On Spiritual Lethargy

Romans 3:1-4

Here, Paul, having chastised the Jews by denouncing the hearing, the teaching, and even the name of Jew, plus removing the spiritual value of circumcision; begins to preemptively defend his position against the objection that he foresees is coming. See, in the last part, he had attacked each thing that the Jews had claimed gave them this divine honor, which he knew would lead to resistance in the form of questions such as pertains to what reason they were given the Law, for what reason did the prophets proclaim them as the chosen people of the Lord, why was the circumcision ever even given if it was to no avail. Did this new Gospel that he proclaimed remove the promises of the Covenant given to the Jews? In fact, in the year 144, there was a teacher named Marcion of Sinope who taught this exact thing, that the God of the Old Covenant was gone and that He had been replaced instead by Jesus; a teaching which Paul hoped to curtail in this passage.

So, did this new Gospel replace the old Covenant? By no means, declares Paul. The Jews, as he explains here, had the advantage of receiving the Law; they had the advantage of receiving the Circumcision. They had the advantage of being taught each of these things that the Lord had demanded of them, the advantage of knowing what the Lord expected of them. But, what they seemed to miss was that each of these things was to no avail if they were received in absentia of the grace of the Lord. Note that he never says that obedience to the Law is unprofitable in and of itself, but rather that knowing while not obeying was not only unprofitable, but detrimental. He never proclaims that the circumcision is useless, but that circumcision is valueless if not accompanied by further deeds that evidence this devotion. See, humans tend to lean towards doing the “bare necessities,” we tend to look for the absolute minimum we think that we can do to obtain something, and then selfishly we being to push that bar even further and further. Paul, recognizing this, attempts to cease this by pointing it out, calling attention to this spiritual lethargy that we tend to lean towards. He states that even circumcision is counted as uncircumcision if you are a breaker of the Law. If you claim the name of the Lord and yet walk in darkness, you lie and the truth is not in you (1 John 1:6).

Further, at this point, he goes on to disagree with the very assertion that he foresees. The Jews, he says, have received every advantage. They alone were entrusted with the Law, they alone were given the prophets. And yet, he pens this holding the Jews in a negative light; for though they were entrusted with these things, they used them not for the glory of the Lord but for their own glory. They used these provisions of the Lord as a bar by which they could place themselves as being above all other people. They boasted that, as only the Jews had received these things, the Law, the circumcision, etc; that they were the only ones who were the chosen of the Lord and thus the only ones who were worthy of salvation. They claimed that the Lord had chosen only a select few to receive His promises and that they, being a part of that group, were alone worthy of those promises. They received and spoke of the Law, and of the prophets, but by their very lives showed utter contempt and disrespect for the things of the Lord. While the Jews did, in fact, have an advantage, that advantage was pedagogical; they were taught the Law and the prophets much more intricately than any other group. However, that teaching itself made them no more righteous than any other group. In fact, to the contrary, it made them even more strongly accountable when they chose to disobey those commands.

Paul then continues to reiterate the point, “what if some don’t believe…would that make the faithfulness of God without effect?” It’s important to keep this verse in the right context when reading it. It is not a decree that anyone and everyone ever born will receive this salvation, as some have twisted it to mean. No, after having argued at length about the hypocrisy of the Jews in receiving but not obeying the commands of the Lord, he makes this statement. The Jews very lack of obedience in no way dissolves the faithfulness of the Lord to keep His promises. And yet, when you consider the word “Covenant,” it basically is a deal. Thus, when the Lord makes these promises and we fail to uphold our end of the bargain, it is not He who has broken His covenant, but we who have done so. Thus, what Paul is stating here is that it is not the Lord who has broken His promises based on their unfaithfulness, but rather they themselves who have done so. All of the promises of the Lord remain for any who are willing to obey Him, to “follow Him,” to become His disciples. And that regardless of any human ethnicity or labels. The disbelief of the Jews doesn’t remove the faithfulness of the Lord to His children, to the contrary, the grace and honor with which He still extends the offer of reconciliation displays that He remains in all things unceasingly faithful to His promises, for those who will “turn away from their wicked ways and return to Him.” In 2 Chronicles, we read, “He is good, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 7:3), and again, the word of the Lord to Solomon, “if my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will be merciful to their sins and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14). We love to quote that, and yet so often fail to be attentive to the fact that there are four conditions in that passage; if My people 1. humble themselves, 2. pray, 3. seek My face, 4. turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear…” We also neglect to notice that He further states that “if you turn away and forsake My statutes and My commandments that I set before you and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will remove you from the land that I gave them and cast from My sight this house…” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20). It’s important to recognize that His faithfulness to fulfill His promises wasn’t made ineffective by their lack of faith, and that He always presented the same offer to all of His children, to the Jew and to the Gentile. However, each is to uphold their side of the Covenant, which here Paul warns the Jews that they are not doing.

