Saint Paul makes some pretty dramatic points in this letter. Some of them are so dramatic, different Christian groups and denominations have based their theology on those few statements. The first three chapters have some of those verses: “ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature … has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made;” “God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct;” “there will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil;” “all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin;” and the very famous “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (1:20, 28; 2:9; 3:9, 23).
Without a guiding principle this letter is reduced to a hodge-podge of scripture references. Many of us tend to use scripture, especially Saint Paul’s writings, as a reference tool for getting one’s point across. Too often we reduce the message to a cool and dramatic statement while forsaking the richness of that chapter or letter. What follows is an explanation of a philosophical principle that is present in the text of Saint Paul’s letter. It is worth writing about this principle for the sake of clarity and understanding. This approach will help the content of his letter to be more digestible.
Philosophy in the Background
So, consider what is called a physical absolute. A physical absolute is a truth about something physical that is absolutely (or totally) true. One well-known physical absolute is the law of gravity. For example, it is true that things fall at a certain rate when on earth. It is true that I cannot defy gravity. I might even disagree with it or not like it. However, I cannot disobey the law of gravity. I may try to act against it, but there is a real consequence to my disobedience. I cannot defy or break that law. Rather, it seems that I am broken by or injured by my disobedience to the law.
This principle applies to the life of faith and the life of virtue. For example, baptism does cleanse one from the stain of original sin. This sacrament does gift the person with the very life of God, especially in the person of the Holy Spirit. Consider some examples from the first few chapters of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
God reveals his righteousness (1:17), his wrath (1:18), and his glory (1:20). We have free will. Our willful and knowledgeable disobedience to His divine revelation does have an effect on us. Those of us who exchange the worship of God for lust of another and idolatrous a life of “dishonorable passions” are accountable for that choice. While God ceaselessly pursues us, we may just as tirelessly run away. In this light, Saint Paul can say to the Romans that God gave them up to their lust, their idolatry, and their improper conduct. Yes, God desires all people to be saved. But, salvation is not a process of coercion; Salvation is a life of sanctification.
Interwoven through the first chapter he still proclaims that God the Creator is blessed forever, that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ (1:25, 16). These truths do not compromise one another. Our life is exactly that: a life. We do not run aimlessly nor do we “sign-up” to be a Christian without following through. The kids these days would refer to that person as a chump. Don’t be a spiritual chump. Rather, we are accountable to the faith we receive. We have the invitation, opportunity, and responsibility to live rightly. We should give obedience to the word of God, not our fickle feelings.
So, baptism is real, faith is real, God is real. All these things matter somehow. I can’t forget that I am a sinner. I can’t forget that my humanity is fairly frail – compared to Jesus and Mary anyway. Saint Paul addresses this too. To those who do good and with patience, God will grant eternal life (2:7). Our striving for holiness informs the life of virtue. Our practical actions and personal disciplines guide us along the straight and narrow
There is hope for those who embrace God’s kindness as a catalyst to our repentance (2:4). Do not presume the grace of God and do not boast of your relation to God (2:17). For, if you are instructed in this virtuous and sacramental life, you are all the more accountable. Read 2:17-24. Can you hear a tone of accountability?
We are accountable to the faith we receive. For example, “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (1:25). For the Jew, this was a physical sign of their personal covenant with God. We today must be accountable outwardly and inwardly (2:28-29). You cannot serve two masters. Live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, and be not afraid to deny yourself without compromise.
What does he mean when he writes that, “but if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us?” What a proud question he asked. I bet the listeners back then were perturbed a little bit when they heard that. We are his beloved children, how dare he treat us otherwise! I bet Romans also taught them how presumptuous they were of God’s love and grace. It is tough to wrestle an answer out of the question. By the way, Saint Paul finished the verse by writing that he was speaking in a human way (3:5).
No one is righteous; there is not one. No one is better than any other. All have turned aside from God (3:10, 9, 12). I don’t think he wants to make us afraid of God in this passage. It seems more like he is trying to root out some of that presumption and pride. In fact, he goes so far as to say that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23)! We on our own cannot win or attain or merit salvation, redemption, or any kind of good thing or holy state of life.
There is no use for our boasting. The “righteousness of God” was manifested apart from the Law of Moses, yet for the purpose of fulfilling it too. He closes the third chapter by bringing up the principle of faith. Read verses 27 through 31. You will see that it is the life of faith that “justifies” a person in the sight of God. This faith is not a muted thing that stays quiet. The faith he refers to is the life of grace active and working in the believer’s entire person. This is the kind of faith to which you and I are accountable.
God’s revelation of his wrath, glory, righteousness, and so on, is for our sake. It is meant to urge us on to live that virtuous life, and to belief that life is worth living. Oftentimes we presume the grace of God. It is good to read something like Romans to remind us of that accountability we have to the faith. Hopefully, we become more devout and steadfast as we pray with this Letter.