I remember preachers who loved to use the catalog of sins (1:28-32) to prove that their hearers were hell deserving sinners. And these days the previous verses (1:26-27) provide them with the only useful text in the New Testament for exposing the depravity of Gays and Lesbians.
But Paul was obviously describing a three step process of decline. I pictured the big whirlpool down river from Niagara Falls. Any debris moving towards it are inevitably caught, swirled around, and finally sucked down into the abyss. But who are involved in this decline? It is not the Roman Christians (1:6- 8). Paul seems to be giving a description of the decline of Greek civilization. After the Golden Age the philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans) -ouch os theon edoxasan- did not honor God (1:21) as Creator (1:19-20). The result was that their followers -emataiothysan - became futile -en tois dialogismois- in their thinking processes (1:21).
As I thought about a model to make sense of Paul's three steps down in the decline of Greek civilization, I decided to try out the idea of dishonoring. Paul uses it in relationship with God -ouch os theon edoxasan- they did not honor God as God (1:21). He then uses it twice in sexual relationships: -tou atimezesthai ta somata auton- to dishonor their bodies, and -eis pathy atimias- into various kinds of passion to dishonor the person (1:26, as an alternative to the NRSV "dishonorable passions").
In what sense did Greek men and women develop a passion for dishonoring their own body and the body of others? I wondered whether Paul was thinking of the seven kinds of sexual behavior for which Jewish judges were to assign the death penalty: adultery with a neighbor's wife, incest with a father's wife, daughter in law, or mother in law, sodomizing (slaves, enemies, strangers, young men), and male and female intercourse with animals (Leviticus 20:10-16). What horrified Paul was that these seven kinds of sexual activity, which used to deserve the death penalty, were now relished and approved in the Greek world. Apart from adultery and incest, it was common for women to be mounted by animals (1:26), and men thought it was acceptable to humiliate slaves, young men, and pupils by sodomizing them (1:27).
This model of honoring and dishonoring fits nicely with Jesus words about loving God and loving one' neighbor. We dishonor God when we rely on our own strength and willpower (Romans 1:20). And we fail to love our neighbours when we dishonour and ignore them. That is precisely what is involved in each of the 21 forms of behavior that characterize a degraded civilization (Romans 1:28-32). And Paul concludes that the final sucking down into the whirlpool is when people not only behave in those ways but -suneudokousin tois prassousin- sympathize with, approve, those who do those kinds of things.
Using that model, the three-fold -paredoken- of God would mean that we live in a world of wrath (1:18) consequences. People who put God out of their mind don't become irreligious. They merely land themselves in superstition and idolatry (1:22-23, as in Athens, Acts 17:16, 22-23). They could turn (Hebrew -shubh-) back to God, but if they don't, he pushes them further down to the next level. They begin turning sex, which is designed to honour ("with my body I thee honour" in the old marriage service) others, into a means of humiliating and abusing them. The enormity of doing that could bring them to their senses. But again if they still cling to their own power, they inevitably descend further into every form of proud abusive manipulative behaviour (1:28-32), and finally end up in approving such kind of dishonouring as a desirable good.
Presumably adopting one way of looking as opposed to another is important for our Lenten discipline. Discipline is a popular topic among Christian writers these days, but it bothers me. I wonder what they have in mind by way of -phronyma phronizo- and is that what Paul really had in mind? Here are three very different kinds of discipline that people suggest a means of sanctification by the Spirit. Each is based on some ideas found in Romans 6:
a. Our sinful flesh must be beaten down. Every time you have a sinful thought, sinful flesh has reared it's ugly head. You must immediately bash it with the two by four of the Spirit (based on 6:12).
b. Our propensity to sinful flesh must be eradicated (like a melanoma mole) by the Spirit. This is a once for all experience of sanctification (- oitines apethanomen ty amartia- we who have died to sin, 6:2, 6:6, 6:7). But if we should find ourselves falling back again into sin we need to renew the experience of eradication (like another melanoma mole to be excised).
c. We must use the Holy Spirit to discipline our sinful flesh (like a horse being trained for show jumping) -eis dikaiosune- into righteousness (6:16) or -eis agiasmon- into holiness (6:19).
None of those three forms of discipline appeal to me. I have tried to go each of these routes with frustrating results. Is there another model that could be more user friendly?
Twenty years ago I often used to preach about our cat Nika. She had the usual animal instincts of food, comfort, territory, self-defense, sex, nurture, gregariousness, curiosity, etc. Like her, those instincts are given to me through the genes of my parents. That means they are God-given and good. But the problem is that my instincts don't naturally want to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love enemies, pray for rotten people. There is a further complication that our natural instincts are twisted (like a cross dog) by childhood (and some later) experiences of being terrified, abused, humiliated, rejected. We also add to the twists by wrong decisions, and so we are stuck with a body of sinful flesh. What I needed was a model to explain how Paul dealt with all that sinful flesh. How did he understand the words -phronyma phronizo- as a mind- set ?
This morning I remembered that, when I am at my computer working on a model that interests me, I forget about my bodily needs, the weather, little aches and pains, and other painful situations that had bothered me. My wife Mollie does the same when she is into a oil painting. Putting those two experiences together I decided to try a model of just plain ignoring my sinful flesh and putting my mind to what the Holy Spirit is doing in my life and creating in my world. That is exactly what Paul does in the rest of chapter 8. I don't need to beat down my sinful flesh (model a.), eradicate it (model b.), or try to discipline it like a lion tamer (model c.). I just ignore it and enjoy the life and fruit of the Spirit. That is what I see in the most impressive friends I know. They never seem to be obsessed with sin and failure or make valiant efforts at self-discipline. They are just thankful they can enjoy the Holy Spirit. And when we do that models a., b., and c. also fit in a result. The flesh loses its power to dominate our lives. The worst effects of sin are eradicated. And we can train our body by the Spirit to enjoy (like a horse becoming a show jumper) the tough jumps it would never have wanted to do naturally.
