Today I start to get to some of the key concepts that are often misinterpreted in Paul’s letters. First, the scripture, Romans 1:16 and 17
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” NIV
I have often wondered why Paul would feel compelled to have to write that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Why would the story of God and Jesus possibly cause shame to him in some way? One of the reasons that I can think of is because the gospel that he is referring to is so simple and easy that it almost seems too simple and easy. The gospel is, as I have been trying to articulate in The Lost Codex, is actually so simple that people may have laughed at it in the Roman world. Remember, this is the world of the great Greek philosophers who have high sounding philosophies of other higher worlds and a disassociation of the mind and bodily concerns. To hear someone preach that they should just try to be good to others here on earth may have been laughable.
Also, it could be that the gods of the Roman Pantheon were gods who would grant all kinds of wishes, that were powerful in war, powerful over the lives of people. In contrast the god of Jesus and Paul is shown to be a loving, caring god who by the rules of this world is not powerful or strong. Instead, he could be viewed as weak. So it would be easily conceivable that some in Rome would be ashamed to have such a weak god.
So Paul says he is not ashamed because it really is the way that you can have a great and fulfilling life. It really is the way that you can find a piece of the Kingdom of God here and now. It is really the way we were meant to be. He is not ashamed that his god is not going to go and beat up your god. Or that his god is not going to go to battle for him. Instead, his god is going to love you…
I attended a Bible study class where the attitude of the teacher always seemed to be that following Jesus and his gospel somehow inherently involved suffering. While I agree that there are many in this world who will cause you suffering for following the ways of Jesus, that is not the point that Jesus (or Paul) is making. What Jesus says is that you will live a life of the ages, you will have eternal life. This does not mean that you are going to go to heaven. It actually means the opposite. It means that you will have a life the way God intended you to have it here on earth. Once we are all following this new way of being there will only be happiness and the Kingdom of God fully realized here on earth.
In verse 16 Paul also starts to use the phrase “everyone who believes”. Do you believe? I think that the way people have typically rendered this is something like: “do you acknowledge that Jesus is God and he was really here, that is believing”. But that is not the way Paul uses the word believe. Paul is not wanting people to somehow believe in a propositional statement of whether you think Jesus is God, but he is saying to you to believe the Gospel, which is that the person Jesus really is the new King to rule over the world, and his laws are to love each other! When people ask the question, “do you believe in Jesus?” they are usually missing the point. It is not whether you “believe in Jesus”, it is whether you believe that God’s kingdom has begun on this earth and the way you can live and share in this life is to love each other and treat people well.
So Paul says “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. This does not mean, “I am not ashamed of Jesus because if you believe in him you will go to heaven some day.” What it means is “if you follow the ways of Jesus you will participate in God’s Kingdom here and now on this earth and it is available to everyone.
Then in verse 17 we get the first instance in this letter of the phrase “righteousness from God” This is one of those cases where it is beneficial to go back to the original Greek in which Paul wrote the original letter. In his letter, the term we translate in the NIV as righteousness is dikaiosune. Dikaiosune in the NET bible is defined as:
- in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
- the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
- integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
- in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due
Thus, when we are talking about the righteousness of God (dikaiosune gar Theo, Theo meaning God) there is room for interpretation. There are several interpretations of how this phrase can be used. One of interpretations that I have seen used in Protestant (particularly Baptist) circles is that somehow this righteousness from God (dikaiosune gar Theo) is something that God imparts onto the person who believes. That is, when Paul says “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed”, these people interpret that as God has somehow given them righteousness and it is revealed in them. Clearly this can lead to some problems that I think are significant and apparent in today’s baptist cultures (they are indeed holier than thou, Paul says it, right?). This problem of feeling that they are righteous is exacerbated further by the next part of verse 17:
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
The baptist view of the word faith here is usually interpreted as a person believing that Jesus is God and by having this faith (that Jesus is God) he will impart his righteousness onto you and you will be holy. I know a couple of “saved” people where this would certainly describe how they interpret this part of the letter. This interpretation (I confess that I believe Jesus is God and he makes me righteous and therefore I will go to heaven) is not in the bible. It is totally in keeping with the hyper individualistic notions of modern society.
But Paul may have meant this is a different way. To me, the dikaiosune gar Theo, the righteousness from God, is a characteristic of God. God has a righteousness. As is in the Gospels, he is love and good, he has this quality of dikaiosune.
And faith, in the context of this letter, is not really some intellectual statement or some feeling that you have accepted Jesus as your personal lord, but instead it is that you have faith that you should live your life in the way that Jesus gospel (his good news) tells us that we should live. Having faith is not an internal thought, it is an orientation, it is action, it is that you know that you will share in the Kingdom of God by living your life according to the teaching of Jesus. In the ancient near east there was not an implicit distinction between the thoughts of a person and their actions. It was generally assumed that if you thought a certain way (for example, had faith that Jesus taught God’s will), then you would generally do it.
The very last part of verse 17 is also important especially considering the degree to which it is twisted in much of today’s society. It says:
“The righteous will live by faith.”
If one were so inclined to feel that the gospel is all about how a person who accepts Jesus as his personal saviour will have eternal life by going to heaven then it is pretty clear that this phrase would confirm that stance.
But I contend that the real meaning of this is that those who share in the Godly quality of dikaiosune (the actual word used by Paul here is dikaios) will live (here and now in the way of God) by faith (believing that the ways of Jesus are the right ways and therefore they will actually live that way.
So a quick comparison of a couple of possible interpretations of verses 16 and 17 can lead people to radically different world views. On one hand, the baptist believer will possibly state those as:
I am not afraid because God has the power to send people to heaven if they attest that Jesus is the Lord (in their mind and heart). For God has gives you righteousness so you are now holy because you acknowledged that Jesus is God and believe! You don’t have to do anything, only have faith and believe.
This is horrible, it missed the point of what Paul is saying. Instead, he is saying this:
I am proud to support the man Jesus who was put to death by the Romans (this letter is to the Romans), for God rules the world and you can participate in his empire by having assuredness that the simple life of Jesus is the correct life to live. This is verified in the good news that Jesus was raised from the dead by God proving that he indeed is the long sought after King of the world. The new King shows that God’s correct way to live is to love each other. Experience this wonderful new life now.
So what’s the difference. In the typical evangelical baptist message, it is all about you personally believing something so that when you leave this life you will go to heaven. The new perspective is that you need to act with love in this life and that is how God wants you to live.
This difference plays out over and over in our society. People who believe the old view will go to church on Sunday and as long as they think that they “believe in Jesus” they will go to heaven some day. So they don’t do anything. They think that they are saved. But they missed the boat. Being saved means to live God’s rightful life here and now. To be actively involved in ushering in the Kingdom of God.
Next time – is God mad?