Week 1 of Romans: Problem & Response

Week 1 of Romans
Problem and Response
Who, and what, gets put right with God? How?

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Chapter 1:18 to 4:25

Notes to Introduce Week 1

Last summer, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) 225 denominations, 80 million people, (including us) formally joined an ecumenical statement ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.’  So what? There, in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted ’95 theses’ on a church door, an ‘open letter’, asserting ‘the gospel according to Luther’. 

Our Protestant fight songs then and since were ‘Justification by Faith Alone’, (we are not saved by our works), ‘sola gratia, sola fides, sola scriptura’ (we are saved solely by grace, faith, scripture), and ‘the priesthood of all believers’ (our relation to God is not mediated through priestly traditions). Populist versions of those affirmations killed a lot of people, and separated millions of co-religionists.

In 1999, the Roman Catholics (1.2B), Lutherans (72M), in turn Methodists (80M) and now Reformed (80M) jointly declared our broad agreement on what it means to say God ‘justifies’ us.  If our leadership can agree – why do bigoted lunatic fringes get all the press about who is ‘saved’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘faithful’?  Who, and what, gets put right with God, right relations with others, and how?

‘Justification’ is a term for being ‘put right with God and others. ‘Sin’ is a term for how are we ‘not right’ with God and others. ‘Salvation’ is a term for how God responds to ‘sin’. Can you talk about any of this without the slogan words? Our leadership can, and has done. Lloyd Gaston and Eugene Peterson have too – and in 2017, John Bentley Mays published another translation to help us.

500 years ago, 1517 Martin Luther re-read Romans in Wittenberg Germany, and he changed the world.  It was not all pretty, including lots of fights among us. 100 years ago, in 1916, Karl Barth, a local German pastor in a Swiss town, became disillusioned by liberal theology, and its role in the middle of the Great War. Barth said bad theology was killing us. Reading Romans wrong was lethal.  

50 years ago, in 1966 William Stringfellow, a New York lawyer in the Upper West Side, inspired by civil rights and Vietnam War protest, offered to help Rev William Sloane Coffin – who said ‘go to Harlem’. The lawyer sat in a room with black teenagers, and read Romans as if expecting it to mean something to us.

30 years ago, in 1988, United Church folks read Romans a lot, especially today’s Romans 1:24-28.   We say the ‘problem’ is not sex, and sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, nor is the ‘response’ to exclude or kill ‘them’.  Thank God, like Paul, or Luther, or Barth, we claim a ‘gospel according to us’. 

I have to add questions today, unpopular among my glib liberal colleagues:  What’s Paul on about, critical of whom, or expecting God and Christians to do about it, in these initial chapters?  What’s the problem?  What’s the response?