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In this excerpt from my book The United Church, I discuss Paul’s call for unity among the body of believers in Romans 5.


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What follows is, with some minor modifications, an excerpt from my book The United Church.  

Romans 5:21

so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here Paul brings the contrast between Adam and Jesus to its climax.[1] The purpose of grace, Paul argues, is to break sin’s stranglehold on helpless humanity.[2] For the last time, Paul returns to his use of comparative language and revisits the key terms he has used to draw the contrast thus far: sin in death and grace through righteousness.[3]

The mention of eternal life in the latter half of the verse implies that Paul meant “death” in the spiritual as well as the physical sense.[4] Whereas “sin reigned in the dominion of death,” those who “receive the gift” (cf. 5:17) are transferred from one dominion to the other, where grace reigns eternal, through the sacrifice of Christ.[5]

“Sin poses as absolute monarch, reigning through death as its vicar,” but Christ, having defeated death, forces sin to yield “to another whose reign is wholly absolute and totally different, being as much a blessing as the other is a curse.”[6] Righteousness is the “gateway” to salvation,[7] and grace is the gateway to righteousness.

Yet, we must be careful when interpreting “eternal life.” While the most natural translation of the Greek phrase is, in fact, “eternal life,” theological debates and developments over the past two millennia have invested this phrase with a meaning different from the Pauline concept.[8]

Paul parallels his use of “life” in verses 17 and 18 by concluding his discourse with the addition of “eternal,” emphasizing the eschatological nature of this eternal life.[9] Therefore, the most literal translation can be misleading if it points us to the Platonic “idea of an endless disembodied bliss.”[10] “Eternal life” has become a loaded term within modern Christianity, and so the better translation here is probably “the life of the age to come” (cf. Rom 8:18–27).[11]

While the natural contrast to “sin reigned in death” is “righteousness reigned in life,” Paul argues that it is grace, not righteousness, that reigns. Righteousness, therefore, is a consequence of grace.[12] Romans 5:18–21 stresses that God’s relationship with mankind is marked by the “reign of grace and life, not of law and trespass and death.”[13]

Paul is arguing that grace now rules through God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant, which he has fulfilled through Christ and which has resulted in the opening up of the Abrahamic blessings to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The “result is the ushering in of the age to come,”[14] the “already but not yet” of common theological parlance.

In this verse, Paul continues to play on a central theme of Romans: “righteousness.”[15] Paul commonly uses this word when referring to the righteousness of God and the justification of sinners, particularly when arguing that the law can justify no one (e.g., Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16, 3:11).[16] This syntax is deliberate, providing not only the sense of the “status of righteousness” but also God’s action in bringing it about. “Righteousness,” therefore, includes the “means by which grace achieves its effect as well as the effect itself.”[17]

The continuous, ongoing, and future sense of this “righteousness” is conveyed through the phrase, “to eternal life,” as discussed above. Paul finally draws his first main argument to an end, while simultaneously laying the foundation of a new one. He explains that the believer is liberated from the law and can now enjoy a taste of the eschatological salvation that Christ has secured, even while not yet enjoying complete freedom from the old age of sin and death.[18]

What Christ accomplished on the cross provides a partial glimpse of the age to come that will not be fully effective until the final judgment.[19]

Romans 5:18–21 draws a sharp contrast between the situation into which humanity has condemned itself and the escape made available through Jesus Christ. Paul is ethnically inclusive, making broad general statements regarding the human condition, setting the stage for his call for unity.

As a response to Jewish-Gentile tensions, this passage cuts through ethnic distinctions. All people of all races and backgrounds are sinners. Yet all who were made sinners have the opportunity to experience grace through Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. For just as Adam cursed all of humanity through disobedience, so Christ secured the opportunity for salvation for all humanity, regardless of ethnicity, through his life, death, and resurrection.

Unity, therefore, should be the natural state of the Church.

A Call for Unity

Romans 5:18–21 has tremendous application potential for Christians today. Though at first glance this passage seems to be little more than a theological discussion of sin and justification, understanding the historical and cultural context into which Paul wrote, possessing a deeper appreciation of Paul’s word choice, and shaking off preconceived theological presuppositions reveal an often missed meaning within the text.

Indeed, in Paul’s writings, “the rescue of human beings from sin and death…serves a much larger purpose” than the personal salvation of the individual.[20] God’s redemptive work serves to restore all of creation, imparting divine justice and renewal throughout the cosmos.[21]

Paul wrote to Jewish and Gentile believers at odds with one another, urging them to recognize that all races stand condemned before God because of the curse of sin and that Jesus Christ came to save those of every race and heritage. The Jews demanded that the Gentiles adhere to Jewish customs—and, indeed, that they essentially become Jews—while the Gentiles arrogantly disregarded the Abrahamic covenant as a relic without current significance. It was in this context that Paul wrote for unity.

Today, we may not face the same theological conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the American Church, but we do face similar racial and cultural divides. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week,[22] and our churches are frequently defined by their ethnicity and culture before their mission.

The message of Romans 5:18–21 is this: we are all condemned through Adam, and we are all justified through Christ. In short, we are all in this together. If we are to stand together and fulfill Christ’s calling to the Church, we must humble ourselves and learn to see each other as equals. Paul’s call for unity is as relevant today as it was two-thousand years ago.

