Maturity Over Authenticity (Romans 6:1-14)

“Just be yourself.”

That’s the advice I usually level at my co-workers, whenever they find themselves 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 this 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 current 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 the former generations 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:

6:1 – What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.  

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:

6:5 – 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. 6 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. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 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.

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:

6:12 – 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.

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?

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Am I Evil? (Romans 5:12-21)

“Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I evil? I am man.”

Sometimes when the rest of the world is silent, the rock stars cry out. The song “Am I evil?” was originally written by the band Diamond Head, though some readers might be more familiar with the later version from Metallica. There’s something to those lyrics, you know. To be man—that is, to be human—is to be evil.

Much as we’d like to insist that we’re born innocent, we’re all born bad. Forget the “better angels of our human nature;” we’re just plain selfish.

PROGNOSIS: NEGATIVE

Christian theology calls this “original sin,” a condition we’ve all inherited from our great, great, great-grandfather, Adam, who bit the fruit and wiped his chin clean—but could never quite erase the stain on his soul. Or ours, for that matter.

Paul writes:

5:12 – Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

This seems outrageous. After all, why should I be punished for Adam’s crime? It seems unfair until I recall—like Paul points out—that “all sinned.” The law, Paul observes, served as a measuring stick for human morality: the law served to “diagnose” our sinful state—though it was not enough to cure it.

Chuck Klosterman recently published an entire book about villains, finding these darker characters much more relatable than the usual heroes. Klosterman—who himself was inspired by Metallica’s song—writes that even when he tries to be good, he can’t possibly claim that his intentions are void of self-centeredness:

“If [a stranger] were suddenly in trouble and I had the ability to help, I absolutely would — but I suspect my motive for doing so might not be related to them. I think it would be the result of all the social obligations I’ve been ingrained to accept, or perhaps to protect my own self-identity, or maybe because I’d feel like a coward if I didn’t help a damaged person in public (or maybe because others might see me actively ignoring a person in need). …This realization makes me feel shame . . . yet not so ashamed that I suddenly (and authentically) care about random people on the street. I feel worse about myself, but I feel no differently about them.” (Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat)

So as much as we’d like to think ourselves noble, or free from the kinds of religious insecurities foisted upon us by our upbringing, every single one of us is irredeemably selfish—at least so long as we seek redemption by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

THE CURE

Herein lies one of Christianity’s most beautiful and most misunderstood truths: If I am condemned in Adam, that means I did nothing to directly deserve my condemnation. But if I am condemned for what someone else did, can I be saved by what someone else did?

The answer to that question is foundational to the good news of the gospel. Paul writes:

5:15 – But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

5:18 – Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus is the true and better Adam. His obedience through the cross reverses the stain we’ve worn since the days of Adam, and restores us to righteous standing in Him.

The gospel literally turns the world upside down. Writing on this reversal, pastor and author Tim Keller writes:

“In the Garden, Adam was told, ‘Obey me about the tree—do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die.’… God said to Jesus, ‘Obey me about the tree’—only this time the tree was a cross—‘and you will die’ And Jesus did…What he has enjoyed from all eternity, he has come to offer to you. And sometimes, when you’re in the deepest part of the battle, when you’re tempted and hurt and weak, you’ll hear in the depths of your being the same words Jesus heard: ‘This is my beloved child—you are my beloved child, whom I love; with you I’m well pleased.’ (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, p. 12-13)

In Adam we find only death. In Christ we find endless life.

Am I evil? Yes I am. But in Christ I am declared a saint.

Five Ways the Gospel is More than Good Advice (Romans 5:1-11)

“You can do it. We can help.”

Home Depot’s former slogan makes a lot of sense when you’re standing in the hardware aisle or comparing shades of paint. It makes no sense if we seek to apply it to our spiritual lives.

