Wrestling With Romans, Part 1: Twelve Minutes of Forever

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Wrestling With Romans, Part 1: Twelve Minutes of Forever

This column is the first in a three-part series on Romans 6, 7, and 8. I have considered writing about Romans 7 for quite a while, primarily because there is still a debate, in Adventism and also general Christendom, as to whether Paul, in his admitted self-conflict regarding the law and sin, right and wrong, was converted or unconverted. At the time of my initial inclination to write, I would not have been so bold as to claim I could resolve the debate. At this point, I still won’t.

 

RELATED LINK: Are We Free From the Law?

 

There will still be many representatives in both camps after part 2 of this series is posted. My main goal is to articulate, as clearly as possible, what the Lord has helped me decipher through my study and contemplation of this passage, thus aiding my brethren in getting at least a little closer to achieving a consensus.

 

Romans 6-8–The Contested Chapters

 

I decided to expand to three installments because I am convinced that chapter 7 is flanked by chapters 6 and 8 for a reason. Myriads of theologians and laypeople alike view them as a literary and theological unit. I have heard some say that if these were the only Scriptures we had, we would know everything we would need to know about salvation.

 

I am glad that we have the other 1,186 chapters because they contain valuable nuances of God’s redemptive plan, including indispensable case studies, but I understand the sentiment.

 

This apex of Paul’s opus epistle seems to be unmatched in soteriological density. In about twelve minutes of reading, one can get a broad sweep of our Creator’s blueprint for restoring us, personally and collectively, to Edenic holiness.

 

This and the other two pieces will not follow a rigid, verse-by-verse structure. In rattling the various elements of my Romans 7 discourse around my noggin, I envisioned a dynamic akin to sitting around the living room, shooting the breeze with a friend, perhaps from seminary. I have somewhat polished that approach and will strive to make these articles a healthy, balanced mix of inductive and conversational. With that said, let us prayerfully proceed through our study of Romans 6.

 

RELATED LINK: The Wretched iMan of Romans 7

 

An Examination of Grace

 

As a reminder, Paul wrote one continuous letter, not sixteen chapters and 433 verses of segmented content. Nevertheless, these referencing innovations are helpful, for the most part, and we may as well speak in this parlance.

 

Anyhow, he began chapter 6 with a compound interrogative that extends back to how he ended chapter 5—the proportional relationship between the increases in sin and grace.

 

I would not be surprised if Paul asked these questions as a preemptive strike against those who would conclude that he believes that the existence of sin is a positive reality because of the good that comes from it—a more thorough revelation of God’s character, including traits like graciousness and mercy. In fact, he addressed it earlier in Romans 3:8.

 

In answering his own questions, Paul makes it emphatically plain that he, and more importantly the Lord, see no virtue in any proliferation of unrighteousness. What is interesting is that he did not follow up his exclamation with any immediate mention of the moral aspects of sin—“May it never be! For sin is an affront to God’s will,” or, “For sin causes harm to you and others”—which we might consider more standard retorts to the idea that an escalation of transgression is a good thing. Instead, he went straight to the death/life motif, and I would suggest that this was the most prudent method of truly examining grace in its proper framework.

 

RELATED LINK: Series on Romans

 

The Purpose of Grace—A New Life Altogether

 

It is likely that the phrase “cheap grace” has rolled off many of our tongues, and overall, with good reason, for numerous pockets within various Christian folds, including Adventism, unfortunately, have rendered the grace of God listless and impotent through the restructurings of the gospel that range from negligent to downright self-serving.

 

Although, as an aside, let us not flippantly toss the phrase around at the encounter of every little theological, lifestyle, or any other disagreement with a brother or sister. It can be irresponsible, disrespectful, and a significant dent in our credibility as ambassadors of Jesus, who is the Lord of order and propriety, yes, but love and compassion as well.

 

Getting back on track, how Paul did and did not transition from his necessary rhetoric in the early portion of Romans 6 skillfully drives home the essence of grace. Forgiveness is a major component to the gospel, and we can thank God profusely for the forgiveness He has lavished upon us for the countless occasions in which we broke His law.

 

However, His mission is not to simply get us off the hook of the wrongs we have committed. Stopping there is the definition of cheap. His mission is to change our lives, or maybe more accurately, give us new ones.

 

RELATED LINK: A Love That Scatters Snares

 

Look and Live

 

In reading the front half of Romans 6, I am prone to think back to the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. He was unambiguous in declaring to the inquiring Pharisee what the prerequisite was for inheriting the kingdom of God. Their conversation initially left Nicodemus flustered, and in being fair to him, it is understandable. The themes that our Savior put on the table—being born again, by water and the Spirit, who moves in mysterious ways like the wind does—seem rather abstract.

