Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Life of Contradictions

Romans 7

C. S. Lewis points out that there are two things common to every human being. One, we know the right things to do. Two, we don't always do them. I know that candy corn is a waxy mess of sugar, but I eat it. I know that decorating magazines are mind candy, but I read them. I know that the spiritual disciplines will open my heart to God, but I don't take the time to practice them. Whether it's body, mind, or spirit what I want to do and what I actually do are often miles apart. In fact, sometimes the very idea of a rule tempts me to break it. I usually drive 5 mph over the speed limit regardless of what the limit is and how soon I need to get where I'm going. Ancient philosophers wrote of this struggle between conscience and deeds. The very first story in the Bible after creation concerns the allure of forbidden fruit. It's an old question, and Paul has a lot to say about it.

First Paul makes an analogy of marriage to compare our old life of bondage and our new life in Christ. A woman who dates around while her husband is living is scandalous, but if her husband is dead then no one cares who she dates. I guess it's not surprising that a bachelor like Paul would use marriage to represent the "bondage" life as opposed to the new life, but I find it highly amusing anyway. The point is that death cancels the contract. We are dead to the law and no longer bound by it. Paul notes that the law itself (whether Roman or Mosaic) represents a noble and worthy ideal of conduct, but the principal of legalism is fundamentally unsound. In verses 14-25 he discusses the imperfect control we have over our instincts and motives by pointing out that we sometimes act against our own best interests in spite of what we know and want. Moral consciousness can be an incentive for good behavior, but can just as easily produce a fascination with evil. Or as it comes out in pop music lyrics, "I'm a hazard to myself. Don't let me get me!"

What is causing this problem? Some commentaries pin it on Satan or demonic forces, but Paul makes no mention of any activity of Satan. Others use the notion of an evil impulse located within each human being. Paul's doctrine of sin is comparable to an internal civil war in which distortion of the divine gift of the law leads to moral failure and utter despair that is not abolished even by a response to the gospel. We're stuck with it.

But just as we're about to decide that the whole situation is hopeless, Paul explains that this life of contradictions is the perfect backdrop to reveal the nature of grace. The law can be twisted into a source of temptation, but grace is a perfect gift. It's a "rescue from this body of death." Jumping ahead to 11:32, "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."  All? Does Paul believe in a final universal salvation? A doctrine of salvation by grace may lead to a doctrine of predestination; but a doctrine of predestination (given that God loves all) leads at least equally naturally to a doctrine of universal salvation. If love has complete control, it is bound eventually to save. How sin, unbelief, and judgement fit into this is not at all clear.   Paul seems to present both predestination and individual responsibility and it can cause great confusion. It's so easy to interpret individual responsibility into some kind of works.   I've heard many times that salvation is by grace through faith, but you have to believe. In Martin Luther's preface to Romans he says, "when hearing the gospel some go to work and by their own power frame up a thought in their heart which says: I believe. That they regard as genuine faith. But, inasmuch as it is a human figment and thought of which the inmost heart is not sensible, it accomplishes nothing and is not accompanied by any improvement. On the contrary, faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, gives us a new birth out of God, slays the old Adam, makes us altogether different men in heart, affections, mind, and all powers, and brings with it the Holy Spirit."

Maybe we should open our minds to just how overwhelming grace really is.

1 comment:

  1. There is a lot to digest from this week's Sunday School lesson and your blog post. In reference to the part about our desire to do what is right and always falling short, there is a quote I heard several years ago that pretty much sums up how I feel much of the time: "I want to WANT to do what is right." I thank God for His grace every day.