We’ve not been trained to read Romans well in the Protestant tradition. This unfortunate circumstance makes passages like this difficult to fit into what we’ve traditionally held to be the main argument of Romans. For many, the central idea of Romans is justification by faith, or salvation by grace, but what we ultimately mean is that we are saved by a choice. The image that accompanies this is of a long line of individuals, capable of making the one important decision in life: to accept the deal God has made with humanity through Christ in the form of faith or to reject it in the form of unbelief. This line of individuals comes at last to God sitting behind an accounting desk with a ledger to see who made the deal and who didn’t. But that traditional image—a stoic, static God waiting on people to make a deal or not, cannot account for the dramatic picture Paul paints in this passage.
The dominant image here is not God the keeper of accounts, but rather an image of two realms, two kingdoms, and the story of a king who has staged a non-violent unhostile takeover of an enemy kingdom in order to secure its release from slavery, oppression and decay. This is not to say that traditional approaches to Romans that focus on justification or salvation decisions are in error. The Romans Road, for instance, is not wrong per se, but its cherrypicking strategy presents a truncated view of Paul’s argument through the entire letter that cannot possibly take in Paul’s expansive, comprehensive, and cosmic vision of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. The preacher’s task this week is to begin to unspool that grand, golden thread so that the congregation can see themselves as participants in that larger story.
The main question of this passage is “who rules as king?” Indeed, this is the main issue throughout much of Paul’s letter, as he begins the letter by introducing Jesus as both the son of David and “the Son of God,” both titles of royalty (Rom 1:3-4; see Psalm 2). Paul’s gospel is that Jesus rules as king (Rom 10:9-13), but the drama of the gospel is that this was not always the case. The translation of verses 14 and 21 in chapter 5 are obscured a bit by the NRSV and NIV in that the word used for what Sin and Death do is “to rule as king” (ebasileusen). This means that Sin and Death are not merely conceptual entities, but active, personified agents, ruling roughshod over God’s creation in destructive ways. They are, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa calls them, anti-God powers.
Life in the Kingdom of Sin and Death is full of broken bonds: between God and humans, among human relationships, and between humans and the rest of creation. It is a kingdom of devastation, a kingdom of ash, a world imprisoned in disobedience, subjected to futility, and in bondage to decay (Rom 11:32; 8:20-21). Think of it like the Upside Down in Netflix’s Stranger Things, everything is a dark, deformed, and malignant version of itself. It’s fitting then, that we hear this text on the first Sunday in Lent, with the words of Ash Wednesday still ringing in our ears: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Lent begins there, but Lent is the journey we make from the kingdom of dust and ash to the kingdom of resurrection, so it is appropriate that we begin here on the first Sunday of Lent with the viral spread of the rumor of good news that a king has secured our liberation from the kingdom of ash to the kingdom of resurrection. With this framework of two kingdoms in mind, how do we hear the rest of this passage?
The reign of King Death was unleashed into the world by a representative human. Through Adam, the fundamental brokenness of Sin and Death came into the world, spreading like a disease to all humanity (v 12). For Paul, sin is not merely an action or set of actions, it’s the larger condition all humanity is enslaved by. Sinful and deathly actions flow from our participation in the kingdom of Sin and Death. Paul has established up to this point in the letter that absolutely all of humanity is under the power of Sin and Death and resides under the condemnation of God’s anger at injustice (Paul’s use of dikaios can be rendered both as “righteousness” and “justice”). Sin and Death reign as king and their kingdom encompasses the totality of humanity. Only a miracle will save humanity and rescue God’s project of joint care for creation with humans. Enter the remedy of grace.
The remedy of grace does not merely cover over transgressions, nor extract sinners out of the deathly realm. Rather, a total transformation is in process, unleashed through another representative human, Jesus the Messiah (v 15). God’s gift in Christ is not simply the offer of a deal that can be accepted or refused from a neutral plane of decision. The gospel is a dramatic rescue operation, releasing an entire population of slaves. Beverly Gaventa points out that the “all” functions on both sides of the rescue operation: “The action of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ renders this ‘all’ of condemnation an ‘all’ of redemption . . . The basis of the contrast between Adam and Christ is that each of them acted, and each action carried along with it the whole of humankind.”
Paul’s vision of salvation is big here, bigger than we often allow it to be. The scales of rectification are radically unequal here. If the many died because of one man’s actions, “much more surely” will grace abound to the many (v 15, see also v 17). This is not dualism between two equal forces, but a landslide victory for grace. God’s victory over the Kingdom of Sin and Death is not partial, but total. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (v 20 NRSV). And it follows that those who receive this gift with joy and gladness, who live into this liberation achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection, share in the reign of King Jesus.
The contrast Paul makes here, surprisingly, is not between King Death and King Jesus, but between King Death and those who “receive the abundance of grace and the gift of rectification” who “will rule as kings and queens” through the one man Jesus (v. 17). This sets up what Paul will do with the vision of triumphant grace in which creation sees the revelation of the sons of God that it has anticipated so eagerly (8:19-21). Normally, gender inclusive language is preferable in translating Paul’s letters, but in this instance the “sons of God” language, which is royal terminology, is an important motif in Romans, tracing all the way back to Paul’s introduction of Jesus at the beginning of the letter (1:4). Those who participate in the risen Jesus’s life, participate also in his restorative reign as king. This is Paul’s grand vision of grace and rectification.
Wesleyans can readily preach the triumph of grace and the abounding love of God that seeps out of every part of this passage. God’s love and grace will win and will reign, and that is unmistakably good news. This passage can help us proclaim a better message of God’s rectification and help us also to read Romans in a better way. For Paul, justification/rectification was not simply “making sure God’s not angry at me anymore.” It has a much more active and participatory sense, a sense of being a citizen (Philippians 3:20) or a kingdom subject. Rectification is being made right, and it’s not just a legal descriptor or label, it’s being empowered by the love of God (5:5) to function rightly—that’s built into the concept. Holiness is not an optional add-on that some may pursue later than justification, the process of becoming holy begins at rectification. Justification/rectification is something Christ has achieved once and for all, but it is experienced as an ongoing reality for humans. It is a singular event that reverberates throughout the rest of our lives and overflows out into the world. And it is a good text to hear at the beginning of Lent.