Paul’s Gospel Challenge to the Romans: From Sin as Law Breaking to Sin as Bondage to Law and Death

In addition to refuting the false Teacher in Romans, Paul is also challenging the Roman Christians to accept a more comprehensive understanding of the work of Christ. His very reason for writing, and eventually visiting, is to explain the gospel (1:15). Paul is presuming they have not heard the gospel in its fulness, and he is eager that they would have this more complete understanding so as to be able to resist the false Teacher, but also so they might enjoy a deeper faith. Where he is moving them from (or his point of departure), is their view regarding the work of Christ (in 3:23-26), in which atonement is said to be “for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions.” Their understanding is true, in so far as it goes, but it does not go very far, and so Paul is beginning with what they understand and building from there. They may be so focused on the efficacy of Christ’s death that they fail to consider the resurrection (as his defeat of death and the beginning of his rule over the powers).

The Roman Christians, as we gather from the way in which Paul builds his case, may simply believe Christ has replaced the need for sacrifice for sin in the Temple (even the false Teacher probably believes as much), but they may not have grasped the cosmic implications of Christ. As Douglas Campbell writes, “Christ’s death functions more as an apparent replacement of the temple cultus, which cleanses or wipes various individual transgressions from the relevant worshipers and their consciences (see Heb. 9:11–14, 24–28). Hence, there is no further atoning role for the resurrection to play.”[1]  They may be looking forward to a future vindication in their own resurrection, but fail to apprehend the notion of a resurrection life now (present participation in the life of Christ). They seem to have missed that sin is not simply breaking laws, but an orientation to death defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection (as Paul will explain shortly, in some detail). (Thus, Paul’s true thesis for the letter may be his opening focus on resurrection in 1:4). It is not that the Roman understanding is wrong per se, but their limited understanding has left them vulnerable to the false Teacher.

In this understanding, God is concerned with good and bad deeds, and the judgment will be based on an accounting of these deeds. As Paul sums it up, “God will render to each person according to his deeds” (2:5) and only “the doers of the law will be justified” (2:14). But of course, this is not Paul’s position, because he immediately refutes this notion saying, “that from the works of law no flesh will be justified” (3:20). Paul’s teaching is that justification comes “by faith, apart from works of law” (3:28). The problem is the Romans may have such a limited notion of faith as to imagine it is defined by law keeping – Christ satisfies the law and faith is trusting in this fact.

The false Teacher has been able to take advantage of their narrow understanding, and Paul is simultaneously refuting the false teaching and broadening their understanding by presenting his more radical gospel. He is doing this on two fronts; showing that the problem of sin is more serious than they imagined, and then showing that the answer of salvation is also cosmic, fundamental and all-encompassing. Where their faith is attached to law and transgression, the resurrection faith which Paul will begin to spell out entails cosmic new creation.

To convince them of his more radical gospel their basic concepts of justification, judgment, and sin, are going to need to be reworked in light of the work of Christ, and this will involve a new hermeneutic. The concept of the false Teacher, which the Romans may share, is that justification is through works, judgment is on the basis of works, and sin is concerned with bad works. This is hardly an adequate understanding of the depth of the human predicament and the need for rescue, so Paul broadens their understanding of sin, moving them from focus on sin as a mere act to picturing it as bondage to deception.

Rather than speaking of plural “sins” Paul speaks of sin as a singular force. As Louis Martyn points out, “While Paul uses the word “sin” in the singular rather frequently, the plural form emerges only four times in the genuine letters.” Martyn provides an examination of all the plural uses of the word, and concludes, “Only when he is quoting traditional formulas does Paul speak of Jesus as having died for our sins (Gal. 1:4; I Cor 15:3).”[2] As long as the Roman Christians think of sins as defined by works of the law (“for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions”), they will consider the human predicament as concerned with outward works and signs (such as circumcision). In turn, God will be understood through the law, as the one who punishes and rewards, and justice and judgment will also be law-based determinations.

