Book Review–The Message of Romans (John Stott)

I heard the news of John Stott’s death only a couple of days after I started re-reading this Romans commentary. It was one of the first of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and for all the numerous things he will rightly be remembered for, I feel especially thankful for his contributions to and editorship of this series. In this volume, as with his other commentaries, John Stott models a truly evangelical approach to Scripture. He comes reverently to the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God, eager to learn, ready to engage with difficulties of exegesis and doctrine, and most of all, expecting to encounter God through it.

A book like Romans of course is a daunting task for any Bible expositor. So many notable expositors and scholars have already tackled it in great depth. And there are many tricky theological issues it raises. What is “the righteousness of God”? What is the correct understanding of the doctrine of election? What place does the people and nation of Israel have in God’s ongoing plan? Who is the conflicted man of Romans 7? Was Junia an apostle? Whatever positions you take, you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time in a commentary on Romans.

Stott starts with a preliminary essay, which includes several pages devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. He is to be commended on two counts for including this. First, that he pays any attention to it at all. By my reckoning, it is only the likes of Tom Wright that have really brought the NPP into the general evangelical consciousness in recent years.  Yet Stott clearly saw back in 1994 that this was going to become a debating point, and tackled it head on. Second, the way he seeks to correctly understand and fairly represent the opinions of the likes of Stendahl, Dunn and Sanders is also commendable. In some places I felt he articulated their points better than they did, such is his gift for clarity. Having said that, he does not go along with the conclusions of the NPP. I have previously blogged about John Stott’s take on the New Perspective here.

One key interpretive issue in Romans is the role and purpose of the “law”. Stott explains that “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification we look to the Spirit, not the law.” However, he wants to disagree with those who deny the law a place in the Christian life. “The moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness”. He attempts to find a balance between the errors of legalism and antinomianism by saying “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.” Do Christians have to obey the law? Yes and no … “not because the law is our master and we have to but because Christ is our husband and we want to.” The Spirit empowers us to keep the law – our freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey it.

As he ponders what the “righteousness of God” is, he notes three explanations often given. Is it (1) a divine attribute (2) a divine activity (his saving intervention), or (3) a divine achievement (the righteous status we are given)? He asks why we have to choose – “it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift”. He then expands on this to define the righteousness of God as “God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his.”

He takes some time to defend the biblical concept of the “wrath of God”, from those who find this doctrine objectionable (again pre-empting a debate that has gained much momentum more recently in evangelical circles). “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it.” The human predicament is not only sin, but God’s wrath upon sin.

Stott’s take on the identity of the conflicted man in Romans 7 is interesting. He cannot see it as a believer, since “a slave to sin” cannot be a Christian, and yet neither can he accept the unbeliever explanation. He concludes that it is a “regenerate” man, but not one who has the Holy Spirit. For Stott this leaves him with no other option than saying that the ‘I’ is an Old Testament believer. Stott of course strongly rejects the Pentecostal view of a subsequent baptism in the Spirit for a believer (as he makes clear in his comments on Rom 8:14-17), so cannot entertain the possibility that this ‘I’ could be a believer fighting sin in human strength alone without the empowering of the Spirit.

Stott has occasion to touch on subjects such as election and predestination, and while he seems to accept a Calvinist position, he prefers to refer to the concept of “antinomy” – two seemingly conflicting truths being held together – such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I like his suggestion that “the perseverance of the saints” should be renamed “the perseverance of God with the saints”.

As he tackles the subject of Israel, Stott is eager to underscore the importance of evangelism for all people, including the Jews. He includes a brief “manifesto of evangelism” that summarising the teaching of Romans on evangelism.

Overall, despite not necessarily agreeing with his every viewpoint, I would say this is another excellent work and valuable for anyone personally studying or teaching through Romans. There are of course the works by Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner which I would recommend to those wanting to go into more exegetical depth, but Stott should not be underestimated and there is plenty of well argued and thought-provoking material in here to help shape your understanding of this important New Testament book.

Tsadhe–Righteousness of the Law

The key word in the Tsadhe section of Ps 119 (verses 137-144) is “righteous”. Twice God is called righteous and three times God’s laws are called right or righteous:

137 You are righteous, LORD,
   and your laws are right.
138 The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
   they are fully trustworthy.

