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Law-Gospel or Gospel-Law: Does the ‘Romans Road’ Run in the Wrong Direction?

November 11, 2011

'Saint Paul Writing His Epistles' (17th century)

I’m currently helping out at church with a session of Christianity Explored, a curriculum meant to introduce new believers and those with questions about the Christian faith to the story of Jesus and the basic theological high points.  Overall it seems to me to be a well thought-out and put-together course.  But as the other leaders and I puzzle through the conversations that the material provokes with unbelievers who come along on Thursday nights, I’m left with a theological question of a “practical” nature:

Does the “Romans Road” run in the wrong direction?  Is it a better strategy for evangelism — and is it more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ — to begin with sin and lead to grace, or to begin with God’s love and lead to the reality of sin?

The “Romans Road” is a traditional tool of evangelism, where one sits down with an inquirer and shows key moments in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians.  It begins with the fact that all of us are sinners and fall short of God’s standards (Romans 3:10-12, 23), that none of us is righteous and so we are subject to God’s wrath and judgment (1:18-32).  The wages rightly due to our sins is death (6:23).  But wait … there is good news! Jesus died for our sins, because God loves us (5:8)! And so He made it that we can confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, and thereby be saved (10:9-10).  As a result, we may have great confidence that we have been made right with God (5:1) and are no longer condemned (8:1).  Nothing can ever separate us from God and God’s love again (8:38-39).

It’s a fantastic presentation of the gospel, and really demonstrates the theological depth and thoroughness of Paul’s letter.

But isn’t it designed for those who come to Jesus already with a sense of their own brokenness, of shame or guilt, knowing that on their own they cannot measure up to God’s will for their lives?  What about the (so very) many women and men who still believe they are basically good?  How does one convict them of sin, and of the reality of hell and divine judgment, in order to cultivate a ground where the good news of Jesus Christ can take root?

This is the CE curriculum’s approach to introducing the gospel — moving from sin and hell to forgiveness and salvation.  How does one preach God’s deliverance, after all, until the hearer knows that from which she is being delivered?  The strategy of moving from the Law to the Gospel seems good for those who are already believers but want to understand how it all “works,” as well as those who feel convicted of their sinful lives and are looking for good news.  But for others, I wonder if the message is simply splintered against their own hard hearts.  I’m not a sinner, and I don’t believe in hell. How do you get past that when trying to share the gospel of Jesus Christ?

“Sin,” in this case, too often winds up being defined as breaking those many rules that the church has for its members — drinking too much, having sex outside of marriage, gambling, cheating, lying, et cetera (even if that’s not how the doctrine of sin is being presented).  So how can I be called a ‘sinner’ when I’m not a part of your group and don’t follow your rules? It sounds like I only become a ‘sinner’ if I join up and make myself accountable to you …

With a false definition of sin, the conversation goes completely off the rails … and we haven’t even gotten to the love of God and the cross yet.

A counter-approach would move in the other direction, theologically — beginning with God’s great love for us as His children, and His desire for fellowship with us, that He will never let us go, and only then begin to talk about why that fellowship has been broken.  I wonder if such a “soft” approach would make those hard hearts more receptive to the message.

Perhaps I’ve answered my own question in the course of writing this: perhaps there is no “one size fits all” method of sharing the gospel, but rather the evangelist is responsible for coming alongside the person and figuring out if she needs a little gospel to sooth her sinful heart, or a little love to soften her self-sufficiency. What do you think?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 1:58 am

    You ask a very good question.

    I’d say the first problem with the “Romans Road” is that Romans wasn’t a tool of evangelism. It was a tool of moral pedagogy, relying on a pre-existing ground of gospel. This may have been Paul’s first formal contact with the diaspora communities in Rome, but it is by no means an example of first proclamation. They were in Christ already.

    There’s a great deal of irony in taking an address that begins by convicting its audience of condemning others, and using it to convict by condemnation. To make converts into sinners first, as the sine qua non of salvation, when Romans 3-5 is quite clear that salvation, reconciliation, justification, redemption — however we define the action of God for us — come first with no close second, autonomous and independent of any human receptivity, but engendering the faith that receives them.

    So I don’t think beginning with gospel is a “soft” approach — in fact, I often wonder why we think that the gospel depends upon law and sin and hell for its savor. As though hunger were the only sauce that made it palatable! In both Paul and the gospels, moral correctives are set out for those already within because of the actions of God — not for those who might wish to come in. The “Romans Road,” as most examples of law-as-gateway-to-gospel, inevitably needs to be convicted by Romans.

