Sunday, July 20, 2014
The Spirit and the Law
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing to people he’s never met, rebuking them for not living up to their calling as Christians. Not an easy thing to do, I’m sure we’d all agree! And not a thing that any of us would want to find ourselves in need of, or would be grateful for if someone were to decide to do it for us. But if we’re honest, we might be willing to admit that there just might be aspects of our own lives that could be improved if someone were to rebuke us for them. And, more importantly, if we were to take the rebuke to heart. And I’d suggest that perhaps the best use we can make of the reading from Romans that we heard this morning is to let ourselves be the one rebuked, and let God show us what aspect of our lives needs the rebuke, and the improvement that could follow if we take it to heart.
Paul doesn’t begin by saying he’s concerned about the state of their Christian lives, of course. First he butters them up a bit: 1.8, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. Then he tells them how much he wants to meet them; 1.9f, without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. Then he hints that he has something important to say to them, 1.11, I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you. Then he starts to talk about his faith, and as he does, he starts bringing up the issue he is so concerned about, which is the kind of division between Jew and Gentile that led to each side thinking they were better than the other. The Jews thought they were better than the Gentiles because they were God’s chosen people (2.17–20), the Gentiles thought they were better than the Jews because the kingdom had been taken away from the Jews and given to them (11.17–20), as Christ had said would happen. This had led to feelings of self-righteousness on both sides, which Paul was afraid would not only been tear the Roman Church apart, but also threaten the spiritual health, and even the salvation, of those buying into the division (2.1–11). His letter is an appeal for unity, set in the context of his account of the gospel and his story of how the gospel has changed his own life. Again and again through the first eleven chapters he points out that those on both sides of the division are sinners, that both sides need salvation in Christ, and that Christ’s death is an offer of salvation to both sides.
He talks about his own sin, his own need of salvation, in the famous passage where he says nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do, and then cries in passion, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? The answer, of course, for himself, his Jewish hearers (the letter would have been read out loud) and his Gentile hearers, being through Jesus Christ our Lord! In Romans 8, the chapter we started reading last week, continued this morning, and will read more of next week, is the conclusion to his account of the gospel, and how it saved them all. They were all once condemned by the law, by the Old Testament moral code, for being unable to keep it, but then were saved by Christ, so their condemnation was removed. Chapter 8 begins with words treasured by so many Christians over the centuries who have found the same release from sin and its consequences, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. But this chapter is not only the conclusion to his own story, it is also the transition to that spiritual gift to strengthen you he had mentioned: he begins here to stress that they are not only forgiven for their sins, but through the Spirit of Christ they are able to live differently. The basic point of chapter 8 is that those who have been freed from the law in the flesh go on to embrace it in the spirit.
Look at the passage printed in our leaflet today, Romans 8:12–25. It makes this basic point about being freed from the law in the flesh while embracing it in the spirit this way: we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Let’s think about this verse a minute. First, we are debtors. To see clearly what he means here look back to the opening verses of the chapter, esp v 3, God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. There is now no condemnation, but not because of anything we have done, only because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. We owe our freedom to God, we are debtors to God. We are debtors, not to the flesh, not to anything we could achieve by human thinking or acting, but to God’s Spirit: if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. He is working out the point he has been making ever since he first pointed out that the law brings death. The fact that it does bring death does not mean it has nothing to teach us. On the contrary, the law still shows the difference between the life of sin and the life of holiness. Living by God’s commandments is still what God longs for from His children. Paul has been making this point throughout the letter in a series of questions, to each of which he gives the same emphatic answer: 3.31, Do we then throw out the law because of this faith? By no means—No way, is how we would put it today. On the contrary, he goes on, we uphold the law. 6.1f, Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? No way! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 6.15, Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? No way! 7.7, Does this mean the law is sin? No way! 7.12f, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? No way! It was sin, working death in me through what is in fact good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin. The law brings death when we try to earn God’s favour by keeping it, but once we have been delivered from death by the death of Jesus in our place, we turn to the law in the Spirit, and find that it describes the new life we receive in Christ. If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. By ‘body’ here he means that body of death from which he cried out for deliverance, the experience of sin that is the only thing known by those who think they can earn salvation by being good. We put to death the deeds that make that body the body of death, by repudiating sin and embracing the way of life revealed as holy in the Old Testament law. Hoping to be saved by keeping that code is death, embracing that code out of love for the God Who rescued us from it in His Son Jesus is life, life in the Spirit.
