HEIRS OF THE WORLD


13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

(Rom4:13-16)

Two points to pick up on here. Firstly, what to some will be the extraordinary statement that the children of Abraham are heirs of the world. Heirship pertains to what will be possessed in the future – we like all human beings are already the world’s inhabitants – what is being spoken of here pertains to ownership or rule. That is perhaps not so surprising when one considers that God’s elect are described as joint-heirs with Christ and He in turn is described as the heir of all things (Heb1:2). This is so much more than the idea of the soul going to Heaven when you die, wonderful though that is. That is not what God’s elect are ultimately being prepared for as I am in the business of demonstrating. And as we shall see, so is Paul. Jesus also spoke of the meek inheriting the Earth (Mt5:5) as did His forefather according to the flesh, David (Ps37:11). “Meek” is not weakness but gentleness, humility, lack of severity and particularly in its Hebrew form, one who is afflicted. Significantly, Jesus as Judge and Lawmaker and Moses as Lawgiver are both described as meek.  

The other point follows from that observation and pertains to what Paul appears to be saying about the Law. Taken in isolation such passages as these might seem to indicate that fulfilling the law is no longer an issue for the Christian. As earlier posts concerning Romans 2 indicate that is not really the case (especially vv26-29). For Paul has made a particular point of saying “The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14). The letter of the Law is impossible to keep but not the spirit, and as James affirms the Christian is expected to fulfil it (James2:8). But still more to the point so does Jesus. Only those who fulfil what James describes as the Royal Law of love for neighbor  can enter Heaven, let alone inherit the earth (Mt25:41-46).

Those who believe Paul to be annulling Jesus’s teaching are dangerously mistaken. For as is evident in this passage concerning Abraham, JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH IS NOT A NEW DOCTRINE that Paul was introducing. For “AS IT IS WRITTEN the just shall live by faith” (Rom1:17 citing Habakuk2:4). Jesus will have known that perfectly well when he taught what is recorded in Matthew 25 – the definitive New Testament passage on final judgement (supported in principle by Rom2:6-11). The only, albeit significant thing that HAS changed that Paul is disclosing is that Torah observance is no longer a requirement for God’s chosen people. That is a result of Jesus “abolishing in his flesh the enmity, even the Law of commandments CONTAINED IN ORDINANCES to make in Himself of two, one new man that He might reconcile both (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body (Eph2:15-16).

Jesus’ teaching should not be taken as “a preparation for the gospel according to St Paul” (Mt28:19-20). In view of the Great Commission the moral and juridical teaching of Christ cannot be altered, even by Paul. And it hasn’t been. The distinctive feature of Paul’s Good News concerns his disclosure regarding “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and generations but has NOW been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery AMONG THE GENTILES, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col1:26-27). That is the fact that a way has been made open for Jew AND GENTILE to come to “receive an inheritance with the sanctified” (Acts26:18) and so become heirs of the world.

The fuller picture is set out in The Little Book of Providence  – Free PDF HERE

FAITH RECKONED AS RIGHTEOUSNESS

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who irrespective of his works trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven  and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’ (Rom4:1-8)

In the context of the previous post, this is a passage often cited by those who believe God’s own righteousness to be imputed to the believer in Christ. It centres on the word λογίζεται which, as above, is best translated in this context as “reckons” (as righteous) or “regarded” (as righteous). That same Greek word appears in vv3,4,5,6&8. But in some Bible versions (e.g. KJV), when λογίζεται appears in verses 6 and 8 it is translated “imputes” and is generally understood in the sense of something that is transferred from one Person to another. Yet in verse 8 it is obvious that cannot be the case for God would not transfer sin to the transgressor for it is already present! It can only mean that God does not reckon sin, and the same applies to verse 6 with regard to God reckoning those with faith as righteous.

