8th June 2002
This talk is the third in a series of twelve in which we plan to study the whole of Paul's letter to the Romans. In the first two sessions, we covered:
We now continue into chapter five, remembering Paul's manifesto at the start of Romans:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.''- Romans 1:16-17
The twin themes throughout Romans are justification by grace through faith, and the reconcilliation of Jew and Gentile. Chapter 5 falls naturally into two sections, each of which emphasises one of these aspects:
This whole section is about the sufficiency of Christ. This is a doctrine that's known in theological circles as The Adequacy Of God, which is not a very good title, given that ``adequate'' now means ``merely adequate''. When the name was assigned, the connotation was very different: it meant something more like ``wholly sufficient''. The key insight here is that what God has done in establishing our righteousness is enough. You can't add anything to it. That's why Hebrews tells us:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God [...] because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.- Hebrews 10:11-12, 14
We're going to start by looking closely at the very first verse of Romans 5:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,- Romans 5:1
Before we go on from these first four words, we need to be absolutely clear what Paul means by the word ``justified''. He's not just vaguely alluding to sort of being better, or waving his hands in the direction of personal holiness. By ``justified'', Paul is saying something very specific, namely that we have been declared just in God's sight. This is a completely different concept from ``sanctification'' - an unhelpfully similar word which means the process by which we become more like God.
Both of these things are very important in Christianity; but they are completely different, and it's important that we don't get them confused.
|What is it?||An act in which God fundamentally changes our identity from sinners to saints, taking away the effects of sin (punishment, separation from him) and adopting us as his sons and daughters. Paul likens it to the foundation on which we build our lives (1 Corinthians 3:11).||An ongoing process in which, day by day, we become more similar in character to Jesus, and more holy (set apart for him, separate from the world). Paul likens it to the materials we use to build on the foundation of our lives (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).|
|When does it happen?||The bible clearly sees justification as the action that brings us into relationship with God - that is, makes us Christians (Colossians 1:21-22). By definition, it happens exactly once for each Christian: at the moment of conversion. Once done, it's finished and no-one - not even the devil - can undo it (see Romans 8:33ff).||It begins when we first meet God and continues through the whole of the rest of our lives, if we let it (2 Timothy 4:6-7). So the time-related paradox in Hebrews 10:14 is resolved: ``He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy'' makes sense because the first phrase refers to the act of justification, and the second to the process of sanctification.|
|Who does it?||Justification is a work of God, first and last. ``[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.'' - Philippians 1:6. It is made possible by Jesus' sacrifice. ``Through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many will be made righteous.'' - Romans 5:19.||That's complicated. We do it, but we're only able to because God does it in us. Paul highlights this paradox: ``Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.'' - Philippians 2:12-13. We certainly have some responsibility for our own sanctification.|
|How complete is it?||Justification is a bit like pregnancy: it's a yes-or-no thing. Someone who's not justified can become justified, but once you're justified, you can't get more justified. The question is simply, ``Is you or ain't you?''||Every Christian is somewhere in the particular process of sanctification that God has for him or her. For each of us, there is always something to be rightly proud of (Galatians 6:4), and always room for improvement - hence the excellent traditional prayer, ``To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day''.|
Why is the justification/sanctification distinction so important? Because we need to be clear in our minds that whatever our current state of sanctification - and whether we're moving forwards or backwards - this is completely separate from our state of justification, which is and always will be completely secure. God has made us members of his family, and there is no way we can be removed from that relationship.
Note the phrase ``through faith'' in verse 1 To see this idea spelled out more explicitly, see Ephesians 2:8 - ``It is by grace you have been saved, through faith''. Salvation is not by faith in the sense that faith provides the power of salvation: rather it is the channel by which the saving power - grace - reaches us.
Although the phrase ``by faith'' is often used in the New Testament, it's always in the context of how grace comes to us. For example:
You will say then, ``Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.'' Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith.- Romans 11:19-20
This passage is describing how the connection is formed between us and the father - that is, how grace is made available to us: by faith. In other words, as in Ephesians 2:8, salvation comes by grace, through faith.
