After Christendom: An Epilogue to Romans
Romans: An Epilogue
by William Klock
Note: The material here is largely adapted from the final chapter of Andrew Perriman's "The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom" (Wipf & Stock, 2010).
As we’ve made our way through St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians I’ve tried to apply it to what we do and think and believe today. As thick with theology as Romans is, it also has a lot to say about who we are and what we are to do as Christians and as the Church. We finished the last chapter two weeks ago, but before moving on, I’d like to take one last look back at Romans by way of an epilogue.
Paul’s key point in Romans is that the gospel—the good news about Jesus, his death and his resurrection—reveals the righteousness of God. The gospel reveals God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. And the heart of the good news is that Jesus is Lord. A lot of Christians have forgotten the significance of that statement. We often treat the gospel as if it were good advice. We talk about “sharing” it with others. But it’s not good advice. It’s good news. It’s the royal proclamation that God’s king and God’s kingdom have finally broken into a world sick with idolatry and sin. Remember that the Roman “pledge of allegiance”, if you will, was the proclamation, “Caesar is Lord”. The gospel was and still is the royal summons to repent and to abandon every false lord and every false god and every false kingdom and to submit in faithful allegiance to Jesus, Creation’s true Lord.
And yet, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord is to proclaim that judgement is coming on all those false lords and false gods and false kingdoms and false systems. Paul knew this. When God raised Jesus from the dead he didn’t just inaugurate his new creation, he also set the final date for his judgement on all his competitors. For Paul this meant that judgement was coming on the pagan Greco-Roman world, its false lord and its false gods and philosophies—just as it had once come on the Egyptians and the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans.
But if the good news about Jesus—including the coming judgement—reveals the righteousness of God, what about Israel? When your kids’ friend are over and they all get into trouble, you might discipline all of them, but you have to discipline your own kids first—and usually most severely. Your own kids know the house rules; their friends might not. That’s more or less how Paul explains things in Romans. Israel was called, Israel saw the mighty works of God, Israel was given God’s law. Israel should have been a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations. Israel was meant to show the world what righteousness looks like. And as much as there were some times when Israel really did witness God’s righteousness, her history was mostly a miserable failure. So God can’t pour out his judgement on the Gentiles until he’s first judged Israel.
Paul knew that God’s wrath was coming to unbelieving Israel and coming soon. He knew the Old Testament prophets. He knew what Jesus had prophesied. Jesus had spoken often of judgement and it was almost always about the judgement that his own people were going to face if they refused to repent. God was patient, but he would not let the wicked tenants claim his vineyard for themselves forever. He sent prophet after prophet. He finally sent his own Son. And even then, Jesus warned that there was a still a generation—about forty years—left that they might repent.
God did what he said. The Jews continued in their rebellion. They tried to revolt against the Romans and God used the Romans as instruments of his wrath. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The people were scattered. As Paul wrote Romans, these events were twenty years closer than when Jesus prophesied theme. God’s judgement was all the nearer and he writes about it with a certain amount of urgency. But even more important for Paul was the question of God’s righteousness. If God is going to judge his people, what does that mean for his covenant faithfulness? What does it mean for the promises that God had made to Abraham?
Paul discovered the answer on the Damascus Road, when he was confronted by the risen Jesus. The resurrection was the answer to everything. That first Easter morning, God had begun something new. The law had reached its best-before date. It had served its purpose, but now served only to condemn God’s people. The law proclaimed an inevitable coming judgement. But the death and resurrection of Jesus opened the gate to a narrow and difficult road to life. It was the life the prophets had proclaimed. It was the life made possible by the regenerating and transforming indwelling of the Holy Spirit in God’s people. It was the beginning and a foretaste of God’s new creation. Jesus’ resurrection pointed the way to a new kind of life—the prophesied resurrection of the people of God—on the other side of God’s judgement on a sinful and idolatrous world. And that people was a new people, centred around Jesus the Messiah—the one who embodied Israel was creating a new Israel in which both Jews and Gentiles share in the life of God. This is the story Paul has unfolded in Romans.