I suspect that many of Christ’s followers treat the gospel as a point of entry rather than a lifestyle. The gospel provides us a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card, but after that we’re on our own. In so doing, we downgrade the gospel from “good news” to good advice. Our spiritual lives become a series of religious projects and social causes that punctuate lives otherwise dominated by youth sports and the drone of the workweek. For many Christians, having secured our heavenly destiny, our earthly goals could best be summarized as being “nice” to people and looking to God from time to time. We favor sermons and Christian books that affirm our own “inner wonderfulness” and seem to promise that God is here to help you realize your dreams of being nice to people and living a life as free of trouble as possible. In so doing we’ve come to embrace a gospel built on Home-Depot-theology: “You can do it; He can help.”

“WHILE WE WERE SINNERS…”

New Testament Christianity will have nothing of this. This is, in fact, one of the most prominent themes that Paul emphasizes in his writings—particularly in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 5, he summarizes the gospel this way:

5:6 – For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Our English text does little to expose the true severity of our situation. The word “weak” here could better be translated as “powerless,” meaning that on our own we have no ability, no hope within ourselves.

So even for Paul, this seems utterly backwards. Sure, he admits, people might risk their life for someone who really, really deserves it. But you and I are far from a “good” or “righteous” person. Paul describes us as not only “weak” but also “ungodly” and a group of “sinners.”

That’s what makes the gospel all the more shocking. Jesus chose to give His life in the place of people like you and me. This is a far cry from saying that “you can do it,” and it’s not enough to say that “He can help.”  Jesus did more than help. He took our place. He bore our sins. He bore our shame.

Because of this, Paul uses this section of his letter to highlight a series of benefits of knowing Christ.

THE BENEFITS

I often hear from people who tell me that they struggle to find any real benefit in following Jesus in the here and now. In some ways, this is a valid point; the greatest joy comes later when we see Jesus face to face, a point that Paul makes elsewhere in his letters. But this is not to say that the gospel has no immediate implications. On the contrary, we’re tempted to treat the gospel as elementary when we should be treating it as elemental. Pastor and author Tim Keller puts it this way: The gospel is not just the ABC’s of the Christian faith, but the A through Z of the Christian life.

If we pick apart Romans 5:1-11 just a bit, we’ll find that Paul emphasizes at least five benefits of being justified—that is, being “declared righteous:”

(1) FORGIVENESS (5:1A)

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith…” (Romans 5:1a)

In every real sense, justification is its own benefit. Our first and primary experience of knowing Jesus is also to know that our sins have been forgiven.

(2) A NEW RELATIONSHIP (5:1B-2, 11)

“…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. .. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:1b-2, 11)

The language here sounds almost like the “peace” after a great war, and that’s not at all far from the truth. In verse 10 Paul declares us “enemies” prior to being brought near to God in a new relationship. Because we are justified and declared righteous, we can have a new relationship with God.

(3) HOPE AMIDST DESPAIR (5:3-5A)

“3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame…” (Romans 5:3-5a)

Paul was well aware that Christ’s followers would continually find themselves at odds with the world. But, he says, we have reason to rejoice. If Christ has defeated sin and death, if we have received God’s approval through the justifying work of the Son, then what have we left to fear?  For the Christian, hope replaces fear and despair, and hope will also produce a steadfast character even amidst life’s storms.

(4) THE INDWELLING HOLY SPIRIT (5:5B)

“because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5b)

The greatest benefit of all is God Himself—namely, the Spirit who is with us always. What greater benefit could there be than to have God with us at all times?

(5) FREEDOM FROM CONDEMNATION (5:9-10)

“9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”  (Romans 5:9-10)

Finally, because we have been forgiven and declared righteous, we can be confident that we are totally free of God’s anger toward our sin. It has already been dealt with through the cross. And if God forgives us, if God declares us righteous, then we have no reason to continually beat ourselves up about falling short. Now, Paul will have more to say in regard to growing in Christian character, to be sure, but too often we flee from God fearing we disappoint Him with our habitual sins. Paul tells us that we are saved from His wrath, we are reconciled, we are saved. We don’t need to run from His condemnation; we are privileged to run toward His forgiveness.

