The Power of God Unto Salvation #BCCSundaySchool2019

Reading: Romans 1-6.

This week has us finishing Acts and going into the epistles. This means we’re no longer going chronologically. Instead, we’re going more or less by author and more or less by topic (though each epistle jumps around a bit). It also means that we’re not really reading a story anymore, we’re reading artifacts. For the most part, we’re no longer concerned with the story, but with the teachings contained in the letters of the apostles. We’re moving from events to doctrines, and Romans is arguably the most doctrinal of all the books of the New Testament.

Introduction

The letters aren’t organized chronologically; they’re organized by author, and then by length. Paul was the most prolific writer (or at least the one who has the largest body of writings that survived and writings that have been attributed to him), and so he comes first. And Romans, being his longest letter, is the first one we come across.

Paul’s theology of salvation is really important, because Paul was super important to the fact that Christianity even survived at all. Without Paul’s missionary efforts, and his pushing Peter and the other apostles toward a more inclusive view of the gospel, it’s plausible that Christianity would have remained a Jewish schism with little impact beyond Jerusalem. Even if you believe that Christianity’s success was foreordained by God, Paul was at the very least the most powerful tool God used to accomplish the church’s success.

Paul’s theology of salvation–his explanation of why we need Jesus and what exactly it is that Jesus does–is so enduring that a millennium and a half later the reformers were turning primarily to his writings to answer those questions for themselves and to justify some of their disagreements with the institution of the church as they knew it. When Catholics and protestants (or Mormons and other protestants) argue about salvation, they argue primarily in Paul’s terms, and about what Paul meant.

What Paul meant isn’t that hard to understand or discern. But the arguments about what he meant carry a lot of political and religious baggage, and that can make it harder to understand him. And the fact that we usually read Paul in a not very intelligible translation doesn’t help. (I’m a big fan of the language of the King James Version generally speaking, but it’s not always a great translation for understanding Paul).

But whatever we think about Paul’s writings, I think it’s fair to say that he is, after Jesus, of course, the most important figure to the development and history of the Christian religion in the centuries following Jesus’s life. And Romans is his masterpiece.

Background

Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. Tradition says he wrote it from Corinth, and scholarly consensus seems to agree. He mentions that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and that he hopes to visit Rome soon, on his way to preach the gospel in Spain. And while evidence suggests that some of the epistles attributed to Paul may have been written by other anonymous authors, scholarly consensus also seems to be that Paul wrote Romans himself. He most likely wrote it in late 50s AD, a little over two decades after his conversion, and after at least ten years of experience as a missionary.

Though some tradition says that Paul and Peter together started the church in Rome, Romans suggests that the church already existed in Rome before Paul ever went there, and evidence suggests that it existed as a serious of house-churches: basically, relatively wealthy patrons who would host something like what we would call a small branch in their homes. Of course, the church in Rome had none of the auxiliaries like what we have in the church to day and their meetings and leadership structures would have looked very different from what we know today, so we have to be a little careful when we affirm that we believe in “the same organization that existed in the primitive church”–that doesn’t mean everything was the same, it simply means that there are “apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists,” and other stuff like that.

But the church did have something that we still have today: humans being humans. And when humans are humans, there is usually some kind of conflict. Especially when you have humans from different places with different traditions, experiences, and opinions coming together. That was a big deal in the church in Rome, because there were to very different kinds of Christians in the church in Rome: Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians. It seems that the Gentile Christians may have been the more established members of the church in Rome, and possibly of a higher socioeconomic status, and that they looked down on the Jewish Christians. This may have been the result of Jews having been expelled from Rome by emperor Claudius in the late 40s AD, and then being allowed back in by Nero in the early 50s. The Jewish Christians, returning to Rome, would have been the new immigrants moving in, and the Gentile Christians, perhaps trying to avoid persecution, may have absorbed some of the anti-Semitic attitudes that had led to Jews having been expelled. And there was also theological anti-Semitism in the early church–blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, and reasoning that God had rejected the Jews–some of which we can still find in the gospels. So when the Jewish Christians came back, bringing with them their Jewish traditions, but claiming to be followers of Jesus, some of the Gentile Christians seem to have had a hard time accepting them and their traditions into full fellowship.

