Thursday, August 31, 2017

Romans, Day 24: Romans 9:1-5 - Are the Jews God's Chosen People?

Today's Reading: Romans 9:1-5

Are the Jews God's Chosen People?

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. - Romans 9:4-5, ESV

Some questions are too complex for a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Either answer could be misunderstood and taken to an extreme beyond what was intended. When I was a kid, we would ask each other "Do you love _________?" (ice cream, football, recess, your grandmother, etc.) If the person said yes, we would them quickly say, "Well, do you want to marry it/her?" So the answer was yes, but no.

Today's question arising from the opening of Romans 9 has a similar yes, but no, answer. The question, "Are the Jews God's chosen people?" seems simple enough. God chose Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob to receive the covenant promises, to be given His word, to be called His holy nation. So, yes, the Jews are God's chosen people.

But if the Jews are God's chosen people, why is Paul in such anguish over them? Why does he say, "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh."? Being God's chosen people evidently does not mean that the Jewish people are all saved. Having received the covenant promises, the Jewish people largely cut themselves off from the fulfillment of those promises by refusing to believe in Jesus.

Paul's language regarding the Jewish people is very careful and nuanced. Earlier, in Romans 3:1-2, he had asked, "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?" His answer was, "Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God." Paul then broke off his answer to his own question and didn't finish. Here, it seems as if he is resuming the answer six chapters later.

The blessings or advantages to being Jewish are listed by Paul as including . . .
  • adoption as the chosen children of God, but not in a saving sense, or else Paul would not be in anguish
  • the glory of having God dwell in their midst
  • the covenants, those promises and pledges from God and a relationship with God that set them apart from the nations  
  • the giving of the law, which is a reflection of the character and justice of God
  • the worship, meaning God's direction for how to worship Him rightly
  • the promises of God
  • the patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • being the physical ancestors of Christ
What we should notice is that all of these blessings and benefits were preparatory in nature. They were all designed to lead to Jesus.

Someone once said that the Old Testament without the New is a set of unanswered questions, unfulfilled prophecies, unexplained ceremonies and un-kept promises. Now that's sad! To have received all of the preparation and to miss the consummation in Jesus is to chosen by God but to walk away and reject your election.

As we continue in Romans, we'll be exploring this more deeply. Among other things, we'll see that national election according to the flesh is not the same as spiritual election according to the promise. As we continue in these next few chapters, we'll see Paul wrestle with some of the deepest implications of biblical theology before responding finally at the end of chapter 11 with the highest praise.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Romans, Day 23: Romans 8:31-39 - How Secure Are Believers in God's Love?

Today's Reading: Romans 8:31-39

How Secure Are Believers in God's Love?

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? - Romans 8:31-32, ESV

When I was a kid, growing up on military bases, I loved going to see fireworks. We always tried to sit as close as we could. I still love fireworks, and seeing my kids' excitement has only made them more enjoyable. I love the surprise fireworks that shoot up high into the air before unleashing a massive cascade of color and shimmer. Even more, I love the build-up to the Grand Finale, when the fireworks start coming more rapidly and the sound and light and color all build to an level of intensity that lifts you to your feet moves you to shout and clap.

Romans 8 is one of the most power-packed passages of Scripture, full of glorious gospel highlights and thrilling promises of future glory. From the opening flash of "no condemnation," the chapter majestically builds in glory and power until the Grand Finale of verses 31-39. And the culmination of the Grand Finale comes in the final lines, verses 38-39 -

For I am sure that neither death nor life, 
nor angels nor rulers, 
nor things present nor things to come, 
nor powers, 
nor height nor depth, 
nor anything else in all creation, 
will be able to separate us from the love of God 
in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV) 

The main purpose of Romans 8 is to give confidence, hope and strength to Christians living a life of suffering in a fallen world, as we await the consummation of glory. The Grand Finale is centered around two big questions -

1. Can anything or anyone effectively oppose our salvation in Jesus?
2. Can anything or anyone separate us from God's love, given in Jesus Christ?

In answer to the first question, Paul emphasizes how strongly God the Father is for us - "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all." He also emphasizes how much Jesus the Son of God is for us - "Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." So, any opposition we face must also stand against God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son.

In answer to the second question, Paul then explores the various possible entities and forces that might try to oppose the work of God in our salvation, that might try to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. His rousing conclusion is that nothing at all could possibly be strong enough to tear us away from God's love.

For the believer, clinging to Jesus and not to ourselves, trusting His promises and not our doubts, fills us with a string confidence and an unshakable hope. God is for us, and nothing can ever separate us from His love!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Romans, Day 22: Romans 8:18-30 - What Will Happen When Jesus Returns (& What Do We Do Until Then)?

Today's Reading: Romans 8:18-30

What Will Happen When Jesus Returns (& What Do We Do Until Then)?

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. - Romans 8:18-19, 24-26, ESV

[Disclaimer: Today's passage is so rich and full of glorious truth, we cannot cover it in a single devotional post. If you want more depth, please see our sermon series on Romans 8. You'll find 4 sermons on today's passage, along with 6 others. Find it here and here.]

Do you remember being really excited as a child?

I remember the first time my dad took me to the movies by myself. I believe we were going to see Superman 2. I was so excited that I couldn't stop bouncing around on the front seat of the car until I hit my head on the windshield.

These days, at the age of 43, it takes more than the promise of a new Superman movie to get me really excited. I was pretty thrilled in 2012 when the Orioles finally had a winning season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. But Orioles magic is nothing compared to the excitement I feel when I think about the coming return of the Lord Jesus!

