Saturday, November 23, 2019

Whom do you serve? – Romans 6:15-23

There are many distinguishing differences between the outlook that Christianity presses upon us and the outlook that our culture presses upon us, but one of the big ones is how each perspective looks at death, and how that informs the decisions we make before we die.  Thus, the perspective of the secularist is that we should grab as much security and comfort and fun in this world as we can, because this is the only thing of which we can be sure.  They argue that it is silly to spend our lives preparing for some unknown future which may or may not transpire.  Furthermore, the veil that scientism has placed over the eyes of many keeps a lot of people from even considering anything that a scientist cannot measure.  And that means that for a larger and larger group of people, it is a waste of time to consider the eternal and the things of God.  Whereas there used to be a presumption in favor of Biblical truth, now there is a presumption against it.  And so many of our friends are oblivious to the realities of heaven and hell.

How can we argue for the urgency of the eternal?  There are several ways we can do this.  One way is to argue for the Biblical position using philosophical arguments.  There is a place for that.  And I think it is an important place, given the presumption in favor of the naturalistic perspective of our age.  But I would also offer two other considerations to our generation.

The first is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  This is not something that occurred in secret, or merely in the minds of his followers, but something that occurred in the context of our space-time universe in first century Palestine.  It is not from any historical considerations that people deny the resurrection, but purely from prejudice and philosophical presuppositions.  I have argued, and many others have argued, that the best explanation for the evidence that we have is that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead.  It is the best explanation for the empty tomb, for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and for the emergence of the church in the very place where Jesus ministered and lived and died.  And if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, and then ascended to heaven, and then went, in his words, to prepare a place in heaven for his disciples, then we have very good reasons to believe not only in the age to come, but also that the only way to enjoy eternal life in the age to come is through Jesus Christ.

The other way to argue for the urgency of the age to come is for those of us who are Christian to live that way, to live in light of the reality of heaven and hell, in light of the joys of eternal life in God’s presence and the terrors of the eternal death away from the presence of God in hell.  If those who are not Christian look at those of us who are Christian and see that we live no differently from them, then we have given the lie to our profession of faith.  If we are living as if the present is the most important, then was kind of message is that going to give to our neighbors?  There is only one thing it can possibly say, namely, that our profession of faith is phony.  The only way our philosophy is going to make any difference in the lives of others is when it has first made a difference in our own lives first.  

And I think one way for us to get there is to pay attention to the words of our text.  The overall emphasis of the apostle’s message here is that we need to pay attention to the wages that sin and righteousness pay to those who serve sin or righteousness.  The whole passage is bookended with this point.  In verse 16 we are asked to consider what sin and obedience lead to.  Sin leads to death and obedience to righteousness.  We should not think that death here just means the termination of our physical existence, but also to what follows our physical death.  One of the reasons we know this is that in verse 23, Paul contrasts death with eternal life.  Death here is death in its ultimate expression; namely, the death of body and soul in hell (cf. Matt. 10:28).  In the same way, “righteousness” in verse 16 is not just a reference to right living in the here and now, but to the hope that righteousness brings with it – the life in the age to come (Gal. 5:5).  

And then in verse 21-23, Paul comes back to this.  “The end of those things [the fruit of shameful living] is death” (21).  On the other hand, the fruit of obedience to God “leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (22).  The conclusion: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23).

In other words, we should consider our lives from the perspective of eternity, and that should affect the way we look at things, and the way we make decisions and the way we prioritize our lives.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t take other things into consideration.  The Bible doesn’t look well on those who give up living life in this world in order to become religious hobos (2 Thess. 3:6-12).  But it does mean that we live the kind of life that says to everyone around us that eternity in the presence of God is the primary and overarching consideration.

And it will affect the way we look at things.  We will see things differently from those who don’t adopt the perspective of the gospel.  Notice what Paul says in verse 21: “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?  For the end of those things is death.”  They are “now ashamed.”  That means they were once not ashamed of those things.  In other words, when they were unconverted to Christ, they never gave a second thought to the way they lived.  But then Christ invaded their life and their outlook changed, and now they are ashamed of those things.  Why?  What changed their minds?  Paul indicates what it was that changed their perspective: “For the end of those things is death.”  Whereas they probably once thought they way they lived was living life to its fullest, now they saw those patterns of behavior as draped with death, not necessarily physical death, but spiritual separation from God in this life leading to eternal separation from God in the age to come.

Knowing that the wages of sin is death means that we don’t judge sin’s value from the limited viewpoint of this present existence.  We don’t do something just because it feels good or avoid it because it leads to consequences that are bad for us in the here and now.  In fact, doing something that is forbidden in God’s word may feel really good at first.  We might even describe it as feeling alive, or as living life to its fullest, or becoming what we were always meant to be.  But ultimately, we flee from sin not because of what it does or does not do in the present, but because of what it leads to – namely death.  Sin leads to an irreversible end, a terrifyingly irreversible end.  Everything we might gain in this world by living in opposition to God’s word will never make up for the judgment that is to come.  Our Lord himself said that it is better to lose your life in this world in order to gain the next rather than gain this world and lose the next.  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36).  

But for us it’s not just a matter of trying to avoid a very terrible end.  It’s also a matter of seeking what is ultimately good for us – eternally so.  The Christian is not drawn on merely by fear.  The greatest motivator for the believer is the love of God and the joy that is set before us in Christ.  For eternal life is not just interminable, endless existence.  It is “the free gift of God . . . in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23).  God does not give bad gifts.  He does not give gifts that we end up regretting.  For God does not just give us something – he gives us himself.  It is the free gift of God in the sense not only that God is the giver but also that he is the gift.  And since it is given to us in Christ Jesus, we know that this gift is for our eternal and never-ending joy.  In fact, our Lord himself described it in terms of glory – “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and love them even as you loved me.  Father, I desire that they also, whom you have give me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:22-24).

