The understanding of salvation that I and maybe the majority were reared on, or the typical Protestant understanding (as in justification theory) is that all people recognize God and his righteousness, and experience the incapacity to keep the law. This inability to keep the law is definitive of both the human problem and the solution of the cross of Christ. We come to Christ, having realized we cannot keep the law and that only Jesus can fulfill the laws righteous demands and pay the penalty for transgression. Much of this understanding is drawn from just a few texts, mainly in Romans (and primarily in the first 4 chapters of Romans). I want to pose a different picture of the human problem and a different soteriology, based on an alternative reading of Romans.
As I have argued (here and here), this common Protestant understanding is a result of fusing the words of the false Teacher, as found in 1:18-32 and scattered through the first three chapters, with the teaching of Paul. The human predicament, judging from the rest of Romans, turns out to be much worse than described in Romans 1:18-32. In this description, people know God and know what they should do (keep the law) but do not do it (implying in the description a means of escape through the law), but in the rest of Romans Paul describes people who are in bondage (8:15-6), who have been deceived and enslaved by a lie (7:7-15), who are hostile to God (8:7) and this hostility is the best they can do. Death reigns (5:14), both in the literal sense and in that life is ordered by this reality (5:12). People attempt to engineer reality, through the law (1:18-2:21), through the flesh (7:5, 25), through the elemental principles of the cosmos (Gal. 4:3, in a parallel passage), such that they can negotiate death but all of their various means of escape are deadly.
Far from the law offering a potential means of escape, either through law-keeping or through Christ’s law-keeping, the law is deadly in the same way that flesh is deadly. Though people imagine they can defeat death (through law or religion) in what is called “the covenant with death,” death reneges on the supposed arrangement (9:32 referencing Isaiah 28). The human arrangement with death, which Paul sums up as the sin condition (the law of sin and death, 8:2), deals only in death – there is no life in the arrangement.
Though 1:18-32 pictures a universal capacity to recognize God and the law from nature, it turns out (at least according to the rest of Romans), Paul is not optimistic about people perceiving the problem let alone coming up with a solution. Far from some sort of deep anthropological insight on the part of humanity, Paul pictures a deluded humanity. A deadly exchange has taken hold universally, corporately (chapter 5) and individually in the human psyche (chapter 7) and Paul spends most of the first 4 chapters of Romans explaining how the perceived solution, the law, is bound up with the problem. The deception in regard to the law, through which death takes hold as the perceived means of escape, is obscuring the singular solution: the gospel. That is, God has provided a resolution to the human predicament, but because the problem has been misunderstood (due, in part, to false teaching) the solution is now misunderstood and obscured. Thus, Paul is writing this letter.
Paul explains the problem, in light of the solution (7:7-25), as the problem cannot otherwise be grasped. As Douglas Campbell explains, chapter 7 is not simply a psychological portrayal of pre-Christian experience. “Essentially, it supplies a theological analysis of non-Christian ontology, whether that is present in the non-Christian (as seems obvious to the Christian) or in the Christian (as seems at least partly to be the case on this side of the end of the age). Hence, it is fundamentally retrospective—the result of a vantage point available only in Christ, which supplies the key theological categories and insights for constructing it.”
Chapter 7:7-25, referencing Adam, is more complicated than mere legalism. Judaism per se is not the problem, though the law of Moses creates the same sort of problem. The reality of the human predicament may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description, misses how it is that sin has deceived in regard to law. In other words, Christianity as we have it in much of Protestantism (justification theory) is implicated in the problem inasmuch as the problem and solution are thought to be defined by the law.
In Genesis 3, it is not that the command per se is problematic, but due to the lie of sin (as Paul describes the work of the serpent) the presumption is that the command is the means of access to life. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:10-11). Paul is not describing a slowly dawning awareness in the struggle to keep the law, and then the recognized inability to do so. He is describing the deception as it occurred in Genesis and which continues to reign. This is not someone who has deep cognitive awareness of their sin problem. This person is deceived, controlled by the flesh, and serving the desire of the flesh (7:5, 7, 8, 14). This individual is controlled by death, with chapter 7 providing a detailed account of 5:12-21, of how it is that death came to reign and continues to reign in the human race.
It is not a matter that no one can keep the law, and this is why they are not justified, though this is how verses such as Galatians 3:10 are often read. As Daniel Boyarin notes, a better understanding is not to imagine there is a problem with the doing of the law. Most Jews, like the Pharisee Paul, assumed they kept the law perfectly. The problem is not that it cannot be done, the problem is imagining that the doing is the main thing. “We could rewrite the verse, then, as: ‘Everyone, who [precisely] by doing it does not uphold all that is written in the book of the Law, is under a curse’; i.e., by doing it, by physical performance, works of the Law, one is not upholding all that which is written in the book of the Law, and that is the curse, because ‘all that is written’ implies much more than mere doing!” As Paul, argues in chapter 4, it is faith that precedes the doing of the law. Or as he states it in 3:27, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” But as he argues (in chapter 4), this is an idea that can be extrapolated from the law. The law points beyond itself to the faith of Christ. As Boyarin maintains, “It follows from this that those who live by faith are the righteous, i.e., the justified. He then argues that those who live by the Law do not live by faith, since the verse in Leviticus explicitly reads ‘He who does them lives by them,’ i.e., one who does the commandments lives by them and not by faith. Since, then, we know from Habakkuk that the righteous live by faith, he who lives by them and not by faith (and, thereby, does not fulfill the Law) is not righteous—is not justified.”
