A Conflict That Transcends the Book of Romans
The problem that Paul was facing in Rome was not unique to that Christian community. In reality, it is the featured throughout the New Testament as an essentially Jewish religion sought to include Gentiles. The conflict begins in the Gospels as the disciples have an almost-impossible time grasping the idea that Gentiles are to be included in the faith while Jesus, at the same time, is highlighting just the opposite. The problem is picked up again in Acts 10, in which Peter has his vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and clear instruction from God that he “should not call any man common or unclean” and “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (verse 28, 34, 35). As a result, he baptized Cornelius the Gentile, but only over the objections of many of the Jerusalem Jewish Christian leaders (Acts 11:1-18).
The problem finds its climax in Acts 15, in which we find that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, has had to deal with some from Judea who were teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (verse 1). In other words, the argument was that Gentiles had to become Jews and follow the Jewish regulations before they could become Christians. Paul and Barnabas appealed to the leaders in Jerusalem. As a result, the church held its first “worldwide” council to decide the issue. After Paul and Barnabas and other presented the various sides of the issue, the council decided against those who opposed Paul (verses 19-29).
Meanwhile, Paul had already fought the legalistic battle in such places as Galatia, where he had had to publicly stand against Peter who had betrayed what he had learned in Acts 10 because of his fear of the Jews from Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11-13). It is in that context that Paul wrote one of his greatest statements on justification by faith. “A man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified” (verse 16). Interestingly, in that passage Paul’s intent was not to explain the plan of salvation but to assert that since Jews and Gentiles were both saved on the same basis (by faith rather than law), they were equal in the eyes of God and thus could fellowship at the same table. The conclusion of Paul’s forceful rebuke of Peter was that Gentiles did not have to become Jews through circumcision and practice of the ceremonial aspects of the law in order to become Christians. The only way was through faith. But faith would lead to a transformed life that abided by the law of love. (Galatians 5:6, 14, 2) and would lead them away from devouring one another (verse 15).
It is of interest that both of Paul’s premier letters on salvation are centered on the conflict between Jews and Gentiles. Beyond that, both came to the same conclusion. Namely, all (both groups) are justified in exactly the same way – by faith rather than law.
That same pattern is found in Paul’s great salvation passage in Ephesians. There he writes that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Those verses on salvation then immediately turn to the tension between the Jewish and the Gentile believers. “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off (the Gentiles) have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” so “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Between the two groups), and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” Both Jews and Gentiles had access to God because of their faith in God’s saving work for them through Christ (verse 13-19).
I have spent quite a bit of time on the conflict issue in order to clearly illustrate that the dominating undercurrent in the book of Romans is not unique to that document. It is in fact the primary undercurrent of the New Testament. And we cannot fully understand Paul’s argument in Romans without recognizing that dynamic.