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Lesson Plan on Paul's Epistle to the Romans


The Book of Romans is so rich. It is also, arguably, the most influential book on Christian theology within the Bible. The late Joseph Fitzmyer has noted, "One can almost write the history of Christian theology by surveying the ways in which Romans has been interpreted" (N.T. Wright, "The New Testament In Its World, p. 503). The Church reformer, Martin Luther, called this epistle "the chief part of the New Testament and is truly the purest gospel" (Martin Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans). 

While it is arguably the most influential book in the New Testament, it is also commented on as the worst book to translate from the original Greek. Scholars like N.T. Wright has commented that reading Paul in many modern translations, like the NIV and others, will result in people "quite simply, never understanding what Paul [is] talking about" (Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, p. 53). Even further, scholars within our own faith tradition (like John W. Welch and Adam Miller) note that "the Book of Romans suffers more in the KJV than any other book of scripture... the KJV is beautiful, but it is pretty tortured [in the Book of Romans]." (1)

Why is this the case? Without going into the weeds, the simple answer is that Paul's message has been wrestled out of its original context so much that many translators, for centuries, have not harkened back to what words originally meant in Paul's day. For about 1600 years, the Book of Romans has been made to say things corresponding to a Neoplatonic thought, which Christianity originally rejected but "incorporated later" (2)

Quoting N.T. Wright, again:

"Romans has suffered for centuries from being made to produce vital statements on questions it was not written to answer." (The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Volume IX: Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1& 2 Corinthians, Galatians)

I mentioned in my last lesson plan that in the last several decades there has been much discovery that has 'unearthed' how Paul and the Saints in his day understood certain terms. We call this the "New Perspective on Paul." Because of this, I wanted to help us reclaim what is, frankly, a hard book to understand for the most part. We will cover what Paul meant when he used the following words:

  • Faith or belief, πίστις, pistis (pis'-tis)
  • Grace, χάρις, charis (khar'-ece)
  • Works, ἔργον, ergōn (er'-gon)
  • Law, νόμος, nomos (nom'-os)
  • Righteousness, δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosunēn (dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay)
  • Election, ἐκλογή, eklogēn (ek-log-ay')
A simple concordance search shows that Paul uses these charged Christian words in this epistle way more than in any other Biblical writing. It is Paul's greatest theological treatise for this reason.

The historical and literary outline of the Book of Romans is worth understanding as well and can go a long way with how we understand the words above. For lack of time in the Sunday School format, I highly recommend watching the following short videos that review the picture outline below: here and here

Some historical details worth mentioning before we dive in are that this epistle was written somewhere between 55-57 AD. As most of you have realized by now, the New Testament was not compiled in chronological order. Paul most likely wrote his Epistle to the Romans towards the very end of his third mission trip while he stayed in Corinth. If you remember the events of the Book of Acts, he writes this before he returns to Jerusalem for the last time. Paul tells us in this epistle that the reason he had to return to Jerusalem was to give the funds that were donated by the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to the Jewish churches in Jerusalem (see Romans 15:22-23). Even further, the Lord's visitation to Paul where he is told he would go to Rome (see Acts 23:11) was in response to Paul's previous enthusiastic desire to visit the Romans in Romans chapter 15. 

The reasons why Paul wrote this letter are probably three-fold:

  1. to win moral support for his trip back to Jerusalem
  2. to gain financial support for a future mission trip to Spain, the end of the known world
  3. and to bridge gaps of misunderstanding between the Jewish and Gentile Christians
Unlike other epistles Paul writes, the Romans appear to be pretty righteous, comparatively speaking. Also of interest is how this letter was carried by a woman named Phoebe to the Romans. If you read between the lines of chapter 16 it sounds like Pheobe was the one commissioned to read this letter to the Roman churches and the one who could help explain the doctrinal details further. Some scholars within the Church have commented that her position was probably the equivalent of a modern-day Relief Society President. She is called a "servant" (see Romans 16:1) which comes from the Greek word diakonos. This is the same word used to translate the word "deacon" in the New Testament. This isn't to suggest she held a priesthood office, but it does suggest she had priesthood power as she was commissioned by Paul.


