Monday, August 2, 2021

Christians, We’ve Been Living Like Jews (Romans 6:1)

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Why I’m Doing This Series

In December 2019, I heard a sermon that forever changed my life. I will spare you the details — mostly because I don’t remember a lot of them — but in short, here is what happened. A door was cracked open to a room that I never knew existed. This “room”, as I would come to find out, is what I now might call simply “the gospel life”. In all my years as a Christian, I honestly thought I had heard it all. But this was new to me, and yet somehow, wonderfully familiar.

I didn’t know exactly what to make of it when I was hearing it. But I could almost physically feel something happening within me — something undeniably good. Once it was over, I remember being compelled — in the most literal way — to Romans 7. It is here (and the surrounding chapters) where I spent the next many weeks of my life, seeing things that I had somehow never seen before, despite having read these scriptures countless times. Before long, I was seeing large portions of the Bible in a different light.

Just one month prior to this, I had left my job to begin a new house church ministry. For this reason, I had all the time in the world to do whatever I felt that God was calling me to do — in this case, learn the gospel that I thought I already knew. I had been praying every day for spiritual breakthroughs and direction, and in hindsight, it is clear that this was one of God’s answers to my prayers.

At the time of this writing — not even a full year later — I am a different man, with a deeper passion for the gospel and a greater testimony of its power to heal and transform. For the first time ever, I have personally experienced, and witnessed in the life of others, how the gospel really is every bit as powerful as we’ve always known it ought to be. I have begun to understand scriptures that, despite all my theological training, never made sense to me before. I have become vastly more intimate with God, enjoying my relationship with him to a far greater extent. I have grown increasingly confident in my ability to effectively minister the gospel in nearly every kind of circumstance. And even better yet, I have seen many people around me begin to grow in the very same way.

All this (and plenty more) started when God brought me to Romans 6-8. Now he has brought me back, and I believe I am supposed to share some of the things that he has taught me about these profound chapters in the Bible. They truly are a gold mine.

For those who have read my book, No Longer I, I think you will find this blog series to be a helpful supplement. Whereas the book uses more of a topical approach, infusing scripture along the way, that will be reversed here. As I say in the book, my sincere desire is for you to know your Bible, not my book. It is not for you to look to me and my teachings, but to God and his Word. For those who have not read my book, then I suggest that it may be helpful for you to do so. Its scope is much larger than these three chapters in Romans, and each topic is dealt with in greater depth than it will be here.

My basic conviction is that the Church, broadly speaking, does not understand her own gospel to the full extent. I am not only describing those we might label as “spiritually dead”, but also those whose faith is alive and evident. Nor am I only describing the layperson but clergy, deacons, professors, and leaders of all sorts (even including most of the spiritual giants throughout our church history). I know how that can come across, but I don’t say this harshly, critically, or proudly. It just is what it is, and it will not help us at all to act like it isn’t.

If there is anything else for us to learn about the gospel and/or scripture, then we must quickly come to terms with the possibility that not all of it has been taught, and that somehow we’ve missed it, despite the fact that it has been right here in our Bibles all along. If we humble ourselves, I am rather confident that the majority of readers, including the least and the most learned, will find something here that could be likened to “fresh manna” or life-changing truth.

I strongly encourage you, as we move forward, to open your own Bible during this process, and seek God for understanding. I find there is something very important that happens in the brain when God ascribes meaning to the very text that you see on the physical pages that you flip through. It becomes your own. And as it really does become your own, you will have no need to reference what I said, rather, you will always be able to reference the Bible. I assure you, this is better.

As (sort of) a side note, it does matter which Bible version you use. The more literal, the better, which is why I will be using the Lexham English Bible (LEB). The Message (MSG) should be completely off limits. No offense to anyone who reads it, but it is not a real translation of the original Greek text, and therefore, not scripture. There are others I would probably recommend you avoid, as well, like the New Living Translation (NLT) and probably the New International Version (NIV), due to their less literal adherence to the original language. If it were up to me, I would recommend either the LEB (which is not currently published in print), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), or the English Standard Version (ESV). Once you see what Paul was actually saying, I think you’ll recognize how important each of his words really are.

Today, we will be covering only one verse, as I aim to keep each post shorter than longer. (But this one verse is SUPER important!) As I move forward, I fully expect to cover more ground than just one verse per post. I do not have any particular schedule for publishing these, since I want to be fully reliant on the Lord for his direction, rather than a slave to the blog. That being said, I hope you’ll stick with me through the journey, and commit to learning more deeply the original meaning of Romans and the gospel within. If you don’t want to miss my new posts, SUBSCRIBE to the blog on the sidebar or the homepage. And feel free to comment below or send me a personal message with your thoughts and questions related to this topic.

Without further adieu, here we go!

Romans 6:1

6:1 What therefore shall we say? Shall we continue in sin, in order that grace may increase?

Paul is doing some “mind-reading” here. Having just written in Romans 5:20 about God’s will to show abundant — arguably limitless — grace, he expects a question, or objection, to arise. If God’s desire is to show more grace, and if greater sin requires greater amounts of grace, then does this imply that God would actually prefer that we keep on sinning (i.e. in order that he may show more grace)?

