Saved by God’s grace

Pentecost 3  2011

Romans 7:14-25

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free. Amen.

Martin Luther is a significant figure in the history of the church. It was his critique of the abuses of the church in his day that began the process of the Reformation and it was through his study of Paul that we recovered the important notions of justification by faith and grace. Unfortunately, though he uncovered one of the central elements of Pauline teaching, he misunderstood how it was that Paul came to that understanding. In fact, Luther read into the letters of Paul his own experiences and feelings of failure.

The young Luther was deeply troubled by his inability to achieve the degree of goodness and holiness that he felt was expected of him. As a consequence he indulged in practices that were designed to punish or quell his sinful urges and assure his salvation. He would fast for up to three days at a time and throw his blankets aside so that he nearly froze to death. His study led him to Paul and to a longing to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans in particular the notion of the justice of God. He felt that he could not love a just and angry God.

At last he came to the statement that the righteous shall live by faith. It was then that he understood that “the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us by faith.” All his anxiety melted away, his fears of hell disappeared, his anger at an unjust God turned to gratitude and understanding. He knew from that point that all his striving was to no avail, that Christians are justified by faith, set free by God’s grace, not by anything that they do. Grace/justification is a free gift from God that does not have to be earned but only received.

This knowledge was so liberating for him, that Luther made the assumption (based in part on today’s reading from Romans 7) that Paul had had a similar struggle and a similar release. However a reading of Paul’s genuine letters gives the lie to this theory. If anything Paul was a proud and confident Jew. Until the revelation that he describes in Galatians, Paul appears not to have had a troubled conscience from which the love of God set him free.  In fact, more than once he informs us that rather than being insecure about his place before God, he was confident in his position as a righteous Jew.

Instead of reading back into Paul’s letters our own experience, it is important to understand the context in which they were written, the situations to which he was responding and the techniques that he used to make his point. In the case of the letter to the Romans, Paul is responding to accusations that he has rejected the law – a reasonable assumption on the basis of the letter to the Galatians. Before Paul visits Rome, he must ensure he is welcome and reassure the Roman church that he still holds to the law and that God who gave the law remains faithful to the people of Israel (and is not a capricious untrustworthy God).

It is impossible to follow Paul’s argument on the basis of only a couple of isolated passages including one that has been misinterpreted for centuries. Romans 7:14-25 has been used to justify self-loathing and a distrust of our fleshly bodies. It has succeeded in personalizing and externalizing sin – “it wasn’t me, it was my carnal desires”, “the devil made me do it”. Certainly, that is how it reads out of context, and how it reads to any of us who are not able to follow Paul’s argument from the beginning.

There is no evidence anywhere else that Paul suggests that he had any difficulty fulfilling the law or that he believed himself to be a sinner as a consequence, or that he was troubled by his fleshly existence. In face, just the opposite is the case. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:5,6).

In order to make sense of today’s passage from chapter 7, we must go back to verse 6: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” This is essential for our understanding. According to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the only person to have lived without the law was Adam. This would mean that the “I” in this instance refers to Adam. Paul is using a dramatic technique to demonstrate that the law – though given by God – is not without its problems. In the case of Adam, it was when God said: “Do not eat of the tree” that the tree became interesting to eat. The law is good, Paul points out, but it is not able to achieve what it was intended to achieve. By using the law to make Adam break the law, sin made the law not an instrument of life, but of death. In fact, was the law that enabled sin to spring to life.

According to Paul, sin is not something we do. It is a power which exercises control, a power to which we can choose to submit. A person can make a choice – to be under sin or under grace. Being under grace or led by the Spirit does make someone perfect, but it does mean that they have placed their trust and their hope for salvation in God and in God’s righteousness.

Paul’s problem with the law was not that it was bad, but that it was under the control of sin. The law it led people to rely on themselves, to believe that they could fulfill every requirement of the law. Such self reliance led to a belief that a person could achieve their own salvation instead of relying on Jesus’ saving power. So you see, Paul is not struggling with or overwhelmed by his carnal desires. Instead, using the voice of Adam, he is trying to stress that while the law “is just and holy and good”, it is in the end ineffectual – no effort on our part will save us, only God’s goodness and grace.

If we find this difficult to understand, Chapter 8 makes this point very clear: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”  The “I” of the past few verses has been the voice of Adam, for now those who believe are set free. The law, under the power of sin is unable to set humanity free, but those whose lives are determined by the Spirit are no longer subject to condemnation. Salvation is not measured by an ability to keep a lifeless law, but by the willingness to allow the Spirit to direct our lives.

Paul is not saying that we should despise or subdue our physicality. He is trying to say that no law, no amount of law will enable us to achieve perfection. God’s love isn’t measured out in doses according to how we behave, but is God’s free gift held out to all who will accept it. It is so easy that we find it difficult to believe. It demands so little of us, that we find it almost impossible to trust that it is true. But as Paul constantly reminds us, the base line is that “since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).

Christ has won us our salvation, we need only trust in God to claim our prize.


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