Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Romans series week 4- notes and questions

This week we're focusing on Romans chapters 7 and 8, specifically 7:15-20 and 8:31-39.

I’m going to go ahead and admit a bias upfront. The last few verses of Romans 8 is my absolute favorite passage in the whole Bible. It’s one of the most profound expressions of how limitless God’s love and grace are, and my temptation is to structure the entire sermon around just that. But there is a lot of theological red meat in chapters 7 and 8.

Paul’s “I” in chapter 7 is likely a rhetorical device, personifying one of the fundamental contradictions of the human conditions- having a sense of the way things, including ourselves, should be, and the disconnect we see in within us and the world. As such, Paul is likely using hyperbole in saying that there is absolutely no good in him, and is not articulating a doctrine of “total depravity”. That’s one that has its roots in Augustine, several centuries later.

To be fair, though, there are plenty of people who have thought that Paul was speaking in the first person and that he was establishing said doctrine. In his extensive Lectures on Romans, Luther states very matter-of-factly that Paul is speaking for himself and on behalf of all humanity. Luther’s chief source to back up his conclusions is Augustine.

The verses that come just before the section we’re reading from chapter 8 have been the subject of much discussion and debate over the years. Paul uses words that get translated in English as “foreknew” and “predestined”, leading some people to conclude that God has decided beforehand who will be saved and who will be damned. This idea has found its fullest expression in the work of John Calvin, but Karl Barth has also put forth the solution of “universal predestination”, whereby everyone is saved, whether they like it or not.

John Wesley preached quite eloquently against said doctrine, saying “if this be so, then all preaching is in vain” (in his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace”). Mr. Wesley, following the lead of Jacob Arminius, thought that if one’s eternal destination were predetermined, then we should all just do whatever the heck we want, and churches shouldn’t bother doing anything, since they can’t affect it. We likely won’t be dealing this issue in the sermon this week, but feel free to comment on it if you’re so inclined.

NT Wright says that Romans 5-8 is one sustained argument, which Wright titles “God’s People in Christ as the True Humanity” that possibly had been composed beforehand and then inserted into the letter. Preachers do this kind of thing with favorite sermon illustrations, throwing them in over and over again whenever it fits the context. The final part of chapter 8, which is included in this Sunday’s reading, is the great crescendo of the sermon, kind of like the repetition of “let freedom ring” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”.

Paul rounds this section out by articulating his unshakable assurance that God’s love trumps all.

So, here are some questions: Do you think that human beings, whether corporately or individually, are completely incapable of good? What do you make of this paradox Paul is talking about?

It’s easy to say that nothing separates us from God’s love, but how fully do we believe that? Are there things we hold on to because on some level, we don’t believe that anyone would love us if they knew?

Unfortunately, the way Christians act towards others preaches a very different message than what Paul is saying at the end of Romans 8. How might the church look differently if that was our core belief?

1 comment:

MIKE said...

I have always looked at these passages through the lens of spiritual struggle. I believe there is such a thing as spiritual warfare where our spiritual being is being challenged. I do not want to use the cliqued term “spiritual warfare” because to me that term carries a lot of baggage. The classic struggle of man between the “forces of darkness” and the Holy Spirit, should be no contest if what Paul proclaims in Romans 8:38-39 is true. We humans love to rationalize. This is how we get most of the justification for everything we do. It is easy to rationalize that I did a bad thing because “the devil made me do it”. I do not want to own up to the fact that I made a bad choice and I continue to make bad choices very, very willingly. If, in my own mind, I can blame some other abstract entity then I do not have to deal with conviction. I don’t want to deal with conviction because then I may have to change what I am doing and I’d really rather not. You see, it is really rather comfortable if I can sin, blame the devil, ask for forgiveness acknowledging that it’s the devil’s fault anyway, receive a pardon and then go out and sin again. I am taking absolutely no ownership over my own actions.

So the question becomes, “What is the price I have to pay for my actions?” It would appear to be very little. It seems to be a perfect “system”. Is it?

If I think so, then I have to answer another question, “How can sin (of any kind) be good? If it is not bad, then isn’t it good?” A red flag should be showing up right about now. Sin is not good, by definition, otherwise it is not sin. So, I am a forgiven sinner who continues to sin quite willingly. There has to be consequences.

The way I see it is that the consequence is my ability to perceive the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life is diminished. The opportunity for me to experience the fullness of God’s blessing is being throttled. I cannot live God’s perfect will for my life while I continue in this pattern. I cannot truly feel the presence of God’s love while I do things that are detrimental to myself or others.

This being the case, then why do I not change?

I do not change because I am avoiding conviction. Conviction will cause true repentance. True repentance will cause a behavior change and I do not really want that. It has nothing to do with the devil. It has everything to do with my will versus God’s will. It has everything to do with my fear of change and the implications of that follow.

Fortunately for me, love does conquer all. God’s love and acceptance as empowered in us through the Holy Spirit is strong enough to move into the place vacated by our sin. I have a mental picture where I have all of these evil/sinful things in my spirit represented by black abstract objects. When I get brave enough to toss one out, it’s place is immediately taken by a shining, brilliant, warm golden object twice as large or more. This makes it even easier to get rid of the next dark object.

I think Paul gets it right when he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”