"Poorly defined, faith not only produces little conviction but also is difficult to nurture and increase." - Neal A. Maxwell (Lord, Increase Our Faith, pg.2)


"9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.

13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

These verses don't have the term 'faith' used at all in them, but the Greek word for it is used three times in these verses, pistis. It is used another three times in the few verses that follow. The reason for this is that later theologies were used to justify the mental assertion of faith (a.k.a belief) as being all that was necessary for salvation. But, in Paul's day, pistis "meant knowing and understanding one’s patron and developing a relationship based on fidelity [to that patron] that ideally resulted in a lifetime relationship." (3)

To expand further, in the Greeco-Roman world, the term pistis carried extreme weight. It was used often by royalty and government leaders to signify a "covenant or contract backed up by collateral" (4) from their loyal citizens. We can, therefore, easily see that something more than just mere belief is being spoken here by Paul. It referred to a patron relationship where somebody (or something) could provide a service or protection, something the client could not provide for themselves. The client would show forth unyielding loyalty and trust (e.g. faith) towards that patron. In short, the KJV translations for 'belief' and 'faith' intrinsically carried within their first-century contexts the idea of covenant faithfulness. Paul's hearers understood the term in their ancient context and would have had zero thoughts about the later Christian-Neoplatonic doctrine of sola fide (salvation by faith alone).


How can understanding that faith refers to the growing covenant relationship we have with Jesus Christ help us "increase our faith"?

Elder Merril J. Bateman has said:

"In the New Testament, the word "faith" is translated from a Greek word (pistis) which is defined as "a mutual trust and loyalty between two parties based on a covenant or contract backed up by collateral." The Father is willing to enter into a gospel covenant with His children and reward them with immortality and eternal life if they abide the covenant... This reciprocal process of exchanging collateral (works of faith for a witness of the Spirit) takes place at various stages of growth and is the process by which one's faith and confidence increase until he or she arrives at a perfect knowledge (James 2:22, Ephesians 3:14-19). Although there are probably as many levels of faith in the development process as there are individuals, it is possible from the scriptures to define at least four stages of faith in Christ and the gospel plan. The first stage is that of the investigator. The second occurs when one has a testimony but is still in the early stages of growth. A third stage may be described by "full conversion and exceeding faith in Christ's sanctifying power": and the fourth stage occurs when one's calling and election is made sure... [When] one's life exemplifies the higher covenants of the temple." (5)

Seen in this way, Faith is now very easy to define and, as Elder Maxwell stated above, we are more able to grow and nurture our faith in very practical ways. 


This is a good transition into the idea of Grace. It is a word of growing popularity within our faith tradition and has long been very popular in others. It is a word that has always been used by prophets and apostles, though.

There are so many verses about grace we could choose from in the Book of Romans, but I really enjoyed my personal study of the following verses.


"24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

Verse 24 should recall to our minds some of the words of Nephi from 2 Nephi chapter 4. But, again, you might see that the word 'grace' is not used at all in these verses. It is used in the Greek and it was, possibly, translated poorly here because they couldn't make theological sense of how it is used here. The word 'thanks' in verse 25 comes from the word charis, which is the same word translated as 'grace' in ninety percent of the New Testament.

When translated literally, we see that Paul is answering his own question from verse 24. John W. Welch translates these verses like this:

“O wretched man that I am! Who shall loose me from this body of death? Indeed, [the answer is by answering with] a ‘reciprocal gift to God the Father’ [charis de tō theō] on account of Jesus Christ our Lord." (6)

Other Christian Biblical scholars, like the late Bruce M. Metzger, agree with John Welch's translation above. (7) The basic idea is that not only does God show grace to us, but we show grace to him through our covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. Faith (pistis) and Grace (charis), therefore, go hand in hand. This covenantal relationship with Christ and Heavenly Father is summed up well in D&C 93:12 & 20.

"12 And I, John, saw that [Christ] received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace...

20 For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace." (bold added for emphasis)

We usually think of grace in terms of going from "grace to grace", meaning the Lord is the only one dealing the grace in our covenant relationship. These verses in D&C 93 make it clear that grace can also be seen as a reciprocal process of grace-giving between the two covenantal parties. In fact, charis in Greek literally means "gift". In the ancient world, "the patron gave unmerited gifts of assistance, these were commonly called charis, meaning 'grace/gift'. The client responded with faithfulness to the patron, called pistis, or 'faith'." (7) The gift of faith in our covenant relationship is the grace we give through Jesus Christ, as Paul plainly states above.


