Michael Spencer: The Face of the Gracious God

In my last post I noted that, in my opinion, evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that God is actually better than we think.  Today I direct your attention to a Michael Spencer post in which he comes around that very idea.  The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God but there are far too many people out there who are invested in an angry God who is planning to justly punish us all but who might let you off if you believe all the right things etc.

The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God. It tells us again the story of the God who loves us, the God we have grieved and abandoned and the God who has taken our judgment and suffered it himself.

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

We have too many people who have heard that there is good news about God, and then discovered that the good news was covered in 25 pages of fine print explaining why God is actually quite miserable and its your fault. If you fulfill the conditions of the contract–See “Faith is obedience, perfect surrender and a good witness,” pages 203-298–then you have a reasonable hope of avoiding God’s end-of-the-word temper tantrum.

We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)

Read:  The Face of the Gracious God by Michael Spencer

Is God Better Than We Think?

I believe evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that maybe God is better than we think.

Consider Rob Bell.  When he published that book a few years back, every prominent leader who was somebody in evangelicalism was lining up to put him on the cross and drive nails into his flesh.  There weren’t enough hammers and nails for the job!

Why did everyone react so viscerally to that book?  Because we’ve convinced ourselves that God is somehow worse.

We are counting on God being worse – because we have so much invested in that.

So many of our most cherished theological assumptions:  total depravity, penal substitutionary atonement, complementarianism, eternal conscious torment, etc. – all arise from the unquestioned assumption that God is worse than we think.

Consider penal substitutionary atonement.  This is all over the place in evangelicalism, and is basically the view that all of humanity is guilty before God, indebted to God, and deserving of eternal punishment.  Jesus paid that debt, so if you believe in Jesus and confess that belief in ways that pass evangelical muster, you are no longer guilty, indebted, deserving of punishment, etc.  You get to go to heaven and be with God when you die.

Now consider the discipline of forgiveness.  Jesus commands us to forgive one another.  Yet within the penal substitutionary atonement scheme of things, God does not forgive us until he has first taken out all his anger on his son.  There must be blood, and God gets his blood.

In essence, we are commanded to be better than God.

When we forgive another without requiring repayment, we are better than God.

How?  Consider this:  I am commanded to forgive individuals who have hurt me in ways that legitimately cost me something.  Yet under the penal substitutionary atonement scheme of things, God cannot and will not forgive me for that incident with the lingerie section of the JC Penney catalog back when I was 17 until he has first killed his son.

I am so over believing that God is worse than me, worse than us, and calling it holy because God is God and he gets to define what love, justice, holiness, etc. look like and we can’t trust our intuition as to what those things look like because of that whole total depravity thing and because his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts and if we can’t understand it then it’s a mystery so just accept it and let it go.

That’s not a mystery.  It’s a copout.

Isaiah 55:8-9 and other such verses that say essentially the same thing are the go-to for any Calvinist who wishes to play the mystery/holiness/God-is-God card.  The verse goes like this:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Yet that verse, so often used to trumpet the holiness/otherness/mystery of God, is part of a larger context which is often conveniently ignored, which says that God is actually better than we thought, better than we even have a frame of reference for.  Here is the verse in context, starting at the beginning of chapter 55 and going all the way to the end:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”

If God is truly worse than we think, as so much of contemporary evangelicalism is invested in him being…

If, when I show mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, or even simple human decency to another human being, I am somehow better than God…

Then I cannot go on.

Virtually every Christian who has ever walked the face of the earth believes that Jesus is like God.  But how many of us believe it the other way around–that God is like Jesus?

The second part of that–namely, that God is like Jesus–is the big idea behind the entire New Testament.

If that is not true, then wouldn’t we be better off to just ditch the whole Jesus thing, go all the way back to second-temple Judaism, and declare this whole Jesus experiment a failure?

Jesus intentionally challenged and replaced that version of God.  The Gospel accounts are riddled with “I and the Father are one”, “I do only the things that please the Father”, “If you have seen me then you have seen the Father”, and other such statements from Jesus to that effect.  You can’t square that with the version of God that so much of evangelicalism seems so heavily invested in.

Let Jesus have a legitimate say here.  Not just as the title sponsor for all this theological/confessional infrastructure which is built upon believing that God is somehow worse than us and calling it holy because his ways are higher than our ways etc.