“Let God be true but every man a liar.” With this statement, Paul is in no way insinuating that every man is a liar, but rather that God never is. Thus, if every man in the world (theoretically) were to agree on something, but that something was in contrast to the Lord, then every man would be wrong, as the Lord can never be wrong and never lies. I think about this passage frequently when the topic of “interpreting Scripture” comes up. It’s an unfortunate thought that the wisdom of the age has infected so many people that they feel as though their interpretations of the words of the Lord carry more weight than the words of the Lord themselves. So often, we read something in Scripture that we don’t like and, infected by this “wisdom” of the age, immediately begin to interpret it, ultimately changing what the Lord actually says into something that we like better. It’s the Pharisee saying, “You healed on the Sabbath, that’s work, thus you are in violation of the Sabbath.” It is the antinomian stating that “all of our deeds are as filthy rags” and declaring that to declare any deed as part of our salvation is heresy. It is the Calvinist stating that we are saved by faith, which is “a gift of God,” and that “He will have mercy on whom He has mercy,” and therefore declaring that only this elect group of people are saved, whom the Lord predestined, and all of the rest are doomed to eternal punishment. Every time I hear these distorted interpretations, I remember this verse, “Let God be true but every man a liar,” and I understand why Peter admonishes us so strongly that “no manner of prophecy ever came by personal interpretation, but holy men spoke by the Holy Spirit.” If Holy Scripture is bound by personal interpretation, then suddenly, every man who can read can begin his own denomination, and no one can fault him for what the Scripture “means to him.”

The greatest sin in all of Scripture is pride. It is the very sin which led Satan to be cast down from the heavens. We must be careful of this same sin, my brothers and sisters. Pride often comes to us in the form of arrogance. We become so assured that we have studied Scripture and found something that thousands of years of monastics and scholars have overlooked. Ultimately, we give our own interpretation of Scripture authority over the Scripture itself. We read a passage like “be holy, for I the Lord am holy” and begin to interpret away the meaning of what our Lord says, thinking instead that we, better than the authors of the Holy Scripture, know what the Lord actually means. In our arrogance, we have removed the authority of the words of our Lord and the traditions of the Church and instead reduced it to what we, in our own personal minds, consider it to mean. For me to consider my interpretation of a passage to be of higher esteem than St Basil or John Chrysostom, Augustine or his teacher Gregory of Nyssa, is the utmost of arrogance.

So often, I have both heard and said, I can find a passage, removed from context, to justify any sinful behavior you desire. If you want a passage that will justify polygamy, divorce, murder, avarice, materialism, homosexuality, drunkenness…any sin you wish; I can find a passage to support it. In our own personal interpretations, it’s easy to find what we are already looking for, based on our preconceived notions about what it says. You can argue for the presence of the literal body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, as Luther taught, or against it, as Zwingli taught. You can argue total depravity, as Calvin taught, or sinless perfection, as Wesley taught. Or, you can remove interpretations and read in it’s entirety the words of the Lord; and accept and obey them as they are written, as the fathers of the Church taught. This warning from Paul is simply this. It’s not to remove the commands of the Lord based on the doctrines of grace, neither is it to remove the doctrines of grace from the commands of the Lord; rather it is the intermingling of the two. It is the teaching to obey the commands of the Lord through the grace of the Lord, as they could only be obeyed. The grace of the Lord isn’t the right to disregard the commands of the Lord, it is the ability to obey them, freed from our bondage to sin. And yes, those commands do require work, but they require work with the Holy Spirit as our heavenly comforter, the Spirit of Truth who is in all things present. Only through faith can we receive this blessing, and only through this blessing can we obey all of the Lord’s commands; however, if we have received this blessing, then we must obey these commands. The rich young ruler didn’t walk away because he was unable to sell his possessions and leave his riches, he walked away because he loved them too much to be willing to part with them. I fear that is the way that many of us are with the things of this world. We may justify, twisting Scripture to suit our means, but the truth comes down to this, do we love the Lord or do we love this life? We can attain our “riches” here, or we can attain the riches promised in the kingdom to come.

We must always search the Scriptures, but we must do so free from our attachments to this world, else we run the risk of allowing what we are looking for to overrule what is actually there; as so often happens.

May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved brothers and sisters. Christ is risen!

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