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Reconciliation and salvation (Aug. 1, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for August 1, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Romans 10:5-17

The verses of Scripture I hear most frequently quoted are of constant astonishment to me. One of these passages appears in the middle of this week’s lesson: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I hear it all the time. It’s often understood as a transaction: You do and believe these things, and you get salvation. That, of course, implies the opposite: If you don’t do and believe these things, you do not get salvation. Let’s see, in this unit about faith and salvation, if we can redeem a passage that’s meant to declare salvation to all.

Jews first, then Gentiles

First, we must place this verse in context. We find ourselves in the middle of Paul’s great discourse on God’s covenant with his fellow Jews, then the Gentiles (Romans 9-11). It would be strange for Paul, who has been contrasting the faithfulness of God with the faithlessness of people, to suddenly shift toward an approach to salvation where God breaks covenant with one group of people in order to make a new covenant with another. Either God keeps covenant or God does not, with Jew or with Gentile or with whomever. Remember where we began. Paul proclaims that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Paul’s gospel is a gospel of expansion, not contraction. Yes, this is meant to be good news.

So, Paul first established the proper grounds for Abraham’s righteousness, in order to open up a way for similar righteousness for “all who believe” (Romans 4:11), rather than just those who can claim Abraham as their ancestor “according to the flesh” (Romans 4:1). Paul will later make clear that the Gentiles are actually grafted into this vine through the faithful Jew, Jesus (Romans 11); but for now, Paul’s point is that such salvation comes through trust in God versus works or obedience, whether Jew or Gentile. Confession with the lips and belief in one’s heart are, once again, set in contrast to circumcision of one’s body and sacrifice with one’s hands. Both reconciliation and salvation are gifts from God given to human beings —
who are all yet sinners.

All who call

Paul makes this clear by citing several verses from Deuteronomy regarding the “nearness” of God’s word. The word of God’s salvation is not something that human beings must storm heaven to gain, or harrow hell to capture. God in Christ has already done these things. As Moses made clear that God’s word is near to God’s people in Deuteronomy 30:14, so Paul makes clear that God’s word has been brought near to all in Christ Jesus. The emphasis is on a broadening – not a narrowing – of God’s way. No one who trusts the steadfast faithfulness of this God will be put to shame. There is now no distinction between Jew and Greek. The same Lord is Lord of all, and generous to all who call upon the Lord. All, once. All, twice. Culminating with Paul quoting Joel: “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” The scope of God’s saving work is opening up, not narrowing down.

Beautiful feet

Paul now builds to a crescendo of good news. Rather than receiving this mystery of the gospel as a way of marking who’s out and who’s in when it comes to God’s grace, Paul uses this mystery as an invitation to witness. Just as the prophet Isaiah had once pronounced liberation and return to God’s people in exile, so Jews and Gentiles are now invited to proclaim the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith or trust in such a liberating message. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” he shouts. This leads us back to our opening question. How have we managed to make this good news into something exclusionary?

For discussion: Maybe this week we have more questions than answers. Let me propose a few. How do we avoid making salvation transactional, something we do rather than God? Is there such a thing as “faith righteousness” (compared to works righteousness)? How do we fight against supersessionism in our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters? How might we make one another “jealous” (Romans 11:11) through our unbounded celebration of God’s faithfulness to all?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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