Why Be Wretched?

January 11, 2018

wretched

First, let’s set the context—without it the story is difficult to discern. The Roman church of the apostle Paul’s day had some complications. Jewish and non-Jewish Christians did not play well together. Outside forces factored in (Jew’s banishment from the city of Rome by Emperor Claudius around 49 A.D. for approximately five years), but inside factors were driving the tension. The Jewish church wanted the non-Jewish church to honor and keep the Law (as in the Torah, Law of Moses). For them it still held substantial meaning even as they followed Christ. It was their heritage and embedded securely within their identity. No way they could worship God without it being somehow a part of the process. Circumcision, the Jewish calendar, dietary practices, etc. were simply too deeply ingrained to abandon. Paul understood. He was Jewish. It was not an issue as long as Christ was honored and followed above it all. One small item however—the non-Jews were exempt. The Law and those cherished practices were basically meaningless to them. They did not come to Christ through it. It did not enhance their relationship to Christ. In fact it actually got in the way. They were not expected to honor it. But this irritated many Jewish Christians. They wanted church done their way and so the struggle of which Paul’s divine correspondence addresses. Numerous lessons for us to learn in this letter, but for now let’s consider Romans 7-8.

The Law’s Failure

Or more precisely stated—our human failure. In this text Paul expertly affirms the purpose, strength and significance of the Law while at the same time detailing its weakness.

The Law itself was good—God’s covenant to us for generations. It was his marriage contract, but it expired. A death—Christ’s—annulled it and his resurrection ushered in a new contract/covenant, one vastly superior. The Law’s failure was that it could not release us from condemnation. It only served to remind us of our weaknesses. The Law was not at fault for this—we were. Sin used the Law to exploit our weaknesses and remind us of how truly wretched we are. Just like Paul, it left us conflicted and guilty—never able to extract ourselves from the consequences of sin regardless of how diligently we tried. So while we may want to be right, we end up wrong—evil always right there with us as Paul described it. That is not a good position in which to remain and just a quick glimpse at the Jew’s historical relationship with God demonstrates it. So, why desire that status quo? Why force that on other unsuspecting folks? Why be wretched when there is another option?

That option, of course, is Christ. In him there is absolutely no condemnation. He did what we could not; what the Law could not—set us free from the life of sin and death. Through him and God’s Spirit our sinful nature can be defeated. No more living in constant conflict! Instead we develop the mind of the Spirit. He empowers us. Our obligations are met as we live as more than conquerors. That is the story of the text! Incredible!

But let’s be honest—are we actually living this story?

Still Clinging to the Superficial?

The message is clear. Christ has done the job for us. In him we are set free. Our sinful nature no longer has to hold us captive. Life in the Spirit is something altogether more and wonderful. So why do we continue to find ourselves stuck in the middle of the wretched disconnect of knowing what is right and actually doing right?

Could it be that we have never really moved beyond the superficial to fully embrace the Spirit-led life? Could it be that we continue the worn out practice of attempting to measure our faith by our own merit? In our hearts do we find some comfort in measuring our Christian performance by some standard other than the grace of God? Actually we are prewired to do this. It is not the Law or the same situation of our text, but it is the exact same tendencies. And as long as we go here—we lose. We will never be able to develop a deeper relationship with God or fully develop within us the Spirit-led life. And we will forever be failing even as we redouble our efforts to work harder to take up the slack. The story here is—it is not up to us to tackle our sin problem. We are unable to take up the slack. Christ has already done that. What is up to us—is to follow him.

Now this may come across as too fine a nuance, but it is actually much more than that. Following him does not become about what we do, but who we are. The Spirit resides within totally remaking us from the inside out. It is not about a law, it is about a life—a discipled life fueled by faith. God’s nature becomes our nature instead of our sinful nature. His will becomes our natural default, not merely a set of facts to remember. Our relationship with him empowered by and through his Spirit supersedes all else. The Spirit enables us to realize a deeper level of commitment—not based upon performance, but upon what Christ has delivered: no condemnation; sonship; adoption; the inheritance of the Father. This reconstructs our very makeup. We begin to yearn—not for things of this world—but for what is to come in Christ. Apart from Christ we cannot even begin to define our life. It makes no sense without him. We cannot even fathom being separated from the Father.

