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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Romans 6

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:1-4 NIV)

There are questions one needs to ask at the outset of this chapter, and indeed of this section (chs. 6-8), that will affect how we read the details to follow. Why is Paul concerned with this particular subject? Is his concern logical-theological (i.e., to fill out the argument of his "gospel" that he says at the beginning of his letter he desires to proclaim to them [ 1:14-17] and that he has in fact been explaining in chs. 1-5), or is it moral-pastoral (i.e., ch. 1:11-15)? I think we are forced to conclude that it is both.

It is not enough to say at this point (with L. T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, 326): "Paul must now answer objections to his thesis," for he has been anticipating objections of an imaginary interlocutor all along in chapters 1-5. Bishop Robinson puts it this way:

What then? Are we to persist in sin, so that there may be all the more grace? Once again the objector comes in, as in the parallel place in 3:8. It is the logical sequence to Paul's thesis in 5:20, which is precisely: the more sin the more grace. But here he takes no more space to counter it than in chapter 3. He does not meet it at the logical level - it cannot be so met. It is still 'No, no!' (6:1, 15). He appeals to the facts and experience of the new relationship in Christ, for if a man really is in that relationship, the suggestion is preposterous (J. A. T. Robinson, Wrestling with Romans, 67).

On the one hand, no "gospel" of Christ is complete with a discussion of how forgiven and justified people are enabled and instructed to live in the present. For despite the traditional distinction in Christian theology between " justification" (forgiveness and being made right in God's eyes) and "sanctification" (growing in practical goodness in relation to other people), the two matters are ultimately part of the same essential process which leads finally to our "glorification." Paul will talk about this later, in chapter 8, verses 28-30. And already in chapter 1, verses 11-15, he has made it clear that this practical side is an essential part of his purpose in writing this letter.

So then, what is the problem he confronts in chapter 6? On the practical side ("sanctification"), once a person has believed and been made right with God, what assures him/her that the old life of sin will not just go on?

He has finished chapter 5 ( verses 20-21) with the conclusion that, after the long period between Creation and the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), God added the law of Moses so that ordinary sins were now seen more clearly as a deliberate disobedience to God’s explicit written commands. That is what he means by "so that the trespass might increase" (5:20, NIV). But even before the coming of our Lord Jesus, God provided through Israel's system of sacrifices doorways to his forgiving grace, so that with the increase in recognizable acts of disobedience, God's forgiving grace also might increase proportionately (5:20-21). As the multiplication of recognizable disobediences was producing spiritual death—alienation with God, the second was producing eternal life—a right relationship to God. No single sin or number of sins is too much for God to forgive in Christ.

God's forgiving grace—whether experienced prior to the birth of Jesus or after—has always been based upon what Jesus accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. That is the only just grounds on which God can acquit us of the guilt our acts of disobedience have incurred.

But the Christian gospel—whether you call it "Paul's gospel" or just "the gospel"—does not leave believers enslaved to their old pre-faith lifestyles and habits. Of course, God's forgiving grace continues after one becomes a believer (see 1 John 1:8-10). But Paul wishes to guard against believers thinking that the more they sin, the more glory will come to God for his mercy in forgiving (see 6:1, 15)! That would be a truly strange way to reward God for his mercy, wouldn't it? So in chapters 6, 7 and the first part of 8 Paul explains to the Romans (and to us) how we can and why we should live totally different, Christ-honoring lives as believers. The “how we can” side is logical and theological, while the “why we should” side is moral and pastoral.


Here is the question that Paul wishes to answer in chapter 6. Compare Rom 6:15, where the question is repeated in slightly different terms. Both the verbs for sinning and the supposed rationale are differently formulated. The spurious rationale in v. 15 refers back to v. 14 (“not under law but under grace”).


Paul’s reaction to this outrageous suggestion is strong. The Greek verbal construction me genoito translated as “By no means!” in NRSV, NIV and ESV, literally means “May it never happen!” It is the equivalent of our “Out of the question!” or “No way!”

Paul totally ignores the false premise “in order that grace may abound” based on 5:20, and bases his answer solely on a newly introduced fact: “(in our union with Christ) we died to sin.” Living “in” sin is no longer possible.

Here is where the “already … not yet” structure of Paul’s eschatology comes in for effective use. For according to this NT concept at the (death and) resurrection of Jesus, the new age in fact dawned for those who believed in him. In Old Testament prophecy the eschatological kingdom of God would begin with the resurrection of the dead. We who believe in the resurrected Son of God are already living the life of the “Last Days.” It is a little appreciated fact that the Greek phrase translated commonly as “eternal life”, given to all believers, literally means “life of the (coming) age.” It is therefore not a quantitative term (“everlasting”), but a qualitative one (“eschatological living”). Of course, eschatological living also necessarily implies a life that will have no end, for the dead—once raised—will never die again. But we should not miss the implication that this kind of life given to us in Christ has for present-day behavior, lived in the midst of what Paul calls “the present evil age.” So when Paul uses the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection as the logical-theological grounds for arguing against our lives simply continuing as they were before Christ, he is merely stating a fact that every one of us should know and act upon. The baptism imagery—showing death and resurrection—is an apt illustration of a spiritual reality.

