jews should, can, and will be saved by God. The emphasis here is on God's righteousness to his promises to Israel, that the promises are not being abandoned but rather made more sweeping, more inclusive of the rest of the world. Second, chapter 12 offers a beautiful portrait of the life to which all of us Christians should aspire. The final chapters, of course, also bear reading: chapter 13 has a strange defense of civil authority; chapter 14 offers a sneak peak at the issue of food that we will see developed so wonderfully in the next letter, First Corinthians; and chapters 15 and 16 outline Paul's hopes and plans to get to Rome and the greetings he would like passed on to all the individuals he knows there. It's all quite lovely, but I want to focus on these other sections.

Paul has been struggling with the Jew-Gentile question throughout this letter, and after arriving at the sweeping statement of faith at the end of chapter 8 that "nothing...can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," he turns back to the problem of then saving the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. He affirms the importance of our Jewish heritage, the key elements that ancient Israel brings to our understanding of our relationship with God, but then outlines a tortured plan by which the bringing of the Gentiles to faith will make Jews jealous and therefore eventually cause them to come to faith as well. There are two underlying problems for Paul, I think: first, he assumes without question or comment that God will only save some of humanity; second, he then makes it sound as if faith in Christ is a requirement for salvation, which seems to me to turn it into a work of its own and thus a way to earn that salvation. This latter problem is a contradiction of all that has gone before (works get us nowhere with God, he has argued; our good works should be a response to our faith that we are beloved of God). The first problem - of limited salvation - is endemic to the vast majority of religions and religious perspectives, but I will always argue that it seems plausible to me to believe in universal salvation and still find Paul's approach to faith compelling. This is not the place to rehearse that argument, but I do suggest that you consider the possibility as you read this letter.

Finally, 12:9-21 is just a piece of beautiful writing that offers a portrait of the perfect Christian life, one in which we "hold fast to what is good" and treat all others as we would wish to be treated. It is yet another demonstration of Paul's preeminence in exploring and outlining what it means to live believing in Christ Jesus our Lord.