Back to Posts
Jul 23, 2019

Controversial Passages in Romans Explained

Dr. Andrew Swafford

In preparation for the release of our new Bible study, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, we are answering some common questions raised by this letter of St. Paul. We’ve previously discussed the historical context and overview of Romans and the role of faith in our salvation as described by St. Paul in Romans.

Today we will explore three controversial passages in the letter that seem to support Martin Luther’s “faith alone” doctrine on the surface, but actually do not when placed in proper context.

Perhaps the first passage on this list should be Romans 3:28, where Paul teaches that we are “justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” We have treated this passage at length in a previous post, addressing in particular what Paul means by “works of the law.”

Suffice to say for now, by “works of the law,” Paul primarily refers to the Jewish ceremonial and ritual laws which divide Jew from Gentile (such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath laws); these Jewish identity markers must give way to the universality of the New Covenant—where Jew and Gentile have become one in Christ. This is corroborated by Paul’s ensuing rhetorical question:

“Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also?” (Romans 3:29, emphasis added).

In other words, Paul is not pitting faith against the moral law (or faith against good works)—but faith against the ceremonial and ritual “works of the law” which divide Jew and Gentile. With this in mind, we can make better sense of how Paul’s teaching here can be reconciled with his earlier insistence that good works are necessary for salvation:

“For he [God] will render to every man according to his works; to those who by patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6; see also 2:13).

Romans 10:9-10 – “if you confess with your lips … and believe in your heart … you will be saved”

A common place non-Catholic Christians turn to support Martin Luther’s reading of Paul—namely, that we are saved by faith alone, in which case our works have no bearing upon our salvation—is Romans 10:9-10, where St. Paul states:

“[I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”

On its face, this passage would seem to support the Lutheran notion of salvation by faith alone. But as is often the case, when a passage is wrenched from its context, its meaning can get distorted, as is the case here.

The Connection to Deuteronomy 30

First, we should note that this section of Paul’s letter has clear allusions to Deuteronomy 30. For example, when Paul states in verse 8 (just before the passage above): “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8), he is clearly alluding to Deuteronomy 30:14:

“But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”

In fact, all of Romans 10:6-8 is an allusion to Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Here are both passages together: 

“But the righteousness based on faith says: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ … or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ … But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)” (Romans 10:6-8, emphasis added).

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

What’s the significance of the allusion to Deuteronomy 30?

The key is the prophecy at the beginning of this chapter in Deuteronomy 30:1-6, where Moses prophesies both the future exile and Israel’s ultimate restoration; and central to this long-range restoration is Moses’ prophecy regarding the “circumcision of the heart”:

“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).

This circumcision of the heart will empower the people to walk in the Lord’s ways— “so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart”.

The “circumcision of the heart” refers to God’s promise to give his people a “new heart,” a promise which is fulfilled through the gift of the Spirit (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36). This is what St. Paul means when he speaks of “true circumcision” as a matter of the “heart.” Paul writes:

“For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:28-29).

In other words, the ultimate “heart surgery” required to deal with the problem of sin comes about through the gift of the Spirit. Paul’s point in Romans 10:6-10 is that the long-range prophecy of Moses—the fulfillment of the story of Israel—has come about through Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

Doers of the Law

Further, when treating Romans 10:9-10, we can’t simply ignore all that Paul has said previously. For example, he uses the phrase the “obedience of faith” at the very beginning and end of his letter, as a sort of book-end to summarize his teaching on faith:

“through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5).

“but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).

For Paul, faith is clearly not simply a matter of “belief”—it entails obedience. For Paul, “faith” is more like faithfulness—or “allegiance,” as some Protestant scholars have suggested; and allegiance implies a life of faithfulness to the divine king. This is how Paul’s teaching on faith can be reconciled with his teaching that good works are essential for salvation:

“For he will render to every man according to his works” (Romans 2:6).

“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

‘Repent, and be baptized’

Further, as Paul expounds his teaching, he parallels Adam and Jesus in Romans 5—noting that in Adam all die, and in Christ all find life. The question for the reader by the end of Romans 5 is how do I get out of the Old Adam and into the New? Paul answers this question at the outset of Romans 6: Baptism incorporates us into Christ. He writes:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

That is, by our baptism, we enter into Christ’s death and—even now—share in his risen life. Baptism is no mere symbol; for Paul, it is the means by which we enter the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and that’s why, ordinarily speaking, baptism is necessary for salvation (see CCC 1257).

Therefore, we can’t rip Romans 10:9-10 out of context and pit it against Paul’s teaching that we enter into Christ’s victory on the Cross through baptism, or his earlier teaching on the necessity of good works for salvation (Romans 2:6). Paul’s point again in Romans 10:6-10 is that the long-range prophecy of Deuteronomy 30:6 has been fulfilled in Christ through the gift of the Spirit. And the way we receive the Spirit and enter into Christ is through baptism:

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38).

Romans 8:35 – ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

This passage has been interpreted to support Martin Luther’s understanding of salvation by faith “alone” by alleging that Paul is saying here that no sin can separate us from Christ—in which case one can’t lose one’s salvation, once they’ve come to faith. Now of course, God never stops loving us. What happens in mortal sin—sin which suffocates the life of God within us—is that we stop loving God. That is, as Catholic teaching holds, some actions are incompatible with authentic love of God, neighbor, and even of ourselves. In other words, some sins are mortal because they kill the life of God within us:

“If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:16-17).

