Wednesday, April 02, 2008

12. Romans 1-8

If you have been following this series, you will know by now that I have not been following a strict plan, but have been allowing the subject to develop as I have gone along. That's part of the fun in writing blogs, but I hope it hasn't all become too long-winded. I have found it very useful being able to think these subjects through again. They are after all at the heart of the Christian faith. Today I want to try to move on to think about how Paul sees the Christian life and what it means to be someone who has been righteoused (justified) by God. And it is, I think, a bit different to how most of us think of it.

12. Romans 1-8

I have on my bookshelf several commentaries on the book of Romans. Some are very detailed; every word of the letter is pondered over and analyzed. This kind of study has its place and can help us in interpreting and understanding Paul’s message. But we need to be careful. We can get so bogged down in the detail of Paul’s message that we fail to hear the message itself. We need to see the picture as well as analyzing the paint.

In Romans, we have what Paul refers to as ‘my Gospel’. He is sending it to Rome so that they may know the message he preaches and will know what to expect when he comes. Paul is only too aware of how people misrepresent both him and his message. He refers to some of these misrepresentations in Romans and tries to answer them and clarify what he means.

Chapters 1 to 8 of Romans deal with the subjects I have been discussing in this series on Paul. They remain hotly debated and argued over today. I don’t think they are as unclear as is sometimes made out, but then others who take a very different approach to me feel the same!

As is well-known, Paul states his argument in the opening chapter:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ (Romans 1:16-17)

I actually prefer the translation, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live’, but the main point is much the same.

Scholars are agreed that this is an important statement, but does it cover just the argument in the first part of Romans or in the whole letter? My own opinion is that this is a statement of the argument in the first eight chapters, while the following eight chapters work out the implications of the argument in certain key areas. But others think it applies directly to all the chapters. Whatever, all are agreed that it does at the very least apply to chapters 1 to 8.

Paul is seeking to explain why it is we need saving and why faith is so important. We need saving, argues Paul, because even now the wrath of God is being revealed against all unrighteousness. Who is unrighteous? We all are: both Jew and Gentile. We are all sinners under the power of sin. It is no good Jews boasting that they have the Law, the fact is that they do not keep the Law. Jews and Gentiles all need righteousing (justifying), but righteousness cannot come by the Law. How then are we to be righteoused (justified) so that we can escape the wrath and judgement of God and in the future receive eternal life.

Paul is categoric: only by faith. It is because of what Jesus has done for us by dying for us that God will count our faith in Jesus as ‘righteousness’. Faith in Jesus righteouses (justifies) us. Being righteoused (justified) results in the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God from whom we are alienated because of our sin.

All this takes place in the present. However, as I have already argued previously that’s not all there is to it: there is still a future judgement that we will all have to face. Believers need not fear condemnation on the day of Judgement, but can look forward with confidence to the gift of eternal life. One thing I do find interesting is that nowhere does Paul say salvation is by faith. We are righteoused (justified) by faith certainly and salvation is for those who have faith, but we are saved by grace through faith. This takes us to chapter 5 of Romans.

And that’s where many Christians stop. Once this much has been said they do not feel that there is much more to say. Paul, however, has quite a bit more to say. In particular, he wants to answer the question about sin and the believer. This he does in chapter 6, which leads him into a discussion of the Law and the believer in chapter 7, followed by a discussion of the Spirit in the life of the believer in chapter 8, with a wonderful concluding paragraph about the love of God to finish this first section of the letter.

For Paul, it is inconceivable that the believer should continue in sin. Believers are to behave as slaves, not of sin, but of righteousness. They have died to sin and are freed from it and from its power. They are now free to do what previously, because of the power of sin, they were not able to do. As for the Law, believers have died to that as well. The Law is no longer a factor in the believer’s life and experience. This obviously raises the question as to why the Law had been given in the first place. Paul’s answer seems to be that the role of the Law was to reveal sin and show it for what is was. It was not the role of the Law to free us from sin, but to point to where freedom was to be found.

What I find interesting, challenging, and problematic is the way that Paul seems to assume that it is possible for believers not to sin. I know all the arguments on this subject, and I am not suggesting that Paul believes in sinless perfection in a Wesleyan sense, but reading Romans 6 it certainly sounds as if Paul expects the Christian to be able to resist sin and overcome it in a way that is just not possible for those who are not believers. Just take this statement, for example:

‘We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.’ (Romans 6:6-7)

Most Christians today, I would suggest, know no such thing. We find sin to be a very real presence, power and force. What is more, Christians, while sincere and genuine and doing their best to be good, don’t live especially better lives than many other people, atheists included. It is a problem that needs to be taken seriously.

I will return to it in the next post in this series when I will start to discuss what Paul has to say about the Holy Spirit and the final judgement.

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