Category Archives: Romans

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!


Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology



Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT


Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)


General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”


Mark is Longer


Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt


Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names


Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)


Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)


Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)


Examining Ourselves


A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit


Military Mnemonics


Providing Perspective


The Mouse that Roared



Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith


Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings

[Texts:  James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]

As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works.  On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation.  Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting?  Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?

Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder.  One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.

First, about timing:  although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.

As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers.  Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).

The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping.  At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point.  Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians.  But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.

So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.”  Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective.  Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.

When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.”  But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars.  His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds,  for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.

On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused.  In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.

In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently.  For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions).  To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.

Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well.  If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context.  In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.

In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion.  But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status.  (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)

We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.*  As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.


*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups.  You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.

*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too.  But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.

References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.

Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD  —   Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD  —  Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s  —  Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD.  Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Biblical Theology, Ephesians, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, James, Paul, Romans, Theology

Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.


*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Theology, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Eschatology, Historical Context, Jesus, Paul, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans

Providing Perspective (Part 1)

[Texts:  Epistles; 1 Peter]

If I had to sum up the job description of the writers of the Epistles, I would put their purpose and goal like this:

Providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.

This is essentially what Bible teachers mean when they distinguish between the “doctrine and theology” sections and the “practical instruction” parts of a letter, or when they tell you things like, “The indicative precedes the imperative!”  What they’re trying to get across is that the writers’ statements about God’s reality (the indicatives) are the ground and motivation for whatever commands (or imperatives) are addressed to the readers.  As Christians, we act on the biblical marching orders when (and because) we believe the true doctrine.

Besides the fact that my phrase employs a nicely mnemonic alliteration, I like it because it closely reflects the nature of persuasive letter-writing, rather than academic textbook-production.  Paul and Peter and the other writers weren’t producing systematic theologies; they were writing to individuals and communities that they cared about.  Even Paul’s letter to the Romans, written to people he didn’t know personally, retains that down-to-earth sense amid all the theologizing.  Real minds and lives were at stake there in Rome, and Paul’s concern for the renewal of those minds motivated him to provide a thorough theological perspective to promote the persevering performance of these believers.

Granted, each Epistle was written with a different purpose, reflecting the relationship of the writer to the readers and the specific needs of that community at the time of writing.  Some letters berate (or praise!) more than instruct, others spend more words on itinerary than imperatives.  But in every case, the writer is concerned both for the readers’ understanding of God’s truth and that they will continue to walk in a worthy way, in light of that truth.  And in some of the Epistles, including 1 Peter and Philippians, these two concerns are especially evident.  I’ll offer some observations from 1 Peter here, and save Philippians for the next post.

Peter’s first letter, written to unknown recipients living in Asia Minor, continually stresses the necessity of a proper perspective for the facing of persecution with faithful resolve.  Statements about the believers’ state of mind are peppered through the letter:

“Therefore, girding up the loins of your mind, and being sober-minded…”

“Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

“…in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking…”

“…be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”

“Be sober-minded, be watchful.”

Peter’s letter is itself a tutorial in “the reason for the hope that they have,” as he walks his readers through what Christ has accomplished for them, and who they are because of Jesus’ victory.  Not just self-controlled and sober minds, but informed minds are necessary in order to endure the fiery trials without feeling surprised (“as though something strange were happening to you”).  So Peter offers large doses of perspective:

“He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus!”

“You’re being guarded by God’s power!”

“You’ve been born again of imperishable seed through the word of God!”

“You’re a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession!”

“If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

And Peter is clear that endurance, in God’s scheme of things, isn’t just about grimly hanging on through the white-water rapids of life, caring only for your own survival.  The perspective that he shares is meant to motivate towards the persevering performance of “loving one another earnestly, from a pure heart,” shepherding the flock of God “not for shameful gain, but eagerly,” and maintaining honorable conduct in the eyes of outsiders.