Paul cites Abraham, who believed God concerning His promise of a son in old age, and this was credited to him as righteousness (v3). But as is made clearer in Hebrews 11 (v8), it was Abraham’s obedience to God’s call to leave his home country that first evinced his faith. For faith that justifies is never alone but is accompanied by a measure of obedience. That is obedience to God and His promises, to Christ as Lord and Savior or at the universal level to the divine light provided by Christ to every man through the workings of conscience. Unlike the many for whom gospel salvation does not avail, indeed cannot avail without God’s personal intervention (Jn6:44), those who utterly reject God’s universal witness via the faculties God has provided to them are without excuse and are heading for perdition. Devoid of conscience, compassion and truthfulness, they are described in the Old Testament as  “having left the paths of uprightness to walk in the way of darkness” (Prov2:13); by Jude as “those without fruit, plucked up by the roots, twice dead” (Jud12). The Apostle John defines them as “ek tou ponerou”, i.e. derived from the Evil One (1Jn3:12 cf. Mt15:13). Their defining features are, that lacking a working conscience, they have no qualms, indeed positively delight in practicing evil, have no concern for truth and fail to show compassion towards those in need (1Jn3:10 cf. Mt25:35-40).

Through the Church’s rejection of a positive role for natural law affirmed by many of the earliest Church Fathers (earlier post), the satanic herd has for centuries been lumped together with the rest of unsaved humanity. But the majority of these are like Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael, who though blessed and circumcised by his father Abraham (Gen17:20-23) and living under God’s loving protection (Gen21:20) were simply not elected to the exclusive Covenant of Promise** (cf. Gal4:28). As Paul wrote, it is the Church who like Isaac are the children of promise (Gal4:28). Apart from what it implies about non-Christian nations, communities and individuals (as hated or rejected by God), this soteriological misclassification has resulted in a disfiguring of God’s munificence and intelligible justice. It is primarily a result of a misreading of the Apostle Paul’s writing such as we are currently reviewing. I have come to understand that the sustaining of this providential mystery is nevertheless in accordance with the divine will and that its resolution has been foretold in Scripture (Rev10).

**As opposed to the inclusive Universal Covenant of Life (earlier post)

FAITH ESTABLISHES THE LAW!

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (Romans3:227-31)

As the above NASB translation rightly identifies through its capitalization (“Law”) the law Paul is referring to is the Torah. That is why he poses the question “Is God the God of the Jews only?” What about the Gentiles who don’t have and never have had the Law? They also were justified by evincing the quality of faith. But that cannot specifically have been faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour, for as we have repeatedly shown from the Gospels, even Jesus’ twelve disciples did not understand the Messiah was to come to die as an atonement for sin – still less did the righteous of Old Testament times apprehend the matter.

But in what sense does faith establish the Law rather than nullify it? (v31). As we have shown it is because through the outworking of faith the spirit rather than the letter of the Law is fulfilled. “For the entire Law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14). The Matthew 25 “sheep” achieved that, and it was evidenced by their showing compassion to the needy, which Jesus treated as if they had served Him personally (v40). [If you believe Paul to be contradicting the teaching of Christ, then treat the Apostle as the inventor of Christianity – the way so many have interpreted him effectively make him to be such]. I am in the business of showing that the Apostle to the Gentile’s moral and juridical teaching gels with every other Bible writer. Does Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith nullify the teaching of Christ? May it never be – on the contrary, it establishes it!

But only when rightly interpreted, and that starts by rejecting any notion of Christ’s own righteousness being imputed to the believer, who as Paul has just shown is morally as unworthy of such a gift as anyone else (Rom3:24). The providential implications of such a doctrine are odious beyond human imagining. Taken alongside predestination (which we have already established is a biblical certitude) it would mean that God had foreordained the eternal misery of the vast majority of those created in His image, a concept diametrically opposed to everything the Bible says about the character of Father, Son and Spirit. Fortunately for wider humanity the Protestant’s take on imputation is a doctrine that cannot stand against the Scriptures when taken as a whole, nor can it be reconciled with the witness of Church history. Such a doctrine is nowhere to be found in the evangelistic preaching of Acts (my earlier posts) or the writings of the pre-Medieval Church – yet is deemed by those who propose it to be an essential component of saving faith. Whilst there is certainly such a thing as progressive revelation, that cannot apply to what is essential to gospel salvation. For the Lord has never ceased to gather a people to Himself so that from the rising of the sun until its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to His name. At the same time Scripture indicates that certain mysteries will be sustained until the last days. These pertain to broader providence – in particular God’s loving intentions towards the many who have not been elected to Christian salvation, a setting forth of the means and extent to which the saving work of Christ avails for them.