Everything I have ever hoped for or longed for finds its focal point of expectation when I think about the return of Jesus. Romans 8 tells me that this is not just my own experience but the experience of all creation. The whole of creation groans in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed, which will happen when Jesus returns.

Too often, the expectation of Christians regarding eternal life is so thin and, frankly, a little boring. Too many believers never get beyond, "I know I'll be in a better place when I die." I have a friend who always heard this growing up and who wondered what "a better place" meant. Were they on a permanent vacation in the Caribbean?

The Bible gives us a more sure and exciting hope. When this life ends, we are immediately ushered into the presence of the Lord, free from pain and suffering and enjoying the glory of His presence forever. But ours is not just a personal, spiritual hope. God has a future for us in a resurrected body in the new heavens and earth, and this future includes redemption for all of God's creation.

Sam-wise Gamgee asks Gandalf, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" The Bible's answer, which Tolkien knew and believed, is a resounding "Yes!" The whole world will be remade, and all fallen, broken, sin-scarred ugly sadness will come untrue. As Jesus says, "Behold! I am making all things new!" (Rev. 21:5)

What does this mean? Practically-speaking, I think there's nothing good which you will miss when this life is over which will not, in the end, be restored to you, without any shadow of sin or sadness. Love, friendship, animals, work, play, exploration, worship, devotion, food and fun - all of these and more will be ours forever, given by the One who has been the Giver of every good and perfect gift!

Also, practically-speaking, we need to remember that we are not there yet! In this world, we suffer and groan in hope.  "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

How can we wait with patience? "The Spirit helps us in our weakness."

We need to make sure we don't place the expectations of eternity (everlasting fulfillment and joy) on the things of time. We need to make sure we are longing for what Jesus will bring when He comes again! Is that hard? Yes. Sometimes, we won't even know how to pray, but the Spirit helps us there, too.

How can we have assurance that we will make it to eternal joy? The Spirit's work within us is evidence that God has called us to Himself and given us a true love for Himself. This, in turn, is sure evidence that we were foreknown and predestined by God before the world began, and that our future in glory is secure in the plans and purposes of God.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Romans, Day 21: Romans 8:12-17 - Why Must We Kill Sin? How Can We?

This Week on Walking with Jesus in Acts and Romans: 
  • Mon., Aug. 28: Rom 8:12-17
  • Tue., Aug. 29: Rom 8:18-30
  • Wed., Aug. 30: Rom 8:31-39
  • Thurs., Aug. 31: Rom 9:1-5
  • Fri., Sept. 1: Rom 9:6-13
Today's Reading: Romans 8:12-17

Why Must We Kill Sin? How Can We?

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. - Romans 8:13, ESV
[NOTE: Tim Challies has been one of my favorite bloggers for years. This post reflects much of what I have learned from him and is a tribute of sorts to his excellent blogging.]

"Be killing sin or sin will be killing you." - John Owen

The Christian life is a life-long battle against sin. Many people would like to pretend or teach otherwise. In fact, some people would look at what has been written so far in this post and scream "legalism!" But it's not legalistic; it's reality. Those of us who love the Lord and have been called to faith in Christ struggle with sin and against sin for the rest of our lives.

Should we just give up and accept sin as a "fact of life" and quit fighting it? No! Here are seven reasons why we must be killing sin:

1. Sin is a destructive distortion of God's good creation. Sin is a cancer, a distortion of all that God has made to be good and right. Sin takes God's good gifts-  pleasure, power, relationships, food, money, etc. - and twists them toward corrosive ends.

"For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God." - Romans 8:20-21, ESV

2. Sin is enslaving. Sin is addictive and enslaving. Satan uses sin to trap us and fool us into doing his will, even to our own hurt. Long after sin stops keeping its promises and ceases to be enjoyable, it holds us firmly in its grip.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin." - John 8:34, ESV

3. Sin is offensive to God. God hates sin, and if we love God we must hate sin, too. God hates sin because it mars and corrodes His good creation. It leads His loyal subjects into disloyalty, distorts His truth into error, enslaves His children to futility and divides His kingdom into petty factions of self-interest and folly. We must learn to hate sin for the very reasons that God hates it.

"There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers." - Proverbs 6:16-19, ESV

4. Sin short-circuits our fruitfulness and effectiveness. How many ministries have been derailed by sin? How much Christian testimony has been short-circuited by hypocrisy? How many Christian marriages have been destroyed by deception, resentment and infidelity? How many children raised in the church and in Christian homes have walked away from God because of the sin they have seen in their parents and church leaders?

"As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful." - Matthew 13:22, ESV

5. Sin is contrary to God's holy character. Believers are being transformed into the image of Christ, who is the perfect reflection of God's holy character. Sin is contrary to God's holy character and thus contrary to God's redemptive purposes for us in Christ.

"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." - 2 Cor. 3:18, ESV

6. Sin poisons all of our relationships. Every relationship we have has been and is being poisoned in some way by sin: in the church, at the workplace, in the home, in friendships. We see again and again the effects of pride, envy, covetousness, resentment, distrust, lust, deception, worry, insecurity and gossip in all relations. If we love people and value our relationships, then we must hate sin and seek to uproot and destroy it.

"For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." - Romans 13:9-10, ESV

7. Sin shipwrecks and kills even professing believers. Ultimately, we have all been eye-witnesses to the power of sin to shipwreck and destroy professing believers. We cannot always know the eternal destiny of these professing Christians. We cannot know if they were false professors or sincere believers who became overcome by besetting sin. But the Bible makes it clear that professing believers are destroyed by sin either as a final act of Fatherly discipline or as a way of revealing their hypocrisy to the world.

" . . . wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." - 1 Timothy 1:18-20, ESV

So, we should be killing sin, but how? How do we mortify the flesh? Here are seven ways to kill sin:

1. We kill sin only by the power of God. We are powerless over sin in our own strength, but God has the power to make us strong and holy. To fight sin in our own strength is not only folly but also pride and thus sin.

" . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." - Philippians 2:12-13, ESV

2. We kill sin through the application of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our lives. As we remember who we are in Christ, recall the wonder of our redemption, meditate on all of the Gospel promises of God and seek to know Christ more and more, our motivation and empowerment toward true holiness grows.

"For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions." - Romans 6:10-12, ESV

3. We kill sin through radical self-denial and preventative measures. Yet we must also be very practical and even ruthlessly so. If we know ourselves and our tendencies toward temptation and sin, we must radically cut off the easy avenues and build barriers to sin wherever possible. This might mean going without certain things we enjoy or think we need. So be it. The victory is worth the sacrifices.

"And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." - Matthew 5:30, ESV

4, We kill sin in confession to one another. Most of us like to have people like us and think well of us. Often, this can keep us from confessing our sins to each other for fear or looking bad, losing face or being ashamed. We sinners need to confess and pray for each other.

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." - James 5:16, ESV

5. We kill sin in prayer. We pray in earnest alone, with and for each other in pairs and small groups and together as a body of Christ in corporate worship. God hears and answers and heals and forgives.

" . . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints . . ." - Ephesians 6:18, ESV

6. We kill sin through the Word. The Word of God lays us open and exposes our sin and also brings the remedy of forgiveness for our sin. It shows us Christ our Redeemer and gives us wisdom for living well. We need to read, meditate, study and ponder the Word daily, faithfully, and regularly together with other believers.

" For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." - Hebrews 4:12, ESV

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." - 2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV

7. We kill sin in worship and fellowship with other believers. No battle is ever fought by one soldier alone. The body of Christ is not made up of one member alone. We are called to each other and we need to worship, fellowship, pray, serve and live life together.

"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." - Matthew 18:20, ESV

Killing sin is a life-long calling and many times we can feel overwhelmed and defeated by the unfinished task. In those moments, we need to remember that God is faithful and that this is His work. He is not finished and He never lets go of us!

Enjoy this from Andrew Peterson - 


Friday, August 25, 2017

Romans, Day 20: Romans 8:1-11 - What's the Greatest News We Could Ever Hear?

Today's reading: Romans 8:1-11

What's the Greatest News We Could Ever Hear?

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. - Romans 8:1-3, ESV

Some people think the greatest news they could ever hear is, "Your cancer is gone!" Truly, that would be most welcome news for many people fighting cancer, but ultimately cancer is a temporary problem, isn't it? Even if the cancer was gone, something else would take the life of our mortal bodies eventually.

Some people think the greatest news would be, "You won the lottery!" Sadly, lottery winners declare bankruptcy more frequently than people who never win the lottery. Money can always be spent, no matter how much we have, and it can never truly satisfy us in this life, much less for eternity.

I think it is beyond dispute that Romans 8:1 contains the best news we could ever hear, in two simple words: "No condemnation."

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

But I've sinned so much! - No condemnation.

But I still struggle with doubt. - No condemnation.

Can I know I am forgiven? - No condemnation.

But I feel so weak and so inadequate. - No condemnation.

How do I know my eternal destiny is secure? - No condemnation.

How is such an absolute sentence possible? It is because God has done what we could never do. The law cannot save us because we are weakened by sin. God sent His Son and condemned our sin in Him on the cross, so that we could be set free from the law of sin and death and instead be ruled by the law of Spirit and life.

Paul then sets up a fundamental distinction between two different kinds of people all over the world and throughout history. More important and essential than distinctions of class, race, nationality, political affiliation or income level is this distinction, between those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit.

What's the difference? Those who live according to the flesh are those who are living life on their own, living out of their own strength and wisdom, doing the best they can with what they have. They may be religious or secular, rich or poor, popular or outcast, but without the Holy Spirit living in them, they are in the flesh, cut off from God, on their own. Their destiny is death and condemnation.

Those who live according to the Spirit are those who are in Christ Jesus. That is, they have trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and have been united to Him by saving faith. They know and love and trust in Jesus for their wisdom, their strength, their salvation and their acceptance before God forever. They will not trust in what they do, but they trust in what Jesus has done.

So, which are you? If you long to hear the very best news, "no condemnation," then are you trusting in the very best and only Savior? If you are trusting in Jesus and living in the power of the Spirit, then not only can you know "no condemnation," but you can also know this beautiful hope: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." Jesus lives, and so will I!

Today's devotional begins our time in Romans 8, one of the most glorious chapters in all of Scripture. Our brief daily devotions won't be adequate to plumb the depths of this great section of God's word. I recommend Derek Thomas' book, How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home. You may also benefit from my sermon series through Romans 8, which you can find here and here.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Romans, Day 19: Romans 7:13-25 - Why is Living a Life of Obedience so Hard?

Today's Reading: Romans 7:13-25

Why is Living a Life of Obedience so Hard?

