Romans 4:1-12: Paul has been arguing that while there is something special about the religious heritage of the Jewish Christians, when it comes right down to it, both the Jews and the Gentiles who are now a part of the Roman Jesus community, are on equal footing before God. All have sinned, Paul argues, and all find their relationship with God through trusting in God’s love and forgiveness. Relationship with God is not earned, not even by following the law that is a wonderful part of the Jewish heritage. Paul wants to argue here that the idea that faith is the essential element in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not an upending of the law, but in keeping with the tradition. For this he will look to Abraham.
Abraham is cited more frequently in Paul’s letters that any other historical figure except Jesus. By Paul’s day, Abraham was honored as the quintessential believer who worshipped the one true God in the midst of idolatrous peoples. His stature had been embellished by legend, miracles, and quasi-deification; and his grave in Hebron was regarded as a holy place. Rabbis taught that God ordained Torah “for Abraham’s sake” and that he had kept it perfectly even before it was given on Mt. Sinai…. Abraham was a bold choice on Paul’s part because Jewish rabbis taught that Abraham has been justified because of works. Paul demonstrates that Abraham was justified apart from both the law and works. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
Paul’s language here is a little difficult for many of us, in part because our context is so different in many ways. The key issue behind Paul’s arguments seems to have been the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the new Christian movement. That is not our issue today. However, we might see some parallels. Do we see in churches people who “pull rank” based on their own sense of “spirituality,” or perhaps longevity of church membership? If we take Paul seriously, we are all justified, that is, we all have our relationship with God through trusting God, and if that is the case, it is difficult to measure and compare “trust.” We shouldn’t even try.
Paul argues that Abraham was righteous, in right relationship with God, not because of his actions, but because he trusted God. He quickly shifts to a psalm and as was the tradition, attributes this to King David. The psalm acknowledges and celebrates God’s forgiveness. Paul asks if this is only for those who have been circumcised, and refers back to Abraham who was blessed by God before he was circumcised. The act of circumcision was an outgrowth of a right relationship with God, not its precondition. The kind of rich and engaged debate about the meaning of the Scriptures Paul is working with should be modeled in our own reading of Scripture. “The interpretation of Scripture is never absolute but is always conditioned by its location with a particular tradition at a particular time, place and social location” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).
Romans 4:13-25: Paul continues to make his point by citing the story of Abraham. Not only was Abraham in relationship with God because of his trust in God, his faith, but the promise that Abraham would be the ancestor of many was rooted in trust, not in following the law. Those whose relationship to God is rooted in faith are descendants of Abraham. Paul powerfully cites more of the Abraham story – how Abraham might look at his own body and doubt that life could come from it. But God is a God who “gives life to the dead” and who “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul then makes a crucial shift. Just as the story of Abraham was a story about a God who could bring life out of death, so, too, is the story of Jesus. The Roman Christians had a story closer to them, but parallel with the Abraham story. And they are a part of the Jesus movement, the Christian community, because they have trusted the same God, who continues to act in bringing life out of death. We stand in this same tradition. We trust in the God who acted in Jesus, and we trust that this God can still bring life. We, too, hope against hope. I think of the words of Anne Lamott, words I have come to love. Hope… is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, 275).
Romans 5:1-11: “Therefore” – this word indicates that Paul thinks he has “proven” his point about “justification” by grace through faith. It is faith that brings us into a right relationship with God (justification, being declared righteous). In this new relationship, we are at peace with God, that is, we are moving in the direction of God in our lives and in our actions in and for the world. We know well-being in this right relationship to God. Eugene Peterson renders part of verse 2 in this way: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his doors to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory. The God through whom we experience this well-being is the God of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Anytime the word “lord” is used there is something of an alternative to the Roman culture being proposed. The emperor was lord in the wider culture of the time, and the imperial system had its own sense of appropriate relationship to God, its own sense of what constituted success and well-being. The Christian faith and way were an alternative, a counter-culture. We might ask ourselves, “In what way is or should Christian faith be counter-cultural in our day and time?” Paul also asserts that this new life we have through grace and faith has a future dimension, and so we are people of hope. Here it is interesting to note that Paul, who has been concerned about boasting, invited boasting in our hope. It is a shared and common boasting, not a divisive one. We are a people of hope, and all can participate in that hope.
