Thursday, 16 August 2007

Romans: convicting devout Jews of their need for Jesus

I've been re-reading Romans recently, and one of the questions which I've had in the early chapters is this: how does Paul convict his Jewish readers of their sinfulness?

I've realised that in some ways I'm quite out of my depth already in thinking things through - anything below should be read as much thoughts out loud. I've not really read enough 'new perspective' material to really know what I'm talking about at all.

However, something which I think I've fallen into in reading Romans before is caricaturing Judaism. It's very easy to read these chapters and to assume that the Jews whom Paul addressed were just relying upon their actions to make them right before God. And I guess it's possible that Paul could have been addressing a particularly legalistic group of Jews - the gospels show that legalism was widespread at least amongst the Pharisees that Jesus addressed.

However, this doesn't seem to be the basis of being right with God that is described in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament - and particularly in the book of Exodus - God makes it clear that the people of Israel have been chosen to him in a covenant on the basis of grace alone. The Law is given to a people that have already been redeemed, and with in comes the sacrificial system - which reminded the people that grace was at the very centre of all of God's dealings so that he could go on living amongst a sinful people. In other words, to be a devout Jew in the Old Testament was to be devoted to God because of the grace he had shown, therefore seeking to live out God's law and to trust in the grace of his sacrifices when one falls short. Through this sacrifices, God had promised to forgive.

So, making the assumption that Paul is addressing these Jews and not more legalistic Jews in Romans, what is his argument? It appears to me to be something like this:

- 2:1-5: Jews cannot think that they are outside of God's judgement, because they too fall short of God's standards; God's covenant does not give a Jew the opportunity to sin with impunity - instead it should bring them to repentance;
- 2:6-16: God's basis for judgement is based on works that a person has done. This is true for all: God shows no favouritism and judges universally.
2:17-3:8: The blessings of the covenant (including circumcision, the outward sign of being part of God's people) do not in themselves bring impunity from judgement. To assume that these blessings themselves save is to misunderstand the reason why these covenant blessings were granted to Jews. Jews are hugely privileged as God's people - but hold no ultimate advantage in facing God's judgement. The blessings were given to draw the Jewish people to repentance.
3:9-20: All people, including Jews, are 'under sin': there is no way for any person - either Jew or Gentile - to achieve God's ultimate standard of good works. The Law makes us conscious of sin and the need to repent.

I think this is the flow of Paul's argument. In the OT, this would have showed itself amongst Jews in a commitment to the sacrificial system - which in itself was forward looking to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ (3:21-26). Without placing faith in this sacrifice, Jews still face God's judgement: neither the privileges of the covenant or legalistic law keeping can save. True repentance will show itself in a commitment to the sacrificial provision of Jesus. And so Paul's warning to the Jewish members of the church in Rome is this: don't mistake the privileges and response to God's grace for the means for receiving this grace: that only comes through repentance and faith.

I guess this flow of argument might cause a person to say: if you are right, Paul, then why did God bother with the covenant? - something which he begins to cover in chapters 2-3, but returns to later in the letter to the Romans.

Be interested to hear your thinking on this....

1 comment:

Chris said...

I think one of the key controls has to be "how does this join up with romans developments in 6-7 and especially the culmination in 9-11"?

In other words, what then do you think is going on with 9.30-31 and 10.3?

I've found this helpful at many levels.

- word/theme searches ("all", "how much more", "glory", "righteousness", "faith")

- joined up thinkin, where we fuse horizons so much with the text that it's nigh on impossible to think the thoughts of romans 3 without thinking to romans 9. of the very satisfying things for me about Wright's reading is that 9-11 aren't some odd afterthought, but root the whole thing in mission...same for 6-7 and 12-16 in fact. (I recommend
as someone much more sympathetic than many)

on the other hand, this can be as simple as "ok, when Paul talks about glory in Romans 8-9, I hear the reverse of everything in Romans 3, about falling short..."