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Posts Tagged ‘romans’

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I’m back, but not for long. I was just reading Jeremiah and found this:

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. But they say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

(18:11-12).

Probably would have realised earlier if I checked out a commentary, but there’s a clear allusion to this in Romans 9, the famous free-will?-no-such-thing passage:

You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

(9:19-24).

In Jeremiah, Israel was asked to repent but ignored it. Interestingly, in Romans 9-11, Paul is nutting out the theological problem of why Israel has not been so keen to receive the gospel, which was first for them.

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As of 2009, Romans 8:28 was the third most read verse on Biblegateway. Try to guess the others before peeking! Anyway, you probably know it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus Culture subtly restates it in Your Love Never Fails: “You make all things work together for my good.” I wonder if this has become the dominant direction in which this verse has been taken for middle-class Christians? The community of “those who love God” has become the individual, and God’s eschatological, cosmological, redemptive good has become middle class comforts. But it isn’t all for bad. I won’t deny the consolation that this verse can be for anyone who suffers. Regardless, what’s Paul’s context? The following verse reads, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” What is conforming to Jesus’ image? Can it be anything other than following in his footsteps to the cross, “sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11)?

As much of the early church experienced persecution, it was likely the church at Rome had undergone or were anticipating some future persecution. In the same way that God works all things together for the good of the church, Paul cites Psalm 44 a few verses on, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). Yet as Jesus died for the ungodly, not the righteous (5:6-8), the church is to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14), giving themselves as living sacrifices to God (12:1; cf. Phil 2:17). I would love Romans 8:28 to be my favourite verse, but I’m not sure I’ve yet accepted all that it entails!

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This is a theme that has been developing in my theology over this year. Romans 8:18-23 I think demonstrates it well:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Here the imperfections and sufferings of creation, although they are tied to sin (5:12), are also “not of its own will.” I respect the theological qualifications of this passage that attempt to distance God from having any direct connection with sin, but the theme is prevalent throughout Romans, no doubt understanding that the same qualifications may apply: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). He sent the law, knowing that it would incite sin, yet that his grace would increase (5:20-21). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart for his purposes (9:17). And he used the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as part of his plan to include the Gentiles (11:15).

When God creates, the possibility of fall is intrinsic to his creation. God wills that his creation will freely respond to him so he must also allow free rebellion. Sin is not merely the individual breaking the moral law, delivered from this through repentance, but the failure of the cosmos to respond to God, of which creation is both perpetrator (sin) and victim (suffering).¹ Is God’s redemptive work in salvation history a response or always originally intended? I’m of the opinion that God creates with the plan to redeem, knowing sin is necessary to a free creation. Additionally, suffering may even be necessary for redemption to be fully realised: That which is created and freely loves God knows something of this love, but that which is created good, suffers and rejects God, and then is reconciled and redeemed, knows something else: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20).²

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¹Anthropocentric accounts of the fall must first explain why the Genesis story includes a snake.

²Not that I am involved in any great suffering so that I can give meaning to it. This at the moment is a merely intellectual exercise, although I do appreciate that when Paul speaks of suffering, he means it.

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In the process of convincing his audience of the sufficiency of faith after law, Paul presents some interesting critiques. Here is one:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 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 that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

(Romans 7:14-20).

Now my biggest difficulty with this psychologically penetrating passage is that Paul separates the will of his mind from that of his flesh. He wills do good, but, as a sinner, he wills to serve his flesh and thus does otherwise. I wonder how much of a separation exists in my own life. If I do something, how accurate is it to claim that I will to do otherwise? Of course, there are infinite factors acting upon a will, and what we name will is not singular but composed of infinite ambiguities and always undergoing changes, however subtle. I can say that reflecting on past actions produces a will that wishes to have done otherwise. Then it pledges to do otherwise should it find itself in a similar situation in future. Yet when in that situation it does not do otherwise. The possible arrived at in reflection bows to the actual of the immediate. Does this capture what Paul is communicating? Does he do evil and say “I do not will this yet I will do it anyway,” or “Some part of me at some time has willed otherwise than I will now”?

Maybe this is a further problem with sin: From the perspective of the sinner the will is obscured and indistinct from good-will. Yet with the redemptive power of the Spirit, the will begins its journey towards completion, that which is willed in reflection consistent with that which is willed in experience (8:5-8; 12:2).

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After showing that both Gentiles and Jews are under sin, Paul discloses faith as a new way to be declared righteous and then compares it to the law:

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

(Rom 3:27-28).

