Abstract:Close attention to the content and context of Romans suggests that Paul had three purposes in view in writing the letter—namely, a missionary purpose, a pastoral purpose, and an apologetic purpose. This article explores these three purposes, explains their interrelationships, and considers some neglected evidence.
It is hard to account for all the data of Paul’s letter to the Romans, without concluding, along with Wedderburn, that ‘no one, single reason or cause will adequately explain the writing of Romans’.1 It is, nevertheless, helpful to distinguish between the single occasion that precipitated the letter, and the several purposes which Paul was seeking to accomplish by the letter, in view of that particular occasion. The former is Paul’s imminent arrival in Rome, en route to the virgin mission field that lay in the western reaches of the Empire, namely Spain (15:22–29).2 But it is because this impending visit had such far-reaching implications for both Paul and the churches of Rome,3 that a number of interlocking purposes lie behind the writing of the letter.
My aim in this article is three-fold. First, I want to give to students and pastors a clear and accessible entry point to what has become a highly complex and protracted discussion. Although what follows is my own understanding of the question and is not intended as a survey of the many positions taken,4 the reader can follow the references to pursue various avenues for further exploration.
Second, I seek to give an account of the relationship between the reasons for Romans, with ‘reasons’ understood as a combination of the letter occasion and the letter’s purposes, as just defined. I will suggest that there are three main purposes that lie behind the writing of Romans, and that these purposes are conceptually related both to one-another and to the letter occasion. The attractiveness of a single-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it offers conceptual clarity, presupposing a unity amidst the diversity of the letter’s contents. The problem with the various single-reason hypotheses is that they fail to account for all the data of Romans.5 The attractiveness of a multi-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it better accounts for the sheer complexity and scope of the letter. But the problem is that it then becomes hard to see how the various reasons relate to one another or form a conceptual whole. Therefore, I will attempt to show some of the connections between the reasons for Romans.
Third, in probing the relationships between the reasons for Romans, I aim to encourage students and preachers of this great letter to treat it as a unity, and to see the wood for all the theological trees that lie within. As Douglas Moo has noted, ‘we can chart the history of the discussion of the theme of Romans as a movement from a focus on the beginning of the epistle to its end’.6 One way to work against this tendency to prioritise one part of the letter at the expense of others is to work hard to discern the interconnectedness of the whole, to push back against the blinkers that inevitably come with our own biases and historical particularity. More innocently, even though we may appreciate that Romans is not a theological treatise,7 we often fail to consider how an individual passage relates to Paul’s reasons for writing. But the question of how a passage relates to the author’s purpose in writing is central both to historically sensitive exegesis, as well as to sound homiletical practice.8 Given that the letter body contains so few references to either Paul’s situation or that of his audience, in practice it is easy to forget that everything Paul writes is designed to serve particular aims that Paul had in view. If we can clearly summarise what those purposes are, then it should be easier to keep them in view when we study individual parts of the letter.
2. Paul’s Missionary Purpose
Paul entrusted the letter with Phoebe, whom he expected the believers to welcome on her arrival (16:1–2). Phoebe was to bring the letter as an advance instalment ahead of Paul’s own personal visit, since he was planning to ‘pass through’ Rome on his way to Spain (15:24; cf. 1:11–13; 15:22–29). He had completed his mission in the east (15:19, 23), and now ‘Spain, for long the chief bastion of Roman power in the west, beckoned Paul as his next mission field’.9 In passing through Rome, Paul hoped to enjoy the company of the believers there for a while (cf. 1:12), as well as ‘be helped on [his] journey’ (προπεμφθῆναι) by them (15:24). The verb Paul uses here, προπέμπειν, speaks of the material assistance that a departing traveller would need for a journey, such as rations, logistics, protection and so on. In connection with Christian mission, where the word appears frequently,10 it could have connotations of providing a support base. It was certainly Paul’s practice to undertake his missions from a base of operations, whether Syrian Antioch, or Corinth, or Ephesus,11 and clearly venturing further afield into the unreached western reaches of the Empire is not something that Paul could undertake alone.12
Thus, many scholars have argued rightly that a key reason for why Paul wrote Romans was to enlist the support of the Roman churches in his mission further west into Spain.13 In response, it should be noted that Paul does not mention the Spanish mission until quite late in the letter. This is an important consideration. However, rather than relegating Paul’s missionary purpose to a reason of lesser significance, we need to view it in its totality. That is, we need to understand Paul’s purpose in writing not simply in terms of garnering support for the Spanish mission, but to further his apostolic mission broadly conceived. Paul presents three mission horizons in the letter: Jerusalem, where he is about to deliver financial aid to the believers (15:25–28), before passing through Rome (15:28–29), on his way to Spain (15:28). There is a clear tendency among scholars to see one of these destinations as more important than the others in explaining the purpose of Romans. However, not only is ‘each of these trips … directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles’,14 and as such is an extension of Paul’s calling, but each is fraught with potential difficulty for Paul (on which more below). We will now view these three mission horizons within the context of a missionary movement discernible within Romans.
