For some time theologians and commentators have debated the central theme of the Book of Romans. Is Paul primarily concerned with the big picture of redemptive history and how the appearance of Jesus at the critical moment in the story alters the way in which the people of God enter the covenant-through faith and not by works? Or is Paul primarily concerned about Jew-Gentile relations and how the Jewish people had unfortunately erected ethnic and cultural obstacles in the new churches, making it extremely difficult for Gentiles to embrace the very Jewish Jesus as their own Messiah ("covenantal nomism")? Or is Paul concerned with how individual sinners are reconciled to a holy God?
The latter concern-how individual sinners are reckoned righteous before God-has been the hallmark of Protestant interpretation of the Book of Romans since the time of the Reformation. Although some scholars have rather lamely argued that Martin Luther's own guilt-ridden conscience caused him to read the rather bald semi-Pelagianism of the medieval Roman church back into Paul's treatment of the self-righteousness of many first century Jews, Luther's view has been capably defended and vindicated, albeit with a bit of minor tweaking. And while the trend even among conservative and confessional Protestants seems to be moving in the direction of acknowledging that the central theme of Romans is not just how the individual sinner is made right before God, but that God's justification of sinners must be understood against the broader panorama of redemptive history, the fact of the matter is you cannot deal with the latter without understanding the former.
From the way in which Paul structures his letter to the church in Rome ("plight to solution," as certain Pauline scholars like to put it), it is clear that Paul's concern in the opening chapters is to demonstrate beyond all doubt to his readers that human sin had decimated both Jew and Gentile to the point that neither the Old Testament people of God (the Jews), nor those who were formerly strangers and foreigners to the covenant (the Gentiles), could dare appear before God on the Day of Judgment and expect to withstand his holy scrutiny.
Paul makes a sobering case that the human plight (our condition) is very serious. In Romans 2:6, Paul reminds his readers of the frightening truth that "God will give to each person according to what he has done." While this may assure us of God's justice, this is not a declaration of good news! If God deals with us according to his justice, this means that God will not overlook our infractions of his law. God will treat us exactly as we deserve. And who among Paul's readers could withstand such an examination according to the standards of divine justice? Which one of us can say that our good works outweigh our sins?
As Paul points out, all have turned away and become worthless (Rom. 3:12), therefore, all men and women will receive God's just condemnation if they dare appeal to anything they have done; whether that be good works, a life of commitment and devotion to the things of God, and especially if they claim a reliance upon ethnic identity and God's love for his people Israel as a sufficient reason as to why God should overlook their sins. Indeed, citing from Psalm 14:1-3, Paul is certain that there is no one who does good (Jew or Gentile), not even one (Rom. 3:12). The sad fact is that because all are sinners there are none who are righteous (Rom. 3:10). Since God has made his will perfectly clear to all in his law, the whole world is now held accountable to God (Rom. 3:19).
Thus for Paul, sin is the most fundamental human problem with grave and universal consequences. This can be seen as Paul's overall argument unfolds in chapters 1-3. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul describes the ever-downward spiral of Gentile sin. The Gentiles have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25) and as a result have been given over to the consequences of their sin. In Romans 2:1-3:8, Paul moves on to expose Jewish self-righteousness and legalism, something quite inexcusable since God had given his people so much (the Law and the Prophets) and had repeatedly demonstrated his kindness to Israel when his people fell into sin (Rom. 2:4). And then, as if to ram his point home one more time, in Romans 3:9-20, Paul cites a litany of passages from the Old Testament, all demonstrating that sin has impacted each person from head to toe, from mind to heart. There is no part of human nature which is untainted or unaffected by sin, whether you be Jew or Gentile.
