by Philip McPherson Rudisill
May, 1999 (slight editing May 1, 2021)
See the Gist of Paul's Letter to the Romans
See also Luther's Preface to Paul's Letter to the Christians in Rome.
Romans is becoming increasingly clear to me. I will try to formulate my understanding as briefly as possible. I think I have a very coherent understanding of this which, while some may not agree that this is what Paul meant, is nonetheless plausible (and which therefore must at least put any other interpretation in doubt).
The worldly notion of freedom, i.e., slavery to fleshly desire, leads to disorder and utter destruction. The practice of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula show this unmistakably. They start off as normal men and, by virtue of the opportunities afford them by their unusual power, dissipate themselves (even like deSade) in such excesses that they are jaded (familiarity breeds contempt!) and must reach ever deeper into the opportunities of the flesh for arousal of their deadening prowess, so much so that they even turn from their own natural heterosexual inclinations to homosexual behavior (and, we might easily surmise, would even finally end up like Dahmer in cannibalism). This license for personal gratification is totally dead-end, for the flesh cannot sustain delight for any length of time and finally is exhausted, leaving men with hungers which simply cannot be satisfied.*
* In the Bacchanal scene of Tannhaeuser (Wagner's opera), the hero has grown tired of the unrestrained sexual opportunities and play of Venusberg and yearns to return to the life of earth. This is a universal truth which all men will face, if only they are given the opportunity to practice sexual freedom to its unfettered limit.
The slavery to the law leads to hypocrisy and false righteousness. The Jews feel they are justified if they assert compliance with the law and openly speak against the practices of the licentious gentiles; but they do the same things in secret. The reason being that since, in their mind, God, as a legalist, is satisfied with compliance with the letter of the law and, for example, in "hand-washing" after dealing with gentiles or forbidden foods, i.e., external holiness, it follows logically that as long as they make their sacrifices they are safe. For God will keep his promises and accept them if they do what he says (in the law).*
* The natural result of which is called minimalism, i.e., as contained in the question: what is the least that I need to do in order to win some given reward?
But God is not really satisfied with either of these two; not with the license and depravity of the gentiles (external depravity) nor with deal-keeping, hypocrisy of the Jews (internal depravity). The proof of this is in the "righteous gentile" (and Paul could also easily have added: the truly righteous Jew), i.e., the people who by their nature engage in right dealings with each other. This proves that there is a way which is pleasing to God, that being the soul which is attuned to righteousness as a matter of course, as a nature.
Therefore God has another way, neither freedom/license of flesh nor bondage of law, and that way is provided through Christ and will result in an acquired (God-provided) nature which is similar to that of these righteous gentiles.
The story of Abraham directly points to this new nature and its gracious conveyance. Abraham believed God and as a result of that continuing faith, God transformed his (and his wife's) decrepit flesh into a newness like youth. This is precisely what God intends to do for all people through their faith in Christ (although in a far more important sense than merely the ability to spawn children at a late age), i.e., the ability to become like Christ, so that he is then seen as the elder brother.
Therefore there is no longer any fear for those who trust in Christ, for even adversity works to build up the character that God is producing through our faith. The proof lies in the work of Christ who came for the express purpose of saving sinners and of transforming them into new people. In the same way that the whole world degenerated into sin by virtue of the disobedience of Adam, the whole world can now ascend into righteousness through faith in this one man, Jesus (for it is through this faith that we open ourselves willingly to the Holy Spirit). Therefore, since through faith in Christ we are being renewed in our flesh, i.e., so that we come to love as a nature and not merely as an act of will, we have become "safe and secure from all alarm."*
* Paul does not go into detail about this here, but we can easily infer from the stories of Jesus and the disciples that is only by virtue of intimate familiarity with the man, and especially 1. his death for the sins (of the world whereby alone one can truly sense the character of Jesus), and then 2. the power of his resurrection from the dead, that anyone is first even able to truly understand and then want to receive the Holy Spirit, and whereby (alone) then they are able to become new people. The disciples are the only people who could truly attest to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, and so therefore moved beyond mere faith to seeing; hence our own faith is said to be the apostolic faith. See also The Awakening Atonement.
But isn't there a danger that we will utilize this confidence and lack of fear in order to engage in sin, since it is God who is working the miracle, and so therefore we don't have to be responsible? No, for the very fact of our faith means that we want to become like Christ--that's what it is all about--and so we look now not to engage in sin, but to develop in righteousness. To take our freedom as a license to sin would mean merely that we did not have faith in Christ, for this faith only means 1. that we anticipate the working of the miracle in our flesh in the same way that God worked a miracle in the flesh of Abraham, and 2. that we want this.*
* It is only in the willingness on our part that the Holy Spirit will enter our hearts and lives, and it is only through this Holy Spirit that we can become like Christ, and it is only in becoming like Christ that the point of creation is attained. So therefore our desire to be like Christ is an integral part of having faith.
