Romans 6:1-14: So light has come into our lives, and we experience this as a gift of God, not something that we “earned” but something that is simply given to us in love. Our task is to open ourselves to the God who wants to pour love into our lives. Well, if all this great stuff happens to us outside of any calculation of “deserving,” if God started working in our lives before we were even aware of it, in fact, while we were stuck in sin, do we get a “free pass?” Paul asks this a little differently. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”
I was once a part of a Jesus people church, and during some of the worship services, we would hear stories about people’s lives – testimonies. The typical story involved sharing what life was like before our faith in Jesus and what we had found in that faith. Some of the people who were part of that church had pretty dramatic stories. Some had been involved with drugs, others had given up on life in one way or another. While I could talk about the time I came to accept Jesus as my savior (language I still use meaningfully, but which I have supplemented with many other images from the New Testament and Christian tradition), I had not done drugs or been promiscuous or given up on life. I was a good student, a polite young man, and I fit fairly well into my society and family. There is much more to the story, but in general, my life was pretty ordinary. I shared my testimony once or twice, but I am sure it did not have the drama of other stories.
So maybe we should find some spectacular sin to demonstrate just how amazing God’s grace is!! Paul responds, “By no means!”
To this point Paul has talked about being justified, about being recipients of God’s grace, about having peace with God, about having God’s love poured into our hearts, about having received the Spirit. It is remarkable the range of images Paul uses to try and describe what it means to be a person of Christian faith, someone whose life has been changed by God through Jesus. Paul will introduce yet another way of describing what’s going on. We have died to sin. It is a powerful image. We are leaving behind a part of our lives, the part that gets caught in what takes away from the light of God’s love inside of us. Paul links baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism, the initiation into Christ and the church, we died like/with Christ, were buried like/with Christ, and now we have risen like/with Christ. It’s a new life. Who really wants to go back to the old one?
The old life is like slavery. For Paul, sin is not just the things we do that mar the image of God in us, it is the marring of that image itself and it is the addictive way we get hooked into patterns of behavior that continue to mar the image of God. I just watched Spiderman III. If you have seen it you know that Spiderman, for a time, gives in to parts of himself that end up damaging him and others. Some kind of black substance grabs a hold of him and magnifies certain characteristics of his character. For Paul, sin is a bit like that. However, for Paul, that old life has been buried. It is like Richard Kimball from the old television series The Fugitive. He is headed for prison, but the train crashes and he is free. There is new life, except in the new life offered in Christ the U.S. Marshall is not in pursuit.
So if we have been set free, if we have begun a new life, why would we want to go back to slavery – that’s the essence of Paul’s argument. Some of Paul’s imagery in verse 14 can be seen as a denigration of the body, but I think this is a misreading of Paul, or at least a poor understanding of the best of Christian tradition. Our bodies are a part of God’s good creation. We celebrate that. Our bodies also seem to produce desires that need to be carefully weighed. We should not simply react to our hormones, chemistry, biology - at least not in certain respects. Don’t give yourselves to sin, give yourselves to God, Paul encourages. Then he concludes with a rather cryptic line. “Sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace.” Somehow, in Paul’s thinking, law’s most powerful function is to demonstrate all the ways we can go wrong, and if we continue to think of our lives as trying to get it all right all the time, we not only will fail to do that, but will find ourselves in despair, sunk even deeper in that which bleeds life from us. We don’t need to be stuck because we know that our lives are found by welcoming God’s grace.
Romans 6:15-23: Paul returns to the question raised at the beginning of the chapter, but with a slight twist. If the law really doesn’t help us like we thought, should we ignore it? Again, “By no means!” In Paul’s thinking, human life requires that we serve someone or something. In our day and time when freedom and autonomy are prized values, such language is a little difficult. What if we understand it instead as our needing to make choices about what our lives will stand for, what kind of values our lives will exhibit? We can serve one set of values or another, but we will serve some set of values, our lives will stand for something. We are set free in Christ, but now we have to determine how we will use our freedom. For Paul, we did not even have the choice before. Sin had us in its grips. We were caught in negative patterns of behavior of some kind. We died to all that, but now we have to chose how this new life will be lived. We can chose to go back, or we can choose to “become obedient from the heart” to God’s way of life. The law may have something to teach us about how to live – for instance, the concern of the prophets for justice is something we want to keep with us in this new life in Christ. Paul recognizes that there are limits to the metaphors he is using (verse 19), perhaps especially the metaphor about being slaves.
