Leading Question: “How can we avoid the tendency to focus only on the passages of Scripture that meet our needs?”
Introduction to the Issue: It is worth noting that when a person swings away from a strongly perfectionist position (“We can do it!”) to a strongly evangelical/substitutionary perspective (“We can’t do it; Jesus does it for us!”), a powerful impulse often draws them to Romans and Galatians, almost as if these were the only two books in the Bible.
But there are a wide variety of perspectives on law in the writings of the apostles, and even wider when one includes the cross in the discussion. In an attempt to bring some balance to the discussion, our purpose here is to note some “non-Pauline” (!) elements in the writings of Paul, especially in Romans, as a means of suggesting that Paul himself was much more broadly based than some of his more passionate followers might like to believe. We’ll look at four points:
Law is good: Romans 7:12: In Romans 6 and 7 Paul grumbles mightily against the law. But one verse trumpets his appreciation for law. It is the memory verse for this week’s lesson: “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12, KJV).
Human beings have a built-in law: Romans 2:12-16. For all Paul’s emphasis on revealed law, Romans 2:12-16 is a notable move toward natural law:
Romans 2:12-16: All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (NRSV)
This passage, along with the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, are the most forceful passages in favor of a universal natural law that exists within the human heart apart from laws given by revelation.
God chooses our destiny: Romans 9:10-21. While most modern evangelicals stand in the reformed, predestinarian (Calvinist) tradition, many followers of Paul would emphasize the important of human choice. Augustine, however, would not be among them. Note this candid statement: “In trying to solve this question I made strenuous efforts on behalf of the preservation of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God defeated me.” – from Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford, 1986), 117, citing Retractationes ii.1 (addressed to Simplicianus of Milan)
In that connection, however, we glimpse Paul’s rather humorous attempt to address the issue of predestination. It comes in Romans 9 where he is trying to explain the statement from Malachi 1:2: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but I have hated Esau.” Here is the full passage from Romans 9. Note that with every attempt to address the problem he simply makes matters worse and he knows it. His last word is basically “Shut up! God knows what he’s doing!”
Romans 9:10-21: 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”
14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?
In poetry the thrust of this passage is described by a staunch supporter of predestinarian theology:
From Douglas Wilson, Easy Chairs, Hard Words: Conversations on the Liberty of God (Oakcross Publications, 1991), p. 189: [omitted from second edition]
Eternity and time confound
The buckling minds of mortal men,
Who rail at God as though He were
A lesser god, or one of them.
They hate discriminating love,
And drag it into human courts
To try to crucify the cross.
“Will you try me? our Lord retorts.
Though pearls may fall beneath the swine
They do not therefore cease to be,
And trampling won’t deface the shine
Decreed before eternity.
So hold your peace, rebellious pot,
The Lord is God – and you are not.
Love is the fulfilling of the law: Romans 13:8-10. Instead of emphasizing the payment of a price to satisfy the claims of external law, a position more in keeping with substitutionary Pauline theology, Paul moves here to that view of law which sees its ultimate fulfillment in internalization:
Romans 13:8-10: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (NRSV).
In conclusion, we can say that the paradoxes in Paul’s epistles match the paradoxes in real life. With reference to law, that means that obedience is impossible – yet is God’s expectation for his children. And God does not expect the impossible.