Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Romans 6: Cheating God, Gaming Grace

In his beautiful short story "The Immortal," Jorge Luis Borges tells of a deathless race who discover that good and evil exist in perfect balance. They further realize that in a world characterized by such balance, good works are not entirely good because they must be matched by evil works. Conversely, acts of evil--even horrors like assault, rape, or murder--are not entirely bad because they will someday effect equivalent goods. These immortals, then, resolve to remove themselves from the equation, opting for a life of complete inaction. (If you haven't read Borges, start with just about any story in the Collected Fictions and thank me later.)

Like Borges's immortals, the Bible's Paul lives in a cosmos that works in morally predictable ways. For Paul, sin and righteousness are part of a moral world system over which God presides. However, though Paul is confident he knows how that world functions, he does not want early Christians to game the system.

Let me explain ...

In Romans, Paul develops a unique view of Biblical history that recasts the Jews as a people chosen to demonstrate the moral function of the universe to the rest of humanity.

According to Paul, sin exists from the beginning of the world, but humans cannot recognize it. Only with the introduction of Torah law--with Moses at Sinai--do humans become cognizant of sin. The law's primary purpose is not to dictate human action but to show that people--or in this case, the Jews--cannot completely avoid sin, despite both legal guidance and good intention. Hence Paul's famous phrase in Romans 3, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (v. 23).

Paul goes on to explain that the sin we cannot help but commit eventually calls down the free gift of grace. Through this grace, God offers his son Jesus as an atoning sacrifice that allows the Lord to show "forbearance" (3:25) and pass over human sin.

The equation is simple: Sin exists. The law indicates sin. Sin calls down grace. Grace compels sacrifice. Sacrifice atones for sin.

But like a nervous pit boss in Vegas, Paul does not want readers who understand the system to then exploit it: "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more [...] What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!" (Romans 5:20-6:2)

Apparently, some of Paul's early followers (or detractors?) think they've found a loophole in his system. If sin calls down grace, and grace leads to atonement, shouldn't we just sin a lot? These people are like criminals let loose in Borges's fiction, free to commit violent atrocities knowing that equivalent goods will someday spring forth.

Obviously, such a loophole would prove disastrous for Paul's argument, so he closes it quickly. He continues, "How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" (Romans 6:2) And later, "We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin" (6:6-7).

As I understand him, Paul argues that the game is already over. Jesus's sacrificial death closes the cycle and allows for sin's redemption. The next step for early believers is not to keep sinning to draw more grace but to accept the atoning power of Christ's death and resurrection and be redeemed.

Nonetheless, in raising this objection, Paul seems to indicate that members of his audience are tempted to cheat at grace. And in introducing the notion that human evils may compel divine good, he lets out a tiger that is not easily put back in its cage.

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