Paul’s Gospel Challenge to the Romans: From Sin as Law Breaking to Sin as Bondage to Law and Death

In addition to refuting the false Teacher in Romans, Paul is also challenging the Roman Christians to accept a more comprehensive understanding of the work of Christ. His very reason for writing, and eventually visiting, is to explain the gospel (1:15). Paul is presuming they have not heard the gospel in its fulness, and he is eager that they would have this more complete understanding so as to be able to resist the false Teacher, but also so they might enjoy a deeper faith. Where he is moving them from (or his point of departure), is their view regarding the work of Christ (in 3:23-26), in which atonement is said to be “for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions.” Their understanding is true, in so far as it goes, but it does not go very far, and so Paul is beginning with what they understand and building from there. They may be so focused on the efficacy of Christ’s death that they fail to consider the resurrection (as his defeat of death and the beginning of his rule over the powers).

The Roman Christians, as we gather from the way in which Paul builds his case, may simply believe Christ has replaced the need for sacrifice for sin in the Temple (even the false Teacher probably believes as much), but they may not have grasped the cosmic implications of Christ. As Douglas Campbell writes, “Christ’s death functions more as an apparent replacement of the temple cultus, which cleanses or wipes various individual transgressions from the relevant worshipers and their consciences (see Heb. 9:11–14, 24–28). Hence, there is no further atoning role for the resurrection to play.”[1]  They may be looking forward to a future vindication in their own resurrection, but fail to apprehend the notion of a resurrection life now (present participation in the life of Christ). They seem to have missed that sin is not simply breaking laws, but an orientation to death defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection (as Paul will explain shortly, in some detail). (Thus, Paul’s true thesis for the letter may be his opening focus on resurrection in 1:4). It is not that the Roman understanding is wrong per se, but their limited understanding has left them vulnerable to the false Teacher.

In this understanding, God is concerned with good and bad deeds, and the judgment will be based on an accounting of these deeds. As Paul sums it up, “God will render to each person according to his deeds” (2:5) and only “the doers of the law will be justified” (2:14). But of course, this is not Paul’s position, because he immediately refutes this notion saying, “that from the works of law no flesh will be justified” (3:20). Paul’s teaching is that justification comes “by faith, apart from works of law” (3:28). The problem is the Romans may have such a limited notion of faith as to imagine it is defined by law keeping – Christ satisfies the law and faith is trusting in this fact.

The false Teacher has been able to take advantage of their narrow understanding, and Paul is simultaneously refuting the false teaching and broadening their understanding by presenting his more radical gospel. He is doing this on two fronts; showing that the problem of sin is more serious than they imagined, and then showing that the answer of salvation is also cosmic, fundamental and all-encompassing. Where their faith is attached to law and transgression, the resurrection faith which Paul will begin to spell out entails cosmic new creation.

To convince them of his more radical gospel their basic concepts of justification, judgment, and sin, are going to need to be reworked in light of the work of Christ, and this will involve a new hermeneutic. The concept of the false Teacher, which the Romans may share, is that justification is through works, judgment is on the basis of works, and sin is concerned with bad works. This is hardly an adequate understanding of the depth of the human predicament and the need for rescue, so Paul broadens their understanding of sin, moving them from focus on sin as a mere act to picturing it as bondage to deception.

Rather than speaking of plural “sins” Paul speaks of sin as a singular force. As Louis Martyn points out, “While Paul uses the word “sin” in the singular rather frequently, the plural form emerges only four times in the genuine letters.” Martyn provides an examination of all the plural uses of the word, and concludes, “Only when he is quoting traditional formulas does Paul speak of Jesus as having died for our sins (Gal. 1:4; I Cor 15:3).”[2] As long as the Roman Christians think of sins as defined by works of the law (“for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions”), they will consider the human predicament as concerned with outward works and signs (such as circumcision). In turn, God will be understood through the law, as the one who punishes and rewards, and justice and judgment will also be law-based determinations.

What becomes obvious by Romans 7 is that Paul’s definition of sin (deception in regard to the law) is manifest in the gospel of the false Teacher (his false gospel is sin at work). The Romans are susceptible to this false teaching, inasmuch as they have also misconstrued the importance of the law. Paul argues Christ is the righteousness of God revealed (not the law) but they may be a long way from this concept. Isn’t the law the righteousness of God revealed, they might ask? How can Paul say the gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (1:17)?

