The powers that be

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Romans 13:1-14

Romans 13 has introduced two phrases to the world that seem to pull in different directions – at least in the way they are used.

On the one hand we have “the powers that be.”  We commonly use this phrase to describe nameless authorities handing down impersonal judgements:

–  “Apparently, in their infinite wisdom, the powers that be have decided to scrap the old policy…

Faceless bureaucrats or untouchable rulers are “the powers that be.”   They are undefined in number, but definitely more than one (it’s not “the power that is”!)  We feel like they are answerable to no-one.  They are the powers.   And they seem, immovably, to be so.  What is worse, Paul tells us to submit unquestioningly to them!

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God:  and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.”  (Romans 13:1-3)

Here is proof that Paul sometimes uses “damnation” and “wrath” in temporal ways.  Governments might sentence you to prison, or even to execution, but they cannot sentence you to hell.  Nonetheless there is a temporal respect to be paid to temporal rulers who hold temporal powers of punishment over us.  And such an arrangement is not outside of God’s sovereignty – “the powers that be are ordained of God!”

Oh dear – we might think – is Paul giving carte blanche to despots everywhere?  Is he putting the seal of God’s authority onto every tyranny that asserts itself?

Well consider the other influence Romans 13 has had on our language. Paul continues…

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain:  for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also:  for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues:  tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”  (Romans 13:4-7)

The true status of a ruler is “minister”, i.e. “servant”.  In the West we are used to considering our politicians as “ministers” and our chief ruler as Prime Minister.  But such thinking should not be taken for granted – it is a deeply Christian conviction.  There’s nothing obvious about considering a ruler to be a servant and in non-Christian cultures the people have suffered for it.

And so Romans 13 actually provides a profound challenge to the powers that be.  They are not ultimate powers at all.  They are servants in the truest sense, and servants with a strictly limited scope – to execute temporal judgements on wrong-doers.   There is an honour to be given them, but an honour in proportion to what is “due”.

Thus the citizen reading Romans 13 is challenged to look beyond temporal rulers to God and His sovereign ordination.  They are to render what is due to rulers, and not because they agree with them.  In all likelihood the ruler on the throne as Paul wrote this was Nero!  Yet even with such a despot, Paul calls them to live peaceably.  As he writes in 1 Timothy 2:

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

The truly revolutionary work, at which Christians should labour, is prayer and evangelism (notice how closely the peaceable life is linked to God’s desire for salvation to spread).  This is the work of the kingdom that outlasts all the powers that be.  That should be our focus.

But for the rulers reading Romans 13 there is also great challenge.  They are not to “lord it over” the people.  They are to be servants.  Because all rulers must take their cue from the King of kings:

“Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.  But so shall it not be among you:  but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:  And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.  For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Vengeance is mine

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Romans 12:1-21

Belief in a God of vengeance will create vengeful people, right?

On the other hand, if we want to pursue peace ourselves, we must dispense with the view of God as some Settler of scores, right?

Actually the Apostle Paul argues precisely the opposite.  He begins by enjoining an incredible level of pacifism on the Christian:

“Recompense to no man evil for evil.  Provide things honest in the sight of all men.  If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” (Romans 12:17-19)

There’s a realism here (“as much as lieth in you”) but also a supernatural expectation:  “live peaceably with all men.”  This is explicitly in the context of “evil” done to the Christian.  This is the occasion when vengeance and wrath will be rising up in us.  How on earth can we resist? Paul says, “Give place unto wrath:…

“ … for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:  for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

There is a “place” for wrath.  But that place is not in our hands.  We are no good at wrath.  But God is.  The whole practice of vengeance belongs to the Father Almighty.  He takes care of the payback business.  He’s good at His job and He promises to settle scores with perfect justice.  Therefore, says Paul, you are free to love your enemies in extraordinary and counter-conditional ways.