Everything else—not our approach to Christ—becomes superficial. No more hesitation on selling completely out to him. If not, then it goes back to this—“O wretched man that I am”— that is, either always guilty and hopeless on one hand or self-righteous and sanctimonious on the other.

What does that accomplish? Nothing healthy. The Romans are evidence of that. Is this who we really want to be? Why stay here when there is amazingly more to experience in Christ?

Wretchedness?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

Advertisements

The Kingdom Response

December 4, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #11

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Revolutions typically bring about the unexpected. Think about this definition of revolution: “a sudden, complete or marked change in something.” Being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” definitely fits into this definition. Jesus certainly lived it out. His resurrection literally changed everything and following him—as his disciple while living out his revolutionary teaching will make us over completely his image. This then empowers us to go out to “test and approve” the will of God in our lives—demonstrating the sudden, complete and marked change the kingdom has made within us.

And one way to very noticeably demonstrate this transformation is in how we react and respond to circumstances around us—particularly when those circumstances are not so favorable.

Good and Evil

Since the fall in the garden the story of mankind has played out amid the tension between good and evil. We conform to the “pattern of the world” when evil triumphs over good in our lives. Everyday we deal with some type of temptation. We all know the struggle—a struggle we would surely lose if not for Christ. The revolution he started overcame the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:58). Christ in us is greater than he “who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Having thus been made over and empowered by his grace and through his presence, we are to continue to carry out the revolutionary tactics of not repaying “anyone evil for evil,” but overcoming evil with good. This is the divine guidance of Paul, which frames our text of study in Romans 12:17-21.

There are several layers to unpack connected to this teaching and it all has to do with our kingdom witness to the world. They, indeed, are watching. They are interested to see if our actions match our teachings—especially when we face evil hostility. How will we react? What will be our response?

I believe this set of teaching to be very critical to our living out the kingdom revolution. Like in the Corinthian lawsuit situation—our natural inclination is not to turn the other cheek, but to retaliate in kind and hurt those who seek to harm us. Yet, this is not part of the revolution of Christ. When we conform to the pattern of the world in this manner it completely undermines our ability to be revolutionaries—to bring about that marked and complete change in Christ. Returning evil for evil only perpetuates evil and changes nothing. It entrenches the damage evil does and passes it along. In Christ there is a revolutionary alternative.

The Kingdom Response

As Paul details it in this text:

  • Stop the vicious circle of evil by overcoming it with good. Don’t allow evil’s influence to warp our perspective and guide our thinking. Actually internalize the values of the kingdom to the point that they become our nature—our first response. So that when evil happens we can naturally respond with the grace and goodness of God. It takes that eternal outlook guiding us to not get lost in the momentary situation, but it is what fuels the revolution. It is Jesus stopping evil by overcoming it on the cross. It is us speaking blessings back to those who curse us. It is not responding like the world responds.
  • Doing what is right in the eyes of everyone. This speaks to our kingdom witness; to actually living out what we proclaim; to being that revolutionary in front of all. Hypocrisy undermines any attempt at revolutionizing a culture for Christ.
  • Not seeking revenge. All of these are tied together in this text. Doing right means a different response to evil. We do not strike back; we do not seek vengeance; we simply do not respond in any violent or threatening way. We leave all of that up to God who ultimately will bring justice to all. Instead we do the unexpected—the revolutionary.
  • Bless our enemies. Once more we see the influence of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Paul’s teaching. He also quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 to fortify his point. Instead of seeking to destroy our enemies, we offer them food and drink—revolutionary indeed! Again, nowhere else outside of the kingdom of God will this idea be found. Why? Because it is how evil is overcome by good; how the kingdom of God can make over the destructive world; and how we can demonstrate the response of God’s kingdom to evil to bring about positive change. The imagery from the Proverb demonstrates it vividly. The kingdom response to evil can generate a response of its own—an uncomfortable and perhaps even painful response like coals burning on our head—which then can give our enemies pause. It is a kingdom statement that can radically reverse the natural order of things even to the point of changing an enemy into a friend—and into a friend of Christ.

Contextually it is not difficult to see why Paul taught this to the Romans. Due to their infighting and judgmental attitudes toward one another, they were not consistently responding the kingdom way. It was time for them to do so—just as it is for us.

