Mercy all the way down: Paul’s message in Romans 3

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite—April 12, 2015—Romans 3:9-31

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t really happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this sermon. Some big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

Now, I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe this morning. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or, maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point is that God can’t simply forgive—the moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice—which means salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Today’s Romans 3 passage has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading this morning.

I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.

Let me read from Romans 3—a condensed, perhaps more merciful, translation than many. Listen to these words. They may be familiar—or not. What do you think Paul is trying to say? When I finish, we will take a few moments for a few of you to share a word or two in response—what feelings or thoughts does this text evoke for you? I’ll start with v. 9.

All people, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.” No human being will be justified by works of the law, as it is through the law that knowledge of sin comes. [So, what hope do we have?]

[We have hope in this:] That now, separate from our works of law, the justice of God has been disclosed. And this disclosure actually was foreshadowed in the law and the prophets. It is the justice of God seen in Jesus Christ’s faithfulness, made present for all who trust God. There is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but also, all are justified by God’s grace as a gift. God’s redemption is seen in Christ Jesus. Jesus’s sacrificial life, faithfully lived even to the death, shows God’s healing love. God’s revelation in Jesus shows God’s true justice. Exercising divine forbearance, God had passed over human sinfulness; this proved at the present time that God is just and that God justifies the one who follows Jesus.

Boasting is excluded by the law of faith. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Is not God the God of Gentiles as well as Jews? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; God will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. In the end, the true law is not overthrown by this faith but rather upheld. (Romans 3:9-31)

So, what words or thoughts come to mind?

God’s love and the sin problem

This is what I think is going on here. At least, this is a little bit of what I think—it is a complex passage! Paul is most of all concerned with helping to empower people to love God and to love all neighbors. He understands that love to be the heart of biblical faith—central to the Old Testament law, central to the prophets, and—most of all—central to the message of Jesus.

But we have a big problem, as they did in days of old. Paul calls it “sin.” His point here, though, is not so much that each individual has sinned. Paul is not thinking like the children’s sermon that tells kids that each one has a dark spot of sin on their hearts. This spot gets bigger each time you lie or don’t obey your parents. This is not Paul’s idea. He is not thinking like the old gospel hymn—where as individuals each one of us is “sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown.”

Paul is not thinking the way one theologian I have read puts it—that God is most of all holy and just. That God simply cannot abide with sin. That were God to be in the presence of sin, God would have to destroy it. That is, were God to be in the presence of our individual sinful hearts, God would have to destroy us. This is not Paul’s concern. From start to finish, Paul’s God is a God of love who responds to human sinfulness not with condemnation and anger but with an initiative to heal, an initiative to free us from the damage sin visits upon us.

The key human failure is the failure to give God praise for what is. This praise is important because it evokes a sense of trust in the goodness of life and in the abundance of love. This praise empowers people to live without fearfulness and insecurity. This praise enables people to feel at home in the universe—to love the world and those who dwell in it. The failure to be grateful leads to trust in created things rather than the creator. This in turns fuels the dynamics of idolatry. The failure to live in gratitude leads to fearfulness. Fearfulness leads to a quest for security —and the tendency to trust in things that offer a sense of security. Tragically, this tendency leads to a vicious cycle. Trust in created things leads to trust in human empires—such as the Roman Empire Paul’s readers lived in the heart of. And this trust looses a spiral of injustice, oppression, and violence.

We could call the trust in the security offered by empires “Idolatry I.” As Paul summarizes the problems of imperial idolatry in Romans 1, he surely imagined his rigorously religious readers nodding their heads enthusiastically. Indeed, those pagans deserve the self-destruction they visit upon themselves.

But then Paul turns the tables and tells his rigorously religious readers that they are doing the same damn thing. We who know the story of Paul’s own life know that he has in mind one rigorously religious person in particular—his own self. In the name of religious purity, Paul had violently persecuted followers of Jesus. We can call this rigorously religious attempt to provide for security, “Idolatry II.”

Now, it is crucial that we not equate “Idolatry II” with Judaism—it is as a Jew that Paul refutes his own sacred violence. He seeks more than ever to be a faithful Jew. He believes his Jewish tradition affirms the message of the gospel. The problem is how this message gets distorted by people of all religions. Certainly, Christians have terribly distorted the gospel message over and over again—and still do.

Two problematic systems of salvation

These two idolatries illumine the problem of sin. Humanity constructed systems of salvation, systems that seek security in ways that prove to be based on injustice, on violence, on coercion, on pride (Paul’s term for this part of the dynamic is “boasting”—kind of like people today calling the United States the “indispensable nation” or kind of like Christians saying “there is no salvation outside the church”).

These two systems of salvation, in many ways, rival faiths, profoundly in conflict, had elements in common. They collaborated to kill Jesus. Each perceived—accurately—that Jesus was a genuine threat to their system of salvation. When he offered healing apart from the temple rituals, Jesus undermined the religious monopoly of Temple-centered Judaism. When he labeled the Empire’s leaders tyrants and suggested an alternative politics of servanthood, Jesus undermined Rome’s power-over style of social organization.

When Jesus showed that God is about mercy, all the way down, that salvation is free and available to all—outcasts and unclean, as well as pious and powerful—he challenged all systems of salvation that were (and are) based on something other than mercy. Both of these systems of salvation, in their own ways, saw something as more fundamental than mercy. Both were based on fear, the need for security, the sense that the universe demands satisfaction in order to allow us, tenuously, to survive in it.

