About Christopher J Wiles

Hey there. My name's Chris. I'm a teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship, and a research writer for Docent Research Group. Thanks for stopping by; be sure to stay connected by subscribing to blog updates and more.

Community of the cross (Romans 16)

When Jesus was being crucified, some of His closest friends fled from His side. Little did they realize that the cross would one day be the one thing that held them together.

As Paul winds down his letter to the church in Rome, he uses a variety of conventional closing remarks: extending greetings, expressing needs, etc. But, as we mentioned yesterday, we shouldn’t skip over these sections like they’re little more than Paul’s email signature; they tell us about the close-knit structure of the early Christian community.

Paul writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2)

We shouldn’t skip over even this brief note. Phoebe was evidently the messenger who carried Paul’s letter to Rome. But the fact that she had a Greek name demonstrates that this messenger directly benefited from the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles.

GREETINGS TO…

Paul goes on to extend greetings to a wide variety of individuals:

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:3-15)

Ok, so maybe we chalk the “holy kiss” part up to cultural practice, but what we find here is a warmth and camaraderie that only comes from unity in the gospel.

A WARNING

But despite this unity, division remains a looming threat:

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)

Again, with pastoral grace, Paul acknowledges the threat, but points beyond the immediate problem to future hope. Evil won’t prevail forever, for its Satanic source is destined for destruction in God’s coming storm.

GREETINGS FROM…

While before Paul had extended greetings to a large group of people, he now expressed greetings from certain people.

21 Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.

22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Romans 16:21-23)

No, Paul did not have a ghost writer. Tertius was an “amanuensis”—basically an ancient secretary who served to write down the letter that Paul dictated. This wasn’t an uncommon practice back then, and Paul may have done this regularly—though not always—throughout his ministry career.

DOXOLOGY

Finally, Paul turns his attention—and his readers—toward God and His Kingdom:

25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)

There are many things in this world that will divide us. Age, social standing, gender, political views, worship preferences, economic class—you name it. But when we share a common love for Christ and His gospel, these lesser divisions give way in the face of gospel unity.

The cross was once a bloody symbol of suffering and shame. But when we allow it to be our common purpose, our common source of love and joy and peace and comfort—then the cross becomes a symbol of unity.

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God’s “unfinished project” (Romans 15:14-33)

It is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. These days, with the sheer volume of spiritual options at our disposal, it’s easy to think of our spiritual lives as a merely personal journey. Christian radio, podcasts, a treasure trove of Christian writings—all of these start to seem like a menu from which we may order to satisfy our individual spiritual tastes.

Yet this is wholly alien to New Testament Christianity, which emphasizes the need to recognize the way we fit together in the larger body of Christ.

At the end of his letter, Paul shifts his tone from the theological concerns that dominated the earlier chapters, to a personal reflection of Christian ministry in the past, present, and the future.

PAST MINISTRY

It was customary, in Paul’s day, to include expressions of confidence in the closing of important letters. But we shouldn’t read this as little more than an email signature; we should see this as Paul’s deeply personal reflection on the past work in the gospel:

14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:14-21)

One of the great advancements that the early Church got to experience was the extension of God’s program to Gentiles. The “signs and wonders” were visible expressions of the Holy Spirit which served to authenticate that they were, in fact, included into God’s program (cf. Acts 2:22; 5:12).

PRESENT ENDEAVORS

Paul now turns his attention to what’s going on at present:

22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, 24 I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. 28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. 29 I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. (Romans 15:22-29)

At least part of what was going on here was to use the material blessings from Macedonia and Achaia to solve some of the financial issues going on in Jerusalem. But this would also serve to cement relationships between churches of various stripes throughout the region—many of which would now contain Gentile believers.

FUTURE MISSION

Finally, Paul turns his focus forward, looking beyond his present to what God might do in the future:

30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.33 May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:30-33)

The “amen” could almost be the close of the letter, were it not for the fact that Paul went on with some closing thoughts in the next chapter. His prayer is twofold: for safety and for success.

We need to understand the past, present, and future in order for God’s kingdom to flourish in today’s Church. Too often we get fixated on just one of these three things and neglect the other two. To idolize past success fosters a strong sense of nostalgia, but no real forward momentum. To focus on the future and neglect the past is a form of deliberate amnesia—a disconnect from the body of believers that paved the way for us today. We need one another—across all generations—if we’re going to make this thing called Church work.

One writer refers to the Church as God’s “unfinished project,” and I like that. It helps us to remember that we are building a body of believers, but this growth is not completed until the return of Jesus. To that end, let us remember that we’re in this together, and each of us has a role to play as we continue to grow together.