ANGELS NEVER GET BORED

In the first of his letters, Peter tells his readers that the prophecies about Jesus and His future glory are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). Peter, of course, had personally witnessed the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Christ’s suffering, but Christ’s future glory had yet to take place. The full unfolding of God’s plan was something that captivated the hearts of the angels themselves. So, too, might you and I find ourselves captivated by the good news brought forth through Jesus.

Angels never get bored with the gospel. And neither should we.

Hope Against Hope (Romans 4:16-25)

I’ve never won anything.

Like, ever.

I know people who have a trophy display case in their home. An entire case. I don’t even need a shelf. My trophy case could probably best be described as a “great poverty of merit” … its dusty shelves an enduring testimony to the triumph of my own mediocrity.

So this is why I get slightly irritated when I’m standing in line at the convenience store and the person immediately in front of me is buying lottery tickets. And then the clerk allows them to scratch them off, right there in the store—which I suppose is some strange form of punishment for me for buying my iced tea in a convenience store in the first place. But after the customer clears away the silver powder residue from their scratch-offs, they buy another ticket—maybe even another.

And that, dear friends, is the difference between hope and mere wishful thinking.

The lottery, after all, is just a tax on people who don’t understand statistics. The lottery isn’t designed to give people money; it’s designed to take it. But I digress.

The Christian faith is built neither on wishes or merits, but the power of God. That’s why—as we saw yesterday—Paul uses Abraham as an example. Abraham, as we pointed out, was no Charlie Church before God came around. God saved Abraham through His sovereign choice. Abraham’s only responsibility was to respond in faith to the promises of God.

So in his letter to the Romans, Paul summarizes:

4:16 – That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 

So often I hear people tell me that they could be a better Christian if they could understand the Bible better, or if they had more time for personal study, podcasts, and the like. Sure; these things are beneficial. But if this is you, then I’m afraid you might be missing the point. It is not the “strength” of our faith that saves us—as if our merits brought us any closer to God—it is the object of our faith that saves us. Here, Paul emphasizes that Abraham’s faith saved him because of the God who made him the promise of being the “father” of all Israel. And, says Paul, we can trust this promise because the God who makes it also “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is this ability to create something from nothing that forms the foundation of Abraham’s hope.

CREATION OUT OF NOTHING

Paul goes on to write:

4:18 – In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”  

What does it mean for Abraham to “hope…against hope?”  In a very real sense, the calling of God went against all material evidence. You really have to laugh at how Paul describes Abraham as being “as good as dead” (!). And this is to say nothing of the prospect of his wife Sarah getting pregnant. God’s promises began in absurdity, to say the very least, but Abraham believed. Let’s not be naïve; when Paul says that “no unbelief made him waver,” he obviously didn’t mean that Abraham never experienced moments of skepticism or doubt. But his overall pattern was trust in God.

Just as God created the universe from nothing, just as He created life in the womb of Abraham’s elderly wife, through His grace He creates life in each of us by cultivating faith within our hearts. Wonder replaces doubt; skepticism slides away into trust and endurance.

NEW CREATION

This is what separates Christian hope from the wishful thinking of lottery ticket customers. Abraham’s faith was never anchored in some abstract personal experience, never in something so flimsy as a mere dream or vision. Abraham’s faith was in the promise of God. For what is faith without promise? Even if we trust in His goodness, we can never expect Him to do what He has not promised. And the promises of God find flesh and bone in the person of Jesus.

For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus authenticates all of Christian faith. He writes:

4:23 – But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

What does it mean that Christ was “raised for our justification?”  It means that through Jesus, we are not only forgiven from sin, but we have a new standing in Christ. Christ is now my identity and my righteousness; God approves of me because I am now living in Christ.

Without this, most of our faith would be little more than the wishes of a lottery scratch-off. But like Abraham, we must “hope against hope” that the gospel is true. Again, even that statement might sound like wishful thinking until we consider that the Christian hope is anchored in the unchanging promises of God. Hope is less a wish but an expectation, an expectation that God would be true to His Word, and an expectation that—through grace alone—we would be found in Him. The “hopes” of this world are uncertain, and even if we find immediate solutions through politics, career, or relationships, these immediate hopes pale in comparison to the ultimate hope we find in the gospel.