And it’s God’s vengeance that is the grounds for your peace-making.  If that still sounds odd, perhaps we should allow Miroslav Volf to teach us.  He is a Croatian theologian whose family and community saw terrible violence during the ethnic cleansing of the early 90s.  He writes: “The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance.”  He realises that we in the comfortable West may baulk at this.  But he asks us to face the realities of evil which remain, for most of us, a distant theory.

“Imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them – we should not retaliate? Why not?  I say – the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God.”

Only the God who is good at vengeance can enable a victim of evil to resist becoming a perpetrator.  There is a judgement to come – a perfect righting of wrongs.  There’s no need for vigilantes. We can entrust all judgement to Christ who, through His cross, showed Himself perfect in justice.

But even more than this, when a Christian knows of the judgement to come, it can inspire something truly remarkable:  pity for the evil-doer.

Corrie Ten Boom told the story of her imprisonment at Ravensbruck concentration camp in The Hiding Place.  One day she and her sister, Betsie, were forced to watch a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner.  “Oh, the poor woman,” Corrie cried.  “Yes.  May God forgive her,” Betsie replied.

Corrie was crying for the prisoner.  Betsie was praying for the guard. That’s the difference it makes to know that vengeance is the Lord’s.  For as their father had once said, “I pity the poor Germans, they have touched the apple of God’s eye.”

How can anyone pity a concentration camp guard?  How can anyone pity the perpetrators of the holocaust?  Only those who know there is a woe greater than Ravensbrook and a power far higher than the Nazis.  In the light of that day, everyone becomes an object of our sympathy, even our foulest enemies.  The vengeance of God makes peacemakers of us all.

O wretched man that I am!

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Romans 7:1-25

It was Jesus who coined the phrase “the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.”  It was Paul who explored the idea in chapter after chapter.

According to the Apostle Paul there are three tenses of salvation.  There is the past tense:

“According to God’s mercy He saved us.”  (Titus 3:5)

There is the present tense:

“The preaching of the cross is… unto us which are [being] saved … the power of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:18)

And there is the future tense:

“We shall be saved from wrath through Jesus.”  (Romans 5:9)

How do we make sense of this?  Well Paul also talks about three aspects to our humanity.  There is our spirit, which is made righteous the moment we trust Christ:

“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”  (Romans 8:16)

There is our soul or mind (the Greek word is psyche).  This is in the process of being transformed:

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12:2)

And there is our flesh which remains unredeemed until Christ returns. Below is Paul’s cry of anguish in Romans 7.  Notice how his mind is on God’s side.  He wants to live righteously.  He agrees that the law is good. But his flesh is the problem:

“For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal [i.e. fleshly], sold under sin.  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”  (Romans 7:14-25)

Do you hear the terrible struggle of the flesh and the Spirit?  This is the Christian life according to Paul (he repeats the teaching in Galatians 5). We want to do good, we continue to do evil.  We hate our sin, yet we can’t seem to shake it.  It clings to us, like skin to our bones.

What will deliver us?

The law?  No, we might agree that it’s right, but it has no power to effect what it commands.  Some Christians teach that God gives us the Spirit so that we will have strength enough to perform the works of the law – and by this we are saved.  Nonsense.  The person with the Spirit may agree with the law, they may love the law, but the law itself plays no part in our salvation.  It still only condemns us while-ever we remain in the flesh.

Can our will power deliver us?  No, in our better moments our resolve is for righteousness, but we continue to be embroiled in wretched behaviour.

What will deliver us?  Only “Jesus Christ our Lord” can deliver us.  And notice, deliver us “from the body of this death.”  That’s what the Christian awaits – the future tense salvation when not only our spirits and souls, but even our flesh is redeemed.

As chapter 8 will reveal, only resurrection will save us in that final, future sense.  Jesus Himself has already risen beyond sin, wrath, death and law.  But only when He returns to apply that resurrection reality to our bodies will we enter into the fullness of His salvation.  Until then the normal Christian life is groaning, it’s struggle.  But it’s also hope.

