It is the beginning of a new week of our continued reading in the New Testament. We have come a long way and we're coming to the half-way point. We are reading in the book of Romans and today we read Romans 6:1-23 and 7:1-25. With apologies for a long reading (I completely messed up in not posting yesterday), these are two difficult chapters that are important to understand. I invite you to take your time, read them and ponder the sentences and seek to get into Paul's mind as he writes. After you have finished reading it, I'd invite you to come back and we'll walk through it together. Go ahead, Romans 6 and 7.
The first rule of biblical interpretation is "Context, Context, Context". The writers of Scripture - in this case, the Apostle Paul - wrote to the churches, and individuals - with a clear purpose in mind. Paul's letters are full of great theological and biblical truths. His goal is to help us understand God's work in salvation and how that is lived out in daily life. In other words, Paul's letters usually begin with Doctrinal or Theological truths, and then are followed by practical applications to daily life.
In the first section of this letter, Paul laid out the good news of the Gospel. It is good news because otherwise there is only bad news. ALL human beings - pagans or religious people - have the same underlying problem - Our Sin Nature. The good news is that God did something about it in sending His Son into the world to redeem us - through His shed blood and death on the cross. We are "justified by his grace as a gift" (3:23) by the work of Christ. As Paul reminded us, we did no works to achieve this salvation - even faith is a work of his grace, and that excludes all boasting on our part that we did something to gain Justification before God (3:27ff).
It is "Good News" that God has given to us His salvation. He "imputes" to us the righteousness of Christ (5:17-19), which means that Christ Jesus took our Sin, and we received His righteousness - a divine exchange of grace. Luther and Calvin and the Reformers understood this so clearly. God's salvation is "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone" - Amen!
Having made the doctrine of Justification so clear. Paul begins to deal with the implications of Justification in our lives. Beginning in chapter 6 and through chapter 8, Paul reminds us that the Justification we have received is not without its difficulties being worked out in our lives. The language in this section is at times troubling, and at times creates doubts and fears for Christians. Having just told us that we have been saved through the work of Christ, by God's grace, we now are faced with the realities of how that works itself out in our lives.
The question Paul asks at the outset is what frames the conversation: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1). Since the Apostle had just said that "where Sin abounded, Grace abounded more", some took the words to mean "go ahead and do whatever you wish to do, for Grace will cover your sin". Paul was often accused of what is referred to as "antinomianism" - lit., to throw aside the moral and ethical teachings of the Law of God. I've heard it hundreds of times - "we're saved by grace, we're no longer under the law". Translated, a person often means “if I sin, God’s grace will always cover me, so what difference does it make if I keep on sinning?”
We'll eventually get to the way in which the Law still operates in our lives as we continue to read Paul's letters; but for now, let's be clear, Paul has no appetite for a grace that allows us to continue to serve our Sinful nature - "By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (6:2). The word he uses is short - "me" (may) - literally, "absolutely not". Then Paul asks two more questions - both rhetorical, meaning the answer is clear from the question: "How can we who died to sin still live in it?", followed by "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" The questions are framed by Paul so that the answer is obvious. We who have received the grace of God leading to our Justification have received "new life in Christ" (6:4), and thus, we died with Christ and we were resurrected with Christ into this new life (6:5). All of this was done to end our slavery to Sin.
The U.S. just celebrated "Juneteenth". It was a celebration of the freedom of slaves made clear at the end of the Civil War. The war was already over, and the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued 2+ years before, but slaves in Texas were still treated as slaves until the Union army made it clear, these are not slaves anymore - they are freed people. Booker T. Washington grew up as a slave. He said that after the emancipation proclamation was announced, there was great rejoicing, and officially the slaves were freed. Yet he writes that after this, the freedom was still difficult for some to walk in. “While officially free, they didn't know how to walk out that freedom. Many of the slaves returned to the plantations to work as share-croppers and in many ways retained their status as ‘freed’ ‘slaves’.
As a white person, I don't have a grid for this, but as a Christian, I have a clear understanding of this. We have been freed by Christ Jesus to live a new life - why do we go back to live out the slavery of our Sinful nature? Paul uses the imagery of resurrection and baptism as a way of reminding us that we have a new identity - we are "In Christ" - spiritually His experiences became our experiences. His death and resurrection are true for us also. It was the truth he had stated previously in our Salvation (Justification) (5:21), and now he applies it to our life in Christ - our Sanctification.
To abbreviate this, let's focus our attention on three keywords that follow: "Know", "Consider", "Present".
First, "Know the Truth" (6:4). We are "baptized" - not water baptism, but a Spirit baptism - into Christ's death. We gain what he experienced and even as Christ was resurrected to life, so also as we put our faith in Christ Jesus we are also "immersed" into His life - a new life as God's child. Now what we begin to realize, or begin to "know" is that we still live in "this body of Sin" (6:6) and that the reality of a resurrected life will not fully be realized until we live with Him in eternity (6:8).
Second, "Consider". Since our life in Christ is real, but still exists in our body that retains a sinful nature - we have to choose to die to sin! Paul puts it like this: "Christ died, was raised, and will not die again" (6:9-10), so, "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus
(6:11). Christ Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead...but Lazarus later succumbed to something that led to his death, again. Yet, in the resurrection, the dead are raised to eternal life - never to die again. Here is a summary statement of all that Paul has written thus far:
The death of Jesus was a redeeming death for ALL who put their trust in him (3:21-5:21), and now the New life of His resurrection is Our life as we walk it out by faith in Him (chapters 6-8). Consider it done...reckon it to be true...claim it as truth and reality every day. Count on it...live it out. That's the point Paul is making.
