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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

The criminal’s passport to paradise?

One of Paul’s big questions: shall we sin therefore that grace may abound?

He has argued in Romans 5 that we are saved by grace, not by keeping the law. I.e. we are forgiven and justified by God’s love, not by our own merit or virtues.

If that is true, it does rather look as if the more we sin, the more grace we receive. It’s the criminal’s passport to paradise.

But we know that can’t be true. I was always taught that there’s no forgiveness without amendment of life (repentance – feeling genuinely sorry for what you have done); no reconciliation without some restitution being made on either side.

Maybe, grace is the effort made on God’s side; Jesus’ going the extra mile; God’s willingness to swallow pride and restore full relationship with us.

Paul also argues (in today’s reading) that in the post-resurrection world, Christians have, as it were, been buried with Christ and risen with Christ. We share in the new order of the resurrection. He thinks that, this being the case, we will espouse the self-giving love of Christ and as a consequence behave more morally than in the old order of Adam – Garden of Eden etc.

But we still have human nature to contend with. The resurrection Church hasn’t always acquitted itself with honour: crusades, Inquisition, sexual abuse of children, the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland for ‘fallen’ girls. No grace there.

So is Paul a wee bit naïve? Has he been carried away with the euphoria of his vision of a new order?

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I think the idea of God’s free grace is another metaphor for the essential interconnectedness of the universe noted in quantum physics and also for the idea a life force – chi. In terms more familiar to us as Christians, it is also the vision of universal love which has so engaged poets and hymn writers. In one hymn, ‘Come O thou traveller unknown’, Charles Wesley writes: ‘pure universal love thou art’. God is the foundation of being and the connectedness is the essence, or perhaps, medium for love.

Linda Woodhead, our most noted sociologist of religion, is a specialist in understanding the developments in contemporary religion and ‘no-religion’, and she has noticed that as formal institutional religion has declined so ideas that have emerged from the ‘Mind Body Spirit’ lists of publishing houses have crept into the wider culture, with words like chi, spirit, energy in common use. Woodhead categorises this under ‘Magic’ rather than ‘Mind Body Spirit’. But they are words that seem to me mainstream religious words.

Woodhead argues further that magic has been ridiculed for being superficial and shallow but, says, the reverse is true. It is the subject of deep reflection and is much better dealing with evolution or science and cosmology, using ideas around cycles of birth and death, life and growth. Everything was energy. The planet was Gaia.[1]

In terms of sin and forgiveness, grace and law, I am trying to get to the nub of what we experience rather than theological theory. And I think grace, and godly acceptance of us, chimes with the experience of trying to tune in to the universal harmony of things – centring-in some people call it. Trying to live harmoniously and with mutual responsibility. That would of course obviously include the motive to live ecologically – in biblical terms being good stewards of the planet. We are each a tiny cog in the universal reality of being and we can acknowledge that or try to assert self in conflict with the whole. This may all sound a bit New Age to some of you, and very untypical of my usual approach. But I’m trying to give extra nuance to one of the great biblical passages:

‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’

[1] Professor Linda Woodhead RMC lecture St Bride's church, Fleet Street reported by Ruth Peacock September 22, 2022.

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