    I’d argue it this way: Give ’em the gospel, give it to ’em straight, and make it real and relevant to their existence in the world — and you’ll have believers. You need not break them to show them that this God is trustworthy and of great value. Proceed ex pisteos eis pistin, as Paul says. Only then, in the life of common discipleship, do you have any ground for correcting behaviors. And as the range of letters shows, Paul tailored his moral pedagogy to the real problems he saw! They’re very specific, even if we’ve lost the contexts. Romans is no exception. And ultimately, the correctives in each return the assembly to the gospel in which they began their faith. So the process from law to gospel is properly the second half of a cycle, the first half of which was the apostle’s proper job: proclamation. Sin and law are recurring temporary moments within an environment of grace and gospel.

  2. ken oakes permalink
    November 11, 2011 6:46 am

    My primary question about the ‘Romans Road’ would be the place of Israel in the narrative. It seems strange to me to use a text most deeply concerned with the ongoing significance of Israel within God’s economy in the light of the coming of the Messiah and the calling of the Gentiles to explain to people what their own ‘general’ situation is. I mean, in the light of Romans their situation seems to be that they’re a bunch of animal-worshiping Gentile idolaters whom God has called in Christ to make Israel jealous!

    That being said, I think one of Paul’s driving question in Romans is that of God’s faithfulness to Israel and his election of Israel. Is God really being faithful to his promises to Israel? Is God really righteousness in his calling and in-grafting of those idolatrous Gentiles into Israel’s promises?

    These emphases upon God’s election, faithfulness, and righteousness would push me towards the grace-sin scheme, at least if the story of Christianity is told primarily as a story about who God is and what God is doing in Christ (one could even interpret Gen 1-3 in this kind of grace-sin scheme). But if the story of Christianity is first and foremost a story about individuals moving from sin to salvation by believing in Christ then the plot of Romans already seems pretty clear and the exegesis will tend to run in a certain direction as well.

  3. November 11, 2011 2:13 pm

    @Ken: excellent point! And the way Paul uses God’s faithfulness to Israel — in spite of the present situation where Israel seems to be “on the outs” world-historically — is a matter of affirming the Judean inclusion of converts, affirming the converts’ life of faith in difference to Torah, and warning both sides. The Judeans are to respect the converts as a different culture of the same people of God, but most importantly, the converts are to respect the Judeans as the people of God from the very first. And all because the action is God’s, not theirs.

    This illustrates part of the rootage of the “Romans Road” scheme, in the ways it has already decided what the plot of Romans is, in the readings of the non-Judean Christian fathers. For whom, of course, it was self-evident that the Judeans were out — and the medieval period had no cause to doubt this! And so we have a very long history of reading Rom. 9-11 as not integral to the message of Romans, and 1:18-32 as perfectly integral. It ceases to be a parody of condemnation, and instantly it becomes us against them. And so we read Rom. 2 against the Jews, and in and after Rom. 3, CWRIS NOMOU becomes a negation of Torah. (Just as we also read the gospels against the Jews, especially those Pharisees.) And so we replace Israel, and Paul helps us do it!

    By the time we get to anything in Romans using the pro- or proto- prefixes, we have a conception of election, predestination and foreknowledge that steps back, not to God’s prior election of the people of God in Abraham, but to some eternally prior choice of us in Christ. Once we lose the very Jewish thread of some-for-the-sake-of-all that Paul draws out for his gentile-convert audience, with its environment of grace, and we read the Judean people out of God’s faithfulness because of Christ, we are left with a some-and-not-others story and an environment of law. A God who chooses against you until you choose for Him, and the way you do that is through the moral life.

  4. November 11, 2011 2:42 pm

    Darren, thanks so much for a really thought-provoking post. I thought I should comment as I’m partly responsible for the content of Christianity Explored.

    I’m very much in agreement with you that one of the perils of “off the shelf” evangelistic programs is that they can imply a “one size fits all” approach. They rely on leaders to do the important work of contextualisation – and one of the marks of a good leader, I think, is that they know when to “off road” with a particular guest.

    I think you’re spot on when you recognise that a great many guests on evangelistic courses (perhaps most, if my experience is anything to go by) believe that they are essentially good people, and that if there is a God, then he can be expected to treat them well when they shuffle off this mortal coil.