What then about the law? why the law in the first place? The law served to give us the form of freedom from sin, i.e., that we were to act in a certain way toward God and each other and not to treat each other as commodities (as do the gentiles openly, especially in the iconic example of Tiberius and Caligula; and Jews secretly). But the problem is that this law constitutes a restraint on our passions, and that is anathema to beings who are determined to express their freedom. This first expression is manifested in our natural and de facto rejection of the law and in our consequent attempts to circumvent the law. And the fact of the law is itself an enticement for circumvention (and all the rules and regulations of the Pharisees are an adequate testimony to this penchant in the human nature). Therefore, even though the law is good and its purpose necessary for the world that God intends, it is dysfunctional, given the penchant of the individual for personal expression of freedom which, at first, is always negative, i.e., in rejection of restrain; and we reject the constraint of any law and seek to circumvent it. But this nature for circumvention (even as we continually feel it in our flesh) is not distressing to us who are in Christ, for we know through Christ's love for us that God accepts us as sinners by virtue of the sincere desire in our hearts to be like Christ.*
* Implying strongly that, again, it is through this sincere desire to be like Christ that we are able to want the entry of the Holy Spirit and thus to become receptive to Him, and thereby then finally come to the likeness of Christ and which, again, is the point of creation.
Therefore we have no fear of any sort whatsoever. For we are one with Christ in spirit, and await the total transformation of our flesh as God leads us on. The proof of our salvation lies in our sincere ability and awareness of being able to call out to God as Abba/Father. We are not discouraged by the pain that continues, for we know that we are being born into a new realm with Christ. So great is our confidence (in the love of God in the face of calamities) that we can say that it was planned before the beginning of time that we would be one with Christ;* and so we fear no separation whatsoever--it is not to be reckoned with. It is of this sort that our confidence is characterized.
* Our understanding, merely as men, is such that we can look back at past events and see that we were brought to where we are by circumstances (given our own temperament); and we do this without at all subtracting from our awareness that what we now propose to do, whatever it be, is totally in our control at this moment and can be undertaken, or not, as we choose; and for which we must assume total responsibility, regardless how we choose.
What about the Jews? They have no complaint actually, for they could come in just as the gentiles do. They think that they have something special since they were chosen by God for protection, but they forget that since God arbitrarily chose them in the first place, that he can now just as well arbitrarily choose to perfect the gentiles. This is his sovereign right, and the Jews have nothing at all to say about that.
The story of God's work in the world needed to be told so that all might come to salvation, and not just the Jews. This is what they missed--the Jews thought it was for them that the story was told, but it was for all people; for all who believe and come to God in the same faith as Abraham will be saved. The Jews do not believe in the goodness of God, but only in his honesty, namely that he will keep his word. They refuse to give up the deal (with Abraham) in the flesh in order to get the true deal of a life time, i.e., salvation as a gift.
Therefore the Jews will not be left out, but will finally come in after the gentiles, as Johnny-come-lately. The reason is marvelous--it is so that the gentiles do not first have to become Jews in order to trust in Christ, but rather can trust directly in the model of Abraham.
Now concerning this new nature itself, we no longer do the evil, egotistical things, but rather now begin increasingly to love as Christ did, love without counting and without measure, and gladly so. We have an entirely new outlook, and we look expectently to our perfection in Christ.
Consider the matter of the civil order in the world: we do not obey the governor now because he is governor, but because his requirements are just and work toward a society of order and decency. We comply for the sake of conscience, by derivation from the law of love which now is our sole and total law. Christ will return soon and we must be busy in anticipation.
In dealing with our own (fellow Christians) who are of a different opinion and who think that there are continuing rules (besides the law of love) and hence who are "weak in faith", we do not push each other, but rather trust to the individual relationship with Christ to handle all matters of conscience. Therefore we do not flaunt our freedom in Christ by engaging publicly in behavior which others think to be sinful, but rather try to build each other up. Each man will justify himself before Christ, and Christ is able to deal with each individual on the basis of that individual's understanding and perception, and will be able to look to the heart to see there the secrets and the desire to become like Christ. Our Lord has no need of the counsel of his followers in order to be able to make just judgments. Every man stands before Christ in conscience, and so there will be no mistakes in this regard. And generally anything not done in faith is sin.
Hence we are to help each other and not try to have just our own way. In this way we imitate Christ. Christ came to the Jews to honor the promises, but the purpose was the salvation of the Gentiles (all people) so that they might glorify God through the Jews (through Christ, the product of the Jews in the flesh). Therefore I continue to bring the gospel to the gentiles so that all people finally will glorify God.
That pretty much summaries my grasp of Paul's thinking in Romans. It is astonishing in its magnitude and sweep, and presents a truly novel conception of existence. He is utterly convinced of the resurrection of Christ, and has been able to conceive of a rationale for the whole thing, and which also ties in with his experience, for he has found that he too is becoming more loving in a natural way, and looks at that (correctly, the Wesleyan would say) as the result and primary aim of faith in Christ. In other words, the whole thing now makes perfect sense. God will have righteous gentiles, and accomplishes this through Christ, and so in the form of a gift (as it was to Abraham) by whom the saint is made possible, namely the continuing sinner who is getting better, e.g., "While I am far from perfection, I am not as far as once I was--and I am on the way!" as the Wesleyans are wont to say.
See essay on Christian Liberty and Promise.
Author contact: pmr#$kantwesley.com, replacing #$ with @