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The Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville The Rev. Dr. James Somerville

The Rev. Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, VA.

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Dr. Jim Somerville: An Unasked Question at Bible Study

February 09, 2011

The last session of our January Bible Study was cut short by our quarterly business meeting at First Baptist Church.  I had just a few minutes at the end of the meeting to try to summarize Paul's letter to the Galatians, and didn't get a chance to ask the question I had been wanting to ask. 

This one:

"If exegesis is figuring out what a text meant 'then and there,' and hermeneutics is applying that meaning 'here and now,' then what was Paul trying to say to the Galatians in this letter and what does this letter say to us now?"

The message "then and there" was clear: Paul had preached a gospel of grace to the Gentiles in Galatia, telling them they could be saved simply by believing in Jesus.  Some Jewish Christians had come along later and told them that if they really wanted to be saved, they would need to be circumcised and start keeping the Law of Moses.  Most of Galatians is Paul's outraged response to that heretical notion, and when I say "outraged" I mean it.  The New International Version puts it mildly in 5:12: "As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"

Look it up.

Why is Paul so indignant?  Because he had told the Galatians "Jesus = Salvation" and now someone else was telling them "Jesus + Circumsion + Keeping the Law = Salvation."  As my brother Scott once said:  "Jesus + Anything = Heresy" when it comes to salvation. 

My brother Paul would agree.

In my preparation for this year's Bible study I read Justification by N. T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, England, and one of the world's leading New Testament scholars.  Part of the book is a careful exegesis of Galatians, in which Wright argues that for Paul justification is what makes us members of "God's true family," and that membership is ours not through circumcision or keeping the Law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and our faith in him.   

That word membership got my attention, as you might imagine.  For two years we wrestled with the question of who can be a member of Richmond's First Baptist Church.  In the end we decided that if you are a member of "God's true family" through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and your faith in him, then you can also be a member of the First Baptist family, even if you come from another Christian tradition, and even if you haven't been immersed.  We agreed that while baptism by immersion is a beautiful and powerful symbol of salvation, it does not save you. 

Only Jesus can do that.

That's hermeneutics.  That's applying the meaning of the biblical text "here and now."  It's not easy (as any member of First Baptist Church will attest), but it's important.  I'd like to think that in the end we made the decision we did simply because we (Gentiles) know what it's like to be welcomed into God's true family, and we know that we were welcomed not because we were circumcised or because we faithfully kept the Law, but because God is good and gracious. 

As his children, we want to be more and more like that.

[Taken with permission from Dr. Jim Somerville's blog, originally posted Feb. 4, 2011]


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