So, when Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” he is not referring to individuals. He’s referring to systems of salvation based on something other than mercy. And he has these two examples—empire and religion—in mind. Each group fails to glorify God. Each fails to cultivate gratitude. Each misunderstands justice; they both see justice as being about retribution instead of about healing love.

Paul critiques “Idolatry I” in Romans 1. The salvation system based on boasting in the Roman Empire created an environment where the lusts and arrogance of the Roman power elite went unchecked—leading to exploitative sexual practices and many other forms of violence and injustice. And the citizens of the Empire still gave their loyalty to this elite—their minds were indeed “darkened.”

But the response of the rigorously religious—with its self-righteousness and its own kind of arrogance—fueled parallel violence. The goal for Paul himself, before he met Jesus, was a pure community that would exclude the unclean Other, violently if necessary. The idolatry of the pure, rigorously religious community led to behavior just as bad as the idolatry of the impure, pagan community.

I note that it remains a terrible irony down to our present day that Paul’s intent here—to challenge the rigorously religious readers to love—has been turned on its head when Romans 1 becomes a basis for violence against LGBTQ Christians.

Paul’s counsel of hope, not despair

In chapter three, Paul makes a universal statement, “all have sinned.” But this is not meant as a counsel of despair. He does not mean, You are condemned no matter what. Rather, the claim, “all have sinned” is a critique of systems of salvation that are not based on mercy. Paul’s intent is not to condemn his readers, not to say you can do nothing good; rather Paul’s intent is to encourage them, to help them be free.

This is Paul’s message: Turn away from those systems of salvation. Turn away from political structures like those that condemned Jesus. Turn away from religious structures like those that condemned Jesus. And simply trust in God’s mercy—and believe that God’s character is mercy all the way down. God’s justice is about healing and restoring relationships, not about punishment, repaying sin with pain, demanding a tit for tat.

Paul concludes his argument from chapters 1–3: “Apart from works of the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That is, the healing, saving, merciful justice of God is present in the world right now. We don’t need these systems of salvation to subdue God’s anger—because God is not angry.

Jesus brings salvation in two ways. First, he showed what God is like better than anything else ever has—merciful toward sinners, independent of other systems of salvation, confrontive toward abuses of power and disrespect toward vulnerable people. And second, by following this path in face of hostility from the political and religious leaders, all the way to his death, Jesus shows that those leaders were not God’s agents but were actually opposed to God. He frees us from the need to trust in them.

Jesus offers a “blood sacrifice,” Paul writes here. But this is not a necessary sacrifice where God’s son had to be violently executed in order to satisfy God’s holiness. Rather, Jesus’s entire life all the way to his death was a self-sacrifice where he devoted his life to confrontive love without compromise. Such love reveals God’s mercy —and reveals the hostility of the powers that be.

Ultimately, Paul strongly reinforces Jesus’s message. How does God respond to sin? By taking the initiative to bring healing. God offers forgiveness and shows the way to life. So we may live in gratitude and treat others kindly in the same way God has treated us. Rather than living lives of anxiety, of insecurity, of giving loyalty to human institutions that offer a form of security that only increases our fearfulness—we may live lives of trust.

Living lives of trust

One of my favorite theologians is the great Jewish writer Martin Buber. For years, I have turned to his book, I and Thou, for hope and encouragement. This is one of my favorite quotes—that I think echoes what Paul is getting at in Romans 3. “Only [the one] that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if [one] commits [oneself] one cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled; but love it in all its terror. [D]are to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.” Dare to embrace the world—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.

I recently was a bit surprised to find a parallel quote in a book by American political thinker Jonathan Schell called The Unconquerable World. Schell tells of the power of nonviolence and the obsolescence of war. He keeps his distance from faith, but at one point he makes this statement: “What Gandhi, [Vaclav] Havel, and most of the others who have won nonviolent victories in our time believed, and made the starting point of their activity was a conviction—or, to be exact, a faith—that if they acted in obedience to certain demanding principles, which for all of them included in one way or another the principle of nonviolence, there was somewhere in the order of creation, a fundament or truth, that would give an answering and sustaining reply.”

Just the other day I heard of an example of this “answering and sustaining reply.” Pat Hostetter Martin shared in my class about her and Earl’s experience in Vietnam. One remarkable element of their work in offering assistance to people displaced by the war—work that took place amidst much danger from several sides—was that they felt much safer there not having weapons for their self-defense.

They lived with trust in the people they lived around—that as they lived in a defenseless way they would actually have much less need for defense.

Paul argues in Romans that we should see the moral universe as mercy all the way down—and live accordingly. But this is not an argument that everything will always turn out alright. Paul knew suffering and he presents the normal life of faith as a life with plenty of sorrow and tears. But as he will state later in Romans, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … [No, nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (8:35, 38). Amen

This is the fourth in a series of sermons on the book of Romans—Here is the home page for these sermons.

2 thoughts on “Mercy all the way down: Paul’s message in Romans 3

  1. ppenner

    Your sermon resonates with some of the same concepts N.T. Wright presents in his newest book “Simply Good News” which our SS class is currently studying.  Thanks for your grace-filled words! Much different from those with which I was raised. Grace and Peace, Pat Penner Weatherford, OK

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S® III mini, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s