The letter of freedom to the Romans

Rome, Italy-Apart from Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, commonly known as St. Paul’s Basilica, stands an imposing marble statue of a man who seems ready to do battle with the world. Bearded and hooded, he holds a Bible in his left hand and a long cross in his right, but holds the cross to his chest as if it were a sword. It is an apt portrayal of the man whose writings have arguably done more to rout the forces of bigotry and tyranny than those of any other figure in history.

Saul of Tarsus, a practicing Jew who was renamed Paul after his dramatic conversion to Christianity, claimed a divine call to bring the message of Jesus to those who do not belong to the Jewish faith i.e. Kind. His mission ended here when, according to tradition, he was executed by the authorities in Rome. Hence the historical irony: Paul’s letter to believers in Rome, the theological star of the Christian Church, helped topple the regime which could not tolerate its intransigent message of redemption.

A relentless evangelist with almost reckless courage, Paul was the dominant figure in the early decades of the Christian movement. Of the 27 documents that make up the New Testament, 21 are letters; 13 of them are attributed to Paul. His Letter to the Romans stands out. Written around AD 57, towards the end of his career, it contains the most comprehensive exposition of Christian doctrine in the Bible. It also advances concepts considered quite radical for their time, ideas that would shape the course of Western civilization and the American political order.

In his Social contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau affirmed that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. Paul disagreed. For the apostle, each person was born into a state of spiritual bondage and death. All have been guilty before a holy God, regardless of their accomplishments or circumstances: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). His second proposition remains as controversial today as when he first appeared: Jesus was sent by God to liberate men, making salvation accessible to all through faith in his death and resurrection. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10: 9). The last proposition, which follows from the others, implies an astonishing universalism. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile: the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). The sacrifice of Jesus nullifies the deep cultural divisions within the human family; all are welcomed into the new spiritual community of God.

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In a way that no ancient text had envisioned, the Letter to the Romans introduced two major themes into the blood of the West: human equality and human freedom. No idea in the history of political thought would prove more transformative and ennobling.

Some of the most influential figures in history have regarded Paul’s letter as their north star. Scholars often draw attention to the role of the letter in Augustine’s conversion of Hippo. This saint is Confession (c. 400 AD) arose from his meditations on Romans, chapter 7, with his description of how faith in Christ enables the individual to prevail in the struggle against sin. Yet Augustine’s epic defense of faith, The city of God (426 AD), also owes an immense debt to the central themes of the Romans. “In the city of the world, the rulers themselves and the people they dominate are dominated by the thirst for domination,” he writes, “while in the City of God all citizens serve one another in charity.

Over a thousand years later, as Christendom was rocked by a series of internal crises, an Augustinian monk turned to the Letter to the Romans in his own desperate quest to find peace with God. Martin Luther, a Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg, was first terrified of the concept of “God’s righteousness” as described in Romans, chapter 1. His life:

I really wanted to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans. . . . I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which, by pure grace and mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon, I felt myself reborn and having passed through the open doors of paradise.

Unlike any literary or philosophical work, it was the Epistle of Paul that compelled Luther to initiate what became the Protestant Reformation. He called the letter “the daily bread of the soul”, “the gospel in its purest expression” and “a brilliant light, almost sufficient to illuminate the whole Bible”. In its founding treaty, The freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther contrasted the freedom of the gospel, properly understood, with “the creeping maggots of man-made laws and regulations” imposed on believers by Church authorities. Luther’s teachings on spiritual freedom – what you might call a bill of spiritual rights – became a rallying cry across Europe.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the themes of freedom and equality in the Letter to the Romans can be discerned in the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace,” written by a former slave ship captain, John Newton; in the social reform efforts of John and Charles Wesley; in the campaign to abolish the slave trade in Britain; and in the sermons that shaped the Protestant and democratic culture of colonial America. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Jonathan Mayhew preached a widely circulated sermon justifying the rebellion against tyranny. His text was Romans chapter 13 — Paul’s instruction to believers to submit to political authorities:

Thus, after a careful examination of the reasoning of the apostle in this passage, it appears that his arguments for enforcing submission, are of such a nature as to conclude only in favor of submission to rulers such as they are. describes itself, ie such as the rule. for the good of society, which is the sole end of their institution. Common tyrants and public oppressors are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here established by the inspired apostle.

John Adams, reflecting on the origins of the Revolution years later, cited Mayhew’s sermon as a factor in persuading pious believers of the legitimacy of political resistance. Mayhew may also have convinced the more secular Ben Franklin whose proposed motto for the American seal was “rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

The Letter to the Romans regained importance in the 20th century after the carnage of the First World War. In his Epistle to the Romans (1918), Swiss theologian Karl Barth shook his attachment to theological liberalism and its illusions of human progress by meditating on the key doctrines of the letter. “Paul’s powerful voice was new to me,” he wrote, “and so to me, no doubt to many others as well. According to the Catholic theologian Karl Adam, Barth’s recovery of the concept of man’s alienation from God and of his need for divine grace fell “like a bomb on the theologians’ playground.” It is surely no coincidence that Barth was one of the first European theologians to recognize the apostasy of Nazism. He was also the lead author of the Barmen Declaration (1934), the first major ecclesiastical challenge to the racist ideology of the Nazi state.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw many parallels in his own life and that of the Apostle Paul. He used Paul’s Letter to the Romans as a ram in his campaign for civil rights. In a 1956 sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, clearly modeled on Paul’s epistle, King warned American Christians, in Paul’s words, not to conform to “the pattern of this world,” but rather to follow the pattern of this world. recommit to the moral and spiritual truths of the gospel:

Don’t worry about the persecution in America; you will have it if you defend a great principle. I can say this with some authority, because my life has been a continuous cycle of persecution. . . . I came out of each of these experiences more convinced than ever that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come. . . will separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I still believe standing up for God’s truth is the greatest thing in the world.

King’s quote from Romans chapter 8 – on God’s relentless love in the face of great evil – was a spiritual anchor in his long struggle for righteousness. Like Paul, his sense of vocation led to persecution, imprisonment, and ultimately violent death.

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Historians debate Paul’s precise motives for writing his treatise to Christians in Rome. Due to its location in the seat of the Roman Empire, the Church of Rome was a deeply cosmopolitan congregation: a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, citizens and slaves. Paul told the believers that he intended to visit them on his way to Spain. Instead, the apostle found himself under arrest and taken to Rome to await trial. He made good use of his confinement: he wrote four letters to other Christian churches which became part of the New Testament canon. As a Roman citizen, Paul was granted some freedom, and for two years he “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the Lord Jesus Christ confidently and without hindrance. ”(Acts 28: 30-31).

In the end, even the emperors of Rome could not resist the Gospel message to which Paul devoted his life. As historian Ernle Bradford described it in Paul the traveler, the apostle never hesitated to throw himself into the center of the storm: “Rome has always been what he sought, the heart of power, the heart of darkness, where he could set fire to the aspirations of millions of people. people. Almost 2,000 years after Paul’s martyrdom, the hope for freedom and redemption is steadily burning in almost every corner of the world.

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