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? - Romans 7:21-24, ESV

Some of the wisest words ever uttered on screen in cinematic history were spoken by a Viking blacksmith, Gobber, in the classic font of wisdom, How to Train Your Dragon. He said, quite wisely, "Trolls exist! They steal your socks. But only the left ones!" (Check out his left hand in this video clip and you'll see for yourself how wise he is!)

Clearly, Gobber has been to my house. Before I can put on my shoes on some days, I have to find a matched pair of socks. It's not usually much of a challenge, but it sometimes is, and I don't understand how we can have so many socks missing their mates!

Before we can benefit from Paul's teaching in these, we have to first figure out if it applies to us as believers at all. Like sock-stealing trolls, some Bible teachers have tried to rob God's people of the benefit of these verses by insisting that they must apply only to unbelievers before they come to faith in Jesus. Clearly, they claim, believers are no longer "of the flesh, sold under sin," right? Wrong!

Paul is speaking of himself in these verses, passionately explaining why living a life of obedience is so hard for believers. He says, "I delight in the law of God, in my inner being." Clearly that expression cannot apply to an unregenerate unbeliever. He says, "I have the desire to do what is right" and speaks of hating the evil that he does. This changed heart orientation is clearly evidence of salvation, of the implantation of a new nature with new desires.

Here's the rub: Getting a new nature with new desires does not extinguish the old nature with its old desires. Having a love for God's law and for what is good doesn't eliminate all desire to do wrong from within us. So while we now want to do good and honor God as His dearly loved children, we still see sin's evil effects working in our members. We still see sin ravaging our best intentions and leading us astray into evil, even into evil that we hate.

For believers who love the Lord, this is an incredibly frustrating reality. Paul gets so exasperated at the thought if it himself that he cries out in agony, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" The problem we face is that our sinful nature will not be removed until we see Jesus face-to-face, passing from this life and these sin-wracked bodies into eternal glory.

As you struggle with why God has ordained things this way, you may find this post helpful:

We can know for certain that, if we are trusting in Jesus to save us, Jesus has taken away the penalty for our sin. God has already freed us from the condemnation our sin deserves (something we'll celebrate in-depth tomorrow) and one day, he will free us from all desire and presence of sin in our lives. We can say with Paul: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Romans, Day 18: Romans 7:7-12 - How Does Sin Use the Law to Kill and Condemn Us?

Today's Reading: Romans 7:7-12

How Does Sin Use the Law to Kill and Condemn Us?

Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 
- Romans 7:7-9, ESV

Don't think about pink elephants!

What are you thinking about right now?

Righteousness can never come through the law, for the law only brings us condemnation. Does that mean the law is wrong or bad? Should we hate the law because it leads to condemnation? No! The psalmist teaches us to sing with delight, "Oh, how I love your law!" (Ps. 119:97) Paul even says here in Romans 7 that "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." (Rom. 7:12) So, if we are to love the law because the law is holy and good, why doesn't it free us from sin?

The problem is not with the law but with sin. The law is an accurate reflection of the holy and good character of God. But sin is deceitful and our hearts are naturally prone to believe its lying and ensnaring voice.

Paul lays out for us a powerful picture of how sin takes advantage of the law: The law tells us not to covet, and sin takes the law's prohibition and convinces us that coveting must be a desirable and delightful thing. Thus, it is the enslaving nature of sin that is evil, not the law.

Our fallen human nature longs for self-justification, for some measure of self-righteousness, and so when sin speaks evil desires to our hearts through the opportunity of the law, we respond by creating more rules. If coveting is wrong and our hearts begin to covet, we think we can add rules about a minimalist lifestyle or a self-imposed vow or poverty. If the law tells us not to lust, and our hearts and prone to lust, we invent strict modesty codes.

It should be obvious that the multiplication of rules and codes will not tame the corrupting influence of sin. The more rules we are given, the more sin will whisper to our hearts to break them.

We need a deeper, stronger power of redemption to set us free from the enslaving voice of sin. Paul will continue wrestling with this issue in the rest of Romans 7 before reaching the answer in Romans 8. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who must free us from the law of condemnation and the enslaving power of sin.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Romans, Day 17: Romans 7:1-6 - What Does It Mean to be Free from the Law?

Today's Reading: Romans 7:1-6

What Does It Mean to be Free from the Law? 

"For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 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." - Romans 7:5-6, ESV

Freed from the law, O blessed condition!
I can sin all I want and still have remission!

These lyrics are a satire, a jab at an old hymn called, "Free From the Law," by the great American hymn writer, Philip P. Bliss, which actually says:

Free from the law—oh, happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission.

This hymn and the satirical jab taken at it are a good piece of evidence of the controversies that can arise from today's text. When Paul says, "But now we are released from the law," what does he mean? Does he mean that we can sin all we want now?

As always, the context is key to comprehension. He says "we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive." So the question we should ask is, "What is it that held us captive, from which we have been freed?" Paul has already addressed this in Romans: We have been set free from sin by our union with Christ in His death. Sin once held us captive, but it is no longer our master. 

Even in this immediate context here in Romans 7, Paul has enslaving power of sin in view when he talks about our freedom. It is our sinful passions, aroused by the law, that bear fruit for death and hold us captive. So "released from the law" has to do with being free from sin, not being free to sin!   

But how is being free from sin's slavery the same as being released from the law? Is the law sinful? No! Paul will make that very clear later in Romans 7, as he unpacks the dynamic interaction between the law and our sin. 

The difference Paul emphasizes here is between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Another way to express this is the difference between the law as a list of rules we keep to earn salvation and the law as a pattern of life reflecting the character of God for the redeemed who are free in Christ. The letter kills and the Spirit gives life.

