Today’s blog sets out a basic Christian teaching about “salvation”as given by St. Paul. It get it from the daily readings of the Episcopal Church, and offer it along with an item from world news:
Mali Jihadists destroy priceless books and manuscripts in Timbuctoo
Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;16yet we know that a person is justified* not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.* And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,* and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,* who loved me and gave himself for me.21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification* comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Some things I’ve found helpful in interpreting this closely argued passage:
1. Paul is inconsistent, but he often uses “we” when he is just talking about himself. I read all the “we’s” as “I”.
2. “Christos” in Greek is just a translation of the Jewish, “Maschiach” and is better translated Messiah in English. It’s not Jesus’ surname.
3. The “Law” is the Jewish Torah, which includes the Jewish bible and a whole tradition of religious practice. It’s better to think of it as “Religion.”
4. Paul knew that Jesus Messiah had been crucified as a “Torah-breaker”, as a criminal who offended religion.
5. Paul knew in his own history how religion can be used as a means of self-assertion and arrogance towards God and other people. (He also notes elsewhere that trying to be perfectly religious can reduce a person to despair).
6. Paul believed that God had found a new way into the hearts of people by sending his “son” as the embodiment of his love even to the point of an ignominious death by crucifixion. For Paul “being crucified with Messiah” means the surrender of all religious power, and the simple acceptance of God’s kindness. There’s nothing we can do to find God; in Jesus Messiah God has come to find us. There’s nothing we can do to please God; in Jesus Messiah God has shown his pleasure in us. There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love; for God’s love is already ours in his son who “loved us and gave himself for us”.
7. Being crucified with Messiah Jesus also means being raised in the power of his resurrection to a new life which is lived confidently and sacrificially as a son or daughter of God. That’s what Paul means when he says, “It’s no longer I who live but Messiah lives in me.”
8.Paul is saying that the trappings of religion-rituals like circumcision, sacred shrines and temples, rules about religious purity, the existence of a priestly caste, and so on, are unnecessary because religion itself has been superseded by a life-changing acceptance of God’s “grace”, his daft kindness, shown in the crucifixion of his son Jesus.
9. It’s often been said that Paul turned the story of Jesus into a world religion, with the suggestion that a “simple” Jewish Jesus was transformed by Paul into a complex, international, religion. I think, on the contrary, that Paul understood Jesus as well as anyone ever has, and announced his story as the end of all religion and the start of something better. Sometimes he failed to recognise the remnants of his own religious prejudice; but more often he leaves them behind, as in this astonishing passage.