Commentary on Romans 5:1-8
“Access” has become a key phrase in our technological age.
At the door of the seminary where I work we try to remember the “access” code. At the computer we turn the noun into a verb: “I need to access that file.” When I am at home trying to retrieve messages from my workplace e-mail account and my finger or my memory slips as I try to type in my password, the screen goes blank except for the sad judgment: “Access denied.” Many of us have different passwords for our e-mail accounts, our banking, our travel service and the on-line vendors from whom we order books, CDs and fresh fruit. I write a carefully coded list in the back of my date book of all the passwords I am apt to need and only hope that I do not lose the date book.
Paul wrote for a world in which people were desperately trying to find the passwords that would give them access to God. Some thought that careful obedience to the law of Moses was the key. Others thought that civic virtue was the key. Still others tried to placate God by the breadth of their philosophical knowledge.
Paul’s astonishing claim is that there is only one password we need to remember: Jesus Christ and that in Jesus Christ everyone has access to grace. And suddenly the entire picture is reversed. It is not that we are striving to reach God, it is that God is striving to reach us–grace. It is not that we use Jesus to attain God’s mercy, it is that God sends Jesus to enact the mercy that God has intended from the beginning of time.
Grace, however, is not only the activity of God in Jesus Christ that reaches out to include everyone (in Paul’s case, especially both Jews and Gentiles.) Grace is also our dwelling place “This grace in which we stand.” God’s goodness to us surrounds us and upholds us and defines who we are. Our lives are shaped by the gift we can never achieve but can only receive.
And Paul tells us what the life looks like that is grounded in grace. It is not usually marked by earthly success and most certainly not blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. It is, after all, a Christ-shaped life that lives in grace. But the suffering bears its own fruits, or better, grace bears fruit through the suffering. The litany of the gifts of grace is a kind of sketch of moral and spiritual development for the person grounded in the grace of God. Start with suffering and move to endurance; from endurance comes character, and character produces hope. Ethicists are much committed to helping us think about “character” ethics these days. Paul would say that we can be pretty sure someone has character right if she lives in hope.
Then note what the source and the instrument of this hope is.
Love produces hope. We all know that that is true existentially. The child who lives in hope is a child who has been surrounded by love. I heard William Sloane Coffin, Jr. say that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The consequence of that is clear: the product of love is hope. Paul will say in 1 Corinthians 13 that the three great gifts of God’s spirit are faith, hope, and love. In Romans 4-5 the three gifts are inseparable from one another and from God’s spirit.
The love to which Paul points–as he has already made clear–is not simply human love. It is God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. The verse about the distinction between dying for a righteous person and dying for a good person in vs. 7 has puzzled many scholars with good reason. But all that is the preface to the main point: that Christ has died–not for the righteous and not for the good, but for the ungodly. That is good news because most of us know perfectly well that the category of the ungodly includes us.
Now it is even clearer than when we began. What counts is not so much our access to God as God’s access to us. It is not that we reach longingly toward heaven but that heaven reaches out longingly to us. It is not that we are good enough or wise enough or obedient enough to gain God; it is that God has gained us for Godself.
John Buchanan, the former congressman from Alabama, told of how he first began to understand the Christian story. He was serving on the front in the Second World War. He and a group of his fellow soldiers were advancing when the enemy lobbed a grenade into their midst. Instantly one of Buchanan’s fellow soldiers fell on the grenade, absorbed the explosion and gave up his life for his friends.
We struggle to come up with a doctrine of the atonement, and all the classical solutions seem fall short. Paul was blessed by a richly unsystematic mind. His language about what Jesus does shifts from verb to verb: Christ saves; Christ justifies; Christ reconciles. His description of what Christ does shifts from metaphor to metaphor: an obedient second Adam undoes the disobedience of the first. A sinless man is made to be sin. A godly Messiah dies for ungodly people.
The claim outreaches all our metaphors. The name embraces all our weaknesses: Jesus Christ, access to God’s grace; where we stand.