T he letter of Paul to the Roman church has always been a challenging book for God’s people to understand. We, as a church, began our own journey through this letter towards the end of 2017 and it has not been an easy journey. And after months of learning, we now stand at the foot of Romans 8, a great mountain for us to climb, ‘The Great Eight’ as John Piper calls it.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had three whole sessions where all we did was an overview of chapters 1 through 7, and, through it all, the constant prayer in my heart has been that God would perform a mighty work of grace among us, both to quicken the spirits of those who believe and to awaken the spirits of those who do not. But why three overviews? Why after months of expounding chapters 1 through 7, for that matter? Well, to be honest, it is my opinion that three is still far too less a number in relation to the magnitude of truth that God has laid out for us in these chapters, and subsequently, the innumerable practical applications that one could draw out from them. However, the more pressing reason why I took so much time to overview these chapters was to prepare us, as best as possible, for Romans 8 and 9.
Make no mistake about it – chapters 8 and 9 are a treasure chest of undying hope and faith for the Christian. But like any treasure, it is not without it’s share of controversies. A lot of battles have been fought by theologians on the soil of these two chapters, and Christians, to this day, remain divided over this. Now, it is not just a matter of which side you take but it is also a matter of misplaced zeal seen in men that can have a deep passion over these passages in such a way that it results in a visible distortion of the fruits of the Gospel in their lives, making them appear very unchristian. Sadly, some even slip to the deception of a twisted Gospel, no more than a figment of their imagination. We must be careful not to be like them, not to fall prey to this trap and become like those who, claiming to be wise, became fools. But, how? How can we, in these upcoming chapters, safeguard ourselves from both the error of disbelief and the error of misbelief? Romans 1 to 7.
I am convinced that a firm understanding and grounding in these chapters will safeguard us from such errors. I believe this with all my heart. Think about it. It is the very foundation that Paul himself lays before making his case in chapters 8 and 9. Therefore, based on our overviews, here are seven points to consider, or as I’ve titled it, 7 steps to Romans 8.
1. The Gospel is the power
Paul makes one his most quoted statements in Romans 1:16-17 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” There is a reason why Paul begins with this foundational statement before making his arguments in the first 7 chapters. Throughout his presentation of the depravity of the human race, the ineffectiveness of the Law to save on account of our sin, the grace that abounds to those who believe, and the believer who remains divided between the sinful desires of his flesh and the godly desires of his mind; throughout all this, he wants us to remember that the Gospel remains the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Not theological finesse, nor doctrinal efficacy, nor seasoned wisdom, nor affiliations, nor denominations, nor ordinations, nor sinner’s prayers, nor the healing of counsellors, nor rational intelligibility, nor Calvinism – none of these, but the Gospel, the good news for all men that Christ has come to redeem us from our sins. The Gospel alone is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Therefore, we preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). Period.
The Gospel alone is
the power of God for salvation
to everyone who believes.
2. When sin goes deep, Grace goes deeper still
Disappointment in the Christian ministry is not a surprising thing. Sometimes we wonder how people can believe what they believe about certain things and do what they do in many situations. We might often expect the world to act in a sinful manner, but not the Church. But Paul reminds us that sin in the church is not uncommon and ought to be expected as long as we live on this side of Christ’s second coming. However, these encounters can often be disheartening whether outside or within the Christian community. We must take heart and lean, once again, on the power of the Gospel. Because, such is the grace of God for us who believe, that when our sins prevail, His grace prevails even more (Romans 5:8).
Therefore, when we see sin in our own lives, let us hold fast to the hope of His grace and we will find our strength in His forgiveness. And, all the more, when we see sin in other people’s lives, let us hold firm to the same hope and not be fast to forget that this same grace is available to them, as long as they belong to Him. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of hope and we, as Christians, must show the evidence of that hope in our sanctification, discipling, and evangelism.
3. There is no room for boasting
It is interesting to note that Paul’s argument for unity among the Jews and Gentiles (for there was division among them) does not begin with the cross. We tend to start our conversations or persuasions regarding unity by pointing to the one cross, one salvation, one headship and one Spirit who sanctifies the justified. But Paul begins elsewhere. He begins with sin. He basically says that even if you take away all that is the Gospel, you are not left with implicitly distinctive people. There is no true division among unbelievers because there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22(b)-23). That leaves no room for boasting for anyone who is an unbeliever since none stand justified before God through their works or through their heritage which was exactly what the Jews believed gave them a just standing before God because they were children of Abraham. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Romans 2:28-29).
But what about believers? Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:27-28). We are justified by faith apart from works. So, that leaves no room for boasting for the believer either. For just as we were united in sin as unbelievers, we now stand united in Christ as believers. I am reminded of the lyrics that put it so well –
Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done
Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.