If you approach the 10 Commandments as a to-do list for earning heaven, you are lost, condemned. Sin will never let you fulfill the law's demands. But if you come to Jesus for salvation and are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then you are free from the demands of law. You are free from a "letter of the law" mindset because a perfect righteousness has already been given to you as a gift. Instead, you are free to serve in the Spirit, walking in the patterns of love laid down in the law, in gratitude and joy and in the free imitation of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.         

Free from the law? Yes! As a way of salvation, as a pathway to righteousness, the law no longer binds us nor condemns us. But we are free to serve, not our sinful passions, but the Lord, in love and in true righteousness. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Romans, Day 16: Romans 6:15-25 - Are We Slaves to Sin?

This Week's Reading for Walking with Jesus on Acts and Romans

Mon., Aug. 21: Rom 6:15-25
Tue., Aug. 22: Rom 7:1-6
Wed., Aug. 23: Rom 7:7-12
Thurs., Aug. 24: Rom 7:13-25
Fri., Aug. 25: Rom 8:1-11

Today's Reading: Romans 6:15-25

Are We Slaves to Sin? 

"But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness." - Romans 6:17-18, ESV

"I just can't help it."

"I've tried to change, but it just doesn't work!"

"I wish I was a better person, but I'm not."

Have you ever thought or said any of those things? I know I have had very similar thoughts and have said very similar things. We may even think we have a biblical basis for such thinking. After all, Jesus did say that everyone who sins is a slave to sin, right? Yes, He did, but then He went on to say, "The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."  (John 8:35-36, ESV)

We are born in sin, sinful from conception, but Jesus has defeated sin and death. He is the Son of God who remains forever, and He has purchased our freedom, our salvation. If He sets us free, we are free indeed.

What Jesus said in John 8 aligns perfectly with what Paul is saying in Romans 6. Once we were all slaves to sin. We offered ourselves in service to sin and we were paid slave wages, death. But salvation in Jesus is more than just the forgiveness of sins and the declaration that we are not guilty before a holy God. We have been united to Christ by faith, and He lives in us, even as we live through Him. 

Jesus also said, "No one can serve two masters." (Mt. 6:24) Paul is saying that we once served sin and were free from the law of righteousness. Now we serve God as slaves to righteousness, and we are free from the dominating, enslaving power of sin. 

Is Paul saying we never sin? No! He will go on in Romans 7 (on Thursday) to agonize over the remaining indwelling sin in the members of his body. Sinful unregenerate human beings often do good things that do align with God's law, even though they do so for the wrong reasons and thus they cannot be counted as acts of righteousness. Likewise, redeemed people who belong to Jesus still often sin, but we do so not as slaves to sin, dominated and controlled by its influence. 

Who is your master? Serving sin is a dead-end job. Serving King Jesus as slaves to righteousness brings true freedom, life and joy, as we grow in sanctification and holiness to the glory of God! 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Romans, Day 15: Romans 6:1-14 - Does a Gospel of Free and Abundant Grace Lead to More Sin?

Today's Reading: Romans 6:1-14

Does a Gospel of Free and Abundant Grace Lead to More Sin? 

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. - Romans 6:1-4, ESV

Can something be too good to be true? We're familiar with that concept, but how about too good to be good for you? We've all met and interacted with spoiled children. Children who are never told no and who always get everything they ask for don't benefit from such parenting, do they? Their childhoods may be described as being too good to be good for them.

Is that how the Gospel works? Paul has been very clear in the first five chapters of Romans that we are not saved by obeying the law or by any other good works. In fact, at the end of Romans 5, Paul brought the grace of the Gospel to a rousing crescendo by saying, ". . . where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 5:20-21, ESV)

If an increase of sin causes grace to abound all the more, does that mean that grace leads to sin? Is this a case of God being the kind of Father who spoils His children by excessive grace to their harm? Absolutely not! That's Paul's answer: "By no means!"

Why not? Because the grace that saves us is grace that unites us to Christ. We receive the righteousness of Christ apart from the law by grace alone through faith alone, but the faith that brings us justification does so by uniting us to Christ. Baptism is the sign and seal of that union with Christ.

When we are united to Christ, we are united to His death and resurrection. That means that not only does His righteousness become ours, but His death and resurrection also become ours. We become members of the body of Christ. If this is all true, then we must not willingly offer ourselves to sin.

The very first command in the book of Romans comes in Romans 6:11. Think about that for a minute: Through more than five full chapters of Romans, Paul has not given a single command. The focus has been on what God has done in Christ, not on what we must do. But now, in chapter 6, Paul is ready to start telling us how we must live in the light of the Gospel. The first command is what we must consider, or reckon: "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."

How can we consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, when our sinful nature is the opposite? Because God has given us a new nature in Christ. Our union with Christ changes the fundamental truth of who we are.

Paul then follows this first command immediately with two negative commands and one positive one:

1. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.

2. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but . . .

3. . . . present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

As those who have been given a new nature in Christ, we have an obligation to stop indulging our sinful nature and to start living out holiness unto the Lord. We can do so because Christ lives in us and we have the power of His nature in us.

God's grace does not spoil His children the way over-indulgent parents do for one key reason: God has the power to change our hearts, giving us a new identity and new desires. That's something no human being can do for another, or even for ourselves. That's the true power of the grace of God!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Romans, Day 14: Romans 5:12-21 - How Did Christ Undo the Curse of Adam?