Maybe another way of putting what Paul is trying to say would be to ask: "Now that you’ve been able to give up the idea that you have to earn God’s love by being good, how are you going to live?” Living in goodness becomes not a way to “earn” points with God, but a way of life in response to God’s love. Paul ends by saying that if you want to keep on doing those things that mar the image of God (sin), know that it can enslave you and “kill” something important inside of you [the wages of sin is death]. God freely gives what we need to live a new kind of life [eternal life] in Jesus.
This chapter is pretty abstract and challenging. Many of us find the language foreign and the concerns Paul addresses distant. This chapter may not speak to everyone, at least in the same way. Here are a couple of analogies that may help us relate better to what Paul is conveying. Addicts, when they kick their addictions, have to make a lot of choices about how to stay free. They seek out group support. They will avoid friends and situations that tended to lead them to use the substance to which they were addicted. Over time, they may be able to be in some of those situations again, but it often takes time. They are free from their addiction, but have to choose how best to use that freedom, and if they use it to get hooked again, it won’t be good for them. We stand in the wide open spaces of God’s grace – how will we use our new found freedom? Or have you ever had, as a part of your religious experience a deep fear that God was just waiting to punish you in some way. Your view of God was as a harsh, judgmental parent and you toed the line out of fear. In Christ you realize that’s not God at all. God has been waiting for you with open arms all along, and now you know it. God knows where you’ve not been your best, but God is not interested in punishing you, but in forgiving you and giving you new life. Now what are you going to do with that life? Maybe some of the things you did not do because you were afraid of God remain better left alone, not because God is going to get you, but because they don’t contribute anything valuable to your life and may even harm you in some way.
Romans 7:1-6: Here again Paul is traversing territory that we find strange as he discusses the law – part of his religious background and part of the religious background of some of the Jesus community to which Paul writes. We are not caught up in this issue the way some Roman Christians were. Part of the point, however, is that elements of religious faith can become something other than what they were intended to be, can, if misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied become a barrier to one’s relationship to God rather than a means of developing that relationship more fully. That religion can be misunderstood and misused is as fresh as today’s headlines.
Paul’s “teaching” about the law is complex and many-sided. He never writes a systematic treatise, an essay that neatly pulls together his variety of statements about the role of the law in God’s plan, but responds ad hoc to the various needs of his churches (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul begins this discussion of the law, which is addressed to those who know it (Roman Jewish Christians) with an interesting analogy – the law is only valid for those who are living. Dead people don’t get speeding tickets! What may be appropriate for a woman whose husband has died would not be appropriate were he still alive – makes sense, though it is kind of humorous.
Paul returns, then, to his image of the Christian as a person who has died. This time, we have died to the law. We are free to be united to another, Christ. The way of Christ is different from the way of the law. We have new life in the Spirit, a life in which we are meant to bear fruit for God. Perhaps Paul’s contrast, here, between the way of the law and the way of Christ might be formulated like this: you have a set of guidelines, rules to live by. If you break these rules, there are others that tell you what you need to do to be forgiven. There is grace and forgiveness here, but it may seem secondary. But you begin with the rules, and doing so sometimes merely highlights all the ways things go wrong. On the other hand, you begin with grace. You are accepted as you are. Now you are to live that out, and there happen to be some good rules for just how to do that. Grace seems primary.
Now in drawing this contrast, I want to be clear that the view of the way of the law I have sketched above is not a very adequate view. For Jews, God’s dealings with humankind begin with grace, as in the story of Abraham. The law is itself a gift of grace from the very beginning. Remember, Paul has already argued that his understanding of faith is in keeping with his understanding of the Jewish tradition. However, it just may be that many were experiencing that tradition as beginning with law, rules, and with the struggle to keep those laws and rules. In that struggle they may have been reminded daily of their failures and of the desires within them that were not in keeping with the law. Paul’s writing here seems to suggest that he may have been addressing such an experience of the Jewish tradition. Again, we need to be careful not to assume that this is the essence of the Jewish tradition. We also need to remember that an important issue for Paul is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church, and both now share in the new life in the Spirit and are on equal footing before God in that new life.
