What's it all about?
Our relationship with God
Published May 10, 2012 @ 6 a.m.
When we look at the book of Romans we tend to interpret it after the fashion of the Reformation. The issues of the Reformation centered on the authority of the institutional church. Most of the Reformists maintained that the scriptures themselves were the only definitive source of divine revelation. Salvation was no longer from following the teaching of the church but rather an individual’s faith in Jesus Christ. When they read the book of Romans this was what the Reformists were looking for and this is what they found.
Today, most of the issues of the Reformation have been largely decided in the Reformations favor. Indeed, I think most of the Reformists would wonder if we have not taken their challenge to authority to far in many cases. Almost everyone agrees, including the Bishop of Rome, that salvation is gained by faith in Jesus Christ. The issues of the Reformation are no longer the issues of today. As a result, many Biblical scholars are beginning to challenge the traditional reading of the Book of Romans in particular and the writings of Paul as a whole. I had the privilege of taking classes from one of these scholars when I was in Seminary, Dr. Richard B. Hays.
I won’t bore you with the recent history of scholarly interpretation but there is one item with which I am particularly interested and I thought I might share this with you. It begins with the concept of the Righteousness of God. The Reformation writers viewed Romans asking, “How does someone gain salvation?” Their answers were not wrong but they didn’t make sense out of the whole book of Romans. Basically, it used the first eight chapters and then a few proof texts out of the rest of the book to make the point that we are saved through faith in Christ Jesus as the crucified and risen redeemer. Most of us were taught this very thing in church all of our lives.
The problem is that Romans has sixteen chapters and not eight. The last eight chapters of Romans makes little sense if Paul wrote the book to tell us how we can be saved. But if that isn’t what Paul was writing about what was Paul writing about? And the answer that many scholars are beginning to give is that Paul’s own theme in the book of Romans is the righteousness of God.
It is argued that Paul writes Romans to a gathering of Christians who are struggling with the issue of unity. Early on most Christians were Jewish but Paul’s own ministry had been to bring Christian faith to the Gentiles. When Claudius issued an edict removing the Jews from Rome (possibly because of their rioting against Christians) then the assembly of Christians in Rome became Gentile only. But after a time the Jews were allowed back into Rome and the Christian community was faced with how to deal with Jewish Christians coming back into a gathering that was wholly Gentile. Paul uses the theme of the Righteousness of God to urge the assembly of Christians at Rome to unite behind their common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
Much of Paul’s argument remains familiar to us. He begins with what I call the “great turn.” Giving a typical Jewish diatribe against the corruption of Gentiles you can almost hear the “amen” corner going right up to the point that Paul turns the tables and tells the “amen” corner that they are in the same boat. He brings this argument to a climax with a series of quotes from the Psalms saying, “There is none righteous, no not one. Each one has gone their own way. No one understands.” We generally interpret these verses to mean that all of us have sinned and that is certainly true. But what they really show is that those who are Jewish by birth are as guilty of abandoning God as the Gentiles they condemned.
We generally take Paul’s discussion surrounding Abraham as being an example of how faith saves. But Paul doesn’t say, “Look at Abraham who is our example.” Rather, Paul’s claim is that God is fulfilling the covenant made with Abraham by raising a people like Abraham; a people of faith. The promise of God is not the Law but the righteousness of faith. But even that faith is not our faith; it is God’s faith, or more correctly, the faith of Jesus Christ. For it is Jesus Christ who willingly comes and becomes the sum of all the worlds sin so that in Him sin can be cancelled once and for all. This is what God does, not what we do. Our part is simply to seek God.
For Paul is quite adamant that all things are summed up in Christ and Christ is summed up in God. We have no place to boast either about ourselves or even about our faith. Rather, our only hope is in God. This is not something that you have not heard or, at least, I hope you have heard. It really is about God and not about us. But salvation is about God’s choice and not about our choice. Life really is all about God.
The nuances may seem small and indeed, in many cases they really are. It is still faith by which we are counted to be right with God. But being right with God is no longer a judicial decision. It is completely about our relationship with God. And if it is about my relationship with God then it also comes to be about our relationship with God’s people. For the whole argument of Romans isn’t about how we can go to heaven. Rather, the whole argument of Romans is about how those who believe in Jesus Christ have now become God’s covenant people. And if we have been incorporated into Israel then what do you do about those who are by birth Israelites but who do not believe. Paul’s answer is not that we should burn them at the stake. Rather, Paul’s answer is that we should pray for them for if their rejection has brought about our salvation think of how much more their salvation would mean!
Now the differences can be seen to be larger. We in the United States tend to see salvation as an individual thing. To some extent we are right. Each person responds to God. But our salvation is not just us and no one else. We are being saved as a part of an entire people. The true climax of the book of Romans is not Romans 8 as beautiful as that chapter is. The true climax of Romans begins in Romans 12 with Paul’s picture of the body of Christ. Salvation is being a part of Christ’s body incorporated into Christ’s life. And salvation isn’t so much about going to heaven as it is about being in right relationship with God.