Romans as a Story of Salvation

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Image from “Revisiting the 7-Point Story Structure” by John Berkowitz

Most compelling stories follow established storytelling patterns. Read almost any modern novel or watch almost any movie, and you’ll see that they conform to a well-worn seven-point story structure. (Watching Halmark movies is a great way to understand this structure, as they all follow it to the letter.)

This post is based on a response I wrote for a seminary midterm.

The seven-point structure can be used rhetorically as well. In fact, unlikely as it sounds, Paul’s epistle to the Romans can be outlined in a manner consistent with seven-point story structure. Whether intentional or not, this structure draws his reader into the “story” of salvation.

The beats of such a structure are (and I’m using my own, alliterative terminology here) the Objective, the Opportunity, the Obstacle, the Obsession, the Overwhelming, the Overcoming, and the Outcome. Between each of these beats are Exordium, Exploration, Experimentation, Exertion, Examination, and Exaltation. Following, is an outline of Romans, based on this structure, with the chapter numbers where the corresponding passages are found:

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name . . .

Romans 1:1—5 (NKJV)

Objective (1:5): Paul opens his letter with a greeting that states an objective for the believers in Rome: “obedience to the faith.”

Exordium (1—3): He approaches the Objective of obedience negatively, through a discussion of law, focusing first on “natural law,” demonstrating how none are innocent and that only the doers of the law (whether the Law of Moses or the natural law of the Gentiles) will be justified. Within this section, a Need surfaces—to be saved.

Opportunity (3): The Opportunity to meet the Objective of obedience is identified as justification by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Exploration (3—5): Paul explores the meaning of justification. He reiterates the idea that neither Jews nor Gentiles can boast; he expounds upon Abraham’s justification by faith; he entertains the positive ideas that justification brings peace with God and that even suffering is transformed through grace into hope. Finally, Christ is presented in his role of the new Adam.

Obstacle (6): Twin obstacles to obedience: If this grace that is revealed by sin is so wonderful, why shouldn’t we sin more? If we’re no longer under the law, why obey any part of the law?

Experimentation (6): Paul presents practical, logical reasoning for why those ideas are fallacious.

Obsession (7,8): Not only are the obstacles illogical, there is a greater power at work: Those in the law have died to sin and it has no more hold on them. We must live in the spirit, not the flesh, to realize these benefits.

Exertion (8): We’re not alone in this; all creation is part of this process. The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We are more than conquerors; nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Overwhelming (9): Just when it appears Paul has overcome all the Obstacles, he drops the biggest one yet: Aren’t the Israelites God’s chosen people? Did God’s plan fail? Did he abandon them in favor of the Gentiles?

Examination (9—11): Paul conducts a dialogue with himself. It’s not the children of the flesh who are the true Israel, but the children of the promise. The children of the promise are called by God, not selected by works. Does this make God unjust? No, because God’s actions are consistent with his promise. How, then can he find fault? Because he foreknew our obedience or rebellion, and this is the basis of his choosing. The Israelites who did not obtain righteousness through the law did not do so because they did not pursue the law through faith. Paul recognizes the Israelites’ zeal for God and his law and hopes that this will lead them to faith in Christ who is the end of the law. Paul exclaims that if even the failure of the Israelites has brought salvation to the world, their success will be even more beneficial. Paul cautions against Gentiles being smug about taking the place of the Israelites who have fallen away, for God shows no partiality.

Overcoming (11): The mystery of Israel’s rejection of Christ is that God has hardened their hearts in order to allow the full number of the Gentiles in, but that he has not in any way abandoned Israel or forgotten his promises.

Exaltation (12—15): With this new knowledge, the Church in Rome can achieve the Objective, living in obedience to God, in support of one another, and in peace toward the world, rejoicing, and praising God’s mercy.

Outcome (14:8—9): In life as well as death, those who live in obedience to the faith belong to the Lord. This fulfills the Need—to be saved.

For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Romans 14:8—9 (ESV)

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