Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is everybody really worthless? Some meandering thoughts.

It's February, so I've been reading the February passage in my Romans Reading Plan. The passage begins at 2:12 ("For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.") and ends with 3:20 ("For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.").

You can kind of see right away what Paul is up to here. He wants to lay the groundwork for what he is about to say by showing that, whether Jew or Gentile, all are in dire need of grace (although he hasn't used that word yet).

In between, he makes the point that "circumcision is a matter of the heart." It reminds me of Steven, in Acts 7:51, where he calls his murderous accusers, "uncircumcised in heart and ears." Saul was standing by and perhaps condoning the religious mob that lynched Stephen, but many years later he would write to the Philippians, "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh." I like to think Stephen's accusation might have struck close to home for Saul that day.

Anyway, if circumcision means putting no confidence in the flesh, as Paul says, and if such misplaced confidence wells up from the deepest parts of us, then we are uncircumcised at heart. At heart, maybe we do put confidence in the flesh. On the surface, on the level of assertion, on the level of proposition, we say otherwise. But what of the heart?

Paul, in Romans 3, is about to say something quite awful.
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Not even one? Ever?

Paul is quoting from Psalm 14 here, but doing so rather selectively. Go back to that Psalm, and read the opening lines.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
Note: it is the fool who says all this, who has turned aside, etc. [By the way, my study Bible tells me that the three Hebrew words for fool always refer to "moral orientation."] For the Psalmist, it is the fool who ignores God, but meanwhile there is another group, as opposed to "the fool," whom God calls "my people." They're under siege, but God is their refuge (v.4,5). There are at least some, it seems, who "seek God."

So, come back to Romans 3. Paul is sounding quite a bit harsher and more sweeping than the Psalmist, and indeed I have heard preachers use verse 10 to declare that all humanity is nothing but a crawling mass of dung beetles. But is Paul really meaning to say that? I must hearken back to Romans 1, where Paul, addressing the Roman Christians, says they are called to be saints. And he says the purpose of the gospel is to bring about the obedience of faith in all the world. And even look forward to Romans 8, where he calls on people to walk by the Spirit, and yes, not by the flesh ("put no confidence in the flesh").

The point being, the gospel circumcises hearts. The gospel causes people to lose confidence in the flesh and gain confidence in God.

Bottom line, the circumcised heart is the heart of faith, whose confidence is in the Lord, who flee to his refuge, crying "Abba, Father," as one who knows the Father's response will be one of unalloyed love. If we know this, we can have peace in any storm. But if we do not have peace, is it because, at the heart level, we do not really believe these things?

Circumcise my heart, oh God.

1 comment:

nAncY said...

good and thoughtful writing.