You see out of this wrestling, Paul pens one of the greatest verses of Christian assurance.  Because he groans and struggles, he knows that the Spirit is in him, striving against the flesh.  Thus, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the conflict gives him confidence.  And so he writes:

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1)

If you’re stuck in the Christian life – hating your sin but seemingly powerless to change – look up.  Christ alone is your hope.  Nothing within you will save.  But He will deliver you from this body of death.  The day will come when we are righteous – body, soul and spirit – Hallelujah!

In the meantime, let the law speak to your flesh.  Allow it’s condemnation to fall upon that nature you inherited from Adam.  It’s going to perish anyway.  Agree with the law and hate your sin.  But never let the law and its condemnation speak to your conscience, your psyche, your mind.  No, Adam no longer defines you.  He may live on in your deeds, but you are no longer determined by him.  Your true self is hidden in Christ. He is bigger than Adam.  His salvation is stronger than your sin.  His Spirit is greater than your flesh.  And the conflict you feel is actually proof that you have the new life.

Therefore, sinning, struggling, groaning Christian – wretch that you are – there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

The wages of sin is death

Romans 6:1-23

Driving across my wife’s home town of Belfast, it’s difficult not to come across this verse emblazoned on some billboard or other:

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans 6:23)

And it’s usually in the King James Version too!

It serves as a succinct summary of the gospel as it outlines three contrasting pairs.  There is wages versus gift; sin versus God and death versus eternal life.

On one side of the divide we have sin as a slave-master.  This is how Paul has been portraying sin throughout Romans 6.  It is not so much an action that we choose but a power that masters us.  We’re not in charge of sin, sin is in charge of us.  But it’s a law-abiding slave-master – it pays a wage.  The whole realm in which sin operates is the realm of working and earning.  This pay-master always gives his workers what’s coming to them. And what is the payment?  Death.

There’s something very organic here.  Sin is anti-life.  It is shutting down from the life-giving Lord and trying to work things out from our own resources.  When we serve this master we get what’s coming to us – death.

But there’s another way.  Is it to just choose not to sin?  Impossible.  We are like Israel in Egypt – in slavery to a dark power that we can’t overthrow.  We need another Master to redeem us.  But thankfully the second half of the verse gives us one:  God!  He is a very different Master. You see, in contrast to how we naturally think, sin is the kill-joy, God is the life-giver.  Sin is the legalist, God is the gracious One.  Sin demands that I work for a wage. God offers a gift by His grace – the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin is death-dealing.  God is life-giving.

And again the outcome of serving this Master is organically related to who this master is.  Since God is a Life-giving Fountain, pouring forth Himself in His Son and Spirit, therefore receiving His gift means receiving eternal life.  It’s just natural that His realm means receiving.  And receiving God’s kind of life is receiving eternal life.

Next time you are tempted to sin, remember it’s bigger than you. Remember it’s a master you have no power to overthrow.  It’s not your servant, it’s a slave-master.  It’s not offering anything, it’s taking.  It’s not bringing you into a realm of grace but only into the realm of works.  And no matter what it promises, it’s not giving you life but only death.  On the other hand, God is offering you redemption, freedom, grace and eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today spend a moment to re-orient your thinking according to the gospel. Take a moment to see yourself, to see sin and to see God again in light of Jesus Christ.

God forbid

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Romans 5:1-6:14

It’s a far from literal translation, but it traces all the way back to Tyndale and even to Wycliffe before him. “May it never be” would be a stricter rendering of the Greek, but “God forbid” has endured as a statement of indignant resolve. It occurs 26 times in the Bible, the majority of the uses are from Paul.

It was a common rhetorical device of Paul’s to voice a possible objection to his teaching and then to reject it firmly:

“Is the law sin?  God forbid.”  (Romans 7:7)

“Is there unrighteousness with God?  God forbid.”         (Romans 9:14)

“Hath God cast away his people?  God forbid.”  (Romans 11:1)

“Is therefore Christ the minister of sin?  God forbid.”   (Galatians 2:17)

In today’s phrase, both the question and the emphatic answer are vital to understand:

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Romans 6:1-2)

Paul expects an objection to his teaching.  It’s an objection for which every gospel preacher must be prepared.  If a preacher is not faced by this objection, we may question whether they are really preaching the gospel.

