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Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
Before we begin this week’s study of the first six chapters of Romans, let’s talk about what the head of the Church of Jesus Christ said about Paul’s epistles. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter made the comment that while Paul had “wisdom given unto him” in declaring the “longsuffering of our Lord,” his epistles contain “some things which are hard to be understood.” That might be one of the greatest understatements in the scriptures! Peter went on to say that “they that are unlearned and unstable wrest ” these writings “unto their own destruction.” The gospels were relatively easy reading, and in Acts we got lots of stories which were more or less familiar to us. But these epistles are different. There aren’t many stories. Instead they’re packed full of doctrine, which requires commitment on our part to unpack and understand it. Rest assured, it doesn’t get much more difficult than this. Hang in there! It is doable.
Before we can properly delve into the doctrine in this epistle, we must review a little background. Two decades after the Savior’s resurrection, congregations of Christians were thriving in almost every location the Apostles could reasonably travel. These members of the Church of Jesus Christ were a diverse group of Jews and Gentiles. The “epistles” are letters written by Church leaders to the Saints in various parts of the world. The Apostle Paul wrote the majority of the epistles contained in the New Testament – beginning with Romans and ending with Hebrews. Although Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, it was not written until near the end of Paul’s missionary journeys. The reason it is located at the beginning of the fourteen epistles is because they are listed in order of their length, in descending order from the longest (Romans) to the shortest, (Philemon.) The epistle to the Hebrews is placed last because some scholars have questioned whether or not it was written by Paul. See Bible Dictionary, “Pauline Epistles.”
[The Study Helps for Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families offer some basic definitions of the terms used by Paul and the manner they would have been understood by his audiences. An understanding of these definitions is vital to a correct understanding of these chapters.]
Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth in about 58 A.D. — about the same time that he wrote to the Galatians. Before Paul left Corinth on his third missionary journey, he felt it necessary to write to the saints in Rome, even though he had never visited them or Rome before. He had thoughts of visiting Latin-speaking Spain, and he doubtless felt Rome would be a good base of operations in carrying the gospel to the west, since it was the capital of the great Roman Empire.
There is good reason to believe that the first members in Rome were Jews who had been converted in Palestine. In 63 B.C., after Pompey had taken Jerusalem, many Jews flocked to Rome to take advantage of the protection of Caesar, but would keep in close contact with their brethren in Jerusalem, and would visit there at regular intervals for feasts. In Acts 2:10 we are told that “visitors from Rome, both Jew and proselytes” were present on the great day of Pentecost when such great manifestations of the Holy Ghost were given. Many of these were doubtless converted, and returned to Rome with the “good news” of the gospel. Many writers of antiquity claim that Peter was the founder and organizer of the Rome branch. According to Eusebius and Jerome, Peter came to Rome during the early years of Claudius, about 42 A.D., very probably after his miraculous escape from prison in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17), when he “went to another place.”
Seeing The Whole Picture
Romans is one of the most misunderstood passages of scripture because people want to take a section out of context and put more importance on that section than on anything else. One of the big problems in understanding Paul, particularly in Romans, is that people have tried to take what he says in confronting a specific problem, and then make it a universal mandate. But if we really want to understand Paul, we can’t do that! We have to see the whole picture, and not just some of the specifics. This is especially important in understanding Paul’s position on the relationship between faith and works.
Romans 3:28 Faith alone justifies. “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
James 2:14, 24 Faith plus works justify. “Though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? . . By works is a man justified, and not by faith only.”
This appears to be a CLASSIC CONTRADICTION! It looks like we have to choose between James and Paul. The answer is simple! We need to understand why two apostles come to such different conclusions. They do not use the same words with the same meanings.
James uses faith to mean mere belief – the passive mental act. That is not enough!
Faith (belief) + works (behavior) = Salvation
On the other hand, for Paul, obedience is part of faith. To him faith means faithfulNESS.
Romans 6:17 “Ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.”
For Paul faith = the covenant of faith (faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost)
He does not mean passive mental acceptance of an idea.
