Book review: “Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans”

Paul’s epistle to the Romans is yet another text that I found very opaque in my initial readings of the New Testament when I began to study in my teens. First off, much of it seemed irrelevant to a modern reader, dealing with the law of circumcision and the like. To the uninformed reader, this is lost without context. Second, it’s discussion of faith and law and grace and sin seemed in parts contradictory, and in other parts outright wrong to my Mormon sensibilities (“we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” How is this in the Bible? I thought we Mormons were all about “faith without works is dead” and now Paul seems to be contradicting it!) On top of that, Paul seems to waste a lot of time with niceties, wanting to pass on his greetings to everyone in Rome! Romans just didn’t seem to have a lot to offer.

Since those early days in my scripture study, I have since learned to appreciate Paul’s letters a bit more, but they still often do seem more difficult and less rewarding that reading the stories of Jesus or the more clear sermons in the Book of Mormon. But Miller’s little book here does an excellent job at showing just how profound and coherent Paul’s letter to the Romans really is. Miller sums it up: “Romans is a rare thing in religion: an explanation.” And as I read the text, I realized more and more that Paul wasn’t an aberration in the Bible; he didn’t contradict or preach a different gospel than Peter or John– or even James’ statement that faith without works is dead. What he does is he shows how faith and works and grace and sin all are pieced together in the context of God’s plan. Totally worth the read if you have ever been lost in Paul’s writings.

Paul_to_Romans

 

Two of the major ideas that I found really compelling were (1) realizing that grace comes before sin, not the other way around and (2) reconstructing the Jew/Gentile language as insider/outsider to show just how relevant these passages are for us. As a Mormon, I grew up with at explicit assumption that those outside of our faith (“outsiders” using Miller’s terms) were wrong (“all their creeds are an abomination before me” and “having a form of godliness but denying the power therefore”) and the implicit consequence that they probably weren’t going to be exalted in the celestial kingdom. It took me a while to shed such religious hubris and realize “who am I to judge another?” Miller’s paraphrasing of Paul states this beautifully as well: “When outsiders intuitively respond to God’s grace with grace and thereby fulfill the law, their lives reveal the truth of the law. Even without knowing the law, they show what the law is about. The law is written in their hearts and when the end comes their conscience will be clear.”

Some quotes:

To make sense of Romans, we have to surrender a very natural assumption. We have to stop pretending that the world revolves around us. We have to let God be the center of the universe. We have to stop looking at God’s grace from the perspective of our sin and, instead, let sin appear in light of grace. And this grace is everywhere.

Sin wants to be the star of the show. From the perspective of sin, everything is about sin. As Paul describes it, sin is an active suppression of God’s already obvious glory. It’s a rejection of his already offered grace. Sin likes to think that it came first and that grace, then, is God’s stopgap response. Sin acts as if God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace—but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness.

Sin abuses God’s gifts and subverts them to its own end. It takes God’s law, severs it from grace, and repurposes it as a wedge. Sin doesn’t oppose religion, it hijacks it. It coopts religion itself as a way of alienating us from God. Sin recasts the law as a measure of our ability to get by without God’s grace. It sees the law as an occasion for us to judge others and, so, excuse ourselves.

From the paraphrased text of Romans:

God’s promise is powerful and its power to rescue extends both to insiders and outsiders. God doesn’t care which you are.

If this is what you want, God’s love won’t stop you. He’ll let you make the exchange. He’ll let you bind yourself to things that can’t love you in return. He’ll let you exchange love for lust. He’ll let you exchange grace for money. He’ll let you choose distraction and addiction. And then you’ll simply get what you’ve chosen: envy, anger, gossip, frustration, vanity, etc. You’ll implode. And though your life may go on, you’ll be dead in a very real way.

When you use the commandments to condemn others and congratulate yourself, you’re the one who ends up condemned.

Being lucky enough to hear the law doesn’t make you right with God or bind you to him, only fulfilling the law does.

When outsiders intuitively respond to God’s grace with grace and thereby fulfill the law, their lives reveal the truth of the law. Even without knowing the law, they show what the law is about. The law is written in their hearts and when the end comes their conscience will be clear.

Meanwhile, if outsiders intuitively align themselves with God’s work of binding up the world’s wounds, won’t they be counted as insiders? Without a doubt. And then those outsiders will scold those that knew the plan but still abused the law.

