Reading Romans as Homiletics Instruction
I just started reading Paul Achtemeier’s commentary on Romans in the Interpretation series. Keeping in line with the aim of the series Achtemeier writes for the teaching and preaching needs of the church. So most of the commentary is focused on hermeneutical reflection and insight rather than technical historical-grammatical specifics. I have found it quite refreshing, a good complement to the more technical works of say, Moo and Schreiner.
Achtemeier argues that the central theme of Romans is “the plan of God [in] pursuing to extend his gracious lordship to all peoples by his act in Christ.” The author contends that the literary structure of Romans follows the movement of history, a history that God is guiding to its goal, with doctrinal statements and expositions included as a way of making sense of that movement. Therefore, the first 11 chapters of Romans follow the history between God and his creation, while the last chapters apply to the life of the Christian community the insights gained from this account of the sweep of God’s redemptive dealing with his rebellious creatures.
In the introduction Achtemeier makes a wonderful point of application for teachers, an implication of Paul’s placing the more direct ethical commands at the end of the letter after he has rehearsed the story of redemptive history. Namely, application without first showing the power and beauty of the gospel is pointless!
It will do no good to urge someone under the power of sin to “try harder.” If, as Paul makes clear in [Romans] chapter 7, for example, a human being “under Adam” is incapable of freeing himself or herself from sin, then all “trying harder” can do is to drive that person further into sin. If every act is under the control of sin, more action will simply mean more sin. Ethical commands therefore are pointless for someone in whom the power of sin has not been broken. That is why the law intensifies sin: it cannot break sin’s power, so all it does is encourage acts which remain under the power of sin.
Only after the power of sin is broken, and that means only after the lordship of God has been restored [which was lost in the fall of man] – and it has been with Christ’s death and our baptism into it – does it make sense to give admonitions on how one is to live so as to avoid sin. It is for that reason that Paul does not begin with his ethical admonitions, he ends with them.
Now, many of us read this and think – yes, of course, this is nothing new. But then again, it is a good reminder. We often talk about proclaiming the gospel, but do we make a conscious effort to structure our teaching to mirror the gospel itself? It seems that in the very structure of Romans the Apostle Paul is presenting us with a liturgy for gospel structured teaching.