Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Struggle is Real Pt. 1: The Struggle of the Law

There is a popular meme on social media these days that simply says “the struggle is real.” It is something that people say/post when they are faced with a frustration, inconvenience, or difficulty. It is an acknowledgment of stress and a recognition of effort that is required to overcome an obstacle or circumvent an issue. Interestingly, I imagine many of the reformers embracing this little maxim—the struggle is real. For many in the reformation, especially Martin Luther, they understood their conflict with sin and growth in Christ-likeness as something of a real test and struggle. In fact, Paul agrees when he says,

Philippians 2:12-“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;”

2 Corinthians 7:1-“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

Romans 8:13-“for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Growing in Christ is a real struggle in the midst of this world and our natural tendencies, so much so that Paul devotes an entire chapter in Romans to this topic. Today we begin part 1 of an important series entitled—“The Struggle is real”—in which we will acknowledge the struggle that is sanctification and learn how, in God’s grace, we can endure to the end while growing in Christ-likeness. Today we will look at two elements of Paul’s teaching concerning one’s struggle with the law in Romans 7:1-6.

a. The Illustration of a Widow- 7:1-3

In Romans 7, Paul moves from his explanation of salvation past—justification—to his delineation of salvation present—sanctification (growing more like Christ). In chapter 8, Paul will deal with the promise of salvation future—glorification. However, this middle phase or second step in the salvation process will preoccupy the next few weeks as we examine what we are calling the struggle and, as the title of this mini-series makes clear, the struggle is real. The struggle is real because there are many things that either stand in our way or distract us from endorsing phase 2 (sanctification) rightly and growing more like Christ. Today we are going to look at the first of three hurdles that all must scale in order to grow in Christ well—the Law.

Paul begins his discussion in verse 1 when he asks, “Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?”  In a comment on Paul’s opening line, one commentator has said, “Paul puts his arm around the Roman Christians in order to draw as near to them as possible with the great assurance that the justified are, indeed, delivered from the law” (Lenski 1945:443). This, Paul does, by referring to his audience as brothers. Paul, like the religious Jews and those who admired them, knows how big a struggle the law is. After all, Paul is a Jew’s Jew and was a law-embracer himself. The law was attractive to many as it gave them a means to keep score, compare themselves to others, and check off requirements. Like many today, measured tangible practices are preferred over real spiritual maturation. Therefore, in his instructions to those listening, Paul demonstrates his familiarity with their struggle and states “The law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives.”

But why is this a struggle? How does the law potentially keep someone from growing more like Jesus? Because the law is a condemning master. The verb for “has jurisdiction” means “to be master of” or “to dominate.” While all masters are not bad, the law only has the power to point out sin and prescribe punishment.

Galatians 3:22-24-“But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

The law, which is master over everyone is only capable of exposing flaws and condemnation. Though for many, this led to legalism and an unnatural pursuit of moral perfection in one’s own strength, the law was designed to frustrate people so that they might give up trying to be holy and lean on someone else entirely—Jesus Christ. Until then, the law hangs over people as an unforgiving master—“as long as he lives” (7:1).

If this is complicated, Paul provides some clarification by means of an analogy—marriage. He says in verse 2, “For the married woman is bound by the law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.” Before people are tempted to draw all kinds of conclusions about marriage and divorce from this passage, remember what Paul is ultimately discussing here—the law and the struggle thereof. The word “law” (nomoV) is used no less than three times in verses 2-3 and eight times in verses 1-6. “The topic of Paul’s discussion is the law, and marriage is simply an illustration of its lifelong nature” (Osborne, 2004:168). After all, does not a married couple intended to “belong to” each other “until death do them part?”

Like the bond of marriage, which is designed to only be broken by death, people are bound to the law until the death.

Paul continues his explanation by saying, “so then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (7:3a). Once married, the woman’s allegiance is to her husband and the husband to his wife. Transgressing that exclusivity results in adultery. Similarly, people cannot be joined to the law and Christ simultaneously. One cannot have two lords and/or masters. Other verses make this case in varying ways.

