Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sin: The Overwhelming Force

In Romans 7, Paul once again returns to the subject of the law, a topic that has already figured prominently in his argument since he has been trying to show that righteousness apart from the law is possible. In Romans 6, Paul has continued to argue that we are not under law but under grace. This is because we have participated in Christ's death and resurrection through baptism and as a result have been transferred from the realm of Adam, with its reign of sin and death, to the realm of Christ where life and righteousness are a new possibility.

Paul continues that same argument by way of illustration in the opening verses of chapter 7. He likens our situation to that of a woman who is married. If a married woman marries another man, she commits adultery because she is bound by law to her husband. But, Paul says, if the husband dies, she is free to marry another without committing adultery. Paul says we are in a similar position if we have died to the law with Christ. We are free from the obligations of the law because of our death in Christ, just as the married woman is freed from the obligation of her husband because of his death.

But now Paul must take a step back and answer another possible objection. Throughout his letter, Paul has been arguing that the law didn't really make anyone righteous and that it is now possible to be made righteous apart from the law. In fact, Paul really hasn't said much positive about the law at all. That may not seem like a big deal to a predominantly Gentile 21st century Church but we must remember that Paul and his fellow Jews regarded the law as God's good and gracious gift to Israel (and notice Paul says at the beginning of this chapter that he is speaking to those who know the law, his fellow Jews). So in all the ways that Paul has pointed out the shortcomings of the law, one might begin to wonder if Paul actually regards the law, not as a good and gracious gift from God, but as evil. As he asks in v. 7 "What then shall we say? That the law is sin?"

Paul once again answers with his very strong "May it never be!". Instead, the law was what allowed Paul (and all Jews) to know what was sinful and what wasn't. This was supposed to be an advantage of the law, separating the sacred from the profane. At least Jews had the law to let them know what God expected as opposed to Gentiles who simply walked in darkness. But Paul says that knowing what sin was actually produced an opportunity for sin to go to work (notice that Paul is once again personifying sin, talking about it as a kind of force). Much like commanding a child not to do something will almost guarantee that they will obsess about doing the one thing they've been told not to do, Paul says that the law, rather than preventing sinful desires, was actually used by sin to produce them.*

But just because sin used the law to produce sin doesn't mean that the law itself was sinful. In fact, Paul's conclusion is that "the law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good." The root problem isn't the law. The root problem is the power of sin. Just because the parent's command that the child not eat cookies before dinner incites the child's desire for cookies doesn't make the parent's command a bad one. It just means that the child's desire needs to be disciplined. Likewise, Paul concludes that the law is not sinful because sin used it to produce sinful desires. It is the sinful desires themselves which need to be addressed.

The problem with the law is that it can't address those sinful desires. The law can point out sin for what it is but it is powerless to prevent it. This is what the tongue twister of v. 13-20 is all about.
 It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
In other words, Paul knows what is good because the law has shown him as much. And Paul desperately wants to do that good but he finds that he can not because the power of sin at work within him is too overwhelming. Finally, in these verses we have the full picture of the problematic human condition which Paul has been painting since the beginning of his epistle. The law is not evil. Human beings are not evil. But both are weak. Sin is the real problem and it is a powerful force that overwhelms both God's good law and God's good creation. 

I'm convinced that these are not mere abstractions for Paul. He is not trying to solve a theological riddle of no practical consequence here. Nor do I think that Paul is making a case for how all Christians will continue to struggle with sin throughout their earthly life. Instead, I am convinced that these verses are autobiographical for Paul. These seemingly obtruse verses take on life when we consider them in light of Paul's own story.

These verses, I believe, are Paul's attempt to make sense of his own experience prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul was on that road, Acts 9 tells us, because he was on his way to Damascus to arrest "any belonging to the Way." Paul wanted to arrest them because he saw them as blasphemers and false prophets; that is, they were spreading lies about the God of Israel by claiming that God had been embodied in a human named Jesus. The law made it clear that Israel could not tolerate such people. So when Paul traveled to Damascus to arrest Christians, we must understand that he wasn't just a mean or vindictive guy. He wasn't doing this because he hadn't read his Bible closely enough. Quite to the contrary, he was persecuting Christians precisely because that was what the scriptures told him to do. As a Pharisee, Paul's number one goal was to follow the will of God. Paul persecuted Christians because he thought that was what God willed. But once Paul encounters Christ, he realizes that he was actually doing the very opposite of what God wanted. In his attempts to work for God, Paul was actually working against God. In other words, Paul didn't do what he wanted to do but did the very thing he hated. He had the desire to do what was right but not the ability to carry it out. He didn't do the good he wanted but the evil he didn't want is what he kept on doing. Sound familiar?