 

Christ, being an even more competent orator of truth than Paul was, assuaged Nicodemus’ confusion. However, He did not do so by explaining these abstract themes directly. He carried his imagination to Moses and the Israelites, specifically the incident in which they suffered potentially fatal snakebites as a result of their unsubstantiated, infantile bellyaching.[1]

 

Though God needed to execute this punishment, He still, in His loving kindness, provided a solution. He instructed Moses to construct a bronze serpent and lift it on a staff. Those who looked upon it would survive.

 

Jesus paralleled that bronze serpent to Himself. Could there be a more dichotomous comparison? What commonality could there be between the flawless Son of God and the emblem of evil? The best answer to that is in 2 Corinthians 5:21:

 

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (NASB).

 

Christ took the sins of the entire world and the curse that comes with them upon Himself so we would not have to do so.

 

There are several aspects of the Christian faith that are not particularly tangible, and that includes, as we have discussed, being born again, especially of the Spirit, which is connected to sharing in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, another ethereal concept. At least this is symbolized by the concrete ceremony of baptism. Broader than this, praise be to God that we have the most tangible display of love possible—the Son of Man on Calvary, suffering what we deserve so that we may inherit what He deserves.

 

It is by beholding Christ on the cross that the aforementioned spiritual abstracts are triggered. We may be limited in our understanding of the born-again phenomenon and being led by the Holy Spirit (the latter of which we will discuss more in our study of Romans 8), and multiplying our understanding thereof will be a blessed yet endless pursuit.

 

However, actively and tenaciously setting our eyes on the Lamb of God, who took away our sins and that of the whole world, at immeasurable cost to Himself, is the corporeal catalyst that sets and keeps us on course toward the transformation that God ultimately wants to accomplish in each of us. It is only by envisioning the Messiah, with His arms outstretched, essentially saying, “I love you this much,” that we can, through faith, experience a heavenly renaissance. There is life in a look.

 

RELATED LINK: The Grace of Christ for “Sinaholics”

 

Read the Word—The Underlying Reason

 

In taking a temporary detour, this is the bedrock reason for why a regular devotional life is vital. I bear some residual lamentation for taking so long to figure this out, but better late than never, I guess. Odds are, we have met dozens of well-meaning, veteran church sages who have encouraged us to read the Bible every day. Odds are, we have also been on the giving end of this classic piece of advice on dozens of occasions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine advice; just incomplete.

 

RELATED LINK: Adventism 202 – How to Get Your Theological House in Order

 

Spending time in the Word of God is not a religious exercise that meritoriously or quantifiably increases our chances of entering the pearly gates. This is one of the reasons why Romans … and Galatians … and, well, the entire Bible exist—to debunk such Babylonian myths.

 

Jesus charged Nicodemus, and by extension, the rest of us, to be born again because there was something wrong with our first birth, which means the initial versions of ourselves must be slain and buried, and if that does not happen here, it will happen after the final millennium.

 

Again, this is not a scare tactic to coax daily devotional time. It is a recognition that our rebirth is only possible through consistent assimilation of the limitless love of the Lord, the clearest disclosure of which is found in Scripture. Habitual neglect of the Holy Canon is not merely a derision-worthy offense committed by a “naughty little Christian.” It is spiritual suicide by starvation.

 

Please feed on His Word. I am saying this to myself as much as I am to everyone who reads this article, for I confess that I have often been way too casual about participating in this privileged practice. If anyone struggles with time availability or even time management, then start small. Just start. Don’t check verses and chapters off a to-do list. Get to know Jesus Christ, who cherishes you, me, and all of us as a priceless treasure. Get to know Him a little today, a little more tomorrow, then some more, and so on.

 

Under the Law or Under Grace—Its Meaning

 

Romans 6:14 is perhaps one of the more frequent victims of textual misuse. What’s worse is that it isn’t even the entire verse, but just the final clause, that is clipped out in isolation and implemented as a crumbly foundation for unsanctioned conclusions. If anyone has ever heard of another theory that has not yet reached my radar, you are welcome to let me know. For now, I will briefly allude to the two primary theories with which I am familiar, then move forward to a determination of what the apostle actually intended.

 

  1. Being “not under law” means that obedience is no longer crucial. My response: Read the rest of Romans 6, or, at a paltry minimum, verse 15.
  2. Paul is inferring the ceremonial law. My response: Based on what? The other … zero sanctuary or ritual references within the surrounding context?

