In this series of reflections on Romans, I am asking how the context and purpose of the entire letter might shape Christian discussions about human sexuality. Paul refers to same gender erotic relations in Romans 1:26-27 as part of his aim to shape Christian identity as participation in a community of new creation flourishing characterized by practices of hospitality and postures of humility and hope. When we think and talk about sexuality, it is crucial that we do so as this sort of community.
I have been stating that the problem among the Roman Christians, as Paul configures it, is that one faction identifies itself as more godly and committed to Scripture than the other. Because of their supposed conversion to Judaism, they imagine that they have escaped identification with gentile ungodliness. This gives them a cause for boasting in their superior moral identity over-against gentile Christians.
I noted previously that Paul’s strategy in Romans 2-3 is to establish that there is only one group of Roman Christians. They are all united in bondage under Sin for they have all sinned. And they are all united in justification because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
In Romans 4-5, Paul confronts the group that is boasting in its identity with the reality that their self-regard as “godly” puts them at risk of being outside of God’s saving purposes. To those who regard themselves as more “godly” or more “righteous” than others, God behaves scandalously.
God is one who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5), so that gentiles—those in the “ungodly” group—have their sins forgiven in the same way God forgave David’s sins (4:6-8). Abraham is also a member of that group, who was justified before God apart from the works that would have identified him as a Jew (4:3, 9-10).
Those who have adopted a Jewish way of life in hopes of gaining the status of “righteous” would have their reward of approval not by grace, but as something that they deserve (4:4). But that is not how God justifies anyone. God justifies on the basis of faithfulness without reference to Jewish identity (4:5, 11-12), so that those who are “ungodly”—those the judging group have condemned as morally inferior—stand before God as justified.
Paul, then, scandalizes the group that is judging, since they imagine that they have an inside track with God and stand closer in relation to God than the gentiles. He scandalizes them by noting that God’s very identity is the God who justifies the ungodly—the ones they consider morally inferior.
If the boasting group, then, will not consider themselves “ungodly,” they cannot be justified. God’s very identity excludes them from his people.
Paul intensifies his argument in 5:6-8, which is loaded with sarcasm. He notes that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6). Again, Paul insists that one must own the identity of “ungodly” to be among those for whom Christ died.
Then, in a sarcastic aside, he notes that it would be pointless for anyone to die for a “righteous” person. I mean, goodness, what was God thinking to send Jesus to die if there were already people set right with God? Well, maybe for the “good” person, perhaps maybe then God’s actions would make sense.
But that isn’t the God of the gospel. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).
To enjoy the salvation of the God of Israel revealed in Jesus, one must own the identity of “ungodly,” “sinner.” Paul is not, of course, advocating the pursuit of ungodliness and sin (6:1-23).
“Ungodly sinner justified by God” is a crucial identity for Christians in conflict and in situations in which one group imagines itself as morally superior. All are ungodly sinners, and all are justified. All share in the history of human idolatry and degradation, and all are loved by the God who justifies the ungodly and who sends Christ to die for sinners.
Paul’s configuration of Christian identity—and of God’s identity—would put the Roman Christians back on their heels. It would make the group boasting in moral superiority pause before speaking, reconsidering their words. They now look at one another with hesitation about their posture of superiority over those they formerly labeled as “ungodly.” They begin to think about the slow but necessary steps of reconciliation with those they have mistreated.
They were so certain in their conception of Christian identity and the moral clarity of their reading of Scripture. Paul, however, reveals their conception of God and Christian identity as deficient.
So, returning to our abiding question: when it comes to discussions among Christians about human sexuality, discussions that involve moral judgments, how might Christian identity as “ungodly sinners” shape our posture as we engage one another and others?