 

It is Not Okay

 

It is never right to return evil for evil. Period. No amount of justification can make it so. It is always the kingdom way to do what is right in all circumstances—overcoming evil with good. It is not impossible to do. It flows out of the transformation—the complete and marked change Christ creates within us. It can happen through his power and strength radically making us over as kingdom revolutionaries. Once made over we can discern the good and pleasing will of God in all situations—even the challenging ones—and put into practice his revolutionary teachings. Such is our calling as kingdom revolutionaries.


Revolutions Change Everything

November 14, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #9

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Throughout this series of lessons, the idea that revolutions change everything has been a consistent thread. Revolutions by nature transform—they makeover what came before. Think of the recent entertainment “makeover” trend. Whether it was personal physical makeovers or the transformation of an old house—the results are always dramatic. Never featured in these programs is the person who lost only five pounds or the house that simply got a fresh coat of paint. That would attract no viewers. Instead the makeovers are revolutionary; the changes dramatic; leaving us astonished by the outcome.

Bring that idea into our next text of this study in Romans 12. Contextually Paul has finished his remarkable historically and theologically based presentation on God’s eternal will for the church to consist of both Jew and non-Jew. The first eleven chapters of Romans expounds upon his “there is neither Jew nor Greek” statement in Ephesians and expertly demonstrates the biblical case for it. It could only happen through Jesus—not the law. None are perfect. All (both Jew and Greek) deserve death (the “wages of sin”) but through Christ Jesus none (both Jew and Greek) are condemned. Having completed his thorough presentation of this, he turns to its application. What does this mean personally? What does it look like practically?

His answer? It kind of looks like a revolution!

Be Transformed!

One thing it is not, and that is to resemble is the way it was before—before Christ. Conforming to the old pattern—life without him—is not acceptable. Being completely transformed into new thinking, new goals, new behavior, and a totally new life is the result of “no condemnation” in Christ.

Everything changes. In the Roman context that started with how a Jew and Gentile thought of and treated each other in Christ. It also meant a great deal more which Paul details in chapters twelve through fifteen.

It can’t really be a revolution if only some things change. It cannot be a transformation if conforming to some patterns of the world linger. Like with the makeovers there must be a notable difference, such as, a Jew and Gentile eating together. This is the witness of the revolution in Christ—something astonishing, which can only find its reason in God.

This is what is so incredible about the Sermon on the Mount. The content of that message had not been heard before in that way. Little wonder those who heard Christ firsthand were astonished at his teaching (Matthew 7:28). In it he reset how we view the values of heaven. In it he announces the revolution that transforms everything!

Roman Echoes

There is little doubt and no mistake that Paul had this sermon on his mind in this section of Romans. Read particularly Romans 12:9-21 and echoes of Christ’s sermon abound. Paul understood this is the way of the transformation. This is what it looked like lived out—just as Jesus first proclaimed.

Not conforming, but transforming through a continuing devotion to renewal in Christ leads naturally and logically to embrace the way of Christ. It leads to the Sermon. It leads to a makeover. It leads to substantial, sweeping changes in all facets of life.

Not surprisingly it first leads to unblinking, honest self-evaluation. Before he ever recalls Christ’s teaching, Paul first urges an inward focus:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in according with the measure of faith God has given you. (vs. 3)

Considering the racist tension in the Roman churches this was solid advice. Jews were not superior to non-Jews. Neither were Gentiles better than the Jewish Christians. All were sinners in need of Christ. So, for them, the revolution had to begin with an honest assessment of how they thought of themselves and their place in the kingdom, which, as Paul stated, was based not on heritage or ethnicity, but on the gifts of God.

Another way to understand this is—how can everything change for me; how can this transformation take place within me; how can the revolution be personally embodied if I think I do not need it? That it is just for the other guy? No way I can move forward fulfilling God’s kingdom plans for me if this is how I think.

True transformation demands that I give up those old notions that tend to entrench stubborn but damaging behaviors in order to accept the newness of the kingdom, which then enables me not only to see myself differently, but others also. The kingdom revolution creates therefore a place where there is neither Jew nor Greek, which Paul describes as “one body with many members,” working together through a variety of giftedness, “so in Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Each belonging to all the others!? If that was not revolutionary teaching in the context of the Roman churches, nothing possibly could be!

But it all starts with that personal makeover—a revolutionary transformation that leads me to rethink everything the kingdom way and accordingly reframing relationships, community, and behavior. How I approach all of that simply no longer reflects my pre-revolutionary life. Everything changes.

It is in this astonishing makeover that we can make bold statements about the kingdom of God.