A Tale of Three Passes

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 2

Imagine a mountain range, infinitely wide, and so high that even the known low points between peaks are higher than Everest. On the far side of the mountains lies the plain of right relationships with God – the plain of paradise.

Popular opinion has it that there are possibly two passes through the mountains to that place of glory. The first supposed pass we might call the Pagan Pass. Its followers believe that, if you set up idols in the names of gods and worship them in a prescribed manner, the gods will conduct you across Pagan Pass to the land beyond.

A second opinion is that there is a pass especially for the descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jews. Believers in that pass agree that Pagan Pass is a cul-de-sac, but that God’s covenant with Abraham, with the legal riders that God added through Moses, provides a sure way through.

St Paul’s purpose in the first three chapters of Romans (beginning at 1:18) is to show that those passes are illusory. They don’t and cannot get anyone through to the far side of the mountains. He provides those proofs in the section from 1:18 to 3:20, and then introduces the one and only pass that does go through: “For there is no distinction [both of those other purported passes are cul-de-sacs]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25).

It is important to understand that this was the destination Paul was working towards and that everything prior was designed to support that conclusion. If we do not have that understanding, we are likely to misunderstand and misapply some of what he says when he closes off “Pagan Pass” in chapter 1 and “Jewish Pass” in chapters 2 and 3.

The Dead End that’s Pagan Pass (Romans 1:18-32)

Some Christians loudly proclaim that God’s wrath is being brought down on America, or New Zealand, or wherever, by homosexual activity or abortions, or suchlike. They are wrong. They have up­ended what St Paul teaches in Romans 1. Here is what St Paul actually says: ”For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18, 21‑25).

St Paul teaches this sequence of events:

  1. Despite knowing Him, humankind stopped worshipping the one true God and started worshipping what was not God.
  2. Therefore, humankind incurred God’s wrath.
  3. Therefore, God removed his restraining hand and allowed sin to become rampant. The explosion of sin is evidence of God’s wrath, not the cause of it.

Yes, St Paul mentions sexual deviations first, but in verses 28-39 he expands the list to cover a much greater number of sins: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.

As John Calvin says in his commentary, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” If you are using Romans 1 to rank some sins as worse than others, you have missed Paul’s point. He’s closing off “Pagan Pass” to everyone, not just to those who commit a particular shortlist of sins.

If you want to trumpet God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with Romans 1, the people you should have in your sights are the university professors and intellectuals who use their platforms to teach contempt for the name or idea of God. Even if they happened to be opposed to abortion and old-fashioned about homo­sex­uality, they would be the ones – according to St Paul – to draw God’s wrath down upon a society. But, actually, I think your vocal cords would be better used to announce with St Paul that, though God’s wrath is evident (regardless of whom is to blame), the mercy God offers in Christ Jesus is greater.

By the way, if you are someone who believes that some forms of same-sex relationship are not sinful, I am sure you nevertheless believe that other forms are, so that discussion does not weaken St Paul’s argument.

The Dead End that’s the “Jewish” Pass (Romans 2)

The Jewish people were right that they were a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6), but many were wrong about how that gained them, generation by generation, access to the blessings of God. There were two ways their thinking could go wrong. Some might think that blessing and salvation were theirs just by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Others might not count on descent alone, but added to it the condition of a sufficient obedience to the Law of Moses. St Paul’s words in 2:1 to 3:20 combat both those errors.

In 1:18-32, St Paul had shown that the pagan way of life and “worship” was evidence of the wrath of God. One can imagine applause for Paul from a Jewish reader who had read just that far. However, St Paul now turns the tables. He says “…you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). We find out in verse 17 that “O man” is a representative Jew. Simply being a Jew by descent, therefore, is not enough to evade the wrath of God irrespective of quality of life.

