Using The Book Of Acts To Understand The Book Of Romans

By Tom M. Roberts

It is without dispute that one of the most difficult portions of the New Testament to understand in its entirety is Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Someone has accurately referred to it as Paul’s “doctoral dissertation.” Without disputing the fact of inspiration, it is also true that the Holy Spirit used the unique talents and characteristics of each writer of Scripture by which to couch the terms of that revelation. It is possible to tell considerable difference between the simple sentence structure of John, for ex-ample, and that of Paul (compare John 1:1 with Eph. 1:3-14, or Romans 5:12-21). The scholarly mind of Paul that received instruction at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) is quite evident in the complex sentence structure and soaring conceptual statements of Romans. This might be compared with the simple and straightforward statements of an uneducated Galilean. This disparity does not in any way reflect unfavorably on any part of Scripture. Rather, it acknowledges that God was able to take the particular talents of each writer (some more educated than others) and use them to furnish us with the comprehensive “faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3).

Different Styles But A Common Message

While Luke, the writer of the gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts, was not a simple Galilean, he does write as a historian and not an apologist. However, in the process of recording the “acts of the apostles,” Luke relates many of the concepts of salvation that are common to the book of Romans. The different style that is evident between Luke and Paul is striking. But it is their similarities that provides us with a valuable tool to fully understand the concepts that Paul addresses so profoundly. Do you have trouble understanding the Roman doctrine of justification (3:21-26)? Surely you are not alone. What about the doctrines of righteousness (1:17; 9:14), election (11:5), law and gospel (4:1-5), Jew and Gentile (9:6ff), the faith-fulness of God (9:14; 11:1ff), the nature of man (5:12-21), and the nature of law (7:7ff), to mention but a few? All these subjects, and more, are complex and “hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16), admitted by no less than Peter.

It is not suggested that the book of Acts was written as a commentary upon the book of Romans. What is suggested, however, is that Luke provides us with a bird’s eye view of the work of the apostles (principally, Peter and Paul) as they proclaimed Christ to the world and, by this proclamation, demonstrated in action the concepts Paul propounded in Romans.

It is also suggested that there is a perfect harmony between these two inspired records, so that whatever the concept of justification, etc., is found to be in Romans, it will be acted out in Acts as men and women respond to gospel preaching. Justification in Romans, for example, cannot mean justification by faith only, as taught by Calvinists, because in Acts, people were taught to obey, predicated upon an ability to obey. Any theoretical view of doctrines from Romans that disagrees with the clear record of Acts has to be false. When anyone teaches, for example, that “baptism is not essential to salvation be-cause we are justified by faith,” that doctrine is manifestly false because the apostles preached justification by faith and it included the practice of baptism for remission of sins (Acts 2:38, etc.).

From Simple to Profound

Simply put, the book of Romans is concept; the book of Acts is actuality. The former is systematic theology; the latter is example. In Romans, Paul is permitted to draw back the curtain of finiteness and gaze upon the inner workings of the very mind of God as the Scheme of Redemption is formulated. In Acts, Luke records how the apostles, who now understand this”mystery” (Rom. 16:25), bring it to the world in simple terms that cannot be misunderstood. Between these two inspired records, we have the entire range of human ability comprehended. Does one have a simple, trusting faith that is moved to obey the commands of God without question? Read Acts of the Apostles and learn what to do to be saved. Does one have an inquiring mind that wonders “why” Jesus had to be-come a man and die on the cross so that sinners could be justified? Read the Roman epistle and learn of the merger of divine justice and mercy.

Acts and Romans: The Story of Immanuel

We know’ from Ephesians 2:8,9, that salvation is “by grace through faith,” or, as it has been described, the divine equation: God’s part and man’s part. Romans tells of salvation from God’s side of the equation, “the righteousness of God” (3:21); Acts tells of salvation from the human side of the equation, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) This relationship between Acts and Romans is almost parabolic: reasoning from the known to the unknown; from the simple to the complex. In the parables, Jesus explained the mysteries of the kingdom of God by simple stories of fish, seed, tares, etc. In Acts and Romans, Scripture explains the mysteries of justification by the simple stories of conversion. The result is that the eternal principles of the Creator are accommodated to the creature; God reaches down to man. In fact, the relationship between Acts and Romans seems to reflect the story of the gospel itself. Jesus was called, “Immanuel” or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). The Word became flesh (Jn. 1:14); God came down from heaven to save man. Romans discusses the complex: divine wisdom (God) in heaven; Acts uses the simple: the gospel (Incarnate Word) in the world. Between the two, we are able to see the entire span of redemption: concept, incarnation, crucifixion and coronation.

Nothing said herein is intended to suggest that the epistle to the Romans is beyond comprehension. It is rather a suggestion that we can learn more fully about God’s word when we allow Scripture to be considered as a whole, with each part providing its own illumination. The next time you study Romans, try to approach it with a firm foundation established from a study of Acts. You might be surprised to learn that, having learned of the Acts of the Apostles, you are not far from the mind of God.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 17,
September 2, 199318-19