Beyond the doormat (Romans 15:1-13)

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had to deal with that person or two who just seems unbearable, who places more and more demands on our shoulders until we find ourselves wondering which straw will finally break the proverbial camel’s back. I’ll give you the bad news first: life will always be filled with difficult people. The good news is that God provides us the strength to endure.

Paul had previously addressed the issue of the “weaker” Christians who felt convicted to adhere to certain religious duties in their Christian walk. Now, Paul turns his attention to those who are “strong.”

We might imagine that many early Christians had no qualms about things like eating meat, or skipping certain Jewish “Holy days,” and it would have been easy to look down on those whose convictions ran the other way. In today’s terms, it’s not hard to find those Christians who enjoy their craft beer, stream Hillsong on their iPhone, and wear faded jeans to a Sunday service. And I image that this group might feel a bit of smugness toward those who abstain from alcohol and wear a necktie to their church’s potluck and hymn-sing. Obviously, I’m drawing a bit of a cartoonish caricature, but my point is this: Christ-follower, if you celebrate your freedom in a way that mocks the convictions of others, you’re not operating as a “strong” Christian, but a foolish one.

Paul writes that the strong in Christ have social responsibilities toward those who are weak:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:1-7)

Paul recognized that Christ’s church would be full of different men and women, all of whom are at different places in their walk with Christ. The “strong” may have felt tempted to flaunt their freedom, or to mock the “weak” in an attempt to mold them in a different understanding of their Christian walk. Paul is saying that Christ’s followers should show love to one another—that the strong should “bear with the failings of the weak”—in order to build the body.

But wait, you might object, doesn’t this mean that the weaker Christians win? Paul is saying that this is exactly the sort of question that doesn’t make sense in the Christian community. We fear that tolerating people will turn us into doormats—that they can have their way and we have to cater to them.

But that’s not what Paul is saying either. He’s saying that because Christ took on our reproach and our shame, he also bore the shame of those we struggle to get along with. Therefore the cross sets us free to love our neighbors—even those we don’t get along with.

This is why Paul goes on to say that Jesus served all of God’s people regardless of their original background or the “Jewishness” of their character:

8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”

10 And again it is said,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”

12 And again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 13:8-13)

The gospel application is this: because all people may experience the love and acceptance of Christ, you and I have no basis for drawing boundaries between people at different places along their spiritual walk.

But, if we return to what Paul said in verse 2, our greater obligation is the building of the body of Christ. Bearing with “weaker” Christians doesn’t mean affirming their habits or their beliefs; in many cases our Christian siblings need to be challenged.

People grow; people change. In the meantime, though, Christ’s followers can cultivate a grace-saturated community into which all of God’s people may grow and flourish. We can’t do this by focusing on individual needs, but we can do this by laying down our lives like Christ.

Liberty, love, and the Christian journey (Romans 14:1-23)

Some years ago I found myself the leader of a Bible study composed of a group of young adults. One night a young couple came to me to raise a concern. It seemed that the week before, a small section of the group had gone out after Bible study—to the bar area of a local restaurant. Having not been present at this gathering, I can only assume that those who went (1) were of legal age and (2) drank responsibly, at least in the eyes of the state. But this young couple was a bit hurt that a group of Christians would be at a Bible study one minute, and downing glasses of beer the next. And, as I learned, their concern rose not from a background of religious conservatism, but from their prior struggles with alcohol and their desire to remain “clean.”

What was I to say? What would you say?

As Americans we have elevated the spirit of individualism to almost a sovereign virtue. But as citizens of God’s kingdom, we recognize our social obligations within the body of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses what we often call “disputable matters.” We might apply this term to a whole range of issues, but naturally the one that often receives the most attention is the question of Christians and alcohol.

CHRISTIAN LIBERTIES

One of the core challenges of diversity within the body of Christ is the variety of expressions of the Christian faith. In Paul’s day, there were apparently some who insisted on observing certain “Holy days” (perhaps for their Jewish significance) and others who were strict vegetarians (perhaps to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols). Whatever their reasons, Paul says that when the Bible is silent on such issues, God’s people should be cautious about insisting everyone follow the same rules:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”

12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:1-12)

Paul isn’t saying that these concerns don’t matter, he’s saying that we should be careful to distinguish between absolute moral standards, personal convictions, and cultural practices. In Paul’s day, there were those who insisted upon abstaining from eating meat. Ok, Paul seems to say, but don’t pass judgment on those who celebrate their Christian liberty with a porterhouse.

