Romans 5:1-11 serves as a bridge between the preceding and subsequent sections of Romans (Edwards, 132). In this relatively overlooked passage, Paul identifies with the recipients of his letter. Though Paul’s “circle of virtues” can easily create a false standard of attainable perfection, it is through justification of a sinful and weak people that God works (Dana, 35). In this paper I will argue that because they are justified through Christ’s death, all Christians can boast in their sufferings as well as their hope. In Christ, even suffering becomes an aperture for God’s love.
Background and Context
Paul transitions from chapter 4 of Romans, discussing Abraham and his justification by faith. He finishes chapter 4 saying, “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:23-25). Paul’s point on justification is carried over to chapter five with a ‘therefore.’
While some scholars view this passage as a bridge, others view it as a definitive start to a section of Romans spanning from 5:1-8:39. Both are understandable demarcations. However, this passage is unique in that it contains some language from earlier chapters of Romans. It also contains concepts that will be elaborated on in later chapter, such as that of reconciliation (Edwards, 132).
Paul writes to his audience about dealing with sufferings. The Roman society that Paul would have been writing to was made up of social and political structures that enacted oppression and worked against the lower classes. About 65% of the Roman society was made up of slaves and lower classes that struggled to support themselves (Wu, 29). Although many have said that slavery was a benign system that was often voluntary, this was not the case. The system of slavery objected the lower-class slaves to violence, sexual vulnerability, and hunger (Wu, 35). Even free citizens of Rome were largely part of the lower classes. Because of the severely stratified society, anyone outside of the upper ruling classes were often shamed.
There was not widespread religious persecution present in Rome as Paul wrote his letter. At least, not religious persecution as we would think of it today. Believers in Rome also experienced persecution and social shame for refraining from participation in the imperial cult (Wu, 40-41). When Romans was written, the Roman church had gone through changes. Because of the Edict of Claudius in A.D. 49, all Jewish people were expelled from the city of Rome. Before this, Jewish believers had made up the majority of the church. When they were sent away, Gentile believers had to take over leadership roles within the church. Upon the Jewish believers return to Rome, the church struggled with the place of the Law (Edwards, 9-10).
In the second half of the passage Paul brings Jesus’s death and resurrection back to the forefront. It is only because of this that justification is possible. In the well-memorized verse, Paul writes, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Without this datum point, the argument of all of Romans would have no grounding. Because of what Paul has already discussed we know that all of humanity is unrighteous and unjustified (chapter 1). Therefore, God’s judgement of them is righteous and fitting (chapter 2). But that which could not be accomplished through the law, is accomplished by faith (chapter 3). Abraham is the father of faith. And here he is shown as an example of justification by faith (chapter 4).