Reading Romans Again – as a conditionalist

 

 

I think all Christians need to read the book of Romans again, and we who believe in conditional immortality ought to be at the head of the queue.

Ronald D. Witherup summarizes the role of Romans as an expression of Christian theology:

“I think every professional student of Paul’s letters would say that Romans is the most important theological letter that Paul wrote.  Christians through the ages have recognized the content of this letter as one of the greatest summaries of Christian teaching ever assembled. Romans demonstrates Paul’s critical thinking skills, his expertise at expressing clearly his faith, his vision of the impact of Jesus Christ on the world, and his ability to persuade his audience with great conviction. It is also Paul’s most systematic letter. In it Paul attempts to synthesize for a community that he did not found and that knew him only by reputation much of what he thought important in the Christian faith.”[1]

All evangelicals, including conditionalists, are used to reading Romans against a Protestant Reformation backdrop.  The epistle is perfect for that, because it teaches so well that salvation is not gained by works. The worst of us is not saved by our works, but neither are the best of us, because there is no one who is righteous enough to qualify. So, we all need to put our faith in Christ, whose death serves as our sacrifice, enabling us to stand in Christ’s righteousness before the Father, forgiven and free.

If we were to step back and read Romans again, we might find that the book has even more to offer. But we must be prepared for what is not there. Romans does not teach the doctrines of innate immortality, dualism, the immortality of the soul, a conscious intermediate state after physical death, or that the hope of believers is heaven and the fate of unbelievers is a perpetual hell. Yet, many of those who believe such things would agree with Witherup (and myself) that Romans is a masterpiece of Christian theology. So, what doctrinal truths does this masterpiece herald?  You might be surprized. Romans serves as a good expression of conditionalism.

Romans teaches that God alone is immortal.

He is “the immortal God” and no other beings possess that attribute – not birds, animals, not even mortal human beings.[2]  Romans teaches that we are not like him in the very sense that some theologians insist that we are. We are challenged not to surrender our mortal bodies to sin, so that we obey sin’s desires, instead of God’s desires.[3]  But to say that we have mortal bodies is not to concede that we have anything else that is immortal. In Romans, a person’s soul is that person’s life, and that life is mortal.[4] There is only one who is eternal – “the eternal God.”[5]

Romans teaches that death is God’s judgment upon sin.

Paul is clear on how terrible it is to rebel against God and live a life of sin, but he is also clear that a person who does that deserves not to be perpetually tormented, but to die.[6]  Death is the result of sin, regardless of whether the person who has sinned knows God’s law. Paul said, “all who have sinned not knowing the law will also perish not knowing the law, and all who have sinned understanding the law will be judged by the law.”[7] To perish is to be destroyed (Greek ἀπόλλυμι).  Paul used the same word to warn Christians in Rome about flaunting their freedom around weak Christians. He said, “Do not destroy by your choice of food someone for whom Christ died.”[8]  It was an emphatic way of saying that causing someone to sin would kill them.

In Romans, Paul teaches that “sin entered the world through one man (Adam) and death entered as a consequence of that sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.”[9] The cause-and-effect is clear: sinning leads to death. The first sin – the sin of Adam and Eve in Eden, produced the first death: human mortality.  Everyone who is in Adam will die that first death.  We possess bodies of death.[10] Mortality is 100% among us humans. That is the bad news.

The good news is that Jesus did something about that. He didn’t change it. It is still reality. But Jesus added a new reality to the bad news of mortality and eventual death. As Paul puts it, “just as condemnation for all people came as a result of one transgression, so too by the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people.”[11]  So, how can we live if we are all condemned to die? The answer is that we can be raised from the dead and live a new life.  Death is going to come to all of us because of our ancestor’s sin. But we can avoid dying a second time for our own sins, because Jesus has already died that death for us.

To put it another way, how many people had to sin in order for all humanity to die? Answer: one – Adam. So, how many people had to live a totally righteous, obedient life and surrender that life as a sacrifice in order for all humanity to be raised to life again? Answer: one – Jesus Christ.