Whilst as we shall continue to demonstrate, the Saviour’s personal justice is not imputed to the believer it is certainly the case that Jesus Christ is the source and resource by which the perfecting and sanctifying of those elected to be God’s royal priesthood in the present and corporate Bride through eternity is obtained. It is achieved through Christ’s disciples’ cooperation with the Holy Spirit, self-discipline and a mystical (i.e. sacramental) feeding upon Christ:  for “except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood you have no Life in you” (Jn6:53).

 In accordance with Christ’s teaching on final judgement, Paul has just taught in the previous chapter that “God will render to each person according to his works: to those who by perseverance in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth but unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who practices evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory, honour and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God” (Rom2:6-11). Note the judgement is based on what the individual has practiced, not what Christ has done on their behalf. Rather, the latter (Atonement) facilitates the former by delivering the believer from the guilt and power of sin to serve the living God in spirit and in truth. Many understand Paul to go on to contradict his statements in Romans chapter two – but not when he is rightly understood as hopefully will be demonstrated. 

JUSTIFICATION THROUGH CHRIST’S FAITHFULNESS

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the Justifier through Jesus’ faithfulness. (Rom3:21-26)

The first point to make concerns the translation. The Greek does NOT refer to “faith in Christ” in this passage but the faith of Christ. That pertains to Jesu’s faithfulness [note 1] to His Father’s will culminating in His death on the Cross. How this relates to the Christian’s faith in Christ is clarified in the following verse in Galatians:

Having known that a man is not declared righteous by the works of the Law but through the faithfulness of Christ; we (Christians) believed in Christ Jesus that we might be declared righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of Torah, therefore no flesh shall be declared righteous by works of the law

This translation resolves the more usual version’s triple tautology and shows how Christ’s faithfulness in terms of His saving work on humanity’s behalf benefits those who do not have a personal knowledge of it yet instinctively fear God and “attend to moral discipline” as some  early Fathers refer to the matter. Countless billions who have lived have not benefitted from hearing a faithful account of Jesus’ teaching and the Good News of His Kingdom. Most Church Fathers before Augustine’s fearsome assertions recognized that man in his natural state, although unable to raise himself to eternal life had effectual free will to choose and practice what is just and in accordance with sound reason [2]. Some of these early Church Fathers including Justyn Martyr and Origen regarded the seed of reason provided to all men equipping them with a degree of wisdom and a sense of justice as the essence of “Christ” Himself. I tend to refer to the same concept as the light of Christ reflected in the conscience. Either way it is a sufficient object of faith resulting in divine acceptance for those who defer to it (earlier post). This is not an assertion of absolute universalism for not all do [3].

In terms of a person’s faith in Christ as Saviour, that replaces the requirements of Torah observance previously required of those set apart as God’s royal priesthood on earth (Ex19:6 cf. 1Pet2:9). Paul’s polemics against those Jewish converts especially in the Galatian churches who said otherwise is the context of his frequent references to the fact that justification within the Covenant of Promise is by faith in Christ as opposed to “works of the Law” such as circumcision and observing dietary and sacral regulations (Gal4:9-10).

The point Paul will repeatedly make is that those privileged to be God’s people under the New Covenant are there on the basis of free grace, a gift provided through the redemptive work of Christ (v24). It is not through their own good works or virtue. However (and this is where many have disregarded the other side of the equation), such have been chosen “to perform good works that God has fore-ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph2:10). And as Paul has just stated in the previous chapter, that is the basis and condition upon which people will finally be judged and rewarded (Rom2:6-7).

More needs to be explained, for example concerning “propitiation” and what Paul meant (and didn’t mean) by “the righteousness of God” but that will come to light through future posts.

