By John W. Hedge
It has been said that Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is “a tough piece of meat” to be understood. I remember that brother Peter said that “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you, as also in all his epistles, speaking of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). But please observe, that Peter did not say that the “hard to be understood” things which Paul wrote could not be understood. Paul himself said, “Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Tim. 2:7). Only those who are “unlearned and unstable” fail to consider what Paul wrote in the light of the context and, therefore, “wrest it unto their own destruction.” This was what the apostle Peter said about the matter.
A casual reading of the epistle addressed to the church at Rome reveals the following facts: First, the letter was addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). Second, Rome was at that time the capitol of the whole world. Its citizenship was composed of both Jews and Gentiles in general; certainly those composing the church there came from these diverse nationalities. Third, Paul informs the church of the fact that salvation had been provided for “every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The Jewish people had been previously brought up under the Old Testament system, with all of its ceremonies, “works of righteousness,” and “law keeping,” and, at the same time, were regarded as being God’s only people; it is easy to see why they thought that all such things should be continued in the church as necessary prerequisites to salvation (see Acts 15:1; Rom. 3:1-31).
Fourth, in view of the Jewish prejudice against the “the uncircumcised” Gentile elements within the church and their being “sticklers” for “keeping the law of Moses,” of maintaining “good works,” Paul is moved to write in opposition to such views. Naturally in writing he had to condemn “keeping law,” of salvation by “good works,” as being essential to salvation under Christ. Such condemnation does not apply to the one who obeys the “law of Christ” and who “fears God and works righteousness” (Acts 10:34-35; Tit. 2:11-12).
Fifth, for one to take Paul’s condemnation of “law” and “works” as found in the Roman epistle and apply it to all law and works as plainly taught in the New Testament is but to “wrest” this portion of God’s word. The shades of the teachings of Martin Luther to the effect that one is “justified by faith alone” and apart from any further acts of obedience, and that of John Calvin that “salvation is wholly of the grace of God” and without any effort on man’s part is seen in the teachings of many today, including some who claim to be “preachers of the gospel of Christ” and who have “escaped the bondage in denominationalism.” It was Martin Luther and John Calvin with whom modern denominationalism, (known as “Protestantism,”) originated, which was based upon their teachings regarding how the lost are saved. If “denominationalism” was begun by their teachings concerning salvation being “solely by faith” on the one hand, and “wholly by grace” on the other, those who teach the same things today are guilty of perpetuating denominationalism.
Yes, indeed, Paul did write some things, “hard to be understood” but by taking what he wrote in the light of context and circumstances, along with what is taught in general throughout the Bible, one can understand what he wrote, for what he wrote was written for our learning. If we can’t understand what he wrote, I am unable to understand how we could profit by our study of it. If you are “unlearned and unstable” it is clear why you do not understand it. One of Paul’s admonitions was, “Be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). If we cannot understand and make the right application of Paul’s letter to the saints in Rome I wonder how those to whom the epistle was sent did so.
Guardian of Truth XXV: 10, pp. 149-150
March 5, 1981