The objection is this:  “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

If we preach Paul’s gospel, people will ask us this question.  Because it might sound to them as though God’s free gift of salvation is magnified if we commit more and more sins.  If Jesus ‘picks up the tab’ for our bad behaviour and if His payment on the cross is His glory, then we can make Christ look more glorious can’t we?  We can rack up an even bigger debt for Him to cover.  Thus we might continue in sin so that His grace may abound.

Paul’s answer to this is emphatic:  God forbid!  He rules such thinking out of court.  But notice why such thinking is rejected.  He continues…

“How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?  Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:  that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.  For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:  Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.  For he that is dead is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:2-7)

So often we think of salvation individualistically and impersonally.  We think that God gives each of us a “thing” called “grace” or “salvation” or “forgiveness.”  It’s like a blank cheque handed from heaven, underwritten by the infinite worth of Christ’s blood.  And so we run off to spend God’s grace on our sinful pleasures.  But no, God gives us a Person called Christ – a Person with whom we have been united.  We have been baptised into Him, planted together with Him, crucified with Him, buried with Him and raised again to newness of life.  We are not individuals with a “get out of hell card”, we are members of Christ Himself, in Whom our sin and its consequences have been dealt with once and for all.  We have been brought through sin and death out into new life.

We have not been saved to sin, we have been saved from sin – freed to live a new life.  And not as individuals.  We are in Christ, united to Him like a bride to a Bridegroom.  And our heavenly Husband loves us to death.  In that context sin is unthinkable!

Imagine two couples.  Both of them have husbands who travel for business.  Wife A says to her husband, “I know what happens on business trips.  Your clients will take you to the restaurant and then the bar and who knows where from there.  I’ve heard about these things, and you need to know that if you even look at another woman, this marriage is finished.  Don’t bother coming back.  I’ll change the locks, it’s over mister!”

Wife B says “I know what happens on business trips.  And if you stray I would be truly devastated.  But when I said ‘Till death us do part’ I meant it.  And whatever happens I want you to come home and be honest and I want you to know I love you always and we’ll work it out.”

Question:  Which husband is more likely to cheat?  Husband A every time.

We imagine that the way to make people good is to add conditions to the love of God.  “God loves you a lot.  But if you sin, the love cools and you’ll have to mope around on the outskirts of His presence.”  Actually conditional love does not “keep us honest.”  Conditional love turns our hearts away from the Lover and towards other things.  It’s unconditional love that captures the heart.  Christ grips us with a love that says “No matter where you go or what you do, I am with you and I am for you.  We have an unbreakable marriage-bond and I love you come what may.”

More than this, Christ has taken us through sin and its consequences and out into freedom.  However we might muck around in the pit, Christ has lifted us to the throne.  And whatever promises which sin makes – they are lies.  The desires we seek to satisfy are truly met in our Loving Bridegroom.  And He will never leave us or forsake us.

Therefore, shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!

Hope against hope

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Romans 3:21-4:25

It’s the hope you have when there is no hope.

Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90 when they were promised a miracle child (Isaac).  As Genesis 18:11 put it:  “Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”  Nonetheless, the promise came from the LORD: “Sarah thy wife shall have a son.”

That’s not just difficult, it’s impossible.  So what do you do when faced with the LORD’s word on one hand and human impossibility on the other?  You hope against hope:

“Abraham, against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.  And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:  He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.  And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.”  (Romans 4:18-22)

What does saving faith look like?  Abraham’s “hope against hope” is Paul’s example.  He is in the middle of a magisterial study of the gospel, showing how salvation comes not through our goodness but God’s grace, not through our faithfulness but Christ’s, not through our power but the Spirit’s.  Salvation is God’s thing.  It’s not our thing.  We simply receive a salvation that we could never earn.

