Do No Harm: Paul in Context, pt. 1

In the wake of a strong debate revolving around the neo-Reformed teaching of human “brokenness” as a form of “deep” total depravity, and how this teaching affects children, I wanted to look at a couple of the fundamental biblical issues at work.

Really, I’ve been thinking about how modern Reformed theology so egregiously takes Paul out of context in communicating its systematic message. How the “doctrines of grace” as they are called, or the TULIP, or even the bedrock doctrine of justification by faith, so often represent distorted messages that the apostle never intended. Because he was speaking in a specific context that new Reformed people are simply not seeking to understand.

And I’ve been thinking that perhaps, if we understand him in context, we might really arrive at a biblical theology – a gospel – that will do no harm to its hearers and believers – especially children.

While there is much to say on this and many angles from which to approach it, I want to focus on two simple things: Paul’s use of the word “all” in Romans 5 (this post) and his use of the word “us” in 2 Corinthians 5 and Ephesians 1 (in pt. 2). Wesleyan-Arminians often make a big to-do about that word “all” in the New Testament, but I think the word “us” has just as much power. Because just like all means all (if you are an Arminian), us means us. The former obviously represents radical inclusion while the latter – strangely enough – represents a radical limitation. And both are needed to make the same basic point about the character of God and the nature of salvation.

So for this post, let’s look at how “all” does this in a famous portion of Paul:

So, then, just as, through the trespass of one person [Adam], the result was condemnation for all people, even so, through the upright act of one person [Jesus], the result is justification – life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of one person many received the status of “sinner,” so through the obedience of one person many will receive the status of “in the right.” /Romans 5:18-19 KNT

This passage, the primary prooftext for what’s called “original sin” and the foundation for Calvinistic total depravity, gives us a strange pattern. Namely, as Paul notes a few verses earlier, the pattern is: “as the trespass, so also the gift.” Paul is saying that through the trespass of one person (Adam) condemnation and death came to all people; thus through the obedience of one person (Jesus), justification and life came to all people. All! But then, oddly, Paul switches to the word “many” to expand on the pattern: as through one person the status of “sinner” came to many, so through one person the status of “in the right” will come to many.

Pertinent to the aforementioned debate is the fact that while all means all with respect to both sin and justification, there is a variable involved that may exclude some on both sides, rendering all to be, in the end, only many. And that variable is choice. More specifically, because Paul is speaking to the first century Israelite situation in Roman exile, the variable is covenant breaking (sin) or covenant keeping (justification). And it always has been.

Thus, with both all and many, what is true of the trespass must also be true of the gift. And that means the Reformed position is wrong because while it claims all on one side, it fails to claim it on the other. Thus, All are sinful! All are broken! All are depraved! From birth! Because of Adam’s sin alone! They are deeply broken in the innermost parts, so that all of their faculties are corrupted and even their good is tainted by evil and they are so dead in sin that they cannot even will to do the good, nor choose faith by their own power! But, of course, Not all are saved! Not all are justified! Only the elect are! Only those predestined in eternity past and moved upon by the Spirit to awaken the deadened will according to God’s sovereign choosing can believe! Etc.

But, see, if all means all and the variable of exclusion holds, then while all are enveloped in a sinful world from birth because of Adam, many develop into the status of “sinner” by covenant breaking choices. The sin status is not a horrific spiritual birth defect that our children must be convinced they possess – it is a status they grow to attain as the world created by Adam takes its toll. Likewise, while all are enveloped in the Messiah’s loving sacrifice for sin and victory over death and justification unto life, many develop into the status of “in the right” by covenant keeping choices.

Of course, there is a new covenant distinction. Verses 21-22 trace Paul’s argument about Israel and the law, showing that the old covenant law served only to amplify Israel’s covenant breaking choices…SO THAT God’s faithfulness to the covenant could abound all the more! In response to the covenant breaking of Israel and the whole world, God entered in by sending the Messiah to erase this covenant breaking in a sweeping act of convenant keeping even unto death on a cross – so that the only choice needed now to participate in this gift is a simple life of faith! And free from the law’s demands, all are enveloped and welcomed in!

