Contra Mundum Essay Collection: Thomas Schirrmacher

Romans as a Charter of World Mission:
A Lesson in the Relation of Systematic Theology and Missiology

by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher

Chalcedon Report 1993

Paul: theologian and missionary

"What is the topic of Romans? It is God's plan for the world and how Paul's mission to the Gentiles fits into this plan."[1]
This close relation between the letter to the Romans and the missionary practice of Paul has only rarely been taken into account by exegetes. Emil Weber did not get beyond Rom 3 in his important study, "The relation of Rom 1-3 to the missionary practice of Paul"[2] and other authors outlined the topic only[3]. Writes Nils Alstrup:
"Paul has been acclaimed as the first Christian theologian and the greatest Christian missionary of all times. Scholars have, however, often failed to realize how closely these two aspects are interrelated."[4]
But at the same time, Romans played a major role in the history of protestant missions[5]. Especially Rom 10, 14ff has been one of the most frequently used texts for missionary sermons[6]. Through the Calvinistic Puritans of England and the USA of the 16th to 18th century the missionary spirit of Romans got access to the exegetical literature. But this was an exception. Normally exegesis of Romans and the use of Romans in the missionary movement stayed apart.

The forgotten frame of Romans

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans probably in 57 B. C. sometime during the three months of Acts 3, 20 prior to his journey to Jerusalem. Thus the letter was written after he had collected money in all his churches to help the church in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem he wanted to travel to Rome to use its church as the base for the next step of his missionary strategy: evangelising Spain ().

 Paul does not take much time in his letter to get to his future plans (Rom 1, 8-15). Paul wants to preach the gospel to all men without exception. He does not accept any barrier of culture and race ("Greeks and Barbarians", Rom 1, 14), of education and social stratum ("wise and unwise", Rom 1, 14) and therefore wants to come to Rome (Rom 1, 15). From this practical topic Paul switches immediately to the 'proper' topic of Romans. The famous verses start with a "therefore...". So Paul only wants to prove through Biblical teaching what it he is going to do according to Rom 1, 8-15. There is no hint that Paul is changing the subject. Rom 1-15 is not just a redundant introduction but tells us the very purpose of Romans: proving that the expansion of world mission is God's very plan.

 One can see the he same thing at the end of the body of direct teaching in chapter 15. In Rom 14-15 Paul switches directly from a list of quotations from the Old Testament, which proves that all people will hear the gospel, to his practical plans of missionary strategy repeating several things he has mentioned in the introduction already.

 This is even more impressive if one compares the whole concluding part to the introduction. This frame of Romans explains the occasion and purpose of the whole letter and gives the topic of the letter in its first and last verses (): the "obedience of faith" must be preached and planted amongst all peoples as the Old Testament has prophesied (compare e. g. the context vv. 15-25 of Isa 15, 52 quoted in ). The parallels between show that Paul did not forget his practical mission plans during the whole letter.
The frame of the letter to the Romans:
parallels between 
1,1-6 The gospel has been foretold in the OT 16,25-27
1,5  The obedience of faith has to be preached amongst all nations  16,26+15,18
1,7  Grace be with you  16,20
1,8  The faith of the Christians in Rome is known in the whole world  16,19
1,8-13  Travel plans: through Jerusalem to Rome  15,22-29
1,11-12  Paul wants to be made strong spiritually by the Christians in Rome  15,24+14
1,13  Paul has been hindered to come to Rome in spite of his wishes  15,22
1,13-15  The gospel must be preached to all peoples  15,14-29 (16,26)

Too often Romans has been interpreted as a theoretical theological treatise without taking the frame into account. Writes Walter B. Russell III:

"Most writers virtually ignore the introductory and closing purpose statements and focus on the theological exposition of the letter's body."[7]

Dogmatics and world mission

This is why I wrote a reformed commentary on Romans as a missiologist[8], on which this article is based: The most systematic and theological letter of Paul has been written with mission and practical plans to spread the gospel to new frontiers in mind. Romans wants to establish the right and necessity of world mission through systematic theology and through the intensive study of the Old Testament. Therefore we can draw the following conclusions from the letter of Romans:

Whoever wants to do mission pragmatically and therefore to renounce theology and teaching, because they might hinder the practice, is doing mission in his own commission and does not care what God said about mission.