Paul is also clear that the source of this human sinfulness runs deep, so much so that the solution cannot be simplistic nor superficial. Our debt cannot be overlooked nor can we be forgiven, unless and until our infinite debt is paid and God's holy justice is satisfied. Thus in Romans 5:12-19, Paul argues that Adam, the first man, fell into sin, and as a result, so did the entire human race. This is because Adam acted as both the biological and federal head of the human race. Not only are we all his biological descendants and therefore we inherit from him our corrupt nature, but in Eden Adam acted as our federal representative under the terms of the covenant of works. In other words, Adam acted for us and in our place, just as if we had been there in Eden ourselves undergoing the same temptation as did Adam. Through his act of disobedience, Paul says, we have been rendered unrighteous (Rom. 5:12, 18). Not only is Adam's guilt imputed to us, but the poison of sin running through our veins was passed down to us from him as well. Therefore, we are sinners by imputation (Adam's guilt), by nature (our sinful nature) and by choice (we sin freely and willfully, which is nothing but a fancy way of saying we sin because we want to). The result of his act of rebellion is that we came under the curse and now face certain death.
Therefore, the answer to the question, "Can I be good enough to stand before God and gain entrance into heaven?" is a resounding "No." The answer to the closely related question, "What can I do to become good enough?" is an equally resounding, "Nothing." It is too late to improve or to try harder next time. Having earned our wage according to divine justice (Rom. 6:23), we are dead in sin and in need of something far more than a self-improvement plan, a list of things to do, a religious ceremony to perform (circumcision), a new diet (kosher), or new ethnicity (Jewish).
And so after setting out the thesis of his letter in Romans 1:16-17 – that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe in Jesus, first for the Jew and then for the Gentile, because in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed that is by faith (or from faith, or even of faith) from first to last – Paul moves on to discuss the fact of human sin (plight). Indeed, that glorious declaration that in the gospel God freely gives what he demands of us under the law (the solution), can only make sense against the backdrop of the human predicament. Why is it that performance of certain religious ceremonies and observance of particular days, even those given by God (circumcision and the feasts) cannot overcome the deficit of human sin? Why is it that performance of good works do not erase nor cannot undo the debt of human sin? The answer is because our debt is already so great that we can never be good enough to stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment and not be swept away in the flood of divine wrath.
Thus it is the apostle Paul, not the guilt-ridden Luther, who must raise and answer the question of how sinful people can be declared "righteous" before God. If none were found it would be time for Paul to close up shop and go back to a life of tent-making in Tarsus (Paul's home town). But, there is a solution to the human plight, although it will not be found in us. It will be found in Jesus Christ, who, Paul argues, is the second Adam and who undoes what the first Adam brought down upon all of us. If Adam's act of disobedience rendered us sinners and brought death upon Adam's race, it was Christ's act of obedience which brings righteousness (Rom. 5:19). If the sin of Adam brought death, then the obedience of Christ brings life (Rom. 5:18).
While we can never be good enough to be justified, Jesus was good enough to fulfill all righteousness. In fact, he was perfectly obedient to all of God's commandments! This is why Paul can go on to set forth the good news after making sure his readers heard the bad news, which amounts to Paul's honest assessment of the human condition. Paul says that while we were God's enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Christ's death reconciles God to us and us to God, by removing the ground of offence (our sin) which renders us recipients of God's justice and wrath (Rom. 5:9-10). Because Jesus died as a payment for our sins (Rom. 4:24), was punished for us (Rom. 3:25), was raised from the dead for our justification (Rom. 4:25), we have "peace with God."
When Paul speaks of peace with God, he's not speaking so much of the sense of inner peace we feel knowing that because of Christ's work for us, God is no longer angry with us. Rather, Paul is speaking of the cessation of hostilities between God and sinners. Once God has been reconciled to us, and us to God, the war is over, and as a result, we will feel a certain sense of peace. Indeed, as Paul puts it in Romans 4:1-8, there is a wonderful blessedness ascribed to those who place their faith in Christ. Blessed are those who do not work, but trust God who justifies the wicked!
Therefore Paul's answer to the question, "How do I become good enough?" is that you can't. This is our plight. But Paul's solution to the human plight is that while we cannot become good enough, Jesus Christ was good enough (in fact, he was perfectly righteous) and when we place our trust in him (faith), God imputes the guilt of our sin to Christ (Rom. 3:22-24; 5:6-8), so that we are forgiven of our sins and reconciled to our heavenly Father. Furthermore, through that same act of faith, Christ's perfect obedience to the law of God is reckoned to us (Rom. 4:21-25; 5:19) so that just as Christ was good enough to stand before the father, so, too, are we.