Similarly, the next verse goes on to say ``[We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ] through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.'' Although the phrase ``by faith'' is used, this is emphatically not saying that salvation is ``by faith'' - rather, than faith is the means by which we obtain the grace that brings salvation. It is ``grace in which we stand'', not ``faith in which we stand''.
Why is this important? Because if our thinking on this point is imprecise, we will misunderstand the importance of faith. Biblical faith is not ``faith in faith'', or ``faith for its own sake'' - it's completely different from optimism or positive thinking or hopefulness. It's faith in God: in his power, in his love and in his ability to save. It's an honest and accurate recognition of who he is and what he's like.
Here we have an utterly blunt statement of how things are. It's not ``we can have peace with God'', nor ``we will have peace with God''. It's not conditional, nor in the future. It's very simple: ``we have peace with God'', right now. Get used to it :-)
What is our peace with God dependent on? The previous verses have told us: ``since we have been justified by faith'', therefore we have peace with God. This is so important. Our peace with God is not dependent on our circumstances, nor on our personal holiness (``sanctification'', in theological terms). It is dependent only on the fact that we have been justified by faith. This was one of Luther's key insights: that whatever he happened to feel, the fact of the matter was that he was at peace with God, and God with him.
Note Paul's careful use of the past and present tenses: ``Since we have been [past] justified by faith, we have [present continuous] peace with God.'' In other words, what God has once achieved - our justification - has a continuous effect that works for us now, and will continue to work for us in the future, and can never be broken by anyone or anything in the world or out of it. Paul goes on to expand on this theme later in the letter:
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. [...] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? [...] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.- Romans 8:33, 35, 37-39
The second major theme of this passage is Paul's response to the first - which he expects to be ours too. Rejoicing!
We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. [...] We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.- Romans 5:2b-5, 11
Paul rejoices in three separate things:
Now if we are honest with ourselves, we mostly do not rejoice in these things; and we need to ask ourselves why. I would suggest it's because we don't see them clearly enough. We don't hope for the glory of god - nor rejoice in that hope - because we don't have eyes to see it; we don't rejoice in suffering because we don't have perspective to see where it's leading us; and we don't rejoice in God himself because we have only the most flawed and elementary vision of him. That's why I'm convinced that the number one priority for this church, and for the Church in general, is for us to grow in vision and so in faith. As Paul prays:
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.- Ephesians 1:17-19
(We should do another whole session on this!)
Someone once observed: ``Communists preach a theory as though it were truth; Christians preach the Truth as though it were merely a nice idea.'' We will only be able to evangelise effectively when we see clearly what it is that we're trying to show others! An acid test is whether we rejoice in the same things as Paul. If not, then our first step towards effective evangelism is to improve our own vision.
For Paul, justification by grace is something to rejoice about because it is a revolution. It's totally alien to the way he had believed and thought and lived for years or decades before meeting Jesus. It is a complete intellectual and moral revolution. When we see it - really see it - it will affect us the same way. We need a fundamental shift in perspective. Then we will rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, and even death will hold no terrors for us:
All of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Lewis's great insight here is that our whole perspective on reality is fundamentally skewed: we believe - or at least, live as though we believe - that what we see in this world is real, and the world to come is insubstantial in comparison; whereas the exact opposite is actually the case. Paul recognised this too: ``If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God.'' - 2 Corinthians 5:1.
Do you think human nature is good or evil? I mean, do you think people are basically good, with a few bad tendencies, or basically bad, with a few good tendencies? Or, as a third possibility, do you think people are just crazy and who knows why they do anything?- Calvin to Hobbes, Something Under the Bed is Drooling
In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.- Anne Frank
Are people basically good or basically bad? Both. We're good because that's how God made us (God ``saw that [mankind] was very good'' - Genesis 1:31) but bad because we suffer under sin. Although sin ``entered the world through one man'', that does not free us from responsibility for our own actions: the very same verse (Romans 5:12) is also clear that ``all sinned''.
