Salvation: by Faith Active in Love
I am going to look at Romans as the best road map for the modern age, emphasizing how much better “faith active in love” is than the religious law which has failed us so miserably. It enables us to adjust appropriately to the diverse situations before us. However, this kind of life needs the support of a strong tradition and community, which modern society devalues and even destroys.
We see how absolute law fails us in Mormonism and Islam. Both are based on the works of one man who speaks in one historical period, claiming God speaks in the first person providing absolutes for all time. Part of each of us wishes we could find an absolute law which would work in every situation. Our better part knows we never shall. Some branches of Christianity claim to have captured the absolute fundamentals and authority. Watching the daily news reveals how absurd and irrelevant they are.
In contrast, Christian tradition is written by many people over many centuries and very seldom in the first person. In fact, we even preserve adamantly four human perspectives on Jesus’ life and death; four versions which any honest reading perceives differ.
Beyond a tradition that traces how people discerned God’s love over past millennium, we also need a contemporary community that shares her perspectives. That community offer checks and balances, support and critique for individual understandings of how faith active in love might operate in different situations. Timely for us, that community down through the years has turned to Paul’s Romans as the text providing the foundations for reformation.
Often those reformation movements concentrate on Romans describing how we are dead to sin. I shall emphasize the other part: what Paul says about being alive in Christ. Often they describe how we are justified or saved; I shall look at what that salvation offers us for living now and in the future. Often they describe from what we are saved; I am going to try describing what that salvation is. Some of our “commentators” wondered about Paul playing up the next life and playing down the current one. He might do this simply, because he expects Christ to rule in the near future and sees that time making this present life pale. However, after waiting 2,000 years we can talk more about the life which the Spirit offers us here and now.
Quite frankly, I think that is exactly what Paul was emphasizing. Listen to the thesis of his letter in Romans 1: 16 and 17 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ That’s pretty positive, claiming that his primary purpose is to show the power of God for salvation which is living by faith (active in love).
Anne says I should stop at places such as this to ask, “Well, what you think about that?” So, I shall. Do you really think faith active in love can offer us better road map than law in our time? Do we have a strong enough community with an intelligent grasp of tradition to make this work?
Some scholars think Paul wrote Romans explicitly to show God intends eventually to save Jews as well as Christians. They report Paul wrote right after the emperor Claudius expelled Jews in 49 AD for fighting over “Chrestus”. (Acts 18:2)These were probably Jewish Christians, who would have been allowed to return after Claudius died. In the meantime, Gentile Christians would have controlled the Church. These scholars think they might have resisted giving up their new found power, leading Paul to make a case for sharing once more with the Jewish element, who did not always agree with them. In the end, they would both be saved, so get ready now.
At any rate, he begins by showing both groups, Jews and Gentiles, knowingly sinned. Everyone sins and falls short. (Romans 3: 20-26). Both were doomed, because sin is self- destructive. The Old Testament law revealed this clearly to the Jews, but natural reason showed it to the Gentiles as well.
However, knowing sin is not enough. The law might teach us what we are doing wrong, but it is not the means for changing things. We see that in his great definition of sin: we do not do what we want to do (Romans 7:15). The cure demands a change of the will, a change of spirit.
This change is accomplished when God sends Jesus as expiation for sin.(Romans 3: 20- 26) Salvation is primarily about God in his love stepping in to prevent the self destruction of his people and creation. Remember Paul never gives an involved theory of how the Cross works. Instead, he simply describes it as God’s act of love in which he gives himself for us.
In Romans 5: 5-11 he pounds home three times that God proves his love for us when we were in no way seeking it: while we were weak, while we were sinners, and even while we were enemies He “poured his love into our hearts” through the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5: 5) Paul says next to nothing about being saved from some sort of hell and really not that much about forgiveness of sins. The good news or Gospel is that God loves us and provides a way for us to enter his family.
That way is baptism, and that family is the Christian community. He describes baptism as a means of grace in which we are crucified with Christ. For some reason, we generally focus on how we die with Christ. Notice he is emphasizing, as much as he can, that being raised with Christ is the more important part. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6: 1-11) Being dead to sin is simply the prelude, the condition for being alive in Christ. .
When Paul speaks of baptism he is showing love operates in a community. It is not about confessing Jesus is Lord in an isolated room. (Romans 10: 9, 13) Well, it might be in an emergency situation, but that is not the full deal. Faith active in love needs a community to provide checks and balances a community that remembers its tradition. The community need not follow the tradition rigidly, but it knows faith active in love in the present shall be similar in most ways to faith active in love in the past.
That brings us to the great chapter on the Holy Spirit, Romans 8, which will be subject of the next lesson. Let’s just examine the first paragraph which describes this new life in the Spirit. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. …If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you… 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Faith active in love is possible because Jesus enables us to share the Spirit he and the Father enjoy together. We are welcomed into the family in such a way that its Spirit inspires us to do what is appropriate in every situation. God believes that the best way to bring up children is to love them rather than teach them laws, to lift them up rather than beat them down.
Well, as Anne, suggests, what do you think of that? Does living by faith active in love make any sense? What are its limitations?
Be sure to read Romans 8’s description of this new life in the Spirit before Friday.