This, of course, is where I’ve seen many young people’s eyes light up. Because it’s usually here that they realize that hey, if they’re of age, they can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine or two. After all, while the Bible prohibits drunkenness, it never labels alcohol as sinful. Hey, even Jesus turned water into wine. So if we apply this text to this issue, we can see how there might be good, Godly Christians who differ on this issue. And that’s ok. What’s not ok, if we hear Paul correctly, is to apply my own standards to someone else. This means that if I choose to abstain from drinking, it’s not ok for me to look down on someone who chooses to have a drink, But it also means—and young people, take notice—that if I choose to drink, that I look down on others as being prudish or uptight. There may be wisdom, after all, in abstaining. You don’t have to look very hard to find people for whom alcohol (and other substances) have had a ruling influence over their life. I knew of one young man who couldn’t even hear ice cubes rattling in a glass without feeling the desire for alcohol. It’s for these and other reasons that Paul makes clear that we must understand personal freedom within the broader framework of our social responsibilities.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Paul writes that Christ’s followers should go out of their way to ensure unity between one another on these issues:

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:13-23)

It is impossible to be fully human in the absence of other humans, and likewise it is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. Our decisions impact more than just ourselves. Paul doesn’t ask that Christ’s followers cave in to each other’s demands; he’s saying that we should have the sensitivity toward one another not to allow our liberties to do damage to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How might this relate to the question of alcohol? Consuming alcohol isn’t necessarily morally wrong; harming your brother is. Paul is encouraging his readers to maintain unity even if it means surrendering our “rights.” For love always—always—comes before our Christian freedoms. You will never get me to say that alcohol is inherently sinful, but I fear that many Christians have been quick to celebrate this freedom and slow to consider its implications.

So what about that young couple? To be honest, I don’t remember what I said to them. If I were facing the same dilemma today, this is what I might say:

  • To the young couple, offended by the sight of Christians drinking at the bar: You have every right to desire to shield yourself from behaviors—and substances—that once enslaved you. Your desire for purity from alcohol is, for you, a good and noble thing. But not everyone has walked your road, and not everyone has been in your shoes, for which reason we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions based on others’ behavior. And yes, I know that you may not have wanted to be put in this position, but my gentle challenge to you is that if you are invited to a restaurant with a bar there’s a good chance you might be exposed to the sights and smells of your former lifestyle. There may be wisdom in finding out where you’re headed before you accept an invitation, lest you find yourself here again.
  • To those who enjoyed your liberties, unaware you were causing offense: I get it; you have your liberties. No one has the right to question your salvation because of this issue. But the fact remains: you have missed an opportunity to love your neighbor. We don’t always know the backgrounds of those around us—for which reason we must be cautious about exercising our liberties in a way that causes others to “stumble.” We need one another, and our goal of love should triumph over any personal liberties we might cling to.

I realize, as well, that this is a conversation that demands nuance. Still, the overall principle is clear: we are at liberty with certain choices, but the gospel provokes us to surrender these liberties for the sake of unity and love.

Let them stumble over what matters (Romans 13:8-14)

Christianity has a PR problem, and if we’re looking for the culprit we have to look no further than our bedroom mirror.

Jesus, of course, warned that an unbelieving world would reject His followers, but He also encouraged His people to be “in the world but not of the world.” To be at odds with the world may be inevitable, but it is not the Christian’s goal.

Our unbelieving friends and neighbors have no trouble naming the things that Christianity is typically against. As a matter of fact, some years ago a group of researchers asked non-Christians to describe Christianity. The top six answers were as follows: “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” “too political,” “anti-homosexual,” and “too focused on getting converts.”

What about you? If your neighbors had to describe Christianity based on what they’ve seen of your faith, what do you think they’d say?

DEEPER RELIGION

For years we’ve been living with the assumption that Christianity suffers from the baggage of “religion.” So we took strides to re-define ourselves. “It’s a relationship,” we insisted; “not a religion.”

I grew up hearing this. I often found myself saying this. But you know something? None of my non-Christian friends ever bought it. Your mileage may vary, but my friends always heard this as another in a long string of religious clichés. As I’ve gotten older, I find the idea that we should jettison all religion a bit simplistic, and if I’m being candid I’ve often feared that such statements have contributed to a faith deep with emotion yet shallow on virtue. Such faith rarely makes a lasting impression on the world around us—heck, such faith often fades from our hearts when our sincerity runs thin.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes time to discuss the nature of Christian conduct. The following section comes immediately after a section dealing with Christians and human government, so it seems quite reasonable to understand this in terms of Christianity in the public arena.

Paul writes:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Perhaps the answer isn’t less religion, but deeper religion—a truer, more robust expression of God’s truth. More than anything, Paul says, the Christian life is exemplified by love. Love—not a t-shirt slogan, not a boycott, not a particular posture toward politics—love is what Christians are to be known for.