With No Money, Come and Buy (Romans 4:1-15)

I think they call it “sticker shock.” It’s that feeling you get when you first lay eyes on the price listed on the tag, the sticker, or the menu. If it happens inside a store or a restaurant, you might find yourself feeling a bit out of place, like you’re about to be “found out.” The contents of your wallet—or the lack thereof—testify to one thing: you don’t belong there.

College students go through something similar at the start of every school semester. With every class their eyes glaze over at the shock of seeing the syllabus—the list of work they’d be expected to complete in order to receive credit for taking that course.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had those moments when it seemed that others’ expectations seemed impossibly high. We may have been angry with them for holding us to such standards; we may have felt dejected for failing to live up to them.

Throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes God’s righteousness. It is the standard by which each of us is measured; it is the standard by which each of us falls short (cf. Romans 3:23).

But, Paul says, in His infinite mercy God has chosen to declare us righteous, to “justify” us by pardoning sin and treating us as innocent.

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT ISN’T DUE

I suspect that Paul knew that his listeners would have trouble swallowing such an enormous message of grace. So he turns to the story of Abraham to help unpack just how it could be that God could look at a sinful human being and declare him anything other than unworthy.

4:1 – What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 

If you have a background in church, you may remember Abraham from a Sunday School lesson. Abraham was the Father of the Jewish nation. It was through Abraham that God promised His people the blessing of the Promised Land and the blessing of descendants.

Not much is written about Abraham’s life before God called Him, but Joshua tells us that his family “lived beyond the Euphrates River, and they worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Abraham didn’t have a “church background.”  Until God reached into Abraham’s life, it’s likely that all he knew was the wayward faith of his family.

So it’s significant, then, that God would reach into this man’s life and declare Abraham ”righteous.”  We can’t possibly attribute this to Abraham’s faithful service to God, because he worshiped someone completely different. No, instead, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Personally, I prefer the older translations that emphasize that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.

What does “credit” mean?  Think about gift cards for a moment. Someone recently was generous enough to give me a fifty dollar gift card to Café del Sol. And what that means is that even if I have no money in my wallet, the staff of Café del Sol will treat me like I do. Why?  Because that gift card gives me store credit—my spending power comes not from the money I bring, but the gift I’ve received.

That’s what Abraham experienced. To be “credited” with righteousness means that even though Abraham had no righteous deeds of his own, God treated him as though he had a perfect record of obedience. And the same can be true of you and me—that if we place our trust in Jesus, then we can “credited” with a perfect, righteous record of faithfulness and moral purity.

ALIEN RIGHTEOUSNESS

The reformer Martin Luther called this “alien righteousness,” by which he meant that this righteousness came from outside ourselves. He meant this to be a marked contrast to “active righteousness,” the righteousness we think we earn through moral effort.

Paul writes that only the righteousness of Christ has any real bearing on our lives:

4:4 – Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Even here Paul is continually emphasizing just how little Abraham deserved to be “credited” with righteousness. Sure, Abraham moved onward into obedience, but Paul makes clear that God declared him righteous before—not after, but before Abraham took any steps of obedience. The ritual of circumcision—which by Paul’s day was a symbol of a great religious heritage—was only an outward sign of God’s work of justification.

Paul goes on to say:

4:13 – For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Righteousness comes through faith. Our attempts to secure God’s approval through our own efforts will always cause us to come up short. We find a place at the King’s table not because we’re rich enough to pay the check, but because the King has already paid for our order. We are credited with the treasury of His merits even when our own treasure chest looks more like an ashtray.

“Sinners come inside; with no money, come and buy.” (Isaiah 55:1, paraphrase)

And so let us in the #ForOurCity movement remember the hordes of those around us who are seeking to earn what they cannot earn, while we possess the knowledge of the payment that secures all their ultimate hopes and dreams.