What becomes obvious by Romans 7 is that Paul’s definition of sin (deception in regard to the law) is manifest in the gospel of the false Teacher (his false gospel is sin at work). The Romans are susceptible to this false teaching, inasmuch as they have also misconstrued the importance of the law. Paul argues Christ is the righteousness of God revealed (not the law) but they may be a long way from this concept. Isn’t the law the righteousness of God revealed, they might ask? How can Paul say the gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (1:17)?

Paul’s depiction of the work of Christ (righteousness enacted) as release from a death-dealing deception (in chapters 5-8) is a new concept (if 3:23-26 reflects the extent of their initial understanding). The Roman Christians may be similar to Christians today, who hold to justification theory. Neither group seems to fully comprehended that in Paul’s gospel, Christian faith is a participation in the work of Christ (living out his death and resurrection) so as to break free of the bondage of the power of sin. Salvation is not merely a cleansing nor baptism the spiritual equivalent of a bath. Note, that he begins by questioning whether they know the full meaning of baptism: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (6:3-4). As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Christians are not merely enabled to live, purified, in the present world, but their very being is transformed and they enter a new world.”[3]

So, Paul’s task in Romans is to bridge a gap in the thinking of these Christians. He is going to try to move them from a child-like view of sins, to a more profound recognition of sin, and thus strengthen their recognition of the work of Christ. He does this in the immediate context by appeal to the life of Abraham.

 In chapter 4, he demonstrates from the story of Abraham that the law is not definitive of the faith of Abraham, but the life journey of Abraham (in which he was given the promise of life in the face of death) is definitive. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Where the Romans may consider righteousness as defined by the law, Paul connects it to the faith of Abraham, which precedes the law. “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (4:10). Abraham’s faith is not defined by the law, as there was no law. Abraham is the prototype of faith, and yet his faith is nothing on the order of that described by the false Teacher (or justification theory), in which law is determinant.

The law is secondary in the life of Abraham, a mere sign of the promise of life: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (4:11). Certainly, he is the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Abraham’s faith stands juxtaposed to the notion that faith is in regard to the law, or that faith is objective and static (rather than dynamic and lived out). Abraham’s life journey, his active trust in God, leaving his home country and family, and his continued journey literally and metaphorically into the unknown, describe a participatory, lived out faith.

Abraham does not feel a guilt-stricken conscience before the law; that is not even a possibility. Law does not figure into the equation at all. Rather, Abraham’s faith was exercised in his orientation to the promise of life in the face of death: “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (4:13).

Paul concludes his depiction of the faith defining role of Abraham as culminating in resurrection faith: “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24). Righteousness is not primarily a legal term for Paul, but it pertains directly to Christ, and his making right that which is wrong. Where death reigned prior to faith, now life reigns through Christ and resurrection faith.

The Romans may have had a weak view of the resurrection, viewing it as the reward or end point of cleansing from sin. Paul’s view is more radical: Cleansing and freedom from sin are not the achievement leading to resurrection rather, “Cleansing and hence freedom from Sin [is the] freedom of resurrection.”[4] Resurrection is the liberating event bringing about freedom from the law of sin and death, and this is enacted in Christ for all who have faith. As illustrated in the resurrection faith of Abraham, one’s life course is liberated from death through faith. Christians are liberated from the very structures of sin through resurrection faith. This is the atoning, liberating work accomplished by Christ, displayed by Abraham, and definitive of Christian faith. This resurrection orientation is itself salvific in its defeat of the orientation to death, which is sin.

In Romans 5 Paul takes this a step further, juxtaposing Adam and Christ: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). Death reigned in Adam and this accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), and just so, “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here sin is a singular, ethical, epistemological, and ontological force that has captured the human race, not just in physical death but in an orientation which is death dealing. Paul describes this as a primordial deception, a covenant with death, or the law of sin and death. In chapter 7 he explains how the dynamic of this lie works in conjunction with the law, or simply with human understanding of the law. There is a fundamental deception in regard to the law, by which sin enters in: “sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). In this chapter Paul describes the topography of the human Subject, as the dynamic of this lie takes hold. Chapters 5 and 7 explain how it is that this law of sin and death has captured the human race, while chapters 6 and 8 describe how Christ frees from the death dealing bondage of sin.

