Through the Bible in a Year: Romans Overview

This Week’s Reading Schedule

Monday, May 7: Romans Overview
Tuesday, May 8: Romans 1-3
Wednesday, May 9: Romans 4-6
Thursday, May 10: Romans 7-8
Friday, May 11: Romans 9-11

Next week we will return to the Hebrew Scriptures to begin the histories with 1 and 2 Samuel.

The overall year’s plan is here.

Why Overview Romans?

The belief that we go to heaven by faith alone is so pervasive in Protestant Christianity that it is accepted unquestioningly by most Protestants. In fact, questioning heaven by faith alone is considered heresy in many denominations, and their members, for the most part, will not even hold a discussion with you on the subject.

Heaven by faith alone is not true, however. It is a brand new doctrine, only as old as the Reformation, and it violates Scripture and common sense on many levels.

If we don’t deal with heaven by faith alone thoroughly now, there’s no point in going through the apostles’ letters with me because we will disagree on almost every page.

Heaven by Faith Alone

You probably noticed that I said "heaven by faith alone" rather than "salvation by faith alone."

Salvation by faith alone is something that the apostle Paul teaches, but "salvation" is a very big word. You can be saved from sin, saved from hell, saved from demonic possession, saved from drowning, and saved from financial ruin. Paul is not talking about all those things when he says we are saved by faith apart from works.

When Paul says we are saved from faith apart from works, he is not talking about going to heaven. You do not go to heaven apart from works, which is what James was trying to warn us about in chapter 2 of his letter. (And what John is trying to warn us about throughout 1 John, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.)

Past Tense and Future Tense Salvation

Whenever Paul talks about faith apart from works, he is always speaking in the past tense. This is consistent throughout his letters; there are no exceptions.

When we came to Christ, past tense, we came as slaves to sin. God didn’t ask us to do works to become a Christian. The very point of the New Covenant is that we could not do good works. We need Jesus’ death, grace, the Spirit of God, and the church before we could be taught to live righteously.

Thus, we were justified, past tense, by faith alone. We repented, we were baptized, and he washed away our sins and gave us the Spirit of God so that we could be new creatures, living a new life.

But what does Paul say about the future?

So, then brothers, we are in debt, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if we live according to the flesh, we will die. But if, by the Spirit, we put to death the deeds of the body, then we will live. (Rom. 8:12-13)

Notice that Paul writes we “will” die or we “will” live. He speaking in the future tense now, and suddenly something is required of us. It is no longer just faith, but we must put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.

He says it in Galatians, too:

Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a person sows, that will he reap. He who sows to the flesh will reap corruption from the flesh. He who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap everlasting life. Let us not grow weary in doing good because we will reap in due season if we do not lose heart. (Gal. 6:7-9)

Again, Paul uses the word "will." He is speaking of what we "will" reap, future tense. And once again, there is something we must do. It is not apart from works, but we must sow to the Spirit.

In fact, Paul sums it up with, "Let us not grow weary in doing good." Apparently, he sees a strong tie between sowing to the Spirit and doing good.

Finally, he adds that we will "reap" in due season if we don’t lose heart. What is being reaped? In context, there is no doubt that it is eternal life that Paul says we will reap if we do not lose heart.

Early Christian Testimony

One of the earliest writings outside of the apostles’ writings is by a man named Polycarp, the bishop (overseer) of Smyrna, one of the churches mentioned in the Revelation. Tradition holds that he was appointed to his position by the apostle John.

Many years ago, when I was as confused by the conflict between James 2 and Romans 3 as everyone else was, I read Polycarp’s letter. In its first chapter, he wrote:

… into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that by grace you are saved, not of works.

In the very next chapter, he wrote:

He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness …

Was Polycarp—a leading bishop of his day, a martyr for Christ, and a selection of the apostles—a heretic? Or did he simply understand what we have forgotten? We entered the Christian life, past tense, apart from works, but we must sow to the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, if we want to be raised up and inherit the kingdom of God in the future.

Consistency in Paul

Let’s look at another one of Paul’s letters, Ephesians, so that you can see the consistency of this past tense (faith)/future tense (works by the Spirit) dichotomy.

For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared beforehand for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)

This is past tense salvation. Through faith, we entered into grace, and grace saves us, completely apart from works, by making us his workmanship, a brand new creation, created for good works, which we were powerless to walk in before.

For this you know, that no sexually immoral person, unclean man, or covetous person—who is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it’s because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 5:5-6)

The letter to the Ephesians is just like Polycarp’s letter. We are saved from our old way of life, raised anew in Christ, by grace, apart from works, but if we wish to be raised with him, then don’t be deceived, we must not be sexually immoral, unclean, or greedy.

In fact, it has always amazed me how many of these passages contain the words "do not be deceived." It’s as though Paul foresaw the modern mindset and warned us not to embrace it ourselves.

Forgiveness Today

The one thing I do not discuss in today’s blog is Paul’s discussion of those to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Rom 4). We must briefly discuss who it is to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Do we really believe that the Lord will not impute sin to those who sow to the flesh? He has said they will reap corruption (Gal. 6:8). He has said they will die (Rom 8:12). He has said that the immoral would not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9; Eph. 5:5). Does that sound like he is not imputing sin to them?

I think John sums it up well:

If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from every sin. (1 Jn. 1:7)

This sounds like a person to whom the Lord is not imputing sin. It is a person who is walking in the light. He is not necessarily perfectly sowing to the Spirit (and perhaps no one is—Jam. 3:2), but he is walking in the light, generally marked by obedience to the Gospel. We all know people like this. We expect God to have mercy on them.

Others, though, walk as mockers of God, and we are horrified at the thought that God is going to show them mercy. He won’t. God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).

Justin Martyr, a Christian of the mid-2nd century, summed it up this way:

"Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin"; that is, having repented of his sins, that he may receive remission of them from God; and not as you [Jews] deceive yourselves, and some others who resemble you in this, who say, that even though they be sinners, but know God, the Lord will not impute sin to them. We have as proof of this the one fall of David … which was forgiven then when he mourned and wept in the way it is written. But if even to such a man no remission was granted before repentance … how can the impure and utterly abandoned, if they weep not, and mourn not, and repent not, entertain the hope that the Lord will not impute to them sin? (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 141)

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2 Responses to Through the Bible in a Year: Romans Overview

  1. Working through this has been very helpful and clarifying. I have a question about Paul’s use of past and future tense: I can understand his referring in the past tense just in the context of what he’s writing, but is he using past tense forms in Greek as well? I know next to nothing about Greek, so I’m wondering if there are special words or forms used to give tense?

    • Shammah says:

      Greek verbs give tense by their stems and endings. New Testament Greek has a greater ability to indicate tense than English does.

      I’m only a first-year Greek student, so I don’t depend on my ability to read Greek. For tenses, I lean most heavily on the NASB, which made special efforts to duplicate the Greek tenses. On the other hand, when I start quoting Rom. 5:9-10 and Eph. 2:8 and talking about tenses, I look up several translations and check commentaries.

      Eph. 2:8 has an especially weird use of tense: “For by faith are you in the state of having been saved by grace” would be roughly how it reads literally.

      I’m very careful about trusting “thought for thought” translations like the NIV, Holman Christian Standard Bible, etc. The New English Translation or NET Bible has a lot of notes, so that kind of makes up for its looseness in translation. In the end, though, if you’re going to make assertions–like I did–about tense, you either need to be a Greek expert, or you need to make sure that what you says agrees with translations in general.

      What I concluded about the tenses is controversial, but there’s nothing controversial about the verses I used. No one is going to argue that I’m wrong about the past or future tense in those verses.

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