To begin reading this bundle of the next unit of eleven letters, with Thessalonians, Corinthians and Timothy technically considered one yet are listed into two missives, are the correspondences from Paul, with Romans, being the first. This bundle of letters could be tied in a ribbon imprinted with the words “theological framework” of the whole of Paul’s collected works. It shows how Paul clung to his Jewish roots and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible after his conversion experience on the road to Damascus when he came to the understanding that Jesus was the fulfillment of the awaited Messiah.
Paul wrote his letters between AD 52 to 67. He writings were copied and circulated amongst the churches. This era, and before, was known for their teaching through a strong oral tradition because due to a pre-literally society. It was not uncommon for the rabbi’s and Pharisees of the day to have memorized the Hebrew Bible for teaching purposes. Oral storytelling is one theory on how the Synoptic Gospel was first spread before they were recorded by the first-generation eyewitnesses died off, many martyred. Paul would have been well acquainted with these letters, him with his Pharisee training, referring to them in his writings.
These letters are listed in the Bible according to their length, not by the date authored. For the most part, the letters were written to unify the Christian churches. This one was probably his fourth letter written and it is from his desk in Corinth, Greece, in AD 57, during Nero ‘s ( (right up there with the likes of Adolf Hitler)) the first-year reign before the peak of Roman persecution of the Christian church seven years later. Nero and his government’s shadow are in the background of most of Paul’s letters. Priscilla was the letter carrier to the Roman churches and to the believers of her hometown of Rome.
Seventeenth-century English Puritan Thomas Draxe claimed Roman’s as the “quintessence and perfectional of saving doctrine.” It certainly was for Martin Luther who nailed it (his 95 theses inspired by Romans) with his argument on the door (as legend has it) that forever change the course of history with the Protestant Reformation. The Apostle Paul travels as a missionary (apostle means to be sent out) with his journey consuming almost half his life before being martyred, when he was sixty years old, by Nero ’s henchmen. Most of Paul’s correspondences are either addressed to congregations he founded or to his mentees (Timothy, Titus, Philemon).
“If the Word of God has not reached a remote part of the world if there are some who never get a chance to hear about Jesus, would that person be condemned?” so asked one of my sons while he was in college. I related to his question, remembering when at his age, my incomprehension in how someone in a closed society (one with a government-controlled flow of information) could not grasp basic human rights. I hadn’t learned yet that because we are made in God’s image, the foundation of moral rights are imprinted within us from him whether we act on them or not.
The context of our conversation was about elect or predestination (the divine foreordaining of the eventual fate of an individual’s soul) and universalism (all human eventually will be saved regardless if they committed to believing in Christ). When I think of predestination, my thoughts go to the great men and women in religious history, as well as those now, who are most notably fated by God to be about His work. Meanwhile, God wants all to be saved. John 3:36 is clear: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” His atoning death is for everyone one of us but there is not universal acceptance of this atonement due to man’s free will and responsibility thereby a lack of universal redemption.
It’s been speculated (by John V. Taylor, author of The Christlike God) that “common grace” is something God extends to believers and nonbelievers. This grace doesn’t necessarily grant salvation cart blanche but God is still working in the lives of many to complete his will. The nonbeliever interprets this grace differently than the believer.” Common grace is different but similar to natural or general revelation.
One explanation on this topic is given by Tim Keller in an interview response to can’t good people be saved as well:
“The problem (with the idea of universalism) is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you are approaching it by your own goodness. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, and anyone can receive eternal life instantly (it) creates a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil. The Bible is clear about two things- that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings…both those things can be true together…If we have a God big enough to serve who is called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.”
God reveals Himself by his nature (Rom. 1:20) and in the hearts of people (Eccl. 3:11). When people reject the knowledge of God’s gift of grace, they end up believing in anything and worship a “god” of their own creation (usually similar to self with all the human thoughts and emotions) to give credit where credit isn’t due. St. Augustine wrote if you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the Gospel you believe in but yourself.
It is almost foolish to debate the fairness of God’s condemnation of someone who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Christ yet there are major theology’s built on each opinion. People are responsible to God for what God has already revealed to them. Granted that information may be not as available as it is to Western or more developed societies, but the yearning for it is there within humans. Both of the shared Testaments speak of God meeting this need for those who seek Him out (cf. Ps. 14:2, Acts 17:27).
The way I reconcile how God’s sovereignty works with the fact that He has given man free will in decision making is from clarity from the Bible (there are more scriptures on God’s sovereignty than free will) and from reading R.C. Sproul. Free will means the same as free choice within God’s sovereign will. Man is not sovereign. You could liken it to an employee who is encouraged to work independently. But that independence, that autonomy, is within the limits of the company’s mission. The freedom does not overide the owner’s desired will for the company.
