Not Bad for a Fundraising Letter: Romans 5:1-11

 

It is a book of the Bible, an epistle from a church leader to a congregation. It is also a fundraising letter. It may be the most widely-read fundraising letter in human history.

 

This week we continue in the Book of Romans, skipping ahead to chapter 5.

 

But in order to get this passage, we first have to have some sense of what we skipped.

 

Last week we began at the beginning, with the first 17 verses of Romans. We saw how Paul writes this long letter, to a church he has never met, making an introduction. He wants to set his theology before them.

 

But NOT for some abstract love of theology. Paul has a very specific purpose in writing this letter. He hopes the Roman Christians will give financial to support to two of Paul’s pet projects: 1.) An offering from (mostly) Gentile Christians to support the (mostly) Jewish church in Jerusalem and 2.) His plan to preach in Spain.

 

In other words: this is a fundraising letter.

 

But instead of bold text and and promiscuous underlining (Friend, I need you to help me reach this critical goal!), Paul’s approach to fundraising involved a deep dive into his own theology.

 

Last week I suggested that that 1:16-17 is about the closest Paul comes to a thesis statement:

 

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

 

For Paul, the good news is the announcement that, in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) can have equal access to the God of Israel. In the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, the church is a visible sign of this new reality.

Paul takes the next many chapters to unfold this argument.

He begins by asserting the universality of human sin (1:18-3:20). He begins with a polemic against “Gentile sinners” that would have resonated with a 1st century Jewish audience. But then he turns it around. In Paul’s perspective, no one is innocent. There is no advantage in being a Jew, no bonus points for religious observance.

 

Put crudely: everybody sucks.

 

But! In Jesus Christ, God has a solution that is scaled to fit the problem. In chapter 3, Paul writes:

 

 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

 

All have sinned; all are now justified. A universal problem requires a universal solution. And, as a consequence, NO ONE has any claim to superiority. All sin; all are justified.

 

(If you think this sounds like “universalism”…so do I!).

 

Paul will spend the rest of chapter 3 and all of chapter 4 supporting this sweeping claim with an argument about Abraham and, well,  circumcision. We can, for purposes of this blog post, pass over all of that.

 

(You can thank me later).

This weekend, we will focus on what comes next: 5:1-11. It is an extremely dense bit of Scripture. Here is the whole thing:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

And here is my attempt to break it down a bit:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul has been a bit backward-looking up to now, talking about what God has done or what Abraham did in the past. With 5:1, we enter the present.

“Justified” is a really important word for Paul. It means something like “reconciled” or “made right.” Paul begins with a belief that our relationships are badly broken: we are estranged from one another and, ultimately, estranged from God. To be “justified,” for Paul, is to be put back in right relationship –first with God but also with other people. And the result of this—as anyone who has ever reconciled with anyone can tell you—is peace.

2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Two points to note here: First, “obtaining access” reinforces the idea that in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile have equal entreé to God. It’s not like some of us have God’s private cell phone number; in Christ all of us have obtained access. Second, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” reminds us how much of Paul’s theology is an in-between theology. In Christ, the healing of the whole world has begun but is not yet concluded. In this in-between time, we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God but we don’t quite share it. Not yet.

3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

We could spend a lot of time unpacking these verses, but I think Simone Weil captured it pretty well: “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”

We cannot explain suffering. Attempts to explain suffering are often insulting and hurtful to the person who is suffering. What we can do is use suffering to become the people God intends us to be.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul often employs a particular rhetorical trick: the argument from the lesser to the greater: “If this…how much more, that!” In his theology, Christ’s death is a unilateral act of God to deliver the ungodly (i.e., us). God gave of God’s self for us when we were estranged from God. So how much better will God do for us once we are reconciled.

Two quick concluding theological points: a lot about a theology of atonement and a little about being “saved.”

ATONEMENT: This passage obviously raises the question of the atonement in theology: Why did Jesus die and how does his death help or benefit us? It is a huge topic in theology. If you grew up going to church in North America, you probably learned some version of what we call “substitutionary atonement.” The idea, first formulated by an 11th century monk named Anselm of Canterbury, holds that Jesus died to pay a debt we owed to God. Sometimes it is developed in ways that place undue emphasize on the suffering of Jesus or the bloodiness of his death. (Think Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ).

In my experience, many progressive Christians, dismayed by all the blood and gore, disavow the atonement altogether. But I believe it is a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. There are other ways to understand the death of Jesus, some of which I find tremendously helpful.

Permit me to plagiarize myself:

But if we do not deal with the death of Jesus, we are missing a major part of his significance. And just because some of the theology on this topic has been done poorly does not mean we should refrain from doing it at all.

 

So what is the theological significance of the death of Jesus? Interestingly, the ecumenical church has never laid down a theory of the atonement with the sort of precision seen, for example, in Christology.  Within the broad boundaries of the New Testament claim that Christ died “for us,” the church has entertained a diversity of understandings of the atonement. 

 

Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor remains the most helpful survey of various atonement theologies.  Aulen argues that the ancient church held to what he calls the “Christus Victor” model, in which Christ’s cross and resurrection are a triumph over sin and death. The medieval period witness the rise of the judicial model, first advanced by Anselm, in which the cross is understood as an offering made to God by Christ to wipe out human sin; and the moral influence model, first formulated by Abelard in response to Anselm, in which Christ’s death is seen as a spur to human repentance and return to God.

 

I take these three different models, not as competing exhaustive descriptions of the atonement, but rather as complementary heuristic devices.  Each model has well-known problems; each of the three points to some significant aspect of God’s saving work in Christ; yet the sum total of the three cannot fully exhaust the mystery of God’s saving work.  The atonement is “thick” with significance, and the church is the poorer when it reduces the atonement to this or that “thin” interpretation.  Moreover, holding these images together allows one’s view to be enriched by emerging models in new theology, e.g., the liberation theologies of various oppressed groups.  It seems advisable to resist reductionism and instead play host to the diverse perspectives of the universal church.

 

That’s great, Matt, but, what do you really believe?

 

This post is already way too long, so let me do this quickly: My preferred understanding of the atonement draws on the work of René Girard and Walter Wink to see Jesus’ death as an act of nonviolent resistance to the powers oppressing humanity, particularly the Roman Empire and the religious establishment. In this view, the work of Jesus is in some continuity with the work of GhandiKing and others who mobilized nonviolent resistance to injustice and evil.

 

One strength of this perspective: it understands Jesus’ death as an extension of his life’s work, resisting the powers oppressing the human race and demanding justice.

SAVED is a word that seems to rub some people the wrong way. (Also: a pretty good movie!). But I learned something recently. Back in the 14th century—this is 300 years before the King James Version—John Wycliffe produced some of the very first vernacular translations of the Bible into English.

(You can read it here!)

And his translation has helped me to hear “salvation” language a little differently. Consider the Wycliffe translation of Romans 5: 8-9:

8 But God comendith his charite in vs; for if whanne we weren yit synneris,

9 aftir the tyme Crist was deed for vs, thanne myche more now we iustified in his blood, schulen be saaf fro wraththe bi him.

 

Safe. To be saved is to be safe. I can get to next to theology like that.

Not bad for a fundraising letter!

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