In Romans 2:6, a man’s faith will be visible “according to his deeds.” Two verses later he says that a man does not “believe” the truth, but uses the phrase, “obey the truth.” For Paul, faith is active – encompassing the whole covenant. To Paul, if you believe, you will act accordingly, and therefore faith alone will save you – MEANING:
Belief + behavior = Salvation
So, PAUL AND JAMES AGREE – BUT USE TERMS DIFFERENTLY.
Let’s get some terminology down. We have discussed the word “justification.” What does it mean? To be made righteous before the law. In Romans 3:20 we find the word “justified.” Interestingly, it’s the same Greek word in verse 21 where it is translated as “righteousness.” Now there is another term that Paul uses and that we use quite a bit in the Church and that is “sanctification.”What does it mean? To be made holy. The KJV doesn’t use it in Romans, but it is certainly there in the Greek. Rom. 6:19‑22:
19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.
20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were [Greek: unrestricted] by righteousness.
21 What [Greek: benefit, reward] had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.
22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your [Greek: reward] unto [Greek: sanctification], and the end everlasting life.
Here’s how one Protestant author distinguished between the two words.
John F. MacArthur, Jr., Justification and Sanctification, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, (Dallas: Word, 1993) 98‑99, 121.
In its theological sense, justification is a forensic, or purely legal, term. It describes what God declares about the believer, not what He does to change the believer. In fact, justification effects no actual change whatsoever in the sinner’s nature or character. Justification is a divine judicial edict. It changes our status only, but it carries ramifications that guarantee other changes will follow. Forensic decrees like this are fairly common in everyday life.
When I was married, for example, Patricia and I stood before the minister (my father) and recited our vows. Near the end of the ceremony, my father declared, “By the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you man and wife.” Instantly we were legally husband and wife. Whereas seconds before we had been an engaged couple, now we were married. Nothing inside us actually changed when those words were spoken. But our status changed before God, the law, and our family and friends. The implications of that simple declaration have been lifelong and life‑changing (for which I am grateful). But when my father spoke those words, it was a legal declaration only.
Similarly, when a jury foreman reads the verdict, the defendant is no longer “the accused.” Legally and officially he instantly becomes either guilty or innocent—depending on the verdict. Nothing in his actual nature changes, but if he is found not guilty, he will walk out of court a free man the eyes of the law, fully justified.
In biblical terms, justification is a divine verdict of “not guilty—fully righteous.” It is the reversal of God’s attitude toward the sinner. Whereas He formerly condemned, He now vindicates. Although the sinner once lived under God’s wrath, as a believer he or she is now under God’s blessing. Justification is more than simple pardon; pardon alone would still leave the sinner without merit before God. So when God justifies, He imputes divine righteousness to the sinner (Rom. 4:22‑25). Christ’s own infinite merit thus becomes the ground on which the believer stands be God (Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9). So justification elevates the believer to a realm of full acceptance and divine privilege in Jesus Christ.
Therefore because of justification believers not only are perfectly free from any charge of guilt (Rom. 8:33) but also have the full merit of Christ reckoned to their personal account (Rom. 5:17). At justification we are adopted as sons and daughters (Rom. 8:15; we become fellow heirs with Christ (v. 17); we are united with Christ so that we become one with Him (1 Cor. 6:17). Those are all forensic realities that flow out of justification.
Justification is distinct from sanctification because in justification God does not make the sinner righteous; he declares that person righteous (Rom 3:28; Gal. 2:16). Justification imputes Christ’s righteousness to the sinner’s account (Rom. 4:11b); sanctification imparts righteousness to the sinner personally and practically (Rom. 6:1‑7; 8:11‑14). Justification takes place outside sinners and changes their standing (Rom. 5:1‑2); sanctification is internal and changes the believer’s state (Rom. 6:19). Justification is an event; sanctification is a process. The two must be distinguished but can never be separated. God does not justify whom He does not sanctify, and He does not sanctify whom He does not justify. Both are essential elements of salvation.”