God’s ways got a whole lot lower when Jesus came to earth.

Let Jesus have a legitimate say.  If you do, I think you will find that God is actually better than we think.

Jentezen Franklin Fires Back at Mark Galli

In my previous post I referenced Mark Galli’s editorial at Christianity Today calling for Donald Trump’s removal from office.  With 81 percent of American evangelicals having given their steadfast, wholehearted, and unwavering support to Donald Trump, one should expect that there would be blowback to such a thing.

Jentezen Franklin, a prominent charismatic megachurch pastor in the Atlanta area, has written a piece at the Christian Post in which he takes Galli and evangelicals who sympathise with Galli to task.  His arguments:  Under Obama (whom he does not even mention by name), America was in a state of moral decline.  Socialism was on the rise and religious liberty was in jeopardy.  Donald Trump has defied all the haters and kept his promises to the evangelical electorate.  He has overhauled a raging leftist, activist judiciary.  He is pro-life.  He is pro-Israel.  These are the values and policies that matter most to our Christian faith.

In other words, the values that are most central to our Christian faith are being pro-life (as evangelicals define it, which means that one’s pro-life ethic extends only to the unborn), supporting the state of Israel, opposing socialism, supporting religious liberty (again, as evangelicals define it, which means supporting the liberty of certain Christians and Christians to shit on gays and women and minorities and put Bible verses on it), supporting judicial restraint and a conservative judiciary, and being pro-Israel.  Don’t talk to us about Jesus Christ, except as the title sponsor who puts his name on all of this.  And don’t even begin to talk to us about love.

In the previous post I said that when I watched 81 percent of American evangelicals give their steadfast, wholehearted and unyielding support to Donald Trump, I watched my faith sell its very soul right out from under me.  This is exactly what I am talking about, right here.

Donald Trump’s life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  Under his administration, the worst specimens of humanity are now empowered and emboldened to spew out hatred for blacks, gays, immigrants–anyone who does not look like us privileged white males.  ICE is running rampant here in Georgia, and in other places too (I would imagine), and my nonwhite coworkers live in a low-grade state of fear that they could be targeted next.

According to Franklin, this is “the values and heart of Christianity today in these United States of America”.  God loves you and Jesus Christ died for you, but not if you are a woman, black, gay, immigrant, or otherwise not a privileged white male.

No.  Just no.  That’s all there is to it.

Those of you who are evangelical supporters of Donald Trump (and I recognize that the vast majority of you have probably long since left the room, but just in case there may still be a few of you hanging around):  You know what Jesus was all about when he was here on earth.  You know how he moved among people and you know the teachings that formed the heartbeat of his public ministry.  Can you square any of this with what Franklin says are “the values and heart of Christianity today in these United States of America”?  Do you see any connection between the life and message of Donald Trump and anything that Jesus Christ was about?

I have said it before and will say again:  Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to continue to give your steadfast, wholehearted, unwavering support to a president whose life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ…no.  There is no such case to be made.

Advent Week 4: A Spirit Creating Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.  McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches.  We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.

We started with chapters 12-16.  We saw that the Roman church community was divided.  The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome.  These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter.  This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.

We then moved to chapters 9-11.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, chapters 9-11 are a weird outlier that no one really seems to know what to do with.  But McKnight argues that chapters 9-11, far from being an outlier, are in fact the main point of Romans.  A goodly portion of this passage is addressed to the “Weak”, the Jewish believers in the Roman churches, reminding them of the surprising nature of God’s gracious election and that right standing with God now comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not via observance of the Torah, and answering questions/concerns of the “Weak” that if this is the case then God has surely rejected Israel.  Paul then turns to the “Strong” and admonishes them that they are not replacing Israel in God’s redemptive plan but instead their inclusion is an enlargement of Israel, so to speak, and they are therefore to embrace the “Weak” as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Last week we looked at chapters 1-4.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, these are treated as a universal theological outline of how salvation works:  The whole world is guilty before God (first Jews, then Gentiles).  The whole world is saved the same way, by grace through faith not works.  Examples of how this works.  McKnight argues something completely different:  that these chapters are directed toward a fictitious character, the “Judge”, who is representative of the “Weak”, the Jewish believers in the Roman congregations who placed a heavy emphasis on Torah observance.  Paul’s argument is that the boundary markers of Jewish faith as given in the Torah–circumcision, Sabbath, dietary regulations, etc.–are of no significance in determining who is in or out of the kingdom of God.  Israel is now expanded (not replaced) via the inclusion of Gentiles and now the boundary marker is faith in Jesus Christ.