The significance of this cannot be overstated: Paul is exegeting what John simply recorded as “For God so loved the world.” Justification and life envelop all of humanity in redeeming belovedness, and Jesus’s obedient death is the atonement for us all, without limitation. Thus the situation of the fall – an enveloping brokenness that people develop into with covenant-breaking choices – is FAR EXCEEDED by the situation of redemption. God’s covenant faithfulness in Jesus has overcome ALL the brokenness so that the WHOLE WORLD is enveloped in belovedness and may realize that covenant status – in the right! – by faith only and not by burdensome works of law!

Praise God!

What we teach our kids about the world’s sin and brokenness, then, is not a guilt and shame laden message that they are deeply broken and depraved at the core of their identity. No! Instead, we teach them that indeed the world is broken, and it will invite them into its Adamic dance of failure and fragmentation, but be of good cheer little one, for Jesus has already overcome the world! And his love already envelops our kids in the safety of total acceptance, justification, and life, and invites them into a realization of that status by simply trusting in Jesus along the journey.

This is a fundamentally different message than the fundamentalism we so often witness in the neo-Reformed narrative.

And we find it in Paul, when we read him in context.

Next time…us.

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Lydia

    This is one of the best explanations I have ever seen of this passage. Thank you so much for going into this. I especially love your summarization:
    “What we teach our kids about the world’s sin and brokenness, then, is not a guilt and shame laden message that they are deeply broken and depraved at the core of their identity. No! Instead, we teach them that indeed the world is broken, and it will invite them into its Adamic dance of failure and fragmentation, but be of good cheer little one, for Jesus has already overcome the world! And his love already envelops our kids in the safety of total acceptance, justification, and life, and invites them into a realization of that status by simply trusting in Jesus along the journey.”
    What a blessing!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Lydia thanks for the encouragement, Lydia! and I agree – it is a blessing.

  • uponacloud

    I left the Catholic Church full of resentment but when I read stuff like what you are addressing here I’m happy I was raised a Catholic because it could have been worse.

  • hespenshied

    I like the emphasis on “belovedness” over and against “brokenness” in these discussions.
    You’ve probably answered this (I haven’t read all the responses in the previous post) – Do you advocate at all that we teach our children that they need a Savior?  Or just that they are beloved and they already have one?  Can we (or do we need to) do anything or point to anything inside of them that stirs up that felt need?…short of exposing a need to be broken?

    I’m not disagreeing, just wanting to understand further.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      hespenshied I see a both-and here, but only to a degree. In other words, the devil is in the details, in where the emphasis falls. I have a toddler and a pre-K kiddo. We’re not getting into vast theological concepts of human sinfulness; makes no sense theologically or developmentally for where they are. They know that they make mistakes, fail to listen sometimes, etc., and they know mommy and daddy still love them and Jesus loves them most of all. As they grow, I’ll explain that all of us, the whole world, falls short, makes mistakes, and acts in hurtful/harmful ways sometimes. There are also some really bad things out there. And that’s why Jesus came. What I want to emphasize, however, is the overcoming, overwhelming grace of God in Jesus to reverse it all. So that there’s no shame for them, even in their mistakes, but just belovedness, even as they are figuring out their choice to follow Jesus and trust him. It’s already done in Jesus, the gift has already come to them, and they can simply develop into realizing and living out that status.

      • hespenshied

        zachhoag hespenshied thanks for the clarification……..I don’t disagree with any of this.
        However, I do see benefit  (as an adult) to coming to grips with my own depravity and feeling whatever the “full weight of it” might look like for me.  This doesn’t mean that I have to wallow in it, or experience shame.
        Regularly contemplating my utter lostness helps me to more richly experience my belovedness.
        I’m lock step with you though in believing that there is an over-emphasis on calling for brokenness – especially in others.  Calling for others to experience brokenness is putting an expectation on them that they cannot bear up under.  When David kept silent about his sin and experienced “God’s hand heavy upon him”……the last thing he needed was someone else piling on.

