Romans & "all have sinned"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'd like to share a new take on Romans 3:23 "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

As an evangelical the interpretation that I had always been taught for this verse is that it means that everyone has done something wrong, we all have lied for example, and because God is holy this means that we need to be punished with Hell, even for one small infraction. Anyone who has grown up in Evangelical circles as I have will instantly recognize this line of argument.

Now I don't deny that sin and separation from God is a reality, and that we as humans need to be reconciled into a personal relationship with God. I wholeheartedly affirm that as an Evangelical. But reading through Romans, I do not think that Paul here was intending to present this verse as a kind of moral score card.

Let's back up and look at Paul's line of thought in Romans: The book of Romans is primarily addressed to a Jewish audience (that is, to Christians coming out of a Jewish rather than a pagan background). This becomes abundantly clear in chapter two when Paul directly addresses his readers as Jews "Now you, if you call yourself a Jew..." Paul begins his argument by looking at pagan temple prostitution. Verse 27 reads "In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." This is one of the passages that is frequently brought up in debates about homosexuality. But Paul here is not speaking about a mutual committed relationship between two people with a homosexual orientation here (a concept virtually unheard of in his day), he is speaking about sex with a temple prostitute outside of any sort of relationship, and regardless of ones orientation. More to the point he is citing this as an example of a religious practice. This is not an example of 'wild living party people', this is an example of religion gone wrong. The purpose of these orgies in the mystery religions was to connect with God through these rituals. Paul here is putting forth an example of people who are trying to lead moral lives and get close to God, but getting it horribly wrong. It is an example that any Jew at the time would have found appalling, perhaps comparable to how we might react towards the story of some Kool-Aide suicide cult.

Paul then turns this around in chapter two, saying: see how messed up their religion is? well, yours is just as messed up! He challenges his audiences tenancy towards self-righteous judgmentalism, and points out their own hypocrisy. Paul's argument here is that God looks at our heart and life, not at our religious affiliation. It is an extremely radical argument that must have been shocking to hear at the time. Take for example this passage:

"Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God." (Ro 2:25-29 NIV)
Now let's imagine what it must have sounded like in their ears by replacing some of the words here with our own terminology:

"Baptism has value if you observe God's Word, but if you break God's Word, you have become as though you had not been baptized. If those who are not baptized keep the requirements of God's Word, will they not be regarded as though they were baptized? The one who is not baptized physically and yet obeys God's Word will condemn you who, even though you have the Bible and baptism, are a sinner. A man is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly, nor is baptism merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Christian if he is one inwardly; and baptism is baptism of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God."
Now I realize that there is not a direct parallel between baptism and circumcision, so take the above with a grain of salt, but I think putting ourselves in their shoes like this does help to bring out how radical and challenging Paul's message is - both then and now. It is a message that challenges religious self-righteousness and pride.

Paul then in chapter 3 asks if being a Jew does not exempt one from being a sinner what advantage is there then? I think we are on pretty solid ground if we include ourselves as Christians in this, so we might ask the same question: if being a Christian does not mean that we are blameless and perfect, what does it mean? Paul's answer is that having God's word makes us aware of the reality of our brokenness and need so that we can hopefully respond with a bit of self-reflective humility.

This all brings us to Romans 3:23 "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." Paul continues
"...and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
I've said a lot in the past about the meaning of verse 24 "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood" which you can read here, here, and here. Right now I want to draw our attention the part after that where he says "He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished"

The original Greek for this reads:
"εἰς ἔνδειξιν (in order to demonstrate) τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ (the righteousness of His) διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν (accounting for ignoring) τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων (the previous sins).
So a pretty literal translation would be that God presented Jesus... "in order to show His righteousness in ignoring previous sins." The NLV puts it like this "This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past." In other words, in the eyes of his Jewish audience, God's not judging and punishing sin was seen as unjust. As a people long in exile, living under pagan oppression, they wanted God to come in wrath and judge the Gentile sinners. God judging sin meant for them that the victims would be avenged. So when God did not come in wrath, this seemed in their eyes to be unjust - similar perhaps to how we might feel it unjust to not respond to an act of terrorism. They saw it as an inaction, and cried out with the Prophets "How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save?"

What I think Paul is saying here is that because we all are sinners, this wish for God to wipe out the "bad guys" means we would be wiped out too. That's why he says God held back (πάρεσιν), because God wanted to show his righteousness and justice in a different way, though Christ now making us right (v 26). This is what Luther called "God's alien justice" making us right with him though God's righteousness. It's not a quid pro quo payback justice, its a justice that justifies - that sets us aright. This new way in Christ is the way of redemption instead of wrath. That means that in this context, Ro 3:23 is not some sort of judicial score card, it is a statement of non-violence. Paul is saying: look I know you want to see people being judged, I know you want to see those who have oppressed and hurt you get hurt back, but that way is a deathtrap because we all are guilty, we all have hurt and been hurt. This vicious cycle of blame will only perpetuate injustice. It's not just them over there, it's all of us, and so we all need mercy and redemption.

That's Paul's message here in its original context. Not one of petty accounting where the smallest infraction has the most severe consequence, but a recognition of our own brokenness and need - even as religious people, especially as religious people - to live in mercy and grace.

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At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. Every time I read Romans I see something completely different. I will have to read it again with this argument in mind.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Great stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how Christianity has reduced and diluted down the amazing grace stuff and turned it into a religion that is the ugliest of them all. I really loved this post - thank you :)

At 11:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find amazing is how I could have read Romans so many times before in the past and not see any of this because I was reading it through a certain lens. The truth is hidden in plain sight.


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