Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, SJ
Reading St. Paul's letter to the Romans - II
2nd Part: Romans on the Need for a New Covenant
After a salutation to the Christians of Rome (1:1-7) and a prayer of thanksgiving for their faith (1:8-15), St. Paul devotes four chapters to the power of God to take up the desperate situation of humanity in general and of Israel in particular and to bring about salvation through the new covenant initiated by the sacrifice of Christ. This section of the text plays a role comparable to the first two sections of the Deuteronomic covenant: the identification of the parties and the history of their relationship.
St. Paul’s argument in these chapters serves to prepare for his assertion of the necessity for faith in Christ. In his view, divine judgment would be righteous in condemning both Jews and Greeks for their failures to live in accord with what God has given them to know about His will. The Jews have special access to the will of God through the special covenants He made with Abraham, Moses, and David. The “Greeks” to whom St. Paul refers in this letter are not presumably not just those people who live in Greece or who speak in the Greek tongue but all of humanity insofar as it still lives under the covenants made with Adam and Noah.
St. Paul’s reason for holding even those who have not enjoyed the benefit of revelation liable to divine judgment is his conviction that what can be known about the true God is evident from His creation. In phrases that resemble chapter thirteen of the Wisdom of Solomon, St. Paul takes those who worship nature or idols to task for the senseless nature of their worship and for embracing degenerate forms of morality (1:18-32).
In the course of inveighing against any form of hypocrisy, he interestingly grants that God will give a just reward to those who succeed in acting according to the lights they have been given: “[God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (2:6-7).
Those who have received the benefit of divine revelation of the Law and yet who have sinned will be judged by the Law. One cannot expect to be saved merely by having an expertise in the Law that makes one capable of teaching it to others (2:21) or by one’s membership in the Chosen People through circumcision (2:25). For St. Paul, the advantages of having divine revelation are considerable, especially through the witness that the scriptures give to Christ even before his coming (3:21), but insofar as one sins, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. What is needed is faith in Christ Jesus who made the new and eternal covenant by His blood (3:25).
For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith illustrates this point (4:1-25). It was not any of his deeds that made him righteous, nor his circumcision, for his actions only followed his profession of faith. The letter stresses that all the covenant-promises Abraham received depended on the faith that he placed in God, and that God made someone as good as dead by his age and childlessness alive again and the father of countless descendants. Like the way that St. John the Baptist challenged the Pharisees who came out to the desert (Mt 3:8-9), St. Paul challenges his reader not to rest content with being descendants of Abraham but to follow his example by making the act of faith themselves and by producing fruits worthy of repentance.
At the conclusion of the chapter St Paul points us to the act in which we must put faith in order to become participants in the Christian covenant: “That is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. But the words ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who was raised from the dead, Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:23-25).
»It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who was raised from the dead, Jesus our Lord«