The Grace of New Life in Christ
As we pick up our reflections on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we now focus on what it means to experience new life in Jesus Christ. The great missionary was always grateful that he had been called to make known to the nations God’s plan for our salvation. “To me, though I am the least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan for the mystery hidden for all ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:8-9).
The mystery unfolds as we learn that the world was made so that created persons might in Christ come to share the blessed life of the Trinity. As we learned in last week’s reflection on freedom, men and women can only come to God freely. The freedom God gave created persons to love him and live in harmony with one another also made it possible for us to reject his call and sin.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the dehumanizing consequences of sin in human life. These effects could be seen with brutal clarity in the pagan society in the midst of which the young Church lived (cf. Romans 1:18-32). There one saw people who were “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:31), who made for themselves on earth a life that was a beginning of hell.
Yet, Paul’s message is one of hope. He says, “We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God is able to overcome in Christ all the evil that sin created and to make even suffering and pain instruments of his healing love.
How can this not be heard as good news for all of us who have experienced the suffering and pain that come in life and that come with committing sin?
The life Christ gives us frees us from the deep wounds inflicted by sin. It enables us to be more authentically human, to be the women and men of good that God made us to be.
Paul had tasted bitter helplessness before he received the Lord’s mercy and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The grace of realizing how one should live, of knowing the right thing to do, does not of itself give the power to live that way. “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” he cried. “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (Romans 7:14-15, 18-19, 24).
The frustration that Saint Paul is describing has been experienced by many. Saint Augustine wrote of similar anxious struggles just before his own conversion, of his disgust with the evil he himself did, and of his powerlessness to avoid it (cf. Confessions, 8:11). There is a solution though.
This precisely is the gift of Christ: the power to do the good and avoid the evil. “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done” (Romans 8:2-3).
God’s grace liberates; it gives us freedom. Grace supposes freedom of choice, for grace is not forced on us, but offered to us. This liberating grace is precious. Without the grace of Christ, we are hard-pressed in every way. Unruly desires, fears and anger incline us toward sin. But the freedom grace offers is rich and real, if we choose to accept and grow in it.
This is the third installment in a series on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.