I wonder what the primary reason is for why the law cannot bring salvation. I had always thought it had something to do with not being able to fulfill the totality of the law’s requirements: although trying, always falling short because of sin. This is alluded to in Galatians 3:10: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'” (cf. Rom 9:31-32). But I’m unsure if it’s the reason why Paul saw something other than the law needed. In light of this, his puzzling assertion of being blameless under the law remains (Phil 3:6). But all are sinful under the law (except Paul and a few others?) “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). This is a major point of Paul’s, expanding on it elsewhere and noting that the although the law was good, sin took advantage of it to do evil (Rom 7:7-13; cf. 5:19-21). It is not fully developed in Galatians, however, but implied (Gal 3:21-22). What is also evident is faith as an alternative to the law which separates Jews and Gentiles, probably what is being highlighted here in Romans 3:27-28, as an answer to the first three chapters, but also elsewhere (Rom 2:14-16; 9:8, 30; Gal 2:15-16; 3:8, 28; cf. Eph 2:14-16).¹

Now, although it is not the primary reason for faith, the inability to fulfill the law through works remains to me in my context its most devastating critique. Works cannot save because they are always an incomplete expression of the law’s requirements. Works is a relative category. What makes faith an absolute category? I think this is where a Calvinist Paul would be very useful. Our faith is not an absolute category, but what Jesus has done on the cross is. The contentious pistis christou (e.g. Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16 (twice), 20), translated either “faith in” and “faith of Christ” carries an unnecessary amount of theological weight for two words! Although it would help to look at some of the literature on this, at this point I tend towards the latter for two reasons. Firstly, theologically I would find it difficult to fulfill faith if it were an absolute category, regardless how small the requirement. Faith is a relative category: though simple trust and belief is all that is asked, my trust and belief will always fall short, but this is somehow still enough, made absolute by the grace of God. And secondly, just that, that God’s grace, sovereignty and initiative are such a dominant Pauline themes (e.g. Rom 3:3-4; 4:4-5; 5:6-8, 21; 11:30-32; Gal 2:21; 3:18).

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¹Maybe Paul was blameless in a sense to whatever interpretation of the law he subscribed, yet in this he was blind to the sinfulness of persecuting the church…?

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Somewhere in the beginning of Romans, the classic text in the Pauline oeuvre that has contributed to the Protestant doctrine justification by faith alone, this novelty passage asserts itself:

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

(Rom 2:6-10).

It can’t refer to those under the law before Jesus because no one is justified under the law (Rom 3:20). What is important, however, is that if this is read with the whole of Romans then it is clear that faith without works does not mean much. The early church heresy of antinomianism (literally “against law”) claimed that those who had faith could live however they wanted. Now I don’t want to undermine the rich tradition of sola fide and the great works which have been born of it, but sola fide is only ever the beginning, not the end. Through the power of the Spirit, believers “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13) and “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). Romans 12 lists ethical actions as a picture of what the believing community should look like. The link is clear in Galatians: Through the Spirit, a new ethical life is possible: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Thus God “will repay according to each one’s deeds” because this is a sign that the Spirit is at work in the community of believers.

Interestingly, those who do evil are “self-seeking” compared with those who “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Why is the latter not also self-seeking? Is it a legitimate response to what God has offered? Whereas evil is an attempt to cut oneself off from and assert oneself against the rest of creation and God, good is to die to one’s own desires, with Christ, and seek the good of all, including the self within this picture. It is not merely self-seeking because it is not concerned only with its own glory, honour, and immortality but putting aside selfish desires to see God’s plans come to completion for the good of creation. So Paul can say, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3).

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This passage is often used to point to general revelation, the idea that there are aspects of creation which point to God’s nature, at least existence:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

(Rom 1:18-23, NRSV).

Firstly, this needs to be read in context. Paul was a major figure involved in Gentile inclusion in early Christianity. Contemporary Jews would boast of their righteousness through the law that God gave them and look down on the unrighteous, unclean Gentiles. If some people could come to accept that Gentiles were to be included in the new movement, the next biggest difficulty was being convinced that Gentiles did not need to abide by the Torah. Here Paul speaks of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles, a theme his contemporaries would be familiar with. But then, surprisingly, he goes on to speak of the unrighteousness of the Jews, “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (2:23-24), moving onto the universality of sin in chapter 3.

Interestingly, even though Paul makes these statements, he says quite the opposite regarding the gospel: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?… So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:14, 17). Additionally, I wonder if Paul’s critique is not merely noetic, but ethical. He is concerned that the Gentiles “suppress the truth” (v.18) and exchange “the truth about God for a lie” (v.25). But perhaps he is more concerned with the life of vices to which he connects it: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv.29-31). It is not so much denial in itself but denial so that people can cut themselves off from their creator, both objectifying and deifying features of creation in accordance with their desires.

In any case, contemporary religious/secular pluralism should at least hold some interpretative sway for this passage! It remains unfortunate that Christians have used this passage to condemn those who have legitimate doubts about God’s existence or a completely different understanding of God altogether. Perhaps more worrying is its application to non-Christians who may very well be more “ethical” than the Christians condemning them! How do you understand this passage hermeneutically?

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