Far from the law playing a guiding or defining role, in Paul’s gospel the law is the occasion for sin. It may be that it is not only the false Teacher implicated in this deception, but the Romans, through their own inadequate notion of atonement have given him an opportunity. But this is not the peculiar trick of the false Teacher, or a peculiar weakness on the part of the Romans, as Paul explains, this deception in regard to the law is the universal human problem resolved through the work of Christ. In his gospel, the law is displaced with a participatory faith in Christ which nullifies the law of sin and death.

[1] Douglas A, Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 709). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 89. The rest of the quote from Martyn reads: “Of these four instances one is a sentence Paul explicitly identifies as an early Christian confession (I Cor 15:3); a second stands in the broad context of that confession (I Cor. 15:17); the third functions in effect as a plural adjective modifying a plural noun (Rom 7:5, “sinful passions”) and the fourth emerges in the present verse.” Martyn is referencing the verse in Galatians 1:4.

[3] Campbell, 709.

[4] Campbell, 710.

Can You Be a Christian and Still be Violent? (A Rift is Coming)

The following was posted on Thinking Peacefully on December 15, 2015.  You can read it here.

Well, it depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  Let me explain.

If you think Jesus came because God is obligated by nature to punish sin by sending people to hell but he didn’t want to…instead sending the second person of the Trinity (the Son) to experience a type of hell in your place such that, if you claim a certain religious belief or perform a certain religious rite you are now forgiven and freed from eternal punishment…then sure.  Most folks whose view of sin and salvation can be boiled down to this have no problem with doing violence—in fact—most folks who think of sin and salvation this way seem to assume that to be unwilling to do violence is immoral.  The reason is the whole theology is wrapped up in a simple exchange between the Father and the Son on our behalf.  Jesus’ life and teaching have little bearing on what it means to actually “be saved.”  Salvation is all about having a certain status (that of “being saved”) and that status is achieved through the actions of someone else (Christ on the cross) and a simple religious affiliation (the sinner’s prayer or baptism) on my part.  One might go so far (and many have) as to say that the central assumption in this theology is that God is, at his heart, a violent God who must atone for the sins of his people violently.  And people emulate the God they claim to follow.  Therefore, violence is the normative reality for these folks, rather than love.

This is the reason that people who think differently than these folks are often stymied when saying, “But what about Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies?”  The blank stares and mystified looks of those who hold to this view are a way of saying, “What does being a Christian have to do with any of what Jesus said?  We like our view of the God of the Old Testament better anyhow.  There’s a God who knew how to make things happen.”

However, if you think (as I do) that what Jesus came to do was not just a simple exchange, then…no.  I (and many others like me) don’t believe that Jesus came to die in our place in the sense that people often think.  He didn’t stand in between God and me, facing God’s wrath.  He stood in between God and me, facing mine.  Jesus on the cross was not man being killed by God, but God being killed by man.  Yes, in the Old Testament, God worked around violence and sometimes acquiesced to violence.  But, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3 NIV).

In other words, “Jesus is the complete revelation of God.  This is what God always wanted us to know about him.  It supercedes what we take God to be in the Old Testament because God hadn’t revealed himself to us fully until Jesus.”  And in Jesus, we see a God who would die himself rather than kill you to defend himself from you.  Jesus is God dying in our place, but in a way different than we thought.  He died because he loved those who hated him.

In this view, salvation is not about a simple exchange to keep you out of hell.  In fact, the idea of salvation is full and robust.  It is about the coming of God’s full kingdom to the earth, his will on earth as it is in heaven.  Salvation is met out through a group of people who believe that Jesus’ way of doing life (a cross-shaped life) is the solution to all of the sin of this world (and all sin is a type of violence we do to ourselves, one another, or God).