Now we come to chapters 5-8.

It is right and good to finish reading Romans with chapters 5 through 8, because these chapters are not only the high point of the letter but the solution to the problems vexing the Weak and Strong relations in Rome’s house churches.  We are reading against the grain of Paul’s letter…because reading Romans from 12-16 backwards creates a deeper impression of the church context of the letter.  If we read Romans 5-8 after 12-16, something else happens.  We begin to ask more directly, Who does he have in mind in these chapters?

One thing that jumps out when reading Romans 5-8 is that there are a lot less Old Testament citations in this segment than in Romans 1-4.  This indicates that this segment of the letter was most likely intended for a different audience, one less familiar with the Old Testament, thus fewer appeals to the Old Testament.

For the most part, this segment is addressed to the “Strong”, that is, the Gentile believers in the Roman churches who did not see any use for Torah observance and looked down on those who did.  McKnight parses this out in greater detail:

–There are “All” (or “Generic”) segments (5:12-21, 8:1-8).  These are predominantly abstract and are addressed to all believers in the Roman churches.  Romans 5:12-21 gives us a clean sketch of how the Strong and the Weak are to live.  There are two paths:  the way of Adam, which ultimately leads to death, and the way of Christ, which leads to eternal life.  Romans 8:1-8 amplifies 5:12-21 while introducing some new elements.  On the whole, the conflict between the “Weak” and the “Strong” grows as each side lives in the flesh and walks the path of Adam in their own way, but as they walk the way of Christ and live in the spirit, they are reconciled into one body which is Paul’s ultimate goal.

–There are “You” segments (6:11-23, 8:9-15).  These mirror the way of Adam and the way of Christ sketched out in the “All” segments, but with greater rhetorical force aimed directly at the “Weak”.  As with the “All” segments, Paul’s ultimate aim is to draw both sides into living out the way of Christ by welcoming each other to the table without quarrel and living together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

–There are “We” segments, which make up the bulk of Romans 5-8 (5:1-11, 6:1-10, 7:1-6, 8:16-17, and 8:18-39).  Like the “You” segments, these mirror the way of Adam and the way of Christ sketched out in the “All” segments, but bring it down to a personal level directed mainly at the “Strong”, but with a twist:  Instead of two ways it is all brought together and sketched out as a singular “Personal Way”.

…How best to live is the point of tension in Rome.  The answer for the Weak is More Torah!  For Paul, the answer is All Grace and All Spirit!  The result, ironically, is the same (8:1-4).  Those in Christ who live in the Spirit do all the Torah originally stated and more.  The question in Romans is how to get there, and Paul opposes the Judge, who thinks it is through More Torah.  The Strong will never become reconciled with the Weak simply by More Torah, and neither will the Weak.  The solution is to be found elsewhere.  For the Strong, there may be a lack of perception of what genuine lived theology looks like and communicates.  They either flout their non-Torah life, or they presume upon grace and forgiveness.  Whichever is their option, the one thing that is obvious is that they are hardheaded when it comes to the scruples of the Weak.  They are status-driven, insensitive, and coercive in their relations with the Weak.  That, too, must be transformed.  The Weak say More Torah!  But Paul says More Spirit!

–Finally there is an “I” segment (7:7-25).  This section has been the subject of extensive debate through the ages.  Is it an Ego-Adam description of all believers who struggle with merit-seeking pride?  Is it Paul in his pre-conversion days as a representative of Torah-observant Jews zealously attempting to keep Torah and finding themselves unable to do so?  Is it the collective story of Israel under the Torah?  Or is it Paul as representative of post-conversion Jewish Christians finding that spiritual transformation cannot be produced by Torah observance but only by grace and the Spirit?