Boyarin maintains Paul is arguing in a manner familiar to the Rabbis and Pharisees: “Paul is using methods of interpretation that would not surprise any Pharisee (I suspect) or Rabbi, although the results he arrives at would, of course, shock them to their depths.” The law is a curse if the doing of it, or the having it, is thought to be adequate. According to Campbell, “The curse’s basis is actually life in Christ—a life of freedom, adulthood, inheritance, and the Spirit. In comparison with this life, Judaism under the law is confined, immature, harsh, and oppressed, and hence also cursed; it is the life from which Christians have been ‘purchased.’”
The law does not produce faith nor resurrection, though it is based on faith (resurrection faith, 4:23). “In short, by acknowledging the crucified and resurrected Christ, and relying on him for deliverance—a deliverance that is already in some sense inaugurated (so vv. 17–20)—Paul observes that Jewish Christians have automatically displaced law observance from a critical saving and transformational role.” There is no room for “works of law” even in the anteroom to faith. One does not progress through works of the law, to despair about keeping the law, to faith. Galatians, like Romans, describes a setting aside of law: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:15). “Because transformation comes through the Christ event, works of law have been negated (at least in relation to transformation), along with any subsequent construction of their importance.”
As Louis Martyn argues in regard to Galatians, the false teachers (who seem to be the very one or ones in Rome) are arguing Christians need the law, in particular circumcision, so as to curb the desires of the flesh. But Paul equates this reliance on the law as equivalent to reliance on the flesh. “Abraham, in their estimate, would have defeated the desire of the flesh by keeping the law, beginning with circumcision. So, Paul’s juxtaposition of flesh against Spirit, specifically refers to the foreskin of the penis. Their reliance on the law is literally reliance on this piece of flesh.”
This reliance, as depicted in Galatians, is the equivalent of being a slave to the elementary principles of the cosmos. The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing (in Gal. 3:28 and 6:15), is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs (earth/air, water/fire). The problem with the law, the problem with the flesh, and the problem with “this present evil age” reduce to the singular problem that the “elements of the cosmos” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου) have been made absolute (a divine dialectic) and have not been understood in relationship to God. Whatever Paul might mean by these elements, it seems that the law and the flesh are counted among those things which held all people captive (Gal. 4:3).
The same dynamic is at work in Romans 7. It is not a matter of the law of the mind gaining control of the law of the flesh, as both are part of the dynamic (dialectic) of the law of sin and death . It is not the body over and against the spirit that is the problem, but this dialectic, as in Paul’s pitting of his mind against the body is definitive of the predicament. He sees two laws at work: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7.23). The point is not that one of these laws is right and the other is wrong; the point is there is a war being waged in which the individual is the victim, and only Christ can end this struggle.
As Martyn notes, the antinomies that served as the building blocks of the universe have disappeared. The cosmos founded on opposed pairs no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ. The cosmic order, in which law versus no law, circumcision versus uncircumcision, or flesh versus spirit is broken open by Christ: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the cosmos has been crucified to me, and I to the cosmos. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).
As Paul explains in chapter 8, there is an incapacity – but it is not an incapacity of the will or of someone attempting to keep the law and finding they are not able. Rather, there is an incapacity to recognize God, due to an innate hostility in the fleshly mind: “it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8). This hostility arises in conjunction with the flesh and the law. It is not a matter of separating the law from the flesh, but it is a matter of doing away with the law as the basis of understanding the problem (sin) and the solution (salvation).
In chapter 5 of Romans, when Paul turns from the problem of the false Teacher and the law, he provides a picture of the problem and solution (from chapters 5-8) revolving around death and life: “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). This pictures “life” in the future age, but it also references a different sort of life now. People are baptized so that they “might walk in newness of life” (6:4). In this new life the oppressive measure of the law has been set aside in being joined to Christ (7:1-3). Rather than the law serving to define salvation, with its being set aside the reign of death has ended (5:21). Salvation is rescue from death and the reign or rule of death through sin (5:18). This simple observation comes with a host of implications in regard to God, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the nature of reality and experience.
In contrast with justification theory, the primary human problem is not God’s anger due to transgression of the law, but captivity, deception, and hostility arising through sin and death. Both chapter 5 and chapter 8 mention an inherent hostility to God. The sons and daughters of Adam are fundamentally God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5–8) as “the sinful mind is hostile to God” (8:7). Romans 7 describes the inner workings of this hostility, which does indeed include the law, but not as a point of recognition and enlightenment but as the place where deception, desire, and death enter in. In 7.7ff the law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control. Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7.24) or “the law of sin and death” (8.2). The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).
While the problem is more tragic and all-encompassing than pictured in justification theory, the good news is that the solution is more all-encompassing (universal) and unconditional. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (5:10). Here there is no angry deity punishing legal transgression by taking out his wrath on Christ. This salvation speaks of a loving God transforming the cosmos and the very make-up of the human psyche and subject. This salvation is transformational, a passage from death into life, a passage from flesh – law – elementary principles into new life through the Son and the Spirit. The old order of bondage, enslavement to law and flesh has been defeated and the new age is inaugurated. This is an apocalyptic intervention into a bondage in which a right understanding of God and the human situation are impossible. Deliverance, rescue, resurrection and new creation are inaugurated by God through Christ, and this alone allows for salvation and a consequent right understanding (Rom. 8:20–23).
 Campbell, Douglas A.. The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 141-142). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
 Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1994) https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft7w10086w&chunk.id=ch6&toc.id=&brand=ucpress
 Campbell, 425.
 Campbell, 844.
 Campbell, 846.
 J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 294.
 Martyn, 570.