The Scholarly Views on Paul's Epistles
Leaving the Acts of the Apostles, we now go into Paul's letters (epistles). In doing this, we should look at the overall view of scholars regarding Paul’s epistles. The epistles we currently have were gathered together around 380 AD by St Jerome as he wrote the Latin Vulgate Bible. Jerome went through many books and epistles that were available in his day, and tried to determine which ones were authentic, and which were not. Occasionally, politics entered into his decision making. To have the western portion of the Church accept his list of approved books meant he had to include Hebrews and Revelation, though he personally believed they were not originally from Paul and John.
Today, scholars have determined that only about half of the epistles of Paul were actually written by the apostle. The remainder were possibly written by some of his followers or others who created forgeries - a very common practice in the first few centuries of Christianity, as different Christian sects sought to impose their views upon all Christians.
The Pauline epistles are now separated into three groups by modern scholars: authentic Pauline epistles, those which are disputed to be authentic by various scholars, and those that are very likely or definitely not written by Paul.
The epistles that are generally undisputed are: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
Those that are disputed by scholars on authenticity: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians - these are known as the Deutero-Pauline epistles, as a second person(s) who may have
known Paul most likely wrote these.
Finally come the Pastoral-Pauline epistles, which were most likely written by someone else: 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.
Whether they were actually written by Paul or not, they are accepted by Christians as inspired writings that can help us understand concepts and teachings of the early Christian Church.
The Epistle to the Romans
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is universally accepted as being authentic. It is thought to have been written by Paul around 57 AD. Paul wrote many of his epistles prior to this time, encouraging the Corinthians, Galatians and Thessalonians to provide for the poor. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul explains he is enroute to Jerusalem with the funds to deliver to the leadership there.
Paul repeats some discussions he has had in previous letters: justification, Abraham, Adam and Christ as the new Adam,
Romans’ topics have been the source for several key traditional Christian concepts, including Augustine’s original sin, Martin Luther’s justification by faith alone, John Calvin’s double predestination, and John Wesley on sanctification.
Paul had established several Christian churches around the Aegean Sea, and desired to preach where others had not yet established a church: Spain. His plan was to visit Rome on the way.
It is probable that the church in Rome was founded by Jewish Christians. Gentile Romans became interested and believed in Christ. The Jewish Christians in Rome taught the Roman converts to receive circumcision and obey the Law of Moses. In writing to Rome, Paul was explaining that the Gentile Christians were saved through faith, and not the law of Moses.
In 49 AD, the Roman leader Claudius expelled from Rome both Jews and Jewish Christians over their disruptive arguments over whether Jesus was the Messiah. His successor, Nero, allowed them to return in 54 AD, but would persecute them a decade later after the Great Fire, where tradition states he fiddled while Rome burnt.
It is during Nero’s reign that Paul wrote the Romans, in hopes of establishing his branch of Gentile Christianity among them.
I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ
Referencing the “Wisdom of Solomon”, an ancient Jewish document, Paul condemned the sexual and violent sins of Rome. Nero was famous for orgies which, according to the ancient historian Suetonius, often lasted "from noon until midnight." He built a 50 foot round dining room, which rotated to simulate the movements of the earth and planets. Entertainment in Rome included violent depictions of battles, and often included the deaths of captured enemies or rebels.
Paul was not ashamed to preach the gospel of Christ against such evils, noting that God would someday punish the wicked for such great sins. A major portion of his epistle would point to two main issues: the intense focus by some on following the Mosaic Law on the one hand, and the licentiousness of the Roman pagan society. Paul would have to teach them a middle view of what salvation meant. In speaking about the sins of Rome, Paul explained,
“Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile... (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness)” (Romans 2:9-15).God has given a basic law, which not all have officially received via commandment of God. Many Gentiles lived chaste and non-violent lives without a prophet to command them, but following their conscience. Paul speaks of justification here. Those who keep God’s commandments, whether commanded through prophets, or inspired by the Holy Spirit to the conscience of man, are blessed for it. But it requires us to do, and not just hear or know a law. Many of the Jewish Christians knew the law, but were not following it.