Paul was called by God to bring this message of Christ to the Gentile world and to help establish worship communities, to be known as churches. Yet Paul would first go to the synagogue to share the good news when he visited towns during his missionary journeys. Rome was considered the capital of the Gentiles. It represented and was the center of the world much like Egypt was in Moses’s day. Part of Paul’s task was showing the difference between Gospel of Jesus and the Law of Moses. His most noted statement made is that man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works. We are now a people that cannot ask the law to do something where only grace can suffice. Humanity’s pursuit of God does not stop with salvation, it continues in daily sanctification with a responsibility (working toward holiness bit by bit) in an ongoing spiritual journey while on earth. In the course of life, it has a way of shaving us down to the point we become our real true selves in the sight of God.
Jesus is the justifier for all people, past, present, and future. In chapter 14:9, Paul said, “Jesus died and rose again for both the living and the dead.”
Some of his letter writing was probably therapeutic for Paul. In Romans, the author shares his personal difficulties in this daily sanctification to include how sufferings eventually lead to hope (chapter 5: 3-5). There is the tongue twister scripture 7:15-17, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do I agree that the law is good…. I desire to do what is good but cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; the evil I do not want to do, this I keep doing.”
Like Paul, many find writing or journaling helpful, theraputic. For me, it turned out to be part of a remedial therapy kit. Journaling is one of my favorite fodders for self-knowledge. It helps to identify with myself, it clears up my mental palate, and it gives my inner monologue a place to go outside of my head. During some periods, I journal my prayers when I find my mind is wandering too much off topic while praying. I feel and think deeply which is probably my version of meditation, pondering on an idea versus emptying my mind of thoughts. I try to keep my thoughts “further up (then) further in” as C. S. Lewis suggests.
Meditation is normally thought as being existential with it often associated with emptying the mind. I am a little leery of emptying my mind, fearing if I leave a vacuum or void, what fills it and from where? I have had to figure out how to control an aspect of my busy mind’s constant barrage of thoughts. If mediating in the traditional sense I would think “Um?” instead of Om (a focus word or sound). People approach prayers in many ways through mediation, use, and understanding of symbols, incense or candles, colors, music…I knew a lady who liked to pray in the sunbeams shining through her windows. One approach is not better than another.
Paul includes, “Now if I do what I don’t want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is a sin living in me that does it.” verse by realizing his daily sanctification by his own efforts is unachievable; it can only be done through the Spirit that quickens and lives in him.
A great comparison on this continuous journey in sanctification is this analogy between jazz music and Church by a South African musician. Calvyn C. Du Toit breaks down the performance aspects of jazz as it can relate to the Church. He says the use of jazz notes are suspended or unfinished chords that lean towards completion but never quite realizing it; “Jazz music is the music of heaven; it just never ends!” Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, says (paraphrased) he didn’t like jazz because the music doesn’t resolve…kinda God didn’t resolve until he watched someone who loved it (and Him). Which is like the Church and her knowledge of God. When listening to jazz, there isn’t always complete closure at the end of a musical piece. The song A Love Supreme by jazz legend John Coltrane is a testament to that. His four-part suite is a musical piece broken down into tracks: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalms.” Listening to Coltrane’s compositions isn’t the same as listening to ordinary jazz. This album is intended to be Coltrane’s spiritual statement, broadly representative of a personal struggle for purity, and he said it was composed in his sincere gratitude to God for his talent and instrument as attributed rather than himself.
Du Toit says jazz improvisation blows life into its music theory, making history of the moment. Who of us at times don’t improvise what we are to do next in life? He explains jazz has an inner tension that creates a space where old traditions of music composition become more vital, where the silent gaps in the music tell of still more to come. We do not fully grasp (nor can we) everything, but we can appreciate each other’s uniqueness and contribution when combining other’s contributions to further us along in our walk.
Another analogy to Church is that jazz musicians play at each other and not to a crowd. The ensemble eventually draws us into the music. That may sound a little counter-intuitive to outreach, but music has a way of doing that.
In an Advent series published one Christmas season, by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, further, expounds on this music example by comparing it to spiritual gifts when he addresses the topic of individualism. “People forget that we are all part of God’s people as individuals. He loves us as a people, but also as individuals. He came to set up a Kingdom and to save souls. He rules the cosmos, but also the throne of our hearts. We are each to have a song in the great Church choir. This is not a matter of harmony, but more a motet: where billions of God’s children raise their voices in independent lines of music that God the great conductor blends into a unity. This great polyphony (the style of simultaneously playing a number of different parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other) means that no individual is fundamentally superior to another, each person has a voice in God’s polyphony. There is a message in the whole choir singing together: the whole being greater than the sum of equal parts. Jesus possesses all the gifts (Rom. 12:6-8, 1Cor. 12:8-10).
Polyphony is one of the key textures of jazz. It is when two or more melodies play simultaneously, with neither one sounding like the main tune but it all beautifully comes together. It is jazz improvisation at its best. The book of Romans is written in tension with itself but like in polyphony it comes all together with the statement at the beginning of the letter and then with its theme repeated at the end, “I am not ashamed.”
I can share my story with its biblical application with my kids but I can’t be the author of their lives, only they can. A family member’s favorite quote is “Life is an open book. Don’t close it till it’s done.” And with God, he always writes a better story than anyone can author themselves.