Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 3 — Liberation from idolatry [Peaceable Romans #5]

Ted Grimsrud—January 31, 2022

As we have seen in the previous two blog posts in this three-part series, Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome with a two-part analysis of the dynamics of idolatry—first, political idolatry and then religious idolatry. He concludes that “all are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9)—that is, both types of idolatry keep us from living the free and fruitful lives God intends for us. Paul’s intent, though, is not emphasizing the total depravity of humankind. Rather, he sets up the problem in order to provide a solution—liberation for sinners.

He states this solution beginning at 3:21. His statement is dense and open to different interpretations. I believe that if we read Paul in light of Jesus’s life and teaching and if we assume that Paul’s agenda is to empower his readers to live lives of service and healing justice, we will be best suited to discern the meaning of his theologically and ethically potent emphases in 3:21-31. Of course, fully to understand the content and implications of what he writes in those verses, we will need to analyze the chapters that follow in Romans—a task for future blog posts.

The true revelation of Jesus as savior (liberator)

Our starting point in analyzing Romans 3 should be a recognition that Paul’s theology here was decisively shaped by his own experience before he met Jesus. When Saul the Pharisee made “works of the law” central (i.e., when he focused on the boundary markers that protected the core of religious identity that for him found expression in strict adherence to rituals of separation [such as circumcision and dietary restrictions]), he had zealously devoted himself to violent persecution of the followers of Jesus. After he met Jesus, Saul renamed as Paul realized with a shock that instead of serving God, he had been serving an idol—and was guilty of blasphemy rather than faithfully serving God. So, Paul himself when he was Saul the Pharisee was stuck right in the middle of idolatry that enslaved him under the power of sin. In his trust in works of the law, he himself had been enslaved. He had been part of the dynamic of slavery to idols that concludes the negative part of his argument at 3:20.

So, when we turn to the next step in the argument, we remember that it is a personal testimony for Paul. He affirms that God’s healing justice, God’s transformative love, has been made known to humanity (and, specifically, to Paul himself) “apart from the law” (3:21). Paul’s response to the problem of idolatry flows from his own liberation. This is how the problem is solved: “Now, apart from the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22).

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