    The central question you pose, then, is a crucial one: ” ‘I’m not a sinner, and I don’t believe in hell.’ How do you get past that when trying to share the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

    The way we try to tackle this on CE, given that it’s grounded in Mark’s Gospel, is to do what Jesus does in Mark. Namely, we try to help people see that sin is not merely (as you rightly say) “doing naughty things”, but it is, first and foremost, a failure to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30).

    That is the most important command of all, according to Jesus, so that is where I’m looking to push back gently if someone feels they are not a sinner deserving God’s judgement. I might say something like, “God gives us life and breath and everything we enjoy. And yet we fail to love him as we should. In fact, Jesus says we ought to love such a good God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Would you say that you’ve done that in your life?” (That’s the thrust of the initial teaching on CE).

    I think this helps in the situation you describe, because you’re not beginning by baldly stating “Hey! You’re a sinner!”. You’re first reminding people of God’s common grace and ongoing care for each one of us, and thus of our obligation to love him.

    Clearly, though, it takes a greater power than any of us have to convict a self-righteous person of their sin. We need God to open blind eyes by means of his Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4:1-6). Only then can the gospel make sense to anyone.

    Thank you for letting me take up space on your excellent blog.

  5. November 11, 2011 11:17 pm

    I think, as has been highlighted, the occasional nature of all of Scripture, including Romans, needs to shape the way we utilize the intention of said book of the Bible. Are we going to logically-deductively abstract the principles we need to make the Bible relevant to our perceived context; or are we going to allow the context of Scripture to provide the trajectory and shape through which we interact with the depth of the Text? I think Genesis 1:1 supplies the answer; God’s Word (pace John 1:1’s reification) is the first move we have of God interacting with the world (his creation). To me it is this move that then becomes decisive to answering your question. His move is gracious for us (Gen 3:15). As we follow the narrative unfolding of the Torah, it is then, and only then (in His gracious Self-revelation and Covenant Ex. 3:15) that the torah is given; to His Covenant people. So grace precedes law, and law’s function was already for His Covenant people, providing the way to live blessed lives coram Deo. I see this biblical theological motif in Paul’s theology, as well as the whole sweep of New Testament theology. This gets us back to both Matt’s and Ken’s points on Romans and Israel in particular. Also Ray Anderson says something like this in his book: The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People.

  6. November 11, 2011 11:31 pm

    Of course, while what I just sketched may be (is 😉 ) the case; the question is, at what place in the Story do we engage “seekers” or “non-seekers” (I don’t like that word, but for lack of better)? And this is where sensitivity to where people are at and coming from becomes important. Maybe “un-saved” people are like Israel, living in “Covenant-unfaithfulness” and unbelief in the person and work of God for them. Maybe they are living lives of self-destruction (homo incurvatus in se), and thus the salvation history Story line could be emphasized. But again, I don’t think a Story ever makes sense w/o the beginning (the introduction); which would really prioritize God’s grace—since it’s His-story!

  7. Virginia Sumner Adams permalink
    November 13, 2011 3:18 pm

    Interesting post, Darren. It’s a question that seems to always lurk in the background for any believer looking for a way to share his/her faith with someone that is a “good” person. We are actually living this out right now. I think that finding a “road” to someone’s need for salvation can only happen through God’s unique intervention in their thinking. The expectation that I will lead someone to Christ negates the fact- some sew, others water and then the Harvest – (it’s hard to not be the harvester). I really appreciate the depth of your blog and all of your thoughts (all of you that write here). I am often in over my head and hesitate to comment. I am so glad that there are men and women working to find answers to the ever-present questions of how to best reach others with the Gospel.

  8. November 16, 2011 10:22 pm

    Great post Darren- I think you raise an interesting dilemma and a great conclusion. I would also agree that perhaps this is an individual case by case basis rather than a one-size-fits-all gospel approach. what has your personal experience been with trying out both methods; what responses have you received? I wonder if your interactions of sharing the gospel with Scots have prompted a differing response from your interactions of sharing the gospel in the states. I have found that this generally agnostic Scottish culture around the university could use a little more confrontation of their sin (a roman’s road approach) as they do not seem to be bothered as to whether God loves them or not- but then again, this is just what I have seen to be the case.

