Sunday, November 1, 2009

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

The first two portions of this essay can be found in the archive to the right under October 2009.

Intertwined into Paul’s discourse on the nature of sin and the judgment that must accompany it is the difficult question of how redemption under the Law (for Jews) and redemption through Faith (for non-Jews) can be reconciled. The early Christian congregations were largely composed of what Luke repeatedly refers to as God-fearing pagans. As Jews, and thus the worship of the One God, spread throughout the Mediterranean, peoples who prided themselves on being universally religious (and universally tolerant) saw little reason to exclude the Jewish God from the potential options of gods to be acknowledged and, under certain circumstances, worshipped.

The unique covenant between the Jews and their God, however, made it impossible for non-Jews to fully participate in worship and the process of going from Gentile to Jew was a perilous journey, especially for adult men. What Paul was providing, through his Gospel, was an opportunity for those God-fearers not only to participate fully and more easily in the worship of the Jewish God but also to do so in a manner that he puts forward as inherently superior to the original model. None may hope to fully obey the law but all who would believe can receive baptism and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Still, it would be both impolitic and a little ridiculous for him to assert that the Law was always an inadequate tool for salvation. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew who observed the Law as were all of Paul’s ancestors. Consequently, he must create a model that both embraces and repudiates the Law. He begins, writing that:

All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. [Acts 2:12,13]

Despite his assertion here that there is an equal dispensation of grace for those who follow the law as those who might, instead, become righteous through a belief in Jesus, he continues later to suggest that the law was only given by God so that humanity might understand that it was sinful. It did not free anyone from their sinful nature as Paul laments that though “I delight in God’s law…I see another law at work…waging war against the law of the mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members” [7:22,33]. As long as the mind remains trapped in the body of sin, it, at best, remains in a constant stalemate with impure urges. Righteousness achieved through belief in Jesus, however, yields something different and, by Paul’s reckoning, better.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. [8:1-4]

The last of Paul’s central themes in his Epistle to the Romans is Love. Paul’s first examination of love focuses God’s love for humanity. God’s wrath is directed at the sin, though his judgment upon it is meted out upon the sinner. His love, however, is saved for his obedient creations and, Paul writes, that God “has poured out his love into our hearts” [5:5] and that He “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” [5:8]. It is because we are beloved by God that He has slowly unfolded a plan for our redemption, despite Adam’s disobedience that allowed sin and death to reign in His stead.

Paul’s primary concerns about love, however, reside in his assertion that believers should espouse and manifest it as evidence of their transformation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “Love,” he insists, “must be sincere” [12:9] and the believer should:

…let no debt remain standing, except for the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law…whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. [13:8-10]

Love, for Paul then, is not only an expression of the Holy Spirit at work inside of an otherwise turbulent human nature but is a pathway to peace. This stands in ideological opposition to the prevailing Roman ideology that Peace might only be obtained through Victory. As such, Christianity is offered not only as an alternative to a half-righteousness through a half-observance of the law but also to a world seemingly consumed by never-ending war in search of a peace that never comes.

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