And for the renewed people of God, these little communities of Jews and Gentiles standing on the verge of coming judgement, this story meant that they were, like Israel of old, called to stand as witnesses to the righteousness of God. This is the why of Paul’s letter. They were struggling with internal divisions. They were struggling with what it meant to be Jesus’ people. And Paul is writing to them to say that a storm is coming—a hurricane of opposition aimed right at them—and that to weather it they must stand firm in faith, trusting in the world-changing death and resurrection of Jesus. They must stand firm in faith that God has accepted Jesus’ death as an atonement for the sins of Israel. And they must stand firm in faith that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also see this new and diverse renewed family of Abraham through the storm and into his kingdom. Paul reminds the Romans of the prophet Habakkuk’s message: The just shall live by faith. God will vindicate his righteousness, first in judging unbelieving Israel and then the pagan empire of the Greeks and Romans, but those he has declared just, those he has declared to be in the right shall live by faith.
This is the story the Church is called to live by. This is the story that would make sense of the coming storm. The brothers and sisters in Jerusalem were going to be in the eye of the storm that would come as Israel was judged, but the brothers and sisters in Rome would be in the eye of the storm that would then come on the nations. They were at the heart of Caesar’s pagan empire. The coming storm of judgement would, eventually, overcome the gods of Rome and even Caesar himself, but before the day was over, the nations would lash out at the people who represented the righteousness of God. And so if this little group of Christians was truly to be the “offering of the nations” to the God of Israel, as Paul has called them, they will need to live according to this story. If they fight with each other, if they fall into dissensions and divisions over ethnicity or differences of non-essential doctrine, if they become self-righteous about the life and the gifts the Spirit has given them, if they look down on weaker brothers and sisters or despise the stronger, if they fail to develop and live a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”, if they hate their enemies instead of loving them, if they pick pointless fights with Caesar and his authorities, if they fail to clothe themselves with the Lord Jesus who was faithful even to the point of death, they will not survive the coming storm of judgement. Paul wrote all this to them, not only to prepare them for his visit, but first and foremost so that they would know who and what they were called to be and who and what they had to be if they were to be the “offering of the nations”.
This may not be the way we typically read Romans. We have a troublesome tendency to ignore the historical circumstances surrounding a book like Romans and we often forget who the original audience was. But if we really want to understand the Bible, we need to realise that God isn’t speaking directly to us; he was speaking to certain people in certain contexts. Once we understand what it meant to them, then we can draw out the application for ourselves. I think we understand—most of the time—when it comes to the Old Testament. We know, for example, that Jeremiah sent his letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to help them understand why that great catastrophe had happened, how they should live in light of it, and what they could expect God to do in future. For some reason we don’t treat Paul’s letters the same way—but we should!—because Paul was doing much the same thing when he wrote this letter.
Maybe our problem is that so many of us know little or nothing of history. I said that we usually understand Jeremiah as being written to the exiles in Babylon, but I’ve also noticed that a few people like to rip Jeremiah (not to mention the other prophets) out of their context and treat them as if they were writing directly to us and expecting their prophecies to take place today. And these people do this because they know absolutely nothing of the context of the prophets. Perhaps we do the same thing with Paul, because we’re ignorant of what happened in the decades and centuries that followed.
History tells us that the judgement Jesus prophesied did, indeed, come to Jerusalem. History tells us that the storm of persecution Paul wrote about to the Romans came, too. And history also tells us that Jesus’ triumphed over the pagan gods and rulers of the Greco-Romans world. A little less than three centuries after Paul’s martyrdom and the storm that came under Nero, the Emperor Constantine confessed Jesus the Messiah as Lord. The worship of the pagan gods ended and missionaries spread throughout Europe and Asia and northern Africa and in their wake churches and cathedrals sprang up, a testimony to the victory of Jesus over the pagan gods and kings.
I think we miss the significance of this. Maybe it’s that we don’t know the history very well. Mostly, I think, it’s because, right from the get-go, the Church was allied with much of the political and cultural systems of the Greco-Roman world. Emperors sent out armies under the banner of Jesus to kill enemies. Pagan tribes were forced to convert under pain of death. Bishops showed up at councils surrounded by groups of armed thugs like so many mafia bosses. The Church was often co-opted to serve the purposes of the empire rather than the other way around. And yet, despite all the problem and failures, we can’t ignore the fulfilment of the expectations we see in the New Testament and especially in Romans.
