Richard W. Coffen  |  30 July 2018  |  

Even if you’ve spent a minimal amount of time “in the Word,” you’ve undoubtedly come across passages that revolutionized your thinking. Six years ago, as I reread a text commonly used by Seventh-day Adventist evangelists, I learned something so amazing I should have never ignored it! Then, in mid-April 2018, I came across yet another familiar passage that likewise revolutionized my spiritual perspective!

Romans 3:23, 24

Evangelists love to quote verse 23! “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” However, when cited, they typically ignore the grammar. So, let’s attend Dr. DeLuca’s grammar class.

The subject of the sentence is “all” (pántes). This Greek adjectival-noun denotes “everyone”—100 percent. However, we should also pay attention to the verbal constructions that tell us about the behavior of “all.”

“All,” Paul writes, “have sinned.” We’ll assume we hold in common the concept of sin. What’s important here is that Paul used the aorist (past) tense for the verb rendered “have sinned” (Greek: hēmarton = transgression against divinity). The word Paul uses is a word picture and connotes an archer missing the target or a sea captain slipping by his intended port. The apostle asserts that everyone in the past has sinned. Clearly, “all” haven’t had a healthy spiritual life. Non-Christians, non-Adventists, new converts, longtime SDAs, whoever, “all” of us sometime in our history fell short of the target like the arrow of an inept archer! Paul doesn’t indicate how many times we “all” sinned. He merely asserts that without exception (OK, Jesus excepted) every human being has an objectionable past. Each of us has sinned. We’ve all insulted God.

The King James Version renders the second verb form as “come short of.” Paul here shifts from the past tense to the present tense. Once again, the subject of the verb is “all.” Every Homo sapiens is presently and repeatedly lagging behind (Greek: hysteroûntai) when it comes to glorifying God. All of us again and again are dawdling foot-draggers when we should be honoring our Maker. Although “man’s chief end is to glorify God,” we “all” fail to fulfill our “chief end.”

Right here—verse 23—is where so many of us typically stop. I don’t recall a single preacher moving on to the next verse. That’s unfortunate because (1) “all,” the same subject of the verbal forms, continues to play a grammatical role and (2) here Paul hammers home the soteriological logic of the discussion.

OK, so “all” remains the subject, but the subject of what verb, what tense? “[“All”] being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The verb Paul uses (dikaioúmenoi) was forensic (legal) jargon and denoted a judge’s verdict of “Not guilty!” Had I edited the verse, I would have changed it to the past tense: “Having been pronounced not guilty.” However, Paul uses the present tense and the passive voice: “All” are continuously being declared (by God) “Innocent!” The present tense means that God keeps on giving the verdict of “Innocent!” And, Paul adds that God does so freely (Greek: cháriti = graciously). God repetitively passes judgment without feeling any coercion or twinge of reticence. He keeps on announcing our innocence and feels good about doing so.

When I first came across this gem, I immediately prepared a sermon about such good news. However, it wasn’t until some six years later that I noticed a parallel I hadn’t noticed. Here are the tenses Paul used: (1) past, (2) present, and (3) present. The doubling of the present tense is significant.

Although “all” keep on falling short of glorifying God, our divine Judge keeps on pronouncing all of us fumblers “Not guilty!” The parallel present tenses align: (1) on the one hand, everyone is a foot-dragger (and worse) when it comes to honoring God, but (2) on the other hand, this same Deity, whom we habitually denigrate, just as often intones: “He/she is innocent!” God graciously matches each time “all” of us fail to honor him with the same verdict: “Not guilty!”

Is God blind? Hardly. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs. 15:3). He misses nothing. Yet, fully aware of everyone’s failures, God nevertheless decrees that “all” are blameless.

Romans 5:8, 10

We’ll return later to the implication of Paul’s soteriology in Romans 3:23, 24, the second groundbreaking and world-shattering passage. His soteriology in 3:23, 24 has paved the way for his assertions in the following verses. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. . . . When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”

The subject of the sentence in verse 8 is not “all” as in 3:23, 24 but rather is “God,” the actant. What verb does Paul use for the divine activity? The verb (Greek: synístēsin = introduce to or present to; exhibit, prove) is in the present tense, which means that God continues to do this verifying and exhibiting of . . . ?

The object of the verb is that commonly understood word agápēn—love expressing itself regardless of whether or not it’s deserved. God is repeatedly demonstrating his love, but it was particularly focused at the time “Christ died for us.” Furthermore, this demonstration of divine love occurred “while we were yet sinners” (verse 8)—not sometime after we’ve been converted!