Now, this is where Paul gets interesting. He says that we can begin living a life of righteousness right now despite our present mortality and eventual death.  We can choose obedience instead of sin by making ourselves available as obedient slaves to righteousness.[12]  We do this via the empowerment of the Holy Spirit within us.[13] If we choose to continue sinning, the result will be the second death.  It is choosing to hang on to that old life – the one we are ashamed of – the one which leads to death.[14]  But if we enslave ourselves through a process of becoming a living sacrifice, we gain sanctification, and ultimately eternal life. Sinning is like a full-time job which pays a salary of death, but God offers another option: his gift of eternal life.[15] The opposite of a life of sinning is a life of submitting to the Holy Spirit, a life served as a living sacrifice, anticipating a resurrection like Christ’s.

 

Romans highlights Christ’s victory through resurrection

Our previous (Reformation) reading of the book of Romans took note of the fact that Christ conquered sin through his death on the cross.  This is certainly true, but is it the ultimate point that Paul was trying to get across to the Roman Christians?  Could it be — that instead of focusing on the spiritual problem of sin – Paul highlighted the fact that Christ overcame sin at the cross and then went beyond that issue and solved both that spiritual problem and the physical problem of death?  Note what Paul asserts about Christ physically:

  1. He physically descended from David (1:3)
  2. He was physically sacrificed because of our sin (4:25)
  3. He was physically raised by the Holy Spirit (1:4).

It is Christ’s resurrection that signaled the victory over sin and death, so after that, his physical resurrection became the central focus of our faith.  He was sacrificed because we had transgressed and was raised because we had been declared righteous.[16]  The victory at the end of the suffering was Paul’s ultimate point. Christ’s blood bought us forgiveness; his resurrection bought us a future.

Romans defines the Christian Life

In Romans, Paul defines the Christian life as a life that imitates Christ’s sacrificial death to gain his victory at our resurrection.

  • Our baptism symbolizes a life buried with Christ to obtain the new life he did at his resurrection.[17]
  • It is a new life, not wedded to the law (which only produced sin and death) but to Christ – who was raised by the Holy Spirit. Thus, this new resurrection life is empowered by the Holy Spirit.[18]
  • This empowerment from the holy Spirit enables the Christian to live Christ’s sacrificial life today, and will raise the Christian’s mortal body to new life in the future.[19]
  • In the meantime, the whole present creation (including the Christian’s physical life) is in a state of disintegration, so that we eagerly await the new creation.[20]
  • God has predestined us to be a part of that new creation. We will be glorified. Our present calling and status guarantees it. In God’s mind it has already happened because he has declared it.[21]
  • Christ does not condemn us in our present, incomplete state. He intercedes for us instead.[22]
  • Christ is uniquely qualified as Lord of both the dead and the living, since he died and rose again.[23]

Theologians often divide the book of Romans into two parts. They speak of Romans 1-11 as the doctrinal section, and 12-16 as the practical section. For example, Dinger says that in chapter 12, “Paul began the practical section of his epistle which covers Christian living.”[24] In fact, it is not that simple.  It is true that Paul focuses on more practical church fellowship matters starting in chapter 12, but he had also already begun explaining how an individual works out his faith life several chapters earlier.  The purpose of the transition in Romans 12:1 is to state Paul’s thesis:

“Consequently, I counsel you, brothers, since God has shown his mercy to you in many ways, to present your bodies as a sacrifice– alive, holy, and pleasing to God– which is the logical way for you to worship him.”

The many ways that God has shown his mercy to the Romans includes sending his Son in the flesh, sacrificing him on the cross for the sins of all (including the Romans), raising Jesus from the dead to demonstrate his victory over death, and even hardening the hearts of the Jews so that the Romans (and other Gentiles) might also have faith in Christ and be saved[25]

Paul uses the sacrifice motif in Romans to explain the basis of the Christian life. The Christian life is the choice to be a living sacrifice, empowered by the Holy Spirit for holy living, and enabled by the death of Christ to please God by how we live.  The concept of living sacrifices did not originate in the New Testament. It can be traced back to Genesis – with the deliverance of Isaac through the provision of a ram as his substitute.  The other books of Moses also describe the ministry of the Levites, who were dedicated as a presentation offering to God as substitutes for the redeemed firstborn Israelites.

