It is sometimes maintained that St. Paul was the real founder of Christianity. This is at best a half-truth, but it is a half-truth worth pondering.
Paul writes that, before his conversion, he was the most fervent of Jews, one most dedicated to the observance of the Law. In fact, he was so dedicated to observing the Law that in order to maintain the purity of the Jewish faith, he was willing to act violently against other Jews who would water down the centrality of the Law.
With his conversion, he came to realize that Jesus Christ changed everything. The Law, he now believed, was a tawdry thing, which could not keep its adherents from sinning. The only path to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the remaining weeks of the Year of St. Paul, this series of articles will focus on specific letters that Paul wrote. Some of those letters were covered in articles published last fall – Philippians, Galatians, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. The articles this week and next will focus on St. Paul's letter to the Romans, the most comprehensive presentation of his thoughts.
Unlike Paul's other letters, Romans was not written to deal with specific problems in the local Christian community. Paul had not founded the Roman Christian community; he had never been to Rome at the time he wrote this letter.
He wrote this letter to a community he was planning to visit, one that had a large number of both Jewish and Gentile adherents, to encourage them in their faith. Paul had another agenda too – he wanted money for the Church in Jerusalem.
He wastes no time getting to the point: "I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith" (1.16-17).
For centuries, Jews had seen the rational, polytheistic and tolerant Greek culture as a direct threat to the identity of Israel. The Jewish response was to emphasize God's gift of the Mosaic Law as Israel's badge of honour, a badge that not only made Jewish culture distinct from Greek culture, but also superior.
In Romans, Paul demolishes that badge of honour. He tells the Jews first that, in effect, they are hypocrites – they have the Law, but they do not live up to its precepts. They boast about being circumcised, but what they really need is a circumcision of the heart.
Then, Paul points out that while the Jews are the children of Abraham, Abraham himself was not made righteous because of the Law.
He lived hundreds of years before God gave the Law to Moses and yet God judged him as righteous. Why? Because of his faith.
"Apart from Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed," Paul writes. How? Through "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (3.21-22).
If you want salvation, the Law will not get you there. Better to be a spiritual child of Abraham, to act out of faith in God. The sure guide to that faith, the very presence of God himself, is Jesus Christ.
In his Nov. 19, 2008 audience talk, Pope Benedict said Israel had "to create a wall of distinction" to protect the heritage of its faith. That wall was the Law.
But because of Jesus, the pope said, the wall was no longer necessary. "It is Christ who protects us from polytheism and all of its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures. . . . "Our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ and it is he who makes us just."
Paul did not drive a wedge between the Jewish faith and the faith of those who follow Jesus, so much as make clear that the doors of salvation are open to the Gentiles. He did not create Christian faith, but he did more than anyone to clearly articulate that its basis lay in living a life rooted in Christ.
Justification, holiness, "a life fully pleasing to the Lord" (Colossians 1.10) is the goal of the follower of Jesus. Paul's letter to the Romans has much to say on that topic.
In next week's article, we will examine the gist of what Paul said.