Instead, the gospel became a point for them to contend with Jews, and some of the Jewish Christians picked and chose the laws to be obeyed. They were not justified in knowing, and not obeying God's natural laws. Paul then taught that the Mosaic Law is one method, as is the method for the Gentile Christians. All have sinned, and therefore none can save themselves (Romans 3:9-11), but there is a salvation offered for both those under the Mosaic Law and those not under the law:
“ Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ..Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 1:22-31)So, Paul confusingly seems to be saying we both need and don’t need the law. In fact, he is teaching that the law is not an end in itself. One is not saved by being circumcised or offering animal sacrifices. Nor is one saved by making prayers and offerings. But the Jew or Gentile Christian who develops his faith, will follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance via his conscience, and such a person will want to live the laws of God as a normal outpouring of faith. In other words, we do not earn salvation by obeying, but we embrace Christ's offer of salvation by doing the things the Spirit calls upon us to do in faith. A person obeys because of faithfulness. As Jesus stated, “if ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What the Lord meant is that if we love him, keeping the commandments will be a natural outcome of that love. Our faith and love of Christ will naturally have us desire to be like him.
Obedience flows from faith, but not necessarily the other way around. Many Pharisees paid tithes and offerings and prayed, but their obedience did not bring them to believe in Christ. Of course, faith is more than just a belief. According to the Lecture on Faith, faith is a moving power for God (and us) in all things. The greater the faith, the greater the power of God that is with us and within us.
In chapter 4, we find that Paul discusses Abraham - a Jewish ancestor that Paul uses to inspire both the Jew and Roman believers. Abraham was blessed because he believed or had faith, not because he was circumcised. Yet his faith led him to do great works of obedience, including offering up Isaac, his son. As we learn from the Nephite King Benjamin, we cannot obey enough laws or do enough to ever pay back God for our sins and disobedience in life. First off, he gave us life, and then air, water, food and other blessings along the way, for which we owe him. When we obey God, he blesses us, so we still are ever in his debt. Benjamin noted that we are not even worth the dust we are created from, because God created the dust (Mosiah 2-5). Nephi taught us that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23). But what exactly does that mean? The Lamanite king Anti-Nephi-Lehi encouraged his people to bury their weapons of war and violence. In doing so, he explained to the people:
“it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain” (Alma 24:11).In essence, faith and repentance are all we can do. Jesus does the rest. The greater our faith and repentance, the more Jesus can do for us. We find from Alma’s Near Death Experience and his intense sufferings in hell for his sins that a very basic faith and repentance are required for us to be saved from hell and death:
“But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.... And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:12-20).We find that Alma’s sins and disbelief cast him from God’s presence and into a darkness of his own making. All Alma could do was believe and repent. Only his repentance could save him from the eternal torment that was upon him. So it is with all of us. A basic faith and repentance save us from hell and death.
In chapter 5, Paul explained we are “justified by faith” through the blood of Christ. When we accept the atonement through faith and repentance, we are rescued from hell and death. Justification means we are made guiltless for our sins, reconciled to God, and therefore made eligible for heaven (or in LDS teaching, one of the levels of heaven). Although Paul does not speak here of it, we can then seek to be sanctified by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, which purifies us as we become more faithful and obedient. As with Christ, we can go from grace to grace, receiving grace for grace, until we receive a fullness (D&C 93). At each new level of grace, we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost, purifying us and making us worthy to a higher level of glory and heavenly reward. That is what Grace, Justification and Sanctification are all about for us:
We are Justified (made guiltless/sinless) through faith on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We are then eligible to receive the sanctification of the Holy Ghost, which leads us from grace to grace (divine power/holiness to a higher divine power/holiness), as we receive grace for grace.
This ties into Paul's discussion on baptism (ordinances). Faith in Christ and repentance are the first principles of the gospel. Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins and receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost are the first ordinances of the gospel. They tie into the concepts of Grace, Justification and Sanctification.
Paul explains some of the symbolism of baptism. We are buried with Christ, and then resurrect with Christ, as we are submerged in the living waters. We are symbolically washed clean by the water, as we take upon ourselves Christ's perfection and holiness. While Paul also speaks later of the Sacrament/Communion, he does not mention other ordinances directly.These restored ordinances such as the endowment and sealing of families, are part of the going from grace to grace, and taking upon ourselves greater levels of Jesus' holiness and power. The ordinances reflect our faith and spiritual growth.
To summarize all of this:
We cannot save ourselves through obedience to laws. We are only saved through faith in Christ and repentance. In having faith, we begin the process of desiring to be more like Jesus, and the Spirit guides us towards the things we should do to obey His will. As we receive baptism and other ordinances, we grow in faith, repent more, and receive greater guidance from the Holy Ghost. This is the process of Grace, where God takes us from one level of holiness/grace to the next, as we continue to grow in our faith in Christ, repent, and receive of the ordinances and the Holy Ghost. The day will come when we receive a fullness of God's grace, divinity and power through Jesus Christ's Atonement and Resurrection.
Nero's rotating dining room: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1216986/Roman-Emperor-Neros-legendary-rotating-dining-room-uncovered-archaeologists.html