On God and Sin(ners): A Reflection on Romans 5.1-11 and Julian of Norwich

A recurring theme on this blog over the years has been the idea that we need to find better ways of talking about sin. So much of the doom-and-gloom, fire-and-brimstone language surrounding it arose in the Early Modern period and is not only counter-productive and off-putting, but also misrepresents the fullness of what the Scriptures have to say about it. We would do well to normalize sin, because we all sin all the time, without minimizing it, because its impacts are real and damaging. But this still leaves the question of what to do with sin. How does God deal with it? And how does God call us to do deal with it? Back in 2021, after looking at the evolution within the Scriptures about sin and sacrifice, we saw that the correct response to sin is mercy. Today I’d like to look at this theme more, through the lens of today’s Epistle reading, from Romans 5, and, as part of our Lenten series, the reflections of Julian of Norwich.

Paul’s goal in writing Romans was to help a divided Roman church understand that God has united everyone, both those who lived under the Law (i.e., Jews) and those who didn’t (i.e., Gentiles), into one single plan of salvation and community of faith. Romans 1.18-3.20 demonstrated that everyone in both groups sins and therefore stands guilty before God. Then, Romans 4 argued that Abraham’s story shows that God’s answer was always a reciprocal relationship based on grace. Now in chapter 5, Paul writes about how this gracious relationality is fulfilled in Jesus:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand … God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5.1-2, 8-11)

The idea of ‘the wrath of God’ is a nuanced one in the Scriptures. For, because God is love, God hates and is ‘angry’ at anything that breaks relationships and disrupts the true justice of God’s peace. But, also because God is love, that wrath is never directed at us. God always acts out of love, goodness, and mercy towards us, never out of wrath. Or more to the point, the resolution of God’s wrath towards an unjust world is not punishment, but to exemplify, inspire, and empower restoring those broken relationships and justice. This is what Paul is saying in this passage from Romans: through sin we are rightfully under God’s wrath and can be called God’s ‘enemies’, but God’s response to this was to send Jesus to show another way, most especially in his willingness to live this ‘other’ way to the end that this world’s power structures killed him.

This same basic orientation towards sin, wrath, and mercy can be found in Julian’s writings as well. She writes:

And so in all this contemplation it seemed to me that it was necessary to see and to know that we are sinners and commit many evil deeds which we ought to forsake, and leave many good deeds undone which we ought to do, so that we deserve pain, blame and wrath. And despite all this, I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be. Because he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace; and his power, his wisdom, his charity and his unity do not allow him to be angry. For I saw truly that it is against the property of his power to be angry, and against the property of his wisdom and against the property of his goodness. God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness. Our soul is united to him who is unchangeable goodness. (Ch 46)*

Again we see here a sense that sin needs to be taken seriously — we “deserve pain, blame and wrath” — but that God’s character demands that God doesn’t act out of wrath, for wrath is incompatible with God’s love: “God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness.” This ends up being the basis for Julian’s earlier teaching that “we must hate sin only because of love” (Ch 40). God’s response to sin is not to punish but to have mercy on us, reconcile us, and empower us to do better. God is not the one who acts out of anger, we are:

For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love. And it comes from a lack of power or a lack of wisdom or a lack of goodness, and this lack is not in God, but it is on our side. (Ch 48)

Instead, God’s response is always mercy:

[M]ercy is a sweet, gracious operation in love, mingled with plentiful pity, for mercy works, protecting us, and mercy works, turning everything to good for us. Mercy for love allows us to fail to a certain extent; and inasmuch as we fail, in so much as we fall, and inasmuch as we fall, in so much we die. … But yet in all this the sweet eye of pity is never turned away from us, and the operation of mercy does not cease. … Mercy works, protecting, enduring, vivifyng and healing, and it is all of the tenderness of love; and grace works with mercy, raising, rewarding, endlessly exceeding what our love and labour deserve, distributing and displaying the vast plenty and generosity of God’s royal dominion in his wonderful courtesy. (Ch 48)

If this is God’s disposition towards us, so too is this to be our disposition towards those who sin against us. The faithful response is not to punish, but to forgive. This is a hard teaching, and one that can easily be — and has often been — abused to perpetuate the sins of the powerful against the powerless. But this is abuse of the teaching. For if we are called to act lovingly and mercifully towards those who sin against us, how much more are we called to act lovingly and mercifully towards those whom we have sinned against? If we are truly living out of the character and ethic that Paul and Julian both taught, we will do everything in our power to promote justice and equity in our relationships and in the world around us. As we saw this summer in the Ephesians series, this does put the onus for change on the powerful. As unlikely as this seems to be, it is also the only way real transformation can take place: for the only way to avoid never-ending cycles of retributive violence is for the powerful and privileged to voluntarily give it away. And that is the ethic of Jesus, and that is, for Christians, the heart of God that Jesus reveals.

So then, let us be mindful to let God’s grace, love, and mercy, pervade our whole lives, not only accepting it and trusting in it for ourselves, but also allowing it to transform all of our relationships.



* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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