Luke 16:13-“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

James 1:5-8-“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

In all of these contexts it is made abundantly clear that one cannot be beholden to more than two rulers simultaneously. This includes one’s allegiance to the law and ones allegiance to Christ. As long as one is married to the law he cannot grow, he can only be condemned. This is a real problem as everyone who is born is born married to this system of the law and condemned in his/her sin. The law is a struggle and the struggle is real. 

However, there is an out—a pretty radical one at that—that makes freedom from the law possible and potential growth in Christ expected—“but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (7:3b).

b. The Revelation of One’s freedom from the Law-7:4-6

Just as death severs a marriage bond and frees a woman/man to remarry someone else, so too does Christ’s death sever the bond between people and the condemnation of the law –that is potentially for all who believe. Those who died with Christ in his death and have been raised in his resurrection are freed from the law and awakened to a new master and new possibilities for growth in Christ as realized in what is called “sanctification.”

 “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4a). Part of overcoming the struggle of the law involves recognizing that Christ’s death has freed one from the condemnation of the law, making it possible to grow and develop in the Lord.

In the marriage to the law equation, the law must not die (after all, Jesus said that not a jot or title shall depart from it until all is accomplished in Matthew 5:18), we must die and in Christ this death can be facilitated.

Romans 6:5ff-“For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; For he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him”

This is what Paul means when he says “so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead” (7:4b).

Have you ever stopped to consider how much your relationships in general and your marriage in particular affects who you are and what you do? I can say with great certainty that I have changed a great deal because of my relationship with my wife. She has softened some of my rough edges and changed my perspective on a many things. In fact, I’d say, next to Jesus, she has been quite a sanctifying agent in my life. The same is true, albeit on an infinitely greater level with one’s relationship with Christ. Because of the believer’s relationship with Jesus, they, like Him, have risen life from the dead and that same power to help them grow in His likeness. It is one of the many benefits of the believer’s marriage to Jesus.

What results from this new marriage? What is yielded from growing in Christ (sanctification)? The answer is in the purpose clause of verse 4 “in order that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4c). While the law only brought us the knowledge of our need, Jesus brings us the opportunity to be productive. Something meaningful, something refreshing, something eternal is yielded from the lives of those who have been joined to Jesus and are growing in Him. This is what Paul means when he speaks of fruit. The apostles John echoes these truths in his gospel.

John 15:1-5-“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

This life-giving, eternal fruit yielded in sanctification is far greater than what was produced in one’s relationship to the law before. Paul continues in verse 5 and says “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (7:5). In other words, the law for sinners only brings about the knowledge of sin and condemns them to their much-deserved death. Thankfully, there is a better system.

 “…But now [Paul continues] we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter,…” (7:6). The believer’s death “in Christ” and subsequent resurrection affords him the opportunity to break ties with the law and live in the newness of the Spirit. Such living is indicative of the sanctified life—a life that seeks to grow more like Jesus, abiding in Him, bearing eternal fruit.

So What?

The law is a struggle. Adherence to codes and measuring ourselves against the next person by means of a set of objectives is tempting for all of us who were born into sin and made to live under the law from our birth. However, we must realize, as Paul explains here, that living in this way only brings about condemnation and death. What is needed is a new system characteristic of a marriage more than a tutor. This comes through Jesus Christ. His death and our death in Him through faith, has broken our subjection to the oppressive law and makes it possible for us to marry a far better suitor. Relationship with Him yields fruit, not guilt and leads to life, not death. Believers must understand that the process of sanctification is predicated on this change of allegiance. One cannot be sanctified or grow in Christ if he/she is still living under the law. Instead, he/she must be married to Jesus, filled with His spirit, and capable to bearing lasting fruit. The struggle is real, but praise be to God that it is not overwhelming. It can be circumvented in Christ. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Slavery and Salvation- Rom. 6:15-23