First, the central theme of Romans is the gospel, both a divine promise now realised and divine mystery now revealed (1:1–3; 16:25–26); it both fulfills the antecedent prophetic Scriptures and elucidates them.15 A summary statement of the gospel message forms the heart both of the letter’s opening salutation (vv. 2–4 of 1:1–7), and of what has traditionally been understood as Paul’s thesis statement (1:16–17).16 The noun εὐαγγέλιον and the cognate verb εὐαγγελίζω also appear at the beginning and end of the thanksgiving section (vv. 9, 15).17 In short, the gospel is central to the letter introduction. Although not quite so prominent within the letter closing, the gospel is, nevertheless, central to the description of Paul’s ministry (15:16, 19), and to the final doxology (16:25).
The various themes which are signalled in the letter frame are developed within the letter body, whether the fulfilment of prophetic Scripture (1:2, 7; 16:25–26; cf. 3:21–4:25; 9–11), the contrast between flesh and Spirit (1:3–4; cf. 2:28–29; 7:1–8:13), God’s power to bring life out of death (1:4, 16; cf. 4:18–25; 11:1–36), the obedience of faith (1:5; 16:26; cf. 6:12–23; 12:1–15:13), the universal, impartial reach of salvation (1:5, 14–15; 15:19–24; 16:26; cf. 1:18–4:25; 9–11; 14:1–15:13), grace and peace as keynotes of the new age of salvation (1:7; cf. 5:1–6:14; 14:13–23), the revelation of the righteousness of God (1:17; cf. 3:21–4:25; 10:1–13), faith as the exclusive means of salvation (1:17; 16:26; cf. 3:21–4:25; 10:1–13; 14:1–15:13), and eternal, resurrection life as the great hope of believers (1:4, 17; cf. 6:1–11; 8:1–13). Since these themes are referenced in the letter frame in connection with Paul’s gospel, it is clear that the letter body expounds the gospel that the letter frame introduces. In short, Romans is about the gospel.
Second, it is important to notice that the leading statement concerning the gospel in 1:2–4 is tied to Paul’s apostolic calling through the risen Christ, which concerns his mission to preach the gospel among the Gentiles (1:1, 5–6). Of particular note are the three appositional phrases in v. 1, each of which identifies Paul in terms of his apostolic gospel mission.18 Similarly, the thesis statement is, in the first place, an affirmation of Paul’s resolute commitment to the gospel as one who is not ashamed of it (1:16; cf. also 1:9). Later, I will suggest that this statement functions as part of a personal apologetic.19 For now, I simply note that the gospel is tied to Paul’s own mission (1:14–15). And again, within the letter closing, what Paul says about the gospel is bound up with his mission to the Gentiles (15:16, 19). He even speaks of ‘my gospel’ (2:16; 16:25). It is not Paul’s in origin, since it is a revealed mystery (16:25–26), but it is Paul’s as a trust for the furthering of the obedience of faith among all the nations (16:26).
Third, at this point in his ministry Paul is committed to bringing a financial collection from the gentile Christians of Macedonia and Achaia to the poor Jewish believers of Jerusalem (15:26) because in his mind it represents a dynamic that is at the heart of his gospel mission.20 Not only does the gospel involve a salvation-historical movement from Israel to the world, via the resurrection of the Davidic messiah and the calling of Paul (1:1–5; 15:15b–19; 16:25–27), but its progress thus far has taken Paul on a ‘circuit’ from Jerusalem around to Illyricum (15:19). Bringing the financial collection to Jerusalem would represent a reverse movement to these others, which Paul also understands as integral to the gospel dynamic, namely that Jews are in turn to be blessed through the ministry of Gentiles (11:13–14; 15:25–27).21 Since such a mutual reciprocity between Jew and Gentile is integral to Paul’s understanding of his gospel mission, he is committed to going to Jerusalem with the collection.22
Fourth, just as going to Jerusalem with the financial collection is integral to Paul’s understanding of his gospel mission, so is going to Rome. It is important to notice that Paul explicitly places his addressees within the sphere of his apostolic orbit:23
Through him we have received grace and apostleship for the obedience of faith among all the nations for his name’s sake, among whom you are also (ἐν οἷς ἐστε καὶ ὑμεῖς) the called of Jesus Christ. (1:5–6)
I do not want you to be ignorant brothers that often I intended to come to you, and have been prevented from doing so until now, in order that I might have a certain harvest among you just as also among the rest of the gentiles (ἐν ὑμῖν καθὼς καὶ ἐν τοῖς λοιποῖς ἔθνεσιν). (1:13)
The same idea reappears in 15:15–16:
Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Because Paul wrote Romans to a group with whom he had no established pastoral relationship, it has been suggested that he is writing so as to give the gentile-majority churches of Rome an apostolic foundation.24 This is unlikely, since implicit in Paul’s reasons for previously working in regions other than Rome (15:20–22), is that he thinks a suitable foundation has already been laid in Rome. In addition, ‘Paul’s laudatory comments about the Roman church (1:8; 15:14–15) make it quite unlikely that he deemed the church to be lacking anything essential’.25
Rather, Paul is writing to the Roman churches because God has called him to be apostle to the Gentiles and the churches of Rome fall within that apostolic gentile orbit. Paul is writing to discharge a burden of apostolic responsibility for Rome, which he has long felt (1:8–15). Paul presents four parallel statements of purpose or intent which explain why he either intends or has intended to visit the church in Rome.