But what does Paul mean here in Romans 8:35?

The mystery of salvation, in essence, is about divine sonship. That is, the Eternal Son takes on our humanity, dies our death and rises to new life, in order to infuse us with his divinity: As St. Peter says:

“by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; see also CCC 460).

In other words, Jesus didn’t go to the Cross so we wouldn’t have to; he goes to the Cross not as our substitute, but as our head in solidarity with us—sending the Spirit to empower us to do the same.

By baptism, we enter into Christ’s life and death—we are born anew and receive divine life. Salvation is about the maturation of this divine life. That is, salvation is not a one-time event—it is a process. It begins in the new birth of baptism, and this divine life grows and develops within us as we become ever more conformed to Christ through the power of the Spirit. In truth, the mystery of Christianity comes down to this: for the Holy Spirit to reproduce and recapitulate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in and through each of us—this is the power of Christ’s life in us:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Are You Saved?

We can come to grips with the majesty of this grace if we realize that God the Father now looks down upon us and loves us as he loves his Only-Begotten Son. Moral perfection in the natural order couldn’t earn one drop of this grace; for this is the grace of sonship—sharing in the eternal sonship of Jesus. It begins in baptism and continues throughout the Spirit’s ongoing transformation of our lives.

For this reason, a Catholic should answer the question Are you saved? in the following way:

  • I was saved in baptism (past).
  • I am being saved through the Spirit’s ongoing transformation of my life (present).
  • And I hope to be saved by persevering in charity to the very end (future).

Again, salvation is a dynamic reality, not a static one-time event.

With this background, let’s look at this section in Romans 8. Paul writes:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

Notice here that we become sons and daughters in the Son, through the Spirit. And notice the very end of this passage, where Paul states that we must share in the Cross, if we are to share in Christ’s glory.

The Gift of Salvation

Paul continues describing salvation as the process by which we are “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

When Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” he does not proceed to mention sins. Rather, he mentions suffering:

“Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35).

Then he quotes from Psalm 44 (see Romans 8:36), which is a unique Psalm in that it describes the faithful who are suffering (see Psalm 44:9, 17). 

Paul’s point, then, is this: suffering doesn’t separate us from Christ, because in a mysterious way suffering actually unites more closely to Christ.

In other words, Paul is decidedly not teaching anything like “once saved, always saved” in Romans 8:35 (a common corollary drawn from Luther’s teaching of salvation by faith alone). Salvation is a gift, but one which we can cut ourselves off from by committing mortal sin. Paul’s point here is ultimately about the deep meaning of suffering.

The Mystery of Suffering

While we can and should pray for physical healing, there is a deep mystery to our suffering. On the one hand, suffering can purify and stretch our love. In this life, love is often proved through suffering—as our Lord teaches:

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

And Hebrews 5:8 states that Jesus “was made perfect” through suffering. As the Eternal Son, Jesus is already “perfect”; but who he is as the Eternal Son is perfectly expressed and manifest in his self-offering on the Cross. If we love in a divine way, our love will be connected to suffering—for our love is often tested by the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice for our beloved.

As we said above, the essence of Christianity is for the Holy Spirit to reproduce Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in and through each of us. Already in baptism, we share in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Hence, in our suffering we enter more deeply into this Paschal Mystery.

For the World’s Redemption

Lastly, as St. Paul intimates elsewhere, by our suffering we can participate in the redemption of the world:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church … ” (Colossians 1:24).

No matter what our age or stage in life, our suffering will always have meaning—because we can unite it to the cross of Jesus and thereby share in the redemption of the world. We may well be surprised someday to find the power at our disposal—for ourselves and for others—when we offer up our suffering to the Father in union with the Son and in the Spirit.

What It Means to Be Christian

As we can see here, salvation is not a matter of a divine acquittal; it is not a matter of a mere legal exchange—of Christ taking on the punishment we deserve, so we can avoid our guilty verdict. There is a partial truth here, but salvation is far more than that. God the Father has sent the Son to unite himself with us, die our death, and rise to new life, so that he and the Father can send the Spirit—and thereby incorporate us into the life of the Eternal Son.

To be a “Christian” is to allow Christ’s life to be reproduced in us—that he may increase and we may decrease (see John 3:30); for “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is no mere metaphor—it is the metaphysical reality of grace. This is the full truth of the gospel.

How can we enter more deeply into the grandeur and glory of the New Covenant, of all that Jesus has done for us and continues to do in our lives?

If you enjoyed this blog post, you’ll love Dr. Swafford’s upcoming Great Adventure Bible study, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, which is now available for preorder here!

You May Also Like:

About Faith: What St. Paul Said and Didn’t Say in Romans

Historical Context and Overview of St. Paul’s Letter to Romans

How Well Do You Know St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans? QUIZ

About Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension. Swafford is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

Dr. Swafford’s latest project with Ascension, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation study is now available for preorder.

Has Ascension's free media strengthened your faith?
You can now offer ongoing support for this content with a recurring gift.
Support Ascension

Get your favorite Ascension content sent right to your email!