“Salvation” for folks who believe this is about following Jesus on the way of the cross.  It’s about saying, “If Jesus is God dying because he’d rather die by his enemy’s hand than kill his enemy, then I’m supposed to be a person who’d rather die by my enemy’s hand than kill my enemy—because I love my enemy the way Jesus loved me.”

And, yes, that means even someone who comes into your home to steal, rob, and destroy.  And, yes, even if you have a family whom you love…because if we love our family we’ll want them to follow Jesus, too.

We believe this because we believe that it is the only hope for a world torn apart by violence.  We believe that Jesus demonstrates that love is the true normative reality, not violence.  And love is enacted on crosses, not with swords.  And crosses are a daily way of life, where people serve one another rather than take advantage of one another; and those with little status are held in high esteem because God cares for all people, even those who the violent world has marginalized.

We can do all of this because we believe what the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8,

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17 NIV).

We believe that those who die with Christ will be raised with him.

The first view of salvation is about hell and retribution.

The second is about cross and resurrection.

The first about violence and fear.

The second is about love and trust.

The first assumes violence is necessary and nonviolence has nothing to do with Christianity.

The second assumes that violence is unnecessary and that Christianity is about nonviolence in all forms.

The first is about a violent God who takes out his violence on the innocent to save the guilty.

The second is about a loving God who innocently receives the violence of the guilty and beckons them to follow him.

The first sees no tension between being a Christian and the pursuit of power of the Empire.

The second sees these two things in mutual exclusivity.

These two views are inherently incompatible.

A rift is coming.

So, what does this say?  Can someone be a Christian and be violent?  The answer depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  If you are of the first camp, you say “yes.”  In the second, “no.”  But here’s the thing: a rift is coming.  There is little about these views of Christianity that can be harmonized.  I’m not sure I’m willing to say that those who believe in the first view “aren’t Christian.”  But what I must admit is that I think what they believe “isn’t the Gospel.”  And I suppose that what they must admit to themselves is that what I believe isn’t the Gospel to them either.  And I don’t know what to do about that other than keep asking them to consider the Gospel I’ve discovered.  And I keep doing so, and nearly all of them reject it.

Someone will say that this is judgmental.  I don’t think so.  Here’s what I think, though.  As our world becomes more violent and as fear motivates people to think darker thoughts…as the country we live in turns more and more to guns and war…I think it will not be those who claim that Jesus calls us to active peacemaking who will be the judging aggressors.

We live in the most well-armed, richest, most well-defended society in the history of this planet.  And I believe most people are more terrified than they’ve ever been.  “More guns, more soldiers, more violence” is what I feel I see Christians saying over and over and over.  I think the time is coming when those who believe in the first Gospel will take up arms against those who believe in the second.  And those who believe in the second will have an opportunity to prove their faith as well.  It will come when a peacemaker comes to the aid of someone perceived to be “the enemy,” and the violent Christian cries “traitor!”  It’s coming.

Historically, it was certain Roman Catholics and certain Protestants who teamed up to torture and murder the early pacifist Anabaptist Christians.

This post is dedicated to my close friends who taught me the second view of the Gospel; that Jesus came to instate his peaceful kingdom here.  I dedicated it at a time when they were enduring a type of crucifixion, being, in a sense, killed by those who have publicly stated that they believe that the heart of the Gospel is the will do violence, to harm the other to save self.  Like Cain, they had wielded their hateful rock and killed the people they were supposed to call “brother and sister.”

The Gospel is something that we are told will divide us, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it often does.  I may be wrong in my view and I’m sure there are some who will think so.  And I love my brothers and sisters who disagree with me.  And I pray they will be moved.  But let those who believe in a peacemaking Messiah and those who believe in a war-making Messiah understand that, though they may both call their Lord “Jesus,” they do not believe in the same God.