ROMANS 5:1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul was the architect of an early and influential doctrinal system in the Christian movement, before there was a centralized authority, official canon of scriptures, or singular tradition to identify it. We need to keep this in mind because even though Pauline theology would significantly shape and determine the emerging orthodoxy of the later empire of Christianity (known as Christendom), as he writes he is just one of several creative voices in the early Christian conversation.

Paul’s acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth was not by way of a personal relationship with the Galilean, nor does he seem to have known much at all about the teachings of Jesus that were circulating by oral transmission in and around Jerusalem. By his own confession, Paul had encountered a light and/or a voice (the accounts differ) that identified itself as the living spirit of the crucified Jesus.

Following this encounter, and after a lengthy retreat of some years where he worked out its theological foundations and implications, Paul began an aggressive missionary campaign throughout Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and established numerous congregations under his unique Christian brand.

Paul’s brand of Christianity was marked by some strong dualisms: law-versus-gospel, merit-versus-grace, works-versus-faith, and (containing all the rest in horizons as big as God himself) wrath-versus-love.

Here’s a summary of how he put it all together:

  1. Jesus was condemned under the Jewish law for living according to the will of God, which effectively rendered the Law useless as a definition of righteousness.
  2. In raising Jesus to life again, God provided a way of salvation outside of the Law, which also means outside of religion (Judaism) and “religious” requirements.
  3. One has only to identify with Jesus in faith and be filled with his spirit, the spirit of Christ.
  4. By that identification and total surrender, a person is saved from judgment (wrath) and reconciled to God.

One far-reaching implication of Paul’s brand of Christian mythology was its bold disregard for ethnic, class, gender or even religious divisions. All people – Gentiles and not just Jews, slaves and not just free citizens, women and not only men – are the beneficiaries of God’s gracious offer in Christ Jesus. This also explains his untiring passion for the missionary spread of Christianity throughout the world.

Whatever may be said about the limitations of Paul’s theology, and there are some significant ones, his vision of a world united by the revelation of God in Jesus was a game-changing revolution in early Christianity.

                                                                                                   

We might try to reconstruct the process that could have inspired and guided the apostle Paul in his invention of Christianity – or at least his brand of Christianity. Much about it is very different from other developing streams in the first-century movement.

His explanation of how Jesus was lifted to divine status when he was “declared son of God by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4) is different from the storyline of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, where this happens at his baptism by John in the Jordan, or, according to the similar storylines of Matthew and Luke, at his conception inside a virgin mother. The Fourth Gospel moves this cursor to the very beginning of creation, with the divine Word of Genesis becoming flesh in Jesus.

It’s important to understand that these are all metaphors, worked out in some cases into elaborate myths. Probably none of them have roots in the teachings of Jesus. The impulse to begin expanding the meaning of Jesus into stories about him began very early on, and we should not be surprised.

But there may be something that traces back into the gospel of Jesus himself. Paul’s conversion experience apparently turned on the pivot of a breakthrough realization, which for him translated into a very personal calling: the good news of human liberation and new life is for everyone.

As a “deep insider” of a rather puritanical sect of Judaism (Pharisee), Paul experienced the transforming power of Jesus’ gospel. It reached into the tight knot of his religious convictions with a revolutionary message of universal grace, radical love, and unconditional forgiveness. The knot loosened and Paul was forever changed.

In conscious defiance of religion’s own tendency toward exclusion and “salvation management,” Jesus’ gospel – now conferred to Paul as his appointed “apostle to the Gentiles” – put the invitation out to any and all who would listen. This universal offer and world-wide evangelistic vision, perhaps more than anything else about the early Christian trajectory from Jesus to Paul, contributed to the movement’s dramatic burst on the first-century cultural scene.

 

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