And so Paul chooses an example of faith which is a true case of ‘hope against hope.’  Abraham is completely ‘out of the driver’s seat’ when the Lord comes to him.  He not only does not meet the Lord half way, he cannot.  All he can do is rest in the Lord’s promise and say, “Amen, let it be so.”

This is faith:  the promise of new life comes and faith says “Nothing in my circumstances and nothing in my power can make this happen but, Lord, I know You can!”  The promised seed is held out and faith says “I cannot produce the Messiah, indeed I am incapable of even receiving the Messiah, yet Lord, you say He is given to me, so I will trust You.”

The context for faith is a dark and barren space.  There is no possibility for life and yet exactly here the Lord promises it.  Whether it’s Sarah’s barren womb, Mary’s virgin womb, or Christ’s virgin tomb – we’re confronted with the deepest human weakness and the greatest divine strength.  Faith here is a ‘hope against hope’, because faith is the opposite of sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  The circumstances look hopeless, yet faith is trusting the Lord’s word and not our capacities. And actually, when we despair of our earthly hopes, that’s when a true hope can arise.

If our hope was only as good as our own resources, we would be on shaky ground indeed.  Imagine a faith in human power to triumph over the dark and barren space of the tomb!  No, we trust God’s power to do the impossible.  That is far more solid ground.  We thank God that He makes our hope more certain than any earthly possibilities.  He wants our faith to rest on His power not ours.

It’s a hope against hope that truly brings hope.  At that point we rest our faith not in ourselves but in Christ, the God of Resurrection and the Lord of the Impossible.

No-one sums up this up better than John Calvin:

“Everything by which we are surrounded conflicts with the promise of God.  He promises us immortality, but we are encompassed with mortality and corruption.  He pronounces that we are righteous in His sight, but we are engulfed in sin.  He declares His favour and goodwill towards us, but we are threatened by the tokens of his wrath.  What can we do?  It is His will that we should shut our eyes to what we are and have, in order that nothing may impede or even check our faith in Him.”

A law unto themselves

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Romans 2:1-29

He’s his own man.  A ‘loose canon’, a ‘live wire’, ‘off the radar’.  Or in other words “a law unto himself.”  That’s the way we tend to use the phrase nowadays.

Question:  What would God prefer us to be?  Would He rather we lived ‘under the law’ or would He rather we be ‘a law unto ourselves’?

The surprising answer is that God wants us all to stop being under the law and instead to be a law unto ourselves!  But we need to understand what the Bible means by these phrases.

Early in his letter to the Romans Paul declares the substance of his teaching:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ:  for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)

Salvation comes from the Jews, so said Jesus said in John 4.  They were the chosen people through whom the Messiah would come.  But once He came, the nations (the Gentiles) would put their hope in Him.  First the Jews, then the Gentiles.  That’s the way the gospel works.

But it is the gospel of Christ that saves the world and nothing else.  That’s why Paul immediately goes on to rule out any other way of salvation. From chapter 1:18 all the way until chapter 3:20, Paul demolishes our confidence in any human identity or ability or performance.  No nationality, no religion, no moral code, no deeds can avert the judgement that has rested upon our race since Adam.  And every attempt to lift ourselves above condemnation through the law of God is like Baron Munchhausen trying to lift himself out of the swamp by his hair.  It is futile and denies the seriousness of our predicament.

In Romans 2, Paul addresses the Jew who uses the law to feel superior to those without it.  But their claim to special treatment is void.  Having the law is one thing.  Doing what it says is entirely another:

“For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.  For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.”  (Romans 2:12-15)

So who are these Gentiles who are “a law unto themselves”?  Well verse 15 uses the language of Jeremiah 31 to describe them:  they are those with the law written on their hearts.  In other words, these are the Gentiles who are cottoning onto salvation in Christ.  They are coming into that global salvation which the Jewish Scriptures prophesied.  The whole purpose of the law was to testify to Christ, and they were following the true intention of the law by trusting Him.  Even though they never had the law of Moses (the old covenant), they are now enjoying the new covenant reality.

