At the beginning of this letter Paul succinctly defines the gospel. "This gospel God announced beforehand in sacred scriptures through his prophets. It is about his Son: on the human level he was a descendant of David, but on the level of the spirit — the Holy Spirit — he was proclaimed Son of God by an act of power that raised him from the dead: it is about Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him I received the privilege of an apostolic commission to bring people of all nations to faith and obedience in his name, including you who have heard the call and belong to Jesus Christ."
This statement reveals that Paul is unaware of any tradition about Jesus being born of a virgin. He states clearly that Jesus is a descendant of David. Jesus was born of his mother, but his descent is traced through the line of his father, Joseph. In addition, Paul is either unaware of any teaching about Jesus becoming the Son of God through his baptism, or he rejects this claim. For Paul, Jesus is the Son of God in two senses. First, he is the son of David, and in this sense he is the anointed one (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) and a son of God. Second, his resurrection proves that he is also the Son of God in an eternal, spiritual sense. We will see these two meanings again in the opening chapters of the gospel of Luke.
Paul says he "is not ashamed of the gospel." He sees the gospel as "the saving power of God for everyone who has faith — the Jew first, but the Greek also — because in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith; as scripture says, 'Whoever is justified through faith shall gain life.'" The scripture passage to which Paul refers is Habbakuk 2:4. Other translations of Romans 1:17 render this passage as: "He who through faith is righteous shall live," or as "The righteous shall live by faith." Paul goes on to assert that God's judgment will fall on all who "in their wickedness suppress the truth." This is an accurate reading of Habbakuk, although if Romans 1:17 is taken out of context it may wrongly be used to verify that faith and not the Jewish law is the way to salvation.
Not faith alone but righteousness sustained by, Habbakuk says, is what God requires. The second chapter of Habbakuk presents a vision of the end of the world. Those who have robbed the poor and taken advantage of their power over others will be cut off, whereas the righteous who live faithful lives will be saved. Habbakuk is not contrasting the law of Moses with faith but distinguishing between those who live righteously by trusting in God and those who exploit others. Habbakuk 2:4 reads: "The reckless will lack an assured future, while the righteous will live by being faithful." Another translation reads: "Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith." The righteous will be saved because they trust in God. For Habbakuk, however, this does not mean having faith as opposed to keeping the Jewish law. It means keeping both the letter and the spirit of the law of Moses and, therefore, not taking advantage of the poor.
Paul argues that salvation through faith was always revealed "to the eye of reason" in the world created by God and that God also made this truth known through his covenant with Israel. Therefore, Paul concludes, "Those who have sinned outside the pale of the law of Moses will perish outside the law, and all who have sinned under that law will be judged by it." Jews have a special responsibility, he continues, because they know from their scriptures "that all, Jews and Greeks alike, are under the power of sin." (Paul quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah's prophecy to support this argument.)
The good news of the gospel, however, is that "now, quite independently of law, though with the law and the prophets bearing witness to it, the righteousness of God has been made known; it is effective through faith in Christ for all who have such faith — all, without distinction." And why is this? "For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine glory; and all are justified by God's free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his death, effective through faith." Salvation is offered through the crucifixion of Jesus for those who respond with faith.
It appears that in Rome, too, there were those who believed that the gospel requires keeping Jewish law. Because Paul argues against the imposition of circumcision on Gentiles, there must have been pressure on Gentile Christians to submit to this legal requirement. Paul says, "It is not externals that make a Jew, nor an external mark in the flesh that makes circumcision." Jews, of course, do not believe that only "externals" matter, but they do assert that it is important to keep the law of God which requires physical circumcision. For Paul, however, the letter of the law is irrelevant. Faith is all that God requires. "The real Jew," Paul asserts, "is one who is inwardly a Jew, and his circumcision is of the heart, spiritual not literal; he receives his commendation not from men but from God." Clearly, this is how Paul understands himself.
Again, Paul presents Abraham as the great example of such faith, because scripture says "Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness." This is Paul's understanding of Genesis 15:6. Abraham was not yet circumcised, so Paul argues that circumcision cannot be a requirement for righteousness. Abraham lived before the law was given to Moses, so Paul also asserts that the law of Moses cannot be a requirement for righteousness. Paul concludes, therefore, that Abraham was righteous simply because of his faith in God, and he applies this lesson to the Christians in Rome: "our faith too is to be 'counted', the faith in the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead."
Paul also finds support for his argument in Psalm 32. The apostle claims that the psalm "speaks of the happiness of the man whom God 'counts' as righteous, apart from any good works. Paul quotes the first two verses of the psalm: "Happy are they . . . whose lawless deeds are forgiven, whose sins are blotted out; happy is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him." Paul does omit the last part of verse two, which reads "in whose spirit there is no deceit." The psalmist says that it is the one who has sinned but is without deceit who receives forgiveness. The psalm makes this even clearer in its concluding two verses: "Many are the torments for the ungodly, but unfailing love enfolds those who trust in the LORD. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous ones; sing aloud, all of you of honest heart."
Paul is correct in asserting that righteousness does not mean simply keeping the tenets of the law of Moses but requires trusting in God as well. But the psalmist would disagree with Paul's assertion that God's forgiving love for those who sin means that those with faith can simply ignore the law of Moses.
What is to happen to the Jews who do not, in faith, confess in Jesus as the Messiah? Paul answers this question by suggesting that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was God's way of extending the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul asserts that "this partial hardening has come on Israel only until the Gentiles have been admitted in full strength; once that has happened, the whole of Israel will be saved." He urges the Gentiles in the church in Rome not to condemn the Jews who have rejected them. "Just as formerly you were disobedient to God, but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so now, because of the mercy shown to you, they have proved disobedient, but only in order that they too may receive mercy." The wisdom of God is deep and inscrutable, Paul affirms, yet, "From him and through him and for him all things exist."
For Paul, God's plan of salvation includes the Jews and the Gentiles. Abraham represents the primary way that both peoples can understand the salvation that comes through faith. The gospels written after the death of Paul present the call to faith in God through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It is faith that brings one into the kingdom of God, whether one is a Gentile or a Jew. The good news of the gospel is that God has acted through Jesus to offer salvation to all those who, in faith, repent of their sins. The gospels of the New Testament largely reinforce this teaching by Paul.
Apostles in Jerusalem opposed Paul, because they understood the message of Jesus to require keeping the divine commandments embodied in the Jewish law. Paul prevailed in his argument with the apostles in Jerusalem primarily because the Gentile churches grew to outnumber the Jewish Christian communities and, in 70, the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and scattered the Christian community gathered around it. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including any living disciples of Jesus who became the first apostles, were either killed or dispersed. The gospels were composed after the letters of Paul were written and largely, if not entirely, after the destruction of Jerusalem. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the gospels generally affirm Paul's teaching about faith and reflect his critical view of Jewish law.