If the Book of Romans is Paul’s most important letter, then we ought to hone in on passages such as Rom 15:4-13. These ten verses summarize the entire message of book: The good news is that ALL are God’s chosen people—both Jews and Gentiles. Glory be to God!
Paul’s universalist-sounding message brings up a key question. If we are all fellow recipients of God’s promises, then how well are we to get along while we wait for those promises? Shouldn’t ALL of God’s people be united in the knowledge that we ALL fall short of God’s glory in our actions yet through God’s grace we ALL receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus? Shouldn’t unity be our calling card?
Yet as the past year has demonstrated in the US and elsewhere around the world, the people of God are anything but unified. People whose primary allegiance ought to be the family of faith instead have defined themselves by beliefs on gun rights, health care, questions of race, and political candidates. We’ve lost sight of Paul’s passionate plea in Romans! Why do we fail to hear Paul’s message about the unifying force of God’s grace?
Thanks to Luther and Freud, we’ve changed Romans into a psychoanalytical diagnosis of Paul’s “inner turmoil.” The division between human beings is Paul’s primary concern in Romans, but we’ve lost sight of this. Most folks today assume that Paul, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, is racked by guilt. They assume Paul feels unworthy. The culprit, according to Luther and according to all those who read Paul through Luther’s lens, is legalism. If not for God’s rules, people would be happy and free.
Luther, needing to break free from the constraints of medieval Catholicism, discovered grace in Romans. It was a needed breakthrough for him. Luther was paralyzed by a sense of unworthiness. Romans freed him from this. While we can all give thanks that Luther discovered God’s grace, we ought to stop assuming that Luther is like Paul. We need to hear Romans without imposing upon it the burden of medieval Catholicism or even of twentieth-century legalism in Churches of Christ. Paul’s journey wasn’t Luther’s. And it certainly wasn’t the same as ours either.
So what is Paul battling in Romans? For one thing, Paul assuredly isn’t bashing God’s instruction as handed down through the Law! Listen to Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul is channeling the psalmists who write, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). There is nothing evil about the Law of God. How can there be? In the same sense that there is nothing evil about humans made in the image of God, there is no evil in the good and perfect words that come from God’s mouth.
What then is evil? What is it that Paul and all of humanity struggle with? It’s not God’s Law. Rather, it’s the law of sin and death that wages war on our bodies and on our relationships. In other words, it’s Sin with a capital S. The culprit that destroys us is Sin. Sin ruins people. Sin eats away at relationships. Sin makes us arrogant. Sin causes us to segregate and separate. Sin brings on the problems of prejudice, bigotry, insults, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed and idolatry. Sin is the power that wrecks humanity.
When you remove the fiction of “Paul’s inner turmoil” and instead read Romans in this light, then everything changes! This is Paul’s dilemma: How can we overcome Sin that keeps on dividing us? How do we get past Sin that causes me to judge people by their skin color, their education level, their social status, their Facebook posts, or by who they voted for?
Paul is torn by the fact that Gentiles are receiving Christ, yet Jews—who should know best—are rejecting Jesus and rejecting these new believers. The problem, says Paul, isn’t religion or the Law or circumcision or ethnicity or even the Roman Empire. The problem is Sin. God’s instruction hasn’t corrupted the Jews. Sin is wreaking havoc.
When you know the real problem, you can finally look for the real answer. So what’s the answer to the power of Sin? Stay tuned for my final post in this series.