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.

Let’s read Romans 3, now, with perhaps a more “merciful” translation than many. What do you think Paul is trying to say? I’ll start with v. 9:

All people, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is just, not even one; their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.” No human being will be justified by works of the law, as it is through the law that knowledge of sin comes. [So, what hope do we have?]

[We have hope in this:] That now, separate from our works of law, the justice of God has been disclosed. This disclosure actually was foreshadowed in the law and the prophets. It is the justice of God seen in Jesus Christ’s faithfulness, made present for all who trust God. There is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but also, all are justified by God’s grace as a gift. God’s redemption is seen in Christ Jesus. Jesus’s sacrificial life, faithfully lived even to the death, shows God’s healing love. God’s revelation in Jesus shows God’s true justice. Exercising divine forbearance, God had passed over human sinfulness; this proved at the present time that God is just, and that God justifies the one who follows Jesus.

Boasting is excluded by the law of faithfulness. We hold that a person is justified by faithfulness apart from works prescribed by the law. Is not God the God of Gentiles as well as Jews? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; God will justify the circumcised on the ground of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through that same faithfulness. In the end, the true law is not overthrown by this faithfulness but rather upheld. (Romans 3:9-31)

This is what I think is going on here. At least, this is a little bit of what I think—it is a complex passage! Paul is most of all concerned with helping to empower people to love God and to love all neighbors. He understands that love to be the heart of biblical faith—central to the Old Testament law, central to the prophets, and—most of all—central to the message of Jesus.

Sin understood in terms of idolatry

However, we have a big problem, as they did in days of old. Paul calls it “sin.” His point here, though, is not so much that each individual has sinned (not that he would necessarily deny that point). But Paul is not thinking here like the children’s sermon that tells kids that each one has a dark spot of sin on their hearts. This spot gets bigger each time you lie or don’t obey your parents. This is not Paul’s idea. He is not thinking like the old gospel hymn—where as individuals each one of us is “sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown.”

Paul is not thinking the way one theologian I have read puts it, that God is most of all holy and just, that God simply cannot abide with sin, that were God to be in the presence of sin, God would have to destroy it. That is, Paul is not thinking that were God to be in the presence of our individual sinful hearts, God would have to destroy us. This is not Paul’s concern. From start to finish, Paul’s God is a God of love who responds to human sinfulness not with condemnation and anger but with an initiative to heal, to free us from the damage sin visits upon us.

Paul has made it clear. The key human failure is the failure to give God praise for what is (Rom 1:21). This praise is important because it evokes a sense of trust in the goodness of life and in the abundance of love. This praise empowers people to live without fearfulness and insecurity and enables people to feel at home in the universe—to love the world and those who dwell in it. The failure to be grateful leads to putting trust in created things rather than the creator. This in turns fuels the dynamics of idolatry. The failure to live in gratitude leads to fearfulness, which leads to a quest for security —and the tendency to trust in things that offer a sense of security. Tragically, this tendency leads to a vicious cycle. Trust in created things leads to trust in human empires—such as the Roman Empire where Paul’s readers lived. And this trust looses a spiral of injustice, oppression, and violence.

We could call the trust in the security offered by empires “Idolatry I.” As Paul summarizes the problems of imperial idolatry in Romans 1, he surely imagined his rigorously religious readers nodding their heads enthusiastically. Indeed, those pagans deserve the self-destruction they visit upon themselves. But then Paul turns the tables and tells his rigorously religious readers that they are doing the same thing. We who know the story of Paul’s own life know that he has in mind one rigorously religious person in particular—his own self. In the name of religious purity, Paul had violently persecuted followers of Jesus. We can call this rigorously religious attempt to provide for security, “Idolatry II.”

Now, it is crucial that we not equate “Idolatry II” with Judaism—it is as a Jew that Paul refutes his own sacred violence. He seeks more than ever to be a faithful Jew. He believes his Jewish tradition affirms the message of the gospel. The problem is how this message gets distorted by people of all religions. Certainly, Christians have terribly distorted the gospel message over and over again—and still do.

These two idolatries illumine the problem of sin. Humanity constructed systems of salvation, systems that seek security in ways that prove to be based on injustice, on violence, on coercion, on pride (Paul’s term for this part of the dynamic is “boasting”—kind of like people today calling the United States the “indispensable nation” or kind of like Christians saying “there is no salvation outside the church”). These two systems of salvation (empire and religiosity), in many ways rival faiths that have been profoundly in conflict, had elements in common. They collaborated to kill Jesus. Each perceived—accurately—that Jesus was a genuine threat to their system of salvation. When he offered healing apart from the temple rituals, Jesus undermined the religious monopoly of Temple-centered Judaism. When he labeled the Empire’s leaders tyrants and suggested an alternative politics of servanthood, Jesus undermined Rome’s power-over style of social organization.

Jesus’s alternative to idolatry

When Jesus showed that God is about mercy, all the way down, that salvation is free and available to all—outcasts and unclean, as well as pious and powerful—he challenged all systems of salvation that were (and are) based on something other than mercy. Both of these systems of salvation, in their own ways, saw something as more fundamental than mercy. Both were based on fear, the need for security, the sense that the universe demands satisfaction in order to allow us, tenuously, to survive in it. So, when Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” he does not refer to individuals. He refers to systems of salvation based on something other than mercy. And he has these two examples—Empire and religion—in mind. Each group fails to glorify God. Each fails to cultivate gratitude. Each misunderstands justice; they both see justice as being about retribution instead of about healing love.

