It was in our afternoon Bible Study Group. We are slowly working our way through Romans. At times it is inspiring, at times hard work. We are learning lots together, and (on the whole I think) enjoying the experience. I always love taking a Romans class; it's one of my favourite study options. We have just got to the end of chapter six, having started the course at the beginning of September.
But yesterday I was asked a question and I didn't know the answer.
I mean, of course, right? It happens all the time. Well - actually, I've been teaching this stuff in parishes to parish groups for twenty years, and actually, no, it's pretty unusual. In fact, I can't remember the last time I was asked a question like this.
That is, there are technical questions (who was King after Hezekiah) that I might stumble on for a moment, or text questions (where is the verse that says...) that need a quick check before I can give the definitive.
But this was a theological question. A substantive theological question. A simple theological question. An obvious theological question.
And I had no answer.
I loved it!
I mean, to have church members that can ask the question because they see the issue and then can put it into simple terms - brilliant. One member of the group saw a hole in what was being said and pointed it out.
Now - I think it's more a hole in a theological approach to the text than in the text itself, but it's still a great question, and it's amazing that this came, because I'd have to say that it took me by surprise. I've simply never identified it as a gap in Romans before. But the more I look at it - the more of a gap it is. And I've done some reading since yesterday, and the more reading I do, the more of a gap it seems to me to be.
Oh - you want to know the question. Right. Really simple. It was:
"Where's repentance in all of this?"
Every good evangelical knows that repentance comes before faith, but St Paul seems to have forgotten. Righteousness, being justified, the grace we now have - it's all gift, gift, gift. All I could do was acknowledge that we place a high import on repentance but in Romans all I could think of was a repentance reference in chapter 2, but it's in a section where Paul is still dealing with the problem of sin and how it affects everyone, Jew & Gentile. It's not part of the solution. It's not about how we access that solution, how we become 'in Christ', how we start to have faith, how we turn from being slaves to sin in order to be slaves to righteousness. It's not anywhere near the story of when we were in Adam but now we are in Christ, or how we were led by our sinful nature but now we are led by the Spirit. And for all those changes, Paul never talks of the change - just of the difference, and of the gift that moves us from one place to the other, and then of the imperative to live lives that reflect we have moved.
There's a lot of implied change of heart in Romans 11, when the Old Testament people of God are re-gratfed into the New Testament people of God. But the theological process of repentance isn't really what is being described, for the onus is not on what the people do but on God grafting them in again. His action. His gift. Not their choice or response.
So I had to give the best answer I could:
"I don't know."
It's been a while since a parish study group has stopped me in my tracks and asked me a really basic question that I have failed to see and for which I have no answer. It was a terrific experience. How wonderful to have people that hear what is being said and apply the lessons and ask the questions.
I may just be slow here - that's a given - but I am grateful to have this group in my home on a Monday afternoon making me work harder in my thinking, and not letting me do this the easy way!