Series on Romans (Part III).

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2012-10-21 by abookflog

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
21st October 2012
Reading: Romans 5

Romans 5 (NIV)

Peace and Hope

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.
3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;
4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.
5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.
7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Death Through Adam, Life Through Christ

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.
14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more,
21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Do you have days when it all seems so implausible? God in human form, performing miracles, dying for our sins, rising from the dead – it just all feels so unlikely? Do you? (Congregation nods and murmurs in agreement.) So do I. And because of this, I’m really glad we aren’t saved by believing six impossible things before breakfast, as the Red Queen puts it in Alice in Wonderland. Or to put it another way, we aren’t saved by doctrine. Which is what I’m going to explore through a reading of Romans 5 today.

Let’s recap on the other sermons in this series. Sue showed us that the letter to the Romans is addressed to a specific church situation where you have a church of Jews and Gentiles, debating the issue of whether you have to become a Jew to be a Christian. She also showed us that  according to Paul, Jesus had opened up a new way of righteousness.  This way does not so much bypass the Jewish law, as fulfil it in the person of Jesus – and this is what chapter 4:13 calls ‘the righteousness of faith’.

Here, as Sue pointed out, is the crunch point. Does that mean righteousness obtained by our faith in Jesus, or by the faith of Jesus, the faith he himself showed? All translations before Luther favoured the second, but since Luther it has been the first. And this is where I see a difference between a Christendom reading of Romans and an Anabaptist one – remembering that Luther himself still believed in a state church, just a reformed one.

Here’s why I think of this as a Christendom reading. If all we have to do to be saved, or made righteous, is to believe certain things about Jesus,  then apart from going to church regularly and giving up certain blatant sins, we don’t actually have to do much to demonstrate our faith. So the Christendom state gains obedient citizens, who are going to pay their taxes and not cause too many political ructions.  Because salvation becomes about getting to heaven if you believe the right things, not about transforming this world in partnership with God.

So what about an Anabaptist reading? Well, in preparing for this sermon I did something I don’t usually do; I looked up some  alternative translations of the Greek. To refresh my memory I also looked at all the chapters leading up to chapter 5.  And I found it very interesting.

First of all, right there in chapter 1, I found that a key text for Luther, and for evangelicals, can actually be translated quite differently. Verse 17 is rendered in the NRSV, as you heard it, as “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Even in this version, it seems to me that we have in practice reversed it, to say,”The one who has faith will be deemed righteous.” It could instead be read as, “Anyone who does good will do so by faith in Jesus” or indeed “Anyone who knows what is good will come to Jesus.”

But now listen to the alternative translation: “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” When I saw this I thought, “Wow – this is really Anabaptist!” Because I think it’s not saying that just having faith makes us righteous but that the one who really lives, is the one whose faith issues in righteousness: i.e. acts of real justice and goodness. How like James – and indeed how like Jesus.

You could easily accuse me of putting a particular interpretation on this. It could, just like the common translation,  be read to say, “Faith  alone makes you righteous and gives eternal life.” But then I started exploring the other chapters. And everywhere I looked, I found confirmations of my reading. Right there in the greeting at the start of chapter 1, we have this: “Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith – surely that doesn’t mean that faith itself constitutes obedience, but that leads to obedience, i.e. practical righteousness?

Then in chapter 2:6-9, which we missed out but Sue quoted, we have: “There will be anguish and distress for everyone 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.” The rewards are not for those who believe the truth, they are for those who obey the truth, who do good. And in 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” You only have to put on Anabaptist specs to notice how this undermines the idea that we are justified just by believing certain propositions. Again, how like James, and how like Jesus.

But here I hear you, or possibly someone more evangelical, objecting. What about chapter 4, with its exploration of the faith of Abraham? Isn’t it the whole point that it was Abraham’s faith, even before his circumcision or the existence of the law, that made him righteous? Yes, it does indeed say that. However, how do we know Abraham had faith? Because he left Ur at God’s command. He acted in faith, and that’s how he  demonstrated his righteousness. A faith which never steps out in faith is no faith at all.

So now we come at last to chapter 5 itself. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.” A verse greatly beloved of evangelical theologians. But in the light of what we’ve discovered in the other chapters, faith in this context can’t possibly mean just believing the right things. And it can possibly mean not our own faith in Jesus,  but the faith Jesus showed in living and dying for his Father God. Which is what verses 6-10 imply: that it is the death of Jesus, rather than what we believe about that death, that brings us reconciliation with God.

Here I would like to do a small detour to two other translation issues. Firstly, in chapter 3. Chapter 3:24-25 is normally translated like this:”They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” But in the alternative translation, what Jesus did on the cross is described just as “a place of atonement”. The word “sacrifice” is a choice by the translators. In fact, as far as I could see, Paul doesn’t specify anywhere in Romans 1-5 how the death of Jesus works to reconcile us to God. He simply says it does.

When I once said this in a Bible note a fellow writer wrote to me to say how tremendously liberating she found this, because it meant she no longer had to struggle to understand the Cross in a particular way – basically penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that on the cross Jesus was paying the penalty to God for our sins. Instead she could simply accept that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:19.

Now the last translation issue, which is in chapter 5 itself.  5:9 in the NRSV and other translations reads: “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” But in the Greek original, the words “of God” aren’t there at all. In Greek, it simply says “much more… will we be saved through him from the wrath.” Nothing about whose wrath this is. Could it be the natural consequences of our sinful actions – the wrath, as it were, of how the world works? Or could it be the wrath of the devil, as the pre-Christendom church believed? This is the ransom theory, which some sects today still favour: that Jesus’ death was not a payment to God for our sins, but a ransom to the devil who held us captive. This answers the question I saw on facebook recently: “Does Jesus save us from God?” The answer is: “No.”

Let’s sum up. Chapter 5 of Romans in its context, does not have to be about bending over backwards to believe certain things about Jesus in a certain way.  It could be about trusting in the effect of Jesus’ own faith in God. And finally, how do we know if we are saved by that faith? We know, if it results in our living the way Jesus lived and doing the kind of things Jesus did. We don’t even have to look to James for this understanding – it’s all there in Romans.

What difference does that make to the days when I find it hard to believe anything at all? It means that even when I doubt,  I can go on trusting in God, which is what faith ultimately is. And I can go on attempting, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to live the Jesus way, in the faith that my efforts won’t be wasted.

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