When I was a teenager I learned to present the gospel using the “Four spiritual laws” tracts. This begins with a quote from Romans 3:23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From there we would then proceed to try and convince our audience that even if they had only committed the most trivial and harmless of sins, because God is holy, they were nevertheless headed for eternal hell unless they gave their heart to Jesus right on the spot.
The result was that rather than addressing a problem or need in people’s lives, the focus was shifted to a problem God supposedly had. Or to put it differently: We had to convince them that they had a problem they didn’t know they had, so we could solve it for them. They were all perfectly content in their lives, but our message was that God was some kind of hyper-legalist who was super mad, and would torture them in hell for all eternity for the most minor infraction. That was our “good news.”
Even as a teen, it seemed odd to me that God seemed to be the one with the problem, rather than us. Looking back, I think part of the difficulty was that I was simply unaware of the actual extent of sin. So rather than address real problems, we focused on minor transgressions, as if that was what God was concerned about. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned a lot more about myself, other people, and what really goes on in our world.
Watch the news, and you will see story after story of terrible injustice, violence, and suffering throughout the world. But you don’t need to travel across the world to find this: It’s right across the street behind that nice white door (or in your own home!). If we know to look deep enough, you’ll find that all of our lives are filled with plenty of struggles and pain. This really hit home for me when I was 20, and I met with a girl who had been part of my youth group when we were teens. She told me that her father (who had been an elder in our church) had sexually abused her as a teen growing up. That was happening to her while she heard our youth group leader preach sermons warning her of the mortal dangers of dancing and going to the movies.
He had no idea. Neither did I. What I do know now though is that we don’t need to make up some fake problem for God to solve. There are plenty of very real problems in our world, and in our lives, right now. Not just the very real harm we do, but also the harm done to us. Suffering, abuse, and tragedy can all make us feel worthless and cut off from God’s care and love. The gospel is just as much about breaking through to hurting, estranged, and broken people as it about calling us to turn from our self-focused and hurtful ways. In fact, the two are often hopelessly intertwined.
Now before we go and blame all this on the Apostle Paul, let me tell you something else I’ve learned: The above reading of Romans is in fact a complete mischaracterization of Paul’s argument there.
Paul’s focus in Romans is not on convincing unbelievers that they need to get religion, it is actually addressed to a religious audience and focused on confronting them in their religious violence in which they were hoping for God to come in wrath and destroy their enemies. In other words, (despite what Luther might think) it is not a message for guilty souls telling them how to escape wrath, it is a rebuke of self-righteous folks who wanted to see wrath come down on their enemies.
This had been Paul’s own background as well. When Paul refers to himself as the “greatest of all sinners” he does not mean that he was a drunkard. In fact… and this may come as a surprise to many of you… Paul says he had no problem keeping all of the commandments. Luther may have thought that no one can keep the law, but Paul certainly didn’t. On the contrary, Paul says in Philippians 3:6 that he has kept the Torah “faultlessly.” He tells us that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews, ” and had no problem keeping the law perfectly. Yet Paul goes on to say that he considers all of these religious achievement to be “garbage” compared to Christ. Why?
Because of what it did to him.
Despite this spotless record Paul came to see himself as “the worst of all sinners.” Not because he had broken any commandments or laws. Again, he tells us he was “faultless” in this regard. No, the reason Paul says is “because I was a blasphemer and a violent man” (1 Tim 1:13). Paul’s grave sin, he tells us, was that he had participated in the violent persecution of the followers of Jesus, and he did this because he thought he was being faithful to God. In other words, his religion had lead him to commit horrible sins, causing severe harm and suffering for others, and he did this thinking he was doing it for God.
To be clear, this was not about a conversion from Judaism to Christianity for Paul. Paul continued to see himself as a faithful Jew. What Paul had converted away from was his former way of religious violence. When Paul says he is a “blasphemer” this does not mean he was cussing. It means that because of his hurtful actions he gave God a bad name. Today we often see the same thing: People who preach hate and hurt in God’s name drive people from God. They give God a bad name, they make God seem like monster. When people reject this abusive image of God, that is not the blasphemy. The blasphemy, Paul tells us–his blasphemy that he later came to be ashamed of–was misrepresenting who God was.
So when Paul says in Romans “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” he is not addressing “sinners, ” he is addressing a religious audience who want God to judge, who want wrath to be poured out on the hated Gentiles. Paul is telling them–and he knows this firsthand, because he had participated in this religiously justified violence himself!–that this way leads to death. Not death from an angry God so much as a very real and immediate death by the sword. He is not addressing irreligious sinners and telling them to repent of law-breaking, he is addressing religious people who believe in divine retribution (which he and they carried out themselves!) and telling them to repent of that.
If our only problem is that we told a white lie once, or occasionally cussed when we stubbed our toe, then that is something that God could perhaps just overlook. After all, as many people would argue, can’t God forgive like he tells us to? But what Paul is dealing with here is not at all trivial. He’s dealing with hatred, murder, and violence–people killing each other in the name of God. Now we are dealing with some really serious heavy stuff that does real damage, devastating families, destroying lives. God cares about this because God cares about us. God cannot just overlook that, because it is really hurting people God loves. Paul is not talking about trivial infractions, he is talking about sin which devastates and destroys. Paul is talking about violence.
Not only is this a very serious thing Paul is addressing, it is also quite subtle: It’s pretty easy to recognize that alcoholism is bad (and indeed it is). It’s also easy to recognize that criminal behavior is bad (and it certainly is too). But it’s a lot harder to recognize the kind of thing Paul is addressing, because this is violence and hurt done in the name of God and justice. What Paul shows us is that you can be seemingly religiously “faultless” and still cause severe harm, still spread hate, still advocate for violence, but do this all under the cover of “holiness”–and you can do all this while justifying your actions with the Bible! In fact, that is exactly what Paul had done before Jesus stopped him in his tracks. That was Paul’s great sin, and this is what Paul is addressing in Romans.
With that background in mind, let’s consider the larger picture Paul paints for us in Romans which can be summed up in the following three points:
1) Sin is very real and causes real harm. We don’t need to make up a problem.
2) The most damaging of sins are often those that are hidden, those we cover under the mantle of God and justice, masquerading them as virtues. The major focus of the New Testament (both in the epistles and the gospels) is on precisely this kind of hidden religious sin.
3) Our problem is not only sinning, but about God overcoming sin itself. That is, we can be cut off from God both because of our hurtful self-focus, but also because of the hurt done to us. The gospel is not only good news for sinners, it is also good news for victims, good news for those who have been harmed by sin (and if we are honest, we are all a mix of both).
Paul’s larger message in Romans is that the gospel is about breaking out of that way of hurting others in God’s name, breaking out of the logic of retributive justice, and entering into God’s way of restorative justice demonstrated in Jesus Christ. That’s an understanding of the gospel that is not only a much more accurate reading of what Paul is actually saying in Romans, but is also an extremely relevant message for us today.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. He is a featured blogger for the , Sojourners, , and writes regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.