This passage is an indictment against the segregation and conflict within the Church, and so we must work to roll back the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic divisions that have diminished her. To do this, we must appreciate our diversity—in race, background, and tradition—embracing it as the work of a creative God.

We must, therefore, abandon our quick willingness to divide. We have all too often adopted a lodge mentality toward church, worshiping only with those who look like us, think like us, believe like us, and have the same taste. Unity does not allow for such divisions.

While a common basic faith is indispensable, I cannot help but believe we make mountains out of too many molehills, evidenced by the myriad of different Christian denominations that have cropped up since the Reformation.[23] We are too quick to split apart from one another and to turn church into a social club where we can remain unchallenged and unchanged.

Just as the Jews saw the Mosaic Law as foundational to their faith, many today confuse their own particular preference or tradition with biblical principles. Churches are now divided over worship styles, evangelism techniques, and even which translations of the Bible to use. Unity has a foundational goal has been lost.

We must not be so arrogant as to force our own personal preferences as dogma. One of Paul’s central messages is that “[t]here are some practical things over which Christians can legitimately disagree” that “should not impair common worship.”[24]

The Church should be built around serving our Lord and bringing his message of salvation to the entire world, not around our preferences toward hymns or worship choruses, liturgical or non-liturgical styles. All religious preferences compatible with biblical principles should not only be tolerated, but embraced and respected. Therefore, we must understand that, while tradition and heritage have their place, they do not form the foundation of our faith.[25]

We all share common ground as Christians in that we are all justified through Jesus Christ. Every day we allow ethnic and cultural divisions and petty conflicts to continue, the problem only worsens, and we drift only farther away from unity.

Reconciliation will bring healing, but a complacent attitude in dealing with these problems will cripple the Church’s ability to form a united front in the cause of Christ. If we are to be reconciled, we must learn to place spiritual unity above racial boundaries and cultural and socioeconomic religious traditions.

This disunity demonstrates our failure to appreciate the battle in which we are engaged. While Christ has conquered sin and death, ensuring final victory for himself and his followers, the “war is not finished, a conflict does not cease with the striking of the decisive blow.”[26] The position of the Church is that of an army fighting a diminished enemy that nonetheless continues to struggle desperately with whatever remaining force it can muster.[27]

This understanding of the work of Christ should radically impact how we live our lives. Christ did not accomplish a “legal fiction,” providing righteousness through the Father’s arbitrary acceptance of Christ’s work as satisfaction for man’s guilt. If that were the case, perhaps we could simply sit back and give thanks for our current status.

Rather, we are engaged in a continued conflict that requires a united front. We must either participate in the work of expanding the kingdom of God or be aligned with the vanquished forces of sin and death.

Salvation is participation in the reign of Christ, and so faith in what Christ did requires faithful involvement in what Christ is doing. This challenges the falsehood that one can experience salvation without living salvation. Indeed, the two are inseparable.

There is no legal fiction of salvation, no abstract, theoretical forgiveness of sins. (No “fire insurance” in colloquial evangelical terms.) In a Christian culture that allows for a profession of faith without an active change in lifestyle, this truth stands more relevant than ever.[28] The battle in which we are engaged leaves no room for loafing soldiers or a divided army.

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[1] Moo, 349.

[2] Morris, 242.

[3] Moo, 349.

[4] Morris, 242.

[5] Moo, 349–50.

[6] Harrison, 65.

[7] Moo, 350.

[8] Wright, “Romans,” 530.

[9] Dunn, Romans, 287–88, 300.

[10] Wright, “Romans,” 530.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Harrison, 65.

[13] Alistair Drummon, “Romans 5:12–21,” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (January 2003): 67.

[14] Wright, “Romans,” 530.

[15] Dunn, Romans, 287.

[16]dikaiosynē,NIDNTT, 145.

[17] Wright, “Romans,” 529.

[18] Dunn, Romans, 287–88, 300.

[19] Wright, “Romans,” 529.

[20] Wright, Paul, 1:165.

[21] Ibid.

[22] I am grateful to Dr. Danny Hays for this observation.

[23] When we consider the diversity in doctrine and theology among leaders of the early Church, I cannot help but wonder if we do not pull in too tightly the boundaries of what constitutes sound faith, separating from communion too easily over relatively minor matters. While I echo the sentiment that we should never sacrifice truth for the sake of unity, I also wonder what beliefs we should be willing to concede for the sake of Christian harmony. We must be uncompromising with regard to doctrine that is foundational to the faith but be willing to tolerate all else. While Protestants may be the biggest culprits, the history of the relationships between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Oriental Orthodoxy show somewhat similar flaws. It is our nature to divide and gravitate toward those like us, but this is a tendency we should resist, even where—indeed, particularly where—theological disagreements may provide a pious mask for such behavior.

[24] Wright, “Romans,” 407.

[25] I do not mean to lump in the ancient doctrinal traditions of the Church—often written “Tradition”—with the cultural and ecclesiastical traditions discussed here. The doctrines we have received from the early church that, even if not explicitly stated, are strongly implied in Scripture—such as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, etc.—should be valued and given proper authority. These are not analogous to worship styles and other practical considerations.

[26] Gustaf Wingren, The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 62 quoted by Boyd, War, 214.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Boyd, “Christus Victor,” 47.

See Also:

The Mosaic Law in Romans 5

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