Gloriously (In)Complete (Romans 3:21-31)

I know very few people who, deep down, don’t harbor a desire to be perfect. Flawlessness is the human heart’s holy grail, a myth perpetuated by street-corner salesmen who’ve convinced us that such perfection even exists. Models and celebrities stare at us from the glossy covers of magazines; trendy Instagram filters engender the fear that maybe we’re missing out on the kind of life we see our friends enjoying.

What’s to be done? We laugh at those who are “perfectionists.” You know the type. Those who spend hours cleaning. The straight-A students locked away in the library. The “grammar Nazi” who insists on correcting others’ mistakes. But all of us, really, are guilty of this.

Have you ever bought a product—whether jeans or an SUV—not because of its usefulness but because you were drawn to the brand?

Have you ever felt left out because your cell phone isn’t the latest model?

Have ever felt anxious (or bitter) that your friends seem to be more successful than you?

Perfectionism comes in many forms. What others say about us seems to be of great value in shaping our sense of self-worth. There’s just one problem with this kind of pursuit: you never really reach your goals.

Some years ago, New York Times columnist Guy Trebay covered a New York fashion show. What was most revealing was the hidden lives that went on off the runway. Though we tend to idolize the rich and beautiful, Trebay observes that this lifestyle obsession leaves us hollow:

“Models do not think they are too skinny. Actors do not find themselves handsome. Stars claim not to know what all the fuss is about. Our crazy cultural obsession with the perfected surface has become so absolute that everybody ends up having to work off some obscure psychic debt.” (Guy Trebay, “Look at Me, Look at Me, Please Look at Me,” The New York Times, September 17, 2006)

Mick Jagger was onto something when he wailed that he “can’t get no satisfaction.” I hear ya, Mick. Today’s greatest battles are fought not on the landscape of the “perfected surface;” they are fought in the inner longings of the human soul.

THE RELIEF OF JUSTIFICATION

The gospel starts by pointing out our own inadequacy; our own brokenness. This has been the core subject of Paul’s letter to Rome up to this point. We are deeply flawed creatures, every last one of us; not just because we fall short of our standards, but because we persist in our own ways in defiance of God’s eternally beautiful and righteous plan. The Bible has a variety of ways of understanding “sin,” but every image points to the same condition—that no human being can possibly claim to be righteous before God. So, what’s to be done?

3:21 – But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Some of what Paul shares here is entwined with what he had written before—namely, that “all have sinned” and continually “fall short” of God’s eternally significant character. No one can match His perfection.

But that’s when Paul makes an abrupt turn, focusing now on the finished work of Christ. If you have time later, you may want to underline the terms that Paul uses here for salvation, words like…

Redemption: This refers to the blood of Christ “buying” us out of our slavery to sin

Propitiation: This term means “to render favorable,” meaning that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s intense anger at human wickedness and sin.

Justification: This term means “to declare righteous,” and if you look at Paul’s other words regarding “righteousness” and “justifier,” we see that this is prominent in this section—not to mention Paul’s other writing.

What does it mean to be “justified?”  Paul is using a legal term to refer to the great reversal of human fate. Commenting on this, John Stott writes:

“‘Justification’ is a legal term borrowed from the law courts. It is the exact opposite of ‘condemnation’ (cf. Deut.25:1; Prov.17:15; Rom.8:33,34). ‘To condemn’ is to declare somebody guilty; ‘to justify’ is to declare him… righteous. In the Bible it refers to God’s act of unmerited favor by which He puts a sinner right with himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him, but accepting and treating him as righteous.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p.60)

To be “justified” means that though I am far from perfect, God has graciously chosen to declare us perfect and “righteous” because of what Christ has achieved for us. You want to be perfect? God declares you righteous—though not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ has done for you.

SOLA FIDE—“FAITH ALONE”

This is why Paul moves on to emphasize that justification brings an end to our feelings of perfectionism—to all feelings of superiority or inferiority. Why? Because our righteousness comes through faith, not works.