Today's Reading: Romans 5:12-21

How Did Christ Undo the Curse of Adam? 

For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. - Romans 5:17-19, ESV

One man took one bite of one piece of fruit and everything changed. In this seemingly simple and insignificant act, humanity committed cosmic treason against their King. Adam and Eve and all their descendants were plunged into sin, death and condemnation. "Because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man."  

So, from Adam to Christ, the pattern for all of humanity was set: People were born corrupted by the curse of Adam's sin, they chose to sin as soon as they were able, and they received the just condemnation for their sin.

Thankfully, God also did two other things when Adam sinned: He made a promise and He provided a covering. He cursed the serpent and said to him, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:15) In this promise, God gave the hope of redemption to Adam and Eve, even before He cursed them.

Then, "the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them." God had to kill animals in order to provide this better covering for Adam and Eve. They had tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. God's covering was so much better, but it required the death of an innocent to provide it.

Thousands of years after Adam and Eve sinned against God, one man was born who broke the pattern of sin and death. He was born without a sinful nature, as innocent as the first Adam. He grew in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52) He was tempted even more strongly than the first Adam: While the first Adam was placed in a lush garden with many fruitful trees, He was driven into the desert wilderness, where He had nothing to eat for 40 days. The first Adam was tempted once and sinned immediately, but He was tempted three times, even supernaturally, and He resisted. The first Adam casually betrayed God, but He agonized and sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, refusing to turn away from His Father's will.

The second Adam, Jesus Christ, then went to the cross and took the guilt and condemnation of the first Adam and all of God's children upon Himself. By a single act of obedience unto death, He reversed the curse and brought salvation. In the place of sin, He brought righteousness. In the place of death, he brought life, In the place of condemnation, he brought reconciliation and eternal life.

Have you received the gift of life Jesus earned by His obedience? Are you rejoicing in the reversal of the curse that Jesus brought to light in His death and resurrection?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Romans, Day 13: Romans 5:1-11 - What Benefits do We Gain from Justification by Faith?

Today's Reading: Romans 5:1-11

What Benefits do We Gain from Justification by Faith? 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. - Romans 5:1-2, ESV

"What difference does it make, really?"

Sometimes, when I'm wrestling with deep questions, I like to step back and ask that question. So far, in Romans, we have been wrestling with the question of how we can be righteous and thus accepted by God. We have seen that no one is righteous, Jew or Gentile. We have also seen that we cannot become righteous through the law, because we do not obey the law. Thus, the law only condemns us. We have also seen that God gives us a righteousness apart from the law through Jesus Christ. We have seen that this righteousness is received by faith alone and not be works.

So, what difference does it make?

Well, the largest theological difference this makes is that salvation is entirely God's work, thus God alone is glorified in our salvation. All ground of boasting is removed and the work of Christ is magnified.

But what benefits do we gain from the fact that we are justified by faith? What happens once we are justified?

The first thing Paul says is that "since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." If we were required to be justified by works, we would never enjoy peace with God in this life. We would be working toward peace, striving for it, but we would never have it. Because we are justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God.

Not only do we have peace with God, but we also have "access by faith into this grace in which we stand." We have been granted access into the good favor of God. God's throne is now a throne of grace for us. He is now the God of all grace toward us.

Third, in addition to peace and grace, we are also given the gift of being able to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We know we will one day see and share in the full glory of God, and we rejoice in the certain hope.

But wait, there's more . . .

We can not only rejoice in the hope of glory, but we can even rejoice in our suffering. Why? Because, having been justified by faith and having peace with God, we have God's assurance that all of our suffering is working good things for us: endurance, character and hope.

We also have deep knowledge of the love of God, in two ways . . .

1. "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." (v. 5)

2. God's love has been clearly demonstrated for us by Christ's willingness to die for us when we were sinners and we were His enemies. (vv. 6-8)

Finally, we have the sure expectation that we will be saved (fully and finally at the Last Day) by the life of our "Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

So, I guess the answer to the question, "What difference does it make?", is very clear: Being justified by faith alone in Christ alone makes all the difference in the world, in this life and in eternity!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Romans, Day 12: Romans 4:12-24 - What's the Difference Between Law and Promise?

Today's Reading: Romans 4:12-24

What's the Difference Between Law and Promise?

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. - Romans 4:13-14, ESV

It's important to known the difference between different things. In Price Caspian, Trumpkin the Dwarf says, "I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You've had my advice, and now it's the time for orders." As Christians, it is vitally important that we know the difference between God's law and His promise.

God's law is an expression of His will for us. It is what God requires of His people. God's moral law reflects His moral character, and it is binding on all people. He has made all of us in His image, and we are called to reflect His character. However, sin has broken us at our core, and we are unable to keep God's law.

Our salvation is not found in the Law, which is God's requirement of our conduct. It is found in God's promise, which is not what He requires us to be and do, but what He has promised that He will be and do. We break God's law in thought, word and deed daily, by what we choose to do and by what we leave undone. God never breaks His promise.

The right response to God's law is obedience, which we should always strive to give, but which we know we never give perfectly. The right response to promise is faith. It would be as inappropriate to respond to God's promise with works as it would be to respond to His law with a passive profession of faith that did not strive after obedience.

Think about it: If I ask you to do something, I want you to responding by doing what I'm asking you to do. But if I promise to do something for you, I don't want you to try to do it. I want you to trust that I am going to do what I promise.