 

I believe the proper understanding of verse 14 is discoverable within verse 14. What does it mean to be under law (or not)? Well, what does it mean to be under grace? The plumpest, most resounding string on Paul’s violin was righteousness by faith. The grace of God is, and throughout the post-fall era, always has been, the sole conduit through which we can attain salvation.

 

RELATED LINK: Called, Chosen, Faithful – Searching for a Model of Salvation

 

Therefore, it makes sense to extrapolate that being under law means using obedience as an alternative conduit, which the author already asserted in chapter 3 is impossible because of our pitiful condition. It is only by grace that we are saved, but being saved is much more than having our criminal records reversed. It is an eternal bond with Christ that is to be marked by reverence and loyalty that spring forth from a regenerated heart.

 

Slavery, Liberty, or Autonomy?

 

A keyword—a repeated word—that runs through verses 16 to 22 is “slaves,” or some variation thereof. Paul used it eight times in this section and once earlier in verse 6. When surveying the Scriptures, recurrence insinuates relevance. “Slavery,” with its equivalents, is a strong contender for the ugliest word in any language.

 

It carries etymological, historical, and other forms of baggage too heavy for a fleet of 747s. With that said, the missionary to the Gentiles deemed it obligatory to use this analogy with his original audience,[2] and perhaps we need to humbly accept that it is fitting for us too.

 

RELATED LINK: Dead Man Walking

 

Of course, the opposite of slavery is freedom, and Romans 6 and God’s Word, in general, reveal that freedom is an essential part of the package that He generously places in our hands. However, considering that one of the premises of the gospel is that our natures are exhaustively flawed, one of our flaws is our tendency to take any inch our Father affords us and try to stretch it a mile, and this applies to liberty.

 

We need the Holy Spirit to firmly establish in our inner beings the realization that liberty is not synonymous with autonomy. This realization could dissipate certain conflicts currently transpiring within our church. Is that one digression too many?

 

RELATED LINK: How Adventism Ended the Gospel Wars

 

Anyhow, in this universe, there are only two governors and two governments. No human in the past has been able to found a third, and we won’t either. As bullish as our independent streaks are, and I will admit that mine is overwhelming so, our hands are not on the controls.

 

We will be conveyed by a pilot, and it is up to each of us to decide whether it will be the Archangel or the rebel angel. Why would we ever want to realign with the one who’s exclusive aim is to turn us into rubble? We serve a God of incalculable benevolence who would never ruin our lives. Nevertheless, we must let Him run them.

 

Eternal Life—To Know God

 

I will make the safe assumption that the final verse[3] has been recited by memory in a plethora of Sabbath School classes (children and adult alike), Bible studies, gospel presentations, prayer walks, and other arenas. A quick yet substantive inspection of this passage will wrap up our session.

 

RELATED LINK: Blessed Assurance?

 

Going on another tangent, less germane but more humorous, as much as I like the NASB, I definitely would have preferred if they, and other similar versions, just used “gift” instead of “free gift.” What other kind of gift is there? I do not remember ever bequeathing a bouquet of flowers to any of the ladies in my life and then requesting a tip or security deposit.

 

Moving on, whenever I come across the term “eternal life,” including this case, I flip the pages back, either with my hand or head, to John 17:3, the cornerstone definition:

 

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

 

The word “know” here connotes intimacy. The gift that the Lord has granted us by His grace is a kinship with Him that will last forever, and this stands in comprehensive contrast to the death we would have otherwise earned by our lives of unrighteousness. This is the first gift He gave to Adam and Eve, and the greatest gift He could give to anyone.

 

To know God is to love Him, to love Him is to honor Him, and to honor Him is to live our lives according to His will by faith. Let me rephrase that. To honor Him is to be,

 

crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20).

Click here to read the rest of John’s series on Romans

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Notes.

[1] See Numbers 21

[2] See Romans 6:19.

[3] Romans 6:23.

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About the author

John Simon

John Simon, an almost lifelong Michigander, is a freelance editor and writer. He previously spent a decade working with Adventist Frontier Missions in an accounting role. Though finance wasn't exactly a hand-in-glove fit—more of a hand-in-toaster fit, frankly—it was a privilege to help advance the cause of reaching the unreached. John enjoys spectating and participating in various sports (hockey being on top of both lists), driving/road tripping, visiting his feisty yet loving and supportive family on the other side of the Mitten, and spending time with friends.