My church had the second session of its Bible study on Romans last night. We’re going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, with Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.
One person in the group said that we’re all equal before the cross, for we are all sinners in need of a Savior. That’s something that I needed to hear, for how often do I rage against others in my mind, when I myself am far from perfect?
Overall, I thought that last night’s Bible study had an attitude of humility that was not as present the week before. The week before, people were talking about the problems and sins in the world. A few people said that God has been sending natural disasters to get people’s attention and to bring them closer to himself. I have issues with that particular portrayal of God, yet I can understand the sentiment of some in the group that the world is spiraling out of control. At the same time, last week’s Bible study seemed to present sin as something that’s out there, in the world, whereas last night’s Bible study focused on how sin is also in here, inside of each of us.
Some of the people who talked a lot last week were quiet last night. Last week, I was rather quiet, but I contributed a couple of times in last night’s session. Someone was saying that the Jews (or perhaps a more accurate term would be mainstream Judaism in Paul’s time) did not recognize that they were sinners, and so Paul was trying to show them in Romans that they, too, were sinners in need of a Savior and thus had no right to look down on Gentiles. I responded that Judaism itself has a concept of repentance from sin and the need for God’s forgiveness, and so I disagreed with the idea that Judaism did not recognize that Jews were sinners who needed God’s mercy. I was then asked what I believed Paul was responding to, which is a good question. My response was that, although Judaism held that Jews needed to be forgiven by God, it still held that Jews through obedience to the Torah could be reasonably righteous, but Paul thought that the human condition was far more desperate than that because the flesh was corrupt and prone to sin, and Paul believed this problem could only be cured through Jesus Christ.
As I reflected more after the study, I thought of other answers that I could have given. For example, I could have said that there was a Jewish view that all Israelites had a place in the World to Come, and that, while the sinful Israelites needed to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, their status as Israelites still ensured them access to the good afterlife, only they’d have to spend time in Gehenna before they’d reach it. Paul may have been saying, however, that ethnicity was not sufficient to save anyone, for God judged both Jews and Gentiles according to their works, and all were equal in the sense that they fell short and thus deserved God’s judgment. Similarly, John the Baptist in Matthew 3:9 told the Pharisees and Sadducees that being descended from Abraham was not enough to save one from God’s wrath.
I could have said that Paul concluded from Christ’s revelation to him that Christ was necessary for salvation, and Paul reasoned back from the solution (Christ) to the problem: that the Torah was not enough to bring a person forgiveness, for everyone needed Christ.
I could have said that Paul was stereotyping Judaism as a self-righteous religion. As Paul stereotyped the Gentiles as crass and immoral idolaters, even though there were a number of Gentiles who had an abstract and sophisticated conception of the divine and who behaved ethically, so likewise could he have been stereotyping Judaism. Paul was probably basing both stereotypes on something—-his experiences and observations—-but, like many stereotypes, they weren’t the whole story.
I was thinking of telling the people in my group about the Old Perspective and the New Perspective in Pauline studies, but I decided not to do so. The Old Perspective is easy to summarize and to understand, whereas the New Perspective is much more difficult, at least for me.