We can also respect what we really long to be and do. Some things we can do (gardening, cooking, cleaning, driving, swimming) by our own efforts. But for anything that requires extra-ordinary love and creativity our own will power and discipline will not do (7:15, 18-19, 22-24). So we can look to the Holy Spirit for what we long for, and he is able to do far more wonderfully than we can ask or think
That seems to be what Paul experienced when he stopped bothering about his frustrations as a wretched man (7:15-25). Instead what he did was to ignore his sinful flesh by a daily - phronyma- minding of the Spirit. I imagined Satan must have found it very upsetting when his territory the human flesh was ignored by Paul in that way, and such astonishing results became possible (see 15:18-19) !
Similarly the English word justification' is a transliteration of the Latin noun -justificatio- which is a wrong translation of the New Testament Greek noun -dikaiosune- which means the state of having been made right or put right. Both these words belong to a law court setting where Jesus is pictured as making a payment to satisfy the wrath of the Father.
In this section for example the NRSV (as in the RV) the translation justified' (8:30) and who justifies' (8:33) totally confuse what Paul is explaining. The context is that God -proorisen summorphous tys eikonos tou uiou autou- purposed us to have the same moral perfection as his Son (8:29). In that way He would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (8:29). Having purposed us for this, God -ekalesen- invited us, and -edikaiosen- put us right for that purpose (8:30).
Paul goes on to argue that if God is for us in this way, who can be against us (8:31). If God was willing to go to the length of giving His Son for us all, would He not give us everything else that was needed for our perfecting as children of God? (8:31-32). This interpretation of what Paul had in mind is even clearer in the next verse (8:33). He is quoting from Isaiah 50:8-9, which says :. "He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? And the reason is that "It is the Lord who helps me; who will declare me guilty ?" If the passage is Messianic, then its fulfilment cannot be a legal justification. No one could convict Jesus of sin because in all he did he was empowered by looking to the Holy Spirit. If the Hebrew of the text Paul is quoting refers to the prophet, or us in general, then the OT meaning is that "no one can declare me guilty, because the Lord God mightily helps me" (Isaiah 50:8,9). That would be exactly the sense of the model in which we are made right by the mighty help of the Messiah through the Holy Spirit. It is possible that Paul changed the meaning of the Isaiah passage to a model of Roman law court justification, but I prefer to think of him steeped in the Old Testament vision of a tzaddiq person (Psalm 1:6) being like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1:3 - John 4:10). This may seem like a picky point. But it makes a huge difference to the basis of our assurance of salvation. A common idea is that I am saved because I made a saving decision way back." But that kind of salvation by a decision of faith is easily questioned by the accuser. That is why people come forward to make the decision to accept Christ again and again. They also make it into a good work, and write hymns about the decision they made.
What Paul has in mind is quite different. "I am saved because I know the Holy Spirit is working in me and for me." If that is the case -tis engkalesei- who can bring a charge against what God is doing? It is -theos o dikaion- God who is intent on making us right ? (Romans 8:33) And -tis o katakrinon- what can the condemner say about Christ Jesus who died, rather is raised again, and prays for us? And who can separate us from his love? (8:34)
Our assurance is that whatever awful situations we have to face (and that includes our sin and failure in Romans 7:14-25) nothing, but nothing, can separate us from the love of God (8:34-39). That is the very good news that Paul was excited about (1:16-17). My eternal security is not based on understanding a payment Jesus made in the past, or a decision I made to accept it, but on what the Holy Spirit is doing now.
And that is why Paul concludes the main body of the epistle with : "May the God of hope fill you with hope, so that you may abound in hope -en dunamei pneumato- in the power of the Spirit" (Romans 15:13). Once the Holy Spirit has begun to work in us, though we are still very imperfect, we have the certain hope that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will continue the perfecting which has begun.
That still leaves us the freedom to say "Get off my back, I don't want you to perfect me in love - I prefer hell." But why would I ever want the darkness of hell ? This is the point of John 3:19-21.
Some people think that changing one's mind is a sign of instability. Better remain stuck in the traditional mud. But Paul not only had to accept a huge mind change on the Damascus Road, but then slowly every item of his rabbinic patriarchal and racist ideas had to be reprocessed (into the new model ("But I say unto you") that Jesus brought into the world. I have suggested that in Philippi (Acts 16:9-40) he was still in the process of learning what God had in mind concerning the place of women in the churches.
I had a major change of mind when I was converted but then got brainwashed (as did the Galatians) into the legalism and judgmentalism of Christian friends who had got that from their tradition. I find that those who were most thoroughly drilled into patterns of thinking as children are also those who find it very hard to change into more creative models later. Most Sunday School materials for example reduce Christian faith to moralizing, be kind, love minorities, avoid sex, and help mum with the dishes. God has to use pretty violent means to force them later to change their mind to be open to the Holy Spirit.
The way I try to cooperate with this process of change is to read Scripture
(thank you for this reading in Greek), and every time I take something
for granted ask myself if another model might be possible. I then try that
on for size, adopt it if it seems to work, check it out with others, and
then be ready for further unexpected change.