In a post previous to this one, “Losing the Thread: How Bad Theology Threatens the Church” (https://peripateticpastor.com/2022/03/31/retrieving-the-words-of-faith-2/), I tried to peel away from the Christian faith some non-biblical accretions that undermine the gospel and its power (and in the process stirred up a hornets nest among some fellow clergy). In this post, I’ll try to take a step beyond saying what the gospel is not to saying what it is.
The accretions I tried to peel away were mostly related to the idea that the gospel is about getting into heaven—a concept that turns the faith into a ticket to the afterlife instead of the power of God to transform the world. In the “going to heaven gospel” the first concern is what happens after we die at the price of concern for what we are and where we are going now. In doing so, it misses much of what the New Testament has to teach us.
The question is whether the gospel is at all concerned about real world problems, problems, say, of war or climate change or the pandemic or poverty or racism or sexism or disease. Does God care about such things? Should Christians care about such things? If one were to judge from what is said from the pulpit in many evangelical churches one would have to guess that these things are not much on God’s mind. They are not, at least, much on the mind of those who claim to have heard and believed the gospel.
But, paradoxically, when this happens—when the gospel is disconnected from real world problems and from earthly life generally—then, as we’ve discovered, the politics and prejudices of the crowd begin to take over. Politics begins to dictate to the gospel. Churches are defined not by what they teach about Jesus but what they teach about the last election. And when that happens, we have lost the thread.
Of course, the issues I am raising here require a much fuller answer than I am able to give in this post even though, by the standards of blog posts, it is overlong. In the writing of this post I have been often tempted to follow this strand of biblical thought or that, taking me far afield from the questions I am hoping to raise here. So let me discipline myself and perhaps keep your attention by focusing on a specific text, the book of Romans, and within the book of Romans on just a few key passages. You will be tempted to say, but, Clay, what about this passage? I encourage you to do so. It’s part of what it means to be in conversation with each other.
I began a paragraph or so ago with the question, does God care? This is in fact a question central to the book of Romans, although it’s asked by the Apostle Paul in 1st century terms rather than in 21st terms. Paul addresses it pretty much straight on in a key passage in chapter 3:21-26.
Just before this passage, Paul has been addressing the subject of the wrath of God. “The wrath of God has been revealed from heaven,” he says, “against all the impiety and injustice of the human race, against those who by their injustice have lost their grip on the truth” (1:18). As it turns out, that includes everyone (3:10-18). But now, suddenly, and with language that parallels what he has just said about God’s wrath, Paul turns to God’s righteousness: “Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, to which the Law and the Prophets [the scriptures] testify, a righteousness revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all the faithful” (3:21-22).
A couple of notes might be helpful here. First, we should note that Paul, the master rhetorician, has set us up for a surprise. At the end of his long litany of human evil which occasions the wrath of God, we expect God’s righteousness to come in the form of the condemnation of the human race. This is, in fact, how this passage has often been read. The word for “righteousness” has been taken for “justice” in the sense of punishment. We expect Paul to say that God is so angry—“wrath of God,” right?—that he is determined to punish the human race as in the Genesis account of the flood (6:7). But that is not at all what Paul says. To our surprise, the righteousness of God announced in Romans 3:21 is not punishment but grace.
The second note has to do with how I translate the Greek phrase in verse 22: “the faith of Jesus.” For a long time, this phrase has been taken to refer to our faith in Jesus. The NIV (along with most other translations) has it: “The righteousness of God has been made known . . .. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ . . ..” The last clause has no verb; the “is given” in the NIV has been added by the translators to clarify the Greek. But Paul is not talking about “giving” righteousness here; he is talking about how it’s revealed (21). And he is not talking about our faith in the phrase “faith of Jesus.” The more natural way to read the sentence, a way suggested by Richard Hays some years ago and many others since, and now found in a footnote in the 2011 NIV, is the way I have translated it above: it’s not our faith in Jesus; it’s the faith of Jesus. Or, as we would say, the “faithfulness of Jesus.” (The word can be translated both by “faith” and “faithfulness.” In Greek and Hebrew, these concepts go together.)
With those notes in mind, look again at the passage. The question Paul is asking is whether in the light of all the ways the human race has messed things up, God still cares. He uses the language of the covenant in Deuteronomy. The question is whether in the light human malfeasance God will still be faithful. The answer Paul gives is that indeed God does care and that God, regardless of what the human race has done, will be faithful. And what the faithfulness of God looks like is the faithfulness of Jesus: “The righteousness of God has been revealed . . . in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all the faithful” (3:21-22).