This is why Paul believes that we are so terribly lost without Christ and the gift of the Spirit. It is not because we human beings are just really awful creatures filled with all kinds of evil intentions or because God can't forgive us of all our evil acts without Christ's blood. We are so terribly lost because as long as we live in Adam's realm of existence the overwhelming power of sin will turn even our best efforts to serve God into the worst kinds of evil. Sin is just that powerful a force. That is why Paul cries out "Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

But we can say with Paul "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." For we are not left in Adam's realm of existence. Paul has already argued in Romans 5 that what Christ did has overwhelmed what Adam did. In Romans 6, he argued that we have been transferred from Adam's realm to a new existence in Jesus Christ by baptism and that, although baptism does not make it happen automatically, we can be dead to sin if we submit ourselves as slaves to righteousness. And in Romans 8, Paul will claim that the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit. Although Paul sketches a grave outline of sin's terrible force in Romans 7, the surrounding chapters make clear that because of what Christ has done, the struggle with sin does not have to be the identifying mark of Christian existence. The once overwhelming force of sin has lost its power to enslave because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

*It may also be helpful to know that many scholars believe that Paul has Adam in mind once again here. That is, that when Paul says "I" did this or that, he isn't just talking about himself. He is thinking of Adam's disobedience as a type for all humanity (just as he did in ch. 5) and including himself in that. A number of things point to this possibility. First, Paul chooses the particular sin of coveting as his example, a term that describes well Adam and Eve's attitude toward the tree of knowledge. Secondly, it would certainly have been more true of Adam and Eve than most to say "I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said "Do not covet"." Adam and Eve had all they needed. There would have not been anything for them to desire if the tree of knowledge had not been restricted from them. Third, we can see how sin, personified in the serpent, used God's good command to produce Adam's disobedience. Fourth, thinking of Adam in this way is still fresh in our minds from just two chapters ago. If Paul doesn't have Adam in mind here, it at least serves as an excellent illustration of what Paul is saying. Just as God's command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge did not prevent them from doing so but actually incited their lust for it, so also the law could not prevent sin but was actually used by sin (the power) to produce sinful desires. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Working with Grace

In the previous section of his letter, Paul argued that Christ, like Adam, did something that impacted all of humanity. More specifically, what Christ did reversed what Adam had done. Whereas Adam's disobedience had allowed the corrupting forces of sin and death into the world, Christ's faithfulness brought righteousness and life into the world. In fact, one way of understanding Romans 5:12-21 is to organize it into two very neat but opposing columns.

          Adam                                                Christ
          Disobedience                                     Faithfulness
          Sin                                                    Righteousness
          Death                                                Life
          Law                                                  Grace

In this chapter, Paul is emphasizing the objective reality of what Christ has done and stressing that it has overcome what Adam did, even going so far as to say in v. 20 that "where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more." If Paul had left off here, it would be easy to think that this was all very formulaic and automatic; Adam messed up the world, Christ fixed it. End of story. We might as well go on living our merry lives and, in fact, go on sinning while we are at it since our sin is what led to God's grace anyway. This is why Paul begins as he does in Romans 6.
"What shall we say then? Shall we remain in sin so that grace may increase? 
Paul answers emphatically "May it never be! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?" The change that Christ has brought about in the world is not something external to us that doesn't involve us. The movement from that left column to the right one is not merely something Christ is doing in the world around us. It is something Christ wishes to accomplish in us. Paul believes that this is what happens in baptism. Just as Christ's faithful death and resurrection made the movement toward that right column a reality in our world, so also in baptism we die and are raised with Christ allowing us to move from the left column of sin and death to the right column of righteousness and life. For Paul, baptism is nothing less than a transfer of our being from one reality to another, an induction into a completely new way of being human. Paul's whole argument in this chapter rests on that premise. It is essentially "Given that we've been caught up in this entirely new reality in Christ, how can we possibly go back to the old one?"

Of course, the fact that Paul has to make this argument at all is the first indication that life, even in life in Christ, can never be as neat and tidy as two columns. Even though Paul believes that baptism is nothing less than the portal into this new way of being, he also knows that baptism does not guarantee a sinless life. It is not automatic. If it were, there would be no need anywhere in Paul's letters to correct his congregations or to say as he says here:
"Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies...Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness." 
Paul is emphatic that the victory has been won in Jesus Christ and that the way to participate in that victory is through baptism but he is just as emphatic that for all Christ has done he has not left us with nothing to do. The Church is called to "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and your members to God as instruments of righteousness." Like soldiers presenting arms before a commanding officer, we are to present ourselves before God as those who are ready to carry out his mission of righteousness in the world.

I think any person with military experience would attest to the reality that simply signing papers to join the military isn't the same thing as being a trained soldier. To be sure, when you sign those papers your status has changed in a very real way. In that single act you have been transferred from the life of a civilian to that of a soldier and you are no longer your own master. But despite the very real change that has taken place, you do not suddenly become a combat ready warrior by signing your name. There has been a change of status that has tremendous consequences but it will take enormous amounts of discipline and training for that change in status to be fully realized.

