Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reading Paul

For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
Romans 2:6-8

During the adult education hour at our church, I've been going to a class on Romans. We Protestants love Romans, don't we? To us it almost seems to summarize the gospel more sublimely and succinctly than, well, um, the gospels. (shrug)

Anyway, the structure of the class has been to hit a series of hot-button issues dealt with in Romans, rather than to outline the overall argument. The teachers have been very up front that this is what they're doing, so I can't blame them for it. It is good to educate Christians about modern controversies about the Bible. At the very least, when people hear all the fuss about N. T. Wright and the "New Perspective on Paul" they'll know a little bit about what's going on.

I have to give the teachers credit for stating explicitly that we're not to judge anyone with regards to the controversy on Paul's view of justification in Romans. There's an awful lot of mudslinging that goes on over seemingly obscure theological issues, but since many people take those issues to be the core of the gospel, they're quick to pass judgment on new ideas.

What do I mean by "obscure theological issues"? It might sound offensive to many Christians, but that's really what these are: obscure. Face it. You don't know what Romans says in Greek, do you? If you do, then great, but let's all admit from the start that a) Paul is hard to understand and b) if God's salvation is based on understanding theological fine print, we're all screwed.

So what are these issues that are obscure yet central to what many Christians believe is the gospel? Quite simply: God's righteousness, our guilt, and justification by faith apart from the law.

These are big theological concepts, so thankfully we've broken them down so that even little children can understand. We're all sinners, but God is so merciful to us that he sent his only Son to die on our behalf, so that if we believe in him he will forgive our sins, and we can go to heaven. Justified by faith: just as if I'd never sinned. Easy, right?

Except that it isn't so easy. Evangelicals insist so adamantly that our salvation is not by works that they virtually screen out passages like Romans 2 (see the quote above) where Paul explicitly states that there will be a final judgment according to works. What happened to faith alone?

I asked one of the teachers at the end of our class today about this, and he actually thought that Romans 2 worked in his favor, against the New Perspective guys, including Wright.

His reasoning is as follows. The thing that the New Perspective does with Paul is that it makes justification by faith not so much about how we are saved (soteriology), but about who constitutes the church (ecclesiology). There is massive evidence for this shift in Romans, including the fact that every single time Paul brings up justification by faith, it's in the context of talking about the Jew/Gentile distinction that is now abolished in Christ.

The problem, my teacher says, is that Romans 2 makes it clear that when Paul talks about works, he is also talking about the moral law, not just the particularly Jewish law. So when Paul says that justification is by faith apart from works, he means those works, too.

Wait a minute. So, he's basically interpreting Romans 3 in such a way as to nullify what was just said in Romans 2, and to do that he actually uses Romans 2? That's like using Paul to refute Paul. Something is amiss.

In fact, the vast majority of evangelical churches interpret Romans 2 the way they want to. They call it "reading in context," but it's not reading in Paul's context--just the context of post-Reformation theology. They explain it like this: in Romans 2, Paul is showing us that God has the right to demand of us perfect righteousness. But then in Romans 3, he shows us that none of us are righteous, and that there's no hope except in God's mercy. So then he finishes Romans 3 by telling us how we are justified by faith apart from works, because there's no way we could be saved by our works.

The only problem is that's basically interpreting Romans 2:6-8 out of existence. It's not reading it "in context," it's just a failure to take it seriously. In absolutely no part of Romans does Paul ever indicate that he's not utterly serious when he says, "To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life."

So is this "works salvation?" Well, one huge complicating factor is that Paul often seems to view salvation as a different thing from judgment at the end time. Having taken my teacher's advice and read Romans straight through (about three times since this class start three weeks ago) I noticed that often Paul talks about being "saved" while referring merely to conversion. It seems to indicate being rescued from the present corrupt generation and being brought into God's people, "grafted into the root," as it were.

But then other times, as in Romans 13:11, Paul refers to "salvation" as being the end time, perhaps the return of Jesus. And in that context, he says quite explicitly that we need to "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."

Paul would seem to be saying that the first kind of salvation is absolutely not based on works, but entirely by faith (cf. Romans 10:9-10). But as for anticipating the hope in which we were saved (8:24) Paul exhorts us to "put to death the deeds of the body," "for if you live according to the flesh, you will die." (8:13) And this seems entirely consistent with what he said back in Romans 2, that people will be judged according to works.

But is it by our own effort that we're saved? Paul doesn't really seem to be saying, "Just put in the effort and you'll be saved." He says, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." Without the Spirit, for Paul, nothing is possible. With the Spirit, everything is possible. So in the end, it's still all by grace--not by your own works, but by the work of the Spirit.

What is Paul's primary message in all of Romans? Well, starting in Ch. 1 he talks a lot about faith; then especially in Ch. 8 he talks about hope; but he ends the letter by talking about "the greatest of these": love. Echoing the words of Jesus, Paul answers for us the question of how we ultimately please God: "The commandments... are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (13:9)

Kind of funny how 1 Cor. 13 is the "love chapter," and then it turns out, so is Romans 13!

And that really does, I think, summarize Paul's biggest point ever: it's all about love. In Romans 2, when he's talking about judgment, he starts with, don't judge others! And in Ch. 12-15, he talks about serving one another, overcoming evil with good, and not violating someone else's conscience, and all the other ways in which we show love.

In the end, I don't understand Romans any better than the next guy in my Sunday school class. But I do know that Protestants will often go to great lengths to twist passages in Romans that don't suit their preconceived notions of what "the context" of Romans is. And that seems wrong to me, mostly because I think it causes us to miss Paul's greatest point ever, which is that it's all about love!

So if anyone asks me what the gospel is all about, I will say it's all about love. And I think that's easy enough for a child to understand.

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