Tag Archives: Romans

How union with Christ changes our attempts to resist sin:

“Before being joined to Christ, when I resisted sin I was like a prisoner who tries to escape over the prison wall before his sentence is paid. When sin the jailer catches up with me and tells me to come back into prison, I have no choice but to go, because I am guilty and the penalty is not paid. But when the Christian resists sin he is like a prisoner who is released through the prison gate after serving his sentence. When the jailer threatens him and tells him to return to prison, he need not go. The only power that sin has over the Christian is the power of bluff.”

– Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans (2008) at 229.

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December 2, 2014 · 12:38 am

Stott on the relationship between doxology and theology

It is of great importance to note from Romans 1-11 that theology (our belief about God) and doxology (our worship of God) should never be separated. On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology. It is not possible to worship an unknown god. All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, and arises from our reflection on who he is and what he has done. It was the tremendous truths of Romans 1-11 which provoked Paul’s outburst of praise. The worship of God is evoked, informed, and inspired by the vision of God. Worship without theology is bound to degenerate into idolatry. Hence the indispensable place of Scripture in both public worship and private devotion. It is the Word of God which calls forth the worship of God.

On the other hand, there should be no theology without doxology. There is something fundamentally flawed about a purely academic interest in God. God is not an appropriate object for cool, critical, detached, scientific observation and evaluation. No, the true knowledge of God will always lead us to worship, as it did Paul. Our place is on our faces before him in adoration.

– John Stott, commenting on Rom 11:33-36 in The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994) at 311-312 (emphasis mine).

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February 25, 2014 · 5:07 pm

How can we possibly live again in what we have died to?

“Can a married woman live as though she were still single? Well, yes, I suppose she could. It is not impossible. But let her remember who she is. Let her feel her wedding ring, the symbol of her new life of union with her husband, and she will want to live accordingly. Can born-again Christians live as though they were still in their sins? Well, yes, I suppose they could, at least for a while. It is not impossible. But let them remember who they are. Let them recall their baptism, the symbol of their new life of union with Christ, and they will want to live accordingly.

So the major secret of holy living is in the mind. It is in knowing that our former self was crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6), in knowing that baptism into Christ is baptism into his death and resurrection (6:3) and in considering that through Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God (6:11). We are to recall, to ponder, to grasp, to register these truths until they are so integral to our mindset that a return to the old life is unthinkable. Regenerate Christians should no more contemplate a return to unregenerate living than adults to their childhood, married people to their singleness, or discharged prisoners to their prison cell. For our union with Jesus Christ has severed us from the old life and committed us to the new. Our baptism stands between the two like a door between two rooms, closing on the one and opening into the other. We have died, and we have risen. How can we possibly live again in what we have died to?”

– John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP 1994), at 179-180

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November 8, 2013 · 7:24 am

The Reign of Grace

Nothing could sum up better the blessings of being in Christ than the expression ‘the reign of grace’ [Rom 5:21]. For grace forgives sins through the cross, and bestows on the sinner both righteousness and eternal life. Grace satisfies the thirsty soul and fills the hungry with good things. Grace sanctifies sinners, shaping them into the image of Christ. Grace perseveres even with the recalcitrant, determining to complete what it has begun. And one day grace will destroy death and consummate the kingdom. So when we are convinced that ‘grace reigns’, we will remember that God’s throne is a ‘throne of grace’, and will come to it boldly to receive mercy and to find grace for every need. [Heb 4:16]

– John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994) at 157-8 (emphasis added)

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November 1, 2013 · 3:50 am

Is faith irrational?

(16) Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. (17) As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

(18) Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (19) Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. (20) Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, (21) being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (22) This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” (23) The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, (24) but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

– Romans 4:16-25 (NIV)

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In our modern age a charge often brought against Christians is that our “faith” is irrational – ‘a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence’ (Bertrand Russell). It is said that to have faith is unreasonable; it does not depend on reasons for belief.

A philosophically comprehensive response to the above challenge would require far more than a mere blog post. In this brief riposte I merely wish to illustrate, from a Biblical perspective, that faith does depend on reasons – reasons for belief. Christians are not unthinking “headless chickens” who trust in the God of the Bible because it merely brings them comfort. (Indeed, if the fundamental reason for our faith, the resurrection, did not happen, the apostle Paul concedes that we Christians are ‘of all people most to be pitied’.)

The above passage from the book of Romans is noteworthy for various reasons, but for our purposes here we shall focus on the theme of faith. The writer, Paul the apostle, considers faith in the account of our ‘father’ of the faith, Abraham. The narrative concerning God’s promise to Abraham can be found in Gen 15-24; but to summarise, in Gen 15:1-5 God promises Abraham (for a second time) that he would bless him and make his offspring as innumerable as the stars in the sky. This promise seemed impossible at the time, since Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and in old age. Yet he ‘believed the Lord’, and this faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15:6).

But why did Abraham believe God’s promise? Here we are ably assisted by the commentary of John Stott:

In this chapter the apostle gives us instruction about the nature of faith. He indicates that there are degrees. For faith can be weak (19) or strong (20). How then does it grow? Above all through the use of our minds. Faith is not burying our heads in the sand, or screwing ourselves up to believe what we know is not true, or even whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. On the contrary, faith is a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking.

