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Finished Romans Class

Finished Romans Class

Earlier this evening I finished my Wednesday night class on the book of Romans. For the study of Romans 16, I used a sermon by Dr. Fred Craddock off of YouTube. Here it is:

I have never found anything that is quite like this as a presentation on Romans 16. Dr. Fred Craddock was indeed an exceptional preacher.

In an unpredictable result, the class has chosen to continue immediately and they want me to begin a study of Leviticus. With the number of references I have made to Leviticus in teaching, this is not as surprising as one might think, yet I didn’t expect it.

It will be interesting to see what I can post here regarding the class.

Read my review of Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus, my primary study related to the book.

What Do I Do About Grace?

What Do I Do About Grace?

This question has come up a number of times in my Romans study group, and it’s a good one. I’m not one to call all questions good. In fact, I think if you ask the wrong question, you often end up with an answer that leads you astray.

In this case, however, we’ve gone from Romans 1 through 11, and we’ve been learning about God’s faithfulness and God’s grace. One class member commented that the answer to any question I ever asked should be “God’s grace is sufficient.” That’s not a bad answer. Sometimes, however, we need to go a bit further.

Paul’s going to do just that starting with Romans 12. Now some people write, teach, and preach as though Paul talks about theology and then makes a break with his theology in order to talk about action or ethics. I disagree. Paul makes clear in Romans 12 that he is building on what he has said before, and what he says is very well founded. We should read his “therefore” in 12:1 as tying this together.

Because God is faithful, because God has given us his grace, here is the result.

Using the Word “Law”

One of the critical elements in understanding Romans, which leads up to this point, is Paul’s usage of the word “law.” When I was in my late teens a person I respected greatly told me that the big mistake in reading Romans and Galatians was misunderstanding “law.” This person told me to understand it as “Torah,” i.e., the practice of Judaism. The issue of the law here was one of whether gentiles needed first to be Jews.

This is doubtless one of Paul’s points, but it is far from Paul’s whole point. That definition works better in much of Galatians, where requiring gentiles to practice Judaism, with the entry point of circumcision, is much more central. In Romans, Paul uses “law” in some different senses.

Our tendency here is to try to find out which one sense Paul is using and then apply it throughout, but this may not be the best approach. “Law” can have quite a sizable semantic range, including God’s divine law and purpose for all time, specific bodies of law, such as the Torah as a whole, or the instructions to Noah, or even specific commands. English usage of Law doesn’t quite extend to a body of broad instruction, but that is part of the range of Paul’s usage.

A Diagram

Here’s a diagram I provided to my class. I’m going to write a few notes about it. Obviously, this is abbreviated. We have spent months getting to this point with my Romans class.

I started to put all the notes and the text on the diagram, but that proved a bit too complex and confusing. So herewith a few notes.

God has made no plan ever that was not intended to produce a holy people. God has a glorious purpose for us, and reaching that purpose perfectly is the ultimate goal. We have, however, all fallen well short of that, and we continue to fall short. But God’s grace is sufficient.

There should be no balance between faith and works or grace and works, because these are different things and cannot be balanced. There is no amount of works that I can do that will force God’s hand or earn God’s favor. I like to use navigation by the pole star. Think of yourself orienting your journey by sighting Polaris. You do not believe you’re going to get to Polaris by walking in that direction, but you do believe that you’ll get to another destination. The fact that you cannot reach it doesn’t make it less of a guide for what you can reach. (You can find my calculations on the north star here, along with much other verbage!)

The key here is the invitation of grace, the invitation to be “in Christ,” in which we allow God to work on us and change us, but we cease judging ourselves or others according to the ultimate perfection of a goal we cannot possibly attain.

Idolatry

The short line at the bottom left deals with idolatry. The true problem with idolatry is that it places something less than God in the place of God. That can be our own desire to attain, to be in control. We like to be in control. We feel safer if we can say that God will take us to heaven because we have completed a list of chores. But that’s placing something less than God in God’s place.

Similarly, we can place something less than God’s perfect law in the place of God’s law. (My friend Pat Badstibner has written about this in The Law Is Not Soggy Corn Flakes.) I use Paul Tillich’s terminology to some extent, that idolatry is making something not ultimate your ultimate concern. So we have those who decide that this perfection thing being unattainable, we need to find something attainable and do that.