How can seeing grace as covenantal and/or being a gift we offer help us in daily discipleship?

Elder Neal A. Maxwell summed up the gracious gift we give as we progress on the path of giving "grace for grace":

"... the submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. The many other things we “give,” brothers and sisters, are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. However, when you and I finally submit ourselves, by letting our individual wills be swallowed up in God’s will, then we are really giving something to Him! It is the only possession which is truly ours to give!" (8)


To understand how Paul is using the term 'works' we must keep in mind the inner-church conflict that began in Acts chapter 15. To put things succinctly, in our day we foolishly see debates of grace versus works. But in Paul's day the real debate, according to Jennifer Roach, was between "grace versus circumcision". (9) The idea of Grace, as we just reviewed above, was Paul's theological way to try and help Gentiles and Jewish Christians see salvation only in and through Christ. In Paul's writings, especially in Romans, the words 'works' and 'law' are always near each other. Bible Scholar within our own faith tradition, Ben Spackman, summarizes how Paul used the term "law":

"In the New Testament, “the law” most often means “the Torah,” and the “works of the law” are its ritual requirements. It does not inherently imply legalism in general or specific, and Judaism was far less legalistic than most people think. 99% of the time, when you see “law” in the New Testament read “Torah” or “law of Moses” instead of “law” in general." (9)

Ben goes on to show how this is a relatively new development within Biblical research. This view of law and works came into view through a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Decades worth of research have confirmed how Latter-Day Saints have, generally, understood all these terms correctly because of the restoration of the gospel.

One thing that our Evangelical friends get right is that the 'works' required of us by covenant do not in and of themselves save us. Keeping covenants and the associated works keeps us in a space and posture where the 'flowers of grace' will appear in our lives. Elder M. Russell Ballard has stated:

"No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we obey, no matter how many good things we do in this life, it would not be enough were it not for Jesus Christ and His loving grace. On our own we cannot earn the kingdom of God—no matter what we do. Unfortunately, there are some within the Church who have become so preoccupied with performing good works that they forget that those works—as good as they may be—are hollow unless they are accompanied by a complete dependence on Christ. It is this dependence that causes us to want to sing what Alma eloquently referred to as “the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26)." (10)


How can understanding our works in the context of covenants strengthen our understanding of repentance?


Another issue that arises when you read the KJV for what it says is the belief of predestination and the idea that God has elected people to salvation over others. The main verse in the New Testament that is used to defend this belief is Romans 8:28-29. The term 'predestinate' comes from the Greek word proegnō which means "to have knowledge beforehand but which does not necessarily change the outcome of an event." (11) Better translations say 'foreknew' instead of 'predestinate' (see NET).


"5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.

7 What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded"

Contextually, Paul is going over Israel's rejection of the gospel and how a small remnant of Jewish Christians shows that God has not thrown the descendants of Israel by the wayside. In fact, Paul borrows some imagery from Jacob chapter 5 later to show this point (see Romans 11:16-24). But for purposes of this lesson, the KJV doesn't do the text justice by using the term 'election'. The word used here is eklogēn and it simply means "the chosen or selected". The Greeks would use this term to describe "levying of troops" or "collecting tribute" (12) highlighting, again, the patron and client relationship implied by such words. The verses above are drenched in that contractual and covenantal language that Paul was using because it would have been helpful for the ancient saints to understand their covenantal relationship to Christ in their ancient near east context.

In other words, the 'election of grace' should be understood as being 'chosen because of the covenant'. This should remind us of D&C 121:34-46 which describes what it means to be 'chosen' and ties it directly to the oath and covenant of the priesthood for men and women.

