A Commentary by John Stott
Calling the Roman Christians his ‘brothers’ (the old ethnic distinctions having been abolished), Paul now addresses to them an eloquent appeal. He bases it on ‘the mercies of God’ which he has been expounding, and he calls for both the consecration of their bodies and the renewal of their minds. He sets before them the stark alternative which has always and everywhere confronted the people of God, either to conform to the pattern of this world or to be transformed by renewed minds which discern God’s ‘good, pleasing and perfect will’. The choice is between the world’s fashion and the Lord’s will.
In the chapters which follow it becomes clear that God’s good will is concerned with all our relationships, which are radically changed by the gospel. Paul treats eight of them, namely, our relationship to God, ourselves, each other, our enemies, the state, the law, the last day and the ‘weak’. Our renewed minds, which begin by seeking God’s will (1-2), are also to evaluate ourselves and our gifts soberly, and not to have either too high or too low an opinion of ourselves (3-8). Our relationships to one another follows naturally from the mutual ministries which our gifts make possible. The love which binds members of the Christian family together will include sincerity, affection, honour, patience, hospitality, sympathy, harmony and humility (9-16).
Our relationship to our enemies or to evildoers comes next (17-21). Echoing the teaching of Jesus, Paul writes that we are not to retaliate or take revenge, but rather to leave the punishment of evil to God, since it is his prerogative, and meanwhile to seek peace, serve our enemies and overcome evil with good. Our relationship with the governing authorities (13:1-7) may well have been suggested to Paul’s mind by his reference to God’s wrath (12:19). If the punishment of evil is God’s prerogative, one of the ways in which he does it is through the state’s administration of justice, since the magistrate is God’s ‘minister’ to punish the wrongdoer. The state also has a positive role to promote and reward good in the community. Our submission to the authorities is certainly not unconditional, however. If the state misuses its God-given authority, to command what God forbids or forbid what God commands, our clear Christian duty is to disobey the state in order to obey God.
Verses 8-10 revert to love, and teach that loving our neighbour is both an unpaid debt and the fulfilment of the law. For though we are ‘not under the law’, in the sense that we look to Christ for justification and to the Holy Spirit for sanctification, we are still called to ‘fulfil the law’ in daily obedience to God’s commandments. In this sense we must not set the Spirit and the law over against each other, since the Holy Spirit writes the law in our hearts. And this primacy of love is the more urgent as the day of Christ‘s return approaches. We are to wake up, to get up, to dress, and to live as those who belong to the day (verses 11-14).
Our relationship to the ‘weak’ is one which Paul treats at greatest length (14:1-15:13). They are evidently weak in faith or conviction, rather than in will or character. They must have been mainly Jewish Christians, who believed that they should still observe both the food laws and the feasts and fasts of the Jewish calendar. Paul himself is one of the ‘strong’ and identifies with their position. His educated conscience tells him that foods and days are matters of secondary importance. But he refuses to ride roughshod over the sensitive consciences of the weak. His overall exhortation to the church is to ‘accept’ the weak as God has done (14:1, 3) and to ‘accept’ one another as Christ has done (15:7). If they welcome the weak into their hearts and their fellowship, they will not despise them, or condemn them, or damage them by persuading them to go against their consciences.
The most notable feature of these practical instructions is that Paul grounds them on his Christology, in particular on the death, resurrection and parousia of Jesus. The weak are brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. Christ rose to be their Lord, and we have no right to interfere with his servants. He is also coming to be our judge; so we should not play the role of judge ourselves. We should also follow the example of Christ who did not please himself but became a servant – indeed a servant of both Jews and Gentiles. So Paul leaves his readers with a beautiful vision of the weak and the strong, Jewish believers and Gentile believers, who are bound together by such a ‘spirit of unity’ that ‘with one heart and mouth’ they glorify God together (15:5-6).
In his conclusion Paul describes his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles, together with his policy to preach the gospel only where Christ is not known (15:14-22); he shares with them his travel plans to visit them on his way to Spain, but first to take the offering to Jerusalem as a symbol of Jewish-Gentile solidarity (15:23-29); and he asks for their prayers (15:30-33). He then commends Phoebe to them, who is assumed to be the bearer of the letter to Rome (16:1-2); he sends greetings to twenty-six named individuals (16:3-16), men and women, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, who help us to grasp the extraordinary unity-in-diversity enjoyed by the church in Rome; he warns them against false teachers (16:17-20); he sends messages from eight individuals who are with him in Corinth (16:21-24); and he expresses a final doxology. Although the doxology’s syntax is a little complex, its content is marvellous. It enables the apostle to end where he began (1:1-5), since the letter’s introduction and conclusion both refer to the gospel of Christ, the commission of God, the outreach to the nations and the summons to the obedience of faith.