Saturday, March 15, 2008

8. The Righteous and the Unrighteous

I have just looked at the diary for the next few days and thought I had better get on and post now while I have the chance. I will aim to post again on Tuesday!

We have had to cancel Sunday School tomorrow, which goes against the grain, but we have no choice given the Government's decision this week. Hoepfully, we will still manage a good celebration!

I hope you have a good Sunday.

8. The Righteous and the Unrighteous

As I have argued in previous posts in this series, Paul’s opponents had a very strong case. It wouldn’t need a letter of the depth and detail of Romans to refute it if they didn’t. We will only understand Paul when we see how good their argument was. In fact, Paul’s opponents had a powerful reason for keeping the Law themselves and for wanting Gentile believers to keep it. It was God’s Law! God was the One who had given it and in the OT warned of the dangers of not keeping it. If it was God who had given it, and it had been right in the past to keep it, what had changed? Paul’s argument creates a problem that Paul himself acknowledges.

Paul argues that the Law has had its day, that Christians have died to the Law, and are now freed from it. They are no longer under any obligation to the Law. The Law, however, had been the basis for how God’s people had lived for centuries. It had regulated the behaviour of the people of God and shown them how to live. The New Perspective is right to draw our attention to the fact that, for Judaism at the time of Paul, the Law wasn’t the burden that some Christians in the past have imagined it to be, it was a gift from God, a thing of joy, a cause for profound gratitude and praise.

Read Psalm 119, for example. It doesn’t sound like the Psalmist had any problem with it. Whatever the faults of the Pharisees may or may not have been, they seem not to have had a problem with the Law. This presumably was why, when some of them became believers, they thought they should go on keeping the Law and should encourage everyone else to do so. Wasn’t Paul suggesting that the Psalmist and those like him who saw the Law as good and from God were wrong? And, logically, didn’t it mean if the Christian was no longer under Law, they could do precisely what they liked? As Paul himself asks:

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!’ (Romans 6:15)

To understand how Paul deals with this it is necessary to try and understand how Paul understands salvation. This is a difficult topic because every word and every position is argued over with passion. But let’s have a go! At the risk of over-simplification, I think the key to understanding Paul is to realize that for Paul salvation is what happens at the end on the Day of Judgment and that salvation is salvation from the wrath of God. I think this comes out very clearly in Romans 2. Take these verses, for example:

‘But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.’ (Romans 2:5-8)

Paul believed that there will in the future be a day of reckoning when God will reward the good and punish the bad. This shouldn’t cause any surprise. Christians may not believe it any more, but just about every Jew and Christian in Paul’s time did and it is absolutely fundamental to the whole of the New Testament. Nothing can be understood without grasping the centrality of this concept.

The gift of eternal life will be given to those who ‘do good’, but for those who do not there will be ‘wrath and fury’. Those who ‘do good’ are those who are 'righteous' in God’s sight and those who don’t are the ‘unrighteous’. What we desperately need to know, therefore, is how to become one of the righteous.

‘The righteous shall live …’ that is receive eternal life, Paul and his opponents both believed that, but on what basis were they to be righteous? On the basis of Law, as Paul’s opponents argued. Or by faith, as Paul argued?

This is where the English language lets us down terribly and proves most misleading. The words that Paul uses to talk about righteousness in English are words such as: righteous, righteousness, the righteous. We can tell that they are all related because they have the same root in common, right, as indeed they have in Greek. The problem is while in Greek the verb has the same root as well, so you can see straight away that the verb is related to the noun and the adjective, in English it does not. The verb that we use in English to translate the Greek is justify and hence also the word justification. The verb, justify, describes how a person becomes righteous. We miss a fantastic amount because when we read in English we lose the connection between the verb and the rest of the group of words.

There have been attempts to overcome this by using words such as ‘rightwise’ instead of justify. The trouble is they are not words we normally use in English. Nevertheless, I have recently gone through Romans and instead of justify etc have changed it to a form of the made up verb, ‘to righteous’. So when Paul says we are ‘justified by faith’, I have changed it to we are ‘righteoused by faith’. If this seems as if I am just being pedantic, try doing it: it really makes a difference. The word processor makes it relatively easy!

There is another problem to do with translation. Important for Paul is the idea that we are righteoused (justified) by faith. Again, in English, when we come to the verb, we translate the Greek by a different sounding word, the word believe. But in Greek the words have the same root and again you can see the connection. I have changed all occurrences of the verb ‘to believe’, to the verb, ‘to have faith’. This again makes a huge difference. I’ll try to show why as we go on!

So to sum up: Anyone who God finds unrighteous on the Day of Judgement will face wrath and fury. We need to be saved from this. The ones who will be saved are those who do good, the righteous. Paul argues, as we shall see, that left to ourselves we are all unrighteous. How are we to become one of the righteous? How are we to be righteoused (justified)?

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