Sunday 2 July 2017
The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14A
The Epistle to the Romans, generally considered the greatest of the letters of the Apostle Paul, has often been interpreted to say that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed salvation history forever, abolishing the old covenant with the Jews, the covenant of the Law, which was guided by the laws Moses received on Mount Sinai, and establishing the new covenant of grace, in which anyone who believes in Jesus need not bother with any rules or regulations, because they are saved by grace, not by the law. Some reformed theologians were eager to denigrate the law at every opportunity and to promote the doctrine of sola fide, faith alone. They took this idea to the extreme, arguing that everything to do with the so-called old covenant was completely bankrupt, that the new covenant in Jesus Christ had virtually nothing to do with the old. They were also so interested in promoting the doctrine of faith alone that they were exceedingly suspicious of good works, believing that performing them could lead to works-righteousness, the idea that doing some sort of work or deed could bring someone some sort of righteousness or salvation. They argued that all Christians were completely free from the law, that there was no obligation to act with justice and righteousness.
This line of thinking draws from Martin Luther. He wasn’t that extreme, but his theology was later developed into anti-works program. It’s just that he was so obsessed with the idea that salvation came through grace and not through works, that the weight of his argument always seemed to stack up against good works. He was right, and he was making a much needed point for the time. But as time went on, the argument got more one-sided, suggesting that works were never a good thing. And that is the way Luther’s theology has often been interpreted since then. There are entire segments of Protestant Christianity that are suspicious of ever performing good works because to do so might cause one to forget that salvation comes by faith. It has led many to believe that Christianity is only about belief, that it is not about action at all. Under this view, all a Christian needs to do is to say that they believe in Jesus, that their sins are forgiven, and that is the end of the story. Nothing else left to do except wait for the end of the world. We’ve already been assured of salvation, so no need to do anything else in the mean time
And it’s true, Paul does say that those who are in Christ are not under the law, but instead are under grace. He thought that Gentiles, peoples new to the family of God, had racked up so much sin over the generations that they could never hope to work it all off using the normal means that were prescribed in the Law of Moses. God knew this, and so God devised a new and special way that Gentiles could become justified and become part of the family of God. He sent Jesus, who through his faithfulness was able to justify even the hopelessly sinful Gentiles. Thus, Gentiles would be saved through faith: the faith that Jesus had shown through his life, death, and resurrection. It was not by works of the law that Gentiles were justified, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.
But that did not mean that the Christian journey was over once a Christian accepted justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith, for Paul, was not just about securing eternal salvation. Faith was about a continuing relationship with God that would lead not just to justification, but to sanctification. It was not just about being made blameless before God in some technical sense, it was about the work of the Holy Spirit within each believer to make their lives ever more holy, ever more righteous, ever more sanctified.
“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” he asks, a bit sarcastically. And without even a beat, he answers his own question. “By no means!” Absolutely not! If you think that sinning doesn’t matter once you have received the grace of God in Jesus, then you have completely missed the point.
Instead of talking about Christian faith as a ticket to heaven, a get-out-of-hell-free card, Paul uses a very different metaphor, the metaphor of slavery. The way he sees it, everyone is going to be a slave, one way or another. There’s no way of getting around it. Everyone is a slave. The only question is, who’s slave are you? Who is your master?
The way Paul figures it, his new Gentile converts had previously been slaves to sin. The choices they made, the actions they took, the ways that they lived all showed that sin was their true master. Whatever it was they were doing—worshipping idols, cheating their neighbors, straying from their marriages, neglecting the poor—it all added up to doing the work of sin. Sin set the agenda, and they followed sin’s orders. And, as Paul warns them, the wages of sin is death. If they keep on following sin’s commands, sin will pay them just exactly what they have earned for all of their faithful obedient service on sin’s behalf, that is, death.
In order to be free from sin, the answer is not to simply become some sort of free agent, able to do whatever it is that they want. That is simply impossible under Paul’s conception of the world. People cannot become free unto themselves. In order to become free from slavery to sin, they must become slaves of a new master. They must become slaves of obedience, slaves of righteousness.
To become slaves of righteousness, they will need to do the things that righteousness commands. They will need to love their neighbors and their enemies, they will need to deal justly and peaceably, they will need to be faithful to their promises, they will need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, set the oppressed free. And if they follow these commands, if they do all of the work that righteousness sets for them to do, then they will receive the wages for their work, they will receive sanctification.
The idea of sanctification was especially important to the founder of the Methodist Movement, John Wesley. Many of his contemporaries were interested only in justification, only in the process of achieving salvation. Wesley, though, understood that the journey of faith did not stop the moment that someone accepts Jesus Christ into their heart. Having received the assurance of salvation, the Christian believer then begins the process of sanctification. Sanctification means the process of being made more holy. Wesley believed that after believers had accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit would work within them, molding them, directing their actions and motivations, making them progressively more and more holy, more and more righteous, more and more the disciples that God wanted them to be. That is the process of sanctification. Wesley thought that if this process were allowed to continue, that believers would eventually “go on to perfection,” and that they could achieve perfection in this life. He meant that those who had entered a state of perfection would not purposefully sin. He did not think that he had achieved perfection himself, but he thought he knew some people who had, and he thought that it should be the goal of every Christian to strive for perfection, following Jesus’ command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Wesley did not believe that this sanctification, that this striving for perfection, was what earned a Christian salvation. Neither did Paul or Luther, for that matter. What they all seem to have believed is that once a Christian had received forgiveness and salvation as a free gift from God, that in response to that free gift they would do the works of God, not in order to earn salvation, but in gratitude for the salvation they had already received. Thus, they would become slaves of righteousness, devoting their entire selves to the work of God in the world. And, in fact, they understood that these good works were themselves a gift of God. It is God’s Spirit, by grace, that does good works in us. Justification is from God by grace alone, and also sanctification is from God by grace alone.
Paul has a clever line in verse 20, when he says, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” Those who are slaves from sin are free from righteousness. It’s sort of a backhanded way of making his point that all people are slaves either to sin or to righteousness. Those who are slaves to sin can celebrate that they are free from righteousness. But that isn’t really a celebration at all, is it? Conversely, those who are slaves to righteousness should be able to celebrate that they are free from sin. Wesley comments on this verse in Paul, saying, “In all reason, therefore, ye ought now to be free from unrighteousness; to be as uniform and zealous in serving God as ye were in serving the devil.”
God offers us salvation as a free gift of grace. But our accepting that gift has a consequence. When we accept God’s grace to us in the faith of Jesus Christ, we also accept God’s continuing claim on our lives. In being freed from sin and death, we are made slaves of righteousness, but slaves who work joyfully for our just and beloved master. To simply rest on our laurels is to waste God’s gift, and it is to resist the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives. God calls us to something more than just salvation. God calls us to discipleship. God calls us to follow the example that he has set for us in Jesus. God calls us to serve faithfully, and through our service to be transformed, so that we no longer work for sin and its wages of death, but that we work for righteousness, in the gift of eternal life.