It used to be held that baptism as a dying and rising with Christ was a peculiarly Pauline doctrine, derived by him from the Hellenistic mysteries. But, quite apart from the fact that he appeals to the knowledge of it as an accepted fact with those to whom he has never preached( in both Romans and Colossians), it is now recognized … that it goes back behind Paul to the common theology of the … church. Indeed I am convinced that it goes back by implication to Jesus himself, who spoke of his own death as a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). In fact I believe that this understanding of the death of Christ as a baptism, which is the corollary of the understanding of baptism as a dying with Christ, is to be found right through the New Testament and is one of its most important ways of describing the work of Christ (Robinson, Wrestling With Romans, 68f.).

But we must not confuse the illustration with the reality. It is not the rite of baptism that confers or even accompanies the transformation. As important as the rite of baptism is as a testimony to the reality of the inner transformation of a believer, that transformation has already occurred before the rite is undergone.

Paul elsewhere uses a different metaphor, which is simply a more Jewish way of saying the same thing: believers united by faith to Christ in his death and resurrection are circumcised by the stripping off of the sinful nature's power:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12 NIV).

This metaphor is already found in the Old Testament, where unbelieving Jews were called "uncircumcised in heart" ( Jeremiah 9:26, compare Acts 7:51).


This claim must now be explained: how did we die to sin? The words “Or don’t you know?” (NIV) may—as Bishop Robinson’s above-quoted remark assumes—imply that Paul thought they did know this already. But even if they didn’t know it already, he is reminding them of what they should already know and is drawing a consequence from it.

Paul’s answer is that our death to sin resulted from our being “baptized into Christ”. The wording “all of us who have been baptized…” is not intended to imply that some believers have not. Paul’s distinction is not between classes of believers, but between believers and non-believers. Consequently, also in Gal 3:27 the phrase “as many of you” is not functioning to distinguish between believers. Rather, as 1 Cor 12:13 makes clear, all believers participate (“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”). The emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12, however, is less on the union with Christ than on the union with each other (“baptized … into one body”). The effect Paul speaks of here is not produced by the religious rite of Christian baptism, but by God’s sovereign act. At this point he isn’t even concerned with the issue of when it occurs with each believer. In fact, it almost looks like his concept is not multiple individual baptisms into Christ, but one great one of the corporate entity of all believers. Being “baptized into Christ” is synonymous with being united with him, mystically and supernaturally. We are now one with him. What occurred to him in his death and resurrection happened also to us. Our new union with Christ is stressed by the series of Greek verbs containing the “with” (sun) prefix: buried with him (v. 4), crucified with him (v. 5), alive with him (v. 6).


The result of our dying, being buried and rising with Christ is that, as he now lives a new kind of life, beyond the reach of the “present evil age”, so also we can enjoy a new kind of life totally pleasing to God (“walk in newness of life” NRSV). It is very unlikely that any believer in history has ever made use of this power to live without any further sin. But the power to do so is there. And the tragedy is that we make so little effort to use it! Later, in ch. 7, Paul uses a metaphor taken from marriage, when he writes: "So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God" (7:1). The Greek verb translated "bear fruit" can have the meaning of producing offspring.


“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:5-7 NIV)


God’s salvation is always both from something and to something. Just as Jesus did not simply die, but was raised again, so also we who are united to him by faith not only die to sin’s power, but live righteously by God’s power that raised Jesus from the dead. The NIV’s “in death like this” (v. 5, NRSV and ESV: “in a death like his”) refers not to the imagery of Christian baptism, but to what Paul has just explained about what being united with Christ means. Our union with Christ in his death does not mean our hearts stop beating and we stop breathing: it means that we can stop sinning. According to the experiential interpretation, the future tense "we will certainly" is no indication that Paul speaks here of the future bodily resurrection of believers (contra Chester, Conversion at Corinth 301, Das, Paul and the Jews 35, and others), but of the inevitable sequence of death and resurrection in our present union of Christ. George Ladd, however, correctly saw this passage as speaking of an "eschatological"—even if not futuristic—reality.

"[T]he passage is to be interpreted in terms of Paul's eschatological thought. Dying and rising with Christ means death to the old aeon of sin and death, and participation in the new aeon of life and righteousness. The death and resurrection of Christ were not merely events in past history but eschatological events. By death and resurrection Christ introduced a new aeon" (Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, p. 528).