3:27 – Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

How do we “uphold the law?” Does this mean that we are still required to obey the law of the Old Testament?  Yes; emphatically, yes. But not through our effort, but through Christ. See, Jesus fulfilled every letter of the law through His righteous obedience (cf. Matthew 5:17). Therefore if we follow Jesus, we, too, can claim to “uphold the law” by being united with Him. This is why Paul emphasizes that now even non-Jews (Gentiles) can be brought near to God, because the Jewish laws have been fulfilled through Jesus.

On the one hand (this is deeply humbling), we are forced to realize that we did nothing to earn our justification before God. But on the other hand (this is extraordinarily freeing), it brings an end to the self-centered pursuit of perfectionism. Our lives are not defined by what others say about us, because we have the blessing of having God declaring us “righteous” and acceptable on the basis of our faith in Jesus.

So take heart, perfectionists of the world.

You are not defined by the number of “likes” you receive on social media.

You are not defined by what your friends say about you—to your face or behind your back.

You are not defined by your credit score, or how much money you have in the bank.

You are not defined by what the numbers on your scale say, or the number on the waistband of your pants.

You are defined solely—and completely—by a God who declares you “righteous” by the work of the cross. The work of perfectionism has no end; on the cross Jesus declared this work to be “finished.”

Lay your deadly doing down, down at Jesus’ feet. Stand in Him, and Him alone, gloriously complete.

(James Proctor, “It is Finished”)

The Gavel Drop Moment (Romans 3:9-20)

I have always felt a bit sorry for defense lawyers. Some folks actually despise these characters as those who attempt to get criminals off the hook. Rightly understood of course, the role of the lawyer is not to get an unjustly generous outcome, but rather within our legal system’s presumption of innocence point of beginning to provide the best defense possible to appropriately put the weight of proof upon the prosecution to prove the charges.

Some criminals are difficult to defend and put into any positive light whatsoever. It is a sort of pig and lipstick kind of situation. And actually, that would be the case of trying to defend the innocence and goodness of the human race against God’s perfect standard of righteousness. It is entirely impossible, or as Paul says it at the beginning of today’s section that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.

Even if a defense lawyer is able to present a client in the best light possible, if the prosecuting attorney concludes with a laundry list of undeniable charges backed by evidence, the client is in trouble. And that is what we have in our reading today. Paul quotes from a variety of Old Testament passages (mostly from Psalms) that prove beyond any doubt that mankind is 100% guilty before God as a condemned sinner.

3:9 – What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”   “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” [most of these quotes are from passages in the Psalms]

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Boom! The gavel drops. All are guilty! Everyone fails to live up to God’s law. And we see in the final verse the purpose of the law: it was not to provide a pathway for people to become just in God’s sight, but rather it was to make a person aware of their sinful condition. And then, feeling the weight of their impossible situation, they would turn to trusting, following and obeying God’s provision

Theologically speaking, we are talking about the doctrine of original sin. The problem started with the original sin of the original parents. The curse and debt have been passed down; we were born bad. We weren’t born good, sinned one day and then became bad. We were never good, or righteous. We didn’t become sinners when we first sinned. We proved we were sinners when we first sinned.

All of this would be terribly depressing if the story ended right here. And if God had chosen to allow that to happen, He would not have been unjust.

So ends Part #1 of the five parts of Romans we spoke about last week (Sin / Salvation / Sanctification / Sovereignty / Service). We’re lost. We’re dead. But good news – the best GOOD NEWS – is just over the horizon.

Failing to Take Advantage of Advantage (Romans 3:1-8)

Winning a huge lottery payout is a good thing, right? It makes for a wonderful opportunity for a person to do and enjoy pretty much everything imaginable, correct?

Apparently not! A simple search of articles telling the stories of large lottery prize winners reveals that a sizeable majority end up with lives that are more miserable, if not completely ruined. An amazing number end up losing everything. Poor choices abound. Most are completely unequipped to manage their new situation in a positive way.