When you are reading Romans, it’s crucial to keep in mind these two different audiences, and the tension between them. Paul switches back and forth between primarily addressing the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, and he doesn’t usually identify who he’s primarily addressing to, but if we keep both audiences in mind, we can ask ourselves how the message would resonate with the two different audiences and we can make a pretty good guess at who he’s primarily talking to.

Discussion

But this week’s reading doesn’t cover the whole letter, it only covers the first six chapters.

I. Introduction (Romans 1:1-17).

After his opening greeting (vv. 1-7), Paul praises the church in Rome for their faith (vv. 8-9), and speaks of his desire to visit them and to preach the gospel in Rome (vv. 10-15). He then introduces the subject of his letter: the gospel of Christ is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth,” both Jews and Gentiles (v. 16), because it is through the gospel, by faith, that the righteousness of God is revealed (v. 17). The rest of his letter will explain what he means by that, but it is, in a nutshell, the core of Paul’s theology: the gospel of Christ, through faith, makes it possible to become righteous.

II. The Problem: All Mankind Are Equally Unrighteous, both Gentiles and Jews (Romans 1:18-3:20).

He starts by explaining “the wrath of God is revealed” against “all ungodliness and unrighteous men” (v. 18), and in order to elaborate, he goes on to specifically address the sin of the gentiles: their failure to glorify God (v. 19-21), their arrogance in their own wisdom (v. 22), and their idolatry (vv. 23-25), their sexual immorality (vv. 26-29), their malice, envy, murder, contentiousness, dishonesty, gossip, pride, disobedience, and their lack of mercy (vv. 29-32). So far so good: he audience is listening along to Paul condemning all those Bad People out there in The World, and probably feeling pretty good about themselves for having come out of The World and into the church.

That’s when Paul pulls the rug out from them: “You have no excuse! When you judge another’s sin, you condemn yourself, because you do the exact same thing!” (ch. 2, vv. 1-3).

  • But wait: How can Paul say that we do the same thing if we judge? Isn’t that only true if I’m judging somebody for doing the same sins I’m guilty of? If I’m just a Sabbath breaker, and not a murderer, why can’t I safely judge a murderer without condemning myself? I think the point Paul is making here is that while the specific acts that we do may vary, it’s really all the same sin. Sin isn’t just those specific acts we commit against God, it’s our failure to glorify god, and those individual acts are just manifestations of a more fundamental guilt.
  • As our own Adam Miller notes in the introduction to his excellent “paraphrase” of Romans, Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan, “On Paul’s telling, sin isn’t just a name for our occasional, local lapses. Paul doesn’t talk about sins, plural. Rather, sin names a whole way of being in the world…Sin abuses God’s gifts and subverts them to its own end. It takes God’s law, severs it from grace, and repurposes it as a wedge.”

And what he argues in the next several verses is that God reveals good and evil to us in our conscience, even if we’re ignorant of the commandments, so the Gentiles can’t plead ignorance of the moral law. He says that evil will come to those who do evil, whether Jew or Gentile (v. 9), and that blessings will be upon those who do good, whether Jew or Gentile (v. 10) because “there is no respect of persons with God” (v. 11). But just as the Gentiles can’t plead ignorance, the Jews can’t claim a special blessing just because the divine law was revealed to them, because those who obey the law are righteous before God, not those who simply hear the law (v. 12-13). The Gentiles, even without having the law, know in their hearts what is right and wrong (vv. 14-15), so they stand condemned before God.

But Paul’s not going to let the Jews off either. He calls attention to the Jews’ “boast” that they know God and his law (vv. 17-18) and are therefore “a guide of the blind,” a light to the unenlightened world, and a teacher to the ignorant (vv. 19-20). But, he argues, if they don’t keep the law, then they are hypocrites (vv. 21-25). The point is that simply being part of the covenant–“the circumcision” doesn’t make anyone righteous. If a Gentile does that which is right, then he is actually more justified before God than a Jew that knows the law but does not keep it (vv. 26-29). But, Paul emphasizes, this equality before God doesn’t mean that God’s covenant with Israel is meaningless (ch. 3, v. 1). The Jews received the divine law by revelation, not just by conscience, and the fact that some of them are have been faithless doesn’t negate God’s faithfulness toward Israel (vv. 2-8).