NOTES

[1] “faith” and “faithfulness” are the same word in biblical Greek

 [2] e.g. Irenaeus against heresies Book IV chap. 37 para 1

[3] These are the satanic seed (children of the devil), epitomized by Cain, alluded to by Christ (Mt15:13), elucidated a little in the first epistle of John and explained in detail in chapter 6 of The Little Book of Providence [Free PDF HERE]

PAUL’S IDIOSYNCRATIC CRITIQUE

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.

10  For as it is written:

“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Paul is employing a similar method of critique here that he used in Romans 1. He is linking together passages from Scripture, in these instances where God’s own people were being chastised. In Romans3:10-18 he states that “not one of them is righteous, no not one (v10); not one of them does what is  right (v12); their feet are swift to shed blood (v15) and there is no fear of God before their eyes (v18). Did Paul actually believe that no Jew ever feared God or ever did anything right – that their hearts were set on bloody slaughter so as to bring misery and destruction wherever they went? Of course he didn’t, likewise with his depiction of the Gentile nations in the previous chapter. It is a literary technique to adduce universal sinfulness and the fact that everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God (v23). He was not intimating that it is in everyone’s nature to act in the depraved manner described, so therefore equally he is not saying that no one by nature is righteous. For, “As it is written, no one is righteous, no not one(v10). That statement is the start of the concatenated prophecies drawn from the Old Testament (mainly Isaiah 59) where God’s people are being chastised. “No one is righteous” is no more a statement of fact than the idea that no Jew on the planet ever feared God.

For Paul well knew that the Old Testament (the only Scriptures at the time) does NOT teach that no one by nature is righteous, or anything like it. The Wisdom literature in particular teaches that some are righteous, other are not. And it can have nothing to do with “imputed righteousness” as some would wish to make out, for the wicked are often described as “those who leave the paths of righteousness to walk in the ways of darkness” (Prov2:13). God through Ezekiel warned that If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it (Ezek33:18) Therefore it must have been their own righteousness that was previously possessed (likewise Ezek18:24).

Paul’s method of critique is typically Jewish and decidedly idiosyncratic . As a result, he can be (and has been) profoundly misunderstood. Even in his own day, the Apostle Peter taught that Paul’s writings were hard to understand and were being misunderstood by many (2Pet3:15-16). Paul himself was aware of the problem “Why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just” (Rom3:8). So why should we not say that the Christian is not required to keep the spirit of the law? Because of the passage considered in the previous post where the Apostle says nothing of the sort (Rom2 especially vv6-15 and 25-29). Likewise Jesus and the other apostles. As Paul will shortly re-affirm (next post), Torah observance is no longer a requirement, even for those who are set apart as God’s chosen people. Nevertheless, as James put it: “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, then you are doing well” (Jam2:8).

PAUL REAFFIRMS NEED TO KEEP THE LAW

25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Rom2:25-29NRSV)

Earlier in the chapter Paul had declared that not the hearers but the doers of the law will be justified (v13). Many struggle with that verse and (Reformed) commentators try to explain it away by intimating Paul was speaking hypothetically – i.e. if anyone COULD keep the law (apart from Christ and pre-Fall Adam), they would be justified by it. The passage above proves their analysis is wrong for he now writes that those who are not physically circumcised but obey the law will condemn the Jew who does not. How then could any such Jew be condemned if no one did keep the law? – his point would be meaningless.

The explanation has already been provided in the previous post and is reaffirmed by the Apostle here. It pertains to the fact that God’s Law (which indeed cannot perfectly be fulfilled in letter by anyone) can and is fulfilled in spirit by those who, for example demonstrate the same concern for others as they do themselves. However imperfect their actions, in their hearts they desire to do good. When a person in need is succored then Christ Himself has been succored, and rewards follow (Mt25:38-40). Jesus and Paul teach precisely the same principles, for as apostle will later affirm: “The ENTIRE LAW is fulfilled in keeping this ONE COMMAND ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal5:14). And now he is making clear that such law is to be obeyed in spirit not letter – not as some Bible versions portray it “by the Spirit” (e.g. NASB) referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Gentiles he was referring to in vv14-15 did not possess the Spirit but they were well capable of obeying BY NATURE aspects of God’s law and in so doing evinced a form of faith in the sense of a positive response to what has been revealed to them of God’s law in their soul via the conscience.