In Romans 3:24 we’re introduced to the term “grace.” We, living in the 21st century, are sometimes confused or even “befuddled” by such sweeping terms and how they were understood in their own cultural settings. Not too long ago, John W. Welch offered Stephen O. Smoot a review copy of the brand-new monograph Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis by Brent J. Schmidt, and asked him to provide a few notes on Schmidt’s contribution to the understanding of “grace.” He writes:
The central thesis underlying Schmidt’s 200-page book is that “grace” or “favor” (Greek: χάρις, charis), whatever else it is, carries the understanding of a reciprocal or covenant relationship between two parties. These parties that enter into a charis relationship are essentially a benefactor who grants a gift or donation of some kind, and a beneficiary who reciprocates the gift with his or her own contribution, regardless how small or incomplete, of service and dedication to the benefactor.
Charis, “when used in the sense of giving favor or in any context of a relationship between people or groups of people, . . . always has a connotation that the person or group giving favor expected something in return: favors, service, gratitude, honor, obedience, and more” (p. 15). As such, “Ancient charis gifts were synonymous with reciprocity in the form of making and keeping covenants” (p. 15).
Schmidt concludes that Paul and the other New Testament authors did not deviate widely from the classical Greek sense, and instead lays the blame for deviation at the feet of Augustine and Martin Luther, whose highly influential formulations on grace have endured in orthodox Christian soteriology (the theology of salvation) for centuries, for “significantly deflect[ing] attention from the ancient reciprocal meaning of charis” (p. 17).
Likewise, Schmidt challenges the KJV’s translation of Romans 10:9 (“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”) on the grounds that the KJV’s translation “does not have the covenantal nuances . . . that [the verse] probably had in the first century A.D.” (pp. 108–109). The word the KJV translates as confess” (Greek: ὁμολογέω, homologeō) is more properly rendered as to consent, agree, or even make a promise to something or someone. Schmidt therefore renders homologeō in this verse as to vocally assent,” with the connotation that those assenting to Jesus’ lordship will “transform their lives and become true disciples” through entering a covenant or reciprocal charis relationship with the Lord.
In other words, the Book of Mormon’s teachings on grace are not half-baked Protestant notions that Joseph Smith cribbed from his religious environment, as naturalistic critics of the Book of Mormon have insisted, but are authentic to an ancient Israelite worldview.
In short, Schmidt’s work on grace is excellent. He builds a convincing case for his thesis based on careful attention to and close readings of the scriptural and extra-scriptural evidence. He demonstrates, basically, that Joseph Smith’s 1842 formulation hits the ancient concept of charis out of the ballpark: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Article of Faith 3). Or, as Schmidt himself explains,
Ancient charis relationships were based on generosity, need, friendship, honor, and the exchange of money and power, but the charis relationships discussed in scripture are spiritual and divine in nature. God grants the gift of Jesus’s Atonement to us and in return we are obliged in certain ways. A divine charis relationship is created when people make and keep covenants according to the rituals and ordinances that God has taught through his prophets. As people strive to keep these covenants, they are converted and their relationship with God is strengthened. Through enduring to the end, people come closer to God. (p. 197)
The “law” that Paul is talking about in Romans 3:27, is obviously the law of Moses. Why do you think that the concept of grace was such an important concept to Paul, as indeed it was for Luther? Because his actions at the time of his vision didn’t warrant such an experience. Can you see any danger in believing that we are saved by grace and faith alone? People will just sit back and glide through life i.e. – the world wouldn’t be any better than if the Atonement of Jesus Christ hadn’t been made. Paul responded to this act of grace by spendingthe rest of his life in the service of God. This is hardly the response of someone who believes that works are not important for our salvation!
My outward actions must reflect and increase inner conversion.
As I read these verses, it causes me to reflect upon my own heart and who I really am. Especially verse 29: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision [that is, the token of the covenant with God] is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”
Do these verses make you think about your own efforts to live the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are your outward performances, such as taking the sacrament or attending the temple, leading you to conversion and strengthening your faith in Christ? How can you ensure that your outward actions are leading to a change of heart?
