Romans: Distortions Then and Now

February 6, 2007

In the Romans 1 post I briefly mentioned Peter’s comment about the difficult passages in Paul’s letters. Before proceeding further into Romans, I want to explore the topic of Paul’s difficult passages more thoroughly. Peter, Paul, and James all give us insight into the ways that these teachings were being distorted in their day. Understanding what these passages did not mean can help us in understanding what they do mean.

In 2 Peter 3, Peter said:

2Pe 3:15-17 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Here Peter pointed out that portions of Paul’s letters are difficult to understand, and that some people were distorting those passages. Then Peter warned them not to be carried away by the error of lawless men. It seems that the distortions Peter mentioned were being taught by lawless (Gk athesmos) men. Thayer’s lexicon defines athesmos as one who breaks through the restraint of law and gratifies his lusts. In other words, people were twisting Paul’s writings, using them as a license to cast off restraints (rejecting all regulations against sin) so that they might sin without penalty. Peter warned us that drawing such conclusions from Paul’s letters puts our secure position in jeopardy.

Apparently those lawless men to whom he referred had already fallen from their secure position. They taught, based on a distortion of Paul’s teaching about grace, that Christians could sin with impunity. But according to Peter, acting on that teaching causes one to fall from his secure position. This conclusively eliminates arguments people make from Paul’s letters, attempting to prove that it is impossible to fall away from grace.

Paul also gave us insight into the prevalent distortions of his teachings:

Rom 3:7-8 Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say–as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say–“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved

Rom 6:1-2 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Rom 6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

In these passages Paul refuted distortions of his teaching. In each of these, we see the pattern about which Peter warned. Each example shows the false teacher trying to cast off restraint so that they could sin without penalty. Paul made it clear that this was not sound teaching. How we live does matter. How can we who died to sin continue to live in it?

James also addressed the issue of faith and obedience:

James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

While James did not mention Paul in this context, he certainly addressed one of the primary controversies that has been promoted by distorting Paul’s writings, a distortion that apparently was already prevalent at the time James penned these words. The controversy James addressed fits neatly into the class of distortions about which Peter warned — rejecting the need for obedience. It also parallels those distortions Paul identified–expecting grace without repentance from sin. James made it clear that faith alone does not justify us, and that faith without deeds is dead. Like Peter, James recognized this distortion of Paul’s teaching as a matter of spiritual life and death.

Note that in the introduction to Romans, Paul described his ministry as calling people “to the obedience that comes from faith.” His commission from God was not merely to call people to faith, but to obedience. Like James, Paul called people to the kind of faith that results in deeds that can be seen.

As we continue in the study of Romans, we must be careful not to be carried away by the error of lawless men. We must avoid conclusions that would absolve us from the responsibility to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. And we must avoid conclusions that would eliminate all consequences for not striving to live such a life. Those types of conclusions are distortions of Paul’s teaching.


  1. Alan,Thanks for pausing in your analysis of Romans to explore this important point. Much of pop-religion has taken Romans and its message to be something that it is not. Thank you for your effort and hard work in writing about the book of Romans. Sincerely, Phil

  2. […] John 17: 21a May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. (HCSB) « Romans: Distortions Then and Now Romans: Another Sidebar » Romans Part 3: Righteousness by Faith (Only?) February […]

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