It helps to think back and to remember the monarchy in Israel. It was far from perfect, too. Right from the beginning the monarchy went sour. Saul was such a bad king that God, himself, deposed him. David was a murderer and an adulterer and, through is bad decisions, brought a three-year famine on the land. Solomon, for all his wisdom, welcomed the worship of pagan gods into Israel. And those were the good kings. Things went downhill from there, until God had finally had a enough and sent the nation into exile. But despite the failures of the kings and the apostasy of the people of Israel, the monarchy was and remained a local symbol of the kingship and kingdom of God. The same thing happened on a larger scale as the paganism of the Roman empire collapsed and was overwhelmed by the good news about Jesus. Christendom, as we’ve come to call it, became a symbol of the kingship and kingdom of God over all of Creation. As Israel was a local symbol, I think there was a reason why God later chose to work through the largest empire the world had ever known. Israel, where Abraham’s family would be blessed and grow into a nation, represented God’s new creation in miniature. Christendom represented the new creation on a universal scale. It transcended all the distinctions ingrained in society: Jew and Greek, Roman and Barbarian, male and female, slave and free. A yearning for justice and peace was institutionalized in both the political and the legal systems of the baptised empire. And the most important thing: the old pagan gods were overthrown, the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places were disarmed—and in the symbolic sense of biblical prophecy—every knee bowed and every tongue confessed that Jesus, the anti-Caesar, was Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And yet we all know that times have changed. Jesus is still Lord. But Christendom has fallen to the pagans and the Church has been pushed, if not into a sort of Babylonian exile, at least to the margins of society. It’s interesting that all those identities that once divided the pagan empire and that were transcended by Christendom, are now coming back to divide us in the form of identity politics. The justice that undergirded the political and legal systems of Christendom is quickly being displaced by injustice. And, maybe most disturbing: the old gods are making a comeback. The State is the god of secularists and, sadly, not a few Christians. Our society no longer acknowledge that Jesus is Lord or that God is sovereign. It may be that what we’re seeing is God’s judgement on the church for our compromises, just as Israel’s exile to Babylon was a judgement on her compromises and idolatry. But whatever the reason, the Church today needs to reflect on what is happening and how we’re going to respond to these changes. We need to learn to read the biblical story as just that: a story. And we need to read it historically. We need to read it as a Spirit-inspired word that gives us wisdom as a community rooted and living in the here and now. Karl Barth, perhaps the most significant theologian of the Twentieth Century famously wrote that illic et tunc becomes hic et nunc. “There and then” becomes “here and now”. We must translate and apply the biblical story to our own time and place and situation. The First Century churches faced the crisis of the judgement that was coming, first on Jerusalem and then on Rome. We now face another kind of judgement. Are we now finding ourselves on the margins as a kind of judgement for our compromises as a Church? It seems likely. Will God allow the Church to remain on the margins while wickedness waxes ascendant? We know that he won’t. And in other parts of the world we see the opposite happening as new “Christendoms” begin their triumphant rise over paganism in places like Africa and Asia. We need to learn to bring the theological and prophetic in God’s word to bear on the new crises that the Church faces today.
We struggle today to bring Scripture to bear on our current problems and current world and current task because we’re still living in the illic et tunc—in the there and then. It’s common for Christians today to liken our current situation to that of the early church, but we’ll only get so far doing that. The early church—and this is just what Paul does in Romans—constructed an eschatology (that’s a fancy word for doctrines that have to do with the final events of God’s divine plan), the early church constructed an eschatology that made sense of the coming judgement on Jerusalem and Rome and that gave hope to the little churches of Jews and Gentiles scattered across the empire: someday they would inherit the world. We share that same hope, but we don’t share their historical situation. We live this side of the judgement they anticipated and in light of a coming judgement the shape of which I don’t think we’ve begun to grasp.
They lived in a world that did not know the God of Israel or the Lord Jesus. They lived in virgin territory for the gospel. We live in a world that has known the gospel and chosen to reject it. The righteousness and sovereignty of God have been repudiated, impugned, and maligned by our culture. The lordship of Jesus has been wilfully rejected. We must continue to proclaim the same gospel summons to the King, but we will have to find new ways to tell the story. The good news about Jesus continues to reveal the righteousness of God, but the Church must find ways to proclaim it in the hic et nunc—in the here and now.