Whoever teaches a dogmatics, which does not focus on world mission and does not lead to practical steps to reach the unreached, teaches in his own commission and does not care why God gave us his word and teaching.

Biblical and practical world mission always will start with sound and thorough teaching and sound and thorough teaching will always lead to biblical and practical world mission.

 This has been true for reformed theology throughout its history. Calvin started the first protestant missionary enterprises in other European countries and in Brazil. For centuries the reformed churches have been the forerunners in protestant world mission and this not in spite of their strong emphasis on sound doctrine but because of it. Only in this century the reformed churches have given up their place as forethinkers of missiology.

World mission the fulfilment of the Old Testament

Until now we only spoke about 'world mission' and reaching 'all peoples'. Now we want to highlight two important messages from Rom 15-16 which further explain what world mission is all about. One message is the importance of the Old Testament for proving world mission to be biblical, the second is that practical world mission first of all is to reach the unreached - the main goal of the letter to the Romans.

 Paul reminds the 'strong' non-Jewish Christians in Rom 8, 15, that "Christ has become a servant of circumcision" holding to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Thus he "confirmed the promises made to the fathers" (15,8). But Paul immediately speaks about the same promises of the fathers concerning non-Jewish peoples in the Old Testament: "so that the gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written..." (15,9). As in Rom 9-11 he reminds the Christians that salvation for the Jews and salvation for the gentiles cannot be separated.

 In Rom 9-12, 15 gives five quotations from the Old Testament proving that all the nations will one day praise the Lord: ; Dtn 32,43; Pss 1, 117; Jes 11,10. This is the final machine gun of quotations from the Old Testament, after Paul has proved that the gospel and world mission does not stand against the Old Testament but is backed up by it. Adolf Schlatter writes about the quotations in Rom 9-12, 15:

"The common praise of God in which all peoples take part, is the goal of God that Scripture proclaimed. In Paul probably heard Christ speaking who will confess God amongst the nations and sing the psalm to his glory. It is the work of Christ that the church is doing this. Dtn 32,43 is quoted because this verse calls the peoples together with Israel to the common praise of God. Pss 1, 117 proclaims that all peoples without exception are invited to the praise of God. Isa 10-11 establishes the worship, which the nations will bring, by their being under the lordship of Christ. ... Paul builds his prayer on the promise of Scripture."[9]
Although the many quotations from the Old Testament speak to the Jews - and still do today[10] - they are also meant for the gentile Christians who not only rejoice that they received salvation but are commissioned to spread the gospel to all other gentile peoples. Writes reformed scholar C. E. B. Cranfield:
"... neither the constant engagement with the OT to be seen throughout the epistle nor the use of the words 'I speak to those, who know the law' in 7,1 proves that Paul was writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian church; for the OT was the Bible of the Gentile, as well as of the Jewish, Christian, and it is significant that Paul also assumes familiarity with, and reverence for, the OT in his letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians."[11]
To prove the great commission - to preach the gospel of Jesus to every people of the earth - from the Old Testament is quite common in the New Testament. When Paul and Barnabas wanted to prove that from now on they should preach the gospel to the gentiles instead of the Jews they did not quote the great commission Jesus had given, but the great commission to Isaiah ( quoting from Isa 6, 49). Peter defends the conversion of Cornelius by saying that all prophets of the Old Testament give testimony that the heathens will be saved (). James also concluded the council of Jerusalem on the subject of the mission to the gentiles, not with a quotation from Jesus, but from the Old Testament (Acts 13-21 quoting Pss 22, 27-28; Isa 4, 61; Sach 8,22; ). The promise to the patriarchs, that all people will be blessed through their offspring (Gen 3-4, 12, 14, 17-18, 22, 26, 28), is again and again quoted and mentioned as proof for world mission (+72; +14; ). Finally Jesus himself not only gave the great commission in the well-known versions according to Matthew, Mark, John and Acts, but in the version according to Luke, proving the worldwide preaching of the gospel from all parts of the Old Testament (): "And then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the scripture ...: Thus it is written and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations beginning at Jerusalem..." ().