  9. November 29, 2011 11:38 am

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and feedback! I’m sorry it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back to it, but I figured with the San Francisco trip looming that would likely happen. Needless to say, our church’s session of Christianity Explored continues (we’re up to the “grace” segment) and so I continue to ponder these pedagogical issues in a very practical setting.

    Matt and Ken: Good comments on Paul’s own method (and audience!) and Romans in general, which gives me more to think about exegetically. Having never utilized the “Romans Road” approach to evangelism myself, I’m sure it’s clear where my sympathies lie. Inevitably, I suppose, where we come down on the question of “sin to grace” or “grace to sin” will also be largely biographical. Where one comes out of a tradition that pushes first sin and performance (such as myself), grace is a powerful first word, indeed.

    Barry: Thanks so much for reading and commenting — it’s gratifying to have one of the guys behind CE interacting with this. (I hope it’s clear enough that I’m not picking on this curriculum in particular, but that it’s the context in which I’ve been thinking through the topic.) I’ve found it a stellar curriculum, but our weekly sessions are so brief that I’ve also become increasingly aware of the need to deviate from the material and talk about what’s on the inquirer’s mind — what it is that brought them (or brought them back) that week. CE thus provides a good overview and lots of jumping-off points, but we finally have to let those in the session guide the conversation — which I think is the work of contextualization you are talking about.

    I appreciate the starting point of God as Creator — He gave us life, the world and everything we enjoy, and continues to sustain it moment by moment. What sort of response do we owe Him in return? What does He ask of us? I wonder, though, if we’ve jumped too quickly to sin and human moral failure if that starting point does not also include God’s love and desire for fellowship with His creatures. Sin is perhaps best contextualized as our rejection of God’s outpouring of love — that is, of grace. How much greater is it, then, that God loved us and showed us grace not only when we were ‘neutral’ creatures but when we became actively opposed to Him (Rom. 5:6-8)?

    Bobby: It seems as though a great deal of this work could be done through a narratival, covenant-based approach to sharing the gospel. “This is our story, of God’s faithfulness to humanity — and whether you realize it or not, it’s actually your story, too. God wants you included in His covenant or familial relationship.” That perhaps suggests to the inquirer some motivation for turning to Christ other than “You are wicked, and here’s how you get clean.”

    Virginia (a.k.a. Mom): I deeply appreciate your comment. To be honest I find sharing my faith exhilirating precisely because it is so terrifying. I’m such a weak, earthen vessel. We begin each session of this course with a brief prayer meeting among the leaders, and every week my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will do the work that I cannot (which is pretty much everything) and that a seed will be sown that is to be watered and nurtured somewhere further down the line.

    Joy: Thanks so much for commenting. Fortunately, those who probably need to be convicted of their sin and their need for grace have continued coming back to this present course in subsequent weeks — so I’m grateful that the “sin talk” hasn’t scared anyone off before they hear about grace and the cross. But I still wonder if the order of presentation may be a liability. (Other participants, by contrast, were perfectly happy with talking about sin and brokenness and found it quite interesting.)

    I imagine the response of “I’m not a ‘sinner,’ I’m just living my life” has more to do with age and maturity (hello, Uni students!) than a local culture. Perhaps age shows us the self-centeredness of youth, and the depths to which we are capable of hurting others. Perhaps it just gives us more time to sin and come to recognize that there is a better way to live life. What to do with the youngsters who seem at times a little [WARNING: Old Man comment coming …] ‘too big for their britches’? I suspect that meeting them where they are at means taking just the opposite approach: it is those who simply do not take sin seriously who need to hear first of the grace and the love of God, or they will continue to believe that the church has nothing to say to them.

  10. November 29, 2011 3:53 pm

    I’ve been reflecting on this a bit and I’m not sure you state your case strongly enough Darren. In other words, I think you are right, and more right than you say. First of all, this “case by case basis” idea is exactly right, after all, if you are going to tell someone about grace and sin and the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ you better do it with the living breathing person in front of you and not in abstractions and demands. However, when it comes to the grace>sin or sin>grace dilemma I don’t see how you can go any direction except the former. Obviously I’m totally with Barth on this one: What good is it talking about “sin” when we have not yet spoken of the good in light of which it is known? Unless our lives and our world is lit up by Christ we are literally just stabbing in the dark trying to name the darkness. We may get it right some of the time, since we are well aware of our pathologies, and this may well “prime” people up to hear the gospel and receive it. But the side effect of that, I suspect, is that whatever faith we convert to is one based upon the negation of guilt and sin and not upon the positive truth of God’s self giving love and fellowship. Surely there often ends up being growth into a more mature faith – i.e. sanctification – in many of those cases. But what about the scores of people who are simply not reached, or are even unnecessarily repelled, by such a strategy? They already know guilt, shame, and wrongdoing. Their agnosticism about God may have more to do with not seeing His love or healing power in action than it does with a failure to be confronted on sin. I don’t think context makes a difference in this regard: Without a vision of God revealed in Jesus Christ, presenting people with the problem of sin is going to be apt to all sorts of undesirable and unnecessary problems.