In his de-emphasis on the subjective, Ladd leaves it unclear if Paul's teaching merely exhorts to live like you are in the new aeon or informs of a new power to live in it. Consider Ziesler’s thoughts on the matter:

It is not easy to be precise about the meaning of “a death like his”. In one sense, the believer's death with Christ is not at all like his, for unlike him the believer does not yet literally die. Moreover, while the believer dies to his or her own sin, there is no suggestion that Christ did that. If there are such clear points of dissimilarity between Christ's death and believers' death with him, in what does the similarity lie? Any answer must be tentative, but two things may be said.
(a) The believer's death in baptism is an end to the old life, just as the cross represents the end of the old world. This is reinforced by the fact that sometimes in the primitive church the cross was seen as a baptism (Luke 12:50).
(b) The baptism of the believer represents a working out in individual terms of that shift of the ages which took place with the cross and resurrection of Christ.
If we thus put together the baptismal imagery and the eschatological assumptions about the cross, it does make sense to talk about believers' undergoing a 'death like his', despite the patent differences (J. A. Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans [1989] 158).


The phrase "knowing this" (NRSV; “for we know” in NIV’s paraphrase) again acts as a reminder to the believers. Here Paul makes the way believers are united to Christ's death even more specific: we were "crucified with him" (see also Gal 2:20; 5:24; 6:14). Why “were crucified” instead of simply “died”? Why the specificity here? Is it because Paul wants the penal aspect of Christ's death also to be applied to what he calls the "body of sin"? Although there is no possessive, and no plural in "the body of sin," the following clause makes it clear that he means the lives of believers (“that we should no longer be slaves to sin”). Paul never uses "body" (sôma) in an evil or pejorative sense. Nor does he contrast it with the mental and moral faculties. It is the whole person. The added "of sin" means the whole person who is under enslavement to sin prior to conversion.

The phrase "body of sin" probably means the physical body as it is controlled by sin (v. 13). The horror of sin in a believer is that, although they he or she is a new creature with the old self crucified, he or she sometimes willfully chooses to act against both what he or she knows and what he or she is. It is as a new person that believers sin—a new person who is no longer bound to sin as its slave. Thus a believer cannot place the blame for sin on the old person, who is dead and buried with Christ (cf. Col. 2:12). (Witherington, Paul's Narrative Thought World, 280)

In vv. 6, 12, and 17 sin is personified as a slave-master, with unbelievers as its slaves. Today we can speak of people being slaves of alcohol or drugs. In a similar way Paul speaks here.

Logically (but not temporally), the believer's justification by faith must precede his union with Christ in his death to sin and resurrection to righteous living. This is argued by Frank Thielmann thus:
In Romans 6:7, for example, Paul hints that participation in Christ's death originates in God's juridical declaration of the believer's innocence:
Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be made powerless in order that we might no longer be slaves to sin, for the one who has died has been justified [dedikaiotai] from sin. (Rom. 6:6-7, aut.)
The first part of this statement describes the believer's "mystical" participation in Christ's death and claims that this participation has freed the believer from the grip of sin. The second part of the statement, however, grounds this freedom in God's declaration that the believer is innocent. In the second half of Romans 6 Paul uses the term "righteousness" in an ethical sense to describe the believer's new "lord" to whom he or she is enslaved (6:13-20). This suggests that the declaration of the believer's righteous status was the beginning point of the participation. (Theology of the NT, 468f.)


The concern in these verses is that the believer should know that there is no danger of a recurring death after resurrection, hence, no danger that he will become again a slave of sin. But he must affirm his freedom as a statement of faith in a real fact.


“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14 NIV)

"The mention of law in 6:14 shifts Paul's language from the contrast between death and life to that between slavery and freedom. To continue in sin is to forget that it is slavery" (L.T. Johnson, Writings of the NT).

Here Paul urges that we not allow sin make a false claim of dominance in our lives. We are not its helpless victims and must never allow that thought. Realizing our freedom consists in actively presenting our bodies to Christ's service, just as we once actively presented our bodies for the service of sin and self. Our bodies are instruments (6:13, Greek hopla literally "weapons" or "tools") to be used either for wickedness or righteousness. It is now our privilege to transfer these to the service of God.


“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23 NIV)

Admittedly, Paul chooses not to use the word "body" here, but the more particular "members" (i.e., body parts). Why? Probably because this helps the Roman Christians understand that each individual part of their lives must serve Christ (tongue = speech, eye = perception, hand = work, foot = travel, etc.).