ἐπιποθῶ γὰρ ἰδεῖν ὑμᾶς, ἵνα τι μεταδῶ χάρισμα ὑμῖν πνευματικὸν εἰς τὸ στηριχθῆναι ὑμᾶς, τοῦτο δέ ἐστιν συμπαρακληθῆναι ἐν ὑμῖν διὰ τῆς ἐν ἀλλήλοις πίστεως ὑμῶν τε καὶ ἐμοῦ. οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι πολλάκις προεθέμην ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, καὶ ἐκωλύθην ἄχρι τοῦ δεῦρο, ἵνα τινὰ καρπὸν σχῶ καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν καθὼς καὶ ἐν τοῖς λοιποῖς ἔθνεσιν. Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί, οὕτως τὸ κατ᾿ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι.
For I long to see you, in order that I might share with you a certain spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, to be mutually encouraged among you through the faith that is in one-another, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be ignorant brothers, that I frequently purposed to come to you, and have been prevented until now, in order that I might have a certain fruit among you, just as also among the other nations. Both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish, I am obligated, so I am eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. (1:11–15, own trans.)26
These verses offer four expressions of intent, which line up together as mutually interpreting descriptions of why Paul would love to visit the believers in Rome:
- To share a certain spiritual gift to strengthen them (v. 11)
- To be mutually encouraged through one another’s faith (v. 12)
- To have some fruit among them just as among the other nations (v. 13)
- To preach the gospel to you who are in Rome (v. 15)
Reason (4) is clear enough.27 In 6:21–23 and 7:4–5 the image of fruit is closely connected with the life that the gospel brings, so it seems that reasons (3) and (4) are closely tied together. It is possible that the ‘fruit’ in 1:13 could be a material harvest, i.e. a financial contribution, either for the collection for the poor in Jerusalem or for his mission to Spain (cf. the use of the same word in 15:28). But the qualifier in v. 13—‘just as among the other gentiles’—suggests a spiritual sense (as in 6:21–23; 7:4–5).
Reason (1) is much less clear, but two things suggest it is another way of speaking of the gospel. First, the reason for sharing the spiritual gift—to strengthen the believers in Rome—is explicitly linked with Paul’s gospel in 16:25 in the closing doxology of the letter. Second, it is unlikely that the reason Paul is longing to see them in v. 11 is a completely different reason to his expressed eagerness in v. 15. By speaking of the gift he wishes to bring as a certain spiritual gift, Paul is deliberately ‘not claiming too much’.28 He is not expressing uncertainty as to what the gift should be until he sees them in person.29 Rather, he is speaking with reserve, deliberately treading lightly with a group of believers with whom he has no prior relationship.30 The same gentle approach is evident from the mutuality Paul expresses in reason (2).
With that understanding of Paul’s obligation to both Jerusalem and to Rome, along with his desire to then travel further afield to Spain, it is possible to see how the various mission horizons potentially impact one another. Each of these planned trips are, in their own way, fraught with difficulty. The logistical, practical, and linguistic challenges of a mission to Spain were considerable, the possibility of being ill-received in Jerusalem very real (15:30–32), and the churches of Rome were marked by a conflict (14:1–15:7), at the heart of which was the issue that had brought Paul so much opposition thus far in his ministry, namely the rightful place of the Mosaic Law within the life of believers. To say that Paul was embarking on a very challenging phase of his ministry would be quite the understatement.
What is Paul to do? He writes a letter to the churches of Rome in advance of his visit. At the most basic level, the letter is designed to accomplish in Paul’s absence what he has for so long desired to do in person. The reason Paul has long wanted to visit Rome (1:11–15) is the reason he says he has now written (15:15–16)—as apostle to the Gentiles he longs to see the gospel bearing fruit among the Gentiles of Rome. The believers in Rome need Paul’s gospel quite simply because they are predominantly gentile and Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles. They need Paul’s gospel if they are to become the people that God has called them to be, namely a united people, who ‘with one mind’ (ὁμοθυμαδόν) and ‘with one voice’ (ἐν ἑνὶ στόματι) glorify God together (15:6). Only in this way will they become an acceptable, sanctified offering to God (15:17). And Paul needs the believers of Rome to be obedient to the gospel in this way (1:5; 15:18; 16:26) if his own apostolic mission is to be fruitful further west in Spain. This would be a great encouragement to Paul (see purpose statement  above). In short, the global gospel mission requires, at this point in salvation history, that the Christians in Rome embrace Paul’s distinct vision.31
But why write now when Paul perceives the way to be finally open for a visit? First, for their sake. Such will be the significance and impact of Paul’s visit as apostle to the Gentiles, that they need advance notice to prepare themselves for it. Second, for Paul’s sake. There is a danger of the successive mission horizons suffering a deleterious domino effect. Paul was concerned about his visit to Jerusalem (15:30–31). Should Paul arrive in Rome with a bad report of events in Jerusalem preceding him then he would have little traction among the believers in Rome—whose trust he still needs to earn anyway—and hence little hope of establishing a support base for mission in Spain.32 Only if they are on board with Paul’s vision will the believers in Rome join Paul in praying to God for his Jerusalem visit (15:30–32). Such prayerful solidarity with Paul should not only contribute to his success33 but also ensure a positive reception of Paul whatever transpires in Jerusalem. It is also, of course, the sort of prayerful solidarity Paul will need from them if he is to succeed further afield in Spain. In short, Paul writes to establish a relationship with the believers in Rome, upon which he hopes to build in person after his arrival. But there are other reasons for writing which are integral to the successful fulfilment of Paul’s mission in Rome and beyond. To these we now turn.