142 Your righteousness is everlasting
   and your law is true.

144 Your statutes are always righteous;
   give me understanding that I may live.

This theme of God’s laws being righteous regularly surfaces throughout the Psalm (see also verses 7, 62, 75, 106, 123, 160, 164, 172). But while it may make sense for us to speak of God being righteous, or of a person being righteous, what does it mean to call God’s law righteous? I’ll consider two possibilities briefly:

Law as the standard of righteousness

First, we could say that the law is righteous in that it defines a standard of righteousness. It reflects the nature and character of the righteous God. This fits in with the general observation that in this Psalm, the writer more or less conflates God with his law – the things he says about God’s law are also true of God. For example, when he says he delights in God’s law, he is also delighting in God. When he says God’s law is righteous, he is saying that every word that proceeds from a righteous God must by nature be righteous.

It poses an interesting question. Is something right because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is right? Similarly, is something wrong because God forbids it, or is it forbidden because it is inherently wrong? The fact that some of the Old Testament laws have been explicitly abrogated under the new covenant suggests the former is the case. God himself is the standard of what is right. If he forbids something, then doing it is not right. If later he permits the same thing (e.g. eating pork), the moral status of that action has changed.

Law as a means of attaining righteousness?

The relationship between the law and righteousness is something that Paul reflects on at length in Romans. If the law is the standard of righteousness, does it not follow logically that law-keeping is a means of attaining righteousness?

In some places Paul seems to suggest that this might be at least a theoretical possibility. For example:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

But he goes on to make it abundantly clear that this never happens. In reality, the law simply reveals how far short we have fallen, highlighting our sin, and effectively condemning us.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

We might expect that the gospel would make us righteous by enabling us to keep the law. But that isn’t how Paul explains it. We have a righteousness that is by faith, completely disconnected from our personal success at law-keeping.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

So though we agree with the Psalmist that the law is righteous, because it is the words of the righteous God, we cannot look to it as our source of righteousness. Simon Ponsonby says that the function of the law is “SOS” – “Shows our sins” and “Shows our Saviour”. And this surely is the most valuable facet of the law of God – it points us to Christ (through the symbols and types of the ceremonial law), an it drives us to Christ (by revealing the full extent of our own shortcomings). In the New Covenant, delighting in God’s law means delighting in Christ.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4)

Schreiner on Judgment According to Works

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; …

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

(Rom 2:6-7,10 ESV)

At first glance, what Paul says in Romans 2:7 (and 2:10) seems to be that you can earn your salvation by good works. The big problem with that, is that he categorically contradicts that idea elsewhere (for example, Rom 3:20 which states that no one can be righteous before God by the works of the law). So what exactly does he mean?

Naturally, some are willing to suggest that Paul has indeed contradicted himself, but this seems like a colossal blunder to attribute to someone who is such a coherent thinker.

An alternative approach, is to assume that Paul is speaking hypothetically here. That is, “Eternal life would be given if one did good works and kept the law perfectly, but no one does the requisite good works, and thus all deserve judgment”. In many ways, this is a good solution, since it harmonizes well with what Paul says later in chapter 3, while still fitting in with the overall argument of 2:6-11.

However, Schreiner has come up with an alternative and intriguing suggestion:

Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God (cf,. 1 Cor 6:9-11; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 5:21). Since Paul asserts that works are necessary for salvation and also that one cannot be justified by works of the law, it is probably that he did not see these two themes as contradictory.

He thus concludes:

in verses 7 and 10 Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit

Apparently he defends this view further in his commentary on 2:25-29, which I haven’t got to yet. In many ways, this idea is connected with his take on “the righteousness of God”, being both “forensic” (it is a declaration) and “transformative” (it actually changes us). Here again we see a synthesis between the two potentially competing concerns of salvation entirely based on grace not works, and a strong expectation that those who receive that salvation will indeed experience a transformation of behaviour.

Schreiner on Forensic and Transformative Righteousness

A key phrase for all who want to understand Romans is the meaning of the “righteousness of God”. There have been a variety of different understandings of this term, and in Schreiner’s commentary on Romans in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series, he sets forth two main interpretations.

1. Righteousness of God = Believer’s Status

This is Luther’s understanding of the term (Schreiner also lists Calvin, Bultmann, Cranfield and Moo amongst others as proponents). Luther rejected two competing understandings of “the righteousness of God” that were common in his day:

  • that it refers to God’s justice whereby he judges all people impartially
  • that it refers to an infusion of righteousness that would effect inner transformation, or moral renovation

In other words, for Luther (and many others), “the righteousness of God” refers to, and only to, a declaration of right standing before God. It is a purely forensic (legal) term, meaning we are declared not guilty.

