For I am convinced
Sermon preached at Enmore, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017
Readings: Romans 8.26–39; Matthew 13. 31–33, 44–58
In September 1961, the Swedish New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl gave an address on the work and thought of the Apostle Paul. What was unusual on this occasion was Stendahl’s audience. He was not speaking to theologians, or Biblical scholars but to a gathering of psychologists attending the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. His aim in giving this lecture was to rescue Paul from the psychoanalyst’s couch.
Stendahl argued that in the popular mind Paul had become “the hero of the introspective conscience.” In other words he argued that contemporary people tended to think of Paul as a man constantly wrestling with shame, guilt and sin, pitting grace against legalism and tormented by his own sense of inner struggle. Paul’s words in Romans ch.7 19, “I do not do the good I want…but the evil I do not do want is what I do”: were often used as evidence of this mental turmoil. The problem with this view of the apostle, Stendahl argued was that it arose from reading back into St. Paul concerns about the self and the individual conscience that date from a later time. The introspective interpretation began with Augustine but reached its high point with Luther. The result being that Paul’s whole theology and especially his views on justification have been read through the lens of Luther’s angst. Luther’s burning question was “How can I ever please a righteous God?” That, argued Stendahl was not Paul’s question.
One wonders what the psychologist’s made of this paper but Stendahl’s views certainly made waves in the theological community. Since the Reformation the majority of protestant scholars had argued that the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the doctrine of justification by faith. Individuals troubled by guilt and bound by sins they cannot overcome, through faith in Christ can find forgiveness and salvation. Luther himself had a passionate regard for this epistle and wrote: “Romans is really the chief part of the New Testament and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread for the soul.”
Although Stendahl faced a good deal of criticism for his thesis, in the years since then there has been a renewed interest in the letter to the Romans and it is become the subject of a huge amount of scholarship. And while justification by faith remains an important theme, Romans is now regarded as covering a much broader canvas. So to quote just one recent commentator, Katherine Grieb, “Romans is not a theological treatise on either faith and works or predestination. Instead it is a sweeping defence of the righteousness of God, the covenant faithfulness of God, ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’.”
That was by way of a long introduction to today’s epistle reading from Romans 8.26–39. In this passage Paul brings together some important themes which are relevant to every one of us. The passage begins with the statement: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” We have all had occasions when we have been faced with a situation which is so complex, or difficult or apparently unsolvable that we have been at a loss as to what to do or how to pray. This verse assures us that in those situations we can depend on the Holy Spirit. We can give the problem to God and believe that his Spirit will show us the way forward. One of the duties of the Holy Spirit is to ‘intercede for the saints’ according to the will of God.” The Saints’ is not a reference to the Saints in stained glass windows but Paul’s word for all Christians. Many of his letters begin with the expression, ‘to all the saints’ In Corinth, or Philippi or Colossae. To know that are prayers are brought before God by the Holy Spirit should be a great encouragement to us to keep on praying especially when we are tempted to give up or think God has better things to do than attend to our prayers.
Verse 28 is often quoted, sometimes unhelpfully, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” However, a better translation is ‘With those who love God, he co-operates in all things for good.’ This is not a ‘get out of gaol free pass’ but a promise that whatever happens in the future, no matter what difficulties we may face, God will stand with us and not against us. Our confidence is sure because our future is not in our own hands or dependent on our own faithfulness but rather it lies in God’s hands. That is the point of the following verses where Paul uses words like ‘foreknow’ or ‘predestine’. In this context they do not refer to some limitation on our freedom or to some arbitrary decision by God that some people will be saved and others will miss out. They simply point to the fact that God already knows the end to which he will bring his creation, namely redemption. The destiny has already been set and that destiny is the final transformation of the whole created order. The expression, the righteousness of God occurs frequently in Romans, although not in the passage before us today. However, the theme is always evident. For to say that God is righteous means that God is going to set things right in all creation. To quote one writer, “In sum, the righteousness of God is nothing less than the promise of God’s great future victory in which life overcomes all forms of death and the children of God, first the Jew and then the Greek, live in the glorious liberty of God’s children.” (Thomas Long, Interpretation, July 2004)
So given that the future is in God’s hands, Paul can conclude this chapter with one of his most eloquent statements of Christian comfort and hope. If God is for us, who is against us? This final paragraph is really a summary of the whole theme of Romans 5–8, presented not now as a logical argument but as a moving rhetorical statement.
Four times a question is asked: First; Who is against us? No one because God has given us his son and will give us all things with him.
Second: Who will bring a charge against us? No one, because God himself has justified us and declared us to be in the right.
Third: Who will condemn us? No one, because Jesus has died, been raised and exalted and intercedes for us.
Finally, who will separate us from Christ’s love? This time there are many contenders that might try but none are able to come between us and the love of the Saviour. The chapter concludes with the great affirmation: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” N.T. scholar Tom Wright wrote that “the end of Romans 8 deserves to be written in letters of fire on the living tablets of our hearts.” As we mourn the death of five members of our congregation in the last two months, we take comfort in these words of hope.