Then Paul makes a rather startling statement. We not only boast in our hope, but we boast in our sufferings. The life of faith is not always easy. God doesn’t promise prosperity and smooth sailing contrary to some contemporary versions of Christian faith. In Paul’s time such thinking would have seemed absurd. Christians were persecuted at times, some were thrown out of the synagogue, others were looked at askance. But our suffering is not in vain. We stand for God’s purposes, which will ultimately prevail and so our suffering can produce endurance and character and hope. Ultimately, our lives will not disappoint us because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “We can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). For all the difficult language in Paul, for all the passages in his letters we have to struggle with, no one can deny that he also writes with great beauty and joy and hopefulness. Yes, we have all marred the image of God within us and thwarted God’s purposes in the world. Yet we are also people into whom God’s love has been poured, into whom God’s very Spirit (God’s very self) has come.
For Paul, Christ’s death makes this pouring out of God’s love into our lives possible. Throughout Christian history, theologians have understood this differently. This is the doctrine of atonement and we discussed it pretty thoroughly when we read the chapters about Jesus’ death from the gospels. That the death of Jesus is significant for us is a central element in Christianity, but we are free to understand that significance differently. In part, Paul is saying that Christ’s death proves God’s love for us. That kind of love opens us up to the one who gives it, in this case, God. Paul uses the language and image of sacrifice, imagery which would have been familiar to he and his readers, to understand the significance of Jesus’ death. He talks about being justified by Christ’s blood. Blood and life are often used synonymously in the Bible, so we need not be as literal as perhaps Paul is being. A life lived in service of others, that ends in such tragedy, speaks deeply to us, and the God of Jesus Christ is a God whose character is seen in the life and death of Jesus. Paul is also clear that some part of being “saved” is yet to come. We are reconciled now, we will be fully “saved” in the future. There is this sense in Paul that at some future time everything will be made well and whole. He shares this notion with many other biblical writers. That God has done such wonderful things for us gives us cause to boast about God.
Romans 5:12-21: So we have used this set of images to try and explain what is happening to us because we are loved by God and have accepted that love. We can look at things from yet another angle. This time Paul refers to another tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of Adam. Again, the imagery and reasoning may seem distant from us, but let’s see if we can’t make something of this for our own lives. Paul’s first important point is that sin came into the world. It is a part of our experience that there is evil, injustice, wrongdoing in the world and that we are negatively affected by it. Most of us recognize that there have been times when we have contributed to the wrong, when we have hurt others unnecessarily, when we have not been just, when we have not cared for others or for the world around us. The negative impact of “sin” is death, and here Paul in not referring to natural death but to something like the death of God’s image within. For Paul, sin and death are a problem. He looks to the story of Adam as a type for human kind, not that he passed sin on, but his story is our story. Taken by itself, this is a sad story. A person does something he ought not to do, and the consequences are tragic.
But the story cannot be taken by itself. For Paul, a new chapter, a more powerful chapter has been written by Christ, and this is a story about “the grace of God, and the free gift in the grace of… Jesus Christ.” God’s grace and love have “abounded.” Paul sees some parallel between Adam and Jesus, but he is convinced that the power of God’s grace given freely is much greater than the power of death which is in the world because of human sin. In fact, “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” There is a sense here, in Paul, that in the end, the power that was at work in Jesus will overcome all that opposes it, will make everything and everybody right.
Part of the function of the law, as Paul sees it, is that it pointed up all the ways human beings could get it wrong. That’s a pretty negative picture, but it is only one step in Paul’s argument. The more important point is that grace abounds much more than sin. Grace that leads to life is what has the most power. It has the power to overcome the death-dealing actions in human life. God’s power to restore the image of God within us is greater than our power to mar that image.
In Romans 1-3, Paul made the point that the darkness around us is deep. In chapter 4, he argues that faith in the love and grace of God, as we have come to know that in Jesus Christ, provides a way to connect with light, and, in fact, that light of God’s love has been at work in spite of us. In chapter 5, Paul celebrates the power of God’s grace and love, arguing that while there is darkness in the world, it is no match, ultimately, for the power of the light of God’s love. Furthermore, that love has been poured into our lives graciously, generously, abundantly. In the words of the contemporary alternative band Wilco, “There’s a light (one light), There’s a light (white light), Inside of you.”