I was listening to a sermon this last weekend about Christian living. It was an odd experience to me: virtually everything the man said was true, but he left out two points that are oh-so-important.
He spoke about the temptation in the Garden, and illustrated James 1:14–17 from Genesis 3. He pointed out that we all have desires, and it's not wrong to have desires, but the first step in the temptation in the Garden was questioning God's motives: the serpent came to Eve with the suggestion that God was holding some good thing back from her. And he talked about how doubting God's motives led to her attempting to find satisfaction from disobeying God. And that led to sin and guilt and shame and death.
I'm painting in broad strokes here: his description of Genesis 3:6ff was actually quite good. But he seemed to miss a very important point when he drew an application to us: unlike Eve (and Adam), we are fallen. Adam and Eve started out innocent. We are not innocent: each of us has indwelling sin. Romans 5:19 tells us that one man's disobedience made everyone a sinner. That's not to say that we are all guilty of Adam's sin, but it is to say that I am a sinner because of Adam's sin.
So regardless of how free Adam's will (or Eve's will) was in the Garden, we really don't have free will now. I don't mean we don't make choices, I mean our will isn't really free. We are inclined to sin: not merely predisposed to sin, but Adam's sin has made us all slaves to sin.
The only freedom from sin is in death (Romans 6:7). Christ has died for my sins according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:10); that deals with my guilt. I have died with Christ (Romans 6:1–7); that deals with my sinfulness (Romans 6:11). God has made me free from the rule of sin by identifying me with Christ in death (Romans 6:4).
It seems to me that legalism is characterized by not really believing that we are lost. If we are guilty, but not lost, we might see law (the Law of Moses, or some other law) as a path to practical righteousness, because we think we could actually keep it. But Romans 8:3 speaks directly to this idea: law (and here isn't specifically the Law of God) isn't effective, because it is weakened by flesh. I don't take that to mean that flesh in some way changes the Law, but that flesh simply can't keep it. That's borne out a few verses later: the fleshly mind is enmity with God because it isn't subect to the Law of God and cannot be (Romans 8:7). It's not simply that the carnal mind isn't subject to the Law – it's that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the Law of God.
And so we hear really good advice from well-meaning men and women who urge us to obey God. But the problem isn't that the advice isn't good, the problem is that we find ourselves entirely powerless to take it. The harder we try to obey God, the more we realize we simply can't do it.
Romans 5:9 through 8:39 lays out for us the Christian life. It starts with justification from guilt: because Christ has died for my sins, God is able to justly justify me (Romans 3:26). The one who doesn't work, but believes God is justified from all his or her sins (Romans 4:5). Regardless of what terrible things he or she has done, God freely forgives the person who believes Him (Acts 13:38–39).
Having been forgiven all our sins, we now face the question of what our life should look like. And we set out to obey God, but find ourselves incapable of doing so. The solution to this problem starts in Romans 6:1–11. There we find that Christ has died not only as our Sacrifice, but also as our Representative. God sees us as dead with Him, and it's our believing God that makes us free.
Notice it's exactly the same principle in Romans 4:5 as Romans 6:6–11. In both cases, the question is, "Do you believe God?" Do we believe God when He says that Christ has died for our sins? Do we believe God when He says that we have died with Christ? Believing God is the key to forgiveness of sins as well as freedom from the power of sin.
Romans 6 deals with two questions:
- shall we continue in sin? (Romans 6:1–14)
- shall we sin? (Romans 6:15–23)
The answer to the first question is, "we have died to sin, how should we live in it?" And notice here it's not sins, but sin. It's really talking about the principle of sin that lives in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 8:10–11).
The answer to the second question is, "you become the slave of the one you obey." Don't let's fool ourselves: if we start dabbling in sin, we've taken the first step to being a slave to sin.
There is a lot of debate about Romans 7. It doesn't sound like it should come between Romans 6 and Romans 8: it's almost like a step backwards to go from Romans 6 to Romans 7. The answer is that chapter 7 parallels chapter 6. In Romans 6, we're freed by death from sin; in Romans 7 we're freed by death from law.
Almost everything I've read on Romans 7 has been unsatisfactory. It seems to me whatever position you take on it, you're going to have some problems. But if we step away from the theological aspects of the chapter and look at it practically, it becomes a lot simpler.
Romans 7 brings us back to the question of legalism. What is the effect of the Law in our lives? We find, perhaps to our surprise, that the effect of law is to bring death to us (Romans 7:8–14). We tend to think that adding law (our own rules, or even God's) to our lives will have a purifying effect, but the testimony of scripture is that it brings death.
The two key verses are Romans 7:5–6. There is a contrast between "when we were in the flesh" in v. 5 and "but now we are delivered" in v. 6. So Romans 7:5 is summarizing Romans 7:7–24, while Romans 7:6 describes Romans 7:25–8:17.
Consider Philippians 3:9–10, where we learn that being "in Christ" means having no righteousness of my own. This is exactly opposite to what Romans 7:7–24 describes: it's someone trying to accomplish righteous before God, and he finds all he manages to do is sin worse.
The key in Romans 7 is giving up on ourselves. And to our surprise, when we give up on ourselves, we find the Holy Spirit ready to guide our steps (Romans 8:1–4). And so we come to this amazing section about "walking in the spirit."
So going back to this sermon I heard... there were two fundamental truths of the New Testament that were missing. First, our life has ended with Christ. We must accept this as true before we can be fruitful for God (Romans 7:4). There is no fruit for God unless we are dead with Christ.
Second, we must be empowered by the Spirit of God. My efforts to live righteously for God are pretty much summed up as, "when we were in the flesh." It's when we accept we have no righteousness of our own that we are really "in Christ" (Philippians 3:9–10).
Again, we're thinking in practical terms here. No doubt God sees us as "in Christ" regardless of how we act. But our experience won't reflect that as long as we're trying to generate righteousness for God.
But in the end, we're not rational creatures. Everything the man said about temptation was true, but I really don't think it will change anything. Our problem is moral, not rational. We need to be delivered through the cross of Christ in order to live righteously before God.