Friday, April 18, 2008

16. Life in the Spirit: Preparing for Judgement

It's Friday! It's been a difficult week not least because I have been hobbling around with my ankle. It's not quite right yet, but it is much improved. Here at any rate is the next in the series on Paul and on Romans. Tonight in the fictional world of Ambridge it is the AGM and the Vicar is going to make his announcement to the Parish. It's nice to be able to listen to the goings on in another, albeit fictitious, parish. It helps take my mind off some of the problems in a real one! I'll let you know tomorrow how it goes.

Have a good weekend.

16. Life in the Spirit: Preparing for Judgement

Modern Christians do not give much thought to the idea of judgement. We rather assume that God is too nice to judge people and certainly too nice to exclude them from his presence altogether. As I have constantly tried to stress in this series, however, the idea of judgement is absolutely central to what Paul writes and, indeed, to the whole of the New Testament. It is legitimate for modern day Christians to say they no longer believe in it, but they should at least have the integrity and honesty to admit that it is there.

Personally, I don’t see how you can get rid of the idea of judgement and still keep anything else: it’s that central. If the concept of judgement goes, everything else goes because everything else is tied to it. And not just in Paul. In John’s Gospel there is a very clear statement of what is, in fact, the assumption of all the New Testament writers:

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’ (John 5:25-28)

This was the belief of all the New Testament writers as it was the belief of every section of Judaism. Again, it is the common belief and assumption in both Judaism and the New Testament that judgement will be by works. It sometimes goes unnoticed that even for Paul judgement will still be by works. This he could not spell out more clearly than he does in Romans chapter two, but it appears throughout his letters as well. All of us without exception must appear before the judgement seat of Christ where our works will be judged.

This is something that many Biblical interpreters and theologians, not to mention Christian preachers, find very hard to come terms with. Surely Paul teaches we are saved by faith, not by works? Isn’t that the whole point of what Paul writes? For those who think like this, chapter two of Romans with its emphasis on judgement by works just doesn’t fit. Consequently, some argue that Paul must be talking hypothetically. If people did do what was right, then their works would count, but, of course, we all know no-one does do good works in the way God requires and so salvation is by faith instead. Others argue that Paul has just carried over his old Jewish way of thinking and hasn’t thought it through properly!

I think we have to accept that Paul was sufficiently intelligent to be able to think clearly and consistently about an issue as important as this whether we agree with him or not! Furthermore, it doesn’t sound as if he is talking hypothetically. It sounds as if he is in deadly earnest describing what will actually take place. If he is talking purely hypothetically, then he hasn’t made himself very clear.

It is important to remember what I have stressed earlier in this series, namely, that Paul does not say we are saved ‘by faith’. Never. We are saved by grace, certainly. Through faith, definitely. But not by faith. Nor is this splitting hairs over words. The reason that people assume that Paul says we are saved by faith, and the reason it comes as a surprise to them to discover that he doesn’t, is because righteousness and justification clearly are ‘by faith’ and for many justification and salvation are one and the same thing.

Again, however, as I have stressed, while they are intimately related justification and salvation for Paul are not the same thing. The distinction can be seen most starkly in Romans 5:9:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been righteoused (justified) by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’

At the risk of repetition, righteousness is a gift we receive through faith in the present. It is not a future event waiting to happen or one that is somehow read back into the present. It really is something that happens now. And Paul believes that it is those who even now are righteous by faith who will be saved at the future judgement. This is the whole point of his opening statement to the argument in Romans 1-8:

‘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 by faith will live.’’ (Romans 1:16-17)

The phrase ‘will live’ means will receive eternal life passing the judgement and escaping God’s wrath and destruction.

But the judgement itself will still take place on the basis of what we have done and only those whose lives are pleasing to God will live. Paul could not be clearer about this. In Romans 6, he emphatically tells us that now we have been forgiven and set free from sin we must no longer continue in sin. We who have received the gift of righteousness through faith must now be slaves of righteousness. This doesn’t mean that God simply forgives us our past sins and then leaves us to get on with it. Not at all! Rather the gift of the Spirit is given to enable us to do what formerly ‘in the flesh’ we were unable to do. Lives of righteousness are now a possibility.

Lives of righteousness are not, however, an optional extra. It is not that we are righteoused (justified) by faith and then don’t have to worry too much about how we live afterwards as we know we will be saved anyway. Paul dispels any such notions with the following words:

‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ (Romans 8:12-13)

Paul could hardly be more clear. He is talking to those who have been righteoused (justified) by faith and who have received the Spirit. He expects them now to live righteously by the power of the Spirit. This is why he can say that the righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us. It is not that we now obey every written command we see in the Law, but that the obedience to God to which the Law always had pointed is now possible, by the Spirit, for those in Christ. Paul is elaborating in chapter eight on a statement he has already made in chapter seven:

‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’ (Romans 7:6)

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