I’ve started attending a Bible study at my church, working through Romans. This morning we were talking about Romans 3-4, but I missed last week, so I read 1-4, and I was glad I did; after Paul’s greetings, his argument in the first four chapters is fairly unified: no buts allowed.
This is one of those passages that surprises me when I take my time and think it through, because I realize that I’ve been reading it and taking the opposite point from the one he’s making. For example, it’s easy to read Romans 1 and focus on the list of sins there; this chapter is also especially prominent in the debate about homosexuality for that reason. Taken in isolation, chapter 1 is a vision of life without God, of profanity and depravity that has no place in a church. It’s very easy for us Christians to read that and be glad that we’re not like those awful, sick people who hate God.
In context, though, Paul isn’t talking about irreligious people; he’s talking about the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome, for whom all of that was part of their culture and religion before they became Christians. Even so, we think, we’re glad that we were raised Christian and don’t have all of that nasty sin in our lives.
But Paul doesn’t let us off the hook, because then in chapter 2 he moves on to the Jewish Christians in that same church, and tears them apart for thinking those very same things. His scathing diatribe against hypocrisy points out that we (the religious) are in absolutely no position to judge others because we are similarly sinful. Our religious pedigree doesn’t matter.
It’s at this point that I’m prone to read this and think “I’m glad I’m not one of those religious Jews who depend on the Law,” forgetting already that I had previously counted myself on that side when I was disdaining those who did not have the Law to break.
With a small aside in chapter 3 about how having the Law does provide some advantage for the Jews, he rolls right on with his argument: that we’re all sinners, and nobody is righteous. This is where, taken in isolation, we get to feel some quality Christian guilt, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I memorized that verse in Sparks when I was a little kid, having no idea what it meant, and I wonder now how we manage to keep it so disconnected from its context.
We’re all willing to acknowledge that everyone is a sinner, sometimes even wearing this as a badge of honour because it is so central to evangelical Christianity – that everyone needs Jesus, even us. But we’re not able to identify with the two groups that Paul is referring to leading up to this key verse; we stand at a third point, from which we have managed to look down on both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
What’s worse, we actually question their salvation, which we can only do by chopping off chapters 3 and 4 almost in their entirety. Paul goes on to say that, because we’re all sinners (as he has pointed out in chapters 1 and 2), we can neither boast nor judge. In one place he formulates it as “so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That is, under the law or not, we’re all going to stand before God for judgment, not each other. But he continues, and makes it clear that it’s not just that we cannot earn our own salvation and therefore not brag, or that we are all sinners and therefore cannot judge, but that we cannot speculate about the salvation of others because of the nature of salvation itself.
Salvation, or redemption through righteousness by faith, is described as something that existed before there was a Law to obey. By referring back to Abraham, Paul points out that the Law is not a precursor to salvation but rather a sign of it. But the sticking point for me in this reading is the nature of Abraham’s faith: it is not that Abraham believed that God existed, which was a given; it is not that Abraham believed the Scriptures, which had not been written; rather, it is that Abraham “believed God.” He took God at God’s word. That’s it. God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed that God would make good on it, and God credited that to him as righteousness.
What Paul is saying about faith is that simply believing God when God says that we are redeemed is enough.
But…but…but. We fight Paul when we read this book, setting up objections that he tears down one by one. He shows us life without God, and we feel good about ourselves and say “but we’re not like that.” And he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “but we’re not like those Jews and Pharisees” and he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “oh yes, we all need salvation (especially those other people), but we need to do the right things;” and he says “there is nothing you can do to earn this.” Then we say “right, but we need to believe the right things,” usually meaning that someone must have our precise notion of all of the Bible and church doctrines, and he says “you only need to believe, like Abraham, that God is faithful.”
Jesus talked about people like me when he told a parable about workers being hired in the town square. The landowner came by the square every hour to hire more workers, so that some were hired at the first hour of the day and some even at the last hour of the day. At the end of the day every worker received the same wage, whether they worked all day or just one hour, and the ones who worked all day were very upset about this; they hated the generosity of the landowner, who paid them a fair and agreed-upon wage but also gave the same wage to those who had done less. Salvation, Jesus points out, is not fair; it is grace.
We’re wired to desire fairness and hate unfairness, but grace is always and by definition unmerited, unfair. So we read a gospel of grace, and come up with all sorts of reasons to excuse ourselves to receive grace (because we need it), and all sorts of excuses for why others should not receive it. We’re full of buts.