Lastly, Present: "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. (6:13). Our new identity as a child of God leads us to a new reality - we can leave our slavery from our Sin because we have the life of Christ - through his Holy Spirit - within.
Summarized: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (6:14). There are two parts to this new life: Sin is no longer a master, and we are not doing what we do to fulfill the law, but to live in the Grace of God. Grace is the key...it is not of this world, and operates in the sphere of God's love, mercy, and joy. Grace is the wonder of God as he parents children who need to grow up. Because Grace is so foreign to us, it takes a life of it to grow into a proper understanding of it. It is the work of the Holy Spirit over our lifetime that gives us awareness of what God is doing in and through us. In short, he is killing off the old self, and raising up the new person to be like Christ.
Know the truth of who you are. Consider the way in which this truth can replace the lies of the sinful nature. Habits are difficult to break, but God is persistent and never gives up. Present yourself to God, daily, hourly, minute by minute if need be, and allow his Grace to inform and transform us from the inside out. Many of us know all too well the stubborn sinful nature that can arise within us and show its ugly head at various times. Don't accept it that this is who you are...it's a lie! The truth is "I am a Child of God".
Bob Dylan had it right - "you gotta serve somebody". That's the point Paul is making at the end of the chapter. "Thanks be to God" (6:17)...I can choose Christ! Nothing in my old life of sinful selfishness ever came out good. That's the end of it all in our choices, isn't it? (6:22). He ends, "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (6:22-23). "You gotta serve somebody!"
Now we go on to Romans 7. Romans 7 is one of the most difficult passages to comprehend. Paul had shifted his emphasis, beginning in chapter 6, from Justification - which was how God declared us righteous through the redemption that Jesus accomplished for us - to Sanctification - which is how we walk out the new life we have in Christ in everyday practical ways. Now that we discover we are alive in Christ and that Christ has changed our lives, the obvious question becomes, "then why do I still struggle with Sin?"
The first thing Paul tackles is whether the problem lies outside of ourselves, or within ourselves. The issue he deals with is the Old Testament Law - "I am speaking to those who know the Law..." (vs 1). His audience is the church in Rome, made up, as most early churches were, with Christians who had come from Jewish backgrounds. These people were raised to understand, live by, and obey the Law. In coming to Christ, much of the Law has been set aside, as Christ fulfilled the requirements of the sacrificial and ceremonial parts of the Law. Paul had just made the case that the believer is "not under the Law, but under grace" (6:14).
In the first part, Paul used a hypothetical scenario about the Law in relation to the death of a spouse. In marriage when a spouse dies, the living spouse is free to pursue a new relationship without a charge of adultery. The question we ask then is: "Who died?" Paul had already established the case that "in Christ" we have died and been raised to a new life in Christ (5:12-21). Our union with Christ has given us new life, thus we, who are believers, have been released from the obligations of the law: "But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (7:6).
While it sounds so simple, it is not. It creates several questions about our past, present, and future when the support system of "the Law" is no longer in charge of the way we live. This is now where Paul begins to use the first person "I" over and over to reflect on how the new life in Christ is still one of struggle.
In terms of the past, Paul makes it perfectly clear - the problem is not the Law (7:7-12). Paul had often been accused of abandoning the law of Moses and preaching an "anti-law" gospel. He makes it clear, the Law serves an essential role in revealing what is sin and what is not. How do we know killing, stealing, lying, coveting is wrong? The law says it is, and the law came from God - the problem isn't the law. In fact, in vs.12, Paul even exalts the law: "...the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (7:12).
Beginning in 7:14 - 25, the question Paul shift to is His own present experience and the struggles of sin in his life as a believer. We might best understand what Paul is dealing with by reframing the issue like this: "Since I have received new life in Christ, and am now released from the law to serve in the new way of the Spirit, how then do I learn to deal with my struggle with ongoing sin?
We begin by understanding that God's law is not the problem (7:14). The problem is within myself - my Sin nature is not destroyed (7:17-18), and although it is true that I do have new life in Christ, it is not a life that makes me immediately perfect (7:21-23). It is the "now" and "not yet" reality of Christ in me transforming my life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, day by day, year by year, from the beginning to the end of life.
The new life in Christ is real - very real - but we often find ourselves trapped in the past - old records are playing and we'd like to stop the music, but we can't. The personal struggle Paul reveals is ours also. Yes, to New Life...Yes to Grace through Faith in Christ... Yes to the work of the Holy Spirit within...Yes and Amen. BUT, No to religious pretending...No to outward shows of Piety while inwardly struggling...No to hypocrisy...No to pride.
The life of a Christian is a life of humility. I'm not what I was, and I'm not what I want to be - in fact, with Paul I can say: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (7:24). The Christian life is not a "now that you've accepted Jesus all of life will turn out to be easy" - No. Do not let people preach a false gospel of the life of a Christian in all positive and no negative terms. The life of a Christian is a struggle - a life lived in living with the "wretchedness" of self which humbles and destroys pride but leads us to an answer that Paul himself asked: "Who will deliver me...? "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:25).
In Romans 7 we learn a valuable, even indispensable truth. We will never grow up in Christ by trying to perform our way to self-improvement. What began for us as a gift of God's grace, continues to be how we grow - by God's grace and the exercise of Faith. There is no perfection down here...only Saints in process. Our approach to this life in process was summed up at the beginning of chapter 7, in vs. 4: "Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (7:4). We turn the page from chapter 7 to chapter 8 in order to learn how we bear that fruit by living in the freedom of the indwelling Holy Spirit.