Now how does this tie back into the argument that the apostle is making in this epistle at this point?  He asks a question in verse 15 that is basically a restatement of the question in verse 1: “What then?  Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?  By no means!”  It’s the same question but restated in different terms.  His answer is again the same, but this time instead of making the theological point of union with Christ and its implications, he draws from the analogy of slavery.  Though he recognizes that the analogy falls short (“I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations,” ver. 19), he also clearly believes that this analogy communicates something clearly that he wants to get across.  What is it?

He is speaking to the reality that everyone serves someone or something.  Slavery is inevitable.  You are either going to serve sin or you are going to serve Christ.  There is no third option.  We are not neutral.  Now that doesn’t mean that those who are enslaved to sin are as bad as they can get.  In fact, you can be a very moral person in this state.  You can be a social conservative.  You can be a theological conservative (the devil is, after all).  The difference between someone who serves Christ and someone who doesn’t is that if you serve Christ you are not living for yourself but for his glory and his fellowship.  You are not standing under your own authority but under the authority of Christ.

A Christian is someone who serves Christ.  This was the apostle’s favorite designation of himself (Rom. 1:1; Acts 27:28).  Again, it is not a complete picture, because the service of Christ involves no compulsion of will.  Serving our Lord is more a matter of delight than it is one of duty (1 Jn. 5:3).  Furthermore, it involves no bondage of any kind (Rom. 8:15-17; Matt. 11:28-30).  Every slave of Christ is also a son or daughter of God, with an eternal inheritance.  We are richer than Croesus ever thought of being.  

But Paul still uses this term to describe the relationship of the believer to God.  For our lives are circumscribed by God’s will, not our own (2 Cor. 5:15).  God is the rightful possessor of our souls.  

What does it mean to serve Christ?  We need to be careful here.  It does not imply any insufficiency on the part of God (cf. Acts 17:25).  God is not a master who gets slaves because he can’t do the work himself.  We are allowed to serve him for our sakes, for our glory and joy.  Rather, it means to live in such a way that Christ stands as the ultimate authority in our lives.  He calls the shots, not you.  We live for his honor, not our own.

Now what the apostle is arguing is that the Christian cannot go on living in sin because you cannot separate slavery to sin from the wages which sin pays.  If you serve sin, then you will reap its wages, which is death.  On the other hand, those whose life are characterized by obedience will inherit eternal life.  

Of course, I think it is important to notice the distinction that Paul makes here.  Whereas he denotes death as the wages due to sin, he does not talk about eternal life that way.  Rather, eternal life is a gift.  We can never merit eternal life.  It comes to us by grace and grace alone.  

But the point is that obedience leads inevitably to the hope of righteousness and sin leads inevitably to death.  So it is wrong-headed to argue that because we are under grace and not under law that we no longer need to worry about the sin in our lives.  Grace does not give us an excuse for sin.  Grace does not mean that we can live any way we want to.  Grace doesn’t because what grace does is to put us in the service of Christ.  Grace creates in us a clean heart, one which willingly submits to the Lordship of Jesus over our lives.  Paul does not reason from grace to libertinism.  He does not say that because we are saved by grace, therefore a person can sin with impunity.  He doesn’t argue that a person can be saved by grace and then go on living in sin.  He argues exactly the opposite.

At the same time, neither does he argue that we should serve Christ because of all the good it will do for us in the present moment.  He does not say, “Serve Jesus, because if you trust in him you will have good health, a happy marriage, obedient and successful children, and a full bank account.”  There is no health, wealth, and prosperity doctrine here.  Rather, he argues that we should keep our eyes on the prize set before us.  But what a prize it is!

This being the case, we ought to desire the service of Christ above all things.  How do we do that?  For the reality is that, as much as we might know that it is right to delight and desire the service of Christ above all things, even as believers, we wrestle against the desires of the flesh which go in the opposite direction.  So how do we get there?  I think the text suggests the following three points.

Turn to God and trust in his grace

The first point is that the life of obedience to which we are called is a life of faith in the power of Christ.  It is not first of all a matter of will power, but a matter of trusting in the grace that God gives.  The reality is that we do not come to God on our own in the first place.  Paul makes this very clear, as we pointed out last time, when he thanks God, not the believers, for their conversion to Christ (17).  And then in verse 18, he describes their conversion to Christ in two phrases using passive verbs.  In other words, the actor in this verse is not the Christian but God: “and, having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.”  The believer does not set himself free from sin; God does this.  It is the work of the grace of God in the heart.

But we should not think that though the Christian life is begun by the grace of God that it is continued by the believer acting on his or her own.  It is begun and continued in the strength that Christ gives.  Why is it that Paul prays that the Ephesian readers should be strengthened by might by God’s Spirit in the inner man? (Eph. 3:16).  It is because we need the power of the Spirit to live out the life of service to Christ.  How do we not gratify the desires of the flesh? It is by walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).  We live by the Spirit and are called to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:26).

What does this look like practically?  I think practically it means that our lives are lived bathed in prayer.  If there is any way that faith becomes concrete, it does so through prayer.  Those who pray not indicate that they are relying upon someone other than God for their source of strength, wisdom, and guidance.  It is no coincidence that “serve the Lord” in Rom. 12:11 is followed by “be constant in prayer” in verse 12.