Now that through faith they are "obedient from the heart" to God (6:17 ; cf. 2:15, 29), they are "slaves of righteousness, having been set free from sin" (6:18). But obedience to the Lord of all, the source of all, is actually true freedom, for in it the creature is established in "right relationship." Each form of obedience brings a reward. Slavery to sin wins wages which are death (cf. 4:4); but obedience to God (faith) enabled by "the free gift in Christ Jesus our Lord" receives eternal life (6:22-23). Something has happened to them; it has reversed their lives; to turn back to any other power' or to measure their lives by any other norm but that of the gift, is to lose it (L.T. Johnson, Writings 327).

What is the upshot of this chapter for you and me? Clearly, Paul wants the Christians in Rome to understand that Jesus has done something much more profound and far-reaching in their lives than simply forgiving their sins and giving them a ticket to heaven! A new age has dawned. Their lives can never be the same.

Well, has a new age dawned in your life? Maybe you don’t feel resurrected. But then faith has neve depended on feeling. How you feel is more likely the product of whether you got a good sleep last night, or what happened at work yesterday. Feeling is likely to result from circumstances. But the fact is that, if you have invited Jesus to be your Lord and Savior, God has united you with him in his death and resurrection. You have entered the Kingdom of God, a state not only of peace with God (Romans 5), but of behavior controlled by your relationship with God in Christ.

How will you get through today’s difficulties without “losing it”? The same way you got into God’s kingdom in the first place: not by human exertion and will power, but by God’s power acting through your weakness in response to your faith. And faith often works best when we have the right focus. Not a negative focus on old, seeming insuperable habits—a bad temper, lack of patience with the kids, a complaining disposition, a lustful eye for good-looking women in the office—but a positive focus on “How can I act lovingly and helpfully and forgivingly toward everyone around me today? How can I focus on others’ needs instead of my own?”

I pray that you and I will take this focus into our affairs today.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Romans 5 The Results of Justification

Romans 5

5:1-11 The results of justification by faith 

Paul's theology—what he calls his “gospel”—is not so much topical or systematic as it is narrative. There is a flow to it. This flow will also appear in the last part of chapter 8. But we see it clearly in the opening eleven verses of this chapter. “Justification”—God's rectifying of sinners—is the fountainhead of numerous gifts that logically flow freely to believers.
 But before we consider the individual benefits of our justification, we must remind ourselves of what justification means in Paul's thought. The Greek term δικαιοσύνη dikaiosunē “righteousness” and the related adjective δίκαιος dikaios “righteous; just” belong to the judicial-forensic sphere of thought. Their primary reference is to legal standing in a court of law, a fact that both Paul and his Roman audience were all too well aware of. In justification God removes through Jesus' death that which is the basis of our enmity with God, which is not our present hostile attitude but our objective guilt as sinners. That is why justification is the first and the absolutely essential act that must precede (logically, not chronologically) our peace with God and access to the state of grace.
 The first of these is “peace” with God. “Peace” is an overworked word in political discourse. “Peace” movements have a guaranteed front-page coverage in every newspaper and on every TV news segment. In that context the meaning of the word is the absence of war and violence. It is a utopian vision. Such "peace" will always be temporary, the intervals between wars.

Then there is  the use of the  term “peace” for peace of mind, the absence of worry and anxiety. There is a real sense in which Paul includes those two ideas of “peace” in this discourse. Peace with God in Paul's thought world does mean an end to hostility. Peace with God is the opposite of enmity with God. Sin is the cause of enmity with God. The first mention of enmity in the Bible is in God's words to Satan in the form of the serpent, after he had seduced Eve and Adam into sinning against God: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Gen 3:15).  Satan is our enemy because he facilitates sin in us, which separates us from God and makes us God's enemies.

Paul wrote in v. 10 “when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”  Jesus destroyed the basis of that enmity by taking our sins upon himself. Our peace with God comes “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). And because the  enmity, the hostility, has ceased, we also have peace of mind. Worries and fears are banished. When we now think of God—which before we believed was a rare and unpleasant experience, tinged with guilt and fears—it is with happiness and love and gratitude to One who so loves us and rescued us from the graves that we had dug for ourselves.
Once justified, the Christian is reconciled to God and experiences a peace that distressing troubles cannot upset, a hope that knows no disappointment, and a confidence of salvation of which he can truly boast. (Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 305). 

