Controversial Passages in Paul’s Romans

In the final episode of Father Mike Schmitz’s Bible-in-a Year Podcast, he recommended my Great Adventure Bible study on the epistles to the Romans and the Hebrews. To answer the new interest in these studies, I am reviewing several aspects of the study.

Today we will explore three controversial passages in the letter that seem to support Martin Luther’s “faith alone” doctrine on the surface, but actually do not when placed in proper context.

Perhaps the first passage on this list should be Romans 3:28, where Paul teaches that we are “justified by faith, apart from works of the law.”

Suffice to say for now, by “works of the law,” Paul primarily refers to the Jewish ceremonial and ritual laws which divide Jew from Gentile (such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath laws); these Jewish identity markers must give way to the universality of the New Covenant—where Jew and Gentile have become one in Christ. This is corroborated by Paul’s ensuing rhetorical question:

“Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also?” (Romans 3:29, emphasis added).

In other words, Paul is not pitting faith against the moral law (or faith against good works)—but faith against the ceremonial and ritual “works of the law” which divide Jew and Gentile. With this in mind, we can make better sense of how Paul’s teaching here can be reconciled with his earlier insistence that good works are necessary for salvation:

“For he [God] will render to every man according to his works; to those who by patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6; see also 2:13).

Romans 10:9-10 – “if you confess with your lips … and believe in your heart … you will be saved”

A common place non-Catholic Christians turn to support Martin Luther’s reading of Paul—namely, that we are saved by faith alone, in which case our works have no bearing upon our salvation—is Romans 10:9-10, where St. Paul states:

“[I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”

On its face, this passage would seem to support the Lutheran notion of salvation by faith alone. But as is often the case, when a passage is wrenched from its context, its meaning can get distorted, as is the case here.

The Connection to Deuteronomy 30

First, we should note that this section of Paul’s letter has clear allusions to Deuteronomy 30. For example, when Paul states in verse 8 (just before the passage above): “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8), he is clearly alluding to Deuteronomy 30:14:

“But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”

In fact, all of Romans 10:6-8 is an allusion to Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Here are both passages together:

“But the righteousness based on faith says: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ … or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ … But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)” (Romans 10:6-8, emphasis added).

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

What’s the significance of the allusion to Deuteronomy 30?

The key is the prophecy at the beginning of this chapter in Deuteronomy 30:1-6, where Moses prophesies both the future exile and Israel’s ultimate restoration; and central to this long-range restoration is Moses’ prophecy regarding the “circumcision of the heart”:

“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).

This circumcision of the heart will empower the people to walk in the Lord’s ways— “so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart”.

The “circumcision of the heart” refers to God’s promise to give his people a “new heart,” a promise which is fulfilled through the gift of the Spirit (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36). This is what St. Paul means when he speaks of “true circumcision” as a matter of the “heart.” Paul writes:

“For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:28-29).

In other words, the ultimate “heart surgery” required to deal with the problem of sin comes about through the gift of the Spirit. Paul’s point in Romans 10:6-10 is that the long-range prophecy of Moses—the fulfillment of the story of Israel—has come about through Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

Doers of the Law

Further, when treating Romans 10:9-10, we can’t simply ignore all that Paul has said previously. For example, he uses the phrase the “obedience of faith” at the very beginning and end of his letter, as a sort of book-end to summarize his teaching on faith:

“through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5).

“but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).

For Paul, faith is clearly not simply a matter of “belief”—it entails obedience. For Paul, “faith” is more like faithfulness—or “allegiance,” as some Protestant scholars have suggested; and allegiance implies a life of faithfulness to the divine king. This is how Paul’s teaching on faith can be reconciled with his teaching that good works are essential for salvation:

“For he will render to every man according to his works” (Romans 2:6).

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

‘Repent, and be baptized’

Further, as Paul expounds his teaching, he parallels Adam and Jesus in Romans 5—noting that in Adam all die, and in Christ all find life. The question for the reader by the end of Romans 5 is how do I get out of the Old Adam and into the New? Paul answers this question at the outset of Romans 6: Baptism incorporates us into Christ. He writes:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

That is, by our baptism, we enter into Christ’s death and—even now—share in his risen life. Baptism is no mere symbol; for Paul, it is the means by which we enter the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and that’s why, ordinarily speaking, baptism is necessary for salvation (see CCC 1257).

Therefore, we can’t rip Romans 10:9-10 out of context and pit it against Paul’s teaching that we enter into Christ’s victory on the Cross through baptism, or his earlier teaching on the necessity of good works for salvation (Romans 2:6). Paul’s point again in Romans 10:6-10 is that the long-range prophecy of Deuteronomy 30:6 has been fulfilled in Christ through the gift of the Spirit. And the way we receive the Spirit and enter into Christ is through baptism:

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38).

Image: Ryk Neethling, Flickr.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.