The first three chapters of Paul’s seminal letter to the Romans are an apostolic incendiary that lays waste to any and all notions of human self-sufficiency. The presumption and privilege of the Jewish Christians in Rome find themselves in the apostle’s crosshairs, as he aims to reorient any and all pretentious understandings of the gospel. This he does by insisting and stressing the unprejudiced grace of Jesus as that which holds the power for salvation, both for the Jew and the Gentile. (Rom 1:16–17; 2:9–11; 10:11–13) The gospel which reveals “the righteousness of God” is an announcement of the same not only for those of a specific bloodline but for “all who believe, since there is no distinction.” (Rom 3:21–22; 4:11; 10:4, 10–12)
This, of course, was a contentious topic to broach, but one which Paul was adamant the Roman Christians apprehend. For Paul, it was a topic that lied at the crux of the gospel itself. “What is at stake in Romans,” writes J. D. G. Dunn, “is not the gospel in general or in the abstract, but the gospel in particular as embodied by Paul’s own life and work — a Jewish gospel for Gentiles, and the strains and tensions which stemmed from that basic conviction.”1 This, to be sure, is not to say that Paul’s gospel was one that was primarily concerned with upsetting a social or religio-political order. Rather, it was an announcement that proposed a better solution to a deeper problem.
Therefore, Paul’s argument is not only that Jewish privilege had necessarily ended in the Messianic epoch (Rom 2:25–29), but so, too, did Messianic exclusivity. When confronted with the “righteousness of God,” the Jewish Christians in Rome were no “better off” than the Gentile Christians. “All are under sin,” Paul affirms. (Rom 3:9) Depravity was not (and is not) an ethnic issue. Therefore, Christ Jesus was (and is) the solution not only to Judaic failure but also to Gentile estrangement. (Rom 9:1—11:32; Eph 2:11–22) Jesus’s passion and death “marks a whole new beginning,” Dunn continues, “not just for individuals, but for all humankind.”2 Jesus might have come as Israel’s king but he died as world’s Savior. (Rom 5:12–21)
One is, therefore, brought back to Paul’s primary argument, which is simply this: faith is not an ethnological paradigm. Instead, it is a Christological one. Faith as a means by which one is reckoned righteous is uninterested in paternity, ethnicity, or ancestry. (Rom 4:1–25; 9:30—10:17; 14:22–23) Indeed, the faith that justifies shatters the presumption of righteousness based on any other means other than where that faith finds its resting place. (Rom 3:28–30) Namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ alone, who alone fulfills all the law and the prophets on behalf of the Jew and for the sake of the Gentile. Such is his thesis in the opening chapter of the epistle, where he writes:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith. (Rom 1:16–17)
The sacrifice, then, to which Paul calls his audience in Romans 12:1–2 is resonant for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Jews, of course, would be familiar with the sacrificial imagery evoked by the apostle’s words and would, therefore, likely extrapolate the intended meaning that their very lives are the offering that is laid upon the altar in “true worship.” By this, chiefly, they would exemplify their faith. For the Gentiles, furthermore, with little to no knowledge of or privilege to the Jewish ritual and sacrificial system, they would be made to glory in the incalculable mercy that engrafts them into the eschatological kingdom. “By all this,” writes the reformer Martin Luther, “the apostle removes the dissension between the Jewish and the heathen (Christians), so that they should not be at variance with each other, but receive each other, as Christ also received them. For out of pure mercy he has received not only the Jews (who therefore should not exalt themselves), but also the Gentiles. Therefore both have reason enough to glorify God and not to contend with each other.”3 Just as the gospel is the broadcast that God receives everyone with “no distinction between Jew and Greek,” so, too, does the gospel free us and call us to receive one another, notwithstanding race, nationality, background, creed, etc. (Rom 10:12) In that way, God is glorified “for his mercy” (Rom 15:8–13), and we are given a foretaste of glory divine.
J. D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Romans,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 842.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1954), 214.