Doing the attainable with God (see Philippians 2:12-13 and John 15:1-8) is just fine. God knows where he can take you, and through sanctifying grace will guide you there. (Here’s where I depart from Wesley’s plan. I don’t believe in Christian perfection. I believe that is only accomplished with glorification. It should be made clear, however, that the perfection Wesley spoke about was not the attainment of all of God’s glorious purpose for us either.)

We start to step into idolatry when we start to trim God’s standards so that they look better to us. By this, again, I don’t mean looking at attainable goals. In fact, that is precisely what God has done with us. I show this in my diagram by the lines representing God’s commands and laws for times and circumstances.

God’s goal is always the same, but God works this out in many different ways in various times and places.

God’s Grace Is the Context

On the right I put the long red line that represents God’s grace. That is the one and only thing that connects us to an infinite God. Only God can cross that gap.

Let me apply this now to the particular question that came up in class multiple times. What do we do about sin in our midst? Do we forgive, excuse, confront, ignore?

And here is where we need to watch out. Matthew 7:1 is, I think, one of the most misunderstood and simultaneously disobeyed passages of scripture. It’s an important command. We also have Matthew 7:15ff regarding watching out for false prophets and knowing them by their fruit. Is this latter not an act of judgment?

I would say that we have to regularly inspect fruit and make decisions based on that. We might have to choose between one person and another to lead the children’s ministry. We might have to decide whether a pastor or teacher is acting as a false prophet. Those would be acts of judgment in one sense.

Guidance

The guidance I see in my chart is simply this: We also judge and inspect fruit in the light of the law and the laws.

First, we understand ourselves to be the objects of infinite grace. We are, ourselves, sinners, in need of God’s grace and action. I realize many find this hard to accept, but I see it in the context of broader reality. I am so pitiful that without God’s creative power I would not exist at all. Thus saying I need God in order to do good is a minor derivative. From that flows the idea that all depends on God.

Second, as recipients of God’s grace, we know that God is working in us and through us and that we are witnesses to the working of God’s grace. I often tell Christian audiences that there’s no question whether you will witness. The question is whether you will be a good witness or a bad one.

Thus we conduct all our fruit inspection in the context of the knowledge that we are recipients of God’s infinite grace, and not as superior people looking down upon lesser mortals. That position is left to God.

So how does that help one decide whether to confront or remain quiet?

Simply this: It sets the context. What is right becomes the question of what is the right thing to do as a recipient of God’s grace. Proverbs 26:4-5 provides a similar issue. Read it and then ask yourself the question. If I find a fool speaking, which should I do? Listen to the Holy Spirit and decide in the context of grace.

All to God’s Glory

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all things to God’s glory.” So ask, “Am I doing this for God’s glory, or am I doing it to justify myself or even glorify myself?” and “Is this done as an act of grace, or an act of condemnation?”

On John Wesley and Total Depravity

On John Wesley and Total Depravity

I’ve drawn some questions and produced some amusement (from Calivinist friends) by using the term “total depravity.” Listeners were surprised to hear a Wesleyan use that particular term. “Sinners,” “sinful,” and similar terms, OK, but total depravity? I have previously heard people remark that total depravity isn’t Wesleyan, so as United Methodists we don’t believe that. (Oh, the many things we modern Methodists don’t believe that Wesley did!)

The question first came up as I used the term right after reading Romans 3:9-18, which is a somewhat depressing passage, largely made up of snippets from the Old Testament. Paul is completing his dissertation on all being sinful, Jew and Gentile alike, and in need of God’s grace. That need is total, In verse 20, he will ask: “What room then is left for human pride?” and answer, “It is excluded.”

The doctrine of total depravity does not maintain that we have all committed some list of specific sins. Rather, it claims that we are all, without God, completely and utterly lost. I find this easy to believe, because as a theist I believe that without God, I am not. Period. The specifically Wesleyan difference on this, however, is that everyone has access to God’s grace. That’s the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. It provides the universal answer (potential) to a universal problem. The differences thus arise in the doctrine of election.

I think it’s important to note also that this same passage suggests that those who don’t know the message that Israel and then the church has carried may, in fact, be doing God’s will. One might perhaps do better to let God do the judging of persons, and realize that where good is done, God is present, even if not in ways we understand.