President Harold B. Lee gave us a key insight on how we reconcile the idea of 'foreordination' and being 'chosen':

"Despite that calling which is spoken of in the scriptures as “foreordination,” we have another inspired declaration: “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen."... This suggests that even though we have our free agency here, there are many who were foreordained before the world was, to a greater state than they have prepared themselves for here. Even though they might have been among the noble and great, from among whom the Father declared he would make his chosen leaders, they may fail of that calling here in mortality." (13)


In your lives, what blessings do you see when you live the life of one who is 'chosen' instead of merely 'called/elected/foreordained'? 


For this last word, I am going to do the reverse and explain the roots and meaning of the word before we read the scriptures. From the outset, it is interesting to note that the Hebrew term for 'righteous' is zadok which is one of the root words of the name 'Melchizedek', which means "king of righteousness." What is also interesting to note is that zadok is also one of the roots of 'charity' in Hebrew (tzedakah). This can help inform us what Paul means by the righteousness of God or our own personal righteousness.

In Greek, righteousness comes from dikaiosunēn which, in Paul's context, means 'covenant membership.' (14) (See also The Kingdom New Testament, Epistle to the Romans) The idea of righteousness doesn't so much have to do with how well we behave, but more so with how often we repent and obey to abide in our covenant with Jesus Christ. I enjoy how some scholars translated Paul's words about Abraham in Romans chapter 4 when they speak about how Abraham's faith led him to be "put in the right". Again, this stresses that salvation is not self-assumed.


"2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.

3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth."

In Paul's context, again, he is constantly debating those who wanted to keep 'righteousness' within the bounds of the physical rites of Judaism. [Some of the Jewish Christians in Rome] "are ignorant of God’s righteousness (i.e. of what God is righteously accomplishing, of how he is fulfilling his covenant) and are seeking to establish a righteousness of their own (i.e. a covenant membership for Jews alone), whereas in God’s plan, Christ offers covenant membership to all who believe the gospel." (15)


How might we liken this to ourselves? How do we at times "establish our own righteousness" or, in other words, create for ourselves our own 'covenant' status?

President Nelson has spoken of some key blessings of covenant membership with the "everlasting covenant" (a.k.a the Abrahamic covenant):

"Those who keep their covenants with God will become a strain of sin-resistant souls! Those who keep their covenants will have the strength to resist the constant influence of the world... Jesus Christ is the guarantor of those covenants (see Hebrews 7:22; 8:6). Covenant keepers who love God and allow Him to prevail over all other things in their lives make Him the most powerful influence in their lives." (16)

Paul is trying to communicate that salvation cannot be assumed based on obedience to the law of Moses or any other system of behavior. Christ is the end of all law, works, and commandments. This is why we make a covenant with Him, "the Lord is our lawgiver" (see Isaiah 33:22). Salvation comes from the grace of Jesus Christ as we accept covenant membership through the ordinances of the gospel, particularly the ordinances of the temple.


My intent in this lesson plan was to underline the strong covenantal language Paul is using in his epistle to the Romans. Although somewhat academic, I feel it makes a strong case as to why we make Jesus Christ the center of our lives by becoming covenant members of His gospel. We exercise faith in Him as we offer up our wills as a gift to him. The result is grace abounding in our lives. Other Christian brothers and sisters get frustrated at us because of our emphasis on 'celestial effort' within our covenantal context. Elder Bruce C. Hafen highlights how the highest blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ require a high reciprocal effort on our part. It isn't earning our exaltation, it is the process of receiving the power of Christ in our lives so we become who we were foreordained to be:

"As we “talk [more] of Christ,” the gospel’s doctrinal fulness will come out of obscurity... [Some] mistakenly think our Church is moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings. Such misconceptions prompt me to consider today the Restoration’s unique Atonement doctrine... We need grace both to overcome sinful weeds and to grow divine flowers. We can do neither one fully by ourselves. But grace is not cheap. It is very expensive, even very dear. How much does this grace cost? Is it enough simply to believe in Christ? The man who found the pearl of great price gave “all that he had” for it. If we desire “all that [the] Father hath,” God asks all that we have. To qualify for such exquisite treasure, in whatever way is ours, we must give the way Christ gave—every drop He had: “How exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.” Paul said, “If so be that we suffer with him,” we are “joint-heirs with Christ.” All of His heart, all of our hearts." (17)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it succinctly. Costly grace can only be an act of covenantal consecration:

"Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field...Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43–45)


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