Not a Road but a System

The Roman Road to Salvation, a popular evangelical way to explain why salvation is gained through the death of Jesus, is so named because the imagery is drawn from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Different evangelicals seem to have different sets of road signs, so to speak, but I will highlight quickly what I have experienced as the most common stops along the way.

  • The first stop explains why we need salvation. We need salvation because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
  • The second explains the consequences of sin. The wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23).
  • The third stop is about the mechanics of salvation. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
  • Finally, the fourth stop is the payoff. If you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

One amazing thing about evangelical Christianity is the way it makes a soundbite out of God.

Ancient Roman road in Pompeii

When we examine the Roman Road closely, we can see that there are several potholes. It is a bumpy ride. The second stop, and first pothole, occurs at 6:23, a verse that is later along the road than the third stop at 5:8. This indicates that the Roman Road selectively picks and chooses its verses. The question about what Paul really means in context is missing.

A second pothole is the failure to notice Paul’s universalism. Paul may say that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but he also says that all are acquitted of sin (5:18). Paul talks about what Christ does despite sinners, not for them. Specifically, Jesus brings about God’s favor despite our corruption (5:21).Another pothole on the evangelical road is that Paul writes to a community, not a hypothetical individual. He uses Abraham as an example of a righteous person, but when he addresses the audience about justification despite sin, he talks about us. “We are justified” (Romans 5:1) as a community. “Do you not know that all of us have been baptized into Christ” (6:3) and that “you must be considered dead to sin” (6:11). Paul’s “you” is plural, like the French vous.

The biggest pothole along the Roman Road is the failure to read the political map. Paul writes inside the Roman imperial system. Paul wants the congregation in Rome, which he has heard of but never visited, to sponsor his intended journey to Spain. His letter is a letter of introduction and appeal.

In his comments, it is very clear that the Roman imperial system is the sin in which we reside, and the promise of Christ for salvation means the end of the Roman imperial system.

The Arch of Titus is a 2,000-year-old monument that celebrates Rome's victory over Judea.

Salvation is the politics of revolution when the creation will be set free and when we will be the children of God. This new time to come is good news for those who suffer in the Roman system, but not for those who benefit from the Roman system. Here, Paul is too radical for the later editors of his letter. A later hand adds Romans 13:1, “submit to those in authority.”

It is hard to notice the politics in Paul for several reasons. One is that most of us cannot imagine what it was like to live in the Roman Empire. It’s not something we normally think about. Secondly, most of us are relatively happy as middle-class citizens. It’s hard to remember that Rome did not have a comfortable middle class.

The other difficulty is that in our time and in our wealthy societies, we are interested in individual questions and individual dreams. To have some sympathy for Paul, we have to allow our minds to venture outside of the Western tradition of liberal human rights. We have to think first on the level of collective being.

When Paul writes about sin, ungodliness, the law, the dominion of death, our weakness, our trespasses, life according to the flesh, this present time, conforming to this world, and other expressions of similar intention, he is referring to the power of Roman norms or the Roman way. He tells the faithful that the values of Roman imperial life are dead to them. They are participants now in the new time to come with the return of Christ.

Today, it is not easy to think as Paul did and affirm all the things he accepted. Paul’s cosmology has Jesus returning, but we no longer live in a universe where the dead can return from above. Neither could Paul imagine human technology destroying the earth and the planetary eco-system collapsing. He would never have guessed that such a disaster will not mean an apocalypse but only that the earth will carry on without us. Nevertheless, while we do not share Paul’s cosmology, there is still one thing we might notice with him and still affirm.

Sin is systemic. To Paul, sin is not individual. It is not about a customized road to salvation. It is about a system that awaits a revolutionary change.

Systemic sin remains one of the most significant critiques Christianity can offer the world. Systemic sin means that we all participate, often unconsciously, in values that displace the vision of a new creation. Systemic sin reflects our laziness when it comes to change. It’s easier to continue in habits that destroy or divide than it is to change ourselves. In Paul’s language, it is easier to remain alive in sin than to die to sin.

The trouble with Christianity remains its inability to translate the insight of Paul into our own times. It’s hard to see modern conveniences as sin, that is, as consumerist ways of destroying the earth.

It is hard to see how easily we participate in racism because the history of racism has enabled white privilege, and privilege has a way of becoming a lifestyle.

It is difficult to see the ways sexism still invades society as a norm.

Even when we are conscious of these issues and try to change ourselves and our understanding, we can still subtly participate and reinforce what is truly wrong. In society as a whole, the system itself can assume racism and sexism as normal operations. James Cone, the founding figure of Black liberation theology, lamented that even Blacks can participate in anti-Black racism because the system itself is racist.

From his Roman world, Paul speaks to all these factors that seem inevitably despairing. When he talks about salvation, he does not mean heaven. He means reorientation. His idea is that it is possible to live differently while in this world and in this system. Then, his idea is that this “different way of life” is the sign of a reorientation to come.

Paul’s commitment to this reorientation is relentless. He never gives up hope. Indeed, to live differently is hope. It is the true sign of salvation not for an individual but for a community and for the world. The evangelical “Roman road to salvation” is in reality about liberation from systemic sin, not a free ride to heaven.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.


Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg
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