Romans 15,16: God’s Wrath, God’s Kindness, and the Path From Sin To Justice

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
– Romans 15:5-7

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned… be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
– Romans 16:17, 19

These verses, which bring Paul’s Gospel of God… regarding His Son (1:2) to a close intends to bring Paul’s leaders all the way back to where he begins in Chapter 2, where he writes “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, or at whatever poitn you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1)

Whos is the “you” Paul is adressing? Most scholars seem to agree on the letters timing- a period of time after Jews been purged from Rome when they are slowly beginning to return. It is likely Paul is speaking to churches made up of a majority Gentile audience, if not all, who are attempting to make sense of Jewish exiles coming into their Church.

And what is dividing them and causing them to pass judgement? Tim Gombis in his excellent work on the letter to the Romans outlines how the division sits between Gentiles who believed they needed to become Jewish in order to belong as a Christ follower (the ones Paul refers to as the weak) and those who believed the did not (which Paul calls the strong).The Weak/Strong label (Chapter 14) is not meant to evoke lesser and greater categories, but rather questions surrounding identity by way of the Law, which Paul uses in a threefold way- as a mark of identity, as an act of covenant formation (Torah) and as a fuction of fidelity or allegiance (obedience to). What lies behind this call to unity then is the exhortation to establish a Gospel for the world in line with the story of Israel through which Jesus arises. What’s important to recognize here is that Paul is not thinking in terms of a Law-Gospel or faith-works tension. This is one of the misunderstandings of the Jewish world to which Paul and Jesus belonged that arises when we read faith in terms of a “believing” faith rather than a “faithfuness” to, as well as when the terms justification is seperated from the term sanctification. The anxiety that we find in Paul’s audience and that Paul is addressing has everything to do with covenental faithfulness and identity, two things that carry both the saving (liberating) act and the call to faithfulness in tandem.

Leading up to Paul’s establishing of his main thesis (division which leads to judgment and how to heal such divisions within the Church) Paul takes a journey through the story of creation (1:18-23), outlining the problem (exchanging the glory of the immortal God, word that means both presence and image, for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (1:23), a direct rendering of the Garden narrative applied to the story at Mount Sinai and the ensuing exile), defining the outcome of the problem (God gave them over to sinful desire, which he defines later as being in bondage to or in slavery to capital letter Sin, the agency Paul describes as The Powers of Sin and Death, given that the wages of sin is Death), and then defines precisely how and why it is a problem in an exhastive list of sins/Sins particular expression in a practical sense (1:29-32), all terms that set the stage for division and which it says “deserve death”.

A couple notes here relating to Romans and the idea of justice. 1:15 clearly establishes where God’s wrath is directed “revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness… “. As Paul continues to flesh this out in his letter he sees this as the embodiment of the agency that holds humanity in slavery. God’s wrath is not then directed at humanity, but rather at the Powers which inform the final note of Paul’s letter in 16:20, where he brings us back to the garden narrative by echoing the covenant promise to “crush Satan under your feet”. The answer to the problem of Division is the defeat of the Powers, the liberating act which makes known the true image of humanity and creation. The picture Paul is painting is of God giving those who paricipate in the rule of capital letter Sin over to the “desire” that informs such an exchange of their true image, thus “storing up wrath” against ourselves, the wrath God has directed at the Powers of Sin and Death.

The point of justification then is this story of Christus Victor, the story of liberation which is given to the whole of creation. This is crucial for moving into an understanding of judgement and salvation as establishing two realities, one that brings (and is) Life and one that is and brings Death, and thus moving us towards allegiance to one reality or the other. This is what glory means, is the presence of God among and with us. The image of God revealed. Its in this way that we can gain a fuller grasp on the “faith(fulness) of Christ to the covenenat promise, God’s true measure of justice. To “deserve” death in this sense is not to deserve it because we are guilty or because we are human- this is the view of the sort of judicial system The Powers of Sin and Death bind us to. It is simply the proclamation of Christs victory over Sin and Death. It is not a depraved human in view here but Sin/sin itself, and christ liberates by moving us into a different kind of justice. And this justice in Roman’s is meant to have the context of the audience, the division and the problem in view. it is communal and specific, and from there gets wrapped up into the cosmic story Paul is unfolding.

Keep in mind too, what is said to deserve death- division. Paul is going to do a lot of work to show how Torah can be used for death work (division) or life work (unity, peace, love), and in context this comes through using Torah to include or exclude others from the justifying work of Christ

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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