07.02.2017 Preaching Text: “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:15)
You can always count on Paul to offer up a word salad, especially in his Epistle to the Romans. That’s because Romans is chocked full of dense philosophical, theological content. And to make matter worse, we don’t always know the exact historical context of what he’s discussing.
Our reading today is, in some sense, a classic example. Here he’s up against a big problem – specifically his insistence on Christians being saved or justified by faith and not works.
In some sense he’s a man without a country. His native Jewish faith, for example, was renowned for its strong, insistent moral codes. Though Israel was not alone, nor even the first, in recognizing the importance of morality, morality in the form of Mosaic Law played a central role not just in Israel’s religious practice but in its political and social life as well.
As such, Paul faced severe criticism from his fellow countrymen for rejecting the Law as central to his understanding of Christian practice.
Turning to the sensibilities of the extant Greco-Roman world, the “pagan” world, Paul faces a different though equally fierce kind of criticism. Here the strong morality of Christianity, itself linked closely to that of Israel’s, is seen as impossibly strict, even nonsensical.
If we were to live even briefly in ancient Rome’s moral climate we’d be appalled. Rome’s degeneracy was and is legend. The Roman historian Tacitus once wrote that the spirit of the times was “to corrupt and to be corrupted.”
From the Jewish perspective Paul’s decree of justification by faith and not works seemed not only blasphemous but immoral. But from the Roman perspective his words almost seemed to recommend, if not implicitly, its particular brand of lawlessness and immorality.
There was something else at work in the Greco-Roman world – the strong influence of Gnosticism, which often competed with Christianity. Gnosticism contended that since the material world was inherently evil (something the Judeo-Christian tradition adamantly rejects), it didn’t matter what you did with your body or with the material world. Such things, after all, were wholly corrupt, so what difference would it make?
This led some Gnostics to practice asceticism. The idea was to pummel the evil body into submission. But it led others to conclude that since the body was inherently evil, it didn’t matter what you did with it. The only thing that mattered was one’s inward spiritual consciousness.
Paul’s justification by faith and not works seemed to play right into this. The Law and its prohibitions mattered not at all. What mattered was non-bodily spiritual growth.
Christianity, and Israel before it, insists that the material world is good precisely because God made it. The problem, and the source of all evil, is not due to the material world being evil, but due to the misuse of that which is good. The body, therefore, is a “temple” to be respected and honored.
Paul thus rejects the idea that because we’re saved by faith we can do anything we want. He insists on the necessities of a moral life.
So how does he circle this square? Consider the word “redemption.” Biblically it means that a price has been paid for our freedom.
Assume you’ve been convicted of a serious crime and that you’re guilty as sin. And assume that the court has already decreed, rightly, that you’re guilty as sin. There you stand before the judge and await your sentence. (Hint: it’s not going to be good.)
But then, unexpectedly, someone comes forward and announces that he’s prepared to pay for your freedom, despite your blatant guilt. Just like that the court sets you free – no strings attached.
What would your reaction to all this be? I suspect it would involve immense gratitude toward the one who paid your “ransom” and set you free.
What then do you do next? Go back to your life of crime? By no means! Now that you are free, why would you choose to go back to the slavery and degradation born of judgment, sin, and death? More than likely you’d want to maintain your newfound freedom by determining to live in an entirely new way.
In the musical play, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, the lead character is both a convict and a thief. One day, out of desperation, he steals some valuables from a church that has offered him shelter. After he’s caught, he’s brought by the police to the bishop whose church he robbed.
But instead of identifying him as the thief, the bishop tells the police he himself had given the items to the thief as a gift. Despite the officer’s profound skepticism, the thief is set free.
It is this singular act of forgiveness and generosity that turns the thief’s life around. Overwhelmed with gratitude, he seeks to honor the man who freed him by dedicating himself to a wholly new life dedicated to the good.
For Paul, it is this very same dynamic that informs the Christian life. In gratefully accepting our freedom, Christians acknowledge their debt to God. Though we were far from sinless, we are rendered guiltless. This is not, needless to say, the kind of freedom that can ever be earned. It’s pure gift.
This awareness brings forth the desire to live accordingly, not because we fear punishment, but because we now live in a state of grace (the state of being forgiven).
As with the reformed thief, the overriding desire is to live the kind of life that honors our benefactor, a life dedicated to morality and “good works.” Our motivation is not based on fear, of avoiding punishment by doing the right things, but the desire to do these same right things out of gratitude and selfless love.
Paul’s point, then, is that Christianity is incapable of producing lawlessness, as his critics presume, but leads invariably to a higher ethical calling based on the life-affirming demands of holy love.
Paul insists we are justified by faith, not works, because we have received and accepted God’s wholly unmerited love and forgiveness. A healthy response to this seeks naturally to honor the highest elements of that kind of love.
In the end, there is such a thing as right and wrong. On this Paul is unyielding. In Christianity, however, it all boils down to our motivation in doing what is right. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons, either out of selfishness, rote conformity, or in order to impress or gain favor with God and/or our fellow humans, is to live by “works.” Doing these same acts out of selfless love and in honor of God’s holy grace, however, is to live by “faith.”
This weekend we celebrate our nation’s founding and its promise of freedom, bought at great cost and sacrifice. True freedom, as we know, is not the same as license, as in the Greco-Roman world. Rather it is based on selfless service to both God and our fellow human beings.
It has been suggested that there should be a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ alongside the ‘Statue of Liberty’ – a grateful, dutiful, and, yes, privileged sense of responsibility, one that recognizes that holy freedom, at its core, is a sacrificial gift of love from our ever merciful and gracious God. Amen.