God has promised to save us through Jesus Christ. Jesus has done all the work to save us, and God promises to save us if we trust in Jesus. To try to earn that salvation by doing works is to seek to replace Jesus' work with our own. In that case, good works don't flow from faith but seek to be a replacement for faith. A promise is to believed and received, and not to be earned.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Romans, Day 11: Romans 4:1-12 - Are We Justified by Faith or by Works?

This week in Walking with Jesus in Acts and Romans:
  • Mon., Aug. 14: Rom 4:1-12
  • Tue., Aug. 15: Rom 4:13-24
  • Wed., Aug. 16: Rom 5:1-11
  • Thur., Aug. 17: Rom 5:12-21
  • Fri., Aug. 18: Rom 6:1-14
Romans, Day 11: Romans 4:1-12

Are We Justified by Faith or by Works? 

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
 - Romans 4:2-5, ESV

Imagine you're sick. You have been feeling lousy for a few days, with a sore throat and a fever, so you go to the doctor. The doctor diagnoses you with strep throat. You now know that your regimen of ibuprofen, water and rest will be insufficient to treat this sickness. You need antibiotics, but how do you get them?

This is roughly equivalent to where we are in Romans. We have been told that our sinful condition is too serious to be remedied by obedience to the law, whether that law was written by Moses or written on our conscience. We are condemned by the law, and we need a righteousness from God apart from the law. This righteousness is found in Jesus Christ, but how do we get this righteousness?

Some people would argue that you have to earn it. They say only good works can bring us the merit to receive the righteousness of Christ. Even some Christians who would say we can only be saved by God's grace through the righteousness found in Jesus Christ might say that we have to do good works - acts of penance and devotion - in order to attain the righteousness of Christ. Paul says something very different in Romans 4.

Paul tells us that God's people have always been justified by faith and not by works. To support his claim, he brings in two pillars of the Old Testament church, Abraham and David. Abraham is the father of the faith, and David was called the man after God's own heart. Both of them were justified by faith and not by works. Paul has two key texts to support these claims:

"Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness." - Genesis 15:6

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” - Psalm 32:1-2 

The counter-argument in Paul's day would have come from the Judaizers, who would have claimed that Abraham was justified by circumcision. But Paul says, rightly, that circumcision was given to Abraham after he had already believed God and had been counted as righteous through faith alone. Circumcision is not a means of justification but a sign and seal of justification by faith. 

Any works we attempt to bring to God as a grounds for our justification automatically become self-righteousness. This is because to be justified is to be declared righteous, and if we want our good works to be either the basis or the means of our justification, then we are wanting to contribute to our own justification. It is, by definition, a self-righteousness. 

To be justified by faith alone is just another way to say that we are justified by Jesus alone. He has all of the righteousness. He has done all of the work. Being justified by faith is looking to Jesus and Jesus alone as the basis of our salvation, from beginning to end. 

Martin Luther understood this 500 years ago, and his re-discovery of this truth changed the world:

Friday, August 11, 2017

Romans, Day 10: Romans 3:21-31 - How Can We Be Righteous?

Today's Reading: Romans 3:21-31

How Can We Be Righteous? 

"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" - Romans 3:21-24, ESV

No doubt you've heard the story about the man whose wife was pestering him to stop and ask for directions. When he finally did stop and ask the older man sitting in front of the gas station, the man looked around, scratched his head, thought carefully and then said, "Well, you can't really get there from here."

That's how the last couple of chapters in Romans have been:

1. We're all condemned justly by God, under His wrath, which is being revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. (Rom. 1:18ff)
2. Trying to be righteous by being religiously moral can't save you, because religious people who have the law know they have broken it. (Romans 2:1-11)
3. Following your conscience as your guide can't save you, because your conscience condemns you as guilty. (Romans 2:12-29)
4. Thinking that God has to forgive people because everyone sins can't save you. (Romans 3:1-8)
5. We're all not just a little less than perfect, but we're all totally sinful and without any righteousness at all. (Romans 3:9-20)

So, how can we be righteous before God? Not by being religious or by being conscientious or by making excuses or by minimizing your sin. In other words: You can't get there from here. If you insist on starting with yourself and asking, "What can I do to make myself righteous before God?", then the answer will be "Nothing!"

What is the solution, then? We need a different starting point. We can't start with what we can do, but we can start with what God has given freely and revealed in the good news of the Gospel. God's own righteousness has been revealed apart from the law - which means, apart from all works. The Law and the Prophets of the Scriptures do testify to this Gospel, as much of the New Testament explains, especially in Matthew, John, Galatians and Hebrews.

What has God given? God has given a way for us to be made perfectly righteous with the very righteousness of God. It cannot be earned, but it is given as a gift. How? We are "justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

  • By His Grace: That means it is His undeserved favor and kindness and not our own merit or worth.
  • As a Gift: That means that God purchased it for us, at a very high price, and he gives it to us for free.
  • Through the Redemption: To be redeemed is to be bought back from condemnation.
  • In Christ Jesus: The only way for us to be bought back and made right before God is in Jesus Christ Himself.
Why is this redemption found only in Jesus? It is because Jesus is the only One "whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." The whole explanation of the power of the Gospel to make us right with God is found in this single word summing up the work of Jesus: propitiation. What is it? 

Well, let's ask another question: Go all the way back to Romans 1:18. What is our danger, the essential problem from which we need to be rescued? The wrath of God! Propitiation simply means that Jesus took the wrath of God due to us for our sins on Himself in our place on the cross. God put forth His own Son to be the satisfaction of His wrath, the appeasement of His just anger. We receive this satisfaction by faith alone. We are made righteous by trusting in Jesus, plus nothing else.