3. Paul’s Pastoral Purpose
In 14:1–15:13 Paul directly addresses a pastoral issue that is causing division within the churches of Rome. There are those, whom Paul labels ‘the strong’ (15:1) who are despising ‘the weak in faith’ (14:1) or simply ‘the weak’ (14:2; 15:1).34 Conversely, the weak are standing in judgment over the strong. The division centres around eating or not eating certain foods (14:2–3, 6), and observing or not observing certain days (14:5–6).35 The weak considered certain foods to be unclean (14:14, 20), and certain days to be special (14:5). These differences in principled practice were proving divisive in Rome, and it is easy to imagine each group respectively digging their heals in. Also, given that the divisive practices were inherently social and communal in nature, there was some form of separation between the groups, which Paul wanted to see reversed by the receiving or welcoming (προσλαμβάνω) of one-another (14:1; 15:7).36 This is Paul’s aim in his instruction—that the conflict be overcome through welcoming one another, such that present division be replaced by unity of mind and practice (15:5–6).
Karris argues that Rom 14:1–15:7 is a generalised, universalised version of 1 Cor 8–10, abstracted from its original living context.37 If this is right, then what we read in 14:1–15:7 is not reflective of a pastoral situation in Rome at all. More likely is that Paul is re-shaping previous material, so as to address the particular circumstances of the churches in Rome.38 One significant difference between the passages is that whereas 1 Cor 8–10 addresses issues arising from participation in gentile idolatry, Rom 14–15 addresses disagreement bound up with the application of the Jewish Law to the life of believers in Christ (e.g. whether certain foods were ‘unclean’ [14:3]). It is evident from ch. 16 that Paul was personally acquainted with a number of members of the Roman churches. Joel Marcus notes that ‘if he [Paul] knew so many Roman Christians, it is credible that he was well enough informed about the situation of the Roman Christian community to address his letter to specific problems that had arisen there.’39 Certainly the directness of Paul’s language, expressed as command (14:1, 7), exhortation (14:13, 19), and second-person rhetorical address (14:4, 10, 22), is most naturally read as a reflection of a concrete pastoral situation.
At least three factors indicate that the situation is serious. First, the antagonism between the weak and the strong reflected the continuance of an ethnic division that had been overcome in the gospel.40 Perhaps the clearest evidence that the weak were predominantly Jews and the strong Gentiles—apart from the character of the dispute itself—is Paul’s conclusion in 15:7–13, where he urges mutual acceptance and tangible unity based on the prophetic promises of gentile inclusion into the single people of God. Paul saw mutual acceptance as a fundamental characteristic of a community birthed by the indiscriminate acceptance of both Jew and Gentile in Christ (15:7–9). The reason that Paul does not label the sides in the dispute with ethnic labels is because believers are now related as brother to brother in Christ (cf. the repeated use of ἀδελφός in 14:10, 13, 15, 21).41 The solidarity of Jew and Gentile in sin, and their inclusive participation in salvation (chs. 1–11), has formed a new community in Christ, a body within which each person is a member of one-another (12:4–5). Paul’s continued use of the reciprocal pronoun ἀλλήλων thereafter (‘one-another’; 12:5, 10, 16; 13:8; 14:13, 19; 15:5, 7) assumes this perspective of a mutual interdependence within the differentiated unity of the body of Christ.42 Likewise, the repeated use of ἀδελφός in ch. 14 assumes a new communal identity that must now relativise all others.
Second, Paul presents the issue as one of standing in judgment over one’s brother in Christ, an attitude expressed by both sides in the dispute (14:1–6, 13). Paul implies that the weak are ‘despising’ (ἐξουθενέω) their Christian brothers, and the ‘strong’ are ‘judging’ (κρίνω) them (14:3), but both are ultimately forms of judgment: ‘therefore, let no-one judge one-another’ (14:13). This picks up on Paul’s words to his interlocutor in 2:1, where he accuses him of judging the other. This judgmentalism is bound up with ‘boasting’ (2:17, 23), an attitude which involved both (misplaced) confidence before God, and a sense of distinctiveness in relation to others.43 In Rom. 2, Paul is describing a Jewish expression of a fundamentally human problem, which is probably why Paul never actually addresses his interlocutor as a Jew.44 God’s judgment in justification abolishes such boasting (3:27; 4:2), with the scope of justification (both Jew and Gentile [the horizontal]) inextricably tied to God’s method (by grace, through faith [the vertical]).45 That Paul has a special interest in Romans in the sin of arrogance or pride is evident also in 11:17–22 and 12:3, 16, as well as in 7:7–25 where Paul affirms the very solidarity in sin that the interlocutor of ch. 2 denies.46 A justified people should be marked by mutual acceptance, rather than the persistence of judgmentalism. Indeed, to stand in judgment over one’s brother in Christ is to usurp the judgment of God (14:4, 10–12).