And the difference between the covenants is this:  in the old covenant, God’s life stood above, judging you for how far short you fell.  In the new, the law is fulfilled and God’s life is put within you.  Law is not over you.  You are a law unto yourself.  You don’t have a godly limit imposed on you, you have a godly impulse driving you.

According to Paul, if someone is “a law unto themselves” they are not unpredictable or unruly.  Certainly they have escaped from being “under the law”.  But that has liberated them to be truly good.  Not good so as to tick some boxes.  Not good, so as to make some grade.  But good from the heart.

God doesn’t want anyone to be “under the law.”  He desires Jews and Gentiles – the whole world – to become a “law unto themselves.”  Christ didn’t come to create “live wires” and rebels, that’s not what the phrase means.  To be a law unto yourself is to be liberated by Jesus from the external code and freed into the life of love which the law describes but can never produce.  The gospel is the power of God to save us from petty legalisms and bring us into Christ’s life, ruled from within not constrained from without.  In short, the difference between ‘under the law’ and ‘law unto yourself’ is the difference between God on your back, and God on your side.

I know which I’d rather, and so does God!

Saints

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Romans 1:1-17; Colossians 1:15-23

“You’re a saint!” they exclaim.  And it feels nice to be called that.  Though obviously we bat away the compliment.  Because we know it’s mock praise for a minor act of kindness.  We know they don’t really think of us as a saint.  You see in most people’s understanding saints are unapproachable, austere and long-dead individuals.  They’re not real people, not down-to-earth folk.

But the Apostle Paul thought of saints very differently.  When he wrote his letters to the churches he commonly called whole congregations “saints” (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians).

“To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Romans 1:7)

The italics you can see in this verse are original to the KJV.  They convey that the translators have added words which are not based on any underlying Greek words.  They have supplied the verb “to be” here, even though there is no such verb in Paul’s original statement.  More literally Paul says that the Romans are “called saints.”  That is their status.  That is a declaration that stands over them.  God calls them saints – not in the future but right now.

See how Paul puts it more straightforwardly in Ephesians:

“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus.”  (Ephesians 1:1)

Here were ordinary Christians, some of them well-bred, but most of them not (1 Corinthians 1:26).  Some of them cultured, some of them not (Romans 1:14).  Some of them Jews, some of them Gentiles (Romans 1:16).  All of them were sinners (Romans 3:23).  Nonetheless, all of them, through faith in Jesus, are called “saints.”  And we, if we have trusted Christ, can call ourselves “saints.”  I’m well within my rights to introduce myself as “St Glen.”  My business card can read “Glen Scrivener:  Saint.”   And so can yours if you’re a Christian.

But what does it mean?  Well the word literally means “holy ones.”  Saints are special ones, devoted ones, set apart ones.  And yet, there’s nothing in our natural circumstance that would warrant the label.  There’s nothing in our genes, nothing in our grooming, nothing even in our behaviour that makes us saintly.  But, here is the central message of Saint Paul:  unholy ones like you and me are declared to be holy, not because of our saintly deeds, but purely through the work of the Holy One, Jesus.  As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians:

“And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”  (Colossians 1:21-22)

Let me ask you a question:  How does God see you?

We tend to think the answer to that lies on a sliding scale.  Sometimes we imagine that God views us as relatively good and sometimes as relatively bad.  We think of our status with God as something like a dimmer switch, always fluctuating according to our performance.

Yet Paul says differently.  He says our status with God is like an ordinary light switch.  It’s either on or off.  In verse 21 we see the off position. Three descriptions:  alienated, enemies and wicked.  Nothing saintly about us!

