Bible: Slaves to sin or righteousness?
July 24 — Romans 5:1-11; July 31 — Romans 6:1-4, 12-14, 17-23
One issue Paul confronts in Romans is “boasting” — the inclination to claim a special place in the universe due to one’s religious status. He writes about the people who boast in their relationship with God and how they are “sure they are a guide to the blind” (2:19).
Tragically, these boasters actually tend to be guilty of the very offenses they claim to correct in others (2:21-24). Paul aims this critique at those who call themselves Jews (2:17), but his point is not to imply that non-Jewish Christians are any better. His point is to emphasize dangers of religious practices that focus on status, on superiority over others, on possessing great truths outsiders don’t have.
The problem with “boasting” is that it is about trusting in one’s own innate worthiness rather than in God. Paul goes on to emphasize that all people need to trust in God as God is seen in Jesus — a God of mercy who cares nothing about status, superiority or the possession of truth.
However, Paul does not reject the idea of boasting altogether. We see in Romans 5 that Paul affirms a certain boast — “we boast in our sufferings” (5:3). Now, I think the idea is not actually that Paul wants his readers to be boastful. Rather, Paul is emphasizing the need for a revolution in what we value.
Our weakness and vulnerability are precisely what make us suited for a close connection with God. God loves us in our weakness, even in our sinfulness (5:8). This is the exact opposite of how the boasters think of God. God is not impressed with our claims for status — whether these are based on our identity as citizens of the world’s greatest superpower or our identity as members of the one true religion.
Paul rejoices in two paradoxes here — God loves us as sinners, and God demonstrates this love by God’s Messiah being crucified, the kind of death of the lowest of those who the Roman Empire rejected. The way of God intentionally overturns all notions of high social status.
God’s love and mercy are radical, liberating and remarkably generous. You don’t need to strive for social status or religious purity to differentiate you from others. Simply trust this God of love and mercy.
However — and this is a huge “however” — the dynamics of such trust are not at all that we “continue in sin that grace may abound” (6:1). God’s mercy brings us healing so we may truly be free from the power of sin that leads to injustice, violence and oppression (the kinds of things Paul himself did in the name of God when he persecuted Jesus’ followers).
To understand how God’s healing works, we must realize that true freedom is not autonomy. It is not that now we are free simply to indulge in our every whim.
Paul insists we are all “slaves” to something (6:16). We simply cannot be free agents — we will serve sin, or we will serve obedience. Our call is to understand the difference. Paul calls us to switch from being slaves to iniquity (a word also translated “injustice”) to being slaves to righteousness (or “justice”), as he states in 6:19. To be “enslaved to God” is actually to be “freed from sin” (6:22).
This is our challenge: How do we embrace the freedom that God gives us from enslavement to the idols of nationalism, religious legalism, ethnic or racial superiority, social status and the like? We find this freedom by devoting ourselves to practicing healing love and justice that serves peace and wholeness.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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