Above all, Peter hopes to motivate his readers to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” following in the steps of their chief Example, Jesus. Reaching for such a high goal is possible only for those whose minds are prepared for action, armed with a God’s-eye view of circumstances.  If his words succeed in their mission, then Peter will have faithfully lived up to his job description – providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.


Biblical quotations taken from the ESV, though some are paraphrased.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Paul, Peter, Romans

Paul the Governed

[Texts: Romans 13:1-7; Acts 21-28]

In our Romans 13, Paul gives believers some instruction about submitting to the government, and it seems that we just can’t resist adding a lot of asterisks and footnotes to this section when we read it.  After centuries of global history we are realists about the inevitability of corrupt power and laws that uphold more agenda than justice, and we’d like to believe that Paul would think like we do.  So our mental version of the passage reads something like this:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities [except when you have to resist unjust laws through civil disobedience].  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God [that is, the good ones; I’m not talking about the Neroes of the world.] . . . For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad [theoretically speaking, that is, because of course you can think of counterexamples . . .]. (Etc.)

We tend to assume that Paul is writing with such caveats in mind, and that he’d quickly identify, say, Nero’s regime in his day as an exception to the rule he’s articulating.  Surely he’s speaking ideally here; after all, the reality of being governed involves much more complex decisions than the straightforward obedience commanded here!

Well, Paul was no greenhorn, and I’m sure he could tell the difference between a tyrannical ruler and a benevolent leader.  And although the very early Christians were for a while considered by Rome to be a sect of Judaism, and so were not yet targets of Roman persecution for their faith per se, Paul would have been aware of drastic actions taken against the Jews by the governing authorities that had repercussions also for Christians.  For example, not long before the writing of Romans, the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome (c.54 AD; see Acts 18:2), personally affecting Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquilla.  So he had recent evidence that Rome was an unpredictable and sometimes harsh governor.

After Nero’s succession to the throne in 54 AD, reports of the emperor’s unstable personality may indeed have made Paul wary as well.  But as a matter of fact, when Paul wrote Romans (57 AD), Nero’s insane cruelty towards Christians in particular had not yet had its heyday.  That season came nearly a decade later (64-68 AD), so it would be anachronistic of us to assume that it provides the context for Paul’s instructions to Christians here in chapter 13.  Approaching this passage in the light of Christians being burned alive to illuminate Nero’s garden parties makes it easy to discover that Paul was really saying, “Of course I don’t mean the Neroes of the world when I write this . . .” – but reading between the lines in this way becomes harder when we consider the historical realities of Paul the governed.

Here’s an odd twist to his tale – not conclusive for an interpretation of Romans 13, perhaps, but definitely an important and complicating historical detail to include when we consider this passage about being governed:  Paul wrote these words under Nero’s watch, and his actions at the time indicate that he believed his own statements absolutely.

The actions I’m referring to are described by Luke in Acts 21-28.  In this final quarter of the narrative, the fury of a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem precipitates a prolonged personal encounter between Paul and Rome.*  As events unfold, a contrast becomes apparent between the unruly mob intent on pursuing vigilante justice and the Roman representatives intent, for the most part, on maintaining the rule of law.  Through it all, Paul appears unperturbed, calmly requesting reasonable things of his Roman captor-protectors.

It’s in these requests that we see his confidence in the truth of those statements he’d written earlier in his letter to the Roman believers.  Beginning with the Tribune Claudius Lysias, Paul appeals to the Roman reverence for rules and evidence-based verdicts.  His initial attempt to present his case to an emotional Jewish audience has failed, but he knows Lysias will respond properly to a timely query:  “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”

Interesting that Paul asks this while being stretched out for the whips.  Apparently “be subject to the governing authorities” does not mean “meekly allow the governing authorities to break their own laws and abuse you.”  In Rome it happens that even personal quirks (or, in Lysias’ case, personal limits to patience) are subject to a higher law.  Perhaps it’s an arbitrary law, as many are (it’s not a necessity of the universe, that is, that Roman citizens must not be punished without due process), but it was a law nonetheless, and Paul did not hesitate at this moment to invoke it.