What changes?  Us?  Do we embark on a little holiness project to turn things around?  No.  Here’s what changes things.  Christ works reconciliation between us and God.  He comes as peacemaker.  He takes our side, takes our flesh and puts our unholy humanity to death.  Rising up by the power of the Holy Spirit, He is presented to the Father in a glorified humanity.  When we, by that same Holy Spirit, are united to Jesus by faith, we too are presented to the Father in Christ.  And now, how does God see us?  Well Paul gives us another three descriptions, and how different they are:  “holy, unblameable and unreproveable.”

Not just blameless but unblameable.  Not just without reproof, but unreproveable.  God does not see us according to our unholiness.  He sees us in Jesus and says to us – “you are holy.”

Sainthood is not conferred by the church but by God.  Sainthood is not earned by us, but worked on our behalf by Christ.  And sainthood is not the preserve of monks and nuns.  Sainthood is the status of the Christian – every Christian.

Forget dimmer-switch Christianity, if you belong to Jesus the light has been switched on.  The decisive change has happened.  You are not climbing a saintliness ladder.  You are not walking a holiness tightrope. Whatever the world calls you, God calls you “holy, unblameable and unreproveable.”

You’re not just saintly.  You might not even be saintly.  But here’s God’s verdict, without a hint of irony or reserve, He says: “You’re a saint!”

It is more blessed to give than to receive

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Acts 20:13-38

Jesus’ version of it is probably the most famous – but everyone says “it’s better to give than receive.”  All the religions say it.  Even the atheists say it.

Last year, UCLA life scientists released a study showing the health benefits of providing support to others.  There are many such studies around.  They generally find that altruistic behaviour is beneficial, not simply for the recipient but for the giver.

Why might that be?  Well evolutionary psychologists proffer explanations like “reciprocal altruism” – when we perform a good deed we might reasonably expect them to return the favour.  Simply our anticipation of their pay-back feels good.

Evolutionary psychology, for all of its fascinating findings, reminds me of that old adage:  “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Basic selfishness is a brilliant explanation for so much of human life.  But it doesn’t capture everything, and trying to make it capture everything leads to unconvincing explanations, like this one.

If “reciprocal altruism” explained our “blessedness” in giving, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but, hey, giving’s a great way of getting!”

Or how about this for an explanation.  One of the UCLA scientists said:

“Because of the importance of support-giving for the survival of our species, it is possible that over the course of our evolutionary history, support-giving may have become psychologically rewarding to ensure that this behaviour persisted.”

If this were the case, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but remember to factor in the survival of the species over several millenia when you make your self-interested calculations.”

Once again, we’ve avoided the blessedness of true self-giving.  Self-giving is affirmed close-up, but denied when we zoom back to get the big picture.

Yet in Acts 20:35 Paul recounts a saying of Jesus that was not recorded by the four Evangelists but which was clearly remembered and circulated by the early church:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Such a sentiment is expressed in virtually every other world-view imaginable.   There’s only one difference with Christ’s saying… the Speaker.  You see “Evolutionary Psychology” may tell you it’s better to give, but Evolution itself is selfishness writ large.  Other gods may urge you to be selfless – but they themselves are self-interested takers.  The difference with Christ’s saying is Christ.

He is ultimate reality and He Himself is self-giving love, the cross proves it.  The universe with Christ at the centre is the one universe in which grace reigns.  He is the one Lord who does not come to be served but to serve and to give His life for us (Mark 10:45).

There are many exemplars of self-giving, but they operate contrary to the selfish universe they claim to inhabit.  There are many that claim to be ultimate powers who tell you to give – but these powers are themselves self-interested.  Christ is the one Power who a) tells you to give, b) is Giver and c) determines ultimate reality.  Jesus tells you to give because He is grace poured out beyond all limits.  And because the Lord is grace, so self-giving is not a means towards ultimate selfishness.  Grace is the essence of the blessed life.  There’s nothing higher, or deeper, or more real.  This is Christ’s universe.  So give.

In Him we live and move and have our being

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Acts 17:16-34

How do we proclaim the gospel to a world that thinks so differently?