The author of a previous publication in Meridian Magazine offers a wonderful answer to this question.
Jesus offers us grace, and what we offer back is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The atonement doesn’t just offer us the opportunity to do things differently. It offers us the chance to be someone different, someone ultimately like the Lord. I can’t achieve this by making a bigger and bigger list of things to do. I have to be transformed from my most inward parts. I have to see things in a new way, feel in a new way, think in a new way, understand others with a more loving and pure heart. This requires insight and strength I do not have. But the Lord does and knows how to remake me.
In a BYU devotional address called “In the Strength of the Lord,” Elder David A. Bednar reminds us that the atonement includes two ideas that are found in this scripture from Mosiah 3:19. “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.”
This, of course, involves two parts—the first is putting off the natural man and the second is becoming a Saint.
Elder Bednar said, “If I were to emphasize one overarching point… it would be this: I suspect that you and I are much more familiar with the nature of the redeeming power of the Atonement than we are with the enabling power of the Atonement. It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for us. That is fundamental and foundational to the doctrine of Christ. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to live in us—not only to direct us but also to empower us. I think most of us know that when we do things wrong, when we need help to overcome the effects of sin in our lives, the Savior has paid the price and made it possible for us to be made clean through His redeeming power. Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints—for good men and women who are obedient and worthy and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully. I frankly do not think many of us ‘get it’ concerning this enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement, and I wonder if we mistakenly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities.”
Elder Bednar continued, “In the Bible Dictionary in our scriptures we learn that the word grace frequently is used in the scriptures to connote enabling power.” Grace is:
“’A word that occurs frequently in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ (emphasis added)…
“’It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (emphasis added).
“That is, grace represents that divine assistance or heavenly help each of us will desperately need to qualify for the celestial kingdom. Thus, the enabling power of the Atonement strengthens us to do and be good and serve beyond our own individual desire and natural capacity.
Elder Bednar continues, “Brothers and sisters, the implication of this episode for each of us is quite straightforward. As you and I come to understand and employ the enabling power of the Atonement in our personal lives, we will pray and seek for strength to change our circumstances rather than praying for our circumstances to be changed. We will become agents who ‘act’ rather than objects that are ‘acted upon’ (2 Nephi 2:14).
When I partake of the sacrament each week, I can remember the price that the Lord paid for me in Gethsemane. I can remember that everyone in mortality, including me, needs not just to be forgiven, but to be strengthened, empowered and enabled to become a Saint. I can remember that without the Lord I can do nothing, but with Him as my partner, together we can take the journey back to the Lord’s presence where I can be like Him.”
I love a talk given by Brad Wilcox called “His Grace Is Sufficient.” In this talks, he tells this story. He said: “A BYU student once came to me and asked if we could talk. I said, ‘Of course. How can I help you?’
“She said, ‘I just don’t get grace.’
“I responded, ‘What is it that you don’t understand?’
“She said, ‘I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.’
“She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a [Latter-day Saint] that she wasn’t doing.
“She continued, ‘I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?’
“She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a [Latter-day Saint], but she was doing them anyway.
“Finally, I said, ‘Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.’
“Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, ‘Go ahead. Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?’
“She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot.
“I said, ‘Wrong.’
“She said, ‘I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.’
“I said, ‘No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.’
“She said, ‘Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?’
“’Oh no,’ I said, ‘you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap.’ Brad Wilcox, “His Grace is Sufficient” https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/brad-wilcox_his-grace-is-sufficient/
Through Jesus Christ, I can be forgiven of my sins.
Some people may feel discouraged at Paul’s bold declaration that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
Paul’s tight academic way of speaking, his way of allegorically speaking requires unpacking for most people. His difficulty in being understood gives people seeming license to say “This is what Paul meant.” He is trained as a rabbi and uses the tight reasoning of the rabbinical allegorical method and exegesis.