I know that I am repeating myself from last week, but I don’t think this can be emphasized enough.  To be totally honest, one of the things I struggle with the most in my life is remaining constant in prayer.  It is because I have the problem of thinking that I have things under control.  But the reality is that I don’t.  Too often I skimp on prayer because I don’t adequately grasp the depth of my need of Christ and his power and guidance in my life.  We probably all could use more of a prayerful perspective in life.

Obey God’s word

The second point is that, although it is true that we must first and foremost trust in the grace of God and can do nothing without it, that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything.  Note what Paul also says here in verse 17: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”  Although once again we see the evidence of God’s sovereign grace in the lives of the Roman Christians, for he is the one who committed them to the standard of teaching, yet the fact that it is a standard of teaching, to which they obeyed, indicates that God’s grace is not an excuse for passive Christianity.  God’s word does not come to us to be merely listened to.  His doctrines don’t confront us to be merely considered but to be acted upon.  And we are the ones who are to do the acting.  And we act appropriately when we obey his word.

Of course, this means that our lives not only reflect a priority for prayer, but also for the word of God in the Bible.  By the way, I love the picture that is suggested here in verse 17.  It suggests the supremacy of God’s word in their lives.  John Murray comments that “they were handed over to the gospel pattern.  This indicates that their devotion to the gospel was one of total commitment and that this commitment is not one of their option but is that to which they are subjected.”[1]  

Another distinction between Biblical Christianity and the spirit of our generation is the place of authority.  Under whose authority do you stand?  Our generation refuses to stand under any authority.  They want to be autonomous.  Any suggestion that we are to surrender to the authority of the Bible (or any other external authority) is taken to be war-cry against our own freedom, which is taken to be the highest virtue to be pursued.  They are right, of course, because it does mean the end of freedom from God’s authority (20).  However, they are wrong in thinking that personal autonomy means freedom in any true sense.  Freedom from God means slavery to sin.  It means slavery to fallen reason and slavery to fallen passions.  It means slavery to a course of life that will inevitably end in death.  But the slavery to God which of course means that we willingly stand under his word is a slavery that brings life in the fullest sense.  If you want to be truly free, you will submit to the truth of the word of Christ (Jn. 8:32).

Don’t loiter in the pursuit of holiness

The last point I want to make comes from something Paul says in verse 19: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.  For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”  The point here is that sin in the life doesn’t just run on idle.  If you are enslaved to the sins in your life, they are taking you somewhere.   And the place they are taking you is to more and more lawlessness and godlessness.  Sin hardens the heart.  It blinds the eyes.  It makes it harder and harder to go back.  It puts roadblocks in your life.  It creates consequences that you will end up having to live with no matter how much you change later on.

On the other hand, when you commit yourself to a life of righteousness, based on God’s will for you in his word, this will lead inevitably to a sanctified life.  Do you know what that means?  It doesn’t mean life in drab.  It doesn’t mean no more smiles.  It doesn’t mean you wear black and point your fingers at everyone who is different from you.  That’s what a lot of people think sanctification means.  Rather, it means a life that is consecrated to God, and which has God’s blessing upon it. 

Here is how Paul put it to Timothy: “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.  Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21).  I cannot think of a more noble or desirable description of the sanctified person than that.  Do you want a life that is honorable, one that is truly useful – even in the light of eternity?  Then pursue sanctification with all your might.

The encouraging thing here is that if we commit to this, we can expect growth in grace.  It will probably be slow, but don’t let that discourage you.  Keep keeping on, and you can expect God’s blessing upon your life.  For if you are set apart for God, then you can be sure that his blessings will be set apart for you.

So let us serve Christ.  Let us take Paul’s description of himself for our own.  Speaking of God, he said, “Whose I am and whom I serve.”  Who do you serve?  To whom do you belong?  My friend, Christ is the very best of masters.  And there is only one other: sin.  You will either serve Christ or your lust.  One leads to eternal life, the other to death.  May the Lord bring all of us in glad submission to his wonderful word.

[1] John Murray, Romans (NICNT), (Eerdmans, 1968), Vol 1, p. 232.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Romans 6:11-14 – How does a Christian fight sin?

In asking the question, “How does a Christian fight sin?” I am assuming that the question makes sense to you.  However, I don’t think there is any doubt that for a lot of people, this is not a relevant query.  I think one of the reasons behind this seeming irrelevance is that we are constantly told today that the main thing is not to kill sin but to be faithful to yourself, to live out your desires, and to do whatever you want.  Of course, there is the caveat, unless it harms someone else, but this is an exceedingly tenuous caveat, if it is one at all.  What does it mean to harm someone else?  Are we limited to refraining from physical harm, or can it extend to emotional and mental distress?  It is not always obvious.  And who gets to decide what constitutes mental or emotional distress and harm to someone else?  Moreover, there are outcomes where someone is going to feel compromised or harmed, no matter what decision is made.  In that case, who decides who or what is “right”?  The problem with the morality of our culture is that there are no real boundaries, and people are bound to get hurt, no matter how often or how loudly you proclaim, “unless it harms someone else.”  There are all sorts of problems with post-modern morality.  And it all points to the fact that the morality of our day is no real morality at all, and hence the strangeness of this question to many: “How can you fight sin?”

