We all have a "background", don't we? In terms of police work, every case has a background made up of evidence found at the scene of a crime, coming together to form a puzzle of pieces which eventually "fit" into a particular scenario playing out. Within that scenario there are different players, actions, and "props". In terms of your health, doctors and nurses seek to discover you medical history, including the history of your immediate family members, because it gives them the background on what may be the issues you will deal with or are dealing with right now. In terms of solving a particularly tough problem in math class, you have laid up a certain foundation of truth you have come to count on to be consistent with each "equation" you must calculate. This trust in these "formulas" or "principles" form a background by which you formulate your answer to the new math problem before you. The background of a matter gives us "foundation" upon which to understand the next object or subject in a matter presently before us. Understanding background is important, but staying anchored to background limits progress forward!
Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.” (Romans 10:11-13 MSG)
Background is why I so often point us to the "context" of a passage we are considering - it gives us the foundation upon which we can receive the revelation of the present truth being considered. Equally as important is this idea of staying anchored to just what we know to be the "background" of a particular truth - causing us never to grow into the areas of revelation God wants for us to experience. Israel and the Jews were struggling with just this very thing as Paul writes to the Roman church in this letter. He is writing this letter as the last of his writings we have within the New Testament - a letter to a church he neither founded, nor visited. This almost explains why he takes so much time to establish facts such as who he is, what his credentials are for writing to them, etc. It may also explain why we don't see the "personal" side of Paul writing to them - because he had never met them and could not assume anything about them. Yet, he writes to lay a foundation - to give them background they can use to get solidly rooted and grounded in the faith.
Beginning with how the Jews were given the Law of Moses, failing to adhere well to the mandates of the Law, and developing upon the idea that the Law made it almost impossible to actually keep every letter of it, he moves with painstaking steps from their foundation as a nation (a people set apart by God the Father) to the place of Christ's death, burial and resurrection. In the midst of this unveiling of foundational truth, he sparks this idea of salvation coming to all by the means of faith in Christ Jesus and not in the keeping of rules or performance of works. In other words, as my pastor so aptly says, we stop working our way TO God and accept the fact he has already worked his way TO us. To the Jew, they may have been able to accept this idea of salvation coming by faith, but it was hard for them to totally separate from their "background" of all their rule-keeping and work-performance activities. It was part of their life - defining them as a people for so many years. In essence, they were bound to their background.
Instead of rejecting all their "background" as a people, Paul worked diligently to outline how each of the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all pointed to Christ and him as their means of salvation. He encompasses the Law of Moses and all the teachings of their "forefathers" because he knows how anchored Israel was to their "heritage". Establishing the fact that their heritage by natural birth did not limit, nor give them any advantage with respect to this new "spiritual birth" which was now available through faith in Christ Jesus and his finished work was what the entire letter was about. We'd do well to remember this important fact - our natural heritage neither gives us superior advantage, nor does it limit our possibilities to experience the awesomeness of personal relationship with Jesus.
Sometimes people want to take scripture out of context and use a passage such as this to say all "religions" are okay - since it says: It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. Don't get me wrong here - God reaches out for all who will call upon his name and receive his gift of salvation, BUT there is but one way to receive this gift - through Christ Jesus and his actions ON OUR BEHALF. Any other religion which proclaims any other "background" by which we may be made right, achieve some divine status, etc., is nothing more than a philosophy or "religious pursuit" in futility. Bold words, I know, but truth nonetheless. The background of the context allows me to make that statement because it establishes the facts as they were outlined and it makes it perfectly clear there is no other means by which a man is saved - no amount of "doing good", "self-help", or "religious rule-keeping". Nothing but the grace of God makes us right - redeems us and sets us in relationship with him.
We also want to remember the very important teaching of this letter - our background matters, but it isn't everything - it doesn't "define" us and we don't have to be captive to it. We can allow grace to take the lessons of our background and make them into treasures of our present life. This is what grace does for us - it helps us take the background and keep it in "context" with what grace is doing in our present moment. We need this more than we think because all of us has a tendency to hold onto something in our background which anchors us and almost limits us from moving forward. When we are finally free to let go of the background and allow God define us by grace, not our background, we make monumental forward progress. Remember, we don't have to be defined by our background - we are defined by God's grace! Just sayin!