At the same time, a minority of winners report of the great blessing that it was for them. They speak of hiring professional accountants and investment advisors, being disciplined to use their newfound wealth in wise and productive ways.

From this we can say that it was not the mere fact of wealth that ruined peoples’ lives, it was the lack of faithful and disciplined execution of attention to the details that made for a mess.

We have read in recent paragraphs in Romans chapters 1 and 2 of the Jewish people who were condemned by God for their sinful lives. If being given the “blessings” of status as God’s Chosen People resulted in so many of them ending up in judgment, what good therefore was such a “blessing?”  And Paul says that there indeed was great blessing and advantage. It was not a matter that God’s goodness set them up for failure; they simply failed to be faithful with the riches to which they were entrusted, particularly having the very words of God given to them.

So there is no way that God should be blamed for their bad situation and God’s necessary judgment. He was good; they messed up all by themselves.

The argumentative objections (of which there were many) raised by Paul’s adversaries (of which there were many) as seen in verses 5-8 are admittedly a bit crazy. But arguments against God’s goodness are exactly that. Illogical is another word. Let’s add senseless to the mix.

God is good. People fail. All have sinned, Chosen People or not. That God thereby is required by His holy character to necessarily judge them is not a mark against Him.

But talk about people with great advantage! Has there ever been those with a better advantage to be people of faith than we are in our day? I suppose it could be argued that to be a first century follower who happened to be among the hundreds who saw the post-resurrection Jesus would make faith easier. Even so, I’m not sure I’d trade for that. For one thing, we possess the completed record of Scripture. Think of all the resources we have in our day to stand on the shoulders of two millennia of Christians who have gone before us. Consider the resources literally at our fingertips electronically. By any standard, we are uniquely blessed. We are people of advantage.

So let us as #ForOurCity members of the body of Christ be known for taking advantage of our advantages as we together serve to reach a lost world.

3:1 – What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

3 What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

“So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.”

5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6 Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7 Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” 8 Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

The View from the Steeple (Romans 2:17-29)

One summer in my college years I worked for an industrial painter, mostly spray painting large structures like barns, farm buildings, warehouses, churches, etc.  Not only was it a hot job in the sun (I got burns on my shoulders that summer that I still believe could become something nasty in my life), it was rather physically demanding. We mostly used bucket trucks with powerful compressors, and between three of us could spray in excess of 100 gallons of paint a day.

One day our job was to paint a centuries-old church in the Pennsylvania countryside. It was a rather large building with a steep-pitched roof about 40+ feet above the ground. Beyond that was a 20-foot wooden steeple that needed to be painted. Being the light-weight of the group (you’ll have to take that by faith), I drew the assignment. The boss sent me to the roofline in the bucket truck, along with an extension ladder. We put the ladder legs on either side of the peak, extended it fully, while also tying a rope from the ladder to the steeple for “safety.”

I still can’t believe I did this. The view from the top was amazing, but the foundation of it was so precarious in the extreme that it should rightly be catalogued in the “foolish” classification.

And such was the category of self-evaluation possessed the “allegedly righteous” Jew to whom Paul speaks here in Romans chapter 2. From where they looked down upon the rest of the world, they saw themselves as in really good shape, just because of who they were. They knew that they had the truth of the one true God. But for too many, this did not really make a total difference in their lives. Many were guilty of the same sins as the riff-raff of the rest of the world.

Paul quotes from the Old Testament, from Ezekiel 36:20-22 … talking about how instead of Israel being a great witness for the one true God, they were an embarrassment due to His necessary, repeated judgments upon them because of their rampant sinfulness…

And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’  I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.”

And it is not just that these self-righteous Jews saw themselves as OK simply because of who they were, it was also because of certain rituals they observed – circumcision particularly.

Paul’s admonition is that a real “Jew” (in the sense of one rightly connected to God) is one who is so because of a heart obedience and trust in God. Such a person understands that the real game is not about outscoring most people in terms of identification and deeds, but rather one who understands that they cannot score points at all without divine help – assistance to be identified ultimately in this letter as coming from Christ’s righteousness.

