Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.

Reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans - III

3rd Part: The Christology of Romans

The middle section of this letter (chs. 5-11) provides a detailed account of Jesus Christ as the one who enacts the new and eternal covenant. Beyond the promissory character of previous covenants this covenant brings about the justification of believers, for the death of Jesus in time (“at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” 5:6) is the redemption of believers of all times. What is required of us is faith in Him, and this faith is what justifies us – that is, it restores right relationship to God after the damage done by sin. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1) because while we were still God’s enemies “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (5:10).

The inexhaustible richness of the mystery of Christ enables Paul to explore different facets in each of his letters. Where Ephesians stresses the headship of Christ over all creation and where Philippians concentrates on the way He pours himself out in complete humility for our sakes, Romans again and again stresses the Christ as making a definitive covenant that sets aright the relationship of humanity to God and permits each individual to be justified by placing faith in Him. From the obedience of such faith will come the works of charity that are the new commandments of this new covenant (chapters 12-16).


St. Paul’s vision of Christ as completing what was incomplete and sanctifying what was sinful about life under the initial covenants involves showing Christ as the new Adam (5:12–6:23). In this section the central notion is the punishment (death) incurred by the first Adam’s transgression of the original covenant. This penalty entered through the sin of one man and spread to all his descendants. By baptism into the new covenant we are receive a share in His death by going beneath the waters, and then a sacramental share in His resurrection when we rise up from them. This happens not by any merit of their own but as His free gift. If we retain the gift of divine life by living (6:12-14) in accord with the baptism that begins our restoration to friendship with God and our gradual sanctification (6:19), we will be given an abiding share in Christ’s life forever by a resurrection like His (6:5, 6:23).
The new and eternal covenant in Christ is at once something that perfects and sanctifies the older covenants and something that is truly new and eternal. St. Paul shows this in detail by his analogy with re-marriage after the death of a spouse and by his treatment of our life in the Spirit (chapters 7-8).   So long as both husband and wife are alive, the law demands their fidelity and forbids union with anyone else as adultery, but after the death of one’s spouse one is free to marry someone else. The words by which he draws out the point of the analogy are striking: “Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (7:4). To say this is to show the regard of the new and eternal covenant for the previous covenant, as when he writes: “So, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (7:12). But our entrance into the new covenant us to the new life of the Spirit (7:6).
This new life in the Spirit does not mean that the commandments of the Law do not apply. Rather is is a life marked by the sort of freedom that can come from practicing a willing obedience in faith to all that the commandments require and in addition being deeply alert to the stirrings and promptings of the Holy Spirit (8:1-17). It is the cultivation of this obedience of faith that Paul takes to be central to his own apostleship (1:5). The effects of the sanctification process upon us that participation in this covenant are numerous, including the help of the Spirit in our weakness so that the Spirit will guide us when we find ourselves not knowing how to pray as we ought to do (9:26) and that Christ will intercede for us from His seat at the right hand of the Father even when we are experiencing persecution or peril (9:34-35).
»Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.«
Romans 7:4
As a kind of coda for the entire section on the Christian covenant, the final segment (chapters 9-11) presents St. Paul’s understanding of the identity of the true Israel. Mindful that it was Israel to whom the promises of the covenant were made, Paul argues that the true Israel is not the set of those who descended from ancient Israel in the flesh but the people who have received the fullness of what God long promised. What God promised was the gift of His Son as the Messiah and Redeemer, and so it is those who have come to believe in Christ (and thus including many Gentiles) who are the true Israel. St. Paul’s heart aches for his brethren (9:1-5), but he insists that coming to have possession of what was promised is not a matter of justice or injustice but entirely a matter of the mercy and divine gift (9:6-18).
The implication of this insight about the true Israel is that salvation is open to everyone. What is required is the sort of life and love that follow from a confession that Jesus is Lord and belief that, and God raised him from the dead, and this is possible for anyone: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who fall upon him. For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:12-13). Amid St. Paul’s effort to explain that the salvation of the Gentiles has taken place in a way that resembles the grafting of wild olive shoots into the root of an olive tree (11:17), he also explains his hope that the branches native to that tree will someday be grafted back in (11:24). He puts this assertion explicitly in covenantal terms: “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob, and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (11:26-27).

To read part 1a, please click here
To read part 1b, please click here
To read part 2, please click here