St Paul doesn’t ask his readers to merely take his word for it. In verses 2 to 29, he makes an argument that is based on the judicial impartiality of God, and whose core is found in verses 9 to 11: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

“There you have it,” St Paul is saying to any Jew who thinks that Jewish inheritance alone will shield a person from God’s judgment, “– it won’t.” And he adds, in verse 27, “…he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

As St Paul develops his argument, he makes a number of statements that can be (and often are) misapplied. This will happen if we don’t remember what St Paul’s overall objective is in chapters 1 to 3, and what his particular objective is in chapter 2. His overall objective is to defeat any idea that either the Pagan or the Jewish pass goes through to God, and to establish that the only viable pass is that of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His chapter 2 objective, however, is to demonstrate the judicial equality of Jew and Gentile before God. In doing so, he makes some statements that, if pulled from their context, would undermine the overall objective. Therefore, we can take it for granted that he does not intend them to be used that way.

Besides verse 10, which I have already quoted above, the passages in question are these:

Romans 2:6-8 – “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:14-16 – “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Those passages seem to open the door to a doctrine of works-based righteousness. Verses 14‑16 are also sometimes used to suggest an answer to the “What about those who have never heard” problem. (Confession: I’ve done so myself). However, St Paul’s chapter 3 doctrine is that there is one and only one pass, and he would never intimate that there was even the roughest, most ill-defined of an alternative way.

In the context of the judicial impartiality of God, everything St Paul says in those passages is true. What is unsaid (because it is not relevant to his chapter 2 purpose), is that no Jew or Gentile (excepting, of course, Jesus) has ever achieved a standard of obedience that is high enough to clear the bar. St Paul will deal with that issue in the first twenty verses of chapter 3, and I will follow him there in my next post, I hope.

Why Gentile Believers don’t need to be Circumcised

I haven’t quite finished this post, though. It’s worth noting that, as well as furthering progress towards his main objective, St Paul has also slipped in the answer to a question that might have been troubling any members of the church in Rome who were from Jewish backgrounds, or who had been Gentile converts to the Jewish faith. The question is “Why do Gentile believers in Jesus Christ not need to be circumcised?” St Paul gives the answer in verses 28 and 29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Note re “A New Perspective on Paul”

I don’t believe it is necessary – for the purpose of understanding the central teachings in his letter to the Romans – to decide between the classic and new perspectives on the view of Judaism that St Paul reflects in Romans 2 and Romans 3. However he saw the Judaism of his day, and however the Jews saw themselves, the arguments St Paul provides are sufficient to show that there is no Jewish “pass” that exists apart from the way provided by Jesus Christ.

 

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Image:
By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived from Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217

Not the Sister Benedict Option

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 1

A friend of mine, a Roman Catholic, attended a Catholic boys’ high school. From time to time, he meets some of his old classmates, but my friend is the only one out of them who has continued to believe.

His friends put the blame on Sister Benedict. She was a fierce nun whose disciplinary method was to assure misbehaving boys that damnation awaited them unless they repented and mended their ways. Assailed often by this testimony, all the boys except my friend decided that they were such incorrigible reprobates that there was no point continuing to attend church. Only my friend managed to see past the ferocious sister to the gospel and so continue in faith.

My church study group has just completed a detailed study of the first eight chapters of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is plain there that God’s method for encouraging believers to holiness of life differs dramatically from the poor nun’s disastrous scheme. What is more, God guarantees that his way will succeed, and that the well-intentioned sister’s will not, nor any way that is like hers.

Milestone Passages in Romans 1 through 8

There are four passages that serve as milestones in the journey on which St Paul takes his readers in the first eight chapters of Romans. I will quote and comment on them here. (All quotations are from the ESV). If my comments sometimes enlarge on St Paul’s precise words, it is because I am certain that the enlargement accords with St Paul’s prior or subsequent exposition of the topic.


milestone_tr2Milestone 1
at Romans 1:16 marks the start of the journey. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Here (as we will find out when we read on in his letter), St Paul names the themes that will occupy him throughout chapters 1 to 8. We are going to find out that the gospel is about our salvation; that our salvation depends on the power of God; that we lay hold of the gospel’s blessings by faith; and that it’s the same gospel for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.


milestone_tr2The second milestone
is Romans 5:1-5. By the time we reach verse 1, we are at the mid-point of our journey. St Paul has proven that justification is by faith apart from works, and so he states what that means for us. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then, in verse 2, he tells us two more things that flow from our justification, and what that can mean for our state of heart. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Notice the certainty in St Paul’s words!