Later, cheerfully making his defense before governors and royalty, Paul stresses the facts of his case, helpfully pointing out details that Rome could easily investigate.  “You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem…Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me.”  He refuses to return to Jerusalem for a repeat of the trial-by-mob scene, instead asserting, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried . . . If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.  But if there is nothing to their charge against me, no one can give me up to them.  I appeal to Caesar.”

Paul expertly wields logic, reason, rule of law in his own defense; as he wrote in Romans, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Imagine saying this about the Emperor Nero, and meaning it!

If Paul’s confidence were simply in the governing individuals, it would have been misplaced:  Lysias was too quick to order questioning by torture; Felix and Festus kept Paul around for more than two years for entertainment (and maybe a future payoff).  Appealing to Caesar was in the end not so much a plea to an individual Emperor, but to an ordered, rules-based authority that valued judgments based on evidence.  Paul knew he had the facts in his favor, and he had the patience to work the system – taking the opportunity to share the gospel in the meantime with anyone who would listen.  Not a bad deal, overall.

Not every government, then or now, would have fit so closely what he described in Romans 13, giving us reason still to pause and think that passage through carefully.  But at least we can set aside the mistaken notion that Paul had in mind lots of asterisks and footnotes about Rome when he wrote it.  On the contrary, he appealed to Caesar precisely because that particular pagan government was likely to give him the justice that his own countrymen denied him.


*See my earlier post, Rome Meets Paul, for a whimsical take on the initial confrontation.

In this post I am working with this timetable:

Emperor Claudius’ reign (41-54 AD)

Expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem by Claudius (54 AD)

Emperor Nero’s reign (54-68 AD)

Paul writes Romans (57 AD)

Events of Acts 21-26 (c.58-62 AD)

Paul is released (c.62 AD)

Nero persecutes Christians after fire in Rome (64-68 AD)

Paul is rearrested and executed (67 AD)

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Filed under Acts, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Paul, Romans

Bible Journal Recap (1)

Here’s what I’ve been writing about, this spring and summer — this is a topical index for those of you who’d like to read something you missed from my earlier posts, or something related to whatever you are studying.  I’ll pause to create lists like this one every few months to remind you what’s here.

If you’re interested in guides for your own personal Bible study, you’ll find some suggestions on the “Short Takes” shelf.

****Bible Journal Posts on the Epistles:

Mutual Autobiography1 Cor., Gal., Phil., Thess. (5.18.2015)

Invitational ImperativesVarious Epistles (5.27.2015)

Pickup Theology1 Cor. (6.3.2015)

Fortune Cookies1 Cor. 10:31 (6.18.2015)

Riff on 1 Cor. 13 (6.8.2015)

Theo-logic1&2 Cor. (6.25.2015)

Christ Jesus our LordSurvey of Epistles (7.4.2015)

The Metaphysical SituationRom. 6 (7.13.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on the Gospels:

Prophetic Puzzle PiecesSynoptic Gospels (3.30.2015)

Mapping the ParablesSynoptic Gospels (3.16.2015)

Samaritan StoriesMatt., Luke, John (3.23.2015)

“Follow, Fast!”Matt., Luke (2.23.2015)

Eyewitnesses to a TransfigurationMatt., Mark, Luke (2.17.2015)

On the Unforgivable SinMatt., Mark, Luke (2.15.2015)

Mark is LongerMark in comparison (4.29.2015)

“Shhh! Don’t Tell!”Mark (3.1.2015)

Prompted ParablesLuke (3.9.2015)

Death Meets Life at the Gates of NainLuke 7  (2.18.2015)

The Cost of SaltLuke 14 (5.12.2015)

Curious QuestionsJohn 4 (4.7.2015)

Naming NamesJohn 12 (4.22.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Acts:

Prison Diary: A Brief Play in Three ActsActs 16 (5.5.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Bible Study:

Genre Judgment Calls (4.13.2015)

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The Metaphysical Situation

[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.

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Biblical Genres, Christ, Epistles, Instructing the Body, Paul, Romans