Who is God? And how is that question tied to our understanding of who the people of God are?
In the biblical story, these two questions are inseparable. The God of the biblical story is wrapped up in the story of God’s people–by choice. So that the praise of the people on earth is praise of the name of God, while defamation of this people is a defeat for God Himself.
And this is why it is so important that we define our God in narrative terms. God is the God who has acted among this people–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and therefore the God who has made covenant and who has given children to the childless and life to the dead; the God who did not spare God’s own son but delivered him up for us all, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
We know God based on the story in which that God, and not another, is the principal actor.
Barth is dialed into this in the early pages of Church Dogmatics, but it’s a much older approach to getting ourselves straight about God. This assumption about God as the God of a particular story is what gives Paul’s letter to Rome so much of its energy.
There is an apparent tension in the audience of the letter. On the one hand, Paul addresses the readers as believing [former] Gentiles (e.g., ch. 1, ch. 11). But then there are rhetorical moments when he engages with an apparently hostile Jewish interlocutor.
It seems that within his envisioned audience, Gentiles can be presumed to be believers in God’s action in Christ, whereas Jews can be presumed to be hostile to the notion that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises for deliverance.
These are actually related, the latter stemming from the former.
Paul has seen great success in his mission. There are thriving, if dysfunctional, communities popping up all over the Mediterranean. And, these are full of Gentiles and not so much full of Jews.
This is a problem. A real problem. Because the God who has worked in the Christ event is none other than the God who spoke and promised in the scriptures of Israel; more, this event is supposed to be the culmination of God’s faithfulness to that word, to those promises, to this people.
And so when Paul tells the story in 1:18ff. of the world’s degradation, it seems to be the typical Jewish story of the failure of the Gentiles in contrast to the fidelity of the Jews. This is how similar material works in Wisdom of Solomon. But the point is turned on its head, as Paul goes on to say in ch. 2 that to condemn the Gentiles of such acts is also to condemn Jews.
In the end, the Law is an insufficient marker for the people of God. And this means, that if we want to know who God is, we do not look to the Law as the sphere within which God’s rewarding actions are found, to which God has bound Godself to reward or punish.
A different standard is emerging, a different definition of the people of God, a different way to understand how it is that God has fulfilled the promises contained in scripture, a revisionist definition of the seed of Abraham.
Romans is about salvation because it is about God and scripture and how the Christ event creates a new understanding of the people of God. God is faithful only if this Jesus really was raised from the dead, only if this Jesus really is the non-spared Son, and, finally, only if Jews and Gentiles together are the people of God, raising their voices in a unified song of praise.