New Testament Backgrounds: Romans

Edward J. Brandt

Written to:

Members of the church of Jesus Christ in Rome, where there was an established unit of the early church. (Paul was acquainted with many members there. See Romans 16.)

Author:

The apostle Paul. (Rom. 1:1, 11:1, 15:16.)

Written where:

From Corinth (Greece). Paul wished to visit Rome, but had not yet done so. (Acts 19:21, Rom. 1:10—13, 15; 15:23, 32.)

Written when:

Winter 57/58 A.D. Near the conclusion of Paul's third mission, while en route to Jerusalem. (Acts 19:21, 20:1—3, 6, 14—16; Rom. 15:25—26, 31)

Purpose of the letter:

"The epistle to the Romans is a letter, not a treatise on gospel subjects. It is not written to the world, but to the saints, to people who already know and understand the doctrines of salvation. Paul's comments on gospel subjects presuppose an extensive prior knowledge on the part of the readers. He does not here expound doctrines as such; he simply comments about them, leaving unsaid the volumes of gospel understanding already possessed by the saints. Romans, hence, is not a source of gospel knowledge for the spiritually untutored; it is not the initial place to turn to learn of Christ and his laws." (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. II, Acts—Philippians, Bookcraft, 1970; p. 212.)

The church at Rome was composed of a mixture of Jewish and gentile converts. The Apostle Paul is aware that the different backgrounds of these two groups, prior to church membership, brought about conflicting views among them. His chief concern is with the claimed necessity and benefits of the law of Moses. Preoccupation with the centuries-old, legalistically annotated law had left a deep imprint in the lives of the Jewish converts to the church. The gentile converts were influenced by the Hellenistic philosophical system and concepts of learning. Their accompanying paganistic worship of idols was an additional deterrent to the proper understanding of gospel truths about which they were cautioned. (Rom. 1:20—25.)

Paul condemns the outward performances of the Jews (Rom. 2:23—24, 3:1) and reminds them that both Jew and gentile are sinful and in need of the gospel (Rom. 3:9, 23). He further stresses the individual's responsibility to do good and work righteousness as his covenant part of the principle of justification and also as the prerequisite to being justified by the Spirit. (Rom. 2:6—13.) The place of the atonement is next related to the individual's covenants as the means of making this status of justification possible. (Rom. 5, 6.)

Paul testifies that the law of Moses is a lesser law, inferior to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 7), and indicates that a justified individual is a person who has become righteous through obedience to the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord (Rom. 5:5, 8:5—6; see also Moses 6:60). These receive the promise of exaltation and of being joint heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8:14, 16—17.)

In addition, Paul comments about the doctrine of election, that is, that both Jew and gentile who had accepted the gospel were called or were the foreordained of God. (Rom. 9:23—24.) Therefore, faithful individual response to the gospel message is the determining factor of one's status as an Israelite, not blood inheritance alone. (Rom. 9:6, 10:12.) He likewise warns the gentile members that faithfulness is necessary for them to maintain a worthy condition in the kingdom. (Rom. 11: 18—21.) "Brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind [i.e., to remind you]" (Rom. 15:15), writes the apostle, as he concludes his attempt to answer the conflict among convert parties within this branch of the early church.

Major Themes:

The dominant themes of this important gospel writing might be categorized as follows:

1. Atonement of Christ—Purposes of the atonement and the preeminence of the law of Christ in relation to the law of Moses are testified to.

2. Doctrine of Justification—Personal righteousness is emphasized as a prerequisite to justification and the other benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

3. Doctrine of Joint Heirship with Christ—The covenant promise to all who achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom is presented as a continuing challenge to church members striving to master gospel principles.

4. Doctrine of Election (Foreordination)—The epistle does not contain a comprehensive treatment of the doctrine, but rather points to the principle of the "election of grace" for those who are faithful in honoring gospel covenants. The place of the house of Israel and its relationship with the gentiles, particularly those within the covenant in terms of gospel blessings, are also discussed. The partial explanation of the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees is used to illustrate this doctrine. Special mention is made of the "grafting in" of the gentiles into the house of Israel. (Rom. 11:17.) (The entire allegory is found in the Book of Mormon, Jacob 5.)

Difficult Passages (selected):

"Man is justified by faith." (Rom. 3:28.) This passage is used primarily by the Protestants to justify their break from the mother church. The general claim is that the fundamental requirement for salvation is but to "believe" in Christ.

"If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, …thou shalt be saved." (Rom. 10:9.) This verse is interpreted by some to indicate the sole act necessary to achieve salvation.

By so applying these interpretations, true ordinances are ignored, compliance with the commandments to fully qualify the individual is neglected, and finally, the legitimate authority to officially represent the Lord, both to declare the message and execute the ordinances, is disregarded. These statements must be applied within the context of the doctrine of justification; and justification always presupposes righteous actions. (Cf. Rom. 1:17; 2:6, 13.)

"Whom he did predestinate, them he also called…he also justified…he also glorified." (Rom. 8:30.)

"To whom pertaineth the adoption." (Rom. 9:4.)

"Election of grace." (Rom. 11:5.)

These expressions are used by the sectarians out of context as declarations to win "believers." Some who utilize these citations claim the unconditional predetermination by God of those who will receive salvation, regardless of personal choice or worthiness. These substitute interpretations are at variance with Paul's intention to deal with the principles of the doctrine of election or foreordination as they apply to knowledgeable and faithful members of the church. The Prophet Joseph Smith, in commenting upon these principles, said:

"The whole of the chapter [Romans 9] had reference to the Priesthood and the house of Israel; and unconditional election of individuals to eternal life was not taught by the Apostles. God did elect or predestinate, that all those who would be saved, should be saved in Christ Jesus, and through obedience to the Gospel; but He passes over no man's sins, but visits them with correction, and if His children will not repent of their sins He will discard them." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. by Joseph Fielding Smith, Deseret Book Co., 1961, p. 189.)

"For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Rom, 7:19.) The seventh chapter of Romans is often used as a justification or rationalization for inferior observance of commandments. This is entirely outside the context of the scripture. The Prophet Joseph Smith in the Inspired Version of the Bible (Rom. 7:9—27) clearly shows the proper intent of the passage as a contrast between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. The following comparison of selected verses illustrates this.

Inspired Version

"14 For we know that the commandment is spiritual; but when I was under the law [of Moses], I was yet carnal, sold under sin.

15 But now I am spiritual; for that which I am commanded to do, I do; and that which I am commanded not to allow, I allow not.

16 For what I know is not right, I would not do; for that which is sin, I hate…

20 For the good that I would have done when under the law [of Moses], I find not to be good-, therefore, I do it not.

21 But the evil which I would not do under the law, I find to be good; that, I do.

22 Now if I do that, through the assistance of Christ, I would not do under the law, I am not under the law; and it is no more that I seek to do wrong, but to subdue sin that dwelleth in me."

King James Version

"14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

15 For that which I do I allow not:

for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I....

19 For the good that I would I do not:

but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me."

Edward J. Brandt, associate director of the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, serves on the Melchizedek Priesthood Curriculum Task Committee of the Church.