But as a Christian, this is a most reasonable question.  It is most reasonable because we know that we are created by a good and holy God.  This means that the worst thing that can happen to anyone is to be separated from God, who is the fountain of all good.  Giving into our own desires in everything – especially when they are opposed to God’s desires for us –  may feel good at first, but ultimately it is self-destructive.  On the other hand, living under the blessing of the God of the universe is ultimately life- and joy-giving.  But what is it that separates us from God?  It is sin, which is a refusal to live according to the standards of God’s law.  As Romans 1-5 has reminded us, everything that is bad in this world is the result of sin.  Why is there death?  Because of sin, because of Adam’s sin and because of our sin: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  Why is there hatred and enmity and murder?  Because no one seeks after God (Rom. 3:9-20).  Why are we separated from God and why do we therefore need to be reconciled to God?  Because of sin (Rom. 1:18; 5:10).  

This means that the most important question for us is how to deal with the sin that is in our lives and its consequences.  So the main question should not be how I actualize my own dreams and desires, but rather how I can be forgiven and received back into fellowship with God.  For if I am not in fellowship with God, then I am separated from him, at enmity with him, and justly exposed to his holy wrath.  And unless something changes, I will go into eternal punishment, destroyed in both body and soul (Mat. 10:28; 25:46).  I can actualize my own desires all day long, but what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? (Mk. 8:34-38).  So the right and logical question to ask is: how can a person be right with God?  The biblical answer to that question is that we are reinstated into the fellowship of God through Christ, and in union with him, so that through him and what he has accomplished as our redeemer, we can be justified and forgiven and adopted and sanctified and ultimately glorified.  We saw last time that the whole sin problem is dealt with through the work of Jesus Christ the Son of God on our behalf.

But this also means that we should not only just be concerned about the consequences of sin in terms of guilt and hell, but of sin itself and of the remnants of its indwelling presence.  As we noted last time, it is the purpose of God that the power of sin should be destroyed in your life.  How then could we be okay with something so hateful to God?  How could we live at cross-purposes with the redemption accomplished by Christ?  How could we be okay with something opposed to our joy and glory?  It is not just the guilt of sin over us that we should want to unburden ourselves of, but also of the grip of sin upon us.  What Paul says at the beginning of this chapter ought to resonate with everyone who is a Christian: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).  

So how should we fight sin?  This is the whole question of Christian sanctification.  As opposed to justification, which is a once-for-all event that happens at the very beginning of the Christian life, sanctification is something that progressively unfolds throughout our lives until the very end.  It is not until heaven when the saints are described as the “righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23).  So until we die, we will be fighting sin, which means that this is not a question we can avoid.

So how should we fight sin?  It’s important that we do this right, because if we don’t we are likely to fall and fall badly.  You are not opposed by a lightweight.  You are opposed by something which is described in terms of a king who has been dethroned and who is attempting to gain it back.  Waterloo didn’t happen when Napoleon was at the height of his power, but after he had been exiled the first time.  In the same way, indwelling sin is described as something which wants to “make you obey its passions” (12).  Though sin really has been dethroned, though the Christian is truly dead to sin, yet sin remains to wage guerilla warfare against the believer.  

Sadly there is a lot of advice out there on how to fight sin that is unbiblical and which will, in the long run, end up hurting rather than helping you.  So before we proceed with the strategies that that apostle lays out here in the text, let’s consider a number of these false options which are out there.

First of all, there is the approach of the antinomian or fatalist.  This is the approach of those who argue that any insistence upon the necessity of holiness for final salvation undermines the sovereignty of God’s grace.  Though they will admit that there is value to holiness in this life, they strenuously insist that good works have no bearing upon the age to come.  Of course they are right in that good works do not in any sense merit God’s favor.  However, since the Scriptures everywhere insist that good works are the necessary evidence of future salvation, we cannot separate holiness from eternal life.  

This is important in terms of fighting sin on a daily basis, because when I believe that I cannot go to heaven if I am not holy, it gives me a very important motivation for fighting sin, one that is completely lost in the antinomian scheme.  They will argue that this makes the battle for righteousness a legalistic thing, and causes people to be motivated by fear instead of love.  However, it is not legalistic as long as we recognize the crucial distinction between good works as evidence of salvation versus good works as the basis of our salvation.  Moreover, we can see that even the apostle was motivated in this way, as he puts it to the Philippians.  He tells them that he suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ, “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).  Do we have this same sense of urgency to gain the resurrection from the dead?

Second, there is the approach of the mystic.  This is the approach of those who decry the role of doctrine and thinking and doing in the fight for holiness.  They will argue that making this too intellectual undermines rather than further our sanctification.  Another way this is sometimes put is in the slogan, “Let go and let God.”  In other words, you need to stop doing and thinking and planning and just let God do it for you.

Now there is some value to what they are getting at.  This is because they value faith and reliance upon God, so far as they are talking about the God who is revealed in the Bible.  This is where they are right.  We cannot fight sin apart from faith.  We cannot gain the victory over remaining corruption apart from reliance upon God and his grace.  Nevertheless, ultimately theirs is a wrong view of faith because they tend to separate faith from its doctrinal contents.  As we will see, this is not how the apostle Paul, or indeed any of the apostles, exhort us to fight the sin that remains.  Though a bare intellectualism is dangerous and soul-killing, the Bible never encourages us to go over to the opposite extreme.  There is nothing intrinsically valuable in religious sentiment separated from Biblical truth.