But, all, both Jews and Gentiles, have broken the divine moral law, whether they received that law by revelation, or just by what we would call the light of Christ, so “as it is written, ‘there is none righteous, no, not one” (vv. 10-20). The bottom line: we all break the divine law, so the law can’t save us: “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (v. 20).

  • Now, I should mention here that many scholars believe that generally “the deeds of the law” and “works” throughout Paul’s writings refers not just to doing that which is morally good, but refers specifically to the performances of the law of Moses. This is what’s called the “new perspective” on Paul and it’s a bit of a corrective to the reading that has prevailed at least among protestants since Luther and the other reformers, who took a pretty hard line on “sola fide” and read Paul to mean that obedience to any commandments does not count towards salvation. The new perspective on Paul essentially says that Paul meant that obedience to the ordinances of the law of Moses cannot save, but of course people still have to obey certain divine laws to be saved.
  • Though it’s a mischaracterization to say that the reformers’ doctrine of sola fide meant that obedience to the commandments was optional. They believed that obedience was still the duty of every person; they just believed that that was not was saved a person.

III. The Solution: Salvation, through Jesus, is Offered to All, Both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 3:21-5:21).

So now that Paul has spent some time setting up the problem, now he’s going to explain the solution: though obedience to the law can’t save us, there is another way to be saved: not through the law, but outside of the law, through Jesus’s atonement (vv. 22-26). Justification from sin is offered to all of us, “[b]eing justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). It is not by the law of works, that we are saved, but by the “law of faith” (v. 27). “Therefore,” says Paul, coming to the major conclusion of this section of this letter, “we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law” (v. 28). And, crucially, this is true for both the Jews and the Gentiles (vv. 29-30).

  • Justified freely by grace? To a certain kind of old-school Mormon, that sounds suspiciously Baptist, right? Sure, we’re saved by grace, but only “after all that we can do,” right? Grace alone doesn’t save us, grace plus “all we can do” saves us, right?
  • Well, this is where one of the most interesting changes that Joseph Smith made in his bible revision project comes in. Joseph Smith not only doesn’t “correct” Paul or soften his grace-alone message, he actually doubles down on it, changing “justified freely by his grace” in verse 24 to “justified only by his grace.” Joseph Smith’s take on the theology of grace, faith, and works is more complex and nuanced than we usually give him credit for.
  • What do you make of Joseph Smith’s change from “freely” to “only” here? How do you reconcile teachings like “after all we can do” with it?

Having made his point that through Christ, faith, not the law, is the thing that justifies us, both Jews and Gentiles, Paul goes on to offer scriptural support for this point in the life of Abraham. He points out the scripture says not that Abraham was made righteous not by being obedient to the law, but that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (ch. 4, v.3, quoting Genesis 15:6). He says that if we rely on our own obedience to the law (“works”) then we can only get what we are owed, and we cannot get grace that way; but if instead we rely on faith in Christ, then our faith is “counted for righteousness” (vv. 4-5). Paul also refers to David’s saying that those whom God counts as righteous are blessed (vv. 6-8, quoting Psalm 32). The point here is that because we simply do not obey the law, we cannot claim to be righteous by obedience to the law, but God has the power to count our faith as though it were righteous, because of the atonement of Christ.

Paul’s next point is that this justification does not come from being keeping the law of circumcision–Abraham, after all, was justified before he had ever received circumcision (v. 10). Rather, circumcision was a sign of Abraham’s justification by his faith: “he received the sign of circumcision [as] a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had” even before he had obeyed the law of circumcision (v. 11). So that Abraham is the father of all those who follow his example of righteousness through faith, whether they are circumcised or not (vv. 12-13). Paul gets a bit repetitive here, but he goes on to elaborate how Abraham believed God’s promise even though it seemed impossible (he “against hope believed in hope”–is a beautiful phrase) (vv. 17-21), and that therefore Abraham’s faith, not his obedience to the demands of the law, was what made Abraham righteous (v. 22)–and not only Abraham, but anyone who believes in the God who raised Jesus from the dead can also be counted as righteous just as Abraham (vv. 24-25).

