Law-Gospel or Gospel-Law: Does the ‘Romans Road’ Run in the Wrong Direction?
I’m currently helping out at church with a session of Christianity Explored, a curriculum meant to introduce new believers and those with questions about the Christian faith to the story of Jesus and the basic theological high points. Overall it seems to me to be a well thought-out and put-together course. But as the other leaders and I puzzle through the conversations that the material provokes with unbelievers who come along on Thursday nights, I’m left with a theological question of a “practical” nature:
Does the “Romans Road” run in the wrong direction? Is it a better strategy for evangelism — and is it more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ — to begin with sin and lead to grace, or to begin with God’s love and lead to the reality of sin?
The “Romans Road” is a traditional tool of evangelism, where one sits down with an inquirer and shows key moments in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. It begins with the fact that all of us are sinners and fall short of God’s standards (Romans 3:10-12, 23), that none of us is righteous and so we are subject to God’s wrath and judgment (1:18-32). The wages rightly due to our sins is death (6:23). But wait … there is good news! Jesus died for our sins, because God loves us (5:8)! And so He made it that we can confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, and thereby be saved (10:9-10). As a result, we may have great confidence that we have been made right with God (5:1) and are no longer condemned (8:1). Nothing can ever separate us from God and God’s love again (8:38-39).
It’s a fantastic presentation of the gospel, and really demonstrates the theological depth and thoroughness of Paul’s letter.
But isn’t it designed for those who come to Jesus already with a sense of their own brokenness, of shame or guilt, knowing that on their own they cannot measure up to God’s will for their lives? What about the (so very) many women and men who still believe they are basically good? How does one convict them of sin, and of the reality of hell and divine judgment, in order to cultivate a ground where the good news of Jesus Christ can take root?
This is the CE curriculum’s approach to introducing the gospel — moving from sin and hell to forgiveness and salvation. How does one preach God’s deliverance, after all, until the hearer knows that from which she is being delivered? The strategy of moving from the Law to the Gospel seems good for those who are already believers but want to understand how it all “works,” as well as those who feel convicted of their sinful lives and are looking for good news. But for others, I wonder if the message is simply splintered against their own hard hearts. I’m not a sinner, and I don’t believe in hell. How do you get past that when trying to share the gospel of Jesus Christ?
“Sin,” in this case, too often winds up being defined as breaking those many rules that the church has for its members — drinking too much, having sex outside of marriage, gambling, cheating, lying, et cetera (even if that’s not how the doctrine of sin is being presented). So how can I be called a ‘sinner’ when I’m not a part of your group and don’t follow your rules? It sounds like I only become a ‘sinner’ if I join up and make myself accountable to you …
With a false definition of sin, the conversation goes completely off the rails … and we haven’t even gotten to the love of God and the cross yet.
A counter-approach would move in the other direction, theologically — beginning with God’s great love for us as His children, and His desire for fellowship with us, that He will never let us go, and only then begin to talk about why that fellowship has been broken. I wonder if such a “soft” approach would make those hard hearts more receptive to the message.
Perhaps I’ve answered my own question in the course of writing this: perhaps there is no “one size fits all” method of sharing the gospel, but rather the evangelist is responsible for coming alongside the person and figuring out if she needs a little gospel to sooth her sinful heart, or a little love to soften her self-sufficiency. What do you think?