Is that's true, what do we contribute to our own redemption, our own salvation? What does a slave held in bondage contribute toward his redemption when someone comes and buys him and sets him free? What do you contribute toward gifts you are given? Nothing! 

"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." 

That is the good news of the Gospel, and there's nothing left for us to do but to believe in Jesus and give thanks to God!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Romans, Day 9: Romans 3:9-20 - How Bad Are We, Really?

Today's Reading: Romans 3:9-20

How Bad Are We, Really?

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God. - Romans 3:9-10, ESV

G.K. Chesterton famously quipped that the doctrine of original sin is the single Christian doctrine most supported by empirical evidence, seen clearly in over 3,000 years of recorded human history. But most people are just not so sure. We'd all readily agree that nobody's perfect, but that's different than believing that we're all born morally and spiritually bankrupt, corrupt to the core.

So far in Romans, Paul has declared that God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all human unrighteousness and ungodliness. He has asserted that people suppress the truth of God and replace God with idolatrous substitutes. He has said that even religiously moral people are condemned because they do not actually practice what they preach. People who have God's law are condemned by God's law, while people who do not have God's written law are condemned by their consciences, which show the moral law written on their hearts.

I can just hear a reader of Romans thinking, "Well, yeah, nobody's perfect, Sure. We all know that. But God doesn't realistically expect perfection, does He?" Well, God not only expects perfection, but He requires it. How can one who is perfect in holiness and who dwells in perfection allow or accept anything less than moral and spiritual perfection without compromising Himself?

Even more, Paul wants us to see that we are so much worse than "not perfect." It's not as if we are honestly and earnestly striving after perfection but falling just short of the goal. No, the reality is much worse.

Using a series of quotes from Scripture, Paul demonstrates how bad every human being is, in vv. 10-12 -

1. We are without righteousness.
2. We are without understanding.
3. We are without the desire to pursue God.
4. We are without real spiritual worth in our actions.
5. We are without goodness.

Then, he stops and assures us that this is a universal condition: "no, not one . . . not even one."

So, what do we have? According to vv. 13-16 -

1. We have deadly, lying tongues.
2. We have venomous, poisonous cursing, bitter mouths.
3. We have a tendency to vengeful violence.
4. We have destructive patterns of living.
5. We leave behind us a trail of ruin and misery, from our words and actions.

This really is a miserable and hopeless assessment, and it is what God says is true of every human being.

What's the end result? A guilty accountability before the penetrating judgment of God:

"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."

Paul has one over-arching goal in this sweeping condemnation: He wants to strip us of all self-righteousness so that we will know our need for the grace of God. Most people think, on some level, that if they try hard enough, they can be good enough for God to accept them for who they are. This is just another way of saying that they are trying to be justified by the law. Whatever shape of law we embrace - the Ten Commandments, the Law of Love, Karma, the Golden Rule, etc. - we cannot justify ourselves in the eyes of God through law-keeping.

We need the grace of God. We need to be saved from ourselves. Yes, we are really that bad.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Romans, Day 8: Romans 3:1-8 - Is God Glorified in Our Sin?

Today's Reading: Romans 3:1-8 

Is God Glorified in Our Sin?

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? - Romans 3:5-7, ESV

How can God judge and condemn everyone in the world? True, no one is perfect, but doesn't our horrible imperfection just show more clearly how perfect God is? After all, doesn't everything in God's world bring Him glory, either by reflecting His goodness or else by magnifying His goodness by contrast?

These are the questions Paul is wrestling with at the beginning of Romans 3. He has already painted a very bleak picture of God's judgment against human sin. He has already made it clear that both Jews and Gentiles- both those who have the Law of God and those without it- are guilty before God. He's going to come back to this universal sentence of condemnation against all humanity, but first he pauses to deal with some important questions:

1. Is there any advantage to being a Jew? After all, if both those who have the Law as God's covenant people and those who worship idols are guilty before God, what is the benefit of belonging to God's holy nation? Paul says the advantages of the Jews are "much in ever way." Specifically, Jews do not need to rely on the foggy and unreliable guide of our conscience. (vv. 1-2)

2. Does the ongoing failure of God's people reflect poorly on God? "What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar." - vv. 3-4. In other words, our failure to keep God's word doesn't mean that God has failed, it means that we have failed!

3. Is God actually glorified by our sin, because our sin highlights His righteousness? Paul doesn't ever directly answer this question, as far as I can tell, but his response is something like, "Even if that were true, it is still proper for God to judge people who break His law." Otherwise, if God were obligated to release us from judgment because our badness magnifies His goodness, it would be right to do as much evil as possible, in order to glorify God as much as possible. This is utter nonsense and blasphemy, of course! (vv. 5-8)

These opening verses of Romans 3 remind me of two important principles:

1. We should always be thinking carefully about our theology and its implications. Paul never seems to advance a theological points without carefully weighing what it means and doesn't mean. We'll see this again and again in Romans.

2. People will always try to twist God's truth into knots of self-justifying lies. People are always looking for the loophole, and in seeking one, we often twist and turn God's truth into utterly unrecognizable shapes.

How can we tell if our theological thinking is faithful or faithless? We need to stick closely to the whole counsel of God's word, seek the glory of God in our thinking, rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment and walk in the wise counsel of the godly. We need to also make sure we're not seeking to glorify or justify ourselves. This doesn't make everything easy, nor does it solve every problem, but it's the best path to walk as we seek to know and love God better.