But this does not exhaust the important meanings incorporated in the biblical word “peace.” The Hebrew שלום shalôm which lies behind Paul's Greek word εἰρήνη eirēne, implies well-being, a state in which all is well. The familiar hymn “It is well with my soul” nicely expresses the condition of all of us who have believed in Jesus. The painful experiences of life in a sinful world are as nothing compared to the peace of God that envelopes us. “Though Satan should buffet,” the hymn-writer Horatio Spafford puts it in his beloved hymn It Is Well With My Soul,
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blessed assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed His own blood for my soul.
 The second gift that flows from our justification is grace (v. 2). The grace of God is that unconditioned love that he shows to the undeserving. “For God so loved the world,” the Apostle John wrote, “that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). God took the initiative; he did not wait for us to do so, since we could not and would not. But grace does not end with forgiving and accepting sinners as his children: it envelopes those whom God saves from that point on. It is a condition “in which we now stand” (v. 2). We are in grace.
Paul writes that through Jesus we have gained “access” (Greek προσαγωγὴ) to this grace. In his later letter to the Ephesian churches (Eph 2:18) he wrote that through Jesus we enjoy “access to the Father” (προσαγωγὴν … πρὸς τὸν πατέρα). The term translated “access” can also be rendered “introduction.” It can refer to the granting of private audience with a ruler. Such a privilege was exceedingly difficult to obtain: it had to be granted by the sovereign himself. Comparing Rom 2:2 with Eph 2:18 helps us to see that the grace is not something impersonal, but is actually a personal union and communion with God himself.  Nothing less can secure the flow of loving gifts that this chapter describes. To us he is not only a king: he is a Father.
The word “boast”—which elsewhere in Romans is a negative attitude, since its focus is upon the sinner's supposed ability to produce perfect righteousness by his own works—is here quite legitimate, since the boast is in what God has done. We boast in hope of the glory of God. But “hope”, as so often in the New Testament, is not idle wishes but a God-guaranteed certainty. Compare these other two Pauline references to hope for God's future glory:
“To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) …… “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13 NRSV).
 3-4  Paul uses here the literary technique called “framing”: the word “hope” both begins and ends the section comprised of verses 2-4. The Christian's hope is not undermined by the experience of “sufferings” (v. 3), as from a human point of view might otherwise be expected. The reason sufferings do not destroy hope is that when they are received by faith in the Suffering Savior who rose from the dead and ascended to glory at his Father's right hand, they actually start a chain of events which end in even more intense hope (v. 4). 

“How can this be?” you ask. It is because we Christians may work like beavers to alleviate human suffering and injustice. But our “hope” is not in a human solution. And if disappointments come in the form of mistrust in human leaders, we are not deterred. As the Hebrew psalms remind us, 
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to put confidence in princes (Psa. 118:9).
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help (Psa. 146:3).
Although we work for a more God-pleasing life for ourselves and others, when such disappointments  come, they merely sharpen our hope for the “final solution” of our Lord Jesus Christ. And opposition merely strengthens our resolve and fuel our prayers.
 And note this about the statement in v. 3: we do not boast about our sufferings—which would be self-glorification, but while in them we boast in God!
 5:5  Because of this invulnerability of Christian hope to the discouragements of temporal sufferings, “hope does not disappoint (us)” (v. 5 NIV). The force of the present tense verb (“does not disappoint”) is also futuristic: this hope, the reality of which we sample by the gifts of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the now, will not disappoint us. The certainty is tasted in the present by the powers and the ministry of God's Holy Spirit within us. Again, Paul's view of the believer's present experience as being “eschatological” is evident: we who believe live already in the experience that hope anticipates. We commune with God face to face. We experience his white-hot love. We know his illumination as we read the scriptures. We are guided and empowered in living.
 5:6-8  In the nick of time Christ died for us.

 With three “still” (Greek ἔτι) clauses, Paul emphasizes the timeliness of Christ's saving death: “while we were still powerless,” “at just (literally, 'still') the right time,” and “while we were still sinners.” In English the word “still”  implies that the condition would end: we would no longer be sinners. In a sense, of course, that is the case here, since by Christ's death our sins are removed. But the fact that we are no longer “sinners” in the sense of condemned ones does not mean that we are sinless in our daily lives.
 Still, it is clear from v. 7 that Paul wishes to stress that—regardless of how good believers become after their new birth—it was not for good people that Jesus died, but for weak, powerless sinners. Jesus himself expressed his goal in these terms, when he told his critics:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17 NRSV)
It is quite amazing to me how some modern biblical scholars are unable to see that there is no contradiction between God's motive of love and Christ's suffering the penalty of sin on our behalf. Here is an example of such strange reasoning (from John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green, The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity [1995],  p. 123):
 All of this suggests that Paul doesn't regard the death of Jesus as a vicarious punishment. His theology of the cross lacks a developed sense of divine retribution. Quite the contrary according to such texts as Rom 5:6-8, the death of Christ is the ultimate expression of the boundless love of God: "But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Of course the death of Jesus showed God's boundless love for us lost sinners. What it most definitely does not show is his willingness to leave sin unpunished.
Throughout this section (vv. 1-11) Paul is working with the Jewish interpretive principle “if such is the case, how much the more will such a thing happen.” And remember that his theme in these verses is the peace (or reconciliation) with God that results from Christ's death and resurrection on our behalf. So his sidea, that he repeats several times with minor variations in wording is: If God loved us enough to give his Son to die for us while we were still sinners and enemies, how much more will he bring out salvation to completion throughout our earthly lives and into the Final Kingdom, now that we have been reconciled to him.
5:12-21 Death through Adam, Life Through Christ 