Here’s John Wesley on this topic, from Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon #74, “Of the Church.”

“21. We are called to walk, First, “with all lowliness:” to have that mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus; not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; to be little, and poor, and mean, and vile in our own eyes; to know ourselves as also we are known by Him to whom all hearts are open; to be deeply sensible of our own unworthiness, of the universal depravity of our nature, (in which dwelleth no good thing,) — prone to all evil, averse to all good; insomuch that we are not only sick, but dead in trespasses and sins, till God breathes upon the dry bones, and creates life by the fruit of his lips. And suppose this is done, — suppose he has now quickened us, infusing life into our dead souls; yet how much of the carnal mind remains! How prone is our heart still to depart from the living God! What a tendency to sin remains in our heart, although we know our past sins are forgiven!

“And how much sin, in spite of all our endeavours, cleaves both to our words and actions! Who can be duly sensible how much remains in him of his natural enmity to God, or how far he is still alienated from God by the ignorance that is in him?

“22. Yea, suppose God has now thoroughly cleansed our heart, and scattered the last remains of sin; yet how can we be sensible enough of our own helplessness, our utter inability to all good, unless we are every hour, yea, every moment, endued with power from on high? Who is able to think one good thought, or to form one good desire, unless by that Almighty power which worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure? We have need even in this state of grace, to be thoroughly and continually penetrated with a sense of this. Otherwise we shall be in perpetual danger of robbing God of his honour, by glorying in something we have received, as though we had not received it.”

Wesley is often calumniated by descendants (spiritually) who do not actually know what he taught.

Tonight in Romans

Tonight in Romans

This evening, at 6 pm at Chumuckla Community Church, we continue the study of Romans, just starting chapter 2. Here’s a quote from some of my reading today:

The Gospel is not just a matter for the mind, a message that must be understood. It is a way of being in the world that must be lived. The Gospel may reach the individual through the mind, and the mind has a task to do with it, considering its premises, judging its arguments, evaluating its goals. But the Gospel must find its home in the heart, the seat of being. It cannot get to the heart without passing through the mind, but it is not effective unless it settles in the heart, changing it in the process. As Paul puts it, the heart must be circumcised (Rom. 2:29). The power of sin in it must be expurgated. The Christian has a mind renewed from above and a circumcised heart. Paul’s promise to his converts is that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). To keep the mind and the heart together is to live by faith and reason. The love of God that the Spirit pours into the heart does not dislodge the unity of the mind and the heart. It strengthens it. In the Christian, faith and reason abide as one. (Herold Weiss, Meditations on the Letters of Paul, pp. 59-60)

There are those who think we’re moving slowly. I think we’re moving at lightning speed! If you live in the area, come and join us for an exciting discussion.

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Their title may not tell you precisely what they’re up to, but I’ll let you figure that out by visiting.

I was asked to answer a few questions for a video, with a key text of Romans 4:3. Here’s the video. It’s nice when someone truly skilled puts the final result together!

There’s lots of interesting stuff on their channel, which you can find by clicking through on the video link.

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

I might have said collide, as sometimes seems to be the case, but let’s start with tangle. Here’s Paul in Romans 2:

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16, NRSV, courtesy of BibleGateway.com).

What definition of “law” can you use that will actually make sense of everything Paul is saying. Those who have sinned “apart from the law” also perish “apart from the law.” First inclination is to think those without Torah perish without Torah. Of course we might compare Romans 7:7 and ask just where is sin without a law. To get out of Pauline literature, we might note that 1 John 3:4 identifies sin as the transgression of the law (or lawlessness), while (back to Paul again) “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Pardon me for jumping about, but I’m illustrating the problem of definitions here.

Then we have verse 13, where the “doers of the law” will be justified, except that we can refer to Galatians 2:16 (another book, but still Paul), where we are informed that nobody will be justified by the works of the law. So is Paul referring to the same law in Galatians 2:16? I’m not going to resolve all this here. I’m just suggesting the serious need to look at definitions. I’ve heard these various passages put together, and I myself have quoted 1 John 3:4 as though it came from Paul, just because I have it squirreled away in my brain along with Paul-talk.