Unfortunately, it seems that with every passing week we are given a taste of what sin and its many effects are capable of in our world. Whether it is a horrific shooting spree in Las Vegas that kills dozens, scandal, bigotry, natural disasters, etc. these events/episodes stir something within each of us that cries out for salvation. In a fit of justified rage and grief many people cry out in times like this for something to be done! My friends, something has been done to totally rid the world of sin and its many implications. Something is, in fact, available to provide freedom from the root problem behind all of these travesties and in Romans 6, Paul provides a cohesive and well-organized study on the nature of salvation. In verses 6-7, Paul said “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died has freed from sin.” In this verse, Paul introduces the idea that sin is death and slavery. These two concepts preoccupy the remainder of the chapter. In fact, in 6:8-14, Paul described how sin is death and that it is only by dying in Christ that people can be made truly alive. Today we look at the other analogy Paul draws—slavery—in verses 15-23. As Paul wraps up chapter 6, he describes how sin is slavery and shows how the only way out of servitude to this cruel master is to hand oneself over to another master altogether—God.


Toward the end of Romans 6 Paul provides an answer to a question that may have been raised based on what he just finished saying in the previous passage—“For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (6:14). Some may have believed that this statement opened the door to lawlessness. Paul’s take on the potential question is as follows: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?...”After all, if believers are no longer under the law, perhaps “anything goes.”

This is not unlike the question that Paul opened chapter 6 with—“What shall we say then Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” To this question, Paul answered sharply and proved that grace is not intended as either insurance or license. However, remember (how could you forget), repetition leads to retention; repetition leads to retention.

That said, the repetition here draws attention to the two programs available for people and their relationship to God—the law and grace. The “law” is the system of old that judged people worthy based on performance. Though we associate this system with the Jews of the Old Testament, EVERYONE without Christ is captive to this system and found guilty of its incredibly high standards—standards made even higher by Jesus Christ. “Grace” is the system that Jesus implemented. 

Knowing that none could measure up to the standard of the law, God offered grace to bring people up where they could never venture themselves—righteousness—and this through His Son. Such a gift cost Jesus everything and results in eternal salvation for all who believe in Him. Two systems, one infinitely better than the other. But the question still remains—“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?...””


Paul’s answer to this latest iteration of the same inquiry is just as sharp as before—“May it never be!...” (6:15b) (see also 6:2).

Though this leaves very little room for debate, Paul feels the need to explain. This he does by asking a question of his own (a very lengthy question at that…typical Paul)—“Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey…” (6:16a).

In the last passage (6:8-14), the state of people’s spirituality was identified by how their “instruments” were employed. Instruments used for sin lead to death. Instruments used for righteousness lead to life. Here, Paul draws a similar line of thought but employs this new analogy of slavery. However, before one can appreciate this analogy, people need to understand what slavery meant in Rome.

Slavery was one of the best known institutions in the ancient world. Almost 35-40% of Roman citizens were slaves in the first century! In other words, Paul’s analogy here would have been one that all of his readers could comprehend. Interestingly, the analogy fits especially well given that people in the ancient world could sell themselves into slavery. This is hinted at when Paul says “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey” (6:16a).

With this background firmly in view, Paul makes known that those who hand themselves over to be slaves of sin (obedient to sin), live a life resulting in death. In the Reformation spirit of this month, it is helpful to point out how Martin Luther understood the connection between sin and death. For Martin Luther sin was death, not just a weakness overcome with some kind of spiritual calisthenics or a minor issue to be worked out by personal effort or therapy. Sin was DEATH thereby requiring supernatural transformation to beat. Such can only come through the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Those obedient to sin and enslaved to its power can only expect death. Paul teaches this in Romans 6, Martin Luther recognized this in the 16th century, and we confirm it again today.

