I want to jump ahead in the Paul’s letter to the Romans a bit, to a remarkable section about sin in Chapter 7. Paul writes:
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate… So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! (Romans 7:15, 17-24)
Paul, in his innermost being, his truest self, desires to do what is good, to do the will of God. Yet he recognizes that sin dwells within him, and he frequently does things that he knows are wrong and that his innermost being does not want to do. “I do not do the good that I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Here is a powerful, personal statement, from one of the greatest saints and most influential persons in human history, about the nature of sin. Though we are cleansed of Original Sin when we are baptized, we still all have the inclination to sin, and we all at times go astray.
Is our situation hopeless? As Paul would say, of course not! Hope is one of the great themes of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:24-25)
Having discussed the universal proclivity to sin (and the necessary corollary that we are not to judge), Paul states the thesis of his letter to the Romans in chapter three:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God—to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
God made manifest the perfection of His love and mercy by sending His Son Jesus and willing that He should die to save us from our sins. The one necessary thing for us to be justified – to be saved, and spend eternity contemplating and adoring the Divine Love – is faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot earn our salvation by our works. There is nothing we can do to adequately atone for our sins, but God can and did do it through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This was a radical teaching for Paul’s audience. For Jews in Paul’s day, observance of the law was considered the sign of righteousness, of living in right relationship with God, and the stricter the observance the better. Jesus turned all this on its head, by rejecting many practices of the Pharisees in favor of a radical, uncompromising love of God and neighbor. In this Jesus went beyond the Pharisees, for the purity of thought, word and deed that Jesus demands is much more challenging than the ritual washing of cups and pots (see Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 5:21-30). But Jesus also offers us a personal relationship with Him, the Son of God who humbled Himself to share in our humanity, and in doing so gives us access to the peace and joy He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Faith in Jesus is the key to Heaven’s gate. And since we do not earn our way to Heaven by our works, we have no reason to boast of our works, which we are only able to accomplish by the grace of God.
Tension between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity, and whether the latter were obligated to observe the Mosaic law, forms the subtext of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul takes up the point made by Jesus, that love for God and neighbor are what really matter, not external displays of piety:
If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:26-29)
God will judge you by what you do, not by what you say you are. You can say you’re anything you want, and I suspect the vast majority of people would say that they’re good. God sees all our deeds and knows the innermost depths of our heart. Our proper response is not to compare ourselves, trying to justify ourselves by saying, “well at least I’m better than him” or “I’m glad I don’t act like she does!” Our proper response is to repent, have faith in the mercy He offers us through His Son, and strive every day to do His will.
The invitation that Jesus gives to eternal life with Him cuts across every human division. People from every race and every nation, male and female, rich and poor: all are invited to the Heavenly feast.
For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Does God belong to Jews alone? Does he not belong to Gentiles, too? Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28-30)
This was then and is now one of the most radical elements of the Gospel message, for the world has always been divided into “us” and “them” groups. The devil seeks to divide us (“diabolos” means “the divider” or “the scatterer”). (1) Jesus recognized that He would be the cause of divisions (see Matthew 10:34-36). But His desire is for us to be one as He and the Father are one (see John 17:20-21).
Lastly, while Paul teaches that we are justified by our faith in Jesus and not by our works, our actions matter:
Are we then annulling the law by this faith? Of course not! On the contrary, we are supporting the law. (Romans 3:31)
More to come on this topic as we look at subsequent chapters of Romans.
(1) Bishop Robert Barron, “An Icon of the Church,” in the Word on Fire Bible Volume II, p. 66.
Image: Romans 3:23-24 (downloaded from dailyverses.net).