Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Whoever Will Call on the Name of the Lord

In Romans 10, Paul continues to wrestle with the relationship between Israel and the new covenant that God has established in Jesus Christ. Why has Israel failed to attain the righteousness that Gentiles are finding in Christ? Paul answered this question at the end of chapter 9, saying it was because Israel pursued a law of righteousness as if it were by works. He says that Israel stumbled over the stumbling block, quoting Isaiah 28 as a metaphor for Christ. In Romans 10, Paul further explores exactly what the difference is between the gospel he is preaching and the righteousness that Israel is seeking to attain.

At this point, it would be natural for many Christians in the Protestant tradition to see this as an argument about faith versus works. However, I think that only captures a small portion of what Paul is really getting at in this passage. Usually, when faith is contrasted with works it means that one must put their trust in God's grace (faith) in order to be saved rather than trying to earn your own salvation through good behavior (works). Of course, this is a true statement and Paul uses the terms faith and works in this passage and throughout his writings but if we imagine that this is the argument that he is making then we will have missed the point.

This is true, first and foremost, because this kind of argument of faith verses works would not be a fair contrast with what Jews in the 1st century actually believed. No one in Israel thought that they could save themselves by works apart from God's grace. Instead, the Law was seen as the means of God's grace to Israel. Therefore, the real issue here is not faith or works. Paul recognizes that both the old covenant and the new covenant involve both faith and works. It is a matter of what you are placing your faith in; God's gift of grace through the Law or God's gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Either faith will require a certain kind of works, that is, a faithfulness that will demostrate exactly where one has placed their trust, whether in the Law or in Christ. If you believed that the Law was the way to salvation then you would place your trust in that Law by keeping every part of it, especially the laws regarding circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws. However, if you believed that the Law's time had come and gone, as Paul did, then you would no longer place your trust in those things. Instead, you would place your trust in what God had done in Jesus Christ. But this too would require certain works that demonstrated that trust such as confessing Christ as Lord and living the Christ-like life of sacrifice and compassion.

With that in mind, I think Paul's point in Romans 10:1-13 is not to contrast faith with works but to further outline what he has been arguing throughout the letter, that Christ is the revelation of God's righteousness. This shift in emphasis, slight though it may seem at first, has a significant impact on the way we read nearly every one of these verses. For example, when Paul says of Israel in v.3 "for not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God", this does not mean that Israel sought to establish their own righteousness without faith by their own moral efforts. It means they didn't realize that God's righteousness was revealed through Jesus so they continued pursuing righteousness through the Law as they had always done instead of submitting themselves to the new way in which God's righteousness was being revelaed.

Similarly, when in the very next verse Paul says "for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes", to say that Christ means the termination of seeking righteousness through the law is only partially correct. It also means that Christ is the culmination or the fulfillment of the law (the Greek word translated as "end" can also carry this idea of a fulfillment of purpose much like the English word "end" can). Jesus is now the way to righteousness but Jesus embodies the true purpose of the Law in his life which means that his disciples will do so as well.

This is further demonstrated in Paul's quotation in 10:6-8 of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. In their original context, these verses are a reminder to the people of Israel that the Law is not an impossible burden to bear. It is not something for which they have to go searching. Rather, it is right in front of them. It is so near to them that it is already in their mouth and heart. Paul applies these words to Christ and says "that is the word of faith which we are preaching." I think Paul is saying here that life in Christ is simple, not because it is a matter of just believing without having to do anything else, but because faith in Christ places the law of Christ in one's heart so as to lead to righteous living. Faith in Christ leads to the kind of righteousness which Deuteronomy had promised but Paul saw that the Law ultimately could not provide (in this way, these verses are a kind of microcosm of Paul's argument in Romans 7:7-8:11).

In 10:11-13, Paul finally brings all this back to bear on the larger topic he has been dealing with in chapters 9-11, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In these verses, Paul is saying that because righteousness is no longer through the Law but through Christ, this also means that righteousness is now available to Gentiles as well as Jews. With reference to salvation, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile because they both must call on the same Lord in order to be saved. This means that Gentiles no longer have to follow the Jewish Law to find salvation. They only have to follow the Law of Christ. It also means that Jews must stop placing their trust in the Law and place their trust in Christ. The one criteria for the new covenant is recognizing Jesus as Lord (which obviously means not only believing that he is Lord but pledging one's faithfulness to him as Lord) and "whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved".

Once again, Paul's probing of a question (what about Israel?) that seems distant and unrelated to us in the 21st century actually leads us to the very heart of what we believe about salvation. I believe that this passage reminds us that salvation is a relatively simple thing. It is essentially a matter of confessing Christ as Lord. No doubt, much of the time understanding how that confession works out in our lives can be complex and at times mysterious. We must not make the mistake of thinking that confessing Christ as Lord is a purely cognitive action. We must continually wrestle with what it really means for Christ to be Lord and no one and nothing else to be lord and that will indeed be a kind of wrestling. It will involve continual challenges, questions, and opportunities; some of whch will unsettle our most basic assumptions about life and the way the world works. However, the way to salvation remains simple and accessible to anyone. It is only a matter of making Christ the center of our life and seeking his kingdom before anything else.

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