LIVING RIGHTLY

Paul goes on to help us understand this imperative in light of our place in God’s story:

11 Besides this you know the time,  that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)

His imagery here emphasizes the coming of the Day of the Lord—that is, the Second Coming of Christ when all will be made whole, and we can truly count ourselves among the “saved.” For Paul—and most of the other writers of our New Testament—this day seemed “soon.” For us, we know that centuries have passed since these words were written, but the day can be just as “soon” for us today as it was then. Paul’s point is that if this kingdom is coming soon, man’s empires pale in comparison. It’s as if he’s saying that if a feast is coming, it’s foolish to gorge ourselves at a dirty taco stand.

Love and character, therefore, form the most elemental basis of Christian discipleship. Christianity is, principally, a set of beliefs—but these beliefs take shape in the life each of us lead as we seek to “put on Christ.”

Our world will always stumble over the cultural expressions of Christianity, with all our boycotts, stale slogans, and “Christianized” forms of music and movies. But wouldn’t it be great if our friends and neighbors saw us for more than that—saw us for men and women of deep character and abiding love? If our world is going to stumble over Christ’s followers, than let them stumble over our love; let them stumble over our character. And let us be there to show them how to walk like Jesus.

Finding release from political panic (Romans 13:1-7)

“It’s never been this bad before.”

If you’re anything like me, you’ve caught yourself saying those words more than a few times during our most recent election cycle. Our choices seemed impossible; our newscasts seemed untrustworthy. Even now, months following the inauguration, it’s tempting to listen to the news with a mounting sense of panic. With every new development, with every piece of “click-bait” that surfaces on our radar, we increasingly find ourselves pushed toward either fear for our future or outrage toward our political adversaries. “It’s never been this bad before,” we continually insist, and behind this statement lies a set of assumptions of how the world is ordered.

In an era of “fake news” and political panic, we must be men and women of deep, Christian principles. For without principles, we can only react to the play-by-play, our hopes hanging on the secular prophets who ask us to “stay tuned” for the next in an endless sequence of new developments.

How does the gospel rescue us from a world of fear and division? What is the relationship between God’s kingdom and human government?

HONOR YOUR LEADERS

Paul would have been no stranger to a climate of political instability. Likewise, Paul’s first readers would have been all too familiar with both the triumphs and shame of the Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54-68 A.D. So it’s significant for us, that Paul includes politics in his larger discussion on what it means to live as a follower of Jesus:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

Since the days of Noah, human governments have had two responsibilities: to punish evil and to promote good. In the New Testament in particular, this and other writings emphasize a responsibility to “honor” civic government (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-4).

The Greek terms here are unambiguous: the words that Paul uses are exclusively used for human authorities. So yes; Paul is saying that Christ’s followers are to show “honor” and “respect” to human authorities.

On what basis? Paul is equally clear on this point: human government is a direct extension of the will of God. The book of Daniel tells us that God “removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21). Solomon likewise tells us that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).

But wait, you might ask, what about ungodly men? Historically speaking, the Bible has affirmed that even ungodly men can be used for God’s ultimate purposes, such as when King Cyrus was deemed God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1).

Granted, this doesn’t mean our civic leaders receive a “blank check” for their policies or for their character. We can find multiple examples in the Bible where men and women of God defied their leaders for Godly purposes—such as when Daniel’s companions refused to bow to the image of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. But it does mean that as followers of Jesus, our allegiance to God’s kingdom transforms the way we engage in the political arena here on earth.

LIVING AS DUAL CITIZENS

One of the primary ways that the gospel transforms our political engagement is by re-ordering our priorities. We are “dual citizens,” so to speak—inhabiting the “City of Man” even as we place our trust in the “City of God.” This is why Paul says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

Ancient thinkers have historically framed this in terms of “immediate” and “ultimate” hopes. Our ultimate hope is in God—His love, His kingdom, His sovereign control. Yet because we are also citizens of the present age, we place immediate hope in God’s gifts to us. For instance, we trust God’s sovereign control to keep us safe on the highway (ultimate hope), but we still buckle our seatbelts and drive safely (immediate hope). Likewise, though we place our ultimate hope in God’s expanding kingdom, we still have immediate, earthly allegiances—such as those we find in politics.

This, of course, is where we struggle. Understanding how our “dual citizenship” is meant to function isn’t always easy. Yet the sheer amount of political division we’ve witnessed even in recent months suggests that we can do better, and if evangelical Christianity is to have any sort of future we must help one another—especially the next generation—in connecting our personal faith and the public sphere.

To that end, I submit the following applications:

  • Recalibrate your hope

Political idolatry begins when we allow the immediate hope of politics to become our ultimate hope for security, satisfaction, and comfort. If you find yourself excessively agitated by today’s political climate, ask yourself: am I trusting that God is in control in this situation? “It’s never been this bad,” you might say—but even if that were true, is God any less in control?