Third, there is the approach of the ascetic.  The emphasis here is on our own will-power and what we can do for God.  Whereas the first approach involved a wrong view of God’s grace, and the second a wrong view of faith, this view involves a wrong view of our responsibility.  Though lip-service may be given to the grace of God, yet the burden falls upon our own will-power as the way to holiness.  In contrast to the mystic, the ascetic is all about rules and regulations.  This point of view is also sometimes coupled with a very negative view of the body, so that any physical satisfaction is viewed with suspicion. The apostle is almost certainly responding to this approach in Col. 2:20-23.  There, he writes, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirit of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and ascetism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of flesh.”  Note how Paul views the value of ascetism: it is of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”  

That’s not to say there is no place for self-control with respect to the physical appetites.  That is part and parcel of the pursuit of holiness.  The problem is in relying upon the ascetic lifestyle as the path to holiness.  The problem is that it doesn’t reach down to the main problem, which is the heart and its desires.  That is where is the battle is at (Rom. 6:12).  The problem is that you can whip your flesh all day and never touch the idols of the heart.  

So that brings us back to the main question: How does you fight sin?  In the text before us , we see that there are three truths that we need to heed and put into practice if we are going to successfully put sin to death in us.

You must be a Christian

Verse 11 is the first exhortation in the book of Romans: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  Think about what that implies.  For over five chapters the apostle has been telling us what it means to be saved.  In particular, he has been telling us how we are justified in the sight of God.  The gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.  Unless we grip that fact, we are inevitably going to go wrong in the pursuit of holiness.  Holiness is not about what I do to gain God’s favor, but it is what I pursue because of what God has already done for me in Christ Jesus.  

More than that, I cannot even begin to pursue holiness properly unless I am in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that I can do in my own power.  The foundation of the exhortations that follow in the book of Romans assume the union of the believer with Christ as the foundation of sanctification.  You must be dead to sin to fight sin.  But you can only be dead to sin by dying with Christ.  You can only rise to newness of life by rising with Christ.  This is why Paul says we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  That is the only way it can happen.

My friend, are you a Christian?  That is to say, have you a real relationship with the Christ of the Bible?  Are you the recipient of his grace in your life?  Is he your Lord and Savior?  Has he changed your life?  Do not think that cleaning up your life or avoiding the more gross sins means that you are saved.  Being better than the next person does not mean you are saved.  You are only saved if you are saved by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  You are saved by Christ when you entrust your entire life to him by faith as your Lord and Savior.  Have you put your faith in him?

You must think Biblically

Note what else the apostle says here in verse 11: “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  We cannot emphasize enough the importance of right thinking when it comes to sanctification.  If you want to become more like Christ, this not only means you must desire holiness, but that you must think Biblically about it.  It means that doctrine plays an incredibly important role in becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.  Good intentions are not enough.  We must have right doctrine.

What are we to think about, what are we to consider?  Well, what that apostle essentially is saying here is that we are to apply the truths that he has laid before us in the previous verses.  That is the point of the word “so” at the beginning of verse 11.  The cold intellectualist will just read the verses and talk about them, but he will never act upon them.  But the Christian hears the truths that Paul has been setting forth here and puts them into practice.

Sin always works in us by deceit.  We believe a lie and we sin.  Truth, on the other hand, sets us free.  It exposes the lies that enslave us.  The lie that the apostle wants to free us from is the lie that sin is so powerful that we can’t overcome it.  If you are a Christian, there is no sin you cannot overcome.  Not because you have the inherent power to overcome it, but because in Christ you are united to a power that created everything out of nothing.  He can take your nothing and defeat the most ominous and powerful lust in your mind and heart.  

Are you a believer and feel like you are trapped by a sin in your life?  What about lust?  Or pornography?  Or drugs and alcohol?  Or anger?  Or anxiety and fear?  If you are a believer and yet don’t think you can ever overcome these sins in your life, it is because you do not believe the truths that the apostle has been teaching in this chapter.  If you are dead to sin with Christ then it is impossible that these sins could ever rule over you.  That doesn’t mean you can’t let them.  It doesn’t mean that they won’t try to rule over you.  But it does mean that sin does not have the power to prevent you from overcoming them through Christ.  Sin is no longer on the throne: Christ is.  You need to consider yourselves to be what you are, namely dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ on account of his work for you and in you.

You must yield to God

But we must not stop at right thinking, we must go onto right application.  In particular, we must yield ourselves to God, which is the point of verses 12-13: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  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 unrighteousness.” 

When we were looking at verse 6, we noted that the phrase “the body of sin” does not just refer to our physical body, but to indwelling sin which manifests itself through our bodies.  Similarly, when Paul says that we are not to let sin use the members of our bodies as instruments (or weapons) for the purpose of sin, we are to understand that he is calling us to mortify the sin that is behind the misuse of our bodies.  Note that there are only two options here: you will either yield yourself to God or you will yield yourself to sin.  Like the German army in the Second World War that was trapped between the Russians on the east and the Americans and British on the west, so that they were going to have to surrender inevitably to one or the other, we are either going to surrender to the reign of sin over us, or we are going to surrender to God.  You are trapped between them, and you will have to chose one or the other.

What are we to yield to God?  Yield your tongue – that is the point of James 3.  Don’t use your tongue to speak words that destroy others, that tear down.  Don’t use it for slander, for lying, for gossip, for foul language, for conversations that make light of sin.  Rather, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Then yield your eyes to God.  Godly Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?”  Young men, have you made such a covenant with your eyes?  Or think about what the psalmist prayed and let us pray with him to “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37).  Or, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless” (Ps. 101:3).  The eyes are an inlet into the heart, and the battle in the heart will either be easier or harder depending on how hard we are willing to work at what we look at.  As long as the enemy’s supply line remains intact, it will be much more difficult to defeat him, but once his lines are cut, the battle will be more easily one.  Guard your eyes, and cut the supply line of your enemy.