2. Righteousness of God = God’s Saving Power

This second point of view, growing in popularity (including Dunn, and Stott recently) does not deny that a righteous status is given, but sees the term “righteousness of God” as more broadly referring to God’s saving power. In other words, it is not only something God gives us but something God does in us.

3. Schreiner’s Synthesis: Righteousness as Forensic and Transformative

Schreiner initially sets out a strong case for a forensic understanding of “the righteousness of God”, from which he concludes that righteousness does indeed have a forensic dimension that is not intrinsic to human beings by nature, but is a divine gift.

But then he goes on to point to the large amount of evidence supporting the second point of view. He therefore concludes that the term “righteousness of God” is both forensic and transformative (though both senses are not always present every time the term is used). These two meanings are not incompatible since “those whom God has vindicated, he also changes”.

He explains the synthesis of these two positions a little more fully here:

The saving righteousness of God is a gift received by faith alone, and God declares sinners to be in the right before him on the basis of Christ’s atoning death. Yet God’s declaration of righteousness – which is a gift of the age to come invading the present evil age – is an effective declaration, so that those who are pronounced righteous are also transformed by God’s grace. Such a transformation is due solely to God’s grace and does not involve a perfect righteousness, nor is there any suggestion that the good works that follow this transformation merit eternal life. Nonetheless, as Rom. 6 shows, believers are changed by the grace of God, and this transformation is an essential ingredient in God’s saving work. … The forensic is the basis for the transformative, but the one cannot be sundered from the other.

What do you think? Is Schreiner trying to have his cake and eat it, or has he uncovered a false dilemma?

Book Review – TNTC Romans (F F Bruce)

With so many highly acclaimed and in depth commentaries on Romans around, I was unsure what this particular volume might add to the discussion. The Tyndale Series is a relatively short paperback series, and sits midway between a scholarly and a devotional focus. The format of this volume is that the text of Romans is dealt with in blocks of around 12 verses at a time. Bruce first tries to summarise Paul’s flow of argument in his own words, and then deals with matters specific to individual verses, and although he touches on most verses, it is usually only one key phrase in each verse that he will discuss. The summaries are very helpful though, as they enable the reader to get a good grasp of the main message of the book.

In the introduction, Bruce warns against modernizing Paul, insisting rather that a man of Paul’s calibre must be allowed to speak for himself. He also discusses the evidence concerning whether chapters 15 and 16 formed part of the original letter. He sees no compelling reason to doubt that chapter 16 could have been written to the Roman church. There are some useful definitions of terms such as flesh, spirit and law. The introduction ends with a very brief paraphrase of the whole letter, which is a great way of explaining what the main themes and argument of the book are.

The brevity of the commentary means that some controversial issues are not discussed at all, while others (such as the “New Perspective”) are mentioned only in passing. He does however take the time to reject the idea that the wrath of God is merely “impersonal”. He shows how Paul is concerned to demonstrate that God can justify the ungodly whilke remaining righteous himself.

He views the “I” of Romans 7 as basically autobiographical, but through it Paul is speaking of universal human experience. It describes the conflict of living in the overlap of the old age and the age to come. It speaks of life under the law without the aid of the Spirit. It also paints a picture of fighting under our own resources – and fighting a losing battle. In these broad terms he manages to encompass pretty much every view of Rom 7 I have come across.

He suggests that to be “in Christ” essentially means to be in the church – the body of Christ, and to “put on Christ” is to emulate his character. He discusses the relationship between glory and suffering in a number of places. Suffering is viewed as the normal Christian experience, and glory is not the compensation, but the outcome of that suffering.

Chapter 9 is not a parenthesis but a theodicy, and it is here that he briefly mentions Sanders and covenantal nomism. Bruce prefers to think of Paul as opposing salvation by works, but adds that he would be equally opposed to seeking salvation by the ‘old’ covenant.

Chapters 12 onwards are introduced as the ethical outworking of the doctrine of earlier chapters, and Bruce points out the similarities with Jesus’ teaching. He speaks of Paul being so free that he was not “in bondage to his emancipation” (i.e. he was free to do the things he was free not to do).

This is not by any means an exhaustive commentary on Romans, but it is an instructive one, and will shed fresh light on different passages. It is probably still a bit heavy-going for the general reader who is not accustomed to using commentaries, but those who want to get a better grasp of Romans without having to read a massive volume may like to give this a try. I still prefer Stott’s commentary for readability and Moo’s for comprehensiveness, but am glad I took the time to read this one too.