Sometimes reading Paul can feel a bit like being thrown into the midst of one of those arguments in which nobody seems to remember how it began and the hope of a conclusion, let alone a conciliatory one, seems very far off indeed. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that we rarely argue by letter these days.
So Paul’s digressions anticipating various objections, some of which are less than intuitive to twenty-first century readers, seem to make things all the more opaque. It’s enough for us to cry out foolishly for Jesus’ teaching instead, as if it were somehow different or, at the very least, frequently praised for its clarity of expression and lack of ambiguity.
The truth is, just as Jesus’ parables find their true explication in the saving work of his passion and resurrection, Paul’s goal in these two chapters is to help draw out the consequences of those most momentous of events. Again and again in the gospel accounts the disciples have trouble interpreting sayings of Jesus that seem clear enough to us because they are missing that one piece, “the passion piece,” to complete the picture.
Consider the incomplete understanding of the Samarian woman Jesus encounters at a well when he tells her “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). She comes to recognize Christ as the Messiah, but Jesus’ words have resonances for us which she could not yet know.
With Paul we encounter a different problem, a more challenging problem. It’s as if the whole puzzle had been knocked to the floor in the earthquake when the angel of the Lord rolled away that great tombstone. Despite now having all the pieces, Paul and followers of Jesus everywhere need to pick them up and figure out how to put them back together once again.
A fundamental issue for Paul and the church at Rome in those days is in some ways as fresh today as it was then: how to fit the “works of the law piece” together with the all-important “passion piece.” How are they to interlock? Do both lead to our justification or does just one?
In chapter 3, Paul is very clear that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Rom. 3:20). Throughout the chapter he demonstrates that the law is not some special possession which makes the Jews superior to all other people, but functions to convict them, just as he indicated that gentiles have the law written on their hearts to function in much the same way (Rom. 2:14-15).
But Jesus did not call Paul simply to make proclamations by fiat and expect everyone to assent. Instead Paul draws upon the scriptures to show the truth of what he proclaims. Just how he does this is fascinating in its own right, but his masterstroke comes in chapter 4.
There Paul points to Abraham. Despite the intricacies of the debate about God’s covenant relationship with Israel, Paul concludes by remembering where it all began. When God promised Abraham many offspring so that he might be father to a multitude of nations, God did not accord it to Abraham on account of his righteousness, but through the gift of his faith.
As Christians we have received, despite our utter unworthiness, the promise of eternal life through the redemptive work of God in Christ Jesus. As with Abraham, this is not bestowed on us through any work of our own, but rather through faith in him. In the midst of an argument that seemed so far from start or finish, by turning to precisely those points in the story, Paul helps us recognize its sum as God’s promise of unmerited gift.
Looking back to the start we see that God delights first in giving, even before Moses received the law (itself a gift from God). Looking forward to the end we come to know that God is not merely the giver, but that he, himself, is the gift. For if ever there were words trustworthy and true, they are these: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (Rev. 21:6).