Monday, October 26, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Two)

The first part of this essay can be accessed in the archives under October 2009.

Having defined sin as turning away from God, Paul creates a causal relationship between sin and death by offering Adam’s mortality as precedent and every death since as proof of sin’s universality. The “wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity” [1:29] that one normally associates with sinful behavior is presented more as a symptom of death than sins in and of themselves. By the reasoning, Paul writes, that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command” [5:14].

It is during this first period that Paul finds the inspiration for his own gospel of salvation for the Gentiles. Though no Law yet existed, Abraham was able to attain righteousness (or cleansing of sin) through his faith in the existence and omnipotence of God. This justification (literally, to be made just) through faith serves as Paul’s model for non-Jewish salvation as he notes that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” [4:9] As Abraham exhibited that faith before he entered into the covenant with God, outwardly manifested through circumcision, “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” [4:11].

As for the Law, Paul argues that it serves only to make one aware of sin, while doing nothing to compensate for humanity’s inherently sinful nature. In fact, The Law made being human (or at least being Jewish) more intolerable as it defined precisely what actions were sinful so that those who broke it (ie everyone) could understand why they were being punished with death. For Paul, that is what law does. It defines negative behavior and then assigns the appropriate punishment for it. Deprived of the option of being truly cleansed of sin, humanity is/was lost to a spiral of unmet expectations.

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living with me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my spiritual nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. [7:14-18]

The only solution, by this arrangement is in becoming a slave to something other than sin; a new possibility created by God in the resurrection of Jesus. Just as Abraham’s righteousness was “credited to him” by virtue of his faith in God and exhibited outwardly through circumcision, so may the believer, then, have righteousness credited to them by virtue of their faith in Jesus the Christ, as exhibited through a baptism in his name. Now while we can easily understand while the ritual pruning of a man’s foreskin might impress the sincerity of his faith upon an otherwise skeptical God, what is it about baptism specifically that conveys righteousness upon its recipients?

The key, for Paul, is remarkably simple in its construction. Death is the sentence for sin which itself is universal to the human condition. In dying, Jesus paid the literal price for his own sins (death) but, in resurrection, is now free from humanity’s sinful nature. Baptism in his name, then, is a baptism “into his death” [6:3], creating a new state of righteousness wherein one’s “old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—as anyone who has died has been freed from sin” [6:6,7].

The first half of that argument is so easily answered by common sense that it is hardly an argument at all for no reasonable person, whatever their belief, could argue that the dead might be capable of continuing to sin past the end of their life. This argument only remains ironclad, however, if one does not suppose that a person might be raised from the dead because, as far as anyone could really tell, it had never happened. That is what makes the belief in Christ’s resurrection so critical to the foundation of Christian belief. If one can believe that God made a special exception in raising Jesus from the dead and allowed him to ascend into heaven with his now-sinless nature intact, then it is just as reasonable to assume that He did so in order that humanity might be baptized into that death that they might escape their hitherto inescapable sinful nature as well. In that belief, the believer dies to their old self and is reborn, with Jesus’s sinless nature indwelt within them, into a new condition by which they are no longer a slave to sin but a slave to righteousness.

In one sense, sin carries out its own form of Judgment in that it is the root cause of death. Salvation from sin, according to Paul, goes beyond merely freeing the believer from their naturally sinful state. If justice can be said to exist, then it must exist in its highest form within any God responsible for creating all things. This means that in addition to death, which is caused by sin, sinners must also undergo a separate judgment by God whereby they are again punished for their sins. Those with clearly formed pictures of fiery lakes and eternal damnation may be surprised to find how vague Paul is, at least in his Epistle to the Romans, about when that judgment will take place and what form it will take.

In the opening chapter, Paul underscores the urgency of his gospel by proclaiming that the “wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” [1:18]. Initially, it appears that this wrath is the catalyst for all the forms of evil and depravity that humans naturally embrace, with the final judgment being death itself, the “wages” of all sin. Later, though, Paul adds on a second component when he speaks of “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” [2:5]. He reveals no details about when this day of judgment is due to occur, only saying that there “will be great trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” [2:9] on this day when “’God will give to each person according to what he has done’” [2:6].

The foundation of Paul’s theology is that everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, has committed sin and, because of that sin, is condemned to die. Paul believes that Jesus will return to usher in a new era of divine peace on Earth and that, in so doing, would reunite the living and the dead for judgment under God’s authority. While evidence outside of the Epistle to the Romans also suggests that Paul believed this would happen within his lifetime, he is vague about that aspect of Jesus’s return saying only that it would “take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares” [2:16].

Thus when Paul declares the necessity of salvation, he is essentially arguing on two different fronts simultaneously. Humanity must be saved from its own sinful nature because the effect of sin is death and death, as we all know, is bad. Humanity must also be saved from God’s judgment by being justified into righteousness through baptism into Jesus’s death. As Jesus became sinless and righteous in transcending death, so must each believer embrace the atonement that his death represents in order to shield them from God’s holy judgment. Without the resurrection, none may hope to become righteous enough in God’s eyes to avoid punishment but, in seeking righteousness through Christ, all may hope to receive “glory, honor and peace” [2:10].

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