Romans: It’s Not Up to Us

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans is a book thick with theology, as well as some fairly practical advice about how to get along in a world generally hostile to those who would follow Jesus. The study of Romans has often been at the heart of major paradigm shifts in the understanding God, most notably Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience” which led to the Protestant Reformation. In my opinion, the church today, especially that branch of it identified as “evangelical Christianity”, has gone just as far off track as the medieval church had prior to Martin Luther and St. Francis. Perhaps sometime soon the study of Romans will again  correct the course of the organized church as it strives to navigate the narrow path between the Scylia of orthopraxy and the Charybdis of orthodoxy.  What Romans says to me is that it is neither what we do or what we think that “saves” us: it’s God.

In Romans, Paul has quite a bit to say about both “sin” and “the wrath of God”. Like “gospel” and “salvation”, these are concepts that have different meanings for different people. Trying to explain them to someone who doesn’t share the same frame of reference is a bit like Dathon trying to communicate with Picard. So I think to understand what Paul means when he writes “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” we have to try to understand what he means by his terminology. That means not only not lifting words out of their original context in order to make them say what we want them to say, but also in trying to see things from Paul’s perspective rather than our own.

Paul describes himself prior to his conversion as a super-Pharisee. The Pharisees often get a bad rap and most people who know a little about the Bible will quickly associate the word “hypocrite” with “Pharisee.”. But they didn’t think of themselves that way. They were very concerned with orthopraxy- what they understood to be correct behavior- as necessary for the survival of the nation. (Sound familiar?) I think the hypocrisy of the Pharisees was not deliberate, but unintentional, which is why Jesus often described them as “blind”. It’s not possible to do everything right all the time and never make a mistake, however much one might try. The usual Greek word used in the Bible for “sin” is “hamartia, which means “missing the mark” or “error”  When Paul writes “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, he uses “hamartia“, which leads me to believe that he was not talking about specific rule violations, but about mistakes, errors- missing the mark. Whether intentional or unintentional, missing the mark often leads to unwanted and harmful consequences. As Paul learned on the road to Damascus, sometimes zealous adherence to the rules is itself hamartia, an error that can lead to grievous consequences. Trying to follow all the rules does not work. Trying to get others to follow all the rules generally serves only to lead one further into error.

If following all the rules isn’t the right emphasis, neither is orthodoxy-giving intellectual assent to all the right doctrines. “The righteous shall live by faith” has come to mean giving intellectual assent to all the right beliefs. What started out as a fairly simple confession that “Jesus is Lord” has been encrusted over the years with so many doctrinal barnacles that the pearl is almost forgotten. And as anyone who has studied church history can attest, some of these must-believe tenets change, often more as a result of political power struggles than of theological epiphanies. I’m pretty comfortable with Paul’s short summary of an early confession of faith  and the somewhat later Apostle’s Creed as sufficient definition of what constitutes “orthodox Christian belief”. There are many other things that people have said in the past and are saying today are non-negotiable, such as transubstantiation of the Eucharist or the inerrancy of the Bible, but I don’t agree with them. Trying to think all the right thoughts is impossible, not only because there are so many differences of opinion, but because you can’t wish away or suppress doubts and questions. Insisting that others must think the same way you do generally pushes people away from God, rather than drawing them to him.

I am sadly amused although not surprised when some people refer to the laundry list of sins Paul mentions in Romans 1, usually emphasizing the juicy part about lustful same-sex attractions, without following his train of thought all the way to its conclusion in Romans 2. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things”  People also often do not back up far enough into Romans 1 to see what Paul sees as the root cause of all sins: idolatry. I’m with N T Wright on this one: Sin is not a primarily a failure to follow moral rules, but a failure to live up to our vocation. We were created in the image of God and meant to reflect the image of God in the world around us, and we haven’t done that very well. God creates; we destroy. God sustains; we come in like a wrecking ball. God heals; we harm. God redeems; we abandon. God loves; we hate. We may not turn to gods of wood and stone and metal, but we turn to gods of power and control and wealth and hedonism. When Baal, Mammon, and Astarte become our role models it is bound to end badly, or as Paul understands it “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” as a result of God giving up on idolatrous self-absorption and allowing its natural consequences to play out.

Romans begins with bad news. We’re in a real mess, and the world is in a real mess because of us, and there’s really nothing we can do about it. But the good news is that it’s not up to us; it’s up to God. We don’t have to do everything perfectly, nor do we have to understand God in the same way. God has himself provided the solution, and his name is Jesus. There are many metaphors used in the Bible which try to explain what Jesus did when he “died for our sins according to the Scripture”  and many resultant theories which attempt to translate metaphor into doctrinal explanations. I’m sure the truth is out there somewhere, but the fact that there are so many different metaphors says to me that it isn’t something that can easily and neatly be explained. In the words of one of my favorite old hymns:” I know not how this saving faith To me He did impart, Nor how believing in His Word Wrought peace within my heart.But “I know Whom I have believed, And am persuaded that He is able To keep that which I’ve committed Unto Him against that day.”

I also remember that Jesus’s first words to his first disciples were “Follow me” and some of his last ones were “Make disciples” When Jesus is our role model and the lens through which we see God, we begin the process of being transformed into the image-bearers we were meant to be, and through us, the world can also be transformed. I like the way the Message paraphrases Paul’s instructions in Romans 121-2:: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

And that’s good news to me!


Author: joantheexpatriatebaptist

Retired high school science teacher and guidance counselor. Sci-fi, fantasy, and theology geek who also enjoys music and gardening.

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