One of the blogs I’ve encountered in researching this week’s text is named “Brain Cramps for God,” and what I’ve found in the research has made me empathize with that blog’s title.
Whew! Once again I have to say that I had no idea what I was letting myself in for in deciding to preach through Romans. Years of preaching on the occasional Romans text that would show up in the lectionary was not much preparation for a serious look at the content and message of the whole letter.
Romans 2:1-16 is another especially difficult passage that requires holding seemingly contradictory ideas in tension before arriving at conclusions. Here, as Paul continues his argument that Jew and Gentile are equal before God, he says things that appear to be in deep conflict with what is usually thought to be his overall message of justification by grace through faith.
Romans 2:6-8 and 2:13 seem to be the particularly sticky verses, with the former clearly proclaiming a judgment according to works, and the latter asserting that those who are justified (“righteous in God’s sight” in the TNIV and NRSV) will be those who “obey the law,” whether it’s the Torah for Jews or the law of conscience “written on their hearts,” for Gentiles.
How then does Romans 2 square with our ordinary Protestant/Evangelical conviction that works play no role at all in the justification or judgment of Christians? One answer has been to treat the judgment by works in Romans 2 as “hypothetical,” implying that “if” one were able to rack up a solid record of good works, then it would lead to salvation. But of course no one does, as Paul says later in 3:23. But seeing judgment by works in chapter 2 as hypothetical doesn’t sit well in my book. It feels phony.
Klyne Snodgrass from our own North Park Theological Seminary has argued for some kind of combination of grace and “doing” in Paul’s gospel and the Gospel in general and I’m inclined to think he’s write. That key phrase at the beginning and end of Romans, “the obedience of faith” seems to incline in that direction.
The trick is to hold faith and grace in a reasonable tension with good works and arrive at some picture of Christian experience that can put them together. But that seems to be exactly what is expected throughout Scripture. Our experience of God’s mercy and grace is meant to make us into new people who actually do what God wants.
So I’ll be wrestling with the tension this Sunday morning in words, but we all wrestle with it every day as we receive grace and seek to follow our Lord.