But there is a rhetorical device that was prevalent in Paul’s day called “speech-in-character”.  This passage may be an instance of speech-in-character, in which case it is not Paul’s personal experience but that of a fictitious character, most likely the “Judge” as representative of the “Weak”.  It fleshes out the purpose of the Torah, its restriction to the period from Moses to Christ, and its utter ineffectiveness at driving real spiritual transformation.  Adam, Torah, commandment, sin, flesh, and death are all integrated into a seamless whole.  Ultimately it is not Torah observance but life in the Spirit that drives real spiritual transformation.

To conclude, we give McKnight the final word:

To read Romans well, we read it as pastoral, ecclesial theology for a specific church in a specific time. To be sure, Romans fares well in other contexts, but, until we profile those contexts and the message of Romans for those contexts, we don’t know what to make of it for other contexts. Romans, like no other book in the entire Bible except for Philemon, is more relevant for the churches of the United States than any book in the Bible. The message is a lived theology of Christoformity manifested in peace among siblings — all siblings, not just siblings like me. The message shouts to the American church that its classism, its racism, its sexism, and its materialism are like the Strong’s social status claims and the Weak’s boundaried behaviors. They divide and conquer. The message of Romans is that the Weak and the Strong of our day — and I say now what I have not said, that everyone thinks that they are the Strong and that the other is the Weak — must surrender their claims to privilege and hand them over to Cruciformity.

Advent Week 3: A Torah That Disrupts Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.  McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches.  We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.

We started with chapters 12-16.  We saw that the Roman church community was divided.  The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome.  These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter.  This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.

Last week we looked at chapters 9-11.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, chapters 9-11 are a weird outlier that no one really seems to know what to do with.  But McKnight argues that chapters 9-11, far from being an outlier, are in fact the main point of Romans.  A goodly portion of this passage is addressed to the “Weak”, the Jewish believers in the Roman churches, reminding them of the surprising nature of God’s gracious election and that right standing with God now comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not via observance of the Torah, and answering questions/concerns of the “Weak” that if this is the case then God has surely rejected Israel.  Paul then turns to the “Strong” and admonishes them that they are not replacing Israel in God’s redemptive plan but instead their inclusion is an enlargement of Israel, so to speak, and they are therefore to embrace the “Weak” as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now we come to chapters 1-4.

In the standard evangelical way of reading Romans, which views Romans as a universal theological outline of how salvation works for all people in all times and all places, chapters 1-4 would be outlined thusly:

–1:1-16: Introduction with thesis statement: The Gospel has the power to save everyone
–1:18-3:20: The whole world guilty before God, subdivided thusly:
–1:18-32 Gentiles guilty before God
–2:1-3:8 Jews guilty before God
–3:9-20 The whole world guilty before God
–3:21-29: The whole world saved the same way, by grace, via faith in Jesus Christ and not works
–4:1-25: Examples of how faith, and not works, saves

…One more way of saying this is that he presents bad news (1:18-3:20), the good news (3:21-26), and how to get it (3:27-4:25). This standard reading has a clear agenda: it universalizes the soteriology of Paul. It also removes the message from the social context sketched in Romans 12-16.

What Paul has in mind in Romans 2 might not be as clear as the universalizing approach thinks, but reading Romans backwards sheds light on the sweep from Romans 1:18 through the end of chapter 4. In fact, our approach leads to a more rhetorical reading of Romans 1-4 that unlocks the door to reading the whole of Romans more pastorally.  (p 101)

McKnight sees Romans 1-4 not as a universal theological statement on the workings of salvation addressed to all people in all places and all times, but as something specific to the Roman congregation and the division between the “Weak” and the “Strong”, mentioned in previous posts.  Romans 1:18-32 is not a blanket condemnation of the sinfulness of all humanity, or even of all Gentiles, but it instead echoes a stereotypical Jewish condemnation of Gentile sinfulness, one which is found all through the Old Testament prophets but which has particular resonance with Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14.  As you read Romans 1:18-32, note the close similarities with these passages from Wisdom of Solomon:

For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.  (14:27)

But just penalties will overtake them on two counts:  because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness.  (14:30)

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.  (13:1-2)

Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace.  For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.  (14:22-26)

As noted above, this is not a blanket condemnation of all human sinfulness as the most common human sins do not rise to the level of what is quoted here, or even of all Gentiles–in Romans 2:7-11 Paul speaks of other Gentiles who have taken a different path, with different results from what is described here.  Instead, this is a uniquely Jewish critique of the worst excesses of Gentile sinfulness, which has resonance throughout the Old Testament texts and is intended to set up the rhetorical bombshell which goes off at 2:1.

