Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grace Wins

Romans 5

Grace wins. The Message describes grace as God's "aggressive forgiveness" that invites us into life. Paul explains God's love by contrasting it to our normal reaction to each other. We would be unlikely to die for someone who didn't deserve mercy. Anyone who required our ultimate sacrifice should at least be worthy of the effort! But divine love far exceeds the best that we are willing to do for one another.

Next Paul tackles one of the toughest questions of the ages... If this is God's world, how did sin get in and gain so much power? Paul uses the familiar story of Adam to explain that sin is universal and has disastrous results. Christ is presented as the new Adam. Both are "types" that represent qualities characteristic of a larger whole-- an old humanity vs a new humanity. They are not equal opposites, however, since Christ is more powerful to save than Adam was to condemn. Personally, I can't exactly follow this argument, but I think the idea is that by giving humanity the option of choice we are bound together for good and bad. Even sincere repentance cannot stop the consequences of evil actions. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and spiritual death that separates us from God's fellowship. God chose to fix the problem of humanity with humanity -- the incarnation  brought about "atonement" our at-one-ment with God. The whole point of our existence is union with God. Justification is not a judge's acquittal so much as a father's welcome, and reconciliation brings in the idea of reunion with the life of the family. 

How Old is Grace?

Romans 4

How does Abraham fit into the gospel? Paul appears to be in a debate of some sort in this chapter as he asks and answers a series of questions. Abraham was obedient to God's law centuries before it was given, so is his justification by works or grace? Paul argues that Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. The Message translates it as being willing to live in the risky faith-embrace of God's action. Paul quotes a psalm of David (4:6-8) that describes righteousness as a gift of God. There is no indication that anyone deserves grace. If we could earn God's favor and deserve his reward, then we could control him and rest content in our own achievements. What is required of us is self-surrendering trust in God's mercy. Justification is and always has been by faith. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Limited Law & Unlimited Grace

Romans 2:1-24, 3:21-30

The Limitations of the Law (2:1-24)

In this passage Paul seems to be making an example of the Jews. In fact, one commentary that I use titled this passage "the failure of the Jews." Of course, Paul was a Jew himself so maybe he felt that this context was the safest one for his message. In the same way, I might criticize or make jokes about my own family, but I certainly wouldn't stand for it if someone outside the family said the exact same things. The Jews of Paul's experience were dedicated to living a life that focused on a code of righteousness that was pleasing to God. Nothing wrong with that! However, choosing to live at a higher standard can lead to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude. No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to detect the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming our own integrity. Paul points out that anyone who appoints himself as judge has essentially declared himself as divine, and Paul does find something wrong with that. Here lies the limitation of the law-- good people can allow their goodness to betray them into self satisfaction and
superiority. It's not like Paul was the first Jew to notice this. We find the same message repeatedly throughout the Old Testament prophets.

It's an odd point that warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental.

God, on the contrary, who is entitled to judge, does so "according to truth." He alone knows all the facts, and He alone can set them in the light of perfect righteousness. This is good to keep in mind, because Paul seems to imply that all of us are in the path of God's wrath and fury. The Jew is not excused because he has the law, and the Gentile is not excused because he lacks it. That covers pretty much everyone. For those with greater privileges, there are heavier responsibilities, but all will be judged by the moral insight that is possessed. Paul is getting pretty liberal here --- he acknowledges righteous Gentiles outside the narrow and exclusive confines of the law. He concedes that reason and conscience are the evidence of God's presence within each person, but  the full revelation of grace is through Christ alone.

 The Saving Act of Justification (3:21-30)

In this passage Paul presents justification as something needed by everyone and available to everyone. It is an act of God, and it manifests his essential nature. It becomes effective when it meets the response of faith. Most of the common metaphors of atonement are included in this passage. Being "made righteous" is like being acquitted and freed from prison. "Redemption" refers to the slave who is freed through the payment of money. "Expiation" is a term associated with ritual sacrifice and reconciliation. All of these are analogies, though, and all are insufficient to explain God's grace. 



I've heard the phrase "spread the gospel" all my life, but there seems to be a lack of consistency in exactly what people mean when they say "gospel." We have in the book of Romans the most complete statement of the gospel found in the New Testament. Paul teaches that in spite of our misguided efforts that have defeated us we can gain entry to a life that is full and free. His writings on justification by faith describe how God brings us into a relationship with Himself in which impossible things become actual.    He presents Christ's life as authentic revelation of the divine; a replacement of the misunderstanding that God is a wrathful taskmaster who is out to get us. The distorted views of God vanish as Paul speaks of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Herschel Hobbs translates the Greek theme word of the book as The God-Kind-of-Righteousness. It is the new spiritual power that sweeps away the bondage and oppression of life without God.

Grace is a gift that brings about spiritual renewal.
Faith is a loving trust in and willing submission to God.

I pray that all of us who participate in this four month study of Romans will experience a new understanding of God's grace and power and a strengthening of our faith.