But just with Paul’s discussion we may be looking at some tangles, as verse 14 suggests that Gentiles, not possessing the law, might instinctively do what the law requires. Now doubtless this doesn’t refer to the Gentiles instinctively knowing to practice Leviticus 6, which provides detailed instructions for a trespass offering. Not to mention any number of chapters around it. So there’s something other than the details of Torah that Paul has in mind here. From verse 15, “what the law requires is written on their hearts” suggests the same thing, and apparently God will judge them according to the law that they have.

My own though here and throughout the writings of Paul is that he sees an overall law of God which is then instantiated for those God is working with. The law (as you have it) reflects the law (as God desires it), and expectations are laid on you accordingly. The closest reflection of living by God’s law would be when our acts proceed from faith (Romans 14:23). I’m not really trying to fill out this thesis here. Rather, I’m suggesting that a great deal of confusion in reading Paul would be eased if one were as flexible in understanding the word “law” and connected phrases as Paul is in using the term.

Which leads me to the term “will.” What is God’s will? What is God’s plan? Some people are wonderfully comforted with the idea that God has a plan for their lives. Others are not that happy that they don’t really have a choice. Sometimes these ideas clash even when they are used by people who would both (or all) say that they want to live “in God’s will.”

But what do we mean by that?

I would suggest that we, in the modern church, are even more flexible in our use of “will” than Paul is in his use of “law.” I would suggest that God’s will is actually a very flexible thing. God’s plan for your life is that you make the best use of your gifts and talents according to the principles of God’s law. Just what has God decided and what is left to you? Listen, think, act, and enjoy.

God is flexible enough to deal with it!


(Featured Image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.

Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel III

Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel III

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky

This is the unintentional third part of my discussion of this topic. Last week I talked a bit more about the initial statement of the gospel in Galatians and then began looking at how Paul talked about the gospel elsewhere, first in 2 Corinthians 5 and the ministry of reconciliation. I’ll be moving from there to Romans 1 (and a few other references in that book). I’m including those books whose authorship is controversial, though I’ll note each one as I make use of it.

Here’s the embedded viewer for tonight:

Remember my resource page on Paul. I will continue to expand on those references with some comments.

Exhortation Does Not Interrupt Exposition

Exhortation Does Not Interrupt Exposition

On page 238 of his NTL commentary on Hebrews Luke Timothy Johnson uses the word “interrupt” to describe the transition between exposition and exhortation starting in Hebrews 5:11. In a way I’m nitpicking here, and because I am, I must also note that overall I find Johnson’s commentary nearly the most useful I’ve read, and if I were just talking about theological reflection, I would call it the best.

I have a couple of objections to use of the word “interrupt,” however. First, it seems to me that calling the transition an interruption divides the text without consideration for the author’s purpose in writing. There is no exposition here which stands alone, and which can then optionally be applied to the hearers via an exhortation. Rather, the intention is exhortation and the exposition underlies the exhortation and is illustrated and illuminated by the nature of that exhortation.

Second, the exhortations also help raise questions for the further exposition that follows. In the case in question (Hebrews 5:11-6:12), the question of the faithfulness and reliability of God is raised, which will be answered in Hebrews 6:13ff. This is also the critical question of the entire book. God has provided the final High Priest (logically and temporally), who will offer the final sacrifice, and will provide the way back to the presence of God. Since this is all final, human beings are presented with this final choice, in the view of our author. If you reject this, what means can God provide for you?

Without exhortation, the exposition would be dry, pointless, and incomplete. The exhortation is an integral part of developing the topic.

I emphasize this because of some of my experience in studying Pauline epistles in college and graduate school. We would make it through the theological exposition in the beginning of the book, but when we got to the practical admonitions, those were treated as something of an afterthought by Paul. “Here’s your theology of salvation, and oh, by the way, there are a few things it would be a good idea to do …”

But for Paul those admonitions grow out of the theology he has presented. The practical elements are not appendices to letters that are otherwise theological treatises. It would be better to call the theological exposition introductory matter to the practical sections. Perhaps this explains why Galatians and Romans seem to get so much more treatment from a theological viewpoint than 1 & 2 Corinthians.

Sometimes I think the worst thing about biblical scholarship is that it is carried out by biblical scholars. Their interest is in extracting theological propositions and historical data. The writers, especially Paul, are writing pastorally. The two don’t always work well together.

At least that is the view from someone who took Romans (through chapter 8!) and Galatians (through chapter 4!) in school. As far as I could tell, the professors were happy with that.