Starting at 2:1, Paul specifically addresses the “Weak”, that is, Jewish believers in the Roman churches who believe that the path to moral transformation and inclusion in the family of God is through observance of the Torah, through a representative character called the “Judge”.  The condemnation of 1:18-32 is intended to turn the rhetorical tables on this “Judge”, who does, in fact, condemn the Gentile world in those very terms.  This “Judge” claims the privilege of having been elected by God and obtained right standing with God by a lifetime of keeping Torah.  This “Judge” condemns Gentile believers in the Roman churches who do not keep Torah or see any necessity for doing so, in the belief that not keeping Torah leads inevitably to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.

A contemporary version of the same thing:  Evangelicals who condemn gays, gay Christians, and/or their sympathizers, in the belief that any accommodation whatsoever of the gay lifestyle (which we all know is flatly condemned by God as sin) will inevitably lead to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.

Paul undercuts the judgmental attitude shown by the “Judge” thusly over the course of chapter 2:  This “Judge” is hypocritical and just as sinful as the Gentiles he condemns (2:1-5).  God is a truly impartial judge, and the ultimate goal is not having the Torah but living in the ways commended by the Torah.  Both Jews and Gentiles are capable of doing this (2:6-16).  Paul even goes so far as to relativize the rite of circumcision, the ultimate boundary marker separating Jews from Gentiles, claiming that the outward rite of circumcision is of no value whatsoever if it is not matched by inner integrity, that is, a “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (2:17-29).

Chapters 3 and 4 continue Paul’s critique of the judgmental attitude shown by the “Weak” as personified by the “Judge”.  These chapters address many questions and objections raised by Jewish believers, and the crux is in 3:21-24:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Addressing the “Weak” and specifically the “Judge”, Paul makes the strong point that righteousness from God is apart from and independent of observance of the Torah.  The standard evangelical interpretation of Romans universalizes this:  We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and not through good, meritorious works.  Paul is teaching “sola fide” and what he is opposing is works-righteousness.  We cannot earn our salvation by what we do, we must depend on what Christ has done.

This completely misses the point.  This passage is addressed specifically to Jewish believers in the Roman churches–the “Weak”, as personified through the “Judge”–instructing them that their insistence upon Torah observance as the means of maintaining one’s good standing before God is not compatible with the Gospel message.  The “works” Paul is discussing here are not general works of self-righteousness but the specific works of Torah observance by which Jews marked themselves off as separate from the Gentiles and in which the Jewish believers in the Roman churches trusted for their good standing before God.

Paul’s message for the “Weak” also included words that the “Strong” were intended to hear.  This is indicated by Paul’s repeated use of the word “all”, bringing the “Weak” and the “Strong” together under sin and under the justification freely given by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  But first and foremost, Paul’s priority is for the “Weak” to grasp that Torah observance is not the heart of the matter when it comes to righteousness in Christ.

In reading Romans backwards, we are pressed to keep our eyes on the Weak and the Strong — that is, Jewish and gentile believers, not Jews and gentiles per se. We are pressed to keep in mind the Strong’s insensitivity to their privilege and the Weak’s judgment of the Strong’s moral scruples. This passage destroys the “privilege” of both: the Weak are sinners, and the Strong are sinners; both need redemption; that redemption will not come from Torah observance, and status in the church does not come by way of Torah observance or Torah nonobservance; and it does come from God’s gift — Christ on the cross, who secures atonement for all who believe, Jew or Greek. So, Paul is saying, “apart from works of the law,” to speak not to Jews in general but to the Weak in their particular problems with the Strong in the churches of Rome. (p 121)

As noted above, Paul’s intent in this section of Romans is not to build a case that all Gentiles and all Jews–and consequently, all humanity–are guilty before God in order to set up a universal teaching on how all can be “saved”.  Paul’s intent is to utilize theology to dismantle the specific conflict between the “Weak” and the “Strong” of the Roman churches and place them both on the same footing regarding sin and regarding justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not Torah observance.