Third, the conflict is in danger of seriously harming the practice of faith, hope, and love. The argument of Romans, as it concerns the human response to God’s grace in Christ, is broadly a movement from faith, to hope, to love.47 It is significant that all three are central to the issue Paul is addressing in 14:1–15:13. It will be instructive to look briefly at each in turn (though not in that order). First, the issue of faith. Paul describes the practice of both parties in terms of their faith, whether weak or strong. Given the significance of faith for the argument of Romans, it is unlikely that Paul is now using the word in a different sense.48 The weak in faith are weaker than the strong in faith, in that they have not yet worked through the full implications of their faith.49 In particular, unlike the strong, they were unable to disentangle their faith from religious and cultural traditions which are not, in fact, necessary expressions of faith in Christ, even though they believed that they were.50 It is incumbent on the strong to accommodate themselves to the practice of the weak, since not to do so places in serious jeopardy the faith that the weak do have (14:13–23). The language Paul uses to describe the potential injury to the weak—note especially the use of ‘stumbling block’ (v. 13), ‘destroy’ (vv. 15, 20), ‘condemned’ (v. 23)—implies that what is at stake is their final salvation.51 Paul does not spell out how this is so, but presumably by abandoning behaviours which they see as integral to their faith, the weak risk eventually abandoning a life of faith altogether.
Related to this danger is the obligation on the strong to walk according to love (14:15). Although there is only a single mention of the word within 14:1–15:13, its importance has been established by the immediate context of 13:8–14, where Paul describes the person who loves as having fulfilled the Law (13:8). This connection between the Law and love establishes its significance in connection with the legal disputes of 14:1–15:13. The strong appreciated that the Law was now fulfilled in Christ, but they were exercising their freedom to the neglect of love, which is the defining characteristic of a Christian’s behaviour towards his neighbour (πλησίον, 13:9). In 15:2, Paul once again speaks of behaviour to one’s neighbour (πλησίον), this time of pleasing one’s neighbour for his good, so as to build him up (15:2), the very opposite of behaviour which causes one’s brother in Christ to stumble. That Paul uses the word πλησίον in 15:2, rather than ἀδελφός (‘brother’), which has been prominent in ch. 14, suggests that he is echoing what he has said concerning the love of neighbour in 13:10. This is confirmed when we observe the Christ-shaped character of love in both contexts. As the mark of the newly-arrived day of salvation (13:11–13), a life of love involves ‘putting on’ the Lord Jesus Christ (ἐνδύσασθε τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, 13:14), an image that implies that the life of love is, at the very least, patterned after that of Christ.52 Likewise, a life of pleasing one’s neighbour for his good (15:2) is patterned after Christ (15:3), involving the abnegation of personal rights for the sake of others.53 It is this Christ-like, loving self-abnegation to which Paul is calling the strong in Rome. They are free to eat any foods they like (14:14), but they are never free not to love (13:8; 14:15).
Not only faith and love, but also hope is at stake in the dispute over food and days. In 15:4, Paul supports his scriptural appeal to the example of Christ (v. 3, where he cites Ps 69:9 as descriptive of Christ’s self-denial) by affirming a general principle which it illustrates, namely that ‘everything that was written beforehand was written for our instruction, in order that through endurance (ὑπομονή) and through the encouragement (παράκλησις) of the Scriptures we might have hope.’ The reference to hope here is surprising, since Paul appeals to the example of Christ as a motivational model of love. The connection to hope is less direct, but still critical to grasp. Note that in vv. 5–6, ὑπομονή and παράκλησις (repeated, and now ascribed to God) are now the source not of hope, but of a harmonious unity expressed in glorifying God together. Presumably, therefore, it is through such unity issuing in lives of corporate worship that the community’s hope is strengthened. The reason for this becomes apparent when Paul returns to the theme of hope in v. 13, where he ties it in with faith. What is to be believed are the scriptural promises, confirmed in the ministry of Christ (v. 8), which speak of the Gentiles joining the Jews in jointly glorifying God for his mercy (vv. 9–12). Believing this promised future inevitably involves the cherishing of its present manifestation within the church. This in turn strengthens hope in the final realisation of these promises in the age to come.54 Returning to vv. 4–6, we can perceive the same sense: by persevering in Christ-like love for one another, the unity of outlook and behaviour that fulfils the promises leads to hope in their final realisation. This means, of course, that when faith and love are harmed or disregarded in the community, hope inevitably withers, since the community will no longer look like the one that God’s gospel was designed to effect and fulfil.