Now let me say before I go any further that it is the moral code, not the legal or ceremonial code of the Old Testament that Romans is referring to here. People are constantly getting these things mixed up. Whenever I preach on the Ten Commandments, people always say to me, what about stoning people for adultery, or not wearing anything made of two different fabrics, do you say we should keep those commandments as well? Well, fortunately it’s not about what I say, but about what Scripture says, and if you read Acts 15 and the epistle to the Hebrews you see quite clearly that the legal and ceremonial commandments like those two are set aside now that Christ has come, and Romans makes clear that the moral commandments are no longer a burden to be borne by fleshly obedience but the holy way of life which God’s Spirit will bring about in us if we let the Spirit into our hearts. By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, and live. To be the children of God is to be led by the Spirit of God, the spirit of holiness. He had prepared us for this right at the beginning of the letter, when he first started to talk about the Christian faith: 1.17, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Faith leads to right living. Saved by faith, not by good works, but saved for good works, as he put it in another epistle, saved for a life of holiness according to God’s word. To be conformed to the image of his Son, to become like Jesus, as we’ll hear next week when we finish our reading from this chapter. The Spirit sets us free to live by the moral commandments because our failure to keep them no longer makes them the enemy.
For the Christian community in Rome, this meant giving up their reliance on their Jewish or Gentile identity, and that’s the point he argues in chapters 9 and 10. 9.8, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. 9.30f, Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 10.12, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.
But I don’t need to say more about that; thanks be to God that problem is with us no longer, at least I’m not aware that there is any Christian community, or any individual Christian, who wants to lift up Jew as more favoured than Gentile, or Gentile as more favoured than Jew. But I’m pretty sure that there are other areas of our lives, both our life as a church and our lives as individual Christians, where the principle set out in the gospel proclaimed in this epistle has something to teach us. Some of us, and ‘us’ includes me, are very glad to leave behind what we have been saved from, but are less eager to embrace what we have been saved for. In chapter twelve he describes what life in the spirit looks like, and calls them, and us, to embrace it, and it’s full of things that make me, at least, realise how far I still have to go: v 3, let every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; v 8, contribute in liberality, give aid with zeal, be merciful with cheerfulness (not ‘I’ll overlook it this time’), v 10, outdo one another in showing honor; v 12, be patient in tribulation; v 14, Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them; v 16, associate with the lowly; v 17, Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble; v 20, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; all summed up in v 21, overcome evil with good. I’d much rather repay evil with evil, but the Spirit says overcome it with good.
Jesus did not only die for the forgiveness of our sins, He died so that we could be what Paul calls a new creation—Paul shied away from Jesus’s phrase ‘born again’ as though he were an Episcopalian, but he knew that Jesus meant what He said about it, and in the epistle to the Romans he not only shows us how our sins are forgiven, but points us to a different way of living, to new life in the Spirit of the Christ who gave His life for us. By the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body, and live. When we pray in a few minutes ‘so uphold us by your Spirit that we may live and serve you in newness of life’, Paul calls us to pray it from the heart, and to remember his description of what newness of life looks like. As we embrace the summons to it, so the Spirit will help us live up to it.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Romans 8: 26-39
One of the things that makes Paul’s letter to the Romans so challenging is the fact that as he writes Paul is constantly mentioning deep spiritual issues almost in passing; he spends a sentence or two on them then gets back to whatever he was talking about before. Because they concern deep spiritual issues, and we would like to know more about them than is contained in the brief reference. We saw an example of that in last week’s reading, where Paul is talking about the rôle of the Holy Spirit in helping us live the Christian life, and makes a passing remark about the whole creation waiting for mankind to embrace that life. We would love to know more about the relationship between mankind and the rest of creation in terms of our ultimate destiny, but the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, brings him back to the subject of the Christian life too soon for us to have our curiosity about creation satisfied. Sometimes we don’t want to be led back to the original subject, and we’re tempted to take these remarks out of the context in which Paul makes them and begin to speculate on them, and before you know it we’re disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers, as Paul said to Timothy on another occasion.