Paul’s depiction of the work of Christ (righteousness enacted) as release from a death-dealing deception (in chapters 5-8) is a new concept (if 3:23-26 reflects the extent of their initial understanding). The Roman Christians may be similar to Christians today, who hold to justification theory. Neither group seems to fully comprehended that in Paul’s gospel, Christian faith is a participation in the work of Christ (living out his death and resurrection) so as to break free of the bondage of the power of sin. Salvation is not merely a cleansing nor baptism the spiritual equivalent of a bath. Note, that he begins by questioning whether they know the full meaning of baptism: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (6:3-4). As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Christians are not merely enabled to live, purified, in the present world, but their very being is transformed and they enter a new world.”[3]

So, Paul’s task in Romans is to bridge a gap in the thinking of these Christians. He is going to try to move them from a child-like view of sins, to a more profound recognition of sin, and thus strengthen their recognition of the work of Christ. He does this in the immediate context by appeal to the life of Abraham.

 In chapter 4, he demonstrates from the story of Abraham that the law is not definitive of the faith of Abraham, but the life journey of Abraham (in which he was given the promise of life in the face of death) is definitive. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Where the Romans may consider righteousness as defined by the law, Paul connects it to the faith of Abraham, which precedes the law. “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (4:10). Abraham’s faith is not defined by the law, as there was no law. Abraham is the prototype of faith, and yet his faith is nothing on the order of that described by the false Teacher (or justification theory), in which law is determinant.

The law is secondary in the life of Abraham, a mere sign of the promise of life: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (4:11). Certainly, he is the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Abraham’s faith stands juxtaposed to the notion that faith is in regard to the law, or that faith is objective and static (rather than dynamic and lived out). Abraham’s life journey, his active trust in God, leaving his home country and family, and his continued journey literally and metaphorically into the unknown, describe a participatory, lived out faith.

Abraham does not feel a guilt-stricken conscience before the law; that is not even a possibility. Law does not figure into the equation at all. Rather, Abraham’s faith was exercised in his orientation to the promise of life in the face of death: “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (4:13).

Paul concludes his depiction of the faith defining role of Abraham as culminating in resurrection faith: “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24). Righteousness is not primarily a legal term for Paul, but it pertains directly to Christ, and his making right that which is wrong. Where death reigned prior to faith, now life reigns through Christ and resurrection faith.

The Romans may have had a weak view of the resurrection, viewing it as the reward or end point of cleansing from sin. Paul’s view is more radical: Cleansing and freedom from sin are not the achievement leading to resurrection rather, “Cleansing and hence freedom from Sin [is the] freedom of resurrection.”[4] Resurrection is the liberating event bringing about freedom from the law of sin and death, and this is enacted in Christ for all who have faith. As illustrated in the resurrection faith of Abraham, one’s life course is liberated from death through faith. Christians are liberated from the very structures of sin through resurrection faith. This is the atoning, liberating work accomplished by Christ, displayed by Abraham, and definitive of Christian faith. This resurrection orientation is itself salvific in its defeat of the orientation to death, which is sin.

In Romans 5 Paul takes this a step further, juxtaposing Adam and Christ: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). Death reigned in Adam and this accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), and just so, “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here sin is a singular, ethical, epistemological, and ontological force that has captured the human race, not just in physical death but in an orientation which is death dealing. Paul describes this as a primordial deception, a covenant with death, or the law of sin and death. In chapter 7 he explains how the dynamic of this lie works in conjunction with the law, or simply with human understanding of the law. There is a fundamental deception in regard to the law, by which sin enters in: “sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). In this chapter Paul describes the topography of the human Subject, as the dynamic of this lie takes hold. Chapters 5 and 7 explain how it is that this law of sin and death has captured the human race, while chapters 6 and 8 describe how Christ frees from the death dealing bondage of sin.

Far from the law playing a guiding or defining role, in Paul’s gospel the law is the occasion for sin. It may be that it is not only the false Teacher implicated in this deception, but the Romans, through their own inadequate notion of atonement have given him an opportunity. But this is not the peculiar trick of the false Teacher, or a peculiar weakness on the part of the Romans, as Paul explains, this deception in regard to the law is the universal human problem resolved through the work of Christ. In his gospel, the law is displaced with a participatory faith in Christ which nullifies the law of sin and death.


[1] Douglas A, Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 709). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 89. The rest of the quote from Martyn reads: “Of these four instances one is a sentence Paul explicitly identifies as an early Christian confession (I Cor 15:3); a second stands in the broad context of that confession (I Cor. 15:17); the third functions in effect as a plural adjective modifying a plural noun (Rom 7:5, “sinful passions”) and the fourth emerges in the present verse.” Martyn is referencing the verse in Galatians 1:4.

[3] Campbell, 709.

[4] Campbell, 710.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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