By Wesley Hill
It’s not hard to find superlative descriptions of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “I think that the Epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, cutting to the chase. This particular Pauline letter, according to the New Testament scholar A.M. Hunter, “century after century … has been the flame at which one great Christian leader after another … has kindled his own torch to the revival of the church and the enrichment of Christendom.” Hunter was no doubt thinking of the powerful encounters that St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Karl Barth, and countless others had with Romans, which do seem to suggest that this epistle has a unique potency.
If I had to take a stab at defining that potency, I would follow John Barclay’s recent lead in his book Paul and the Gift, which points to the way Romans spotlights the incongruity of divine grace. There is a breathtaking mismatch between our lives and the gift of God in Christ.
You can see that already in the readings we’ve been given for the first week of Epiphany by the Good Book Club. The bulk of them — almost the entirety of the first two chapters of Romans — zero in on the rebellion and lostness of human beings, Jew and Gentile alike. No one escapes the dragnet of Paul’s indictment. Idol worshipers are condemned (1:21-23), but so are those who sit on the sidelines and cheer them on (1:31). Moral degenerates are targeted for judgment (1:29-30), but so are those who are serenely confident of their moral integrity (2:1).
Despite all that, God gives human beings a share in his righteousness, completely free of charge. In the translation of the New English Bible, Paul’s thesis statement for the entire letter reads like this:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith—the Jew first, but the Greek also—because here is revealed God’s way of righting wrong, a way that starts from faith and ends in faith; as Scripture says, “He shall gain life who is justified through faith.” (1:16-17)
It would make more sense and elicit no surprise if Paul had written “the judging power of God” and “God’s way of punishing wrong” instead of “the saving power of God.” But the gospel Paul preached was one of a counterintuitive, unexpected mercy that transcends rational calculation and defies traditional moral logic. In spite of humanity’s refusal of God’s love and its headlong sprint away from its source of life, God gives the gift of Jesus Christ to the unworthy anyway — as we will read on January 18, the day on which we remember another forgiven sinner (St. Peter) and his confession, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:8).
Perhaps our era is especially ripe for another liberating encounter with the gospel found in Romans. More than any time I can recall, our cultural moment is marked by a profound awareness of human wickedness. From the #MeToo revelations that showcase human exploitation and hubris, to the ever more dismaying reports on climate change that put human arrogance and acquisitiveness in stark relief, to the horrific failure of human compassion on graphic display in the emaciated bodies of Yemeni civilians, human goodness and moral uprightness seem to have received their final coffin nail. We know, maybe as we have never known before, that we are corrupt and guilty before the bar of justice, awaiting a richly deserved death sentence.
But Romans announces a gospel precisely for those in coffins — that is, all of us. God, according to Romans, is the one who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17). God is the one who “has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has determined to rescue wayward human beings and their world, returning them and it to himself in radiant newness. It’s a gift we could never earn or, given an eternity, ever comprehend.
In that light, we can better understand the spluttering superlatives. Coleridge was right: Romans is the most profound work in existence.