  • This is a pretty radical reimagining of Abraham’s role the father of many nations. It’s an illustration of Paul’s willingness to reimagine scripture and tradition in much more inclusive ways.
  • Paul here talks about circumcision, but he’s also speaking, I believe, more generally, with “circumcision” as a kind of stand-in for the law of Moses altogether. Today we don’t follow the law of Moses, but we still have certain “deeds of the law” of the gospel that we are supposed to follow. And just as circumcision was a symbol of membership in God’s covenant people, today, baptism is used as the symbol of membership in God’s covenant people. Can we apply Paul’s teachings about circumcision to baptism? Why or why not? If so, what does that teach us about how we should look at baptism? Compare with D&C 20:37.
  • Though Paul mostly omits a discussion of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the story of the Akedah is a good illustration of Paul’s point that it is impossible to be righteous by obedience to law, because it illustrates how the demands of law may sometimes conflict. This is something I’ve discussed in older posts, like this one.

Paul then rhapsodizes about the fruits of grace: instead of being downtrodden, once he have faith in Christ as Abraham did, we “glory in tribulation,” and thus grow in patience, experience, hope, and the love of God, which we receive through the Holy Ghost (ch. 5., vv. 1-5). He then makes an important point that echoes his earlier point that Abraham was saved through faith before he was obedient to the law of circumcision: Jesus died for us “while we were yet sinners” (v. 8). This is a remarkable thing. Nobody gives their life for another very easily; maybe somebody would give their life for a good person, but who gives their life for a sinner? But that was exactly what Jesus did (vv. 6-10). The point here is that being justified by faith as Abraham was does not mean that God waits for us to prove ourselves before we qualify for justification; rather, God makes the first move, and offer justification freely. All we have to do to receive it is accept that gift by faith.

  • Do we actually believe this? Do we actually believe that we are worthy of God’s grace without proving ourselves through obedience? Why or why not? If we do, how should we expect to see that belief in our lives? Do our lives actually reflect that belief? For example, do we wait to ask God for blessings that we need until we feel that we have made ourselves worthy by obedience?

Paul supports this point with a parallel between Adam and Jesus. By Adam’s fall, we all became subject to death: we did not earn death individually by sinning; we are simply born into mortality. In the same way, by Jesus’s resurrection, God offers justification to all of us, we do not earn or achieve righteousness individually, we are simply offered it (vv. 12-21).

IV. But What About Personal Worthiness? (Romans 6)

All this talk about being justified only by grace and about justification being offered freely to everyone instead of earned by obedience makes some people very nervous and they stop reading there and move on to trying to blunt the sharp edge of Paul’s teachings by contrasting him with James’ “faith without works is dead” teaching or Nephi’s (out of context) “all we can do” language. Their fear is that if justification isn’t earned, then Bad People won’t be punished for their Bad Deeds, and Good People won’t be rewarded for their Good Deeds. Sometimes they even make a weird economics-like argument about incentives: if we don’t have to earn salvation, then there’s no incentive to be good (as though God were dealing with market efficiency and not with souls).

That’s a shame, because Paul addresses their objections in the next chapter: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Of course not! (ch. 6, v.1). Or as he puts it a little later: “shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?” Of course not! (v. 15).

Paul explains that of course we still have a duty to avoid sin. This is true for two reasons: First, we’ve been baptized into a union with Jesus, and having partaken of his death and his resurrection, we’re now dead to sin, and we live to God (vv. 2-11). So we shouldn’t let sin “reign” in our bodies or let our bodies be used as instruments of sin, because we have been freed from sin and it should have no dominion over us (vv. 12-14). Second, having been redeemed by faith, we belong to God. We are his servants, not servants of sin (vv. 16-22).