I think that is something like what Paul is saying here. When we are baptized, our status really has changed but it would be foolish to think that all the consequences of that change will immediately and automatically take effect. Instead, we must continually choose to engage in discipline and training that will shape us into people who can be agents of God's redemptive movements in our world. We need worship, prayer, scripture, communion, fasting, service to others, Christian fellowship and all the other things we call "means of grace" and "spiritual disciplines" because these are our training, our boot camp. Baptism alone will not turn us into a people who imitate the faithfulness of Christ. We need the work of the Holy Spirit through these disciplines to be the people of holiness, mercy, compassion, and justice that we are called to be. Salvation is by grace but there is work to be done if that salvation is to be fully realized in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Power of One

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin and so death spread to all humanity because all sinned..."*
So Paul begins his thought in Romans 5:12 but it is a thought he doesn't seem to finish. That "just as" of Paul's sentence causes us to expect another half to this statement; a "so also".  We might expect something like "just as sin came into the world through one man so also righteousness came into the world through one man." But we don't see that right away. Instead, it seems that right in the middle of his thought Paul realized that he needed to make some clarifications before even completing his analogy as if the analogy might have been too badly misunderstood and could not be recovered if he does not first clear up some things.

We'll get to those clarifications in a moment but it maybe helpful to first see the main comparison Paul is making. That is, Christ is like Adam in that both have done something that impacts all of humanity. Adam was the one who allowed sin to enter the world through his own disobedience to God. Notice the kind of picture that Paul's language portrays here, as if sin were this personified force that had been locked out of the creation but by Adam's disobedience the door was left open for sin to enter and bring death with it. Once sin and death entered the creation, they ran rampant and unrestrained. As Paul says, they reigned like kings over God's creation. We've already seen in previous sections of Romans that God gave the law to help combat this hellish reign on earth but the law proved ineffective in that all humanity continued to sin anyway. Now that sin has made its way into the world, its power was too great to be resisted.

We have to skip down to v. 18-21 to get the other half of the equation, the "so also." If sin can be allowed to enter the world through one man's disobedience, then it stands to reason that the reign of sin might also be defeated by one man's faithfulness. This is what Paul believes Jesus has done. The unique faithfulness of Jesus Christ has allowed a new power of righteousness to enter the world in order that humanity might be made righteous and that new righteousness has brought new life along with it. Just as one man brought sin and death to all so also can one man bring righteousness and life to all.

But it is not as if these were two equal powers, sin and righteousness, now warring within the creation. Paul says that what Christ did is already overtaking what Adam did. That is the clarification Paul makes in v. 15-17. If many died by Adam's sin, much more will many live because of Christ. If Adam's one sin brought condemnation, Christ's one life of faithfulness overcomes many sins. If death reigned through one man, much more will those who receive grace and righteousness reign in life. Adam is a type of Christ but what Christ has done is far greater. Jesus has not merely leveled the playing field between sin and righteousness. He has won the decisive battle against sin and death and they are now retreating before the powers of righteousness and life advancing in our world.

Of course, that retreat of sin and death before the powers of life and righteousness doesn't always seem so obvious in our world. Often it may appear things are moving in the other direction, even in our own lives. Although the decisive blow has been struck, these wannabe kings of sin and death do not easily give up the territory they have held for so long. This, Paul will say in the next chapter, is why we must continually submit ourselves as instruments to the cause of righteousness. But it is because of what Paul has proclaimed in this chapter that we know we are submitting ourselves to a winning cause; the faithfulness of Jesus has overcome the transgression of Adam.

*You may notice that in some translations of Romans 5:12, the final phrase reads “in whom all sinned.” That final phrase in Romans 5:12 reads "eph ho all sinned", that "eph ho" being the Greek phrase that is in question. These are fairly simple words in Greek; "eph" being a shortened version of a common Greek preposition typically meaning "in" or "on"  and "ho" being a relative pronoun meaning "whom". So a very literal translation of this phrase would read "in whom all sinned." If this is the proper translation, then Paul would be saying that when Adam sinned everyone sinned. That is, the entire human race is implicated in Adam's sin and found guilty because of what he did. St. Augustine, a Bishop in the North African city of Hippo in the late 300's and probably the single most influential theologian in the history of the Church, understood the phrase this way and it was in his understanding of this verse that he saw the doctrine of original sin; the idea that because Adam sinned all of humanity is guilty. Indeed, if "in whom" is the proper translation of this verse then it would be difficult to understand it any other way. Prominent as Augustine was, his teaching of original sin has impacted generation after generation of the Church, even those who have never heard the name of Augustine.  

However, there is debate about the meaning of this verse because "eph ho" can also be a conjunction meaning "because". This would change substantially how we would understand what Paul is saying here. If Paul meant to say "death came to all humanity because all sinned" then Paul is not saying everyone is guilty because of Adam's sin, as Augustine thought, but that all human beings are guilty because all human beings have, in fact, sinned. Either way, we are all guilty. The question is this: Are we guilty because of what Adam did or because what we have done? As I have hinted at in this post, I think the idea that is most consistent with the rest of Paul’s thought is to understand Paul as saying that Adam opened the door for the power of sin to enter the world and that humanity has been powerless to stand before this force with the result that we have all sinned. So all have sinned as a result of Adam’s sin because it allowed the power of sin to enter the world, not because everyone is guilty due to Adam’s single transgression.