This next section is likely not only to leave most of you a bit confused by the tight logic and the unspoken assumptions, but also asking the question: Why do we need to know this? And why did the believers in the Roman house churches of Paul's day need to know it?
I don't  pretend to have a definitive answer to that second question, although I do have a suspicion what it might be. As for the first question, let's leave that for last, so that we don't leave our study this week without letting God change us for the better.
In the previous chapters Paul has been pursuing several of his purposes for the letter. One of these was to give the believers in Rome a “spiritual gift”, which was an explanation of his “gospel”, which as you know was more than just the “way of salvation.” He wanted them to see how Christianity made sense in the broader picture of God's ages-long revelation in the Old Testament scriptures and centered in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

A second purpose he pursued was to heal the breach between Jewish and gentile believers in Rome. The first purpose was met by his careful explanations of how “gospel” truths were already in play as early as the lifetime of Abraham, and that the law of Moses which came later was never intended to replace the faith “on-ramp” to righteousness.  The second purpose was met by showing how—each in their own way—both Jews and gentiles failed to honor God the Creator by perfect obedience to his will revealed in the law of Moses and the law of conscience. Thus, Jews and gentiles were brought together by their mutual failure, their mutual lost estate, and their mutual need for the same salvation through faith.
In 5:1-11 Paul follows up the teaching on justification by showing the resulting reconciliation with God that both Jews and gentiles experience. But in vv. 12-21 he takes a new approach to explaining on the basis of Hebrew scriptures the common plight of Jews and gentiles apart from Christ, and the common remedy provided by God. Here the mutuality of the plight is illustrated not by Abraham, but by Adam. This is fitting. Although Paul was able to make a case in chapter 4 that Abraham as an uncircumcised “gentile” believed and was counted righteous, but then accepted circumcision in order to obey God's command and was at once both father of Jews and gentiles by being the “father of all believers”, he can now make the case that both Jews and gentiles share in the experience of he first human being, Adam, since all humans are descended from him.
The common plight is represented by Adam, who was given an explicit command by God and deliberately disobeyed, bringing sin into the world and with it the consequence of death. The death spoken of is both physical and spiritual. Spiritual death is separation from fellowship with God. It is what Paul a few verses before has called being “enemies of God.”
The common remedy is represented by Jesus, who is portrayed here as the Second Adam (or the Last Adam). As the First Adam disobeyed and brought sin and death upon those who were “in” him, i.e., all his descendants, so the Second Adam obeyed (lived a perfect life and died an obedient death) and brought justification (a right standing with God) and life upon those who are “in” him by their faith in him.

As death—complete separation and alienation from God—reigned over all descendants of Adam—Jews and non-Jews—so spiritual life characterized by union and communion with the living God reigns over all believers in Jesus.
And as Paul wraps up this section in vv. 20-21, he ties together a loose end that became obvious when in v. 14 he said that death reigned from Adam to Moses. How does the law of Moses fit in? That law was “added” for the Jewish part of Adam's race in order to raise awareness of the magnitude of human sinfulness. Where there is no law (i.e., no explicit command), there can be no “trespass.” But don't fret, my fellow Jews—Paul writes—for where more sins result from greater knowledge of God's perfect will, there is always even greater grace available from God. That grace—only dimly seen in the Hebrew scriptures in the sacrificial system—is now clearly revealed in Jesus. 
Paul was writing for his Roman audience. But the Holy Spirit through Paul was writing for believers of all time.

So what do the truths in this chapter have to do with you and me? If you have put your faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you enjoy the peace of God and complete access to the Father at every moment of every day. But do you make use of this glorious privilege? Do you let matters beyond your control, like the Stock Market's fluctuations or the weather cause you to fret and worry? Do you allow them to dominate your thoughts to the extent that you are not free to think of others' needs? How about that neighbor with young children who needs short-term child care? What about the lonely widow down the street? Does a shut-in who lives near you need his walk or driveway cleared in winter? Can you do shopping for someone? Literally hundreds of opportunities come our way daily to help others, but all too often our preoccupation with our own needs blinds us to them.
 If Adam is our common ancestor, we not only share the common problem of sin, but also the common available remedy in Jesus who is our Second Adam. And this goes for everyone. We shouldn't be afraid to share the good news of Jesus with associates, even if they are of faiths that seem to us remote: Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, but also nearer faiths such as Judaism and—dare I say it?—nominal Christianity. Having been raised in a Christian church does not mean being born again by faith in Jesus. All the richness of blessing of salvation comes to us as the children of Adam—Adam who failed, but who necessitated the Last Adam, Jesus.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Romans 4 - Part Two

4:6-8 A Second Proof Taken from the Psalms

It was common practice among the Jewish scholars of Paul’s day to substantiate an argument from two passages of scripture, preferably one from the Pentateuch (the Torah) and one from the rest of the scripture (the “Prophets” which sometimes included the Book of Psalms). Paul has cited Gen 15 above to prove that Abraham was made right with God (i.e., “righteous”) on the basis of his faith in God’s word of promise. Now he must find a proof outside of the Pentateuch.

