The Pastoral Promise of Paul’s Apocalyptic

In my last two posts on Romans 5 (here and here), I wrote that Paul speaks of justification as God’s having acted powerfully on behalf of the Roman Christians.  They are not only declared righteous, they are transformed, rectified, made new, transferred into a new cosmic realm called “this grace.”  They take up a new location that has a range of Spirit-empowered dynamics operating within it.

They inhabit a life-giving realm in which there is constant renewal and transformation.

They no longer inhabit the realm in which Sin reigns and in which Death operates.  These cosmic powers are in league with “the Flesh” in the realm called “Adam” into which all humanity is naturally born.  It is the realm in which relationships break down, groups agitate for dominance over one another, rivalries proliferate and escalate, and communities come undone.

The realm called “Adam” is headed for destruction, while the realm called “the gift” is headed for ultimate transformation into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

This apocalyptic scenario of two realms operating within the world might be a bit mind-bending for most Western Christians accustomed to thinking of salvation in terms of “what happens to me, within my heart,” but there is loads of payoff for reflection on Christian realities.  That’s why Paul thinks from this scenario in most of his letters.

When Paul sees rival groups developing in churches (e.g., Rome, Corinth, Galatia), he analyzes the situation in terms of communal behaviors that are stirring up the dynamics of destructive cosmic powers.  When one group makes a power-move over-against another, Paul warns them that they are “sowing to the Flesh,” unleashing into the community the dynamics of Sin, Death, and Flesh.

The results can only be destructive.

Because these dynamics are at work, such moves provoke responses of sinful anger, escalating the situation and inviting malicious and outraged counter-responses.

Paul sees these things going on in the Galatian churches and warns them that “if you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).

He goes on to tell them how they can determine if the power of the Spirit is operative in their community (vv. 22-25), or if the cosmic power of the Flesh has taken over (vv. 19-21).

When rivalries develop in a church, each group imagines that it is doing God’s will, so it will call upon Scripture to endorse its claims.  It may even come up with slogans to rally the troops and assert its claims over others (e.g., “to the Jew first, and then to the Greek!”).

This is Paul’s point—in my opinion—in Romans 7.  Some in the Roman church(es) are using Scripture to endorse their claims and imagine that their motives are pure in doing so.  But they are unwittingly making Scripture an ally of Sin as it seeks to destroy the Roman church(es).

This approach can bear much fruit for pastors and church leaders as they seek to resolve conflicts in their communities.  Are there rivalries, competing sides, outbreaks of malice, slander, and gossip?  Is the community stuck in cycles of retaliation and revenge?

In some way, corrupted communal behaviors are stirring up the destructive dynamics of Sin, Death, and Flesh.

Pastors can identify destructive behaviors and creatively come up with alternative behaviors that flow from the realm called “this grace,” or, “in Christ.”  Such behaviors and relational postures stir up the life-giving and renewing power of the Spirit so that communities may be healed and reconciliation can occur.

This is Paul’s strategy when he writes to reverse communal breakdown.  This approach has so many implications for churches, relationships, marriages, and families, and it’s the strategy Paul adopts throughout Romans 5-8.

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