Romans 7:7-13: While Paul is concerned to put the law in a different perspective, he is also concerned not to dismiss it as worthless. Paul walks a fine line here as he speaks to the Jewish Christians in Rome. Paul has linked together life under the law with sin and death, but he refuses to say that the law itself is sin.
The most challenging aspect of interpreting the remaining verses in chapter seven have to do with how to interpret the “I” statements. Is Paul writing autobiographically or tying to say something about universal human experience, even if he did not feel it as acutely as he writes about it? “The best solution, preferred by most interpreters today, does not regard the “I” as primarily autobiographical, but as representative of human experience as such.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The other possibility is that Paul is honestly sharing some of his own struggles as a Christian (the theory held by the commentator in The New Interpreters Study Bible). The least plausible interpretation, but one that some still appeal to is that Paul is recounting his pre-Christian experience with the law. No where in his other writings, however, does Paul talk about his experience as a Jew before his Christian faith as a struggle. While Paul may or may not be talking about something he has experienced deeply, there is an experiential dimension to his words here and we should find out about it to see how it may illumine our lives.
For Paul, the law, for all its shortcomings, is not itself sin. In fact it does good in that it shines a light on the kind of things that are sinful, that mar the image of God in us. Paul chooses as an example, covetousness. This seems a brilliant choice. It is the one commandment in the Ten Commandments that deals with an intention, something in the heart or in one’s attitudes. It is also a commandment that most of us know we have violated in our lives. We may not have committed murder, or adultery, but few of us go through life without coveting. The big problem with this is that we forget the image of God within our own lives and look at the lives of others as our goal. Covetousness often leads to a denigration of the other, as well. We find ourselves denying the image of God in that other person, too, perhaps seeing only their outward circumstances. Somehow for Paul, the commandment not only points out our failings, but incites them. There can be an allure to that which is forbidden.
The insidiousness of sin, for Paul, includes the notion that it can warp the good purpose of the law to order life well. Think about times when you wanted to violate a rule simply because it was given by someone you wanted to show up. Rules can have that effect. Rules can sometimes invite their own violation – the notion of forbidden fruit (a phrase which goes back to Genesis). The dilemma can be that “the very commandment that promised life proved death to me” (verse 10). Paul exonerates the law, but points out the deceptive power and insidiousness of sin by noting that it can warp the good law for “deadly” ends. This is a powerful truth. Sin comes not just in the guise of gross violations of obvious rules, but can wrap itself in the good. The most common way this happens is when marks of goodness become not just helps along our spiritual journey, but become means for self-righteousness. It also happens in the way Paul describes here.
Romans 7:14-25: Paul shifts gears a bit, coming at his subject – the relation of law and sin – from a different angle. Paul affirms the spiritual goodness of the law, but notes that human existence (life in the flesh, not bad in itself) can also be warped by sin. Sometimes we experience that as an inner struggle, a struggle between doing what we think to be good and acting in ways contrary to our sense of goodness. Verse 18 seems to be a rhetorical exaggeration, something we may feel on occasion – “nothing good dwells within.” Sin is powerful, and it can take on a life of its own when we continue to make choices that feed it.
I am reminded of a story from a Native American tradition. A grandfather looked at his young granddaughter thoughtfully. Something the child was developing there and so he spoke to her as follows. “Inside me, there are two wolves and these two wolves fight each other constantly. One of the wolves is aggressive, nervous and filled with a wish to succeed. The other wolf is different. He wishes for more understanding. Both wolves want fulfillment. The first wolf dreams that this could result in more prestige in the eyes of others but the other wolf believes that fulfillment may be found through the path of understanding. This fight between the two wolves takes place in every one of us.” The granddaughter looked thoughtful and was silent for some time and then she said, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the fight in you?” “Well” said her grandfather, “It depends which one I feed.”
We may struggle with some of the language Paul uses to describe the human condition. Much of what he seems to be describing is the existence he sees outside the life of grace, but remnants of this continue to be a part of our experience as Christians. We are not immune from being tempted to feed actions that enhance the “bad wolf” within. God has given us grace and strength to choose rightly, and forgives when we do not. With Paul we are encouraged to say, “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”