Forthright Magazine

Romans 1-3: A Non-Lutheran Reading

Today the Lutheran tradition shapes the pew’s predominant perspective of Romans. This tradition asserts Romans 1:16-17 informs us that the gospel reveals God gives righteousness on the basis of faith. However, another reading of the text, framed by the text, exists.

At least among academics, Martin Luther’s disdain for God’s righteousness in judgment is well-known. Luther acknowledged he “hated … active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners.”/1 Luther provided a paradigm shift for reading Paul. He redefined “the righteousness of God” from being who God is (a subjective genitive) to become what God gives (an objective genitive).

A second phrase in Romans 1:17, often regarded as enigmatic, is understood as underscoreing the Lutheran perspective that Paul is solely focused upon our faith. A comparison of various translations and commentaries reveals, that while uncertainty continues to cloud confidence on what “from faith to faith” (NASB) or “by faith from first to last” (NIV) means, the consensus focuses solely upon our faith.

An appreciation for ancient literary structures can cast an objective light on the apostle’s intentions and suggests a non-lutheran reading. Perceiving Romans 1:16-17 and Romans 3:21-26 as forming an inclusio, like the two ends of an Oreo cookie, can guide us toward understanding Paul’s message.

First, let’s consider the functions of the various parts of an inclusio. The two ends ought to reflect each other with the latter advancing the first. The sandwiched middle message should develop the theme(s) within the two ends and prepare for the latter’s richer reinstatement.

What do we find? The language and themes of Romans 1:16-17 and Romans 3:21-26 do echo each other. Both underscore the righteousness of God being revealed. Both portray an idea of faith unto faith. Both either explicitly or implicitly refer to the gospel. The message of both envelops all of humanity.

As for the Oreo middle, Paul extensively develops ideas associated with the righteousness of God. This text also contributes to the idea of gospel, albeit in a surprising manner. Furthermore it addresses not believing as well as faith which Bibles may translate as unfaithful and faithfulness  (Romans 3:3). And then finally it prepares us for the final part of the inclusio by casting an umbrella over all of humanity.

How can these inclusio components assist us in understanding Paul? Remember, the middle springboards off of the first end to develop its ideas. What do we find? Immediately after Romans 1:16-17, the apostle emphasizes that God’s judgement is just. Not only is God righteous when he pours out wrath, but God’s method in judging is extremely fair!

We might assume that Paul’s pen has drifted far from that gospel of which he is not ashamed when he wrote about God’s judgment. Not so fast! Paul asserted that the day in which God judges constitutes part of his gospel! (Romans 2:16). Thus when he explains how God’s principles of judgment are righteous, Paul has been proclaiming one aspect of how the gospel reveals God is righteous.

Theoretically someone could avoid condemnation since God does not automatically condemn but rather employs fair principles. However, in practice no one will escape because everyone has sinned and thus will face God’s righteousness in judgment. After reinforcing that the Jews can not circumvent God’s principles of judgment and therefore they stand condemned along with the rest of the world, Paul finally restates Romans 1:16-17 to provide us with the end of the inclusio.

Before turning to the final part of the inclusio, we need to observe a few details.  Notice that the phrase “through the faith of Jesus Christ [or Jesus’ faithfulness] unto all who believe” (Romans 3:22) echoes and further develops the earlier “out of faith unto faith” (Romans 1:17).

Let’s also notice that in Romans 1:16 Paul did not merely write the gospel is God’s power to save. Rather, the gospel reveals God is fair by extending the gospel’s saving power to both Jew and Greek! Furthermore, the gospel reveals God’s righteousness in giving proper recognition to the Jewish heritage by being “first for the Jew.”

With all of these observations in hand, we can now briefly reflect upon Romans 3:20-26. It is not just though the Law and the prophets that we learn God is righteous. Now the gospel also reveals God’s righteousness toward a sinful humanity through God’s working from the faith of Jesus (or Jesus’ faithfulness) to all who believe in order to justify them through the redemption Jesus made possible. Namely, the redemption set forth at the mercy seat through faith in his blood.

God’s manner of handling sin does not make him unrighteous since he does not glibly proclaim the guilty innocent. Rather, the gospel reveals that God remains righteous as he declares righteous those who are “out of the faith of Jesus” [or out of Jesus’ faithfulness] (Romans 3:26).

Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because it reveals God’s righteousness. The gospel proclaims God is righteous in how he will judge the world. It reveals God’s righteousness in that through the gospel his power to save becomes available to all of sinful humanity, no favoritism here.

Furthermore, the gospel does not call for humanity to achieve the impossible – which would be unjust. Rather the faith/faithfulness of Jesus’ in his death made possible redemption that is available to all who believe. In so doing, God exemplified righteousness.

What does the gospel reveal? God remains righteous as he offers through the gospel redemption to all people. No wonder Paul was not ashamed of this message.


1 D. Martin Luthers Werke, Tischreden 54, 183.

For a more popular level discussion consider Romans 1-3: Not Ashamed.


Barry Newton
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