I was reading my Bible the other day and was struck by the glaring inconsitencies in the words of Paul, specifically in the book of Romans. Romans, if you didn’t know, is a tricky book. It’s a book, in fact, that has received a lot of publicity lately as parts of Paul’s words have been used by the government to condone some of the things that have been happening with immigration, human rights, etc.
That’s important stuff, but this isn’t a post about that.
I don’t want to make this long and I don’t want to drag on and on about this. But I do want to point something out that I think is important, something that can help give us some direction when it comes to being better readers of the Bible.
In his book “The Bible Tells Me So”, Peter Enns says that …
“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual — follow the direction and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible against these anti-God attacks.”
In other words, many Christians believe that the Bible is …
… And that different verses from different books written by different people in different periods of time all work together to paint a big and wonderful picture of God, how to properly believe in Him, and how to (therefore) receive eternal life / salvation.
God created everything perfect.
Sin entered the world.
Humanity inherited a sinful nature.
Sin makes God mad.
Jesus died for our sin.
Faith in Him gets us to heaven.
A lack of faith gets us sent to hell.
That’s the right way to believe, many will say — the only way to believe. Deviate from that line of thinking and you’re considered to have gone off the deep end, bought into false teaching, and strayed from God.
Now, I’m not going to say those ideas aren’t true or right or whatever because I think that somewhere in that line of thinking is a bit of wisdom and truth. I will say, however, that I don’t think that’s the only way to understand the storyline / narrative of the Bible; nor do I think it’s the best way to understand the Bible.
Because the Bible, you see, actually has a fair amount of inconsistencies in it and isn’t quite as systematic as we’d like it to be. Simply put, it doesn’t always play nice; inconsistencies that might be better called “dichotomies”. A dichotomy can be defined as “a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different” and this is exactly what I see going on in a good amount of what Paul says (specifically in the book of Romans) about things like faith and salvation.
In Romans 1:16, for example, Paul says that …
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is God’s own power bringing salvation for everyone who believers, first for the Jew and then the Greek.”
… “Salvation for everyone who believes.”
I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical circle and so I was always taught that this verse meant that we shouldn’t be ashamed of how Jesus died for us on the cross and when we put our faith in Him and ask Him into our hearts and say the sinner’s prayer, that’s when we receive salvation or eternal life and get to be with God in heaven when we die instead of being separated from Him in hell for all of eternity.
I’m not here to deconstruct anyone’s beliefs or thoughts about God and so like I said earlier, I’m not saying that’s an entirely wrong way to understand Paul’s words. Again, however, I’m not sure that’s the best way to understand them in light of some other things that Paul says in Romans.
For example, later on in Romans 14:11 Paul says that …
“It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
And then in Philippians 2:10–11 he says …
“At the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
And so in one place Paul says that “salvation” is for “everyone who believes” and yet in another place he says that “every” knee will bow and “every” tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. It’s like in one place salvation is only for some who will “get it” or “understand it” and yet in another place salvation seems to claim the totality of creation as all of creation will one day declare it’s faith in Jesus regardless of whether they “get it” or “understand it” or not.
In her book “When In Romans”, Beverly Gaventa points out that …
“In these passages, Paul is very far from imagining the Gospel as a kind of offer God makes to individuals who are burdened by their own sins. The Gospel is simply larger than we imagine, both by virtue of the problem addressed and by virtue of God’s all-encompassing action.”
In other words, for Paul the Gospel isn’t so much the Good News that indiviuals who are burdened by a sinful nature can be saved by what Jesus did on the cross as much as the Gospel is about redeeming all of humanity from the slave-drivers of Sin and Death.
And then there’s Romans 8 where Paul says that all of creation groans in expectation of God’s redemption, His renewal of all things. Again there’s this idea on one hand that salvation and redemption and renewal are for certain people who get it or understand it while on the other hand that same salvation and renewal seems to be for …
The conservative side will often try to explain away the passages about “all things” and “all people” and “all of creation” being renewed while the more liberal side will try to explain away the pieces that talk about salvation being for only “those who believe”.
And I get that inclination — this is hard stuff. There’s a pretty clear struggle here and my initial thought as a rational human being is to jump on one of those two sides, eliminate the contrast or struggle or dichotomy or whatever, and come to a single, solitary solution.
Salvation is only for some who get it or understand it.
Salvation is for everyone regardless of whether they get it.
I’ll tell you up front, though — I have no solution. Like, I don’t know which side is right or which side has the stronger argument. What I do think, though, is that there’s a better way to go about wrestling with this stuff, and that’s this:
Embrace the dichotomy.
Instead of one side trying to explain away the other, perhaps the best thing is for both sides to realize that there’s another side, another possibility, another way to think through this stuff, and to (therefore) embrace Paul’s words in Romans 11:33 …
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements and His paths beyond tracing out!”
In other words, perhaps the dichotomy is there to keep our frail human minds from becoming too cocky and thinking that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Maybe that’s why the Bible doesn’t always play nice and spell this kind of stuff out as clearly and fully as we’d like. Maybe that’s why Paul said in Romans 12:16 to …
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
Maybe people of “low position” are people who think differently than my “high” or “educated” or “wise” position?
Like, maybe both sides (salvation for all / salvation for some) are so somewhat clearly spelled out so that even in the midst of our un-uniform thinking we can still be challenged to pursue unity and harmony with one another in our desire to live lives that bring glory and honor to Jesus and His call for us to …
Love our neighbor.
Turn the other cheek.
Love our enemies.
Go the extra mile.
Because, mind you, even though you might think that you have to believe a certain way in order to be on God’s good side and even though I might believe that the Gospel is big enough to cover everyone and anyone regardless of whether or not they’re aware of its presence in their lives … even though we might both be on opposite ends of some grand theological spectrum, we can still be on the very same line of the very same page of focusing on bringing heaven to earth in the way that we live and move in our part of the world.
(And that, I think [as a side note], is what we’re called to do because I think that’s a more complete picture of what salvation is according to the Biblical writers— not so much this idea that by believing the right thing I’m saved from hell, but that by believing in Jesus and His ways and His work on the cross, I’m invited into a circle of disicples that are responsible to infiltrate the world with God’s love and grace and peace so that we can begin the work of bringing heaven to earth, a work that Jesus will one day finish when He comes again and renews all things, the day that every tongue will confess and every knee will bow. You can read more about these thoughts around salvation in last week’s entry HERE.)
That said, I’m working to embrace the dichotomy today.
Instead of trying to defend a positon or argue a case, I’m acknowledging that there are many ways to understand big terms like salvation and faith and eternity and belief and I’m trying not to be so cocky that I think I have the right answer, the right way to believe or think all the while being fully confidnet that there is only one way that we’re called to live and move through the world and even though we might all think differently, we can all live with the same goal in mind — bring heaven to earth right here and right now with the way we live and with the words we speak.