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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

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Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.

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