 Reformed theology has emphasised the value of the Old Testament for systematic theology and practical purposes more than any other Christian group. Within its federal theology it has given the Old Testament a place as fundament of all New Testament theology and the New Testament a place as the final realisation and fulfilment of Old Testament faith. So Paul's arguments for world mission from the Old Testament should not astonish them as it will astonish theologians who follow theologians who put the Old Testament more or less in opposition to the New Testament. Giving the Old Testament its proper place always leads to world mission as it did in Reformed theology for a long time.
Quotations and Allusions
from the Old Testament in the letter to the Romans
1,23+25  Dtn 4,15-18; Pss 20, 106; Jer 2, 11
2,5  Zef 1,18; 2,3; Pss 5, 110
2,6  Pr 24,12; Pss 13, 62; Jer 29, 50
2,15  Jer 31, 33; Pr 7,3
2,21-22  Exod 12-17, 20; Dtn 5,16-18
2,24  Isa 5, 52
3,4  Pss 11, 116
3,4  Pss 6, 51
3,10  Ec 7,20; Pss 2-4, 53
3,11-12  Pss 2-3, 14
3,13  Pss 5, 10
3,13  Pss 4, 140
3,14  Pss 7, 10
3,15-17  Isa 7-8, 59; Pr 1,16
3,18  Pss 2, 36
3,20  Pss 2, 143
3,29-30  Dtn 6,4; Isa 16, 37+20
4,3  Gen 6, 15; Pss 31, 106
4,5  Exod 7, 23
4,7-8  Pss 1-2, 32
4,9  Gen 6, 15
4,11  Gen 10-11, 17+5
4,13+16  Gen 7, 12-13, 15+17; 24,7; 26,4 etc.
4,17  Gen 5, 17
4,18  Gen 5, 15
4,19  Gen 11-12, 17-18
4,22  Gen 6, 15
4,25  Isa 4, 53+11+12; 1 Sam 15, 25, 28
5,1  Num 6, 26; Isa 5, 19, 53, 57; Mic 4-5
5,19  Isa 4, 53+11+12; 1 Sam 15, 25, 28
6,12+14  Gen 4, 7; Pss 119, 133
6,21  Hes 16,61+63
7,2-3  Dtn 24,1-4
7,8+1  Gen 1-3, 16-17; Pr 9,17
7,7  Exod 12-17, 20; Dtn 5,16-21
7,10  Lev 5, 18; Hes 20,11+13+21
7,11  Gen 1-7+13
8,20  Ec 1,2+14; ch. 2
8,27  Pss 2, 7, 10, 26; Jer 10-12, 17, 20
8,33  Isa 8-9, 50
8,34  Pss 1, 110+5
8,36  Pss 23, 44
9,7  Gen 12, 21
9,9  Gen 10, 14, 18
9,11  Gen 21-22, 25
9,12  Gen 23, 25
9,13  Mal 1-3
9,15  Exod 19, 33
9,17  Exod 9, 16
9,18  Exod 19, 33
9,20-22  Jer 3-6, 18; Isa 7, 9, 16, 29, 45, 64
9,22  Isa 5, 13, 16, 54; Jer 24, 50
9,25  ; 1,6-9; 2,3
9,26-27  Hos 1-2
9,27-28  Isa 10, 22-23
9,29  Isa 1, 9
9,30-31  Isa 1, 51
9,32-33  Lev 5-8, 10, 18; Isa 5, 8, 10, 14, 16, 28; Dtn 30,12-14
10,11  Isa 8, 14, 16, 28
10,15  Isa 7, 52
10,16  Isa 1, 53
10,18  Pss 5, 19
10,19  Dtn 32,21
10,20  Isa 1, 65
10,21  Isa 2, 65
11,2  Pss 14, 94
11,3  1Kgs 14, 19+10
11,4  1Kgs 18-19
11,8  Isa 10, 29; Dtn 29,3
11,9-10  Pss 23-24, 69
11,11+14  Dtn 32,21
11,16  Num 15, 20; Hes 44,30; Lev 10, 23 etc.
11,16-17  Pss 10, 52; Jer 11, 16; Sach 4,3+11+12+14
11,25  Pr 3,7; Isa 5, 21
11,26-27  Isa 9, 20-21, 27, 59
11,34  Isa 13, 40
11,35  Job 3, 41
12,14  Pss 28, 109
12,16  Pr 12,15; 24,12
12,16  Pr 3,7; Isa 5, 21
12,17  Pr 3,4
12,19  Dtn 32,35
12,20  Pr 25,21-22
13,9  Exod 13, 20 =Dtn 5,17
13,9  Exod 14, 20 =Dtn 5,18
13,9  Exod 17, 20 =Dtn 5,21
13,9  Lev 18-19
14,11  Isa 23, 45
14,13  Isa 8, 14
14,20-21  Isa 8, 14
15,3  Pss 10, 69
15,10  Dtn 32,43
15,11  Pss 1, 117
15,12  Isa 10-11
15,21  Isa 15, 52
16,26  Gen 21, 33