(i) We stand in a place of grace. We do not oscillate in and out of that place depending on how holy, or not, our behaviour is on a particular day. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who gave and still gives us access, not our success in living a godly life.

(ii) One day we will undoubtedly share in the glory of God. Someone might argue that, by using the word “hope”, St Paul is not asserting here that the glorification of all believers is certain. By the time we have read the final eleven verses of chapter 8, however, it ought to be clear that that is exactly what he does mean. Our hope of glorification is a “sure and certain” hope.

(iii) Because of this double certainty (we stand in a place of grace, and we will ultimately attain to the glory of God), we can live every day of our Christian lives rejoicing.

Verses 3 and 4 then tell us the practical result of living with such certainty. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” The Sister Benedicts of this world (and there are plenty on the Protestant side of the fence, too) think that Christians need to be kept on the straight and narrow by warnings and threats and reminders of hellfire. The Apostle Paul knows that the true foundation of a vibrant Christian life (as far as it lies with the individual) is the joyful assurance that we stand in a place of irrevocable grace, and that the grace that has seen me safe thus far will indeed see me home.

Verse 5 rounds out the rich content of this milestone passage by introducing the real power that ensures that a believer stays attuned to godliness and makes progress in sanctification, notwithstanding any deviations on the way. “…hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

milestone_tr2The third milestone comes at Romans 8:1-2. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

In verse 1, St Paul repeats in different words what he said in Romans 5:1. “Condemned” is the opposite of “justified”, so “not condemned” has essentially the same meaning as “justified”. This time, though, St Paul doesn’t mention faith. Instead, he says that we are “in Christ”. In those words, he is reminding us of what he taught in chapters 5 and 6: that when we believed the gospel, God in some mysterious way united us with Christ. The only way to enter that state of blessing is to believe the gospel, so to say that someone is “in Christ” carries with it the necessary truth that he or she is a believer.

Verses 2-4 sum up what Paul hinted at in Romans 5:2 and began to teach in detail from that point forward. God will ensure that, as well as grasping hold of the gift of justification, every true believer will take the idea of holiness of life seriously and keep growing in that direction. Notice, too, how in verse 3 this progress is made to depend on the power of God: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.

Someone may point out that this progress depends on us walking in the Spirit and not the flesh. Perhaps our glorification is not so certain after all! However, in a later post, God willing, I will show that St Paul includes in the category of those who “walk by the Spirit”, everyone who has been justified by faith, and that this status is not changed even when a believer makes a deviation into fleshly behaviour. His certainty, therefore, is that the Spirit will bring them back on course in due time.

milestone_tr2The final milestone occurs at Romans 8:28-29, and marks the end of this section of the journey. “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” St Paul’s words resonate with the same joy and certainty that we heard in Romans 5:2.The Apostle has not lessened by one iota the certainty to which he encouraged us back then.

Incidentally, verses 38 and 39 are part of St Paul’s answer to the rhetorical question that he posed in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” I don’t know if St Paul knew the parable of the sower when he wrote his letter to the Romans, but it is interesting to compare verses 35‑39 with part of what our Lord Jesus Christ said when explaining the parable: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21). Paul’s victory cry in Romans 8 shows that no one who has been justified by faith is a “rocky ground” hearer.

Sister Benedict and her fretful cousins, Catholic or Protestant, who beset their charges with scoldings and make them worry about their standing with God, are like Uzzah (2 Samuel 6) who put out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant. The triune God has fully under control the sanctification and ultimately the glorification of those who have believed. Yes, there is a place for pastoral and brotherly reminders and warnings. (See, for instance, Galatians 5:21, Galatians 6:7-8, and 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Sin can still trip any of us for a time, but such warnings are likely to be fruitless and positively harmful if they are not built on the foundation of the teaching of grace, and if they are not accompanied by the reaffirmation of grace. Passages that show the spirit in which effective correction should be given include these: Galatians 6:1, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:15 and Hebrews 10:25

In coming weeks, I hope to add further posts to support this one by summarising the assertions St Paul makes and the proofs he provides in the various logical sections within chapters 1‑8. During that series, or in a post at the end, I will also address the “But what about…?’s” that will probably be asked, citing passages from St Paul himself or the Lord Jesus Christ or other epistles that allegedly contradict what I have said in this post is St Paul’s doctrine. (Spoiler: they don’t).

