Sermon: Paul’s Obsession

03.23.2014     Preaching Text: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1)

Paul seems to be obsessed with certain things, one of which is found in today’s reading from Romans. I’m talking specifically about his continual harping about Christians being “justified” by faith, not works.

“Since we are justified by faith,” he begins chapter 5, “we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ…” Last week, in the same vein, he was going on about Abraham being justified by believing in God – before, that is, he obeyed Jahweh’s command to leave his native country on nothing more than a promise.

Paul does have a point. We know that the religion of the Israelites in Jesus’ and Paul’s day had become very legalistic. There were strict rules for everything.

Jesus was once asked by a decidedly unsympathetic lawyer to define what is necessary to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on him. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks.

The man answers, no doubt thinking he has the upper hand, “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus then replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer’s answer, Jesus knew, was taken right from the Torah, specifically, the Book of Deuteronomy. It was a broad principle guiding human behavior. However, over the many centuries it had morphed into something monstrous. The Law had become an excessive burden, with intricate and arcane rules that were virtually impossible to fulfill.

More to the point, both the lawyer and Jesus knew that the essence of “justification,” of having a “right relationship with God,” at least for the Jews of their day, was entirely based on how well one obeyed these same rules.

The lawyer, in other words, is trying to trip Jesus up. After all, Jesus had become somewhat notorious as a serial offender of the law, by healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, etc. But Jesus’ quick response turns the lawyer’s question on its head.

For Jesus (and Paul) we are justified not by slavishly obeying a set of rules, but by faith, by our primary devotion to God. We are justified, or made right with God (as was Abraham, the grand patriarch of Israel and the model of faithful behavior), not by the works we do but by believing, by accepting God’s free gift of salvation.

“For while we were still weak,” Paul explains, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” We are saved not because we’ve got it all together, and not, as I noted last week, due to any kind of superior moral or spiritual performance or achievement, but by gratefully accepting and enjoying God’s love for us.

“Though we were still sinners,” he repeats, “Christ died for us.” He doesn’t say that Christ waits until we attain near-perfection or spiritual enlightenment. No, he comes to save us while we are decidedly anything but.

The reason Paul goes on about this (and he doesn’t stop with Romans!) is because “works righteousness” is a very real human problem. Most if not all religions, in fact, base their idea of salvation on achievement. But not Christianity. It is a religion of grace if it’s anything at all.

We Christians, however, generally tend to forget this. It’s not, in other words, just ancient Judaism which errs in this regard. Rather, pharasaism is in truth part and parcel of our everyday thinking, whether we admit it or not.

There are, as has been said, two kinds of sin. The one kind we know well, that based on doing bad things. The other kind, though, is actually far more common, and far more insidious. This form of sin takes what is good and turns it into something bad. How? By making it a god.

It was the great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich, who said that whatever we make our “ultimate concern” becomes our god. Whatever we base our identity and value on, in other words, we “deify.” Such idols serve as god-substitutes.

As I say, this can be pretty subtle. Even religion and morality can become false gods!

In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which I quoted at length last week, Tim Keller names some of these god-substitutes and suggests how they can actually damage our lives:

  • If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, or controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming for you.
  • If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
  • If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
  • If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealously about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.
  • If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the ‘escape strategies’ by which you avoid the hardness of life.
  • If you center your life and identity on a ‘noble cause,’ you will divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and demonize your opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies. Without them, you have no purpose.
  • If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating.

So you see, what we have here are “disordered loves,” as Augustine famously put it, those things that are in and of themselves good, but which, when made into ultimate concerns, effectively diminish our lives (and those of others).

What Paul is saying, then, is that we should center our lives and identities not on our own manufactured tin gods, but on the true God of both Abraham and Jesus. Only then will our hearts be free. Only then, ironically, does Paul’s obsession become our freedom! Amen.