Reaching the Unreached

It was not just any kind of what is called 'mission work' today that made Paul write the letter to the Romans. World mission for Paul was frontier mission, was mission reaching the unreached regions, not reaching the single unreached person in an otherwise reached area. Of course there were full-time people nurturing the new churches like Apollos or Timothy. Of course there were local evangelists. But the missionary and apostle Paul (apostle and missionary having the same meaning 'the one sent', the one word coming from the Greek, the other from the Latin) did not stick to the local church or 'his' region but was moving on as long as there were regions and peoples without Christ's salvation.

 Listen how Paul argues why he needs the church of Rome as a new base for his mission to Spain: "So from Jerusalem all the way around Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ." (); "But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions..." (). Was every man and every woman in the provinces where Paul and his coworkers had been working a professing Christian? Had everybody at least heard the gospel? Of course not, but Paul had established churches everywhere which were able to continue the job.

 Paul states it beyond doubt: "It has always has been my honour [or: glory] to preach the gospel where Christ is not being named, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation." (). Reaching the unreached is the honour, the glory, the pride (this being the meanings of the Greek word 'time') of the missionary. And the unreached are not the non-Christians within the reach of an established church but non-Christians in areas where there is no one naming and praising Christ and where there is no biblical witness at all.

 The missionary strategy of Paul was to start churches in the bigger cities of regions and among peoples which did not have any church and to pass on the task to reach everybody within the region to the new churches while moving on to new regions. So the Christians in the city of Thessaloniki reached two whole provinces, Achaia and Macedonia (). Nobody less than Rufus Anderson (1796-1880) - probably the greatest of all reformed missiologists - saw it as part of Paul's mission strategy to make the local church self-governing and self-propagating as soon as possible and - what is often forgotten - to free the missionary for the work on new frontiers[12].

 And again Paul proves this from the Old Testament: "Rather it is written: Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand." (). Why is it the honour, pride and glory of every missionary that he is reaching the unreached (e. g. those who cannot be reached by a church?). Because it is God's plan in salvation history to bring salvation to a growing number of peoples.

 I am happy to witness the development of a new conscience within the worldwide church and within reformed circles that frontier mission is not just an extra hobby for adventurers amongst the missionaries and that mission is not just the self-chosen job of some mission societies but the task of the true church. In 1979 I attended the International Conference on Frontier Missions (and its student counterpart) in Edinburgh 1979, were we as Germans started the German Centre for World Mission together with a network of similar institutions all over the world. I remember that 'frontier mission' and 'hidden people' were just foreign words in German missiology at that time. Things have changed since then and the success of the German edition of Operation World (German Gebet für die Welt), a handbook on the situation of missions in all countries of the world, adapted by the German Centre shows that frontier mission is widely accepted today. The new German edition will appear only two months after the English edition and still a lot of people want to have it sooner! At the same time I can see the mission society I belong to, Gospel Recordings International, speeding up the recording of the languages and dialects of unreached peoples, 4273 languages and dialects being recorded at the moment already[13]. This and hundreds of other examples not only show that world mission is getting back its proper place, but also - if we take into account the purpose of Rom - that theology is improving! Reformed missiologist have a major task to help insure that it is really an improvement of theology and not just getting busy!