Further, yield your ears to God.  What do you listen to?  Hear Christ, listen to his word those who preach his word.  As computer programmers often tell us, “Junk in, junk out.”  You put junk into your ears and let it soak down into your heart, don’t be surprised when junk comes out in different areas of your life.

Then yield your feet to God.  Where do you spend your time?  One of the most disturbing passages in Scripture is the description in Proverbs 7 of the foolish young man who is the wrong place at the wrong time.  But he is only in the wrong place at the wrong time because his feet took him there.  Now this not only applies to the physical places our feet take us, but also to the places we go digitally on our smart phones and computers and tablets.  Where are you going?  Are they places where you can honestly say you can yield yourself to God there?

Most importantly, yield your heart to God.  At the end of the day, yielding is a fight for the desires.  What you desire most is what you will end up yielding yourself to.  This is why the Proverb tells us, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

What does this look like?  What does it mean for me, practically?  Well, it means that I am going to pray with all my might against sin.  You will not long desire what you consistently pray against.  Especially when you feel the tug of lust and sinful desire to be strong in your heart, pray against it.  Ask the Lord to give you the grace to say no, and persist in it.

This means also that I am going to be constantly reminding myself of what ultimate reality is.  Sinful desire always warps reality and makes ugly things look beautiful.  We need to remember that as we pass through this life that heaven is real and hell is real and that we are all moving inevitably toward God’s judgment seat.  If we can put ourselves before God’s throne in our minds and hearts, it will almost be impossible to sin there.

It means that I am not going to fill my mind so that there is no room or time for meditation on God’s word, and on his character and promise.  Don’t be shallow when it comes to divine things.  Be shallow when it comes to the fashions of this world, which will fade into meaninglessness sooner rather than later.

I want to come back next time to Romans 6:14, but let me close by seeking to frame an answer to the question that 6:14 begs, namely: Why are we told to let not sin reign over us (12) when Paul says that “sin will have no dominion over you”?  The answer is that, as believers, we can never be the slaves of sin as we once were, and this is seen in that we can now successfully resist it.  But it doesn’t mean that we can’t at times let sin gain the upper hand through spiritual negligence and slothfulness.  So let us fight the good fight of faith, fight with all our might against sin, and never give up until we lift up our eyes in the presence of God, perfect and spotless and full of the joy of the Lord forever.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The implications of union with Christ – Romans 6:6-10

What does it mean to be a Christian?  The apostle’s argument in this text leads inevitably to the conclusion that, whatever else it entails, it at least means that you have died to sin.  We know this by Paul’s reference to baptism.  In the NT, baptism is what differentiates between believer and non-believer.  There is simply no category for “unbaptized believer” in the NT.  If you didn’t want to be baptized, that meant you didn’t want to be a Christian.  Though baptism doesn’t save, yet it is a distinguishing mark (in terms of external evidence) between those who are saved and those who are not.  In the book of Acts, baptism is part of the whole conversion experience.  So to imagine someone being converted and yet unbaptized was impossible in the categories of the NT church.  

Hence, when the apostle assumes that all his readers are baptized (ver. 3), he is implicitly saying that what he has to say here applies to anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.  And what does he say?  He says that a Christian is someone who has died to sin through union with Christ.  

In the text before us, Paul basically restates and emphasizes the same points which he brought forward in the first five verses.  This is something that Paul wants us to get.  In the verses before us, Paul describes the same reality (death to sin) in terms of our old man being crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed (ver. 6).  And then throughout verses 6-10 he points us to the connection between our death to sin and Christ’s death to sin (ver. 10).  It is only because we have died in Christ (ver. 8) that we can die to sin.  In light of this, and because of this reality, we can consider ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God (ver. 11).

One of the things Paul is doing here is pointing us to the reality that everything in our salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, including our death to sin.  What we have as saved people, we have by virtue of our union with Christ.  What is union with Christ, you ask?  It is just this: union with Christ means that by faith we are personally connected to all the saving benefits obtained by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  It means that God regards the believer as one with Christ, so that his life is regarded as their life, his death as their death, his resurrection as their resurrection.  And thus we become recipients of the life and grace of God that flows from Christ’s death and resurrection.

Practically, this means two things.  First, it means that God gets the credit for your salvation, all of it.  So there is no room for pride in the church.  There is no room for self-glorification and self-display.  “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be glory, for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1, KJV).  Second, it means that there is nothing God calls us to do as saved people for which we do not have all the resources of Jesus Christ to draw upon in order to accomplish it.  That is very encouraging, because it means that our limitations are not determinative when it comes to obedience and God’s blessing upon our lives.  

And so the NT is continually pointing us to this reality.  In fact, we have picture after picture given to us in order to encourage us to draw upon the resources of Christ for us.  In Eph. 2:19-22, this union is pictured in terms of the relation between the stones and cornerstone of a building (see also 1 Pet. 2:4-6).  In Eph. 5:22-33, it is likened to the union that exists between a husband and wife.  In Eph. 4:15-16, it is compared to the relationship between head and body.  In John 15:1-5, it is represented in terms of vine and branches.  Note that every one of these pictures have this thing in common: they all picture for us the dependence of one thing (or person) upon another.  In the same way, we depend upon Christ for everything we need in order to have a relationship with God as our Father.

