Proper 6 · Romans 5:6-15 · June 15, 2008
By William W. Schumacher,
This pericope is an interesting selection for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the assigned verses for this Sunday’s Epistle lesson combine two rather different thoughts. Verses 6-11 develop the theme of peace with God through justification, introduced in the beginning of the chapter. Verse 12 starts a new idea, vividly comparing the sin and death that spread to all humanity because of Adam with the free gift of justification that spreads to all by faith in Christ, and that theme continues to the end of chapter 5. A preacher may decide to concentrate a sermon on one part or the other, rather than try to combine two somewhat different sets of metaphors and images. (It is also interesting to note that this reading overlaps with, but does not exactly match, a different selection from Romans 5 appointed for the first Sunday in Lent, in which the verses 12-19 more naturally center around a single theme.)
Both parts of this text (6-11 and 12-15) are so rich in direct, explicit Gospel statements that they are hard to miss. These verses contain some of the most powerful and best-loved expressions of what God has done for us in Christ, and the language is rich and varied. Paul’s description of our lost condition without Christ is stark and overwhelming: weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies. By marvelous contrast, God’s saving power in Christ displays His perfect timing, demonstrates His love, reconciles us to God, justifies God’s ungodly enemies, and saves us from God’s wrath. All that, says Paul, results from the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Law of God was unable to save sinners, not because there was anything wrong with the Law, but because our sin put us under the threat and condemnation of the Law, and that means death. All humanity has followed Adam into sin and the result has been death. Now Christ, the Second Adam, is the source of God’s free gift that undoes sin and its deadly results for all. With this richness of language and theological themes staring us in the face, there is no need (nor, indeed, any excuse) for filling a sermon with theological clichés; let the sermon strive to capture and echo the distinctive ways of expressing the Good News of Christ, and not homogenize the text into a generic platitude.
The Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori explored the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ by developing what he termed a “theology of the pain of God.” Kitamori sums it up this way: “The gospel is the gospel of the cross. This means that God loves the objects of his wrath and that he, in his love, embraces men alienated from him.”¹
In other words, God’s essential righteousness or justice is moved to wrath against sin, but God chooses to love precisely those His own righteousness condemns. We encountered this tension two weeks earlier in Romans 3, where God showed Himself to be both the Just One and the One who justifies the unrighteous. But in this present text in Romans 5 (especially 6-11), the two sides are laid out in sharp relief: how can the holy God love weak, ungodly sinners? This conflict is precisely what Kitamori calls “the pain of God.” It is not that our sins hurt God or cause Him pain; sin prompts God’s wrath, but does not hurt Him. The pain of God, revealed on the cross of Christ, results from God’s determination to love the sinners His justice kills. The problem only arises if sin is taken seriously. How can the God who is perfectly just and righteous simply overlook the sins by which His creatures have separated themselves from Him? If God ignores sin, is He really just? And if sin must be punished, does that mean that God’s righteousness contradicts—or even trumps—His mercy and His love?
A common, simplistic answer is that God “loves the sinner” but “hates the sin.” Many of us have used that sort of facile distinction, but it really will not suffice, will it? Such an answer trivializes both the depth of sin and the magnitude of what God has done in Christ. As our present text makes clear, the trouble is emphatically not that we are basically decent, lovable people who have made inadvertent mistakes or lapses which need to be cleaned up. God did not rescue us because we were His friends who had drifted off course or run into trouble. While we were His enemies, Christ died for us. God’s love is given precisely to the unlovable ones who deserve wrath and condemnation.
While Paul’s description of himself and his readers as formerly enemies and ungodly, etc., certainly described the biography of that first generation of Christians, many in our congregations may not feel that the words apply equally well to them. Paul, after all, was an adult convert, and had actively engaged in the persecution of Christians and rejection of Christ. Many of the believers in Rome had been pagans—idol worshipers—before coming to faith in Christ. Of them, certainly, it is fair and accurate to say that Christ died for them while they were still “that kind” of sinners. But is the situation really that bad with a lifelong Christian today, someone who was brought to the faith as an infant in Baptism and has lived as a believer ever since? It is important that the preacher not portray the experience of Christians in a way that does not really correspond to all Christians. Without sensationalism or exaggeration, the preacher needs to confront the present reality of sin and enmity toward God that haunts even the hearts of lifelong believers. The saving death of Christ is not something that we only needed for a single past experience of conversion. Rather, Christ’s death once and for all is still the very power that overcomes our pathetic spiritual weakness, the sin that so easily entangles us, and the awful hostility toward God that can and does lurk inside us and sometimes springs forth even against our will (a reality that is explored in much more detail in Romans 7).
¹ Kazoh Kitamori. Theology of the Pain of God (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1965)