Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]

Ted Grimsrud—March 21, 2022

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t actually happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this post. This big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

The moral universe and Jesus’s “sacrificial” death

I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe here. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I do want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point for that perspective is that God can’t simply forgive. The moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice. Thus, salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Romans 3 has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading. I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.

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