We also see our dependence upon Christ and his redemptive work in every “in Christ” passage in Scripture.  It is in Christ that we are chosen by God (Eph. 1:4-5).  It is in Christ that we are redeemed (Eph. 1:7), that we are regenerated (Eph. 2:4-10), that we are sanctified (our text), and that we are glorified (Rom. 8:17).  From eternity past to eternity future, we owe everything to our Savior.  

Now there is another reason why this is important.  Throughout the history of the church, it is sometimes a tendency to narrow down on one aspect of salvation to the neglect of the others.  Often one effect of this has been an unbalanced view of the Christian life and what it is supposed to look like.  Sometimes this leads to an inability to make proper distinctions between true and false believers.

For instance, sometimes there such an emphasis upon justification by faith alone that other aspects of our salvation, like sanctification and growth in holiness, are ignored.  It is claimed by some that if you require holiness in people who claim to be Christian, then you are legalistic and works-based and are denying the grace of God in salvation.  Others claim that the sovereignty of God’s grace means that there is no place for human effort in any aspect of salvation.  

Still others claim that the emphasis upon our response to God’s commandments in the Bible means that ultimately we are the determinative ones in salvation, that our response is ultimately determinative, not God’s grace.  The result of this telling of the gospel is that people end up with all the weight upon their own shoulders, instead of looking to Christ.

What we will see from the text in Romans 6 is that everything in our salvation is connected, because ultimately everything comes to us through Jesus Christ.  If you are united to Christ then you have everything that Christ has purchased for you upon the cross.  You cannot have justification without sanctification because both come through union with Christ.  Similarly, you cannot have justification or sanctification without glorification, because Christ purchased both upon the cross.  If you are united to him, you will be finally saved.  As we move through these verses, we will see that Paul connects being united with Christ (and thus being a Christian) with holiness (ver. 6), justification (ver. 7), perseverance (ver. 8-10), and future hope.

The connection between union with Christ and holiness (6)

As we have already pointed out, Paul is continuing to tell us what it means to be dead to sin.  In verse 6, he puts it this way: “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.”  In this verse, we are reminded of the basis of our death to sin, we are given the description of our death so sin, and the result of our death to sin.

The basis of our death to sin comes in the words “our old self was crucified with him [Christ].”  Here the apostle once again establishes the fact that whatever happens to us in terms of our salvation, it has only happened because we are connected to Christ in his redemptive work.  His death for us becomes our death through union with Christ so that we share with him in his victory over sin.  

He further describes it in terms of our old man being crucified.  What does Paul mean by that?  Well, he means what we are in Adam.  Our old man is who we are apart from Christ, before our conversion and new birth.  In Ephesians, Paul again speaks about the old man in 4:22-24.  In that passage, we are told to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  The old man or old self is therefore connected to the kind of life we lived before we were born again.  This has been crucified with Christ.

What follows is the description of our death to sin: it is that “the body of sin might be brought to nothing.”  Personally, I like the KJV rendering better: “that the body of sin might be destroyed.”  What has been destroyed is the “body of sin.”  But what does the apostle mean by “the body of death”?  The meaning of this is clarified, I think, by what Paul says in verse 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.”  In other words, sin presents itself through the members of our bodies.  This doesn’t mean that our physical body is bad, or that sin just dwells in our physical members.  Rather, this is a term that represents the sin that indwells us as “the body of sin” because indwelling sin manifests itself though our bodies.

In other words, what is destroyed is the power of indwelling sin.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean that sin no longer indwells us in any respect, but it does mean that its power has been broken (see ver. 14; also 8:13).  However, the fact that Paul uses the word “destroyed” indicates that ultimately the very presence of sin will one day be a thing of the past.  Christ didn’t die so that sin could hang on forever.  He died so that its power would be broken in every way that one day we would be finally free from all the remaining vestiges of sin.

What is the result of this?  It is that “we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”  One of the reasons Christ died for you is so that you would no longer be the slave to sin.  It is therefore silly to think that one could claim union with Christ and fellowship with his death and resurrection and yet go on living as if nothing had ever happened to the old man, as if the body of sin were still on the throne.  My friends, Christ died so that the power of sin might be broken in your life.

And that being the case, if holiness is behind God’s purpose in Christ’s death, should we not make it our daily aim to increase the measure of sanctification in our lives?  How careful we should be that we do not sin!  Should we not make it our aim, as it was of the apostle John, that “you might not sin” (1 Jn. 2:1)?  Should not God’s purpose be our purpose?  

But how do you measure sanctification in your life?  It is measured by who or what you serve: “so that we would no longer serve sin.”  What has your heart?  To what do your give your time and resources?  What part does God have in any of that?  Is what you give your life and heart to consistent with obedience to Christ?  These are all questions that we would do well to seriously consider.

The connection between union with Christ and justification (7)

In verse 7, the apostle says something that at first seems surprising.  He writes, “For one who has died to sin has been set free from sin.”  Now this is surprising because actually the word that Paul uses for “has been set free” is the word “has been justified.”  It’s the same Greek word that everywhere else in this epistle has been translated by “justified.”

Why did the translators of the ESV (and KJV, NIV, NASB, HCSB, among others) choose to translate this word here differently?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but wonder if they did so because they were concerned about guarding the forensic nature of justification, since here justification is linked to sanctification.  You will perhaps know that one of the big differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant takes on justification is that Protestants typically take justification to be forensic and to refer solely to the change in legal status (condemned to uncondemned and pardoned and accepted) whereas Roman Catholic theologians insist that justification also involves a change of life, from being actually unrighteous to being actually righteous.  