Romans warns of the coming day of God’s wrath

Living the Christian life as a presentation offering to him is not an option.  If we have not identified as believers in Christ by doing this, we are still under God’s judgment, regardless of how superficially “good” our lives appear to be.  Paul’s message to the apparently righteous is “you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous condemnation is going to be revealed! He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by consistently doing good works seek glory and honour and immortality, but wrath and fury to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.”[26]  Note that Paul warns of a coming specific day of wrath – a judgment day. Whatever wrath and fury that the unrepentant experience on that day, we are told that it will not involve eternal life. That destiny only awaits those who have lived their lives as living sacrifices, seeking to please God.

This judgment day is the day in which “God will judge the secrets of human hearts.”[27] It is not the day of our deaths. Popular mythology says that after each individual dies, his or her spirit goes somewhere to be immediately judged. Paul does not agree. His eschatology of judgment is universal, not individual. He agrees with John, who pictured everyone, great and small, standing before the throne to be judged, all their destinies being decided at one time.

Because there will be a day of judgment, Christians who have been wronged do not need to avenge themselves. They can choose to “give place to God’s wrath”[28] because God himself will take care of those who have hurt, betrayed, or destroyed them. Because there will be a day of judgment, Christians can be forgiving, patient and noncritical of each other, knowing that each will be responsible for his or her own actions and relationships to God alone.[29]

The judgment day will have two permanent outcomes. Either “you will die” or “you will live.”[30] Judgment day will not be a perpetual process. Regardless of what suffering is meted out as part of God’s response to evil, the end result will be two permanent states: permanent life in which the redeemed will never die again, or permanent destruction in which the destroyed will never live again. Paul describes God as a potter who has made two kinds of pottery: objects of mercy designed for permanent glory, or objects of wrath prepared for permanent destruction.[31]

Romans proclaims the gospel of resurrection

The reformers fought against the false gospel that had been proclaimed by the papists that insisted that salvation was only through a system of good works, orchestrated and governed by the church. They gave birth to a renewed church, grounded on the message of the cross, and much of their message came from Paul’s letter to the Romans. But Paul’s letter to the Romans did not emphasize the death of Christ as the ultimate solution for the problems of sin and death. In fact, the word “cross” does not even appear in Romans.

Paul puts forth the empty tomb of Christ as the symbol of victory over sin and death. This emphasis has yet to be fully explained and proclaimed by the Christian church.  We conditionalists are just the people who can do that.  We need to read Romans again, and proclaim the gospel of resurrection that it teaches.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ronald D. Witherup, 101 Questions and Answers on Paul. (New York: Paulist Press, 2003). 92.

[2] Romans 1:23 (all direct quotations are from my own translation).

[3] Romans 6:12.

[4] Romans 2:9; 11:3; 13:1; 16:4.

[5] Romans 16:26.

[6] Romans 1:32.

[7] Romans 2:12; 7:10-13.

[8] Romans 14:15.

[9] Romans 5:12.

[10] Romans 7:24.

[11] Romans 5:18.

[12] Romans 6:16.

[13] Romans 8:1-2, 6.

[14] Romans 6:21.

[15] Romans 6:22-23.

[16] Romans 4:24.

[17] Romans 6:4-5,8.

[18] Romans 7:4-6.

[19] Romans 8:10-11.

[20] Romans 8:19,23.

[21] Romans 8:29-30.

[22] Romans 8:34.

[23] Romans 14:9.

[24] Dennis Dinger, A Study of the Book of Romans. (Clemson, SC: C.B. Dinger, 2012), 189.

[25] Romans 9-11.

[26] Romans 2:5b-8.

[27] Romans 2:16.

[28] Romans 12:19.

[29] Romans 14:10-12.

[30] Romans 8:13.

[31] Romans 9:21-24.

Jeff

About Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is a missionary with Advent Christian General Conference, and elder at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a teacher, Bible translator, and avid blogger. "My hope is that everyone who reads this blog will have an opportunity to understand the gospel, and will know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." He has written books on theology and Bible commentary. You can read more of Jeff's writing at Devotions  |  Jefferson Vann | Commands of Christ | Learning Koine Greek Together

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