As will continue to be demonstrated, none of this detracts from the essentiality of the Gospel – so that those chosen for Christ (Jn6:44) can be delivered from the guilt and power of sin. Only then can their “consciences be cleansed from dead works* in order to serve the living God” (Heb9:14). As the Royal Priesthood of God on Earth they become a kind of first fruit of God’s new creation (cf. Jam1:18).

Predestination is an inescapable reality but it in no way undermines God’s equitable justice once God’s broader Plan of Loving Goodness has been perceived. The Creator has been fair to all – for those of God’s children He has given to His Son (Jn17:6) are required to deny themselves and their personal ambitions and submit to the yoke of Christ. If faithful to the end they shall have the unimaginably glorious prospect of becoming the corporate Spouse of Jesus Christ through eternity. Such privileges cannot be attained via natural precepts but require the witness and application of the Holy Spirit, the water and the blood (1Jn5:8) and that is communicated through the Gospel.

* “Dead works” are sinful activities that result in Pauline “death” as defined in an earlier post.

THE ROLE OF CONSCIENCE

13It is not familiarity with the Law that justifies a man in the sight of God, but obedience to it. 14-15 When the Gentiles, who have no knowledge of the Law, act in accordance with it by the light of nature, they show that they have a law in themselves, for they demonstrate the effect of a law operating in their own hearts. Their own consciences endorse the existence of such a law, for there is something which condemns or commends their actions. [Rom2:13-15 JB Phillips]

I indicated in the previous post that when it comes to verses relating to natural law (in terms of innate spiritual faculties), the relevant passages are prone to mistranslation. To be fair, the above (J.B. Phillips) translation is reasonably OK whereas some earlier versions such as the King James make out by their translation that Paul is being disparaging about the Gentiles’ response to the law written in their hearts. He is doing nothing of the sort, and in terms of positivity actually goes beyond J.B. Philips by linking his statement concerning those who obey the law with the actions of the Gentiles. This Paul does by adding the conjunction “γὰρ” meaning “for” in the since of introducing an explanation of what has just been stated. Given what I was expounding in the previous post concerning Paul’s assertion that the whole law is fulfilled in spirit by the act of treating another person as one does oneself (Gal5:14), there are broader providential implications that we shall continue to explore.

The KJV’s rendering of verse 14 concerning the Gentiles becoming “a law to themselves” tends to be understood in the negative sense of them doing as they please rather than responding in a right way to God’s requirements for humane living which is what Paul is actually indicating as most later bible versions recognize. Likewise in the verse that follows, the KJV expresses the idea of the Gentiles either excusing or accusing one another, again with thoroughly negative connotations whereas Paul is referring to the fact that their thoughts concerning their actions are either endorsed or condemned by the witness of their conscience, depending on whether or not they are in accordance with God’s law.

Truly this passage is at the heart of what I and many of the earliest Church Fathers mean by “natural law” or “natural precepts”. The Roman Catholic Church also recognizes these principles to a degree especially since the Second Vatican Council (1960s). The Roman Church had been greatly influenced by the former Evangelical-turned-Catholic John Henry Newman’s teaching in this area (as indeed was I). The problem is, Newman’s broader providential perspective cannot easily be reconciled with some earlier conciliar pronouncements concerning the fate of those outside the Catholic Church, contradicting as they do, aspects of the teaching of their esteemed Doctor, Augustine.

For Newman spoke of the conscience as “the impression of a divine Light within us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” [1]. As such, conscience as the universal revelation of God, anterior to the Gospel and supreme over all other human faculties provides everyone with “a clear and sufficient object of faith” [2]. For faith is simply man’s positive response to what has been revealed to him from God, be it innately through the conscience or religiously through a creed. Through it one discerns the nature of right and wrong and senses a benefit in practicing the former to be at peace with oneself. The cardinal and distinguishing truth that conscience teaches is that God rewards the good and punishes the wayward; again, a facet of faith as the Bible defines it.

