We sometimes treat Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it is the apostle’s theory about gospel or his magnum opus of theological insights. Yet Romans is a letter. It is a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. We should be reading Romans as a relational adventure.
We sometimes have treated it as if all that matters are the greatest hits. We pick the parts we like and treat the rest like b sides. We act as if the selected parts tell us everything we need to know about Romans. “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” and “For all have sinned…” and “For the wages of sin is death…” and “All things work together for good…” and “If God is for us…” and “Offer your bodies a living sacrifice…” I think you get the idea.
Just saying, we tend to read Romans with presuppositions. We convince ourselves that here we have discovered the straight road to salvation. This is a certain way to miss out on a wild and unsettled Romans that is an important part of our adventure. I suspect this is a constant problem for the church. We spend a great deal of effort cleaning up the messy parts of the bible to convince ourselves of clear principles that do not match with the messiness of real life. This has likely caused many to decide the bible is not for them.
N. T. Wright has said that Romans “sweeps you along on a tide of extraordinary writing and glorious hope.” He also says “it plunges you not only into gloom, but into serious puzzles, knotty intellectual problems, and arguments that will make you wonder whether St. Paul is losing his balance…” I enjoy Wright’s description because it moves us toward Romans as an adventure.
Beverly Roberts Gaventa claims we tend to read it “as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time…” Reading Romans this way will cause us to miss out on what Romans is saying and we will fail to see that the “metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine.”
Romans is literature that sees church and world in realistic ways, including the clumsy messes where we sometimes find ourselves. Even more, Romans highlights the significance of God’s action on behalf of the church and the world. Gaventa cautions us about the twists and turns on the path that is Romans. And she gives warning that it will take us “into a gospel far more vast than we usually imagine, and that gospel may take us places we would prefer not to go.”