Right with God

My two-year old son recently burst into song whilst being fitted for shoes. As the Clarks assistant knelt down to place his foot against the sizing slider Joe raised his arms to the skies and with all the passion of his lungs cried out ‘And it’s Preston North End, Preston North End FC; they’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen!’

Joe has never seen Preston play and couldn’t name any of the team, but he has been born in to family of North End-ers. His Mummy had a season ticket for years, and Grandpa still does, as did his father before him. Daddy, on the other hand, is a late convert. Apart from a few ambiguous seasons on the terraces of Wokingham Town I had never nailed my colours to any team’s mast, despite loving the game. But when I married Rachel, I also married into Preston. No one forced me; I’ve become a fan of the team (and the city) by choice. But I’m definitely an outsider who’s been grafted in. I owe my North End allegiance to my new family, not my old one.

When Paul wrote to the Romans he was communicating to a divided church. The Jews had been expelled from the city in 49 CE because of friction between Jewish and Gentile Christian factions (see Acts 18:2). Jewish Christianity in Rome had been functioning like a Jewish sect; the Law with its rituals and the Prophets with their nationalising identity held the gospel of the Christ firmly within Jewish boundaries. Gentile Christianity, however, had taken its own course, unencumbered by ‘unnecessary’ regulations and the perceived arrogant claims to Jewish supremacy as God’s people. During the Jews’ five-year exclusion, the Gentiles were freed to blossom. Once reunited, it was clear that absence had by no means made hearts grow fonder.

Romans is Paul’s ambitious attempt to provide a theological reconciliation for Jewish and Gentile believers. It was no good for Paul to just write and say ‘get along’. The problem was theological; it needed a theological solution. And this is it: that the Gentile believers owe their faith to the Jews and have been grafted into the Jewish tree, Israel. But Israel is changing, and the result is nothing short of gospel, a ‘good news’ to be proclaimed from the rooftops.

An anti-Roman reading

2009 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Along with Martin Luther, Calvin shaped the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and with it the last five centuries of world history. What Luther and Calvin advocated in reaction to the oppression of the Roman church was a re-reading of Romans that emphasised salvation by God’s grace, rather than by ‘works’ (which in the reformers’ world translated to penances and indulgences). For Luther, in particular, the idea of ‘justification by faith’ for which Romans has become so famous, was instrumental in his conversion from an embattled Catholic monk to an empowered Protestant leader.

But Luther and Calvin also brought something disastrous to their reading of Romans. Both men, in different ways, saw in themselves and in those around them nothing but desperate sinfulness; that it was only in God that good could be found. Calvin is infamous for his concept of original sin; that every human is born ‘totally depraved’ while Luther’s sole preoccupation was how he could make himself acceptable to God. With their prior commitment to this worldview they read into Paul a concern that he simply does not display. Unfortunately, with this misreading they distorted passages that seemed to confirm their convictions and constructed arguments that bore out their assumptions. The fall-out from this abuse of the New Testament’s most theologically vital letter has been to misshape Christianity and its gospel for generations. Because what Paul had to say about humanity was something quite opposite to what the reformers had in mind.

Justified?

For the Jewish people living in the first century CE – whether in Palestine or around the cities of the Fertile Crescent – one question stood out above all others. What possible justification did they have for persisting in their conviction that God had made a covenant with them? Empire after empire had come and gone since the dissolution of the states of Israel and Judah. Nearly four hundred years after rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, Jews still lived under occupation. The covenant with David for a kingly line looked like a joke. As for the covenant with Moses at Sinai, it flailed woefully without a national infrastructure in which to grow and flourish.

And yet in a characteristic act of defiance many Jews resolutely refused to give up their confidence in Yahweh and his promises to their fathers. The Law was their justification they claimed. Who else but Yahweh could have inspired such a breathtaking vision for society? On this basis they had absolute confidence to proclaim ‘we are the People of God’. If they kept to this code then, at the Judgement, Yahweh would declare them righteous. They would be vindicated.

For the Gentiles, this Jewish fascination with their Law was absurd and irrelevant. They didn’t convert to Christ on the basis of any ancient code, but because of the powerful experience of his Spirit that was sweeping Asia Minor alongside the apostle with a gospel for the Greeks. They didn’t have all the baggage of Jewish history to contend with; no need to justify themselves or their faith. They possessed a simple story of resurrection, but it was a story without any roots.

But the Jews are justified says Paul, as are the Gentiles. Both are justified by faith. Nothing has been more unhelpful for understanding this idea than Luther’s reading of Rom 5:1. Because of Luther we now imagine justification as the way by which a ‘sinner’ gets right with a holy God. But nothing about Romans presents the problem, or the solution, as whether anybody is or isn’t ‘right with God’. The issue is whether people are ‘right with God’. The emphasis is everything.

It’s all about wrath and righteousness

Right at the start of his letter Paul paints a controversial picture of a world that has turned against God and incited his wrath (1:18–32). No one has any excuse for not recognising what the work of God in the world is – it’s self-evident (1:18–20). This work of righteousness (or justice – the words are often interchangeable) requires imagination; it’s an ongoing transformative pursuit. For Jewish readers Yahweh’s justice is part of his creation and recreation. Yet true worship of God (that always leads to justice) was being abandoned for worship of the body (1:24–27). For a worldview that still celebrated sex for procreation, homosexual lust was the ultimate symbol of an abandoned creativity, a self-centred pursuit of pleasure which typified the stagnant marshlands in which injustice ferments. (We might not like this analogy, but I think that's how we should understand Paul's difficult words.)

So from God’s anger at injustice flows his righteousness, the unstoppable creative force which will transform the world and hold to account those who oppose it. No one gets special privileges from the judgement that is coming – you are either on board, or you are not; either joining with God in bringing his justice, or not.