Likewise, if you find yourself apathetic toward the field of politics, ask yourself: is my detachment from politics preventing me from loving my neighbor? The policies of the City of Man have moral implications. To make an idol out of politics is to deny one’s heavenly citizenship; to ignore politics entirely is to deny one’s earthly opportunities.

  • Pray for President Trump

This, of course, is true of any leader, though our most prominent leader as of this date is President Trump. We will not like every politician. That’s not the point. Paul exhorts us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may pray that they make wise decisions, and we may pray that they grow to become men and women of God.

This means that ultimately we desire that our leaders succeed. Yes; even the ones we dislike. It’s tempting, I realize, to wish for their failure, because when this happens we get great pleasure out of saying: “I told you so!” But this is just pride. As followers of Jesus, prayer should be our first impulse, not gloating or a childish political rant.

  • Abstain from “outrage porn”

In an age where journalistic success is measured in the number of “clicks” you receive, the strategy often employed is to stir your audience with anger. It’s what writer Ryan Holiday calls “outrage porn:” the headlines that grab our attention, and the videos we share with our friends.

Holiday writes:

“Outrage has slowly eaten online media from the inside out. What was once a righteous and necessary force—a check on softball reporting inside old media—is now a corrupt and lazy vice. The outrage you see isn’t real, it isn’t sincere. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s shallow, it’s superficial and it’s selfish.”[1]

Today’s political journalism often serves to cultivate anger toward our present situation, or anxiety toward our future. Christ-follower, if you struggle with either of these emotions, you may need a break from technology and the non-stop news cycle that has you so worked up.

The night He was betrayed, Jesus told His followers: “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). If the cross already represents God’s victory, we can take comfort that no political scandal can disrupt God’s plans.

  • Listen to your neighbors

In an age of identity politics, we’re often guilty of drawing divisions between “us” and “them.” But not everyone who voted for Trump is a bigot, nor is everyone who opposed him a “snowflake.” In the book of James, he instructs God’s people to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Is it possible—just possible—that your political adversaries might be people you can learn something from? Is it possible for us to dialogue with one another without trying to “convert” one another to our political views?

  • Do something good

Finally, even in Paul’s day political instability could not stop the spread of the gospel. Here in America, we experience relatively little persecution—especially when we compare our setting to places in the world where Christianity carries a death sentence.

When God’s people lived in exile in Babylon, God implored them to “seek the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And so can we. Serving one another, serving our community, promoting God’s goodness in any way we are able—these tasks and relationships produce a better, stronger society. You can be a part of that; there’s no need to wait until next time you’re at the voting booth.

In an age of division, love becomes revolutionary. As followers of Christ, we are citizens of this city only briefly, but citizens of God’s city forever. Let’s allow this light to shine through in all that we do.

 

[1] Ryan Holiday, “Outrage Porn: How the Need for ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense.”  The Observer, February 26, 2014.  Available online at http://observer.com/2014/02/outrage-porn-how-the-need-for-perpetual-indignation-manufactures-phony-offense/

“You are what you love” (Romans 7:7-25)

The heart wants what it wants.

It was the enlightenment thinker David Hume who once wrote that “reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions”—or maybe Bruce Springsteen said it better when he sang that “everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

HOMO ROMANTICUS—THE HUMAN AS LOVER

We are lovers before we are thinkers. This has been the conclusion of many men (and women) throughout the ages. We love, we desire, we worship. In his celebrated address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace told his audience that “everybody worships:”

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing …is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly….Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

The things we love have the capacity to consume us if we are not careful. Paul seemed to know something about this from his own personal experience. Sure, he admits; the law is unsuitable as a source of salvation, but the law also serves to diagnose the weak spots of my heart:

7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12)

Paul says that the law exposes all the places where we have allowed ourselves to love the wrong things—and these are the things that have the capacity to eat us alive.

SIN AS DIS-ORDERED LOVE

This is the true nature of sin. In the fourth century, a man named St. Augustine described the human soul in the language of ordo amoris—literally the “logic of the heart.” The easiest way to understand this is to think of the human heart as a pyramid. You will never flourish, Augustine would say, unless God occupies the apex of that pyramid—meaning He is your supreme source of joy and satisfaction. All our other loves occupy other spaces beneath.

But here’s what sin does: sin seeks to re-order that pyramid so that something else—money, fame, sex, what-have-you—becomes the supreme object of worth. “You are what you love,” says James K. Smith in his latest book.  Rearrange the food pyramid and it’s bad for your body; rearrange the pyramid of your heart and it’s bad for your soul.