We have considered three lines of evidence, each of which suggests that Paul sees the dispute in the life of the Roman churches as a very serious one. First, the conflict between the weak and the strong perpetuated a division that had been overcome in the gospel. Second, the arrogance and pride being displayed was an appropriation by the community’s members of the unique role that belonged to God/Christ as both Lord and Judge. And, third, the damage being caused to faith, hope, and love, had the potential to undermine the churches’ identity as distinctively Christian communities. These points argue for the centrality of the Paul’s pastoral purpose in two ways. On the one hand, the very seriousness of the issue implies its prominence within Paul’s design in writing the letter. On the other hand, we have observed how each of the three lines of evidence is a development of themes that are integral to the argument of the letter as a whole, which implies that the letter functions, at least in part, to address the pastoral problem in Rome.
How does Paul’s pastoral purpose relate to his missionary purpose? I will briefly note four lines of connection. First, and most importantly, dealing with the pastoral problem was, in fact, a fulfilment of Paul’s missionary mandate in Rome, to bring about the ‘obedience of faith’ (1:5; 16:26). In 15:15–16 they are implicitly tied together, since Paul’s boldness in writing (referring at the very least to what he has said in chs. 14–15) is presented as an expression of his priestly apostolic ministry. Second, Paul does not view the Roman believers’ faith as a fait accompli. Paul can simultaneously affirm that they show commendable signs of spiritual maturity (15:14) and still insist that their dispute, if allowed to fester, had the potential to spiritually destroy the weaker brothers. Once again, since Paul’s missionary mandate was to bring about the obedience of faith, his pastoral admonition is bound up with this missionary purpose. Third, the vision that is propelling Paul towards Jerusalem with the collection is the same vision that leads to his rather bold pastoral counsel in Romans 14–15, namely that of a brotherly, mutual interdependence that results from the solidarity of Jew and Gentile in Christ. As such, they are unlikely to wholeheartedly strive together with Paul in their prayers for a successful mission in Jerusalem (15:30–31), if they are not first willing to accept one another. Fourth, as others have noted, a unity of both outlook and worship (15:6) would seem to be the sine qua non of Paul being able to launch a missionary initiative into Spain from Rome. Discord and disunity is not a good foundation for missionary expansion. In sum, Paul’s pastoral purpose of seeing the strong and the weak united in mind and behaviour is an outworking of his purpose of furthering his mission in Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain.
4. Paul’s Apologetic Purpose
So far I have argued that Paul had two purposes in mind when he wrote Romans. The first was a missionary purpose, and the second a pastoral purpose, the two being linked in various ways. We now need to consider Paul’s third purpose for writing, also closely tied to the others—an apologetic purpose. Although the content of the letter is largely explicable in terms of Paul’s missionary and pastoral purposes, its character suggests something more is going on.
Various interpreters have observed the letter’s ‘apologetic accent’.55 This apologetic accent or tone is first discernible in the thanksgiving section of the introduction (1:8–12 [or 15]) and marks the opening of the letter body (1:13 [or 16]).56 As we observed earlier, Paul gives four reasons for wanting to visit Rome, going to great lengths to explain his longstanding desire to visit the Roman believers. This repetition is clearly for the sake of emphasis, and the clue that this emphasis probably has an apologetic purpose comes with the disclosure formula with which v. 13 opens: ‘I do not want you to be unaware brothers that I frequently intended to come to you.’ Why does Paul go out of his way to emphasise this point?57 Probably because he is defending his past behaviour vis-à-vis the Roman churches. As Byrne puts it, ‘he knows he has to explain why, if he is as he insists … the apostle responsible to God for Gentiles, he has failed up till now to visit a community where they exist in considerable numbers.’58 There is an uninterrupted logical progression from 1:13 all the way through to 1:18, without a marked distinction between the personal and theological elements of Paul’s introduction.59 As a development of the leading statement of v.13, it is likely that v. 16 also has an apologetic edge to it, with Paul countering the suggestion (voiced by some people) that he should be ashamed of the gospel he preaches.60 Contrary to the rumour that Paul’s gospel both promotes sin and denigrates God’s Law—taken up at length in 6:1–7:25—Paul insists that it reveals the righteousness of God with saving effect (1:16b–17).
There are hints, therefore, early in the letter, that Paul is responding to misunderstandings and even criticisms of his mission and message. It is not necessary to believe that these criticisms were already embedded in Rome to recognise the importance for Paul of providing a pre-emptive defence of his message if his visit to Rome is to be a profitable one. Criticisms of Paul’s mission and message would almost certainly have reached Rome,61 and would have aroused suspicions that were perhaps relayed to Paul by Priscilla and Aquila (cf. 16:3–4), co-workers who were very much ‘on side’ with Paul and his gospel. But more important than constructing a plausible historical reconstruction is noting the various lines of evidence in the letter that confirm these initial hints of an apologetic purpose. There are three broad lines of evidence to note.