  • The chapter break here for the next lesson is perhaps a little unfortunate because it cuts us off here kind of right in the middle of Paul’s argument. After explaining that grace doesn’t mean we can just sin freely without consequence, Paul goes on in the next several chapters to explain how we can use grace to not only become free from the condemnation of sin, but to become free from sin itself.
  • At the same time, perhaps the chapter break is good because it is helpful, I think, to at least introduce Paul’s answer to the objection that his theology of grace leads people to sin.
  • I think our failure to really appreciate this point of Paul’s is perhaps our biggest obstacle to better understanding Paul as a church. We’re too quick to read the parts about being justified by grace through faith, without works, and just say “yeah, but James and Nephi.” If we kept reading, we’d understand that Paul isn’t saying that we can just sin willy-nilly without consequence, and our anxiety that that’s what he’s implying by teaching justification by faith is misplaced. If so, then that anxiety would cease to be a stumbling block preventing us from really digging into Paul’s message.
  • That’s not to say that everyone who reads Paul has to agree about faith vs. works. There are several different interpretations of Paul, and that’s fine, but before we start tearing down Paul’s tower, let’s first climb it and see what vista he built it to reveal to us.

Conclusion

I’m repeating myself, but Romans is super important. It has become fashionable in the church, in the past ten years or so to speak favorably of William Tyndale (which is great, because Tyndale was awesome). Tyndale called Romans: “[T]he principal and most excellent part of the new testament, and most pure evangelion, that is to say glad tidings and what we call the gospel” (Tyndale’s New Testament, ed. Daniel Dale, at 223 [Yale University Press, 1989]). Not only that, but it was also “a light and a way in unto the whole scripture.” Reading and understanding Paul’s message in Romans, believed Tyndale, was the key to understanding all scripture. Why? Because the whole point of Romans, according to Tyndale “is, to prove that a man is justified by faith only,” and anybody who refuses to understand that key point will not be able to make sense of Paul’s writings, or, Tyndale believed, of scripture in general: “to him is not only this epistle and all that Paul writeth, but also the whole scripture, so locked up that he shall never understand it to his soul’s health.” Therefore, “to bring a man to the understanding and feeling that faith only justifieth, Paul proveth that the whole nature of man is so poisoned and so corrupt, yea and so dead concerning godly living or godly thinking, that it is impossible for her to keep the law in the sight of God.”

We’re of course, not required to believe everything that Tyndale believed, just because we honor him as an instrument in God’s hands to preserve the scriptures and to make them available in common language, thus making the restoration possible, but on this I think Tyndale basically got it right. We cannot really understand Romans, or any of Paul’s letters, if we are determine to fight him on his core teaching that we are justified not by obedience to law, but by God’s grace, through faith in Christ. That doesn’t mean, of course, that baptism or other saving ordinances or obedience to the commandments is optional or that we can be lax toward our duty to obey the commandments, it simply means that put our faith in Jesus, not in our obedience.

From the archives

When in Romans

BCC Press Announces a New Book by Adam Miller–And So Much More

Comments

  1. I learned a lot and appreciate the work in creating this OP

  2. Thanks, Amy.

  3. Not a Cougar says:

    Jared, thank you for the mini-treatise (and I mean that in a good way!). I have some half-baked thoughts on this, but I think I’ll wait for next week to post them so we can capture the rest of Paul’s thoughts on the efficacy of grace in overcoming sin. Suffice it to say, I think Paul’s early belief Jesus Christ would be back very soon colored his views on the topic of grace and works. If Jesus is about to appear any minute, and expression of faith in Him is sufficient to punch a person’s ticket to heaven, why waste precious time lingering with new Saints and teaching them to obey the commandments (“Do your best to be good and know that God’s grace will cover up your shortfalls”) when there’s a whole Roman world of people who also need Paul’s help? Or am I being too simplistic?

  4. Thanks for this. I expect it will form the core of our next study group at the end of the month.

    I am intrigued by the two audience character of Romans (and some of the other epistles). It’s an important insight for following the plot. It’s also important for applying to myself. Our restoration traditions have given me the ability to place myself in the Gentile convert class when I want to. And to place myself in the covenant people class when I want to. Depending on my mood, perhaps, I find that I can use that flexibility to read Paul as talking to me in every line, or flip roles the other way and hear Paul as talking to them but not me in every line.

  5. I once read—and wish I could find the reference—that the history of Christianity is the history of interpreting Romans. Nice job, Jared.