Paul critiques “Idolatry I” in Romans 1. The salvation system based on boasting in the Roman Empire created an environment where the lusts and arrogance of the Roman power elite went unchecked. Such lusts led to exploitative sexual practices and many other forms of violence and injustice. And the citizens of the Empire still gave their loyalty to this elite—their minds were indeed “darkened.” But the response of the rigorously religious (like Paul himself before he met Jesus), with their self-righteousness and their own kind of arrogance, fueled parallel violence. The goal for Paul himself, before he met Jesus, was a pure community that would exclude the unclean Other, violently if necessary. The idolatry of the pure, rigorously religious community led to behavior just as bad as the idolatry of the impure, pagan community.

In chapter three, Paul makes a universal statement, “all have sinned.” But this is not meant as a counsel of despair. He does not mean, you are condemned no matter what. Rather, the claim, “all have sinned” is a critique of systems of salvation that are not based on mercy. Paul’s intent is not to condemn his readers, not to say you can do nothing good. Rather, Paul’s intent is to encourage them, to help them be free. This is Paul’s message: Turn away from those systems of salvation. Turn away from political structures like those that condemned Jesus. Turn away from religious structures like those that condemned Jesus. And simply trust in God’s mercy—and believe that God’s character is mercy all the way down. In pointing to Jesus’s alternative to idolatry, Paul proclaims a gospel of trust. Embrace God’s justice, which seeks to heal and restore relationships. This justice does not seek to punish, to repay sin with pain, or to demand a tit for tat.

How Jesus brings salvation

Paul concludes his argument from chapters 1–3: “Apart from works of 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” (3:21-22). That is, the healing, saving, merciful justice of God is present in the world right now. We don’t need these systems of salvation to subdue God’s anger—because God is not angry.

Jesus brings salvation in two ways. First, he showed what God is like better than anything else ever has: merciful toward sinners, independent of other systems of salvation, confrontive toward abuses of power and disrespect toward vulnerable people. And second, by following this path in face of hostility from the political and religious leaders, all the way to his death, Jesus shows that those leaders were not God’s agents but were actually opposed to God. He frees us from the need to trust in them and their systems of salvation that instead of freeing us from the idols doubles down on the idolatry.

Jesus does offer a “blood sacrifice,” Paul writes here. But this is not a necessary sacrifice where God’s son had to be violently executed in order to satisfy God’s holiness. Rather, Jesus’s entire life all the way to his death was a self-sacrifice where he devoted his life to confrontive love without compromise. Such love reveals God’s mercy —and reveals the hostility of the powers that be. Ultimately, Paul strongly reinforces Jesus’s message. How does God respond to sin? By taking the initiative to bring healing. God offers forgiveness and shows the way to life. Because God sets us free when we trust in God’s mercy, we may live in gratitude and treat others kindly in the same way God has treated us. Rather than living lives of anxiety, of insecurity, of giving loyalty to human institutions that offer a form of security that only increases our fearfulness—we may live lives of trust.

One of my favorite theologians is the great Jewish writer, Martin Buber. For years, I have turned to his book, I and Thou, for hope and encouragement. This is one of my favorite quotes—that I think echoes what Paul is getting at in Romans 3. “Only [the one] that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if [one] commits [oneself] one cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled; but love it in all its terror. [D]are to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.” Dare to embrace the world—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.”

I was a bit surprised when I found a parallel quote in a book by American political thinker Jonathan Schell called The Unconquerable World. Schell tells of the power of nonviolence and the obsolescence of war. He keeps his distance from faith, but at one point he makes this statement: “What Gandhi, [Vaclav] Havel, and most of the others who have won nonviolent victories in our time believed, and made the starting point of their activity was a conviction—or, to be exact, a faith—that if they acted in obedience to certain demanding principles, which for all of them included in one way or another the principle of nonviolence, there was somewhere in the order of creation, a fundament or truth, that would give an answering and sustaining reply.”

I think of an example of this “answering and sustaining reply.” My friends Earl and Pat Hostetter Martin spent several years in Vietnam in the 1960s offering humanitarian aid in the midst of the war. One remarkable element of their work in offering assistance to people displaced by the war—work that took place amidst much danger from several sides—was that they felt much safer there not having weapons for their self-defense. They lived with trust in the people they lived around that as they lived in a defenseless way, they would actually have much less need for defense.

Paul argues in Romans that we should see the moral universe as mercy all the way down and live accordingly. This is not an argument that everything will always turn out alright. Paul knew suffering, and he presents the normal life of faith as a life with plenty of sorrow and tears. But as he will state later in Romans, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … [No, nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (8:35, 38).

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

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

  1. Your mention of “turtles all the way down” prompts me to recall a YA novel by that title written by John Green. The following is a link to my review of the book:
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2180169773

    Your reference to the Martins feeling safer being unarmed reminded me of the speculation that Lewis and Clark inadvertently preempted some hostel attacks because they had included within their party Sacagawea carrying her infant son giving them the appearance of not being a normal war party.

      1. The turtle story is recounted in one of the protagonist’s spiral of obsessive thoughts. My guess as to why the author selected it as the tile is the seemingly endless characteristic of obsessive thoughts that seem to go on for ever—just like the turtles.

Leave a Reply to clifh Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s