  11. November 29, 2011 4:01 pm

    I’ve been reflecting on this a bit and I’m not sure you state your case strongly enough Darren. In other words, I think you are right, and more right than you say.

    First of all, yes, this “case by case basis” idea is exactly right, after all, if you are going to tell someone about grace and sin and the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ you better do it with the living breathing person in front of you and not in abstractions and demands.

    However, when it comes to the grace>sin or sin>grace dilemma I don’t see how you can go any direction except the former. Obviously I’m totally with Barth on this one: What real good is it talking about “sin” when we have not yet spoken of the good in light of which it is known? Unless our lives and our world is lit up by Christ we are literally just stabbing in the dark trying to name the darkness. We may get it right some of the time, since we are well aware of our pathologies, and this may well “prime” people up to hear the gospel and receive it.

    But more often than not the side effect of that is, I suspect, that whatever faith we convert to is one based upon the negation of guilt and sin (however we’ve lamely defined it) and not upon the positive truth of Christ’s self giving love and fellowship. Surely there often ends up being growth into a more mature faith – i.e. sanctification – in many of those cases. But what about the scores of people who are simply not reached, or are even unnecessarily repelled, by such a strategy? They already know guilt, shame, and wrongdoing. Their agnosticism about God may have more to do with not seeing His love or healing of sin and enmity in either concept or in action than it does with a failure to be confronted on sin, wrongdoing, or brokenness. I think it way too easy to blame something within the young people of today for a problem they inherited. They look at Christianity and see guilt and legalism, and they look at their secular world and see problems and brokenness. What should they hope for and why? That’s the question.

    I don’t think context makes a difference in this regard: Without a vision of God revealed in Jesus Christ, presenting people with the problem of sin is going to be apt to all sorts of undesirable and unnecessary problems.

  12. Junly permalink
    January 13, 2013 5:17 am

    “The strategy of moving from the Law to the Gospel seems good for those who are already believers but want to understand how it all “works,” as well as those who feel convicted of their sinful lives and are looking for good news. But for others, I wonder if the message is simply splintered against their own hard hearts.”

    I think you are being a jackass by saying that the problem is their “hard hearts.” The problem in your Romans Road presentation is that “Sin” is not personal sin but Adam’s sin. I doubt anyone rally thinks they’ve never sinned; but they do think its idiotic for you to condemn them based on Adam’s sin. Furthermore, when one is convicted of personal sin, that does not necessarily mean they will agree with the oddball notion created by Paul’s misinterpretation of Deut 27:26 that even the tiniest of sins places you in a state of irreversible damnation that cannot be solved by repentance but requires a god-man sacrifice. The real problem you are running up against is that these people actually believe all those passages in the Old Testament that fundamentalist Christians ignore like Ezekiel 18 that promise forgiveness of sins on the basis of nothing but repentance (no blood sacrifices necessary). So really its not a matter of being convicted of sin or not–its a matter of being convicted that sin requires blood sacrifice or not. Those who have thoroughly imbibed the message of the later prophets (Isaiah 1, Amos 5, Micah 6) that repentance without blood sacrifice has the promise of forgiveness of sins attached to it will not be convinced of your presentation; you can only convince those who’ve never read any Old Testament book other than Deuteronomy and who have misinterpreted it in the same way that Paul does in Galatians.

  13. January 13, 2013 5:27 am

    Junly, I’m happy to have a conversation with you about biblical exegesis and the popular understanding of sin — but if you really want that, you’ll need to not start your first post on a new site by calling the author names. I’m simply not interested in engaging that, and this isn’t a site where that sort of behavior is welcome.

  14. Jeremy Thrash permalink
    February 15, 2014 8:00 pm

    Your answer is simply found in Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.
    Remember, it’s a difference between preaching ABOUT Jesus and preaching LIKE Jesus

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