LIVING AS BOTH SAINT AND SINNER

Paul admits that even after he began to follow Jesus, his heart was a mess of competing loves:

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:13-20)

Now, for clarity, I should mention that many writers believe that Paul isn’t describing his Christian experience here, but maybe he’s referring to his life before Christ, or to Israel as a whole, or maybe even pointing all the way back to Adam and Eve. But frankly, I think the most natural way to read this is to hear this as a tormented description of what Paul went through as he began to grow in Christ.

And that’s a source of great encouragement. If sin is a form of dis-ordered love, then as we follow Jesus we can expect our heart to be gradually set in order. But this takes time, and until then we will have experiences where we feel at war within ourselves, struggling against desires that we just can’t shake.

Martin Luther would say that we are simul iustus et peccator—“simultaneously righteous and yet still sinners.” We are both sinners and saints. It’s that bizarre double-identity that Paul wrestles with here in this chapter—which is encouraging for all of us who struggle with knowing that the “victorious Christian life” often seems like more a myth than a present reality.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)

Ultimately, though, Paul recognizes that the way out of his messed-up heart is the supernatural work of God. There remains a state of competing loves, yes—but Paul places his lasting hope in the redemptive work of Christ. This is why sanctification—that is, the process of becoming transformed into Godly character—doesn’t depend on our efforts any more than our salvation does. Our transformation doesn’t depend on white-knuckled performance, but on God’s grace. What we need is for our hearts to be set in order again; sanctification is nothing more than re-ordered love.

HOPE LEADING TO CHARACTER

In one of Wendell Berry’s novels, two characters discuss the trajectory of their lives and whether they will ever truly learn anything. “It may take a lifetime,” says one friend to the other. “And I’ll tell you something else,” he continues; “it may take longer.”

We are justified for our sinful past. We are being transformed—sanctified—in our struggling present. But one day, we will be glorified in God’s wonderful future.

So today, take heart. You’re not in this alone. You’re in the company of many men and women who, throughout history, have experienced the inner war of competing loves. And this is to say nothing of the God who, by His Spirit, is at work in you to re-order the loves of your heart so that you may grow in the full stature of His Son.

Until that day let us proceed forward not with the white-knuckle grip of our own “sweat equity,” but by allowing our love of the Savior to grow as we ourselves grow closer to Him.

The gospel frees you from the tyranny of ‘Being-A-Good-Christian.’ (Romans 7:1-6)

“It’s a hard-knock life for us.”

In the musical Annie, we meet the young orphan who’s early life is spent scrubbing floors and cleaning the windowsills in the confines of Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. But later, she moves from poverty to luxury under the roof of Daddy Warbucks. But when she arrives at her new home, what does she want to do first? Scrub the floors. Wash the windows. Her new “family” has to kindly explain to her that no, she doesn’t have to do all that stuff anymore. Everything’s changed.

I suspect there’s a certain segment of the Church that lives under the demands of “Being-A-Good-Christian.” I’m not talking about the Biblical call to personal character; I’m talking about the way we turn our faith into an endless series of religious projects and moral duties. It starts when we throw our “secular” music in the garbage and listen only to Christian radio. Then these sorts of demands morph into the pressures of sending our kids to private school and buying the right color minivan (complete with Jesus-fish and stick-figure family, mind you) to drive to our small group.

The reason this condition often goes undiagnosed is that the symptoms I’ve listed above can often be good things. But underneath we’re living as though we’re under the thumb of a God like Miss Hannigan—a God who’s always checking to make sure we’re “busy” with the latest activity.

And we’re exhausted.

CHANGED ALLEGIANCE

The gospel is hardly opposed to pouring ourselves out for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. But the gospel is opposed to turning the Christian life into an endless series of religious projects and moral duties.

This is Paul’s point when he contrasts the believer’s changed relationship to the law. Recall that in the early portions of Romans (chapters 1-3), Paul emphasized the way the law revealed God’s character—and the way each of us fall short of it. But now, by being “in Christ,” God treats us as though we have a perfect record of obedience to the law.

Paul compares this changed relationship to a marriage:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:1-3)

Do you understand what Paul is saying here? He’s saying that if we think of the law as an actual person, then we should see Christ as a changed set of relationships.

Currently I’m engaged. But if, say, I get run over by a bus, Erica is released from her commitment to me and free to marry someone much more handsome, wealthy, and wise. That’s what Paul’s saying; he’s saying that when Jesus died, our commitment to the law changed. Now our commitment is to Jesus.

Why does this matter so much in a conversation about following Jesus? Because many people live as though they’re still bound by obligations to a moral code. Paul is trying to emphasize—in the strongest words possible—that because Jesus has fulfilled the law, there’s nothing left to do. “It’s finished,” Jesus said from the cross; religious moralism won’t get us any further past the finish line than we already are.

