“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:1-4
We have taken quite a break from our study of Romans and for that reason I want to begin by reviewing what Paul has written up to Chapter 8. This may take a couple of weeks but it is important that we recall were we have been so our re-entry into Chapter 8 will make sense and potentially bear fruit in our lives. What kind of fruit? The fruit of holiness, but more about that later.
Remember Paul is telling a story and we need to resist the temptation to reduce the narrative to precepts as though the narrative is merely a medium, a means of expressing abstractions. That’s not true. The narrative is all-important to Paul and he begins the story by describing humanity’s state of being in the world as a state of alienation from God. Human beings, St. Paul tells us, once knew the truth. The word we translate as truth is aletheia, which means truth but not merely written or spoken truth. Aletheia, from Homer on down to Paul meant manifested or revealed. And finally with St. Paul it meant also revealed by God and because of that, aletheia is “true to fact,” corresponding to reality, always reliable, solid as a rock. And there is even more.
I always think of my Grandmother Spencer because her name is Aletheia, but of course it was years later that I realized what her name meant in Greek. I used to stay with her after school when I was in the first grade. My dad had recently bought her a house close to us. I’ll never forget the day I came home and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I walked out to the garden in her back yard. I walked all around the house. I called out for her, but she did not answer. Then I walked back into the house and down the hallway, calling her. And then I opened the door to her room. And there she was, kneeling down at her bed deep in prayer. I had never seen that before in my life. Her bible was on her bed and her walking cane by her side. (I understood years later that was my very first experience of what Rudolph Otto called “numinous awe.” By that Otto meant “the experience the holy.”) I froze in my steps. I shut my mouth. I felt, and I recall this like it was this morning, – I felt like I should cover my face and look away because there was something mysterious, wonderful, but also potentially threatening there. I back out of the room and quietly shut the door. That is the natural affect of the kind of aletheia that Paul says humankind has turned its back upon. Reality is beautiful, splendid, astonishing and deserving of my reverence.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…”
St. Paul uses two Greek words that have been translated “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” to describe the condition of the Gentile world that has turned its back upon aletheia. The first word, ungodliness, pronounces contempt toward God and the second word, unrighteousness, indicates profane behavior, and taken together the upshot is the whole pagan world has deliberately suppressed the truth of God. That is what the last phrase, “holding the truth in unrighteousness” means; and this suppression of God’s truth has led not only to depraved behavior, but also to what Paul later says is an intellectual attachment to illusion. The Apostle’s opening story is meant to assert that the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, has consciously and intentionally suppressed God’s truth; moreover, both individually and collectively the whole human race is living in darkness. Now there are two questions to answer: First, “What is the truth of God that is being suppressed? And secondly, “What is God’s wrath?”
First of all, what is the truth of God that Paul says the whole world has deserted for a lie? It is what Paul calls God’s “eternal power and Godhead,” the very divinity of God. The truth of God is that God is God and the whole world belongs to God. Some may speak of the secular world, but from Paul’s point-of-view the notion of secularism is delusional; the whole world belongs to its Creator. The basic sin of the world, whether Jewish or Gentile, is atheism, refusing to acknowledge that God is God and that the whole world belong to him.
St. Paul states three times that humanity has “exchanged the truth” of God, or the glory of God, or the natural, God-given use of creation for a lie.
“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.”
The upshot is that all humanity has embraced atheism because there is only one God and his Name is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and through atheism humanity has become dishonorable, disgraceful and darkened by exchanging the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made likeness of mutable, fluctuating creatures.
Secondly, this has established humanity in a state of alienation from God and that has brought about what Paul calls the wrath of God. What is the wrath of God? Humanity having turned to idolatry, has abandoned the true God and God has permitted him to do so. This is the wrath of God: permitting man to break free of God and to live on his own. The rupture of our relationship with God brings on the wrath of God but his wrath is manifested not by raining down blows, but by stepping aside. The sins that St. Paul lists do not call down the wrath of God, they are the wrath of God already present in our life. Paul shows in the first three chapters of Romans that this hopeless state of being is the condition of all mankind – not only the Gentile, but the Jew as well.