4. Christians uphold the Law
The radical statements that Paul makes regarding the law and its ineffectiveness to save can be unnerving. He argues that the law, although righteous, holy and good, leads to the knowledge of sin and this sin wages a war in our hearts, inevitably leading us to break that very law of God. Sin then produces death which is the penalty for breaking the law (Romans 6:23). Thus, Paul shows us the inevitable loop of human depravity where we, as people fallen into this well of sin, are unable to climb out by the ladder of the law, extended down to us, because of the brokenness of our flesh. But this is exactly where grace shows up. Because, what the law could not do, Jesus did by His redemptive work on the cross, purchasing for us the freedom from the rule of sin and damnation by Himself enduring the just punishment that we deserved. For just as sin entered mankind through one man, corrupting all of humanity, grace entered the world through one man, redeeming all who believe. Paul heightens the power of this grace, this Gospel over the power of sin in that not only does this grace linger deeper than any sin to save absolutely anyone who believes, but this grace now empowers God’s people to uphold the law. For now, God has taken the law and written it in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). We may still sin, as believers, but we no longer live under the rule of sin. We live under the rule of Christ and those who belong to Christ inevitably pursue to uphold the law (Romans 3:31).
5. Sin still remains in our flesh
Sin isn’t alien to us who profess faith in Christ. We know that we, as believers, still continue to sin and fall short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3:23). Paul, in Romans 7, shows us the relationship sin has to a believer’s life. Although the work of Christ saves us from the rule of sin or the dominion of sin, the sinful nature is still present in our flesh. When the Bible teaches us that in Christ we are a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come, we do not see a physical change in our bodies. Our hands remain the same hands, our legs the same, and every other part of our body the same. In fact, our situations and circumstances mostly remain the same. Well then, what changes? If you say our hearts, what does that mean? Our physical hearts remain the same. What you’d probably be referring to is a change in our affections, our emotions, our feelings. And that’s absolutely true. But we must understand that our affections and feelings are temporal and that they change in response to something else. If we depended on them we would follow anything that excites our hearts, and that happens to be mostly sin. That brings us to the one change that matters most in the Christian transformation. A change in our minds. The Holy Spirit enlightens the eyes of our heart – our mind – to the truth of the Gospel and we respond by believing. Faith is thus birthed in our lives. However, our hearts, being deceitfully wicked, constantly turn to the pleasures of sin. Paul calls this our fleshly nature, or simply our flesh. And when we look to Jesus and ponder our minds on the exalted Saviour, our hearts respond in kind and turn to heavenly pleasures. Hence, we see a war raging in our souls between the flesh and the mind.
6. Guard your mind
Therefore, we guard our hearts and our minds with constant prayer and meditation on His holy word. A large part of guarding our minds, to believe and rest upon God, is to actively put it to work on the truth written in the pages of God’s word. The effort to study, understand and articulate the Bible is the God ordained means to a healthy mind. Think about this: the difficulties we’ve faced in the book of Romans, so far, have been more in terms of language and less in terms of believing the message itself. However, Paul’s brilliant execution of the language, though difficult to follow at times, remains the best output possible in the human vocabulary to explain the relationship between Jew and Greek, law and grace, flesh and spirit. Add to that the dilemma of the English translators who struggle to transfer the text with clarity, preserving its essence. The result, is what we are faced with. And using our minds to tackle the toughness of these texts is important. The Holy Spirit will help us because that is the purpose for which He has come to us, to teach us all things (John 14:26-18). Now, if you begrudge this effort, then you will find yourself far less prepared to take on the chapters that follow, where the difficulty in believing the message is more than any problems you may have with the language. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
Having said that, I find it interesting that when the Bible, in Romans 1 to 7, challenge us to put our minds to the intellectual work of exegesis and meditation and prayer, we tend to want it given to us in simpler language that we may believe without having to think so much. But then, when Paul, in Romans 8 and 9, gives the truth to us in simple language, we are so inclined to put our minds to such rigorous intellectual effort. We end up straining our minds either to the point of disbelief or misbelief.
Therefore, guard your minds by constant prayer and supplication and by meditating on God’s word and trusting in God’s Holy Spirit who opens our eyes, convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
7. There is only one desire that matters
Paul tells us in Romans 7:6 that 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. And I constantly ask myself this question – why is it that men of God such as King David, who lived in the old way of the written code, were able to pray and desire God in ways that very little Christians seem to do today? If anything, Paul is trying to tell us in these seven chapters that the hope and realisation that we have in the purposes of God are so much more today as compared to back then. For now, we have the Holy Spirit of God indwelling in us, revealing the mysteries that were once hidden. Yet, listen to David’s prayer in Psalm 27:4
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
That is the passion of one who has truly seen the God of the bible. And my point is that if David, in the old way of the written code, could desire that, how much more must those of us who now serve in the way of the Spirit? The message of Paul in these first seven chapters of Romans has been about a glorious Gospel of grace that has come to save us from the rule of sin and the captivity of the law. How? By Christ dying to sin once and for all and fulfilling the law perfectly. Now, for those of us who believe in this Jesus are given His righteousness in exchange for our sinfulness. He bears our punishment and we receive pardon. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). This revelation of God’s purpose for mankind has ushered in a new testament of God’s faithfulness. It has revealed the mysteries of God’s glorious purpose that were once hidden. Now, we know so much more from Jesus who came to teach us so much about the Father. My point is simple. There is so much more for us on this side of the cross to seek after God all the days of our lives, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. This is the only desire that matters in the life of a Christian.