THE SOURCE OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH

Of course, Paul doesn’t neglect that this changed relationship won’t be visible through our personal conduct. On the contrary, our allegiances will invariably produce either “fruit for death” or “fruit for God:”

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:4-6)

I’ve often heard the law compared to a set of train tracks. They tell you where to go; they connect you back to God. But they have no power to move you down the tracks. Only the gospel provides a strong enough engine to move you forward in your spiritual life.

And that’s just it. The gospel promises freedom from your own efforts to “go down the tracks” by your own efforts.  We will grow—yes, even grow in obedience to God’s word—but we must never make the mistake of thinking that this growth comes from anything other than our union with Christ and His righteousness, never our own.

I’ve been deliberately overstating my point in this post; obviously the Christian life is more nuanced than this. But it’s not unusual to meet people who feel lazy—or guilty—for not “doing enough.” Or, in other cases, people who feel guilty for watching TV or listening to U2 when they “should have been” listening to Hillsong. And sure, there may be certain types of programs to filter out, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that if my righteousness does not depend on my hard work, then the gospel frees me from the tyranny of Being-A-Good-Christian.

Christ-follower, if you are spiritually exhausted, it might be that you are still living under Miss Hannigan. But you’re not in the orphanage anymore. The gospel doesn’t condone laziness, but neither does it endorse spiritual work-a-holism. It’s only when we rest in the knowledge of the finished work of Christ that our spiritual growth can truly begin—and only then do we find joy in our walk with God.

So rest easy, dear Christian. The hardest things are not in your hands, but were finished in His hands long, long ago.

Which way is your heart slanted? (Romans 6:15-23)

When I studied biology, I learned that a “good” parasite never kills its host. No; it keeps them alive, slowly draining their energy over a long period of time, sometimes years.

Sometimes sin is like this. Selfish behavior can go overlooked because, well, “it’s not that bad.” It’s only later that we realize that we’ve spent years feeding our selfish egos and our sinful hearts not all at once, but by degrees over a lifetime of small compromises.

THE DANGER OF “CHEAP GRACE”

Paul continues in his letter by repeating at least some of the themes he’d introduced just a few paragraphs ago:

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:15-16)

Right off the bat, Paul emphasizes that there are two and only two ways to live: either as slaves to sin, or slaves to obedience. It’s just like what Bob Dylan wrote: “you gotta serve somebody.” Everybody’s ruled by something.

As Christians it may be tempting to think of your faith in terms of “getting saved” and then “going to Heaven when you die.” That’s all well and good, but it leaves you without purpose in the meantime. For many, faith becomes little more than “fire insurance,” rescuing you from the flames of Hell, but requiring nothing from you in the day-to-day trenches of life.

In the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled this way of thinking “cheap grace:”

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system…no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p 44-45)

Let’s not get confused, here. The alternative to this kind of “cheap grace” isn’t to buckle down and work harder. This only pushes us from the error of self-indulgence into the error of self-righteousness. No, what we need is to re-align our allegiances, to remember that we are members of Christ’s kingdom, and therefore align our lives to His character.

WHICH WAY IS YOUR HEART SLANTED?

Paul develops this further, emphasizing the world of contrast between man’s earthly empires and God’s eternal kingdom:

17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:17-23)

Paul is saying there are two—and only two—outcomes in life: you live as a slave to sin and receive the death you deserve, or you devote yourself to Jesus and receive the life you don’t deserve. And notice—in the case of sin, the consequences are “wages;” in the case of Christ, life is a “gift.” This forms the basis for what Paul is saying. In Christ, we already have what we need—eternal life. What more could there be to focus on? To turn back to sin would be to return to the very things that bring only death. Why would we ever want to go there?

And the answer, practically speaking, is that we don’t. Or at least we convince ourselves that we never do. We think of “sin” in binary terms: you’re either sinning or you’re not, and as long as you stay on the “good” side of the line, you’re golden.

There’s nothing particularly inaccurate about this way of thinking, but perhaps we should think of it with a different word picture. Picture your heart as a set of scales—or better yet, more like a see-saw where weight on one side causes the whole thing to tip in one direction. On one side, we have “love for self.” On the other side of the scale, we have “love for God and neighbor.”

Got it?

Now, which way is your heart slanted?

Apart from Christ, our hearts are inclined only toward “love for self.” But the gospel enables our hearts to tilt away from self and toward “love for God and neighbor.” That’s what repentance is really all about, re-orienting our hearts away from self and toward God.

It’s easy to see how grievous sins could tilt our hearts away from God and back toward self. Stealing, lying, lust—you know the list; these are all obvious ways that we could, once again, become slaves to sin.

But what about our small habits? What about the things we do unconsciously?