This is the sharp tip of Paul’s assault on Jewish complacency. The issue is not whether they have the Law. It is whether they keep it! They will not be justified in holding faith in their covenant with Yahweh simply by being in possession of a Law that only condemns them, even as they participate in the injustice it seeks to prevent. That’s like a traffic offender clinging on devotedly to a speed camera! But they will be justified. And it’s a scandal.

Faith

Rather than being justified by these ‘works’, both the Jews and the Gentiles are justified by faith. Not, as Luther presumed, by their faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But by God’s faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice! Because it is God who justifies (8:33): just as the Law is from God, so is this faith.

In making his case Paul re-presents Jewish history. He looks right back to Abraham - who responded to God on faith, before he fulfilled any aspect of the Law – rather than to Moses, to whom the Law was given. Abraham, who was heir to an outrageous promise, was one for whom Christ was the fulfilment. For what is more outrageous than having a son when you are a hundred years old and your wife is barren, except for rising from the dead! (see chapter 4) But the resurrection of Christ means more than just a fulfilment of Jewish promise. Paul goes further, re-presenting human history in terms of Adam and Christ. Jesus did what Adam could not, and becomes the hope for every human who wants to join in God’s mission of righteousness. Adam opened the door for human failure, but Christ opens the door for human redemption (5:12–6:14). The atoning sacrifice of Jesus does not persuade God to forgive humanity. It vindicates his decision to have faith in us! (3:25) God doesn’t look through some Jesus-coloured lens and get duped into seeing us as sinless. God looks at us and Jesus side by side and says ‘well if he can do that, so can you!’ He is ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.’ (4:17).

According to Paul, God has faith in both Jew and Gentile. Both can join him in his righteousness – his justice movement to recreate the world. Both are children of Abraham, the father of this movement, the first to be entrusted with its promise: of life against the odds.

So we are justified by faith. God’s demonstration in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that humankind can be redeemed and recreated is all the justification that anybody needs to proclaim their part in the New Covenant and give their lives for God’s redeeming justice.

The family tree

But all of this creative theology is still headed towards something new. Paul’s genius in Romans – and the reason it does get a bit convoluted – is that he confounds both Jews and Gentiles with each turn. Every knock to Jewish arrogance is laced with a kick-back to Gentile smugness. Each challenge to Gentile ignorance is matched by a land-mine under Jewish self-security.

For the Jews who lived with their confidence in the Law of Moses, Paul throws them back to Abraham and a wider mission that was designed to encompass the Gentiles all along. But for the Gentiles whose faith was free and rootless, Paul’s gospel grabs them and grafts them in. The result is a deeply humbling challenge to both.

For in the climax of his letter Paul sets out a theology of Israel. Is Israel a people, or a nation? Israel – according to Paul – is a tree.

The tree is an important symbol. It is organic, life-giving and ancient. The point is not whether you can trace your lineage to Abraham (Ishmael could do that, but only the children of Isaac were reckoned in his inheritance, see 9:6–9). The issue is whether you are a child of the promise, and that requires roots that are deeper than family ties and branches wider than national identity.

So it’s those who are right with God, fully on board with his recreative mission, those who have joined his prophetic family, adopted as heirs to the promise of a new creation (8:17); these are the true Israel. These are the true children of the promise.

Believing God

‘Therefore’, says Paul in 12:1 – the start to the final section, the implications of this theological reshaping – ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.’ This is how the church in Rome was to demonstrate their faith in God’s faith. Saying that God believes in us is not like some feel-good movie where the coach refuses to give up on the ailing football wannabe. What Paul is talking about is the deeply sacrificial path of true redemptive humanity – the identity mark of the true Israel. You don’t get to be in the light-to-the-nations family just by saying the right words or doing the right outward rituals. You demonstrate the family likeness by following the example of Jesus and dying to the world and its charms, offering your body as a living sacrifice that makes worship far deeper and more spiritual than the outward appearance of religion. God has faith that we can be that Christ-kind of human, rather than the Adam-kind. But we need to believe God. Or we’re cut off by our unbelief (11:17–24).

A friend of mine told me today that he has diabetes. He was merrily munching through a chocolate biscuit at the time, something his doctor has now expressly forbidden. That pretty much sums up how I feel about Romans. I know the problem is a world that throbs to the pulse of injustice. And I know that my heart is sick, from years upon years of quietly rehearsing its rhythms. But when I hear Paul’s gospel – that in Christ my heart can be recreated, and I can dance to the beat of a different drum – my spirit and my emotions are moved, but in my actions I am strangely ambivalent. The theory sounds great; it’s the life ‘in Christ’ (12:5), embracing my death in order to glory in my resurrection – that’s the ‘folly’ that proves my stumbling block.

The church on a mission

It really is astonishing that Christianity exploded from a radical Jewish sect to a worldwide Gentile phenomenon. It’s even more astonishing that in doing so it has kept its roots in the Jewish soil of the Old Testament. Both of these remarkable facts are in no small measure credit to Paul and his letter to the Romans.

Through the course of this history, however, the notion of ‘Israel’ as the living tree that defines and gives life to the faith has been replaced by the language of ‘church’. Thinking of Romans this way reminds me of a moment, early on in the emerging church conversation, when Andrew Jones coined the phrase 'deep ecclesiology'. It describes an approach to church which values all its expressions from the highest to the lowest. What matters most is not our particular theological self-understanding.

What matters most is the mission we're on. Are we right with God on his?


Matt Valler's picture

Would love your comments on

Would love your comments on this article. It's obviously challenging some long-held ideas about Romans. What do you think? Bang on, or way off??