Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2019
Romans 10:8b-13 Commentary
This may seem like a rather peculiar text to proclaim at the beginning of the season of Lent. After all, we generally think of Lent as a season of repentant preparation for our celebration of the two most important events of the Christian year, Good Friday and Easter.
Romans 10, however, may seem like a stimulus to such repentance only by way of a kind of negation. That is to say, Lent might shape our understanding of this text so that we read it, “If you don’t confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (10), you need to repent of that failure.
Yet what if those who proclaim Romans 10:8b-13 saw it as an opportunity to invite our hearers and ourselves to confess and repent of our natural sense of spiritual self-sufficiency? What if we used it to summon both others and ourselves to a greater reliance on the One who has already done everything needed for the sake of the world God so deeply loves?
Such an approach, after all, fits the literary and theological context of the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Broadly speaking, Paul devotes a large part of chapters 9-11 to expressing his anguish at so many of his Jewish contemporaries’ failure to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ.
“Israel,” Paul mourns in 9:31 ff., has “pursued a law of righteousness … they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” While Israel is “zealous for God,” her “zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” ” (10:2-3). To boil down a complex argument, Paul insists that Israel relied on herself to try to please God through obedience to God’s laws instead of simply receiving God’s grace with her faith in Jesus Christ.
But, of course, we know that Israel is not alone in that rather large “boat.” In fact, all of us have by nature voluntarily clambered into the “same boat.” We naturally assume that our hope lies not in the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in our obedience to God. At our Lenten best, Christians confess that while we don’t profess it, we often act as though it’s up to us to be “righteous” enough to satisfy God.
Our contemporaries might not use “righteousness” language. However, as Fleming Rutledge notes, “There is no one alive who does not make explicit or implicit judgment on other people’s ‘righteousness’ … In spite of our abandonment of biblical language, we still have a sense, however vaguely articulated, of a standard of goodness out there somewhere” (“Preaching without Distinction,” in Not Ashamed of the Gospel, Eerdmans: 2007, p. 307-8).
Whether we think we need to be “righteous” in order to somehow please God, our neighbors or even ourselves, all of us naturally strive to be good and moral people. Otherwise, we fear, we run the risk of condemnation by some god, society or perhaps even ourselves. Those who proclaim this part of Romans 10 would do well to explore that with our hearers, perhaps offering examples that fit our own contexts.
Yet those in whom God’s Spirit has done and is doing God’s saving work have been shown a better way. The Spirit has shown us that we’re unreliable when it comes to being righteous. It’s not just that our righteousness is inconsistent at best. It’s also that we simply can’t be righteous enough to satisfy our holy and righteous God’s expectations (nor society’s or our own, when we’re honest about it).
We profess that we are not, in other words, spiritually independent. We are, instead, entirely dependent. There is only one “Lord” (10), only One who calls the shots in both our world and us. And it’s not us. It’s Jesus. If we are to somehow survive beyond the death of our bodies, we can’t rely on ourselves. We can’t raise ourselves from the dead. We are completely dependent on the God who raised Jesus from the dead to raise us, both physically and spiritually.
Paul even seems to affirm that complete dependence with his use of passive verbs in verse 10. He writes not, “It is with your heart that you justify yourself,” but “It is with your heart that you … are justified” (italics added). The apostle doesn’t add, “It is with your mouth that you save yourself.” Instead, he insists, “It is with your mouth that you … are saved” (italics added).
That extensive use of the passive voice has two implications. One is that we simply can’t justify or save ourselves. Secondly, however, it implies that we not only need but also have someone to justify and save us. Paul’s repeated emphasis on God’s saving work earlier in chapter 10, as well as throughout his letters, leaves us with only one conclusion: God graciously justifies and saves those who cannot justify and save ourselves.
This dramatic rescue is, Paul adds, graciously offered to not just Jewish people or just gentiles, but to all of us. “Anyone,” Paul insists in verse 11, “who trusts in [God] will never be put to shame.” Yet as if the apostle worries we may not get that, he adds in verse 12, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” And as if Paul worries we still can’t get that through our sin-thickened skulls and -hardened hearts, he adds, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (13).
Christians’ minds may run quickly to Jewish people’s failure to recognize this. Wasn’t that, after all, one of Jesus’ chief accusations against Jewish religious leaders in particular? That they’d forgotten the massive scope of God’s grace? That those religious leaders had come to assume that God loved only “insiders” like them?
Of course, such religious “provincialism” was the source of some of Jesus’ greatest frustration. But I imagine that Jesus is no less frustrated with and grieved by my own inclination to be stingy with God’s grace. Since God has graciously given me the Holy Spirit who leads me into God’s truth, God may, in fact, be even more frustrated with my own frugality with God’s grace than God was with Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries’.
Those who proclaim Romans 10 may want to spend time plumbing some of the depths of the contrast between the lavishness of God’s grace and our narrow perceptions of that grace. We might explore some of the caveats we assume God adds to that grace. We might ask each other and ourselves how our various labels that we like to attach to people hinder our recognition of God’s grace in their lives.
In his article, “’A Rather Antinomian Christianity’: John Updike’s Religion,” in the March 13, 2015 edition of Pubic Discourse, Gerald R. McDermott calls Updike ‘a man of many contradictions. Though he was both spiritual and religious, he was also a serial adulterer. Widely celebrated as one of America’s greatest writers, his work was dismissed by some critics as stylized pornography with nothing serious to say. Although he recognized the devastation the sexual revolution was wreaking on families, he abandoned his first wife and children to marry one of his mistresses…
As [author Daniel Ross] Goodman pointed out, Updike was stubbornly religious throughout his life. He told an interviewer, “I’m a religious writer . . . I try to show people stuck with this kind of yearning [for other men’s wives and for morality and religion].” He was a regular churchgoer, recited the Lord’s Prayer with his children when he tucked them into bed at night, and defended Christian theism from his days at Harvard in the early 1950s until his death almost sixty years later. Even Couples is shot through and through with religion…
‘How could a man be so religious and yet be so enthusiastic for infidelity? The answer seems to lie in his religion. It was a strange sort of Christianity that rejected the strictures of traditional faith, choosing divine comfort while rejecting divine commands [italics added]. In other words, it was gospel without law, grace without repentance, the love of God without the holiness of God.
‘To be sure, Updike held on to parts of historic Christian belief. He rejected philosophical materialism as a failure to make sense of emotion and conscience, and defended Christ’s divinity against his first wife’s Unitarianism…
‘In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.”
‘There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.’
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