The conscience is effectively a spiritual faculty. Its very existence is the consequence of the fact that the human spirit has been created in God’s image and enlightened by Christ whereas the vessel that houses it is drawn to worldly lust like a magnet, for unlike the spirit it was conceived in sin and shaped in iniquity (Ps51:5) . But by habitually taking heed to the dictates of conscience, the soul/spirit is effectively relating positively to something, in fact Someone superior to itself; hence the person is regarded as exercising faith in God and so is justified through the merits of Christ’s atonement.

The latter paragraph’s assertions are my own and go beyond what can specifically be drawn from our featured passage but not beyond what can be gleaned from Paul’s teaching as a whole, as hopefully future posts will demonstrate, as indeed does my book [3].

[1]  John Henry Newman: “Grammar of Ascent” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar_of_Assent

[2] Ibid.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar_of_Assent

[3] Free PDF HERE

ROMANS 2 – AN ENIGMA TO MANY

4Do you (who practice evil) think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God should lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God who will render to each person according to his worksto those who by perseverance in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth but unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who practices evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 10 but glory, honour and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God. 12 For all who have sinned apart from the Law will also perish apart from the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; 13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. (Rom2:4-13)

Yes, this really is Paul’s writing and it really is from his letter to the Romans! Yet for many, including myself for the first 25 years of my Christian life, it appears to be at odds with what most understand the apostle to be teaching in the rest of his epistle: in particular, those phrases I have bolded.

Firstly, the God I had learned from the Reformers could hardly be described as “kind” (Greek: χρηστότητοςG5544), at least not in a humanly intelligible sense. For I had been led to believe that His intention was to dispatch the souls of many of the beings created in His image to Hell, apart from the proportional few He had chosen to receive undeserved mercy by enabling them to apprehend salvation in Christ. [My concept of predestination at the time was sound enough – its context within overall providence was not]. Far from being tolerant the Creator I perceived could not endure the foibles of anyone who did not match His own perfection, punishing them to a disproportionate degree (i.e. eternally) for what He knew them to capable of achieving unless He were to aid them, which in most cases he chose not to do. That, incidentally, is diametrically opposed to the quality of love as Paul later goes on to define it. If a human being treated a child or an animal in such a way (punishing it for that of which it was incapable) he would rightly be detested. It is no wonder the likes of Luther and Calvin regarded God’s nature as unintelligible from any human perspective. Given that Scripture defines God as love personified (1Jn4:8) that must also mean that divine Love is entirely different in nature to human love as that quality is described in Scripture (1Cor13:4-5).

Such depictions provide ammunition for the likes of Richard Dawkins and former Evangelical Dan Barker to write a book entitled “God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction”. Thankfully, god as I previously understood him is  fiction whereas the God of the Bible is very real, What is more He is potentially capable of being universally adored once the true nature of His character, purposes and plans for humanity have been perceived:  “Truly, we shall all  praise You with uprightness of heart, when we have understood Your righteous judgments (Ps119:7)

Romans 2 may be an anomaly to many, yet it sets out Paul’s understanding of God’s justice and how it will be exercised in final judgement. The Apostle’s description is in this instant clear, concise and as ever accords with the teaching of the Man Christ Jesus, who it must be remembered is the One appointed to judge humanity (Rom2:16). In terms of rewards and punishments, the Bible is consistent. Such judgement will be exercised on the basis of human works (Rom2:6 cf. Mt16:27; Rev20:13) which is effectively the legacy of our lives.  “To those who by perseverance in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life;but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey truth but unrighteousness, wrath and indignation”.

Yet as will be shown, Paul’s teaching here does not contradict what the apostle teaches elsewhere – that whether or not a person is justified in God’s sight is ultimately determined by the absence or presence of faith. But that faith is not mere belief, still less something along the lines of  “coming to an end of my pursuit of personal righteousness and trusting in the merits of Another”, an earlier understanding of mine which is entirely invalidated by these passages in Romans 2, and more clearly so by the teaching of Jesus Himself. For faith itself is undeniably a virtue that itself results in virtuous intentions and endeavour. That is why Paul goes on to say that “it is not the hearers but the doers of the Law who will be justified” (v11). For faith actually enables (indeed ensures) one fulfils the essentials of God’s Law, not in letter but in spirit. And according to both Jesus and Paul the heart of the Law is focused on the relationship with our fellow human beings:  

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8)

Love does no harm to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom13:10)

The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal5:14).

