The early chapters of Romans are complex. Its not unusual for the eyes of some in the congregation to glaze over. Our reading is expressed in ideas which are not part of our daily speech. Is that an invitation to skip? No its an invitation to stop and think,
What does this say to us on our journey?
Its an indispensable part of understanding justification by faith. Thats one of the foundations of the Reformation heritage, cherished by the UCA. This passage is part of the reason for the restatement of Christianity in the 16th century. Its meaning can be summed up in the following points:-
Paul speaks of sin in several senses-individual, communal and cosmic. Its not something dealt with by self-improvement or education. Deliverance demands a change of attitude, created by entering a new relationship to God and with our neighbours. Finding a mentor or spiritual friend can be hugely helpful, as can membership with a Christian congregation.
Jesus sacrifice provides deliverance. Its far more than a noble example. That death changes the relationship between us and God. No matter what the number of trespasses, no matter what our inadequacies, Jesusdeath changes our relationship with God. Justification is the word which sums up the implications of this change. Roman Catholics and Protestants differed deeply over how this should be processed. For the former it was a combination of Gods grace and our response. Combined with sacramental grace, this enabled the Christian to walk the path of change. For Luther and his contemporaries, this understanding created terrifying uncertainty about salvation. How could you sure that you had done enough to please God? Their thinking about God was dominated by the imagery of judge. Luthers reading of Romans in the light of his won struggle led him to a fresh understanding of justification. It was a declaration by God, not what we did that mattered, that we became righteous.
No longer were we imprisoned by our limitations. A parallel is being declared not guilty by a court, and set free for a life of service in gratitude. Paul speaks of "reigning", not being enslaved any more. We are freed and given resources to triumph over adversity, failure, tragedy. Thats because Christs death has made satisfaction for us and transformed our motive for living. We are still living in a world dominated by sin, but know a liberating power, because we have been given the gift of righteousness. We have a new freedom to choose good, because our goals have now been changed by God acting in Jesus Christ.
Righteousness leads to sanctification, which demonstrates that we are on the road to Gods purpose of completeness. We are given an assurance, based on Gods Word, that we are indeed children of God, remade in Christs image. Charles Wesleys hymns capture this gratitude and new motivation splendidly.
Where shall I find him?
Where but on yonder tree.
Or if too rich thou art,
Sink into poverty
And find Him in thine heart
This pilgrimage leads us to eternal life, because we are gifted with steadfastness of faith. This in turn means that we share in Christs sufferings. Charles Wesleys later hymns and poems reflect this hope. He suffered greatly in his later years, but discovered that he also grew in understanding of being sustained by the risen Lord and his Spirit.
Thankful I take the cup from Thee,
Prepared and mingled by thy skill.
Though bitter to the taste it be,
Powerful the wounded soul to heal.
That may sound gloomy. Most of us have to face painful realities, which help us to see how bearing the cross, opens up new resources.
So are you discovering how to live out this gift of righteousness. In one sense Christs work was finished on the cross. In another, it is being completed in the church which looks forward to the completion of Gods purposes.