The point of Romans chapters 1,2, & 3 is that the most elementary knowledge of God’s existence and his omnipotence was known to be true but then it was rejected and humanity is in a state of rebellion against God and thus not in God. This brought up the importance of understanding what it means to be “in” someone and all the more so because we saw that Paul used this imagery over and over again when he wrote about what it means to be a Christian. Being “in” someone can be a blessing or it can mean death. So Paul wrote in Romans chapter 5:
“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”
What Paul meant is that by virtue of being in Adam we participate in his atheism, his disobedience, and his death. This is where the miserable state of being separated, of not being in God came from in the first place. We are all born in Adam. But God did not permit creation to spin more and more out of order and he determined to win her back. So in chapter 4 Paul brings into the open the story he has had in mind all along – God’s covenant, God’s promise to Abraham.
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”
The faith of Abraham is not merely an example for us to follow, but rather it is the beginning of God’s redemption of humanity. But what did Abraham believe? And, what is the promise God made to him? What Abraham believed was God’s promise that he would give him a son even though he was well beyond the ability of fathering a child. The story of Abraham in chapter 4 is the story of God’s reversal of humanity’s degeneration.
Abraham’s faith in God was reckoned to him as righteousness; on account of his trust in God Abraham was counted as a faithful and loyal son of the covenant. That was the beginning of our redemption. Abraham reversed this collapse of humanity’s relation to God: Humanity in Adam dismissed God, the Creator; Abraham not only listened to God, but he believed his promise and he trusted in his power to perform his promise. Where humanity in Adam knew about the power of God but lost interest in him, Abraham loved him and worshiped him. Human beings dishonored God with their own bodies; Abraham believed God and his old body, good as dead, recovered the power to father a child. Deep within God’s promise to Abraham is his original commitment and commandment to the first man and woman to be fruitful and multiply – to father-forth the order of creation that God is renewing and blessing in Abraham’s trust. God’s promise to Abraham was confirmed and completed in Jesus through the events of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We who believe in Jesus are members of God’s covenant family, children of Abraham, siblings of Jesus Christ, and saved by his faith. Regardless of how dark his world became, Jesus believe that God would keep his promise. This is the very distinctiveness of Christian faith and exactly what we observe in both Abraham and Jesus Christ. Their faith, their trust in God is unconditional – a joyful devotion to God who is God. Jesus, in each time of trial and in the moment of his greatest personal darkness, firmly clung to God’s faithfulness. This is the faith that saves us, not our own faith, but the faith of Jesus and the unchanging faithfulness and power of God.
Finally one last point: Abraham’s faith in God gave birth to the covenant, but the sign of the covenant was holiness which means letting go of the illusion of atheism. What does it take for us to be holy? It requires first that we stay in touch with aletheia, with truth. It is not the case that we are at once thinking to ourselves how we are in Christ and how our destiny is all tied up with his destiny and how the whole wide world and everything in it is actually a result of the love between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; and while I am aware of that, and at the same time, I am fighting temptation to some deliciously sweet sin or that suddenly out of the blue I find that I have skidded off the Christian path, through no conscious fault of my own, into some ditch of habitual sin. No it doesn’t happen that way. What happens is that God’s love and all this mysterious and wonderful reality we know in Christ is willfully set aside. God is bracketed. Why? Because the two cannot co-exist. Not for a moment. If we are in Jesus, consciously and intentionally in Jesus, nothing can compete with that reality intellectually, emotionally, creatively, or in any other way that I can’t think imagine.
So here is the truth: we welcome sin into our life, we do not put up a fight, we yield to temptation because we want to – and we put God away. We behave as though Christ is not the Aletheia of all life, as though he is not rock solid, as though the truth that God is God and that the whole world belong to him is not the truth. This is atheism and this is how atheism functions as opiate. Atheism offers a refuge from the fear of a God who is unmanageable and all-powerful. Atheism is a safe haven of willfulness and selfishness. We float in and out of atheism on a daily basis without taking note of it. Atheism is a religion of consolation that provides therapy for private fears, for desire masquerading as needs, for secret disappointments and selfish ambition.