St Paul wanted us to live rejoicing. Let’s cease doubting and live as he encouraged us!

 

Main image: By ludger1961 – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=305335

Milstone clipart: canstockphoto40726157.jpg

Repenting Over a Missed Opportunity

If you have not yet read my preceding post, please do so before reading this one.

Returning to Romans 1, how many preachers have inverted the order of events that is given there, and taught that homosexual activity draws down the wrath of God upon a society? They have failed to see that St Paul says that God’s wrath came first, drawn down by society’s wilful rejection of Him. Widely-prevalent homosexual behaviour and all the other signs of a society gone awry then came about because God, in his wrath, withdrew his restraining hand. (Secularists of course do not believe that there is anything “awry” at all about having an LBGT+ orientation and living accordingly. If you are a secularist, please read on despite that objection – I am taking conservative Christians to task here, not you, and so I am choosing my words accordingly).

“This was not my Choice”

Most LGBT+ people will testify that their orientation is not their choice – that they felt drawn in that direction even before they knew or thought about physical sexual connection.

I say “most” because of course some feminists are on record as having adopted a lesbian lifestyle as a deliberate stand against what they perceived as an oppressively patriarchal society – a stand taken even though they could have, from a merely physical point of view, enjoyed heterosexual relationships had they so wished. And others of both sexes have adopted a queer lifestyle as a deliberate rejection of the orientation that they felt society was trying to impose upon them. However, such stories are well outnumbered by the stories of those who felt they had no choice.

Those conservatives are wrong who see the gay rights movement as an attempt to legitimise and thrust upon society a promiscuous and orgiastic lifestyle which its proponents know to be perverse and wrong. Instead, the movement was quite rightly motivated by the inward knowledge that “This is not my fault; it was not my choice,” and fuelled by anger at the injustice of the treatment of anyone who departed from heterosexuality. Secular society, at least, has not been able to withstand the force of the testimonies and the evidence, and so gay relationships have been decriminalised by most jurisdictions in the western world.

Had the conservative churches been correctly exegeting and applying Romans 1, it should have been easy for them, too, to support this change and largely to rejoice in it.

Collateral Damage

I am not advocating some “revisionist” treatment of the text of Romans 1, just the insight to understand the passage as Calvin did and to apply it accordingly. Paul’s purpose here is not to highlight particular sins of particular individuals and blame them for the sorry state of the world, but to point out the apostate state of the pagan world and blame that for the explosion of individual sin.

A degenerate society exposes its children to far more “stumbling blocks” (temptations to sin – see Luke 17:1) than does a godly one. In the purview of Romans 1, whatever the particular sin to which someone is most vulnerable, that heightened vulnerability is a kind of collateral damage they suffer because of the state of the society into which they were born, and this applies to same-sex-attracted and gender-dysphoric people and to everyone else.

That fact doesn’t take away the responsibility we all have not to sin, regardless of the temptation, but it ought to put a stop to the practice of many conservative churches of singling out LGBT+ people as different and worse than others when weighed on the scale of God’s righteousness. It should also enable conservative Christians to listen with understanding when a same-sex-attracted or gender-dysphoric person says, “This is how I am; it was not my choice.”

A Missed Opportunity

Because of their mishandling of the Romans 1 passage and those others that I discussed in my previous post, conservative churches stridently opposed decriminalisation and have therefore lost the opportunity to be a moderating voice. How much better for the LGBT+ world might it have been if, for the last half-century, conservative churches had been saying, “Yes, we see the injustice you have suffered and support your fight against it. Nevertheless, as servants of Jesus Christ we want to counsel and urge you not to use your freedom to live in sexual promiscuity but for faithfulness and love, and we also want you to consider arguments for living a fulfilled celibate life rather than in a sexual relationship. However, that said, the most important issue for us is to see the injustice removed, and we are with you all the way on that.”

Almighty God has used secular governments and secular courts to undo an injustice that the church of Jesus Christ should have been at the forefront of undoing, but which they obstructed. It is high time for conservative Christians to acknowledge their sin and engage with the LGBT+ world in a way that makes the church’s repentance and compassion palpable and practical.