Advent Week 2: A Narrative Leading to Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.  McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches.  We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.

Last week we focused on chapters 12-16.  We saw that the Roman church community was divided.  The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome.  These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter.  This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.

This week we come to chapters 9-11.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, Paul leads with his formulation of the Gospel message, which is his thesis (1:1-17).  1:18 all the way to the end of chapter 4 lay out the problem: all have sinned and are therefore in need of the Gospel.  Chapters 5-8 lay out the answer:  The Gospel – justification by faith in Christ alone, leading to sanctification and ultimately to glorification.  Chapters 12-16 give the application, what the Gospel looks like when lived out in the faith community.

But what ever do we do with chapters 9-11?  Some use texts from these chapters to lay out a doctrine of election (9:11-18), to serve as part of a gospel presentation calling people to faith in Christ (10:9-13), to argue for the importance of missions and preaching the gospel (10:14-17), or to argue for a dispensational view of eschatology centered upon Israel (11:25-26).  But on the whole, these chapters are basically treated as an outlier, an interesting parenthetical aside that has nothing whatsoever to do with Paul’s larger point:  The Gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone as the key to personal salvation, and how this is applied in the church community.

McKnight argues that the standard evangelical reading of Romans has it all wrong and that chapters 9-11, far from being merely an interesting parenthetical outlier having nothing whatsoever to do with Paul’s main point, are in fact the main point of Romans.  In this section of the book, McKnight argues that the point of Romans 9-11 is to remind his readers/listeners in the house churches of Rome of the story in which they have now become participants.

The key to understanding Romans 9-11 is 11:13, in which Paul says, “I am talking to you Gentiles”.  This is a pivot:  Up to this point Paul had been addressing one audience within the Roman church (the “Weak”), now he is turning to address a different audience (the “Strong”).  As noted earlier, the “Weak” and the “Strong” are the two principal factions who were in conflict within the Roman church.  The “Weak” are Jewish believers, mainly lower class, who placed a high value on Torah observance and were upset that the “Strong” were introducing Torah-hostile ways to the Roman church.  The “Strong” were Gentile believers, mainly upper class, who saw no necessity whatsoever for Torah observance, and who looked down their noses at the mainly-lower-class Jewish believers who valued Torah observance.

Some of the larger themes in Romans 9-11 are as follows:

–The surprising nature of God’s electing grace (9:1-29).  As McKnight puts it (p. 69):  “These elections demonstrate that God’s plan is not uniform, not predictable, and that individual Israelites dare not assume that they are next in the redemptive historical line of God’s plans.”  This is consistent with how God has operated throughout Israel’s history, just one more surprise in a long line of surprises.  While remaining faithful to Israel, God has created an unexpected way for those who were not part of His people to become part of His people.  Consequently the “Weak” need to make room at the table for their fellow Gentile believers, who now share elective privilege.

–Because Jesus has come, right standing with God now comes via faith in Christ and not via works of the Law (9:30-10:21).  For the “Weak”, it was their observance of Torah that assured them they were part of God’s people.  But God is now accepting Gentiles as part of His people–and not making them observe Torah.  The “Weak” must realize this, stop insisting upon Torah observance, and join their Gentile brethren, with whom they all stand before Christ on equal ground.

–God is faithful to his promises and will not reject Israel (11:1-12).  By this point the “Weak” are asking:  If God has now upgraded Gentiles to the level of Israel by means of faith and not Torah observance, then does that mean Israel has lost its privileged position in the plan of God?  To put it more bluntly, has God rejected Israel?  Paul gives multiple examples here to reassure the “Weak” that no indeed, this is not the case.

–Now Paul pivots and addresses the “Strong” (11:13-36).  Here is McKnight’s summary of what Paul has to say to the “Strong” (p. 88):

To the Strong, Paul says God is faithful to Israel both in including gentiles and in promising a future redemption for Israel. The Strong cannot become arrogant and think they alone are privileged because their God, who is the God of Israel, is faithful to the covenant. In fact, God’s calling of Israel is irrevocable. That irrevocability, however, takes surprising turns, including the Messiah and gentile inclusion and a future turning of Israelites to Jesus as Messiah. Since God is faithful to Israel, the Strong are to embrace the Weak as siblings in Christ.