The word “but” is a powerful word. Someone once told me, rather hyperbolically, that if you hear the word “but” you can disregard everything that came before that word. For example, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, but…” That isn’t an apology. Or “This was the most beautiful day, but…” Apparently, the day might have been beautiful, but something must have made it less than perfect. This morning’s lesson from Romans (7:1-12) contains one ginormous implied “but.”
As Paul concludes this reading, he takes the rhetorical place of Adam and begins speaking from his perspective: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me…So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” BUT I’m not good enough for it. Paul really wants to have his cake and eat it too. It’s important for him to a) maintain the holiness of the law and b) also argue that we have been set free from it. So in order to do both he needs a gigantic “but.”
The law is good, but it didn’t work for humanity. The law is holy, but we couldn’t live up to the holiness. The law may have brought about transgression, but the law itself wasn’t evil—we were. In each of those cases, read the first half of the sentence as if it doesn’t matter. That’s how Paul’s theology presents them. In other words, the law may have been holy and just and good. But that doesn’t really matter. I may have the world’s fastest car, but, unless I have a long straight track on which to drive it, that doesn’t mean a whole lot.
I’m with Paul on this one. The law is good. It makes me cringe when someone disparages the religion of Jesus (second-temple Judaism) by saying “Jesus came to show us that the law wasn’t the right way.” Paul cringes, too. The law was the right way (no “but”). We just weren’t the right people. We’re too changeable.
I did some reading for a class on Pelagianism, and I discovered again the medieval explanation for the fall. Essentially, we are changeable; God is not. We may have been without sin when we (Adam) were originally created, but, give us long enough, and our creaturely-ness catches up with us. That apple might have been resistible for hundreds of years, but, eventually, humanity wakes up and says, “I’m going to try something different today.” The law says to us, “Here are your fixed and permanent boundaries designed to structure your relationship with each other and with God.” And that might work for a while, but we’re changeable. We’re fickle. We abberate.
God gave us the law, and it was good. We just weren’t up to the challenge.