Insider or outsider, this isn’t about making a good impression on people. This is about what’s going on in your heart and in your head. And God knows them both.

This is harsh, but it has to be said. It has to be said so that you’ll finally shut your mouth about how good you are. It has to be said so that the whole world, without exception, can be brought to stand naked and defenseless before the truth. No one can be made right with God by way of the law. The law gives a totally different kind of gift: the law shows you you’re a sinner.

The law was never meant for the sake of itself and so it’s impossible to fulfill it just by keeping it. The law was given for the sake of grace and so, as a result, only grace can fulfill it. Be absolutely clear about this. Grace doesn’t grease the wheels of the law. Grace isn’t God’s way of jury rigging a broken law. It’s the other way around. The law is just one small cog in a world animated entirely—from top to bottom, from beginning to end—by grace.

But God’s grace doesn’t just rescue what’s already good. The whole point is that, trusting God, even our suffering can bind us to him.

Should we commit more sin, then, to invite more grace? Again, this is ridiculous. We’ve died to sin. We can’t continue to live as if it owned us.

Now when sin creeps in and tries to claim us as its own, we’re free to refuse. Even if we make mistakes, we’re no longer slaves to sin, bound to heel at its beck and call. We can put things right and move on and try again.

Should we say, then, that the law is sin? No. But the law isn’t inherently good either. The law is only good when it’s paired with grace. Severed from grace, the law is amenable to abuse. It’s easily repurposed by sin. The law is like an atom that’s short one electron. If it’s not already bound to grace, it will happily lock orbits with any questionable partner that wanders by.

I wouldn’t have known sin without the law. More, I wouldn’t have burned with lust if the law hadn’t said, “Don’t lust!” Sin saw an opening in these prohibitions and slyly seized it. The opening is obvious: we want what we can’t have. Desire loves a vacuum and prohibitions create one. Partnered with sin, the law ironically trains us to want what it forbids us to have. It follows, then, that without the law, sin is dead. It doesn’t have any fuel to burn.

Grace isn’t God’s backup plan in case we can’t keep the law. Grace was, from the beginning, the whole point of the law and the only way to fulfill it.

Adoption, glory, covenants, priesthood, law, ordinances—God entrusted these to the insiders. He entrusted these to Israel. Abraham is literally their father and Jesus, our rescuer, their brother! And yet, despite what God entrusted, they failed to trust God in return. Denying God’s grace, they faltered. Does this mean that God’s promises have also faltered? No! It means that, despite the promise, not all insiders are willing to live by grace. Many want to live and die by the law. Many of Abraham’s children refuse to be counted, by way of faith, as Abraham’s seed.

Being an insider isn’t enough to make you part of the covenant family. Pedigrees and good manners and respectable clothes and properly signed documents aren’t enough. Only a willingness to trust God’s promise can make you Abraham’s seed.

God even told Isaiah: Those who weren’t looking for me, found me! I appeared to those who didn’t even know to call for me! This is hard to hear when you’ve built your life on the idea that you’re special and then, suddenly, you’re not. But God doesn’t leave it like this. He follows up his rebuke with a promise. He’s still there for his people and he always will be.

The grace entrusted to them will be extended to outsiders. This will bless those born outside the covenant. And then, in return, this radical expansion of God’s family may shock some insiders into recognizing what gift they’d had all along. And if their exile is a blessing for outsiders, just imagine what a grace it will be when the insiders return—it will be like a whole nation was raised from the dead!

We need to make sure we don’t get carried away by our sketch of the plan and claim more than we actually know. This waiting is part of faith. For the moment, what we do know is that many insiders have hardened their hearts and that many outsiders have greeted Jesus’s good news with joy. God is weaving all of our actions, good and bad, into his plan:

When you meet together for worship, welcome those weak in faith. Welcome those with worries and doubts and questions. But don’t argue with them. Don’t welcome them in as a chance to prove—again—that you’re right about something.

Some of you think it’s okay to eat anything. Others only eat vegetables. Neither should condemn the other. God welcomes everyone, insiders and outsiders both. Who are you to judge what people wear or eat? Who are you to judge how people think or vote? Let God sort it out.

Stop, then, accusing your fellow Christians. Stop despising what’s different from you.

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