First, Paul makes direct reference to opposition to his message. He does this in 3:8 and 16:17–20. In 3:1–8 Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7) which are clearly designed to reflect objections to his gospel message, above all from Jewish opponents. The last of these in v. 7 asks, ‘If the truth of God by my lie abounded to his glory, why am I still being judged as a sinner?’62 In other words, if God is glorified through my sinfulness (his truth acting in judgment to open up a way of salvation in Christ), then have I not done him a favour? And, if so, why would he still judge me? Paul then ‘amplifies’63 this objection in v. 8 by mentioning another related one. So far, in vv. 1–7, Paul has echoed objections he encountered which sought to highlight the apparent theological incoherence of his message. Now, in v. 8, the related objection involves a distortion of Paul’s message: ‘and why not say—just as certain people slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil in order that good may come.” Their condemnation is just.’ The fact that Paul makes direct reference to opposition to his message in v. 8 suggests that the earlier rhetorical questions (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7) echo personal criticism he received in response to his gospel preaching. It is often noted that the compact, somewhat allusive, nature of Paul’s argument in 3:1–8 points forward to future discussion in the letter, especially in chapters 6 and 9–11,64 which implies that Paul’s apologetic purpose is evident beyond just these verses.
In 16:17–20, Paul calls upon the churches of Rome to be vigilant against those who create dissensions (διχοστασία, v. 16) and obstacles (σκάνδαλον, v. 16) against the teaching they had received. Paul is speaking about a group of troublemakers whose behaviour and modus operandi were familiar to him (v. 17). Clearly the danger is not hypothetical. Indeed, some interpreters have suggested that these opponents of the gospel are already in Rome.65 Although we cannot rule out this possibility, there is not sufficient evidence in the letter to necessitate this conclusion. The most likely scenario is that Paul feared that ‘the conflicts [he] had faced in Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth with Jewish “counter missionaries” now threatened to spread to Rome.’66 The seriousness of the danger is underlined by the way Paul links the false teachers to Satan (v. 20), as he does in 2 Corinthians 11:13–15, where he also assures his readers of their ultimate destruction. It is easy to see how devastating the arrival of such false teachers could be in Rome, since ‘the weak’ were already predisposed to the Judaizers’ emphasis on the observance of the Mosaic Law. Although they did not believe that the Law had to be obeyed for salvation,67 they were vulnerable to such teaching. Paul has to argue his case in Romans, because his gospel has been opposed in the past, and quite possibly will be again.
The second indication of Paul’s apologetic purpose comes from the dialogical manner in which he advances his argument. In chapter 2, this resembles a classical diatribe, whereby Paul engages an interlocutor who represents a position against which Paul is arguing.68 Even where Paul is not directly addressing an imaginary opponent in this way, there is an argumentative cut and thrust throughout the main body of the letter, particularly apparent in chs. 2–4, 6–7, and 9–11. Of particular note are the rhetorical questions that Paul frequently asks (e.g. 3:31; 6:1, 15; 7:7, 13). The issue this raises is whether these questions are simply an effective teaching method, designed to draw out the inner logic of the gospel, or whether they reflect Paul’s experience of personal opposition. But these are not mutually exclusive alternatives,69 since what Paul’s opponents questioned was the coherence of his gospel, whether in relation to God’s prior promises and commands in Scripture, or in relation to itself. By advancing his argument through a dialogical, question-and-answer style, Paul defends his gospel against real objections in order to disclose its internal and external coherence. The clear thematic link between the questions of 3:8 and 6:1 implies that the latter is more than merely pedagogical, suggesting that 6:14, 7:7, and 7:13 are as well.70
Third, on a few occasions Paul directly defends himself against misunderstanding or criticism. If Paul’s purpose is, in part, apologetic, then first-person statements of self-defence are to be expected, since an attack on Paul’s mission or message is, ultimately, an attack on Paul himself. Just as Paul identifies himself in the closest possible way with his mission and message (1:1–5), so did his opponents. Although several interpreters of Romans have observed the apologetic tone within the first-person letter frame (1:1–12 [or 15]; 15:14–33) the apologetic tone of the first-person comments in the letter body tends to be overlooked. I will briefly note three places where this is discernible:
(1) In 3:9. It is not clear who the subject is of the first-person plural προεχόμεθα in v. 9a. It is the fourth of a string of five first-person verbs in context (vv. 5, 7, 8, 9a, 9b), and the relationship between them all is very hard to unravel.71 The understanding of v. 9a that I think makes most sense is to hear it as another instance of an authorial ‘we’ alongside the prior one in v. 8—lit. ‘just as we are being slandered’ (καθὼς βλασφημούμεθα)—and the subsequent one in v. 9b—‘we have already charged’ (προῃτιασάμεθα). Both of these first-person plurals are instances of authorial ‘we’ and I think, on the balance of evidence, that προεχόμεθα in v. 9a is as well.72 On this reading, the sense would be as follows. In v. 8 Paul turns the tables on his opponents by placing them in the divine dock and exonerating himself against the charge that his gospel promotes sin as a beneficial good. This is a potentially dangerous strategy, since Paul risks adopting the sort of defensive attitude in the face of accusation that he is critiquing in v. 7. In v. 9a he comes to his defence by asking, ‘Am I protecting myself?’ (προεχόμεθα),73 i.e. ‘am I defending myself in such a way as to exonerate myself in the face of God’s judgment? Not at all.’ So in 3:7–9 we hear Paul simultaneously defending himself against misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and confessing his share in humanity’s sinful plight. The same dynamic reappears in ch. 7.