  6. What I got from the reading this week was how Paul is trying to knock down any “works vs. grace” or “Law vs. faith” or “X vs. Y” thinking. In these 6 chapters Paul talks about how you can’t be saved if your willingly being sinful, which naturally leads a reader to believe that they can then be saved by not being sinful. We think of it as a gradient, and if we can keep ourselves on the right side of a certain line in that gradient; we’re saved. Paul is trying is best to get us to stop thinking about being saved in a bi-directional manner, and is trying to add a new dimension into our thinking.
    You can be saved because of Jesus, but sin can un-save you, but not sinning doesn’t save you, it’s complicated; seems to be the message thus far.
    Also I don’t recall ever thinking of King Benjamin’s logic of how for any righteousness we do, God will reward us, making us even more indebted to God; while reading Romans before. It really seems to be the same reasoning that Paul is trying to get across with his talk of rewards for righteous behavior. It’s a good thing, but it’s not salvation.

  7. Not a Cougar, thanks for the comment. That’s a really interesting thought. I’m going to have to think more about how it impacts Paul’s teachings in particular, but I think generally we usually underestimate the effect that a belief in Jesus literally imminent return had on the thinking of the early church.

    Though I should say I don’t read Paul to be saying that mere expression of faith is enough. I read him to say that actually having faith is what gives you access to God’s righteousness.

  8. Thanks, Christian!

  9. John, that’s a great comment.

  10. Jader3rd, funny you should mention King Benjamin. I originally had a long section in this post exploring various Book of Mormon parallels. I think it’s interesting and worth thinking through, but I took it out because the post was already too long.

    I see Paul’s ideas (or ideas similar to Paul’s, anyway) all over the Book of Mormon. And I see a lot of parallels to Romans in particular in 2 Nephi. But we rarely emphasize those verses, ime.

    I think casting it in terms of “salvation” is actually not very helpful. I think Paul actually uses the word salvation once or twice, and I use it in the post, but I think “salvation” carries a lot of theological and political baggage, and putting it in terms of “righteousness” or “justification” actually gets is closer to what Paul’s really saying. It’s not so much about being “saved” or “getting into heaven”; is primarily about how to we overcome our natural inclination to sin and become righteous. Paul is saying that purely transactional obedience will not make you righteous.

  11. Thanks for not having a long post focused on Book of Mormon parallel’s. While the Book of Mormon is great, one of my disappointments with Gospel Doctrine class is with my experience of the two years where we’re supposed to be focusing on the Bible, but the classes (either through the teacher, or class comments) tend to be about the Book of Mormon anyway. If we were doing Sunday School today it wouldn’t be out of character for the class to start with “Today we’re talking about the book of Romans. In it, the author mentions this verse which reminds me of this other verse in the Book of Mormon. So let’s read the Book of Mormon verse…” and we never crack open the Bible.
    Good point about Paul rarely using the word salvation. I’ll have to ponder over that more.

  12. Thanks for the thoughtful summary, Jared What I get from these Romans chapters and I think you’ve captured here is that Paul is saying works of the law without faith in Christ is dead. I think he’s echoing Christ’s teachings of being seen by men versus being seen by God. Applies to the current law as well as it did to the Law of Moses.

  13. What’s your understanding of Paul’s treatment of homosexuality in chapter 1? As Paul had not been to Rome, what’s your feeling as to his awareness of the Jewish/Gentile division there?

  14. Good questions, Matt. Unless there’s another way to read these verses that I’m not aware of, the verses on sexual immorality pretty clearly take heteronormative position. I’ll not that some scholars think those verses (not just the verses about sex, but the whole “wrath of God” section) is a later addition not authored by Paul, but I haven’t learned enough about that to have an educated opinion on it.

    As for how Paul would know about the tension between Jewish and Gentile converts if he hadn’t been to Rome, the last chapter suggests that Paul knew some p.f the members there, as he names then by name. It could be that he had heard it second hand from missionaries that had worked in Rome and later met with him, or that he had been in private correspondence with some of the members in Rome.

  15. Where exactly do people get the idea that Paul thought Jesus’s return was imminent? I get exactly the opposite when I read his lwtters.

  16. 1 Thessalonians 4:15 seems to suggest that Paul, like many Christians in all ages, thought Jesus was coming within the lifetime of some that were then alive.

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