What was and is the very purpose of the letter to the Romans and its heavy and detailed theology? Paul wanted the Roman church "to join me in my struggle" () to reach the unreached which have no church in their midst and the best way to get the church going was to show them from the Old and New Testament that world mission is the very essence of God's love and of the purpose of the church.

Reformed theology with its strong and necessary emphasis on sound doctrine must not lead into neglect of world mission but must and will lead to a love for world mission along biblical lines.

Copyright © 1993 Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher


[1] Krister Stendahl. Der Jude Paulus und wir Heiden: Anfragen an das abendländische Christentum. Chr. Kaiser: München, 1978. p. 42 (retranslated from the German); Stendahl, ibid. pp. 43-49, believes therefore that Rom 9-11 is the centre of Romans.

[2] Weber, Emil. Die Beziehungen von Röm. 1-3 zur Missionspraxis des Paulus. Beiträge zur Förderung christlicher Theologie 9 (1905), No. 4, Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1905

[3] E. g. Walter B. Russell III. "An Alternative Suggestion for the Purpose of Romans". Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1988) 174-184; Paul S. Minear. The Obedience of Faith: The Purpose of Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. Studies in Biblical Theology 2/19. SCM Press: London, 1971, especially the appendices pp. 91-110; Nils Alstrup. "The Missionary Theology in the Epistle to the Romans". pp. 70-94 in: Studies in Paul: Theology for the Early Christian Mission. Augsburg Publ.: Minneapolis (USA), 1977; Krister Stendahl. Der Jude Paulus und wir Heiden. ibid.; L. Grant McClung. "An Urban Cross-cultural Role Model: Paul's Self-image in Romans". Global Church Growth (Corunna/USA) 26 (1989) No. 1, pp. 5-8

[4] Nils Alstrup. "The Missionary Theology in the Epistle to the Romans". ibid. p. 70

[5] See examples in A. F. Walls. "The First Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans and the Modern Missionary Movement". pp. 346-357 in: W. Ward Gasque, Ralph P. Martin (Hg.). Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays presented to F. F. Bruce on his 60th Birthday. Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (MI) 1970

[6] Ibid. pp. 346-347

[7] Walter B. Russell III. "An Alternative Suggestion for the Purpose of Romans". ibid. p. 175

[8] Thomas Schirrmacher. Der Römerbrief. 2 vols. Hänssler: Neuhausen, 1993

[9] Adolf Schlatter. Gottes Gerechtigkeit: Ein Kommentar zum Römerbrief. Calwer Verlag: Stuttgart, 19755. p. 383

[10] See Thomas Schirrmacher. "Trinity in the Old Testament and Dialogue with the Jews and Muslims". Calvinism Today 1 (1991) 1 (Jan): 24-25+21+27, reprinted as: "Trinity in the Old Testament and Dialogue with the Jews and Muslims." Field Update: GR International (Apr/Mai 1991): 6-8 and (Jun/Jul 1991): 5-8

[11] C. E. B. Cranfield. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. The International Critical Commentary 11. T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1989 (reprint from 1979), vol. 1, pp. 18-19; see also Otto Michel. Der Brief an die Römer. Kritisch-Exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament 414. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen, 19785. p. 36; John Murray. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the NT. Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (MI), 1984, vol. I, p. XX

[12] See Thomas Schirrmacher (ed.). 'Die Zeit für die Bekehrung der Welt ist reif': Rufus Anderson und die Selbständigkeit der Kirche als Ziel der Mission. Edition afem: mission scripts 3. Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft: Bonn, 1993 (`afem' is the association of evangelical missiologists in the German-speaking world)

[13] Th. Schirrmacher, Gospel Recordings Language List, Missiologica Evangelica 4, Bonn 1992

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