In terms of our love for God, which to the surprise of many Paul does not mention when defining the heart of the Law, if one truly loves another in the agape sense of showing compassion for their needs, one is effectively loving Christ, who as Son of God and Son of Man identifies himself with every human in need (Mt25 again). Now, if it were a matter of maintaining the letter rather than the spirit of the law, then it would be a case of “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jam2:10). That would be an issue if justification were on the basis of works or compliance with rules and regulations. Thanks to God’s grace and the fact that Jesus “abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” that is not and never has been the basis for justification, even for the Old Testament Jew (Hab2:4). For, I say again with Paul, “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal5:14; cf. Mt25:31-46).

So much of the above has been obscured by Augustine and the Reformers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s polemics concerning justification being on the basis of faith in Christ rather than Torah observance (i.e. works of the Law). Through a more detailed study of first century Judaism, aided by an analysis of the Dead Sea scrolls, this misreading of Paul has become more widely acknowledged, especially in scholarly Protestant circles where it is often referred to as “The New Perspective on Paul”. However, that particular endeavor does not of itself reconcile all of Paul’s teaching with Jesus’ or even Romans chapter two with the rest of his epistle for that matter.

Full coherence cannot be accomplished without returning once again to the role of natural law. In its anthropological context it pertains to God-given spiritual faculties provided to man which still function in spite of the Fall. Abel utilized them, Cain did not. One evinced he was a child of God, the other a plant of Satan (cf. Mt15:13; 1Jn3:12). Neither was (or could be) “saved” in the sense the New Testament means by that terms (cf. Jn6:53-54). Its precise meaning will be clarified as we proceed through Paul’s writings. In the process I aim to show that natural law is on occasions subsumed within aspects of Paul’s teaching whilst at other times is more explicit. But in the latter cases it can be obscured by passages or phrases either being poorly translated or just simply misunderstood. Such will be the case in the next post concerning the role of the conscience.

PAUL AFFIRMS UNIVERSAL SINFULNESS

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Rom1:18-32 NASB)

The above is taken from the New American Standard Bible. Unfortunately, a number of Protestant Bible translations (e.g.  New International Version, King James) choose to insert a comma at Rom1:18 where Paul is talking about God’s retribution being revealed against men “,” who suppress the truth by their wickedness and go on to be sexual perverts (v27), rotten, greedy, malicious, envious, murderous, treacherous, spiteful (v29), libelous, slanderous, God-haters, rude, arrogant, rebellious to parents (v30), brainless, loveless and pitiless (v31). These translators make this out to be Paul’s description of humanity as a whole by means of their punctuation (v18).  The apostle is not here referring to all mankind or indeed all Gentiles. As is more easily demonstrated with regard to the critique of his fellow Jews (Rom3) Paul is  drawing and linking together various Old Testament scriptural texts which highlight a particular group’s wickedness to set out a typically Jewish critique of the pagan world and the inevitable consequence of idolatry. As we shall also see, Paul recognized that many Gentiles, though not possessing the Law, do by nature the things contained in it in response to their conscience (Rom2:14). The context of his tirade against ungodly Gentiles was the previous verse (17) that those who are righteous live by their faith whereas the ungodly do not, hence: “We are sure that the judgement of God is in accordance with the truth against those who commit such things(Rom2:2). The apostle is undoubtedly in the business of affirming the universality of human sinfulness, not its total depravity.

My parents were non-Christians, but they assuredly were NOT sexually perverted, malicious, murderous, brainless, loveless or merciless. Adding a comma to verse 18 implies that that is at heart what they were by nature. In reality my parents were generally caring, conscientious, respectful and kind to most if not all people with whom they dealt. They were certainly not sinless, nor will they have claimed to have “known God” in any personal sense. Yet as I have been endeavoring to adduce, in responding to the natural precepts that made them the conscientious caring people that they were, they were effectively responding to the light of Christ provided to every person coming into the world that governs the functioning of the conscience . Some people however DO suppress the innate light of reason and sound judgement provided to them – these are those whom God and Paul are condemning.