We’re all familiar with that half of the verse, but do we grasp the meaning of what Paul writes on the heels of those familiar words? Here again Paul makes a provocative assertion. “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God . . . being reconciled . . .” (verse 10).

A state of enmity existed between the creature and the Creator. That’s not especially debatable! Paul had earlier written that which we Adventists today take as a truism—“All have had a history of sinning.” Furthermore, Paul makes this state of animosity even clearer—“All are constantly failing to honor God.” But, as the infomercials assure us, there’s more! During—when and while—this state of hostility existed, “We were reconciled to God” (verse 10).

We’re still in Dr. DeLuca’s grammar class. We need to understand the denotation and tense of the verb. The term Paul uses (Greek: katēllágēmen) meant put an end to strife by atoning for. It denoted the action of reestablishing friendship—reversing hostilities. In this particular instance of a ceasefire, “Christ is the instrument of this reconciliation” (“by the death of his Son”) and “the apostles are the agents.” The word Paul pens here is another verb in the past (aorist) tense. In other words, God by means of his agent Jesus established a cessation of hostilities. When Paul writes, the truce had already taken place.

The hostility between humanity and Deity ended in A.D. 30 or thereabouts. (Scholars differ as to the precise year Jesus was crucified.) After multiple millennia of animosity between “all” and God, now, for 1,988 years, the truce between humanity and divinity has persisted. I’ll put it in boldface italics: Hostilities have been over and done with for nearly two millennia!

You know, we “all” really are dullards! We’ve read this passage and have completely missed Paul’s soteriology! It wasn’t sufficient that death (in the perspective of the ancient Near Eastern mind) healed the broken relationship—a past event. That isn’t what saved us. (Hang in there, please.) Paul continues: “If, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God, much more, being reconciled [aorist (past) tense; passive voice; this truce is none of our doing], we shall be saved by his life” (verse 10).

Jesus’ death didn’t provide salvation? Not according to Paul! Jesus’ life, which occurred both before and after Calvary, provides the salvation. Paul uses the future tense and passive voice form of the Greek word meaning “save” or “rescue” (Greek: sōthēsόmetha). He apparently here refers to the penultimate salvation at the end of time—eschatological salvation. “Paul was conscious of the inner relationship between present and future salvation. . . . This future salvation . . . is the goal toward which Christians press.”

Again, as with Romans 3:23, 24, the Actant in all this activity is not you and not I but God himself. The truce and the salvation have been brought about not by anything we—the “all”—did, are doing, or will do but solely by the actions of God, the injured party! He is the necessary and sufficient cause, to use philosophical terminology.

The Consequent

Subsequently, when preachers, well-meaning though they may be, admonish their audience to accept salvation, they themselves miss the point of Paul’s soteriology. There is nothing to accept. God’s gracious attitude toward “all” prevails even though we keep on dishonoring him! Similarly, when preachers make an altar call for people to make their peace with God, they again undermine Paul’s point. “All” are already and constantly being pronounced innocent. Hostility between “all” and God was resolved at Calvary. God has, on his own initiative, effected an armistice. Consequently, there is nothing to accept! Do you “accept” the armistice made on November 11, 1918, which ended World War I? No! You just keep on involuntarily enjoying that which is already there. Do you accept the peace following World War II made on December 31, 1946? No! You just keep on involuntarily accepting and enjoying the peace now in place.

According to our two passages, (1) God keeps on pronouncing us “all”: “Not guilty!” synchronously as we dishonor him and (2) God has put an end to our hostile status. These divine actions are done deals—over with—history! Therefore, there is nothing for “all” to accept.

This should come as the most exciting news we’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, most of us balk at this point, when our response should be gratitude.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

Paul was not advocating a doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Although there is nothing for “all” of us to accept, God allows “all” to opt out. God doesn’t force. If any of us feels dissatisfied with the Creator’s soteriological work, we can opt out. Even though God doesn’t will that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), he honors the free choice with which he created us. “All” may be beneficiaries of divine salvific actions, but it’s possible that anyone included among the “all” may elect to opt out.

While I worked at Southern Publishing Association and Review and Herald Publishing Association, both corporations provided all full-time employees amazing medical coverage. No one had to ask for this benefit, and also no one had to accept it. The publishing house automatically gave it to all permanent employees. On the one hand, a worker could accrue sick-time and vacation leave, but on the other hand, no full-time employee earned or implored for medical coverage. It was simply “there”—in place for “all.” Unless, of course, an employee opted out.

Perhaps that situation can serve as a parable of what God has provided for “all” yet what “all” (or “any”) can opt out of. I’m persuaded that I must remain “in.”

What about you?

Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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