[Texts: 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, Romans 6]
I wrote earlier about how Paul used his shared history with the Corinthians to frame the theological content in his letters to that church. As readers, we should keep in mind that the “Pickup Theology” we see in 1 and 2 Corinthians is thus tightly tied to their physical situation, and so the very meaning of those famous verses that we memorize hangs on that history. But when Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, he reverses his strategy: here the ongoing history of these believers is tightly tied to the theological realities that Paul reveals to them. That is, in order to correctly comprehend their physical lives, they (and we*) need to understand their metaphysical situation.
We don’t typically toss around the word “metaphysical” in ordinary speech, so some translation would probably be helpful here: you can think of this idea as “What’s really going on in the universe,” and the revelation of “metaphysical realities” as being like a backstage tour with the different biblical writers as our guide. Paul does not know the congregation in Rome personally, so mutual autobiography can’t serve his instructional purposes; but he does know details of what God is up to, and he can explain the significance of these things for their lives on Planet Earth.
Our Romans 6 is probably the best chapter of the letter to showcase what I mean. Having moved in chapters 1-3 through a thorough survey of why the gospel is necessary, and in chapters 4 and 5 through a description of what the gospel is and how it is received by faith, Paul then turns to the practical implications of belief in the gospel of Jesus. What’s really going on in the universe (and in the Christian believer), and what does all of this theology actually mean in real time?
Paul writes this section as if in response to a rhetorical question, presumably one that he has heard or that he can imagine someone asking, whether naively or scornfully: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” In other words, since grace is such a good thing, and since it covers many sins, won’t more sin increase the grace? Such unrighteous means to a godly end, says Paul, ought to be the farthest thing from the mind of a believer – and he goes on to explain why: It’s just utterly incompatible with the Christian’s metaphysical situation.
So understanding what’s really going on in the universe should enable the believer to make informed decisions about his or her behavior. With characteristic thoroughness, Paul lays out the backstage details of the new life:
- You died with Christ when you believed and were baptized!
- You were buried with him!
- You were raised with him!
- Your old self was crucified with Christ!
- You are no longer slaves to sin!
- You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus!
- You have been brought from death to life!
- Sin will have no dominion over you!
- You are not under law but under grace!
- You have become slaves of righteousness!
- You once were on a pathway to death –
- — but now you are on the road to life!
All of these things are invisible, intangible realities; we couldn’t figure them out just on our own. And we probably don’t FEEL like most of them are true most of the time, so our subjective experience might lead us to think that not much has changed when we took the plunge into this life of faith – doubly so if it’s been a while, and our initial awareness of a transition into an entirely different worldview has faded.
But Paul, our tour guide, assures us with the authority of his apostleship that this is the metaphysical situation of the believer. These things are objectively true, independent of our feelings. And since they are true, we need to grapple with their implications. To sin, or not to sin? The one repeated imperative in this chapter answers the question:
“Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions…present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness…So now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
The theological (and very practical) point is that if you are a believer in Christ, you can offer yourself for good and not for ill, precisely because your metaphysical situation has changed. You can choose not to sin. It may not seem so, as you may feel overwhelmingly drawn to the sinful impulses that filled your past and still fill the surrounding world, your will, and your muscle memory; but this is your metaphysical reality. Go ahead and learn to walk in it confidently!
The revelation of this metaphysical situation, what’s really going on in the universe and in our souls, offers us the objective context we need to press on despite the subjective sense that nothing in us has changed. Like the Roman Christians, we can receive these words of Paul as a refreshing perspective on our own physical situation, as we keep on striving for holiness.
*Note that Paul’s immediate dive into the theological in Romans means that we, reading as believers today, may immediately identify with the things he is saying. Because he doesn’t know his audience very well, his purpose is to speak generally about the metaphysical situation of believers – and so we, too, can directly relate his words to our situation without first taking the precaution of considering what those words meant “back then” to the original readers in their particular historical context.