“Contextualisation” is a buzz word in some Christian circles to describe the way our message needs to be fitted to our surroundings.  Today’s phrase is often used as a prime example of how Paul drew on the truths already present in the culture to build up a credible gospel presentation. You see “In Him we live and move and have our being” was originally a line from an ancient Greek poet.  Yet Paul uses the phrase to further his gospel proclamation.

So how do we relate the gospel word to an unbelieving world?

Well last time we learnt the truth that the Christian message “turns the world upside-down”.  It is the subversion of all our natural thinking. Therefore when this message meets the philosophers of Athens, we expect to see quite a clash.  Which is exactly how Acts 17 continues…

“Now while Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.  Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.  Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him.  And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods:  because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.”  (Acts 17:16-18)

Other visitors to Athens may have marvelled at the temples and statues, Paul was incensed.  He did not see these other gods as stepping stones to Jesus but as idols, pure and simple.  In contrast, Paul proclaimed “strange gods.”  In fact the Athenians seem to have thought that Paul was preaching two gods:  Jesus and Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’)! Paul was not seeking common ground on the basis of ‘some notion of deity’, he dives straight in with the Lord Jesus and His resurrection.  And this, in spite of the unpopularity of “resurrection” to the Greek mind (v32!).  It all just seemed like so much “babble” to the cultured Athenians.

But why?  We know that Paul was a wonderful communicator, millions still read his letters.  We know that these philosophers were experienced at comprehending new ideas (v21), yet the gospel sounds to them like ‘gobble-di-gook’. Paul would explain it in 1 Corinthians:

“The preaching of the cross is, to them that perish, foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Yet Paul persists (as should we all).  And when he has another opportunity, he sets out his message once again.

“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.  For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”  (Acts 17:22-23)

Some see this opening as Paul’s establishment of common ground.  Yet if there’s anything which Paul concedes to the Athenians it is their ignorance.  The one thing they seem to know is that they don’t know God.  But Paul will simply declare Him:

“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;”  (Acts 17:24-25)

We don’t make houses for the gods, God makes a home for us.  We don’t serve Him, He serves us.  He doesn’t need us, we need Him.  It’s all so blatantly obvious, and yet the very foundations of human religion are founded on folly.  And it’s folly which Paul is keen to point out.

He continues by presenting the Gospel of the Two Men.  This is something he also does in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  He tells the story of the world as the story of Adam and Christ.  First he tells us of the original man, from whom all nations of men have come…

“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:  For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”  (Acts 17:26-29)

In verse 28 Paul quotes from Epimenides (the original source of today’s saying) and from Phaenomena.  It’s the equivalent of a preacher citing the latest pop song.  Of course he uses these Greek quotes to speak against Greek culture.  He’s saying “If you really believed what you sing about, how could you live how you live?”  Paul is not vindicating the latent wisdom of the Greeks, he is exposing their foolish inconsistencies. Epimenides spoke far better than he knew and far better than the Greeks lived.  On the preacher’s lips the truth is commandeered and pressed into gospel service.  Yet on the poet’s lips it stands only to reveal their folly. But such folly must end…

“The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:  Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”  (Acts 17:30-31)

Here is the second man in Paul’s sermon.  The Man Jesus Christ answers the man Adam.  Jesus passed through the door marked ‘death’ – the door through which we all must pass – and He came out the other side.  When we pass through that door we are assured that He is the One to meet us.

He is the Judge.  Therefore we must repent.  We must completely change our thinking – that’s how Paul unpacks the meaning of “repentance.”  Our minds must be reconfigured by this gospel story.

The gospel does not confront us as one truth among many.  It sets a question mark over all ‘truths’.  It does not build on our nascent religious or philosophical intuitions, it supplants them.  In short, it shows us what should be so obvious and yet it strikes the fallen mind as revolutionary – God does not live in the intellectual worlds that we build for Him.  No – we live in His world.  For in Him we live and move and have our being.