This section is the middle of three in the chapter, “Humankind under Indictment”. Now that we’ve seen how Adam completely blew it (§4), we turn to the role of sin and death in the life of a believer. Only after that will we examine the role of the law in human failure. Then (finally), we can move on to some good news!
But for now . . . sin and death:
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Chapter 3: Humankind under Indictment
§ 5: Sin and death
Even a post-religious world falls back on religious categories of evil when inexplicable horror occurs. The ancient world often referred to fate as a force that explained evil. Another term that became popular by Paul’s time was daimones, or spirits that influenced human life. To this point in our study of Paul, you would expect to find the source of evil in ourselves. However, in Romans 3:9, sin is first mentioned and described as a power under which humanity labours. Paul in other correspondence has spoken of other gods and demons which can influence human affairs.
Paul only spoke of these heavenly powers twice in the undisputed letters (Romans 8:38-39, 1 Corinthians 15:24), but the disputed lists overlap so much that we can use their lists without misrepresenting Paul (Colossians 1:16, Ephesians 1:20-21; 6:12). Paul understands these powers as subordinate to God yet with the potential to intervene between God and humans with hostile purposes. Paul uses a variety of terms to refer to spiritual powers, but the most common are rulers (archai) and authorities (exousiai). The pair of terms, “height” and “depth”, in Romans 8:38-39 likely referred to heavenly bodies as they rose to their heights then sunk below the horizon. The pair of terms, “death” and “life”, in the same passage refers to every conceivable human condition, although “death” is also a hostile power. Paul spoke in Galatians and Colossians about stoicheia, which likely referred to the elements of which the universe was assumed to be created with (earth, water, air, and fire). In sum, Paul assumed the worldview of his day that consisted of several heavens, the lower ones occupied by some hostile powers. However, when you press Paul, it’s amazing how little he says about the spiritual powers. It’s as if he writes them in because it’s expected, but quickly emphasizes their impotence under Christ. Paul focuses most of his attention on the powers of “sin” and “death”, which are more existential than ontological.
The term “sin” is astonishingly frequent in Romans (48x in Romans, 16x elsewhere in Pauline lit.). Also (almost) unique to Romans is the stress on the personification of sin instead of “sins” elsewhere (although Galatians anticipates this emphasis in 2:17 and 3:22). Sin in Romans is a slave master, a cunning enemy, and a victorious warrior who constantly prevents people from hitting the target. Given the prominence of Genesis 1-3 imagery in Romans, it’s quite possible that the description of sin as a wild animal (Genesis 4:7) influenced Paul to personify sin. Paul is largely unconcerned with the origin of sin—he focuses on it’s reality in the human experience both as a personal and social force. Paul describes sin in over-the-top terms because he was convinced the gospel had the power to counter it.
Dunn spends the next three subsections describing the effects of sin: misdirected religion, self-indulgence, and sins.
Misdirected Religion. The power of sin leads people to reject God in the name of freedom which in turn (ironically) puts them into the power of sin. The Gentiles then fall into the idolatry of nature worship. The Jews then fall into the idolatry of Torah-possession without obedience. In Romans 2:1-3:18, Paul explained the situation of Jews who had fallen into this idolatry. In this extended passage, he argued against an interlocutor who is schooled in the thought of Wisdom of Solomon 11-15. Essentially, the interlocutor believes that the Jewish people’s possession of Torah gave them a favoured status. Their sins will be treated differently from Gentile sins because God chose them to receive Torah. Paul pulls the rug out from under the interlocutor by emphasizing that God doesn’t show partiality: both Jews and Gentiles will be judged equally.
Self-Indulgence. The first instinct of people independent from God is idolatry—the second is dishonouring sexual activity. This second self-indulgent act is linked to the instinct to reproduce. While Paul had progressive and positive attitudes towards sex (especially in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4), he saw how this instinct, independent from God, led to self-enslavement. Sex apart from God degenerates into perversion, as Paul makes plain in Romans 1:26-27.
Sins. Sin begets sins. Paul listed a number of these subsequent sins in Romans 1:29-31. Vice lists were popular in ancient ethics, especially in Stoicism but also in Judaism. Paul used them on a number of occasions. Here are three interesting notes on Paul’s use of vice lists:
- They’re varied. Paul doesn’t mindlessly adopt existing lists, but adapts them to the situation he’s writing to.
- They’re social. The majority of the vices listed by Paul degrade community.
- They’re petty. Many of the vices seem insignificant, yet they’re precisely the ones that harm community.
Now we can examine the relationship between death and sin:
- Paul speaks of death in a range of meanings similar to flesh. It can be more neutral, or (frequently) negative.
- Death is the outcome of life lived in the flesh.
- Death and sin are closely related.
- Death is not the intended outcome for humans, instead, it’s the result of sin. Sin is the sting of death, the poison which gives death its final effect.
- Death is a dominating power like sin
Paul takes death seriously, which leads to the question: will death be a release from sin and fleshliness, or the final triumph of those two interrelated forces?
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There was a lot to digest and appreciate in this chapter. Most interesting to me was the loose way Paul described evil spiritual powers. For some reasons, Christians can easily become obsessed with these powers. We like to systematize and vividly imagine all the diverse evil powers. I love how Paul threw the terms in his letters where appropriate—indicating that there are real evil spiritual powers out there—but avoided paying too much attention to them. What mattered for Paul was the power of Sin and Death, and how they are defeated in Christ.