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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Paul's epiphany

If there is one book in the Bible (besides the Book of Revelation) that could fill a library with commentary and still leave you confused after reading each and every one of them, it's the Book of Romans. It is primarily from Romans that we get the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works (although this doctrine is emphasized in Galatians and Ephesians as well).

Since the Book of Romans is the most systematic explanation of the gospel in the entire Bible (and also the most logical book in the Bible), I find it rather fascinating that so many diametrically opposite interpretations can be found. Perhaps some of the confusion is in the rather ambiguous nature of the book.

For example, Romans 2:5-10 seems to teach salvation by works, yet Romans 3:28 clearly says otherwise.

To complicate things even further, this jewel of Western literature seems to teach a number of morally problematic ideas. For example, many people say that Romans 9 teaches that God chooses some to be saved and some to be condemned to everlasting flames. Those who believe this say that God is just in doing this because those unchosen are very wicked and do not recognize His authority over their lives. Yet, the strange part about it is that these same wicked people who do not honor God (wicked by this definition could either be Hitler or your unsaved grandma), seemingly according to the Book of Romans have no other choice but to be wicked because they are simply living out their inherited sin nature passed down from Adam and Eve.

Even worse, many say that Romans 1 teaches that not only can the non-elect do nothing about their hopeless situation, but they also have enough light from God through nature and their conscience to increase their condemnation. In other words, not only does God withhold grace from the non-chosen, He gives them enough light so that He can damn them even more.

With all this in mind, I find it rather odd that Paul ends his theological discourse on the nature of the gospel with these words:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him? And it shall be repaid to him? For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

What would give Paul such an epiphany? Many would say that the reason for Paul's rejoicing is that God is glorified in the end. To this, I would agree. God's glory is supreme and there is absolutely nothing more important. But then they further say that we should rejoice that God is glorified even in the damnation of sinners. Some even say things like, "Even if my mother were frying in hell, I would give glory to God because I know that she would deserve it for the sin of failing to recognize the supremacy of God." (I'm not making this up, well-known theologians have made very similar statements to this)

Time out! Is this really what it means to believe that God is supreme over all? Does this actually mean that we should rejoice that sinners are damned because their very damnation gives glory to God? Some even say that God created hell to increase the glories of heaven. In other words, those in heaven will further enjoy their elect status by the reminder of the misery of the damned. The moral problem with this is that if I were in heaven worshipping God while delighting in the misery of others, then what kind of a monster would that make me?

Thankfully, I do not believe Paul intended for me to get my eternal jollies from the torture of the damned, nor do I believe Paul intends for us to believe that God derives everlasting pleasure from the misery of the wicked.

So what caused Paul to throw his hands up in the air and worship His maker? Let's read the verse before Paul's epiphany.

For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.

In the end, it is not God's wrath that should cause us to rejoice, but God's mercy. I find it interesting that many people derive so many different ideas from the first 11 chapters of Romans yet almost completely disregard the one verse that sums up everything that Paul has been saying up until this point.

I'll admit that, as much as I study the Bible, I am still very ignorant of God's ways (especially when it comes to salvation and damnation), but there is one thing I do know. And that is that God's desire is to show mercy to as many people as possible. I may not understand why there will be some (or many) who will be lost in the end, but I am content with the knowledge that my Father in heaven, whom I worship, is not only worthy of worship because of His power, but also because of His mercy.

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