I preached a sermon on January 8th of this year entitled “Faith in Romans.” I moved quickly through the letter, pausing at certain places to comment on what Paul reveals about faith in this great letter. The impetus for this sermon was this remarkable comment I read when I was reviewing Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary for my Romans class at Asbury. This is the portion of the sermon that deals with this helpful insight.
. . . this brings us to a key question — what does it mean for us to not respond to God in faith? What if do not answer his covenant faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own? Well, humankind has a history of just that, of a lack of faith. Romans gives us a good deal of teaching about faithless humanity, and as a direct corollary, it gives us a whole bunch about the power of sin.
Understanding what Paul has to say about sin in Romans is crucial in understanding what it means to have a proper faith. In 3:9ff Paul says that everyone is under the power of sin. And in a section spanning from 5:12 to the end of chap. 7, he reflects at length on the nature of sin. And what is striking is that he talks about sin as a force that reigns, that enslaves us, that deceives and distorts.
What becomes clear is that sin is not a matter of breaking laws. It really is more of a disease, as Paul says that even when there is no explicit law spelling out what God wants, sin reigns over people. In his discussion of the law, he makes the point that with the law, sin is reckoned or accounted for, but apart from the law sin is still there all the same because it is at its core rebellion against God. Sin according to Paul is a breaking of the covenant, it is a violation of the basis for the relationship between a God of goodness and faithfulness and a people of wickedness and rebellion.
Here is a key point that we need to face. Much of the time, both within the church and outside, sin is simplified and cheapened to an idea pretty much equivalent with immorality. And the real damage that is done as a result is that Christianity then appears as if it is the solution to this immorality. Christianity becomes equated with being moral. “That’s so Christian of you,” people often say (or complain, “That’s not very Christian of you.”)
I’m pretty sure I’ve known people who think I’m a Christian because I’m interested in being moral–which is so repulsive to me, if I can put it so bluntly. Morality is so much simpler than what my life given over to God actually calls for. I’m pretty sure I could be, and hopefully would be, a moral person apart from my relationship with God through Christ. And I actually think Paul would agree with me on that. Paul doesn’t say that every Gentile or every Jew is incapable of doing good things. That’s not the problem.
But even though people are capable of good things, does not mean that they are in a situation in which they don’t need saving. They are still sinful.
A good way to understand this is given by Luke Timothy Johnson: “Immorality may be a result and sign of sin, but it is not itself sin. As Paul uses the concept, sin has to do with the human relationship with God. In this sense, the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” The opposite of sin is not morality; the opposite of sin is faith.
According to Paul we have two options regarding our relationship to God, sin and faith. And he makes this point explicit in 14:23: “Whatever is not ek pisteos (of, by faith) is sin.” At any given moment, with any action you take, you are either acting out the reality of your relationship with God or you are not. James D.G. Dunn summarizes the impact of this verse: “whatever is not an expression of dependence on and trust in God is marked by that fatal flaw of human presumption and/or self-indulgence.”
And what this means is that this is not about morals. Morals may be involved, but sin and faith are much more challenging and meaningful than they are often given credit for. In a system where sin is the same thing as immorality, someone is ok if they’re moral enough and not ok if they’re immoral enough. How often is that either preached or perceived as the Christian message? And it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Both sin and faith claim much more of you than just immorality and morality. And both are infinitely more important because sin is rebellion against God, a hostility and resistance to him and a desire to rule one’s own life. Here’s another key point: The harm of sin is not just that we do things we shouldn’t, but that we miss out on the real good which our lives would otherwise be serving if we were actually “faithing” God, i.e., believing, trusting, and being faithful to him.
The popular of view of sins won’t do, as if they’re all about God standing back with his arms folded, watching you and tallying up the number of wrong things you do. We should also face the absurdity of the question of “how far is too far,” i.e. “just how far can I go before I’m sinning?” That is not the point. Sin is tragic not in the first place because you have done something wrong; sin is tragic because it is a rupturing of the human relationship with God.
Part of the reason I think why too often people think of the issue in terms of immorality and morality, because there’s something you can do about those, and you retain some sort of power.
In light of sin, what can you do about your lack of faith?
Nothing! You instead have to be put in the humanly uncomfortable situation of surrender, daily surrender, and of not being your own but being bought at a price. On sin, you must be made right, because it’s not primarily about what you have done. Chief problem: not that things you do are wrong; rather, it’s that you are wrong.
Thank God, then, we have justification by faith in 3:21-4:25 . . .