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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When we refuse to be fobbed off

Hi folks, “Lord, I just don’t understand this.” Over the years I’ve prayed this prayer many times during my daily Bible reading. For whatever reason a particular passage or verse just doesn’t fit in with my understanding of how God works in this world. Of course, we can try and work it out, having asked for (more) help from the Holy Spirit, even phoning a friend But there may well be a sense of trying to force it into to our intellectual jigsaw, making a piece fit when it clearly doesn’t. At this point we have a choice. We can simply carry on as if that passage doesn’t exist, particularly if it has the potential of upending our entire understanding of the Gospel. Or we can park it in that part of our brain called ‘Pending” and give the Holy Spirit permission to work away in his task of renewing our minds, changing our way of thinking. Sometimes incrementally, occasionally a paradigm shift. And it can be exciting, as the two disillusioned disciples found on the Emmaus Road when the risen Jesus explained how his cross and resurrection fulfil the Hebrew scriptures. “Were not our hearts burning within us while (Jesus) talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). One such passage for me has been in opening argument of Romans. It begins: “God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” (Romans 2:6) The apostle Paul goes onto explain to explain his quote from Psalm 62, how God is going to judge us on the basis whether we do good or whether we do evil. This seems to undercut my entire understanding of God’s gospel of grace – that all we need do is to place our trust in Christ. Again to quote the apostle “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Romans 10:10). This has to be the fundamental, the beating heart of the Gospel. However, the fact that both passages come from the same letter must mean that they are not in conflict – even if I can’t work out why. Here I am making the assumption that Paul knows what he is doing and would not so blatantly contradict himself. I first encountered this dilemma during the summer vacation of 1975 as I worked my way, at an excruciating slow pace in the original Greek, through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Fortunately I was in the university library at Durham, in the old building so I could frequently pause and take in the marvellous view over the river Wear. And over the years I have continued to puzzle over this passage Romans. What does it mean? Where does it fit in? I’ve read the commentaries and none satisfied. Some would argue that choosing to believe in Jesus is in fact something that we have decided to do: it’s a deed. Or that Paul is setting up categories which he then shows to be empty. Or that the apostle is simply stating Jewish teaching which he himself does not share. None of these explanations, if I'm honest, works for me. And every so often I return to the passage and think about it. Some of us are in the slow learners group. However, it all came together when I reached page 936 of Tom Wright’s Paul and the faithfulness of God. Incidentally, you will be delighted to know that on Tuesday I finally finished this two volume theological masterpiece on Tuesday, all 1519 pages. It only took me six years (with a three year gap in the middle, I hasten to add). Actually it wasn’t a sudden flash of light. For some time I had been aware of Wright’ teaching on how we reach the status of having peace with God, how we may be sure that there no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Sometimes it just takes time for everything to come together, especially if it means some unlearning to be done. Yes, the cross and resurrection victory of Jesus changes everything. And yes, all I need do/all I can do is place my trust in Christ, saved by his faithfulness to God’s saving plan. As a result there is a change in my status – I am adopted into his family. That I knew; that is my hope. However, there’s more. Here Wright emphases the ministry of the Holy Spirit in my salvation. To quote him, from page 940, “When looking ahead with Pauline eyes at this final verdict it is impossible – that many have tried – to omit the work of the spirit.” The apostle fully expects the Holy Spirit to change us so that we can anticipate the final judgment with confidence. So he can writes to another church, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6). I haven’t the time or space to develop Wright’ teaching, but that’s not the aim of this blog. When we don’t understand God’s word, tell him. Refuse to be fobbed off by easy explanations> However, difficult-to-understand passages in scripture are very much the exception. As we say in the trade, scripture is perspicacious. So Mark Twain famously did not say “Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.”

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