Romans 3:9-10 There is none righteous? Is Russell M. Nelson righteous? Yes, but he is not perfect. There has only been one perfect person. Paul uses the term ‘righteous’ to mean ‘perfect.’ There are those that are mostly righteous, but not 100%.
Salvation is not possible through the law of Moses.
Why? Because we break the law. When we do, the law can’t save us; “it only condemns us.”
Deut. 28:27 What does this verse say in the fine print? We have to keep all the commandments all the time or the law can’t save us.
Salvation IS possible without the law. The prime example is Abraham. He lived four centuries before the law. He is justified by FAITH. He is saved by the same faith as we are saved.
Do you “glory in tribulations?” I know that “glorying” is not my first reaction to tribulations that beset me. But tribulations work something in us that we don’t experience when life is smooth sailing. We might ask ourselves what we have learned from the tribulations we have experienced. How have these tribulations helped us to develop patience, experience, and hope?
Romans 5:1‑5 Notice that verses 1‑5 outlines a series of steps that a person must take. These steps are often known as the “ladder of salvation.”
What is the first rung in Paul’s ladder? “being justified by faith” Note that this is the condition of “the grace wherein we stand” (verse 2). After we have been “justified by faith,” the next step on Paul’s ladder is to have our faith tested by tribulations (verse 3).
The Greek word for tribulations here is thlipsesin which simply means “difficulties.” Other places in the New Testament it is translated as “afflictions” or “troubles.” What does Paul say the result of these troubles are? Patience. Once again, the Greek word is hupomonén which literally means “holding up under stress.” Modern translators usually prefer either “perseverance” or “endurance.” Where do we go from there? We gain experience. The next trait is dokimén which signifies “a tested condition” or as many translate it – “character.” Thus, the final reward of a tested condition is a sure hope in “the love of God . . . in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us.” What state is that called? Sanctification. Thus, it’s important to see the processes of justification and sanctification as working together to provide salvation for us. In simple terms, what Paul is saying is that Christ justifies us by atoning for our imperfections under the law, but our works lead us to the point whereby we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost and thus we have no more disposition to do evil.
It is interesting that Paul follows this discussion by immediately talking about the process of baptism, one of the “works” that must be done to achieve sanctification.What does Paul say that baptism symbolizes? The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His body was laid down and then rose again. If that is the case, what does it tell us about the ordinance of baptism? It must be done by immersion.
The strongest argument for baptism by immersion is the word itself. Outside the New Testament, the Greek verb translated “baptize” described everything from the submerging of seaweeds to the sinking of a ship — both of which required immersion. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word translated “baptize” in the New Testament described Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14).
New Testament descriptions of baptism also suggest immersion as the original mode of baptism. John the Baptist chose to baptize in a particular location because water was plentiful in that place (John 3:23)—a concern that would have been irrelevant if John had considered pouring to be sufficient. In Christian baptism, believers are “buried … by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4; see also Colossians 2:11-12). This metaphorical connection between death and baptism makes the sense only if the mode of baptism meaningfully symbolizes the drowning of the believer’s old self. New Testament descriptions of baptism also suggest immersion as the original mode of baptism. John the Baptist chose to baptize in a particular location because water was plentiful in that place (John 3:23)—a concern that would have been irrelevant if John had considered pouring to be sufficient. In Christian baptism, believers are “buried … by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4; see also Colossians 2:11-12). This metaphorical connection between death and baptism makes the sense only if the mode of baptism meaningfully symbolizes the drowning of the believer’s old self. Even in the mid-sixteenth century, the Book of Common Prayer prescribed immersion for infants and allowed pouring only if the child was sickly. This immersion clearly involved the whole body, not merely the head.
While Paul’s immediate audience was the Roman Saints, his message is universal, and it includes all of us today: “The gospel of Christ … is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16, italics added). I love this quote from Elder Uchtdorf:
“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God [see Acts 20:28]. …
“Grace is a gift of God, and our desire to be obedient to each of God’s commandments is the reaching out of our mortal hand to receive this sacred gift from our Heavenly Father” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2015, 109–10).