You can see another example in the passage we read today. After his brief reference to creation earlier in the chapter, Paul has returned to the theme of how we are to be led by the Spirit of God to meet the just requirement of the law, and makes the point that the Spirit helps us pray. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to His purpose. The spirit interceding for us is God working for good with us who love Him, God supporting us and encouraging us, sometimes giving us what we prayed for, sometimes not, but always giving us what is in accordance with God’s will. He does that because we are called according to His purpose. When we pray, the goal is to align our purposes with God’s (not His with ours, which is what we are too often doing when we pray), to seek His purpose in our lives. But as Paul goes on, he uses some words about the way we fulfil God’s purpose that have caused all sorts of kerfuffle among Christians, these words in v 29f about predestination: For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
So, I have to say a couple of things this morning. The first thing to say is ‘don’t be distracted’. What Paul is talking about in this passage is what he has been talking about on and off throughout the letter, and will talk about almost continuously from chapter twelve onwards, which is holy living, living by God’s commandments rather than by our own desires. That’s what he means by the phrase conformed to the image of his Son; we who believe in Jesus are to be like Jesus, to imitate Him in our lives as well as put our faith in Him. His words about predestination simply say that living like Jesus, conforming our selves to His image, is our destiny. Don’t be distracted; even in these words about predestination, Paul is calling us to embrace the holiness to which the Spirit is leading us.
But I also need to say something about what he means by the word ‘predestined’, because me saying ‘don’t be distracted from the point of the passage’ doesn’t stop it distracting us, and my experience is that if we don’t address distractions they continue to distract. I approach the subject with fear and trembling, for a couple of reasons. First, there is a royal proclamation from James I, after whom the King James Bible is named, in his rôle as supreme governor of the Church of England, forbidding clergy under the rank of dean to preach on this subject. And while that was in 1622, as far as I know none of his successors in the office has ever rescinded this order, and since I’m a subject of the present supreme governor, I’m not entirely sure that I won’t be thrown in the tower when I go back to England later this year! Secondly, and even more importantly, when I look at this and the other passages on the subject in the New Testament I can’t quite see that they mean what so many people say they mean, and that means I’m questioning at least to some extent the judgement of some of the greatest teachers in Christian history, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. So there are two different opportunities here for a fool to rush in where angels fear to tread; I can only hope you enjoy watching it!
There are two elements to the controversy over predestination. There’s what the Bible actually says, and there’s what readers of the Bible, some of them very influential teachers like those I just named, have deduced from what the Bible says. I think it’s essential to distinguish these, because the Bible is the word of God, but what humans, even the smartest humans, deduce from it is not. Even if what they deduce is true, it’s still not the word of God. What the Bible teaches is essential for our salvation, what we deduce from the Bible is not. So in thinking about these verses we want to confine ourselves to what the Bible says, not what Augustine or Calvin says. When we really can’t understand what it is saying, we turn to teachers wiser than ourselves, but we don’t go to them before we go to Scripture.
Let’s begin by looking at the general witness of Scripture on this subject. We can note that throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New alike, God is sovereign—not only in the sense of having authority, so that what He says should be done, but also of having power, so that what He says should be done will be done. No human being, no created force, can resist God’s will. I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted, Job admits to God in chapter 42 of the Old Testament book that bears his name. There is a huge number of texts to this effect, and I don’t think anyone argues that there isn’t, so I don’t need to press the point, only to say that these are general statements about the relationship of God to creation. Specific statements suggesting that God determines in advance the behavior of specific individuals are much rarer—the word ‘predestine’ is not a common one in Scripture. In fact I can only find four passages that could be put in this category. The first is in Acts 4, where the first Christians state very clearly, as they pray, their belief that Christ’s crucifixion was predestined: Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. Everyone involved in Christ’s crucifixion was playing a part in an event planned and decided before they were even born. Peter’s first letter, 1.20, confirms that this was true of Christ as well as those who crucified Him, saying He was destined before the foundation of the world, but without specifying the crucifixion as His destiny.
