Last Sunday I substitute taught the Gospel Doctrine lesson on Romans, which is one of the most pivotal books in Christian scripture, inspiring Luther’s 95 Theses, and thereby sparking the Protestant Reformation. A single lesson was not sufficient to do it justice, obviously, but there were a lot of interesting facts.  For those who haven’t read it, I highly recommend Adam Miller’s book Grace Is Not God’s Back Up Plan. It’s an easy read and makes Romans even more accessible with modern language.
Romans was written by Paul (most scholars agree he personally wrote it) between 55 and 57 AD, from Corinth. This means it was about 20 years after his conversion. The letter was transcribed by Tertius (his “amanuensis” which is something between a scribe and a ghost writer). Romans is a letter (to a specific audience) rather than an epistle (to the public in a city). His audience was just church members, and there were two groups of them: Jewish Christians and Pagan converts to Christianity. There was still a lot of tension between these two groups with the Jewish Christians feeling that Jewish customs and the Law of Moses were still important and Pagan converts being called by the Spirit, following Christianity without the encumbrance of Jewish traditions.
Paul’s background is important because he was a Hellenistic Jew (combining both Judaism and Greek culture) as well as a Pharisee (a political movement and school of thought within Judaism) before his conversion to Christianity. He had sided against Peter by opposing the need for new Christian converts to be circumcised. Paul had not yet been to Rome (where Peter had formed the churches), and some of the Jewish Christians in Rome were riled up about his viewpoints regarding their beloved traditions (if circumcision can be beloved). He writes his letter to clarify his position and settle things down a bit and says he will come to Rome soon on his way to preach in Spain.
There are so many parallels to church culture today. Within any group of people, those who are more established have privilege, particularly when they’ve been told they are the chosen people or are special. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the Jewish Christians and several groups within Mormonism: multi-generational members with pedigreed family trees and pioneer stock, members who are born in the covenant (vs. converts) or even Utah Mormons. All of these groups are steeped in Mormon culture in a way converts are not, having been raised in it. Unlike the Pagan converts who respond to the gospel, they have the baggage of heritage to sift through, to determine what is part of the gospel, and what is not. They have the disadvantage of being an insider, and Paul points out that it can be a disadvantage.
He doesn’t let the Pagan converts off light, though. They too have their disadvantages. Basically, he says nobody is more special than anybody else. We are all equally sinful, and all equally divine; we all benefit from the roots of Judaism, and God is no respecter of persons. As he reveals in Romans 8: 14-17, the crux of this chiastic letter :
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
If we see ourselves and others as children of God, this shouldn’t be to make us think we are better than others, but to show that we are all equally divine, and that a spiritual conversion awakens our awareness of that divinity within us and within our fellow men.
Paul starts in chapter 1: 21-23 by listing out all the ways humans are sinful. One that he points out is particularly interesting:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things.
This is a very Hellenistic idea, that what is ideal and spiritual is more important and more real than what is physical or material (corruptible); his Greek roots are showing. By decrying the human tendency to focus on the “natural” world over the “spiritual” world, his criticism hits both groups squarely; Pagan converts were superstitious and used to idols as part of their culture, while Jewish Christians made the law an idol, trying to be justified by exact obedience to the Jewish law.
He points out that the Jews are quick to justify themselves by the law, but they have no leg to stand on for two reasons: 1) the pagans weren’t given that law and aren’t beholden to it, and 2) they aren’t perfect at adhering to the law, so they hypocrites and are condemned by the law. He even has to get one more dig in on circumcision, pointing out that they are not saved by circumcision which is physical, but by what’s inside of them, the spiritual. Sorry, but the circumcision was all for naught. Thanks for playing.
Paul then sets up a bunch of strawman arguments and easily knocks them down one by one, using these rhetorical questions to answer his supposed hecklers among the believers in Rome. He says the law is only valuable to teach us what sin is, but we are all sinful. It’s like driving with the speed limit. There’s no perfect driver. The speed limit just tells us what is safe, but when it’s not posted, we don’t have a guideline. We just have to do our best. But you don’t get a speeding ticket when there is no speed limit.
Paul asks whether faith or law comes first. You could say that it depends whether you are raised in the church or not. In Romans 4: 1-3, Paul explains why the Jewish Christians got so mixed up:
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
The Jewish Christians inherited the law (the Law of Moses in particular) as offspring of Abraham, but Abraham’s covenant wasn’t a set of laws. Faith (or trust in God) came before the law, not the other way around. But for those raised in that culture, law comes before faith.
So it is in our Mormon culture. If children are raised in the church, they learn the “laws” or commandments from a very young age. They are forced (or encouraged) to go to church, to fast, to say prayers, to read scriptures, to follow the Word of Wisdom, not to shop on Sundays, etc. These are all the “law” of Mormonism–the outward behaviors–and they have their rewards like approval from authorities, parents and other church members.
But they aren’t the same thing as having faith or trust in God. We talk about gaining a testimony, but that’s not how Paul puts it. The way we talk about testimony often turns it into a proof of our faith, evidence that bolsters our being right. It’s another reason Paul cautions us in Romans 14: 1:
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
He talks about conversion, being born again, starting a new life, being awakened and suddenly able to leave our sinful state. We often don’t talk about that type of conversion for those born into Mormon culture, but perhaps we should because without it, there’s too much validation for obedience and the “law.” It’s too easy to miss the point, which is that the law and our works don’t and can’t save. Period. Only trust in God’s grace can. Believing we are earning salvation through our works is just another sin after all, a very insidious one because there’s such a reward with it: admiration, approval from leaders, and even increased responsibility through higher church callings!
When Paul describes that newness of life that comes with conversion, he also describes that when we live in grace we quit focusing on all the behavior policing and we follow the great commandment to love one another:
- We love our enemies and do good to them. We don’t lay a snare for others. (Romans 12)
- We welcome doubters (those with weak faith) and quit trying to prove we’re right. (Romans 12: 1)
- We are awakened to a new way of living, loving our fellow men. (Romans 13)
- We quit arguing over politics. We take care of our societal obligations and leave it at that. (Romans 12: 7-8)
- We quit judging people for preferences like what they eat, clothing, hairstyles, or other cultural customs. (Romans 14)
It seems to me that not a whole lot has changed in 2000 years. We are just as prone to self-justification and judging others as ever. People still tattle in the name of righteousness and don’t welcome doubters. People judge others as less righteous than they are, and then use that to justify mistreating them. Maybe we’ve gained a testimony, garnered evidence to prove we are right, but not been converted in the process. And without that conversion of heart, we don’t love our neighbors. We keep trying to show how we are better than they are.
 Not only that, but the manual reduced it down further by only focusing on two things: that you still have to do works (Paul is probably rolling over in his unmarked grave somewhere) and the part about being a child of God. In fact, the manual recommended ditching a huge portion of the lesson time to having kids come in to sing I Am a Child of God. To me, that’s giving Romans–and Paul–short shrift.
 The lesson didn’t point out that Romans is a chiasmus, oddly enough. I thought Mormons lurved chiasmus. I just happened to notice it was one while I read it.