When Paul wrote to the Romans, he was obviously writing a missionary support letter of a sort. One can read Romans 1.15 and then jump into 15.23 (“[S]ince I no longer have any room. . . .) without losing virtually any coherence. Yet into this letter he “dropped,” as it were, a major exposition of his Gospel. This exposition has several features which, it seems to me, are unique among his letters. To wit:
a) Paul raises the possibility, through a forceful denial, of being ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1.16). Other letters address the issue of shame in terms of chains and imprisonment. I do not think any other letter raises the issue of the Gospel itself making a person ashamed.
b) Paul raises the false accusation that he teaches “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3.); I don’t think this is mentioned in any other letter.
c) This is the only letter that, when mentioning predestination, brings up objections as to how God can justly still find fault (Romans 9.19; compare 3.5-7).
d) This is the only letter where Paul sees a need to worry about the false inference, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6.1)
e) Romans is the only letter that ascribes the salvation of the Gentiles to the unbelief of Israel, and does so repeatedly, as if (!) climaxing a grand theme on which he has been building (Romans 11.15ff).
I am convinced these are unique features of Romans. I am also convinced that they are all one. Paul decides to give to the Romans a full eschatology of how God has brought about salvation in history. In doing so he explicitly points out that, in order to prepare for the “right time” (Romans 5.6) of propitiation in the blood of Jesus (Romans 3.25), of condemning sin in the flesh of Jesus (Romans 8.3), God had to multiply transgressions (Romans 5.20). To do so he called Abraham and then gave Abraham’s descendants the Law. The purpose of the law was to make sin abound so that Jesus could be at the right place at the right time to receive the condemnation into himself.
In my view, then, Romans is the answer to the problem of John 3.16. For without Romans, we get this accusation: “For God so loved the world, that, after waiting thousands of years, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Indeed, Romans is a letter that explicitly addresses the need to vindicate God’s righteousness in how he has dealt with Israel and the world. Its argument section begins (Romans 1.16-17) with a quotation from Habakkuk (2.4) and ends (Romans 11.34-36) with quotations from the book of Job (35.7; 41.11). Both these books plainly deal with the question—“Which human is righteous?”—though I doubt many would have argued for it as a major theme in Habakkuk if the Apostle Paul hadn’t drawn attention to that one verse. But both these books also plainly deal with the question “How can God be counted righteous on the basis for what he does in history?”
Romans begins and ends with an appeal to an Old Testament theodicy. In Habakkuk, God’s character is exonerated on the basis that he is bringing worldwide salvation: “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:12-14 ESV).
Job is not so explicit, but it ends with God’s righteousness being demonstrated by his presence, by the acknowledgment that he has purposes we don’t understand, and implicitly by Job receiving more blessings and honor than before.
Paul’s argument in Romans is, likewise, that God’s righteousness is vindicated because he has brought about worldwide salvation (Romans 11.25-36). “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32 ESV).
A Brief Diversion Into A Typological Story
Paul argues from the covenant of circumcision (Romans 3.1ff) and the calling of Abraham (Romans 4.1ff). Perhaps we should consider some material in Genesis. We find circumcision established in Genesis 17, but it seals the covenant made by sacrifice in Genesis 15 and the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3. Abraham is to bring blessing to all the families on the earth (Genesis 12.3)—a fact Paul expresses by saying that Abraham is to be heir to the cosmos (4.13) and the father of “many nations” (4.17), that is, Gentiles.
While Christian readers will, like Paul, think that the true fulfillment of the promise to Abraham come to pass in Jesus of Nazareth, the book of Genesis itself offers a picture of that fulfillment. Joseph is exalted to the right hand of the world emperor and is a blessing to all the families of the earth by saving them from starvation. He also saves his own people, the descendants of Abraham. And in doing so, Joseph explained his position to his brothers by saying that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45.8b). One cannot help but recall God’s promise to Abraham when he established circumcision: “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 17:5-6 ESV).
It is quite easy to see Joseph as the true son of Abraham who was a means of blessing precisely because he was faithful to the Abrahamic covenant. That would be true but it wouldn’t be the complete story. Genesis shows us that all the rulers of Israel are involved in Joseph’s relocation to Egypt where he is exalted to the throne. While God uses Joseph’s faithfulness, he also uses Israel’s unfaithfulness to fulfill the promise to Abraham: “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt’” (Genesis 45:4-8 ESV).
And to make sure we don’t forget how God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers, it is repeated again in Genesis: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you. And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50.15-21 ESV).
I have no idea if any Israelites, when hearing this story, found it shameful. To confess that God used the unfaithfulness of Israel to bring about the salvation of the world sounds like a story to which someone might object, “This is teaching, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’” (compare Romans 3.8). Or they might mock it: “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (compare Romans 6.1)
What if some did not want to repent of their crimes against Joseph? Perhaps they could have objected, “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, then God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us” (compare Romans 3.5). And if they knew their sin was essential to God’s plan to save the world, then they could object, “Why does God still find fault with us, for who resists his will?”
The story of Joseph and his brothers is a reassuring story that Israel’s faithlessness could not nullify the faithfulness of God to his covenant promise to bring salvation to the nations and to Israel (Romans 3.3). I am not going to attempt to prove that this typology was actually God’s intention or Paul’s reading of the story. I simply set it out as a way to think through Paul’s argument in Romans and the objections he feels he must deal with.