With that in mind, hang on to three concepts, two of which are addressed in the passage we just looked at, righteousness and faith, and add to those two, resurrection. They belong together. Take righteousness, first. In the passage above, as in Romans 1:17, where Paul announces his theme for the book, it’s first of all the righteousness of God. Righteousness has been much misunderstood in the New Testament. It’s often been given a legal slant in which God has to satisfy justice. This is a dangerous direction in which to go, one that heads more in the direction of Aristotle and the Greeks than the Old Testament and the Hebrews.
“Righteousness” in the Old Testament, the deep background here, is something like “doing right by others.” In the Old Testament one who does right by others is a saddîq. One of the greatest Old Testament statements on what it means to be a ṣaddîq is found in the last long speech of Job in Job 29-31. In this speech, Job asserts that he always tried to do right by God and by his neighbors. He says: “I wear righteousness; like a cloak it dresses me; good judgment is my turban” (29:14). And then, over the course of three chapters, he gives numerous examples of what means to do right by others, including such things as being eyes for the blind, a father for the needy, someone who doesn’t exploit women, someone who is careful with money, and even someone who is always ready to acknowledge his wrongs. We know this kind of person. Some are in churches; some are not.
It’s important to pull the concept of “righteousness” out of the legal sphere because the law is limited. You can keep the law and not be righteous. People often do. We have plenty of examples of people who have broken no law but who treat others abominably.
Nor is “righteousness” what we usually mean by “justice”: a balancing of the scales. Righteousness by its nature goes beyond the law. It gives more than it gets, forgives when forgiveness is unexpected, remains faithful when others are unfaithful. It is perhaps this last that is the essence of righteousness: faithfulness. The Greek word for righteousness, dikaiosúnē, is used in the Old Testament not only to translate Hebrew ṣĕdāqâ and ṣedeq but ḥesed, a word that means something like “loyal love.” God’s righteousness is God’s faithfulness not just to the people of Israel but to all that he has made. Romans 1:17 captures this idea: “The righteousness of God has been revealed in the gospel from [God’s] faithfulness to [our] faithfulness.”
This brings us to the second word, “faith.” In the Romans 3:21-22, my translation contained what some might think a sleight of hand. It went like this: “The righteousness of God has been revealed . . . in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all the faithful” (3:21-22). The “all the faithful” translates a Greek phrase that usually gets translated “to all who believe.” This translation is not entirely wrong, just a bit thin. Faith is much more than belief. It’s trust. More than that, it’s a kind of relationship.
The relationship that “faith” in the New Testament has in mind is somewhat like a relationship you might have with a good friend, a ṣaddîq, someone you would trust with your life. If you examine that relationship, you will realize that belief is involved in it. Your friend has told you many things about her life or his, and you believe them. You believe not because you have checked them all out, but because you know and trust this person. If it comes to checking things out, the relationship is in some trouble.
Note the order of things here: you believe because you know this person. Relationship first; then belief. Belief is a product of the relationship. In Paul’s gospel, the same is true. In his own story, he meets the Lord on the Damascus road and out of that experience comes to trust him. This is where resurrection first enters the picture. You can’t have a relationship unless Jesus is alive. Our faith is not in someone we know only conceptually but someone we come to know personally, the Risen Lord. Faith is trust in a person.
So what does this mean for our lives? Perhaps the best way to get this is to go to the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 8. The metaphor that overarches this section of Romans is taken from Genesis 2:7. In Genesis 2:7, God forms the first human out of the dust of the earth. God then breathes into the lifeless human form, and it comes alive. The writer of Genesis 2 calls this first human being simply “the human,” Hebrew ‘ādām, a word that usually means “humankind.” There’s not space to develop this here but this view of what it means to be human is relational with two relationships in mind: one with the earth (the dust) and the other with God (the breath).
For Paul, the dust of the earth—which is everything we are biologically, physically—is represented by the term “flesh.” “Flesh” for Paul is the way we are wired, our DNA, our genetic composition (none of which he knew about at the time), and he understands, as many of his interpreters do not, that the way we are wired has and will continue to create issues not only for us but for the planet on which we live. War and poverty and racism and sexism and global warming and our response to the pandemic—these all and more are related to how the human race is wired up. The “selfish gene” and all that.
For this reason, it doesn’t usually work to come straight at the problems we have created and continue to create. To say, just don’t do that does work. For Paul this the problem of the “law.” The law may be true but it doesn’t entirely help to know what’s true; we still get it wrong. Paul says of the law that is powerless because of the flesh (8:3). We know that now more than they did in the 1st century.
