One of the most regrettable tragedies which has befallen the Christian faith is its de-mystification at the hands of fundamentalists. By boiling epic ideas like salvation, baptism, sanctification, resurrection, and eternal life down to talking points in an endless debate about who’s in or out of the religious club, we’ve lost a wealth of dramatic imagery and profound evolution of spiritual and philosophical thought present right there in the Scriptural texts.
As I’ve been reading and re-reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, I don’t find evidence he was interested in providing a litmus test for faith. He’s not presenting a clean list of statements to which you can answer Yes or No. He’s going for something deeper. He’s speaking to a mystical journey where soul and spirit collide, life and death dance to a cosmic tune just beyond natural hearing, and we get to enter into and be present with a higher dimension.
Paul the Mystic? Oh yeah. Strap on your seat belts because things are about to get…weird.
So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. –Romans 5:21
In my previous essay on Romans, I talked about the very theatrical drama which played out in chapter 7—a sort of staged showdown between the forces of sin and death and the forces of redemption and grace-filled life.
Prior to that, at the end of chapter 5, Paul had concluded his metaphor of Adam as a foreshadowing of Christ and the comparison between Adam’s failings and Jesus’ triumph (also covered in a previous essay). In the verse above, Paul ends on a high note where we learn that the endgame of sin in the world is death, but grace has brought on a new ordering of things where eternal life reigns and Jesus is defeating the forces of darkness.
Moving right along to Romans 6, Paul lets his wry side show:
Should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not!
Of course not! (Silly.)
Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death?
Dude, we totally forgot. If you’ve been in Evangelical circles for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of the “sinner’s prayer.” This is what we’re supposed to say when the preacher gives the altar call and we come on down to “give our hearts to Jesus.” Newsflash: there is no sinner’s prayer in Romans. More on that in just a moment…
For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him.
As we walk out our Christian faith, our assurance that we live with Christ and for Christ, and that the Spirit lives in us and gives us new life just as it did Christ, is completely intertwined with the belief that we died with Christ. In other words, you have to become united with Christ in his death before you can become united with Christ in his life.
I realize this may seem very strange and bizarre. Even as someone who’s been neck-deep in Christian symbolism and Biblical themes my whole life and who welcomes mystical spiritual language, I find this concept a bit hard to swallow. How is it possible to “die and be buried with Christ?” What does it mean to become united with Christ in his death?
Perhaps that’s why the traditional altar call has been dumbed down. Can’t blame the preachers for wishing to avoid scaring everyone away! A quick internet search yields a typical example of the “sinner’s prayer” which I’ve heard preached ad nauseam at Evangelical services:
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.
According to this model, Jesus is a kind of cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card. We simply thank Jesus for bearing our sins on the cross, and we get a gift of eternal life. (Instead of what? Eternal damnation?) Jesus then “comes into our hearts,” and we’re saved.
It makes for a nice greeting card religious message. People can come down to the altar, have their dramatic moment, everyone can cheer, the preacher can report “5 salvations today!” on their church stats, and then everyone goes home. Job well done.
(I’m also the parent of two small children, so I recognize we’re not quite at the point where I’m ready to start teaching them about how to become united with Christ in his death!)
But there’s a major problem with this simplified salvation message. Paul doesn’t present anything like this as the gospel he preaches in Romans. He says something much deeper, much more profound. Much more…mystical. Also much stranger. That’s probably why preachers avoid this sort of prayer:
Lord Jesus, I am prepared to die with you. I recognize that my flesh is being crucified upon a Roman cross. I’m dying to the power of sin and death over me. I identify with your burial. I trust that just as Jesus died, was buried, and then was raised again on the third day by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, I too will rise again. I believe I am now united with the one who was raised from the dead, and that sin no longer rules over me. Spirit, give me life, transform me from the inside out, and help me produce a harvest of good deeds for God. Amen.
Such a cosmic, mystical presentation of Christ’s work on the cross and how we enter into that work ourselves—represented by the powerful yet mysterious rite of baptism—is one of the most potent images in the Christian faith. It’s so sad to me that this image gets overlooked frequently in contemporary presentations of the Gospel.
On a personal note, I had a very dramatic baptism when I was 24. I was attending a lively independent Charismatic church at the time, and when I decided I wanted to get baptized for the first time, it was literally a Pentecostal event. I came up out of the water speaking in tongues and it felt like the angelic hosts of heaven were there to cheer me on!
I have a much, shall we say, quieter sort of faith these days, but I still agree with my younger self on one point which is that baptism is a Big Deal. I think the significance of this rich symbolic activity cannot be overstated.
But wait! The weird keeps on coming…
Let’s fast-forward to Romans 8:23, where Paul goes into further detail about the nature of the new life Christ gives us:
And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved.
There is a lot of emotional and familial language being used here. Paul is expressing something deep within himself, and leading us into something mysterious and exciting. Christianity isn’t simply a matter of adhering to a set of moral principles or acknowledging a set of theological truth statements. It’s a hope for a better future. It’s a journey towards a transcendent reality. It’s a process of inching ever closer to enlightenment. God is on the move, and he’s got big creative plans. Everything is going to get remodeled. Everything will be made new.
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.
There’s good reason Pentecostal/Charismatic types like to zero in on this passage, because it’s a showcase of Paul at his best mystic self. Nothing in these verses makes any sense outside of an awareness of the supernatural communion between humanity and divinity. How can the Holy Spirit pray for us without using words? What does it mean for the Spirit to plead for us?
I feel like there have been a few times in my life where something truly otherworldly has happened to me—often when praying but also during other times when life just seems to open up in a new and profound way. I understand this concept Paul is describing, this sense that Spirit is doing something around us, in us, and through us that we can’t describe. We can’t pin it down. Words fail us. But we can feel it. We know it’s there. We know something has shifted.
I love this image of forward momentum towards future glory, towards a greater union between body and soul, man and God, matter and spirit. It is a beautiful passage to contemplate, and no interpretation of Romans can do the book justice unless it honestly grapples with the mystical side Paul shows us in chapter 8.
The precious nature of life
One of the most famous commentaries on death and the arc of the human experience comes to us courtesy of an artifical lifeform from a science fiction movie classic:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. –Roy Batty, Replicant played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner
In his final moments, Roy recognizes a fundamental truth about life: the things that matter the most aren’t things. They’re experiences. What we go through, what we feel, how we react to what we perceive—everything that makes you you and me me—what counts in the end is the sum total of our experiences.
That is why we recognize the tragedy of death—not simply because we who are still alive miss those who have passed away, but because we know that those who are dead are robbed of the chance to experience anything new, and all that they had experienced during their lifetime dies with them and is lost…like tears in rain.
This is why life is precious. And this is why, in its finest moments, Christianity is a message of great relevance to everyone, everywhere: it is the story of how life conquers death and eternity enters onto the world stage with a ray of hope to light our way. We don’t have to arrive at the end of our days accepting it is the end. We recognize a divine narrative at work, and trust in the belief that when we arrive at death, our greatest adventure is only just beginning.
Paul’s letter to the Romans deserves a deeper, more contemplative understanding than often is portrayed, one that unpacks the rich spiritual images which lie within. We must say no to trite formulas, simplistic altar calls, and a “transactional” presentation of the Gospel. Christianity certainly doesn’t need more “converts”—people who check a religious box on some demographic survey. It needs more spiritual people.
So embrace the mystical journey. Embrace the weird. Embrace the Spirit.
Note to readers: I’m taking a break over the holidays, and also plan to write about a different topic or two that have been on my mind lately. But I’ll be back with fresh essays on Romans in 2019. Stay tuned!
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