  • When we screen our calls, or when we interact with people only through text messaging, is it possible that we’re unconsciously tilting our hearts away from love and toward the idolatry of convenience?
  • Is it possible that we look to our career for our sense of worth and significance, rather than what God has done for us?
  • If you’re a new parent, you may be tempted to roll over when you hear the baby crying at 2AM. Does this not slant your heart away from your marriage and toward your own interests?
  • Might your entertainment choices slant your heart further from God and toward the things of this world?

If we view sin this way, we might realize that our hearts are tipping further from God and toward self-interest. On the one hand, that’s part of being human. On the other hand, God sets us free from those idols that our hearts might be re-directed toward Him.

Is your heart slanted toward yourself? We’ve all been there. But even a few small choices today could lead to living in the fullness of the gospel.

Maturity Over Authenticity (Romans 6:1-11)

“Just be yourself.”

That’s the advice I usually level at my co-worker, Trent Williams, whenever he finds himself in something of a jam. I offer the advice sarcastically—as is my custom—because rarely does this advice ever, you know, work.

So how did this slogan become the mantra of my generation?

THE SIREN SONG OF “AUTHENTICITY”

Culturally speaking, personal identity trumps all forms of social accountability. “You do you,” the popular saying goes—meaning, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks; behave accordingly.

In some settings, this is good advice. Social conformity can often manifest itself negatively as peer pressure. But many in my generation have taken non-conformity to a whole new spiritual level.

For much of contemporary Christianity, the watchword has become authenticity. We’re all broken, after all; we all have doubts. Why not simply be up front about that?

It’s hard to blame anyone for this attitude. Today’s Church still struggles against the old stereotypes of “legalistic” churches that emphasized morals and customs to the exclusion of those with ongoing struggles. So a focus on transparency can actually be a really healthy thing. It’s just that in seeking to kill those sacred cows, we’ve raised up whole herds of new ones.

In other words, if the “Pharisees” of my parents’ generation were focused on self-righteousness, today’s Pharisees are focused on self-discovery. Our deepest thoughts are often tied to the central question of “Who I Really Am.” So from our social media pages to the ink on our arms, we seek to be our truest, most authentic selves.

The Church, after all, isn’t a “museum for saints,” the saying often goes; “it’s a hospital for sinners.” Well, amen to that. It’s just that with all our focus on mutual affirmation, we seem to have forgotten the purpose for going to a hospital in the first place: to get better.

REPENTING OF “WHO I REALLY AM”

This is why Paul shifts gears, here, in what we know as the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans. He writes:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)

One of the challenges of communicating the grace of God is that it leaves you open to the accusation that your behavior no longer matters. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” some might lament, “because God will forgive you anyway.”

In every real sense this is true. John Ortberg once remarked: “You know what God gives you when you squander His grace? More grace.”

At the same time, Paul points out that to continue living in the slavery to sin and self would be inconsistent with the life of freedom that the gospel brings. So in his opening line, here, he raises the question of whether we can continue in sin so that grace might abound. I wish you could read his response in the original Greek—the English translations of “by no means” or “may it never be” are far too polite. His response is probably more akin to “heck no” or perhaps something even less polite.

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus confers and entirely new identity:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)

Over the years many have read quite far into the ritual of baptism—the idea of “going under” and coming up in some way analogous to death and resurrection. This preaches well, but probably stretches Paul’s point a bit far. Paul’s simply saying that by trusting in Christ, we are now identified with Him. Our old selves are done away with; we are now living a whole new life.

This is an assault on the modern notion of “authenticity.” Our truest selves, after all, are dead in sin. As Kevin DeYoung points out, “authentically ‘broken’ is still broken.” You don’t just need healing; you need an overhaul. The gospel re-orients us away from the focus on self and toward the new identity in Jesus.

Some years ago an elderly couple in a nursing home passed away in each other’s arms. But when the first spouse died, the physicians could still detect a heartbeat in her body. How? It was because the surviving spouse held his wife so close that his pulse could be felt in her body. It’s a sad story, but how much more beautiful that Christ, our living hope, has made us alive in Him. It’s the beating of His heart that gives me life when mine only withers and fails.

LIVE LIKE A FREE MAN (OR WOMAN)

Paul will go into further detail on how this new relationship transforms our character. Here, he offers a series of applications of what it looks like to live as free men and women:

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)

This kind of freedom, I wager, won’t come all at once. Nor will total freedom come in this lifetime. But the Christian life isn’t focused on perfection as much as it’s focused on maturity. Here Paul emphasizes that if our greatest treasure is Christ, then we will be gradually set free from our enslaving passions and begin to live out of our greatest love.

What about you? What rules your heart? Is it a desire to be your “truest self,” or a desire to let Christ live through you?