Theologians—readers of Paul—have mostly gotten this first part right, the powerlessness of the human race to address the issues that face us, but they have stopped somewhat short of what else Paul says. Since Luther, Romans has been read among Protestants to say that despite what we in fact are we are declared righteous in Christ. In this idea of declarative righteousness, God treats us as if we were righteous through Jesus Christ. It’s often said that when God looks at us, he sees instead Jesus.
There is some truth in this. Look at the first verse of Romans 8, for example. But it gets the order wrong. For Paul, “salvation” is usually being declared righteous at the last judgment. That idea of righteousness is indeed declarative. But that righteousness is not a fiction. It’s not someone else’s righteousness. It’s yours and mine. And Christ’s. Christ’s first of all, but Christ’s righteousness is a participatory righteousness. We join it, not just in the sense that we see Christ doing it, but by actually stepping into it. Look at Philippians 3:7-14 along with the passages.
Remember the metaphor from Genesis 2:7, God leaning over the human form and breathing in the breath of life? For Paul, this is what happens in the Christian life. We are dead, dead in Christ. The cross of Christ is also our cross, the cross of the whole human race. This is the mystical side of Paul. We are now dead, although our flesh continues to function and continues to get us into trouble. But into us, our bodies, in Paul’s rich vocabulary, God has breathed his breath, the breath of the Spirit, and this breath is the same breath that brought Jesus from the dead. We have resurrection in us. Now, already. And because we have resurrection in us, we have righteousness in us.
The key verses are Romans 8:1-11. The passage goes back to a question in chapter 7: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” “Body” here probably has in mind both Paul’s own body—the sum of who he is—and the body of the human race—all of us together. The question Paul asks is indeed the question: How are we ever going to get this thing right? Will our race survive? Is there are future for humanity?
I recently heard a production of a new musical work in which humanity does not survive but the earth does and recovers. The last line of the “Earth Symphony” is sung by Earth itself, who says to the now lost human race, “You would have loved it here.” The symphony is asking Paul’s question: Who will rescue us from this body of death?
In answer, Paul distinguishes flesh and spirit. These are, he says, two ways to live, two ways to think. He then addresses those who have died with Christ and now live with Christ: “If the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then the one who raised Christ from the dead will bring you to life and [with you] your mortal bodies through Christ’s Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). Resurrection is already in us.
What follows from this is a way of life—a righteousness. This righteousness has two parts. The first, as I’ve already said, is the profound realization that we are not going to get this right. We are wired for failure. This requires more development than I can give it here, but part of what Paul is getting at is that it’s not just our worst impulses that get us in trouble but our best impulses. We have to find strategies to not be controlled by what he calls “the flesh.” But for all that Paul is not in despair.
He is not in despair because he believes that something new has been breathed into our nostrils—the breath of life. And not just as individuals, but into the human race. This breath of life is both a present reality and a promise for the future. What the breath of life brings alive in us is a new way of being human—a way of being human that is not invested in death. But we have to breathe it. Trust it. Long for it. The remainder of Romans 8 contains one of the most eloquent statements in the entire Bible of that longing, a longing so deep that it includes not only the human race but the earth itself.
But is this enough? Does this perspective, no, more than perspective, this experiential reality, have any prospect of making a difference in the world? Or is it only so much religious cant? I think it can and does make a difference if we keep in mind two things.
The first is that we cannot simply legislate our way out of the problems we are in. This is the law problem in Paul. The law, whether the ancient Torah or the laws of modern states, may be necessary, important, but never our salvation. We will find ways around them. We will find ways to use the law to our own advantage.
What this means is that we should be wary of human institutions whether church or state, whether marriage or family, whether corporation or university. These become inevitably extensions of what Paul calls “flesh”: the way we are wired up for selfishness and tribalism. What we need for our interactions with these institutions is wisdom, the kind of wisdom the Greeks called phronēsis.
This we all believe. It’s the second part of Paul’s gospel that gets lost. The second is the new life already within us. This new life, this taste of resurrection, this Spirit-voice that speaks with the voice of Jesus, calls us to a new way of living, a new righteousness. We cannot be entirely sure what this new life will look like. Colossians 3:4 suggests that we only truly know who we are when Christ comes to us at last. But in the meantime, it’s our responsibility to listen for it, to obey it, to find the echoes of God’s call not just in churches but everywhere.
The gospel of getting into heaven gives up on this aspiration aspect of the gospel. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. The following Sunday is Easter. Holy Week is the painful recognition of how we, the human race, mess up everything we touch. We crucify the best among us. But then comes Easter. Easter tells us that in the midst of our despair, resurrection has already come. It invites us to a new righteousness. This new righteousness is faithfulness to the resurrected life among us and in us. That’s Paul’s message. That’s the gospel.