However, that doesn’t change the fact that word Paul chose to use is the word “justified.”  And since it everywhere else has one meaning, I prefer to take that meaning here.  Nevertheless, I have not suddenly become Roman Catholic!  For I do not think that when the apostle says that the one who has died (to sin) has been justified from sin he means that being dead to sin is what causes justification.  That can’t be what he means because then that would undermine everything else he has written in chapters 1-5.  God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), so that being dead to sin can’t figure into the equation of justification apart from works.

How then does this support Paul’s argument here in chapter 6?  I think what he is arguing is that we cannot be sanctified unless we are justified; better yet, that if we are justified we will surely be sanctified, so that if you claim the former you must have the latter.  We simply cannot be freed from enslavement to sin while remaining under the condemnation of sin.  Do you remember Romans 1?  Sin is itself a punishment for sin.  It follows that as long as you remain under condemnation for sin, as long as you remain unjustified, you will never have any hope for becoming sanctified.  That’s why Paul says that if we have died to sin, we have already been justified from sin.  Being justified inevitably leads to holiness because once the guilt of sin has been removed, the way is open for the Spirit to start working in us to make us more like Christ.

Note that this implies that the two things don’t happen apart.  You don’t believe on Jesus and are justified and then years later become dead to sin.  Though sanctification doesn’t cause justification, yet it is impossible to have one without the other.  Why?  Because both things are things which are purchased by Christ.  If you have Christ, you have both.  You cannot be connected to Christ in his saving righteousness that leads to justification and not be connected to his saving holiness that leads to sanctification.

The connection between union with Christ and perseverance (8-10)

One of the age-old arguments among professing Christians is the question of whether or not a believer in Christ can lose their salvation.  Here Paul precludes this possibility because in these verses he shows that the finality of Christ’s death to sin is parallel to our death to sin.  He shows that we have so died to sin that we can never come under its power again.  This is what he says: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.”

If we died with Christ, we will live with him – there is certainty here – if we share with him in his death, we will share also in his resurrection.  We will not only die to sin, but live to God.  However, the fact that our death to sin is rooted in our union with Christ also means that the finality of his death to sin has implications for our death to sin.  Christ can never come under the power of sin and death again; neither can the believer.  Thus we see why it is that the Christian can never lose his or her salvation; for that would mean that you would come under the power of sin and death again.  But since we are united to Christ, this is impossible.

Now I must clarify here that Christ’s death to sin is not exactly like our death to sin.  When the apostle says that Christ died to sin in verse 10, he doesn’t mean that he was ever under the power of sin.  For he was sinless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.  He was made sin for us, but he knew no sin.  In other words, the parallel between his death to sin and ours does not mean identity.  He died to sin as our representative and substitute; not because he was personally a sinner.  He died to sin for us so that we might be able to be freed from sin’s power and dominion.  

Nevertheless, Paul’s point here is that there is a parallel between the finality of Christ’s death to sin and our death to sin.  And the clear implication of this is that once you are saved, you are saved forever.

How do we use the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints?  Not as an excuse for sin.  That again would undermine all of Paul’s argument in this chapter.  It is not to be used as a pillow for spiritual slothfulness and laziness.  For one thing, though we affirm that the truly saved will remain saved, this doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian is one.  There is no promise that if you have made a profession of faith that you will be finally saved.  There is no promise that if you have been baptized that you will be finally saved.  The promise is that if you are truly united to Christ, you will be finally saved.

Rather, the way we use this doctrine is as an encouragement to constantly look to Christ and to hold on to him and to ask him to constantly hold on to us.  Only those whom Christ brings to heaven will be saved in the end and brought safely through the judgment.  There is no reason to have confidence in our own profession.  There is no reason for us to have confidence in our own ability to remain faithful.  On the contrary, we have every reason to doubt ourselves.  So what do we do?  We don’t solve this conundrum by infusing our profession of faith with saving properties.  Rather, we solve it by reposing ourselves entirely upon Christ and by constantly orienting the direction of our hearts and souls towards him.  For only in union with him will we be finally saved.

The connection between union with Christ and our future hope (9-10)

In verses 9-10, we are reminded that the life that we have by virtue of our life in Christ is a life that will never die.  Paul describes it as a life “to God.”  It is a life that is not only a life lived for God (which is the best kind of life), but a life lived in the presence of God (which is the blessed kind of life).  It is a life that will extend into eternity into the very presence of God.  What we have in Christ is better than anything that we can have in this world.

If we take this seriously (and it takes faith to do this, which is the point of Heb. 11), then it will help us especially in the face of trials and suffering.  This present life is not the end of the story.  It should free us from fear (the fear that comes from losing the comforts and securities of this world) and it should motivate us to God’s service (instead of spending ourselves upon ourselves and spending all our time sandbagging against future calamities).  

We cannot live without hope.  But the hope that does not make ashamed (Rom. 5:5) is the hope that we have in Christ.  It is a hope that we have by being connected to him by faith and the Holy Spirit.  The world cannot offer you anything in comparison.  Secular philosophers (if they are honest) can only tell you to live bravely in the face of despair.  Jesus Christ, in contrast, tells you to live bravely in the face of hope, a hope which only he can give.

Thank God for Jesus Christ.  Thank God for his redemptive work, which he accomplished, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the elect.  Let us trust in him, live for him, and glorify him with our lives. 

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

  What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, b...