The story of the people of God is like a roller coaster. It goes up and it goes down. There are periods of formation and periods of deformation. There are times of crisis and times of consolidation. There are times of destruction and times of renewal. There are times of judgement and there are times of blessing. We see this in Israel’s story. She was the new creation in miniature and we see God’s promise to Abraham fulfilled, not instantly, but through ups and downs: through captivity in Egypt, then through a long journey to freedom through the wilderness, and up and down again through the time of the judges, time after time: oppression and freedom, oppression and freedom, and later again into exile and back to the land. It’s the way God grows his people. The same has happened with the Church. The Church became an ecumenical people of God and world-wide manifestation of the sovereignty of the God of Israel, only through a long journey from captivity to Rome through persecution and martyrdom. And, I think, we, the refugees of the fallen city of Christendom, are just now embarking on a long journey from captivity to the wicked and immoral social and philosophical forces of the fallen West, through a difficult self-examination—asking what part we have had in the fall of Christendom—to eventually find renewal and a new vision of what it means to be God’s new creation in the midst of the peoples and cultures of the earth—reimagining the place of the Church in the world in keeping with the promise to Abraham—and all the while never losing hope in the righteousness, the covenant faithfulness of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
The template is the is the biblical story itself. The answer to the here and now is in the there and then. The biblical story reminds us at every turn that God the Creator opposes the corruption of his creation and has a plan for new creation. The cross and the empty tomb are the proof of his investment in making all things new, but his plan for new creation is embodied in the history of Abraham and his family. Abraham wasn’t called to rescue the world or to put it to rights, but simply to be a holy microcosm, a little world of holiness in the midst of the nations—a little world of holiness subject to the discipline and grace of Creator. This is the story played out over the course of Israel’s history. It’s the story that Jesus brought to a head when he rose from the grave. It’s the story that inspires and gives hope to the Church as we continue to be witnesses to God project of new creation. It’s the story that defines our hope that God will finally bring justice once and for all, that he will finally be victorious over sin and death, and that one day he will really and truly make all things new.
The first Christians faced hostility that caused them to rest in this hope even in the face of martyrdom. But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in in the West today. Our threat isn’t a pagan imperialism that throws us to lions. Our threat comes from a culture that is supremely confident in its rights to define was is good for the individual and for society, to safeguard the health and prosperity of humanity, to manage global resources, to process information and knowledge, and to determine what is true for itself. At the same time it churns out an endless stream of entertainments and distractions.
We must proclaim the risen Jesus to this world. And we proclaim it not because we’re faced with the prospect of being exiled to the margins or even thrown to the lions. We must proclaim the risen Jesus for the same reason Paul and the first Christians proclaimed the risen Jesus: to proclaim Jesus is to challenge the gods and rulers of the present age; it is to challenge the forces that today corrupt God’s good Creation; it is to proclaim that new creation has begun, that new creation is breaking in. That means we must find out vocation—our calling—in standing for the goodness and integrity of God’s new creation—in all it means to find our identity in Jesus and to live the life of renewal and regeneration in the Holy Spirit—in what it means to have had our hearts of stone replaced by hearts of flesh by the Spirit of the living God—and to live that out in the midst of the nations and for the sake of the nations.
Brothers and Sister, Paul reminds us in Romans, that the basis for facing this future is faith. Faith like Abraham’s. Faith which believes the promise of God to give life and to make all things new. Like Paul, the Church today needs to reformulate a trust in the God who called Abraham and that will give us hope for our future. It is a faith that sees the coming storm, but knows that in the storm, God will both judge and be justified. It is a faith that stands firm on the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead to declare him Lord of all and to inaugurate his new creation. It is a faith by which we are united to him and declared just. It is a faith that will not only sustain us, but that will lead us into mission—challenging the false gods and the false lords with the lordship of Jesus and the sovereignty of God.
Let us pray: Father, our collect and lessons today remind us that in Jesus you have made us to be your holy temple. Your Spirit no longer lives in a house of stone, but in hearts of flesh. Build your holy temple, we pray, that we might truly be the place of your presence amongst the nations and a light to the world. As we steep ourselves in your word, give us wisdom to know how to translate and to live the story of redemption and new creation for today. And as you forgive our failures, keep us always faithful to your word, to your promises, and to Jesus our Lord. Amen.