Dan Popp
God's checklist
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
December 2, 2010

It wasn't long after God had emancipated the sons of Israel that many of them wanted to go back to Egypt.

But it's the same with us: When Jesus frees us from the Law we often retreat to our old chains, or forge new ones. We rationalize this as a desire for the "security" of "boundaries." Life seems totally perplexing without a "To-Do List" from God. Some people can't handle freedom. Some respond to the gospel by becoming not Christians, but legalists.

By our last meeting of the Romans Book Club we had made it through the very bad news of the opening chapters, and were examining the pivotal second half of Chapter 3. Let's review verses 21 and following from the New English Bible.

But now, quite independently of law, God's justice has been brought to light. The Law and the prophets both bear witness to it: it is God's way of righting wrong, effective through faith in Christ for all who have such faith — all, without distinction. For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine splendour, and all are justified by God's free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith.

Next we find the answer to a big question: Why did God do things this way?

This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [NASB]

Maybe you've heard the challenge, "How could a loving God send anyone to hell?" A better question (maybe the question scoffers were asking in Paul's day) is, "How could a just God not send everyone to hell?" Even the delay of justice is injustice unless there's a higher purpose for it.

We think of the cross as the ultimate symbol of mercy, and it is. But unlike so much human "mercy," God's mercy does not negate justice; it magnifies it. There can be no question anymore that God judges sin because we saw Him do it on Calvary. That's one facet of His rightness. But He also shows that He is not only just in Himself, but the justifier of others. By giving His rightness to those who believe, He multiplies the amount of rightness in the universe. He creates — rather, He re-creates — a new class of holy being: Man, 2.0.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. [Mof, KJV]

The most literal English translations put that statement in the past tense: Our disgusting swaggering was shut out. There are no self-made men, or women, in heaven.

By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. [ESV] ...By what sort of Law? A Law requiring obedience? No, a Law requiring faith. [TCNT]

Paul had been opposing the concepts of law and faith; now he ironically asserts that faith is a law. We'll return to this topic later, but here Paul says, in effect, "You want a law? I'll give you a law: Believe!" Jesus gave a similar answer to those who demanded a checklist from heaven. "Therefore they said to Him, 'What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.'" (John 6:28,29 NASB)

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. [RSV, NIV]

It isn't just the Jews who have a tendency to make God into their own tribal deity. But if YHWH is Lord of all the earth, then a rite peculiar to the Hebrews has nothing to do with our acquittal by God. I hope you're following Paul's argument here. He often uses circumcision as a symbol for the Law. If circumcision is not a ticket to heaven, then no amount of law-keeping or good-doing will get us in.

Peter says something very much like this in the early dispute over whether Gentiles had to (in effect) become Jews in order to become Christians: "Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Acts 15:10,11 RSV)

...Which immediately raises another objection:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. [NASB] ...we uphold the law. [ESV]

We hear this retort today, phrased a bit differently: "You're saying that someone can shed a few tears, pray a prayer, and then sin all he wants!" Paul responds that it's just the opposite. Only a righteous person could ever hope to obey the Law of God; and the only way to become a righteous person, as we've read, is through faith in Christ. We need a new start, a new birth. As Jesus often taught, the kingdom works from the inside out.

The only fix for us is a heart transplant.

Fortunately, that's what the good news is all about. "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...." (Jeremiah 31:31 ff RSV) "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them." (Ezekiel 11:19b,20 RSV) This is how believers uphold or establish or confirm the Law: not by checking off a list of rules, but by allowing Christ to live through us.

Chapter 4

This message of faith is an assault on our pride. Preposterous as the idea sounds when you say it out loud, it seems that we're determined to earn God's respect as equals rather than receive His charity. So Paul takes the poster boy for good works as a test case for his gospel.

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God. [NIV]

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. [KJV] ...and it was credited to him as uprightness. [Gspd] ...and this faith was considered as justifying him. [Jerus]

Now if a man does a piece of work, his wages are not 'counted' as a favour; they are paid as a debt. But if without any work to his credit he simply puts his faith in him who acquits the guilty, then his faith is indeed 'counted as righteousness.' [NEB]

Everything good that Abraham did, he did in response to a promise. God spoke; then Abe believed; and finally he acted on what he believed. If that was true for Abraham, then it must true for everybody. Faith is the catalyst. Faith is the issue. Faith is the only item on God's checklist.

One last thought for this discussion: Respected scholars have seen these lines about God reckoning or crediting rightness to Abraham's account, and concluded that God is doing some "creative bookkeeping." Abraham wasn't actually righteous, they teach; he was just counted as righteous. In my view they're forgetting that whatever God says, becomes so. He says, "Light, be," and light is. If God says that a murderer like Moses or Paul, or an adulterer like David, or a coward like Peter, or a sinner like me is righteous, then that person must become righteous by the same creative Word that made the stars out of nothing — whether I understand how that works, or not.

At our next meeting of the Romans Book Club we'll have a special guest speaker: the apostle James. He may take issue with some of the things said today — it should be an interesting discussion.

© Dan Popp


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