This leaves three that refer to Christ’s followers, to us; the passage we read this morning in Romans 8, another passage by Paul, in Ephesians 1, and two verses in the book of Revelation that describe believers as those whose names have… been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life. The book of life appears to be a bit of symbolism such as is typical of the book of Revelation, and that symbolism is notoriously hard to pin down, so we really have only the two passages to consider, Romans and Ephesians.
And when I look at these passages I can’t quite see that they mean what some people say they mean. I looked up ‘predestination’ in several theological works when I started work on this sermon, and they all say in cold print what many assume, that in both Romans and Ephesians what Paul is talking about is ‘predestination to salvation’, or ‘predestination to eternal life’. But let me remind you of the distinction that Paul makes between the act by which we are saved, putting our faith, our trust, in Jesus, and the response we make to His acceptance of us, which is embracing the life to which God calls His people. If you were here last week you’ll remember how we looked at Romans as a whole and saw that distinction made pretty clearly—it’s essential to his whole argument about the rôle of the Old Testament law. And in both Paul’s passages that talk about predestination, you’ll see that they too are speaking about the holy life to which we are called once we put our faith in Jesus. In Romans, he says we are predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, to live a holy life, following the example of Jesus. In Ephesians 1.4ff, we’re told that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him. Again, the holy life is the point of what he says. If Paul’s words about predestination distract us, it’s only because of the way they have been applied to subjects other than the one Paul is thinking of when he uses them. We saw last week how once we have put our faith in Christ the moral commandments are no longer a burden to be borne by fleshly obedience but the holy way of life which God’s Spirit will bring about in us if we let the Spirit into our hearts. By the Spirit we are to put to death the deeds of the body, and live. This is one of the purposes of God Paul was referring to when he said all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. One of God’s purposes for us is a better life, a Christ-like life, and the Spirit is telling us through Paul that God wants this for you, for me, personally, and that He wants it so much that unless we turn our backs on Him for ever He is going to draw us to the holy life in the end. Those whose faith is in Christ are destined for holiness. If you are a believer, you are a man of destiny, a woman of destiny.
I don’t know why it is that the prefix ‘pre-’ spooks people. Talking about ‘destiny’ doesn’t seem to punch any of the buttons that talking about ‘predestination’ does. Yet adding the ‘pre-’ doesn’t add anything except a syllable to the word. It doesn’t change the meaning at all. It’s like that awful word you hear people use occasionally, ‘pre-warn’. Irritating and unnecessary, yes, but offensive only to the easily offended. All the Bible is saying—all!—is that a life of obedience to God’s word is the destiny of every Christian. There’s no escaping it, because God loves us, wants the best for us, and just won’t leave us where we are when where we are is in a mess. And the fact is that none of us is going to turn our backs on God, even when we are faced with giving up behavior we love. We might drag our feet, we might pretend our favorite sin is not even sin, but in the end, God is going to bring us to holiness because He has called us by name, and we have answered His call, and we are His. Resistance is useless. Job was exactly right, no purpose of God’s can be thwarted.
Please note that I am not denying the idea that Christians are those pre-destined to salvation; I only say that this is not what Paul is saying in these two passages.
Note also that none of this takes away our freedom; the Bible teaches that man must choose God just as clearly as it teaches that God must choose man. Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Paul’s words about destiny simply point us to what we are letting ourselves in for when we choose to serve Christ rather than the world. It includes becoming like Him, being conformed to His image. Once we have faith, that is our destiny, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Holiness is what mankind was created for; the way of faith leads nowhere else. Let’s embrace the destiny to which it calls us.