Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Romans series Week 3

Check out how your comments on last week's post made their way into Sunday's sermon by listening to the podcast. Now we continue with Week 3 of "Grace is for Everybody" by reading Romans 6:1-4, 15-23.

This week we’ll be focusing on the relationship between Law and Grace. This is another huge theme in Paul’s writings, and the whole thing isn’t encapsulated in the brief passages we’re reading on Sunday, so please read the chapters around this to get a feel for Paul’s rather lengthy argument.

For starters, “Law” refers specifically to the keeping of the Laws of Moses, and also stands more broadly for doing any good or righteous actions. Paul’s contrast of the Law with God’s unmerited Grace have led some Christians to conclude that the Jewish people’s understanding of the Law was that their actions earned them God’s favor. Other scholars, particularly those in the “New Perspective on Paul” school (a name that none of them created or really claim), point out that the Law was given to help the people understand how to live faithfully as part of the covenant God had already made with them.

Given that Law and Grace is such a major issue, particularly in the birth of the Protestant movement, major Christian thinkers have written volumes on it, and of course we can only begin to scratch the surface here. So here are a few brief snapshots of how some of the most influential Christian theologians have interpreted Paul on Law and Grace.

Augustine said that without God’s grace, no good work or adherence to any type of Law gets you any points. In one of his sermons on the Psalms, he says, “believe in Him who justifies the ungodly, so that your good works may really be good works. For I should not call them good as long as they do not proceed from the right foundation.” Augustine’s own life story and the strength of his experience of conversion led him to have a very low opinion of human nature, thus any attempt on the part of humans to be “good enough” for God was not only a waste of time, but an insult to God.

Martin Luther reads Paul as saying that the Law only serves to make people understand that they can never live up to the standards God has set for them. In essence, Luther is saying that God has set us up to fail. In his Preface to Romans, he claims that those who keep the Law do so “out of fear of punishment or love of gain”. Like Augustine, Herr Luther clearly does not have a high opinion of human nature.

John Wesley was a self described “Bible bigot” and held that all scriptures, including the Mosaic Law, were the fundamental norm for all Christian doctrine and practice. But as hard-headed a biblicist as Wesley could often be, even he recognized that the texts by themselves do nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit, thus grace being necessary to fulfill any law.

Karl Barth views God as fundamentally free, unconstrained by anything, even sets of laws given directly by God. In his commentary on Romans, Barth says that “God speaks where there is law; but he speaks also where there is no law. He speaks where law is, not because it is there, but because he wills to speak.” For Barth, God’s choice to speak to us is itself grace.

Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth’s, makes no comment specifically on the Laws of Moses, rather he talk about “law keeping” as one of the misguided human attempts at “self-salvation”, assuming that receiving any set of laws is itself a revelatory experience. Tillich is careful to mention that attempts at self-salvation happen in all religions, including Christianity, but that does not mean these religious traditions are of no value.

In NT Wright’s commentary on Romans 6 in New Interpreter’s series, he emphasizes Paul’s usage of the word “slavery” (usually rendered as “servanthood” in more PC translations) to describe all human existence. We’re all slaves to something, it’s just a question of what. Paul realizes that the analogy isn’t perfect, adding “I’m speaking in human terms because of your natural limitation”. His use of “your” instead of “our” suggests he has a rather high view of himself, and that he can understand things other people can’t. Wow.

Paul’s rather massive ego aside, he has a point in saying that we all serve something. We all have things that drive us, things that factor into every decision we make, even if they’re things we can’t necessarily name. The aforementioned Tillich called that “ultimate concern”. Or as Bob Dylan sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

All that being said, here are some questions:

If “the Law” stands in for any moral standard, set of rules/practices, etc., what is the value of following them. What do we gain?

What effect does viewing God’s grace as completely free have? Does it give us license to do whatever we want with no consequences? Or does it have a different effect? In other words, how do we respond to grace?

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