That's why The Human Condition is so complex. On a first level, we are made good; on a second, we choose to be evil; and on a third, Jesus restores us to goodness. No wonder people are crazy and mixed up and ``who knows why they do anything''! :-)
The double themes of our pervasive sinfulness and the sinlessness that comes through Jesus have already been introduced by two earlier verses:
Now Paul goes on to show in more detail how both of these things are true.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned - for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.- Romans 5:12-14
Here we see how sin entered the human world. (Paul is not concerned here with its ultimate origin and the fall of Satan - only how it infected humans.) Somehow, Adam's sin affects us all: how is this? Historically these verses have been interpreted in a variety of ways, all of them essentially true:
But while all these statements are true, the context makes it clear that Paul's point is the last one. Verse 15-19 state five times that the disobedience of one man brought death and judgement to us all, most emphatically in v15: ``The many died by the trespass of the one man.'' This is also the only interpretation which allows the forthcoming analogy with Jesus to make sense: just as we are sinful in Adam, so we are holy in Jesus. (If Paul intended one of the other interpretations, then the analogy would be that just as we are sinful because we follow Adam's sinful example, so we are holy because we follow Jesus' holy example: clearly not what Paul is teaching!)
Now this idea - that we are intimately bound up with a distant ancestor - is very alien to our individualistic culture. It causes much less difficulty to people in Asian or African cultures where the notion of a wider corporate identity - family, tribe, nation - is deeply ingrained. We have problems with this teaching in the West because our culture admires the rugged individual, the self-made man, the one who can boast ``I've never taken anything from anyone; everything I have, I earned myself.'' Interdependence is seen as a sign of weakness rather than of wisdom, and it takes us some time to rid ourselves of this foolish idea in the church.
Yet even Oscar Wilde observed that ``The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet's dream; it is a most depressing and humiliating reality''. And more poetically:
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.- John Donne, ``No Man is an Island''
Like it or not, this idea of the connected community is pervasive in the bible, notably in the story of Achan (Joshua 7) for whose sin all of Israel was held responsible. In the same way, Adam's sin is our sin, inasmuch as we are ``in Adam''.
Although some of the early parts of Genesis can only be interpreted figuratively (the bible is, after all, not trying to be a science textbook), the remainder of the bible leaves little room for doubt that Adam is literal rather than a sort of abstract ``everyman'' figure. We see that Jesus understood this, from his account of the establishment of marriage (Matthew 19:4-6). We see that Paul understood it from his sermon to the Athenians (``From one man he made every nation of men.'' - Acts 17:26) And of course, the whole argument from Romans 5:12 onwards makes sense only in terms of a literal Adam.
Contemporary science actually supports the idea of a physical Adam: morphological and molecular analyses indicate that all humans of all races share a single common ancestor (that is, in cladistic terms, humanity is monophyletic :-). But given that we have fossils of humans and human-like creatures going back literally millions of years, in precisely what sense did God ``create'' Adam?
That's easy to answer: we don't know. We sort of don't care much either. John Stott expresses it well:
Adam was a special creation of God, whether God formed him literally ``from the dust of the ground'' and then ``breathed into his nostrils the breath of life'' or whether this is the biblical way of saying that he was created out of an already existing hominid. The vital truth we cannot surrender is that, though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God.- John Stott
The point here is that if the way God made humans was out of ape-like ancestors, then in doing so he did something absolutely unique, making them into ``his own image'' (Genesis 1:26) Or as G. K. Chesterton puts it, ``Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.''
But [...] if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! [...] For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.- Romans 5:15, 17
As great as the consequences of Adam's sin were, they are far outweighed by Jesus' gift of grace. It's important that we realise we are not living in Old Testament times, with our identities dominated by Adam and his sinfulness; but in the good of the gift of grace, which totally overrules that old sinfulness with a new identity from Jesus.
So we are fundamentally good because that's how God made us; we are also good in the immediate because of the gift of righteousness that Jesus gives. The only thing that spoils this perfect picture is what lingers on of our inheritance from Adam; but that has lost its power over us, and remains only as a habit. ``The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.'' - 1 Corinthians 15:56-57.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/romans/05.html.