Summary: Continuing the theme of last week's sermon, I explore the common elements of common sense secular and Christian values noting that both are rooted in observation and experience and finding in them a bridge for communication of the Gospel to non-Christians
On Being “Left Behind”
I used to think that citing the original Greek version of the New Testament in sermons serves no real purpose, that preachers who do it routinely are just “showing off”. Nobody really understands all that stuff anyway, nor do we need to. As a result, I’ve not been particularly interested in the subtle nuances of translation. There is, however, one noteworthy exception, the word “faith”. Faith, it would seem, can be thought of as either “an act of will” or as “a gift from God”, and there is evidence in the original Greek to support either interpretation, and I find this to be extremely interesting.
If we think of faith as being a gift from God, as Paul states explicitly in Ephesians 2:8, then faith becomes more easily understood in terms of trust or obedience, which in my mind is preferable to mere assent to doctrine. But faith can also be a decision to accept God’s plan of salvation, and certainly that is an act of personal will—the so called “leap of faith” which is near and dear to my own experience as well.
Comparing various translations of Romans 1:5 from today’s Epistle lesson, we find that the New International Version states that obedience comes as a result of faith; while, the King James Version states that obedience to the faith comes as the result of God’s grace. The New International translation gives weight to the “act of will” interpretation, the King James Version to the “gift of God” interpretation. Other versions compromise by translating the passage as “the obedience that is associated with faith.”
Is there really anything of importance at issue here? Personally, I don’t think so. I feel quite secure in my relationship with God even though I don’t fully understand all of these things, and I thing you should too. You don’t have to understand such things in order to be a child of God in a restored relationship with God, that much I know for certain. Many theologians, however, feel that there is something of great importance at issue and as a result have separated into so-called “Arminian” and “Calvinistic” camps. This has occurred even within our United Methodist Church.
The Apostle Paul writes, “For by grace you are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” Not only does this passage suggest that “faith” is a gift from God, it also suggest that God has allotted to each a measure of faith. All of this lends itself nicely to the Calvinist viewpoint. But Arminian theologians argue that preachers of the Calvinistic or reformed bent wrongly conclude that the pronoun “it” refers to “faith”, and that what Paul is really teaching is that SALVATION, not faith, is the gift of God. And that argument to me seems very reasonable.
Regardless, I have no doubt but that we do have a choice as to whether we receive or reject the gifts of God. I also believe that these gifts come through the Holy Spirit and that to reject these gifts is the one unforgivable sin because it makes it impossible for one to grow in the faith, and to not grow is to remain in a fallen state.
Experience teaches me that faith is very closely related to obedience, and, that the ability to be obedient is in itself something of a gift. Faith says “yes” to the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Holy Spirit. As Paul states in I Corinthians 12:3, ‘no one can say yes to the Lord unless through the power of the Holy Spirit’. All of this suggests that faith and obedience are very close related and are gifts from God. But again, experience tells me that the act of will, the existential leap of faith in obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, is also a big part of the whole process, and I know this not because I’m an expert in parsing Greek verbs, but because of observation and personal experience.
Last week I shared with you why I feel experience opened to us by the Holy Spirit is actually a more reliable way of knowing some things—especially things about God. Such personal experience made meaningful because of the influence of the Holy Spirit, satisfies and convinces in a way that being able to parse a Greek verb just doesn’t do for me.
Using this lens, wisdom gained through experience made intelligible through the influence of the Holy Spirit, let us return now to today’s text, examining it from that perspective. In this passage, Romans 6:12-23, we are told that slavery to sin leads to death, and, obedience to God leads to life. I suppose that for even the non-religious there is in this passage an element of common sense stemming from observation and experience. Anyone, atheist included, can see evidence of a natural law at work if willing to take an unbiased look. Life experiences teach that vice leads to intrinsic loss while good habits lead to intrinsic reward. Discipline, or “virtue” as it is sometimes called, is therefore preferable in this life. Paul suggests that it is also essential for the next life as well.