It was also common practice to look for links between proof texts in the form of common vocabulary, again preferably more than one common term or idea. Paul found in Psalm 32:1-2 a passage which in both the Hebrew and Greek versions contained the verb we translate as “count,” “reckon,” or “credit.” This is his main link to the Genesis 15 statement that God "credited" Abraham's faith "as righteousness".

The second link is not verbal but conceptual: Gen 15 spoken of "righteousness (or right standing)” credited to Abraham. In Ps 32:1-2 the author calls the man “happy” (or “blessed”) to whom God does not credit wrong standing (i.e., unrighteousness, or sin). Paul affirms that God is willing and able not to hold sin against a man “apart from (his good) works” (Greek χωρὶς ἔργων).

Psalm 32 quoted here attributes it to the fact that the man’s sin is “forgiven” and “covered”. Paul cannot therefore include among the “works” that play no role in his forgiveness the sacrificial system, unless he regarded the verb “covered” (‏כְּסוּי), which normally alludes to the atonement rites of tabernacle and temple, as here being used only metaphorically. Most likely, he considered the repentance and offering of a sacrifice, which are implied by David’s word “covered” to be a part of faith in the pre-messianic era. As I explained above in the discussion of Romans 3, Paul’s invalidating of “covenantal nomism" was based upon the fact that in the messianic era, after the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus the messiah, the temple sacrifices, which had always been only anticipatory of his sacrificial death, were no longer an adequate means of securing forgiveness of sins.

In the context of Ps 32, the trigger of repentance and the subsequent offering of sacrifice was the sinner’s breaking his guilty silence and making confession of son to God. Paul would have also considered this a part of the attitude of faith “apart from works.” In fact, in Romans 10 he will describe the steps involved in messianic faith as including “confessing with the mouth” as well as “believing in the heart”.


Returning now to his primary proof text in Genesis 15, Paul argues on the basis of the chronological sequence of events—Abraham credited with righteousness in Gen 15, Abraham circumcised in Gen 17—that the “justification by faith” illustrated in Gen 15 applies to gentiles, who like Abraham at that time are uncircumcised. Circumcision is therefore not a pre-condition of righteousness by faith, not even a accompanying rite, since Abraham was not immediately circumcised in Gen 15. It was merely a subsequent sign of Abraham’s continuing faith in and faithfulness to God’s word, instructing him to circumcise his sons and himself.

Furthermore, by being justified by simple faith while uncircumcised in Gen 15 and then by showing his faith by being circumcised in Gen 17, Abraham is able to be “father” of both gentiles and Jews and to unify them in one faithful community (see also Rom 4:17):

“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Romans 4:11-12 ESV)

This bit of exegesis does not in itself logically exclude the counter-argument by “Judaizers” such as were active in the churches of Galatia, that since father Abraham’s obedient faith led him to be circumcised, the obedient faith of gentile believers in Paul’s day should also lead them to be circumcised. But there is no evidence of Judaizing activity in the churches of Rome that Paul would have had to counter, and Paul’s exegesis did allow him to address his pastoral concern (on which see “Pastoral Purpose” on p. [Referenced content is missing.]), which was the rift between Jewish and gentile believers in Rome.

4:13-15 Not by the law

Although Paul does not anticipate the presence of Judaizers in Rome, he is explaining his “gospel,” which makes it very clear that justification (and salvation) is only through faith in Jesus the messiah. So it is necessary, especially in connection with his citing Abraham as the father of saved gentiles and Jews, for him to show that the law of Moses, while it served a necessary purpose for Jews, has no role in the actual admission of either Jew or gentile to the messianic kingdom.

In verse 13 Paul introduces a new topic into the letter: believers inheriting the earth. He traces this back beyond Jesus’ beatitude promise “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5 NIV), to God’s promises to Abraham. But where was this promised? The NIV Study Bible note is helpful:

“No express mention of this heirship is made in the Genesis account of Abraham. He is promised “offspring like the dust of the earth” (Ge 13:16) and possession of the land of Canaan (Ge 12:7; 13:14-15; 15:7, 18-21; 17:8), and that all the peoples on earth will be blessed through him (Ge 12:3; 18:18) or his offspring (Ge 22:18). But since, as Genesis already makes clear, God purposed through Abraham and his offspring to work out the destiny of the whole world, it was implicit in the promises to Abraham that he and his offspring would “inherit the earth” (see Ps 37:9, 11, 22, 29, 34; Mt 5:5). The full realization of this awaits the consummation of the Messianic kingdom at Christ’s return.”

