Bible Study | April 25, 2024

Reconciled to God

Friends silhouetted against a sunset

Romans 5:1-11

Romans 5 opens with a bold statement: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). This suggests there was a time when we were not at peace with God. It seems that faith creates a new condition and heals an old wound.

It is easy to misunderstand Paul when we fail to comprehend what he means by the terms “sin” and “death.” Our text for today ends with verse 11. But as is often the case, the text is set in a larger literary context that gives hints about how to understand it.

To understand how Paul uses “sin” and “death” it is necessary to examine verses 12-14. Notice that “sin” is singular. This is not unusual for Paul, especially in Romans. He does not think of sins as isolated acts that are contrary to God’s will. Instead, Paul thinks of sin as a state of being. Sin is a state of alienation, or separation, from self, God, and others.

As an example, he notes Adam’s disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. This refusal to obey God reveals humankind’s predisposition to live selfishly without concern for God or others. This self-centeredness is destructive to human community, personal faith, and even creation itself.

The problem of sin is a relationship problem. People are estranged from God, themselves, and one another. In fact, all creation groans for shalom, restoration, healing, and peace (Romans 8:22). This state of being is like a prison cell from which all creation must be freed. We are enslaved by our own desire for complete self-sufficiency and independence. We are, in fact, self-absorbed.

“Death” represents this alienation taken to the extreme. For Paul, self-centeredness (sin) ultimately leads to death (complete alienation from self, God, and others). Our dilemma is Paul’s as well (Romans 7:15-20, 24-25).

Jesus means freedom

Paul’s approach to the relational problem of separation and alienation is not to provide stricter rules to follow. He believed that, for humanity to be whole, humanity must be free from the prison of self-absorption, because that only leads to guilt, shame, and moral paralysis.

For Paul, the freedom we need is found in Jesus Christ. Christ swings wide the cell door. God’s acceptance of us is a gift freely given. Trust in God’s grace liberates us from the need to be in control of our lives. Our self-centeredness leads us to try to make ourselves good enough and worthy enough to deserve God’s approval. When we are freed from that, we can live in thanksgiving and joy. Our devotion to the wellbeing of others becomes an expression of gratitude instead of obligation. We are freed to love extravagantly and to serve joyously.

Response to afflictions and suffering

Many of us have tried to make sense of suffering. Since afflictions are sewn into the very fabric of life, this is not surprising. How we respond to misfortune and trouble, to a large degree determines whether we will be generous or bitter, loving or resentful, grateful or aggrieved.

The church at Rome was suffering from some sort of misfortune or persecution. Would the trouble they faced lead to generosity or bitterness, resentment or love, grievance or gratitude? In verses 3-5, Paul tells them that afflictions produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. If we are honest about our lived experience, we must admit that this is sometimes true but not always. Most of us have known people who have been crushed by their afflictions. Sometimes we ourselves react to misfortune with anger and a desire for revenge.

The message of hope in Romans 5 is lofty and inspiring. This is so because Paul is not writing a self-help book. He is not offering a plan for how to please God and thereby earn God’s approval. In this letter, Paul is proclaiming freedom from self-centeredness and selfishness. This is not about improving; this is about transformation. Paul wants people to accept God’s freedom and gracious love and thereby be made new! For this apostle, the ethics of gratitude exceed the ethics of obligation.

Prevenient grace

“Prevenient” is not a word we use every day. In fact, it is a word many of us have likely never used. When paired with “grace,” the term means that God was at work in the world before we knew it. Sometimes prevenient grace is called “preceding” grace. That may be an easier term to wrap our minds around.

As the term suggests, God’s working in the world precedes our knowing it. Verse 8 says it this way: “God proves his love for us in that while still we were sinners Christ died for us.” First John 4:19 says it another way: “We love because he first loved us.”

Prevenient grace, preceding grace.

A puzzle

For centuries, Christians have been debating the meaning of “Christ died for us” (v. 8). This phrase is so widely used among Christians that most think they know what it means. Paul didn’t write, “Christ died instead of us or in our place.” Nor did he write that Christ’s death paid a ransom to the devil to free us. No, he just says, “Christ died for us.”

This is puzzling for some Christians. Was Christ’s death required for God to extend grace to all creation? Was Jesus punished for our sin? Scholars acknowledge at least seven theories that try to answer the questions: “Did Jesus have to die?” and “If so, why?”

Another curious term is “wrath of God” (v. 9). A deity that takes the initiative to free humanity from the captivity of sin, and does so as an expression of love, doesn’t seem wrathful. The God whom we love because God first loved us, does not appear to need a victim to satisfy a thirst for blood.

These are two of many ways of perceiving the divine—as a God of wrath or a God whose love precedes our response. Is there a disconnect between these two views? They at least appear to be quite different from one another.

In A Guide for Biblical Studies, this is the third of four lessons based on texts from Romans. Each of the first three are, for the most part, consistent with one another. But it also must be acknowledged that Paul leaves many strings hanging, almost challenging us to pull on them.

His use of the two words, “sin” and “death,” invites us to discover what Paul meant when first he wrote this letter. By surveying the breadth of his letters, it is very likely that both words are relational in meaning. That is, “sin” represents humanity’s self-centeredness that leads to alienation from self, God, and others. “Death” is that state of alienation in the extreme.

The gift of grace in Christ Jesus reconciles human beings to God, self, and others. The divide is crossed, the alienation ended, and the prison door swung wide. This offers freedom from our self-absorbed inclinations, making it possible to become “persons for others.” All this is a gift from God.

Michael L. Hostetter, a retired minister in the Church of the Brethren, lives in Bridgewater, Virginia.