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Aug 9, 2019

A Theologian Discusses His Favorite Passages from Romans

Dr. Andrew Swafford

In preparation for the release of Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, I’ve been answering many of the questions people have about this abundant letter. Previously, we’ve discussed controversial passages in Romans, the role of faith in our salvation as described by St. Paul, and the historical context and overview of Romans.

This time I want to just share some of my most treasured passages in this inexhaustibly rich epistle.

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is so exciting because it offers us the mature fruit of Paul’s theological reflection, while giving a glimpse into his pastoral and evangelical ministry. St. Paul sees the entire story of the Bible—from Adam to Israel and beyond—converging in Jesus Christ and coming to fulfillment in and through the Cross and Resurrection. Here, we also see Paul the pastor: for his love for Jesus and for his flock comes through in truly moving ways.

For this reason, Paul’s letter to the Romans has always been a touchstone for what Christianity is all about and why the truth of Jesus Christ is perennially life-changing.

Favorite Passages

In what follows, I discuss fifteen of my favorite passages from Romans, with a brief explanation of why I find each so powerful and moving.

“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12, emphasis added).

This one is simple and straightforward: Paul is a pastor and longs to be with the Christians in Rome (a church, by the way, which he did not found and had not yet visited). As a teacher, I find his reference to “mutual” encouragement between him and his flock particularly moving: I certainly seek to form my students, inside and outside the classroom, helping them in whatever way I can in their walk with Jesus. But I can truly say that they have also formed me at the same time—there’s always a mutual dynamism between teacher and pupil, between the pastor and his flock.

“men who by their wickedness suppress the truth”
(Romans 1:18)

This passage isn’t so much uplifting as it is eye-opening: a life of wickedness clouds our ability to see the truth and live up to it. In apologetics and evangelization, we have to remember this—for there is far more than an intellectual engagement under way. Since we’re proposing a whole way of life, we should expect resistance—a resistance which we must recognize as having more than a merely intellectual source.

“real circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:29)

God seeks to transform us from within. Moral rules are part of it, but the divine work of forgiveness, healing, and transformation seeks to transfigure us from the inside out.

Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

I find this passage significant for theological reasons. Often, we consider the work of redemption to be complete with the Cross—as if all that needed to happen was for Jesus to bear the punishment we deserve, so we could receive what we do not deserve. But here, Paul insists that the resurrection is necessary to Christ’s work of redemption. The reason is because there is a two-fold process at work: by his Cross, Jesus atones for our sin; but by his resurrection, Jesus infuses our humanity with his divinity:

The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace. It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ’s brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: “Go and tell my brethren.” We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection.

CCC 654

Sometimes we forget God’s work of healing and elevating of our fallen human nature, by which the grace of Christ makes us truly children of God. In other words, salvation is far more than merely forgiveness of sins or a divine acquittal.

“For as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous”
(Romans 5:19, emphasis added). 

This is similar to the above. It shows us that sin is real and has done real damage to human nature—it’s not just a bad example. And similarly, this passage insists that redemption is real and has inaugurated a new stage in human history—that Jesus really did something; he didn’t just give us a good example. The victory of the Cross has the power to make us, really and truly, holy from within.

“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). 

Baptism is clearly not just a symbol. If we asked Paul what salvation is all about, he would say it’s about being “in Christ”—a phrase he uses countless times. And if we asked him, how we get into Christ, his answer would be simple and straightforward: Baptism incorporates us into Christ’s death and Resurrection.

“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).

This passage gets to the very heart of what salvation is all about—namely, divine sonship: By grace, we come to share in the Eternal Son’s relation to the Father, such that God the Father looks down upon us and loves us as He loves his Only-Begotten Son. This truth dramatically changes how we view salvation (not simply as an acquittal but adoption into God’s family), prayer, and so much more. Coming to see the truth that God becomes our Father in Christ changes everything.

“the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23)

This passage is central to St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. God seeks to redeem not just our souls, but also our bodies. If we let it, the grace of Christ will permeate every aspect of our lives—and this includes the transformation of our bodily desires, and even the transfiguration of the body itself.

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

This text is a favorite of many, but causes consternation for others. It’s about hope and trust in God’s providence, but we have to be careful not to wield this text in inappropriate ways. Hope is ultimately not simply a feeling of optimism. Hope is about (1) recognizing that this life is not our ultimate end; and (2) that—despite appearances to the contrary—God is always at work.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35)

This section is powerful, but is not exactly as it seems. Of course, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. But sin does separate us from God. In mortal sin, for example, it’s not that God stops loving us—it’s that we stop loving God. And in fact, Paul does not turn immediately to sin—he turns to suffering. Here is the full passage:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

In other words, Paul’s point is that suffering—rather than separating us from Christ—actually unites us more deeply to him. For Paul, the whole mystery of Christianity comes down to this: for the Holy Spirit to reproduce the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in and through each of us. 

“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:2-5).

This passage needs some explanation. Paul is agonizing over many of his Jewish kindred’s rejection of Jesus; and here he alludes to the Elijah narrative—where Elijah, too, agonized over being the only one who remained faithful to the Lord, while all his countrymen went after the Canaanite god, Baal. The Lord reveals to Elijah that he has preserved a remnant of seven thousand—of whom Elijah was not aware.

I find this powerful for our context: while it can feel like the world is going to hell in a hand basket, this passage suggests that God will preserve a remnant—he will raise up saints as he has always done; and often these saints are unsung heroes. There are saints in our midst right now, renewing the Church. We have to trust Christ to purify his Church and raise up saints. But as in Elijah’s day, this may not be obvious to us who are living through such times—yet God is at work, nonetheless.

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Will we have the confidence to put on the mind of Christ and see the world as he sees it, or will we kowtow to the conformity demanded by our secular age? This is the choice for Christians of every age.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”
(Romans 12:15).

Catholics rightly insist that true love is an act of the will—it’s about willing the good of the other. That said, sometimes Catholics forget there still remains an emotional aspect of love: true love not only wills the good of the other, but also seeks to enter into the emotional orbit of the other—to become one heart and one mind, where the other’s victories and sorrows become our own. By an act of the will, do we choose to enter the emotional sphere of the other—feeling their pain and triumphs with them?

“Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”
(Romans 12:21).

This passage describes the imperialism of the Christian: to overcome evil with good, to defy persecutors with heroic courage and non-violence. Indeed, the courage of the martyr is the greatest of all.

“Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13-14).

This text triggered the conversion of the great St. Augustine—who finally found in it the strength to turn away from sin and toward the Lord.

Endless Treasures

As we can see, St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a treasure trove of Christian doctrine and Christian living. This is the mind of a man fluent in both Greek and Hebrew—who knew well the world of the Roman Empire and also sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest rabbi of the day. This was the perfect person to take the gospel across the Roman Empire and distill for Jew and Gentile alike the good news of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the story of both Israel and humanity. 

Truly, the Church will never exhaust the content of this letter.

Do you have a favorite passage from Romans? Perhaps it’s one of the passages above. Let us know and tell us why it’s your favorite in the comments at the bottom of the page.

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:

Controversial Passages in Romans Explained

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 Dr. Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford is an associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is a 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.

Featured painting by Valentin de Boulogne, “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” (circa 1618-1620) from Wikimedia Commons

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