Thankfully, there is another option—“or of obedience resulting in righteousness?...” (6:16c). One can either be a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. Obedience to the former leads to death. Obedience to the latter leads to righteousness and life. Delineating these two options is Paul’s answer to this question “can we sin since we are not under the law?” Those who ask this misunderstand and under-appreciate the problem of sin. Sin is death! Obeying it makes no sense for those who have been shown grace. What does make sense is obedience to God and his righteousness in response to grace He has made available.


To enjoy the latter of these two programs (righteousness), on must transfer allegiance from sin to God. As Paul articulates this he introduces two implications of such a transaction—submission and sanctification. The new program of submission is identified in verses 17-18—“ But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness,…”.

It is difficult for us modern westerners to appreciate what Paul is saying here and what it must have meant to his original audience. In our world, especially in the United States, we prize our autonomy. This, no doubt, has been passed down from the humanist fathers of the Enlightenment that so shaped the western world and taught that the noblest human being is the one who is subject to nothing but his/her own rational considerations. In contrast, those in the first century accepted that all were under the control of outside powers—whether they be gods, fate, or heads of state. The biblical writers share this conviction in their understanding of almighty God. In fact, nowhere does Paul ever suggest that a person might be a slave to nothing. Instead, he teaches that either people are enslaved to sin or to God and his righteousness—there is no middle ground.

That said, those who are enslaved to the right master can expect a new program of submission and new results. 

Paul continues, “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification…” Here, Paul teaches that those obedient to God and His teachings can expect new results. While the old master (sin) could only offer death, the new master (God and His righteousness) offers sanctification. This word denotes a process of being set apart from the world. In fact, the root of “sanctification” is the same for “holiness.” In other words, the correct program affords the greatest implication of all—growth toward godliness. “As Christians give themselves in slavery to righteousness, they will progress further and further on the path of becoming different from the world and closer to the Lord’s own holiness” (Moo, ZIBBC, 39).


Paul concludes this passage with two summaries that help wrap up the entire chapter. First, he summarizes what the lost can expect as a result of their present condition—“… For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death,…” (6:20-21).

The lost are free in one sense but enslaved in another. They are free from God’s righteousness and yet enslaved to their sin (in fact Romans 1 says that they have been handed over to their sin). This results in death. Slavery to sin = death!

 “But now,” Paul continues, “having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification and the outcome, eternal life” (6:22). This verse successfully summarizes what believers can expect from their slavery to God. Belonging to God in this way is predicated on “having been freed from sin.” This phrase is a causal participial phrase that implies a past act with present implications. Because believers have been freed from the chains of sin in the past, they presently and forever belong to God. This results not in death, but in benefit. What is this benefit? There are two: present growth in sanctification and eternal life forever. What Paul summarizes here is infinitely preferred over the sinful program mentioned in the previous verses. 
To be sure that he has gotten through to his audience the differences there is between sin and righteousness, Paul reiterates (again) himself by means of a final verse in this chapter that (again) draws upon the same ideas as before (remember, repetition leads to retention). He says “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).

 “Wages” is a word that means “provisions” and is often used for money paid for services rendered. All that sin pays the individual in return for his/her allegiance is death. However, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When sin offers death, God offers life and this through Jesus Christ! It is really that simple!

So What?

The many problems our world faces are not ultimately caused by fumes, poor legislation, lack of education, the economy, etc. While certainly, in some cases, these things might exacerbate problems, ultimately, at its core, the world and its people are suffering from a bad case of sin. Sin is death and sin is slavery. Those individuals and institutions who sell themselves into the slavery of sin are beaten down, mistreated, and unsatisfied. Thankfully, life is available and another master can take ownership of our lives. Those individuals who hand themselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ are built up, transformed, and eternally satisfied.

The issues our world faces are, in their most fundamental sense, spiritual in nature. Therefore, what this world needs more of is Jesus and his followers who take the life-saving message of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Who do you know that is still enslaved in their sin and buying time until their death? Who do you know that needs a new master?