And since this implied promise was made to Abraham hundreds of years before the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, it is obvious that it was not conditional on fulfilling the law. That Israel would prove a blessing to the nations was truly dependent upon her keeping God’s law. But the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham was not.

Paul makes two separate arguments in verse 14-14. First, in v. 14, there would have been no purpose in God’s promising or pronouncing Abraham righteous for believing the promise, if the fulfillment depended upon a subsequent keeping of the law. And secondly, in v. 15, the function of the law was always to measure obedience and mark disobedience. And when law is in force, and transgression occurs, it will bring the punitive wrath of God into play. But when the law does not enter into the arrangement, there is nothing to indicate a transgression on Abraham’s (or the gentiles’) part. Paul draws a distinction here between “sin” (Greek ἁμαρτία hamartia) and “transgression” (Greek παράβασις parabasis). Sin (ἁμαρτία hamartia) can exist without a law to measure or mark it, but the word “transgression” (in Hebrew, Greek and English) implies a boundary that is crossed. And the law is that boundary. So without that boundary, no “transgression” is possible.

4:16-17a Guaranteeing the inheritance

Because it would be impossible to guarantee the promise, if the heirs to that promise were obligated to keep the law, it was extended to Abraham and his offspring out of God’s grace and on the simple condition of faith. In this way it is guaranteed and cannot be nullified by “transgressions” of the law. And this guarantee extendes not just to gentiles, but also to Jews who accept the promise by faith and do not seek to make it conditional upon law-keeping.

4:17b-25 Describing Abraham’s faith as resurrection faith

At the end of v. 17 Paul calls God “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were,” which serves as his transition to the subject of the nature of saving faith, the faith that results in justification: it is faith in the God who raises the dead. Now in Abraham’s case the dead that needed new life was his own reproductive system, his “body.” He was far too old to have a child. Yet God had promised him one (vv. 18-20). Because Abraham believed in God’s “resurrecting” power, his faith “was counted to him as righteousness” (i.e., effected his salvation).  But Paul draws the analogy between Abraham’s believing that God could give life to his dead reproductive system and us today who must believe that God raised Jesus’ body from the dead (vv. 23-25) and will also raise us by that same power. If we believe in the same power of God that raised Jesus and will give spiritual life now to our dead souls and physical life from the dead to our bodies at Jesus’ second coming, that too will be counted to us as “righteousness” (i.e., will effect our salvation).

It is a nice piece of biblical interpretation, using all the accepted principles being applied by scholars of scripture in Paul’s day. It was unassailable in its logic and the tightness of its argumentation. But what does it say to you and me today?

Obviously, it says first and foremost that like Abraham we must believe in the God of resurrection. That means the God who raised Jesus. We cannot pretend to be “Christians” and fail to truly believe in a God who as the all-powerful Creator not only can do miracles, i.e., things judged “impossible” by the rules of human science, but who both has done and will do such miracles for those who believe. If we let others know that we believe this, we will be laughed at, perhaps behind our backs, perhaps to our faces. But that is all right.  It is called “faith”, but not faith in ourselves—which is encouraged by the world today—but faith in an all-powerful and good Creator.

Secondly, since Paul will make the argument in chapter 6 that we who  believe have become united to Christ in his death and resurrection, so that we too have died with him to sin and were raised with him to a new life of righteousness, our belief in the God of the resurrection needs to be shown by lives that reflect the “humanly impossible” ethical values of the eschatological age to come. As I explained in the introduction to Romans, Paul’s view of the “already … not yet” Last Days made it possible for him to see believers as already living in the so-called “age to come”, while at the same time experiencing the tensions of their surroundings which represent “the present evil age.”

In chapter 12 he will urge his believing hearers to not be conformed to the present age, but realize the good and perfect will of God through the “renewing of their minds”. We will explain this in much more detail when we reach chapter 12. But for now, this means that you and I both can and ought to live far more righteously and godly than one would think possible in this present age.

My college ethics professor (who was not a believer) used to refer to the “impossible” ethics of Jesus—perfectionist, he also called them—that we are intended to only use as ideals. Paul would differ with him: the “impossible” ethics of Jesus are not impossible to those who by faith live a resurrected life—an eschatological life—in the present.

It is very likely that you and I will not even manage a day or a few hours of “perfect” resurrected living. But if so, the fault is not that we cannot, but that we choose not to do so. Will you thank God for this potential, and ask him to help you utilize the moral strength that is now yours as a resurrected heir of Abraham’s to more closely approximate the potential that you have in Jesus?