Romans is supposed to be about the salvation that God has brought about in Jesus. Jesus died in our place, for our sins, so that his righteousness can be imputed to us.
But then Jesus could have come in any era at any time and died somehow and thus made atonement.
Atonement doesn’t work that way.
Jesus, Paul says, died “at the right time” (Romans 5.6). The transaction required more than a savior. It required a great deal of sin. It required a trespass (or many of them) for God to condemn.
So Romans is filled with (1) descriptions of how God made sin worse using the Law and (2) defenses of God’s character for using evil in this way.
So Paul keeps coming back to this:
“For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience…” (Romans 11.30)
“And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5.16).
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5.20)
Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (Romans 11.12).
For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11.15).
Romans 3.1-8 makes the same point, with some apologetics thrown in.
And all of this was necessary to produce Judgment Day, the moment when the sky would turn back and the wrath of God would fall.
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8.3, 4).
It is important to remember that the majority of the sacrificial system was not an ad hoc means for individuals to deal with sins when they wanted to do so. It involved a series of sacrifices, morning and evening, and then on special days, climaxing in the Day of Atonement. Paul gives two things that God did. 1) He sent his son in the likeness of sinful flesh; and 2) he sent him as a sin offering (“concerning sin”). The obedience of the Second Adam only works with the many trespasses (Romans 5).
When God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus, this was not simply a mental “act” on God’s part. It was public; it is recorded in all the Gospels.
Let us suppose that the record in the Gospels of Israel’s large-scale apostasy is not an accident that just happened to be the case, but rather an essential element of Christ’s atonement.
Honestly now, given the way we usually articulate the Gospel [1.], it seems to me that Jesus could have been born and Irishman, an Iraqi, or a Chinaman, and could have died in any number of ways, to complete his mission to die for the elect. But this leaves us with some problems. A minor one is in apologetics. The whole scheme seems fantastically arbitrary to many.
There is a more substantial problem for believers that I will break down into two related ones: First, it renders ninety-nine percent of the information given to us in the four Gospels actually superfluous to the message of the Gospel. Second, it leaves us with no explanation as to the entire history of Israel recorded in the Scriptures.
Let me put it this way: Why did God wait thousands of years and spend so much time working with the nation of Israel? What was the point? To give us moral lessons? That doesn’t make much sense. Why not simply choose Abraham and Sarah to give birth to the Christ child?
Let’s assume that history in Scripture matters. What is the Biblical history? I’ll summarize in three stages:
- From Adam to Noah the world grows in evil until God has to destroy it.
- From Noah to Moses the world grows in evil. After the nations are formed in the shadow of the ruins of Babel, Abraham is chosen to bring salvation to the nations. But we find Jacob’s sons are about to mix up with the Canaanites (the point of the story of Judah and Tamar). God curses the world with famine but provides a savior in Joseph from the famine and in Egypt from the intermarriage of the chosen people, since the Hebrews were abominable to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, in Egypt they fall into idolatry and become slaves.
- From Moses to Jesus. Three times the covenant unravels. The decline found in the book of Judges is corrected through Samuel and David. The decline under the kings is corrected through exile. But Jesus came to a nation worse than it had ever been. The demons alone, prove this. There is no precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures for widespread demonic oppression.
Thus, my hypothesis: God was about to destroy the world.
Israel was given the law and they had only become worse sinners as a result. To whom much is given much is required. And if Israel was under judgment–they whom God had given the task of being a light to the nations–then the rest of the world was surely doomed as well. The wrath of God was about to fall.
And Jesus stepped in its path.
He came at the right time just when the priestly people who had been given the covenant law had become the worst offenders. He literally came on Judgment Day. And the only reason there is a world of human beings today is because that judgment fell on him instead of the ones who deserved it.
A lot more could be said. My suggestion, for lack of time right now, is to read Paul as one who thinks the world, in principle, has been destroyed and then reborn. For what it’s worth, I have a couple of other suggestions about how this reading makes more sense of Romans as a whole.
Everything seems to confirm this approach and make everything fall into place. But if so, then Romans 9.6ff is the essential climax to the argument. Paul begins to deal with the issue in Romans 3.1-8 and then sets up more background to start dealing with it fully in Romans 9.