(2) In ch. 7. In 7:1, 4, Paul signals that he is he now speaking directly concerning a matter of particular sensitivity—the Mosaic Law—by addressing the readers (twice) as ‘brothers’ (ἀδελφοί, vv. 1, 4). This is the first time Paul has used this intimate address since 1:13,74 which, as we noted, is a very significant verse with an apologetic tone to it. Still today we might address a fellow Christian as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ before engaging him or her on a point which we know is sensitive and could be misconstrued if we do not emphasise the familial bond out of which our concern arises.75 The reason the subject matter of Rom. 7 is so sensitive should be clear by now. The Mosaic Law has been a flashpoint not only within the churches of Rome (the pastoral issue), but also within Paul’s own missionary career (the apologetic issue). The possibility of success in winning the Roman churches to his missionary vision hinges on whether Paul can bring the believers in Rome to adopt his stance with respect to the Law. Paul’s monologue in 7:7–25 has long puzzled interpreters, and the debate regarding the identity of the ‘I’ has obscured the rationale for Paul’s use of ‘I’. For example, those interpreters who read ch. 7 as an instance of ‘speech-in-character’ cannot explain why Paul should choose to use such a rhetorical device at this point.76 However, Paul’s long ‘I’ speech makes sense when we realise that he is simultaneously offering a personal defence and presenting a pastoral model to emulate. He defends himself against the charge that he treats God’s holy Law as a sinful thing (vv. 7, 13, 14, 16, 22), and he presents a model of humble confession in the face of God’s Law (vv. 14–15, 17–21, 23–25), a model that is greatly needed among the arrogant, proud believers of Rome, both ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ alike.77 Rom. 7 is a lament, a biblical genre within which believers frequently voiced both a personal defence in the face of opposition and a confession of profound weakness or sinfulness before the Lord.78 By voicing such a personal lament before the Roman believers, Paul finds a way to tackle the issue that is of such pressing pastoral and apologetic significance before his visit.
(3) In 9:1–3. It is of great significance that chs. 9–11 begin with another apologetic statement. The apologetic voice of 9:1–3 reappears at two other key points in chs. 9–11, namely 10:1–2 and 11:1. We will focus on 9:1–3. Immediately noticeable is the emphasis by repetition that we observed in 1:8–15. Paul piles up three phrases to underline that he is speaking the truth in what he is about to affirm. Schreiner notes that the words οὐ ψεύδομαι (‘I am not lying’, v. 1) not only reiterate the first statement of v. 1, but are used elsewhere when Paul is defending himself against opponents (e.g. 2 Cor 11:31; Gal 1:20; 1 Tim 2:7).79 It is likely that the phrase functions in the same way here.80 Paul’s gentile mission has led many to question his commitment to his own nation. It is at those points that Paul’s gospel had come under severest criticism—for being anti-Law, for promoting sin, and for negating God’s covenant with Israel—that Paul comes most strongly to his defence (chs. 6–7, 9–11).
We have considered three lines of evidence in the letter, which taken together strongly suggest that Paul had an apologetic purpose in writing. First, Paul makes direct reference to opposition to his gospel message. Second, Paul frequently uses a dialogical manner in the letter which engages with opposing viewpoints. And, third, Paul sometimes uses the first-person voice to directly defend himself against misunderstanding or misrepresentation. As I said, I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that opponents of the gospel were already in Rome causing division. However, it is highly likely that the Christians in Rome will know of the criticisms of ‘antinomian, anti-Israel’ Paul, which, when combined with Paul’s apparent lack of previous interest in Rome, were likely to have caused suspicion, some of it potentially strong in nature. We do not have to agree that there were false teachers within the Roman churches to affirm with Stuhlmacher that ‘the dialogue we are witnessing in Romans is a real one in which Paul is wrestling for the hearts and minds of the Christians in Rome’.81 We have seen that Paul’s apologetic purpose is both closely related to his pastoral purpose, and bound up with his missionary reputation, with the place of the Mosaic Law within God’s ongoing plan for his people as the common factor. Paul’s desire to further his mission in Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain hinges upon the believers in Rome having a right grasp of the matter.
What did Paul write Romans? Paul wrote Romans to conduct an apologetic pastoral ministry among the believers of Rome—or a ministry of pastoral apologetics—designed to further gospel mission in Jerusalem, Rome and Spain. Such a ministry was designed to make them obedient to the gospel and, thereby, to further gospel mission in Rome and further afield. But why this letter of pastoral apologetics to enable their obedience to the gospel? Because conflict in their churches and confusion regarding Paul’s gospel centred on the relationship between the gospel and the Jewish Law. Such conflict and confusion stood in the way of the gospel bearing fruit both in their own lives, and in the harvest fields beyond Rome in the west.
Two brief reflections in closing. First, understanding the relationship between the Law and the gospel remains critical for both Christian maturity and mission. We would do well to be continually mining the riches of Romans to get our thinking straight on the matter. Second, Paul offers us a model of pastoral apologetics in the service of the gospel. Apologetic rigour and pastoral sensitivity go together. The connections are worth pondering further, both in Romans and beyond. Neglect either one and you will either lose the apostolic gospel or lose people to the gospel, or—quite possibly—both.