  • MAGuyton

    Here’s the modification I would make to total depravity. The issue is that claiming any good we do as our own property is the core of our corrupting self-justification which is the basis for all sin. So while calling myself the greatest sinner, totally broken, etc, is beneficial at least as a weapon against my spiritual pride, it becomes poison when it pulls me down in the opposite direction into a self-hate that translates into hatred for my neighbor. 
    What’s better than a doctrine of total depravity is a doctrine of total providence. Everything good I have and everything good I do are the property and glory of God. I am simply a lucky son of bitch to be his vessel. That way you sidestep Pelagianism without thus becoming a nihilistic misanthrope. There’s no reason for me to talk about the total depravity of anybody else. I can say I’m the greatest sinner if that’s helpful to my humility, but the result is the opposite if I say I’m surrounded by utterly wicked people (which means that since I’m elect, I get to bathe in spiritual pride). Man, Paul would be bitch-slapping a lot of people for using his words to the opposite of their intended effect if he were around today.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      Morgan, I’ve learned so much from your perspective on self-justification and the gospel. Keep teaching me, bro!

    • uponacloud

      MAGuyton You put it down wonderfully, though I have my reserves on the idea that calling yourself the greatest sinner can make you more humble and you give it the benefit of doubt.

  • BransonParler

    A few comments aimed at further clarification: 
    1. Doctrines of original sin, total depravity, etc., don’t originate with the neo-Reformed folks (by which I take it you mean TGC folks) or even the 16th & 17th century Reformed confessions. There’s a lineage that goes all the way back to the early church (especially Augustine), which culminates in the Canons of Orange (AD 529) that denounces Pelagian and semi-Pelagian thought. So it’s not just TGC folks or Reformed folks who hold to something like this–you get similar emphases in Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrine as well. 
    2. Reformed confessionalism also emphasizes the central of the covenant community and covenant identity in and through infant baptism. So Reformed children know that, from the beginning, they are marked by covenant identity in Christ. The broadly evangelical, non-paedobaptist folks who follow TGC may not have this emphasis, but those who are actually confessionally Reformed do.  
    3. You say “all are enveloped in a sinful world from birth because of Adam, many develop into the status of “sinner” by covenant breaking choices. The sin status is not a horrific spiritual birth defect that our children must be convinced they possess – it is a status they grow to attain as the world created by Adam takes its toll.Likewise, while all are enveloped in the Messiah’s loving sacrifice for sin and victory over death and justification unto life, many develop into the status of “in the right” by covenant keeping choices.” In my opinion, this begs for further clarification. I also wonder if you actually downplay the centrality of covenant here, because biblical covenants are by nature corporate covenants. As a Jew, Paul is part of God’s covenant with Israel from birth because of God’s covenant promises to Abraham. He has that status from the beginning. You also seem to be linking status with action in a way that doesn’t always follow. In other words, I’m not sure that the phrase “a status they grow to attain” makes sense. At least, part of what N. T. Wright argue is that covenant status/faithfulness shouldn’t be equated with moral actions (of our own or of Christ’s that are ‘imputed’ to us). In my understanding, the Canons of Orange and Reformed confessions would say that it is both a status that we have from the beginning because of our covenantal connection with Adam and a reality that every single person lives into, apart from Christ. So we have the status of sinner from birth and we live into that reality from the beginning, from birth. One another question: does saying that “All are enveloped in the Messiah’s loving sacrifice…” mean that all people have the status of being set right before God? And what is the basis for the possibility of “covenant keeping choices?”
    4. One final terminological note. You say: This is a fundamentally different message than the fundamentalism we so often witness in the neo-Reformed narrative. It would be helpful to clarify here–if by fundamentalism, you mean doctrines of total depravity, original sin, etc., than all Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, many Baptists, etc., are “fundamentalists.” If by “fundamentalism” you mean an adherence to “fundamentals” of the faith (the original usage of that term), then using that term would be more of a praise than a critique. If you mean to use the term in a negative way (as is most common today), i.e., as an epithet, it’s not that helpful because its usage in this sentence doesn’t tell me anything about the substance of the problem with the neo-Reformed narrative, but rather just marks neo-Reformed folks as “fundamentalist,” which we all know means “bad” without really explaining why. 
    I say all this not because I’m overly positive about TGC folks, but because I think it serves dialogue to try to be as clear and precise as possible in this. As someone in the Reformed tradition, I know that Reformed folks do their fair share of caricaturing others and are caricatured by others in turn. Hopefully our own understanding will dialogue with charity and clarity.

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