Largely thanks to Augustine and the Protestant Reformers these will be alien concepts to many – they were not so to the likes of 2nd/3rd century theologians such as Justyn Martyr, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Eusebius and Origen as we have recently demonstrated. As I also stated, unless such principals of natural law are accommodated, only then can Jesus’ final judgement (sheep and goats) passage in Matthew chapter 25 be reconciled with what Paul is teaching in Romans. Much more needs to be said concerning what the Apostle is intimating concerning who is or is not “righteous” but that will feature once we arrive at chapter three.

PAUL EXALTS THE GOSPEL

 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, 10 always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to  barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it is revealed the saving justice of God; a justice based on faith and addressed to faith. As it says in Scripture, “Anyone who is upright through faith will live (Romans1:1-17)

The gospel, says Paul, is God’s Good News focused on the coming, living, sacrifice and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. When Paul’s take on faith and justification is rightly understood it truly becomes good news for the world, even for the vast majority  of people who were not chosen by God to become “His holy ones” (i.e. saints) such as those he is writing to in Rome (v7).

An essential feature of Paul’s gospel that we are all likely to agree about is his emphasis on the fact that in order to be righteous in God’s sight, the key is faith rather than moral perfection or compliance with law. The question is – what exactly is faith? The New Jerusalem Bible is perhaps one of the more accurate translations of the key verse 17: “For in it (the gospel) is revealed the saving justice of God; a justice based on faith and addressed to faith. As it says in Scripture, “Anyone who is upright through faith will live” . Note here that Paul is quoting from the Old Testament (Habakkuk2:4). Quoting from my earlier post: “This surely affirms that the apostle was not introducing an entirely new concept: for ”AS IT IS WRITTEN, the just/righteous shall live by faith/faithfulness”. That, indicates Paul, had always been the case. Habakkuk likewise is indicating that “the just” are not regarded as righteous in God’s eyes because they have perfectly fulfilled a law or are morally perfect but because they are faithful to what they know to be right, which in the Jews’ case meant being faithful to Torah. Such faith or faithfulness (same word in biblical Greek) is a virtuous quality that furnishes a guiding principle resulting in endeavour, as opposed to aspiring to a standard which in God’s case is likely to be perfection, for He is perfect. If justification were dependent on the perfect fulfilment of a law or moral perfection, fallen man, including God’s chosen people would indeed be scuppered”.

“Faith alone” on the other hand is rather a meaningless concept. Faith that saves is never alone as the Apostle James points out, as more importantly did Jesus in the New Testament’s definitive passage on final judgement (Mt25:31-46). Herein lies the challenge: if that passage in which the “sheep” who had shown compassion to others were accepted and the compassionless “goats” were rejected appears to you to be denying the principle of justification by faith (as frankly it did to me for 25 or so years), then you don’t currently understand the concept in its entirety. If Paul really were contradicting Jesus Christ, then I know Who I would believe – but he is not. Yet that vital “sheep and goats” passage and Paul’s teaching in his pastoral letters can never be reconciled interpreting faith and justification as either Augustine or Luther came to understand it. The solution has already been provided and highlighted in the definition of faith I have quoted from my earlier post. That not only provides resolution but also vastly enlarges the scope of God’s grace and saving justice through the redemptive actions of His Son – to the glory of His name and the joy of all people of good will. All hopefully will become clearer as we proceed through Romans. Alternatively read chapter three of my book** where the matter is set out in full.

In the meantime I will finish with a statement from a relatively obscure fourth century Eastern Church Bishop Acacius of Caesarea, who contrary to his more illustrious western counterpart Augustine comes close to summarizing  what Paul is teaching concerning faith and the gospel in Romans and elsewhere:  “The Jew has been brought from the faith of the appointed Law to the faith which is through Christ and the Gentile from the faith of nature to the same faith in Jesus Christ”.

** Free PDF HERE

Exploring the mystery of divine providence