Let us first acknowledge that this question is intuitively ridiculous to anyone who knows anything about God. Of course God does not desire that we continue in sin! This was just as obvious to believers then as it is to believers today. This is not exactly to say that all believers live up to their holy calling, nor that they all agree about what it looks like or how one gets there. But it is to say that, at the very least, we all recognize God’s basic aversion to sin, and desire to have a holy people. I understand that not every Christian’s life reflects this reality. But ask any one of them the following question, and you’ll get the same basic answer: “Does God want you to continue in sin?” No, obviously not.

All that to say, what is really behind this question? Why did he assume they would ask something with such an obvious answer? Whose mind is he reading, and what are they thinking?

The ridiculousness of the question is actually what gives it away. It is not a sincere inquiry about the relevance of sin in the Christian life. Nor is it an ignorant or lazy attempt to justify one’s continuance in sin. Instead, it is an objection to Paul’s gospel which appears to encourage sin, and therefore appears to be in ridiculous error. It is meant to point out what is apparently wrong with Paul’s message of grace — that it deals inappropriately with sin. I imagine the question being asked with an accusatory tone and a note of sarcasm, meant to trap Paul and expose the problem within his argument. (Read the verse again, but read it in light of this, and I think you will begin to taste of its true flavor.)

This is where I believe the first major misinterpretation occurs. It is commonly assumed that Paul’s intended audience was a people with an inclination to abuse God’s grace, using it as an opportunity to go on sinning, neglecting the call to obedience. This is the only way that I ever heard this passage preached, as well as the only way I, admittedly, ever preached it — as a message to apathetic Christians who are looking for any excuse they can find to go on living their selfish lives, despite all that God has done for them. The presumption is that the reader/listener/church-goer does not desire to obey God, but exactly the opposite. Having been reconciled to God, and promised eternal life, they are now happy to remain just as they were before, and they need to be reminded that this is not okay.

But actually, this could not be further from the truth. The persons who would have been raising the objection believed strongly in the importance of obeying God’s commands. That is where the issue arises, for they believed that Paul’s teachings about grace were somehow contrary to this goal. In other words, they were not at all inclined to reject the call to obedience, but to reject the radical nature of grace which appeared to negate the call to obedience.

Please note, this is not to say that they were entirely opposed to grace — in fact, it is most likely that they believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But regarding obedience, grace seemed counterproductive. Thus, they concluded that they must still be under the law in some way. Paul’s gospel was grace alone; theirs was grace plus law. (One might now pause and reflect: Have we ever actually overcome this issue?)

Therefore, we may find that this passage has a different purpose than we initially thought. In the following verses and chapters, Paul will not be making a case for the importance of obedience. There is no need for this, since he and his readers are already in agreement about it. Rather, he will be defending his gospel of grace on the premise that grace (received by faith) is the superior means to obedience, over and against the law. From the beginning to the end of Romans, this is Paul’s highest objective — to bring about “the obedience of faith” (see Romans 1:5, 16:26).

And now I hope you see how truly relevant this message is for the Church today. Broadly speaking, we are those who believe in the grace of God for salvation. In this way, we would say that we are “free from the law”, no longer having to earn, and only needing to believe. But when it comes to daily obedience, sanctification, pursuing holiness, or whatever you like to call it, we have failed to explain how grace and faith are sufficient for the task. Without even knowing it, we have resorted back to the law, relying on a works-based approach to obedience. Though in theory we may believe that it is by grace alone, in practice our gospel remains grace plus law. In practice, we look no different than regular Jews.

Seriously, tell me how your way of obeying God looks different than any God-fearing Jewish person. You believe he loves you? So do they. You believe you love him? So do they. You believe he forgives you? So do they. You repent from your sins? So do they. You pray to him directly and ask his for his help? So do they. You read Scripture? So do they (though not the New Testament, but then again, neither did the early Church). Just read the Old Testament, and you’ll see that there is nothing uniquely Christian about such things as these.

“But we have the Holy Spirit!” I am sure you are thinking. Yes, this is undoubtedly our unique advantage, among other things that we will learn. But if the Holy Spirit to you is merely God’s presence in your life, his comfort in trying times, a voice of right and wrong, and someone to reach out to for help, then once again, this simply describes the way the Jews think of God. So how is it that we actually walk differently? How is that we overcome by faith alone?

Perhaps, like Paul’s readers, we have not understood the whole gospel. Perhaps we have been blind to the “grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). Perhaps Christ did more for us than we have ever imagined. When we see it for what it is, there will be no question that faith in God’s grace is an entirely sufficient means to obedience. And all that we need, we already have.

I promise you, brothers and sisters, we have barely scratched the surface. In the next post, we will start to get into the meat of it, and I believe you will be excited about what Paul has to say. I also assure you that we will cover more than just one verse! In the meantime, as I have already said, seek God for understanding of truth. If you diligently pray and patiently wait on him for understanding, trusting that he will teach you, something amazing will happen. He will teach you! Don’t rely on my promise, rely on his (see John 16:13).

Lastly, if you are diggin’ it so far, please subscribe and share. The Church needs to know her gospel and the scriptures which contain it. Help me to get the word out to someone who is hungry for it. God bless you!

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