In our midst of our congregations that include all those even on the fringes of church fellowship, we probably don’t have any who fit this categorization of self-righteous Jewishness. But I realize that we do have those who wrongly think they are really pretty much OK with God, believing this as they see themselves outscoring most folks in deeds and general beliefs. I would call these people “generic Christians” – believing in God and making it a part of life when nothing more interesting or pressing is in the way. Rather, our faith should be the first and most defining truth of everything else. Priorities flow from this foundation of faith in the understanding of one’s totally hopeless condition apart from Christ – both for eternal salvation and the daily walk with God in this temporal world.

So don’t be generic. The view might be great, but the foundation is perilous. Be specific. And may it be that the human “steeples” of our “ForOurCity” churches are witnesses to the work of God, and not merely some high spot upon which we look down at a lost world around us.

2:17 – Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Final Justice (Romans 2:1-16)

It grinds our souls inwardly when we hear of a terrible injustice that goes unresolved without a solution and the apprehension and punishment of the perpetrator. That is just so wrong!

I remember during the summer after my high school graduation that in my rather sedate small town environment there was a terrible murder. A woman was shopping at the local mall, driving a camper and getting groceries for a family vacation with her husband and three children. When she returned to her camper, there were reportedly two men inside. They drove it a short distance, beating the woman to death and dumping her body on the roadside … ultimately returning the camper to the mall parking lot.

Though several years later an individual was charged with the crime, the evidence was very scant and he was dismissed. To my knowledge now almost 45 years later, this case has never been solved. A reason it remains in my mind is that the woman’s body was discarded at the driveway entrance to the church where I would a decade later begin to serve for 11 years as a pastor.

So, did this murderer(s) get away with the crime? It looks like it. But if we know the larger truth about TRUTH and justice, we know that there will be a day of judgment. And that is the primary idea of our passage today – the certainty of God’s righteous judgment.

This section begins an argument that Paul is having with an imaginary disputer – one who might see himself in a rather positive light. This would be the perspective of the Jewish person in particular during the time of Paul’s writing. Indeed, the Gentile world was filled with horrid things related to idolatry and moral debauchery. The typical Jew at the time could rightly say that he was were very, very far from being as bad as so many people in the ancient world.

The problem of course is that no person possesses any sort of definitive moral high ground. As we’ll see later, this is because no one is perfect (righteous). But it is natural for a person who lives an above average life in terms of morality and human goodness to have some measure of a sense of moral security.

Let me seek to illustrate it this way: Say that you have a much nicer home in every way than your immediate neighbor. You have a mortgage balance of $25,000, whereas the neighbor owes over $400,000 and never makes his payments. Could you justly say to your lender, “My neighbor owes 16 times more than me on his house, so I don’t see any reason why I should be responsible for my smaller debt, and I’m not going to pay it!”  How would that work out?

Yet that is how many people see their standing before God. They know they aren’t entirely perfect, but they think (if they allow themselves to think about it at all) that they are probably OK with God since most people are far worse.

In the third paragraph of the passage today, the imaginary disputants felt good about themselves because they had the Law and sought as best they could to obey it. But Paul says it is more than just hearing the Law that makes a person righteous, it is obeying it fully (which no person could truthfully claim they did in every detail for all of life). And the Gentile, not having the Law, did have the residual element of being created in God’s image – a conscience. And this was therefore a law for them that condemned them for their lack of perfection.

So whether you have the Law of Moses as a guide for life, or have the human conscience, you will be judged in accordance with it. This is a certainty, and you will be found guilty. This is grim, but there is better news ahead; but not until Paul knocks down a few more straw men in the upcoming paragraphs.

And as we in the participating #ForOurCity churches revel in the grace of the gospel salvation we possess, this lost condition we read about today is the current condition of the spiritually lost in our community. Should this not goad us into action?  How might we best do this together?

2:1 – You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”  7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.