On the one hand we have to think about the problems which face us. Faith is not closing our eyes to them. Abraham ‘considered his own body, which was as good as dead, … and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (19, REB). Better, he faced the fact (NIV) that he and Sarah were both infertile. But on the other hand Abraham reflected on the promises of God, and on the character of the God who had made them, especially as he is the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (17). And as his mind played on the promises, the problems shrank accordingly, for he was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (21).

– John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), at 136.

Abraham was not guilty of ‘wilful blindness’ – a legal term which refers to deliberately shutting ones eyes to the truth of the matter. If so his faith would have been irrational, and he would be no less guilty of the aforementioned charge brought against Christians in this modern day. Rather, he considered both the challenges to belief or trust in God, but considered that God’s character and promise far outweighed these challenges. His faith in God was ‘a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking’.

Stott continues:

We today are much more fortunate than Abraham, and have little or no excuse for unbelief. For we live on this side of the resurrection. Moreover, we have a complete Bible in which both the creation of the universe and the resurrection of Jesus are recorded. It is therefore more reasonable for us to believe than it was for Abraham. Of course we have to make sure that the promises we are seeking to inherit are neither wrenched out of their biblical context nor the product of our own subjective fancy, but truly apply to us. Then we can lay hold of them, even against all human hope, yet in hope (18), that is, in the confidence of God’s faithfulness and power. Only so shall we prove to be genuine children of our great spiritual forefather Abraham.

ibid, at 136.

All the above is not to say that faith does not go beyond reason. At some point, once all the cards are on the table, and the reasons point towards one conclusion or the other, a step of faith – a choice – is required. To choose what? To choose to trust:

[F]aith is believing or trusting a person, and its reasonableness depends on the reliability of the person being trusted. It is always reasonable to trust the trustworthy.

– ibid, at 133.

It is worth emphasising that biblical faith is not ‘faith in faith‘ – i.e. a trust in a disembodied concept – but is a trust in a person: God. And the Christian God is remarkably personal. We believe that God came down in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, to die for the ungodly and reconcile us to Himself (Romans 5:6,11). In so doing, He demonstrates His immense love for us. The Christian faith is not a trust in an idea, or an ethical code; it is a trust in a person.

Now, granted, in our modern age the challenges we face to belief are different to those which Abraham faced. For example, our “postmodern” culture has eroded our trust in any objective truth or authority. Can we really trust the Bible? Isn’t Christianity just a dying religion, an idea which will fade into the doldrums of history? Though I shall not attempt to answer them here, these are valid questions to ask, and there are various reasons – good reasons, might I add – to trust in Jesus. (Potential starting points here, and here)

But the important point for our purposes here is that we look for reasons; that we think; that we engage with the difficult questions of life, and not shut ourselves off to contrary views. Indeed, this ‘wilful blindness’ is – potentially – a charge equally levelled against both atheists and Christians.

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John Stott on the Mortification of Sin

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:12-14)

In his commentary on the Epistle of Romans (The Message of Romans, IVP 1994), John Stott addresses verse 13, ‘a very significant verse on the neglected topic of “mortification” (the process of putting to death the body’s misdeeds).’ There are ‘at least three truths’ to be clarified:

First, what is mortification? Mortification is neither masochism (taking pleasure in self-inflicted pain), nor asceticism (resenting and rejecting the fact that we have bodies and natural bodily appetites). It is rather a clear-sighted recognition of evil as evil, leading to such a decisive and radical repudiation of it that no imagery can do it justice except ‘putting to death’. In fact, the verb Paul uses normally means to ‘kill someone, hand someone over to be killed, especially of the death sentence and its execution’ […] Elsewhere the apostle has called it a crucifixion of our fallen nature, with all its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). And this teaching is Paul’s elaboration of Jesus’ own summons: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Mk 8:34) Since the Romans compelled a condemned criminal to carry his cross to the site of crucifixion, to carry our cross is symbolic of following Jesus to the place of execution. And what we are to put to death there, Paul explains, is the misdeeds of the body, that is, every use of our body […] which serves ourselves instead of God and other people. […]

Secondly, how does mortification take place? We note at once that it is something that we have to do. It is not a question of dying or of being put to death, but of putting to death. In the work of mortification we are not passive, waiting for it to be done to us or for us. On the contrary, we are responsible for putting evil to death. True, Paul immediately adds that we can put to death the misdeeds of the body only by the Spirit, by his agency and power. For only he can give us the desire, determination and discipline to reject evil. Nevertheless, it is we who must take the initiative to act. Negatively, we must totally repudiate everything we know to be wrong, and not even ‘think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Rom 13:14). This is not an unhealthy form of repression, pretending that evil does not exist in us and refusing to face it. It is the opposite. We have to ‘pull it out, look at it, denounce it, hate it for what it is; then you have really dealt with it’ (Lloyd-Jones). Or, as Jesus graphically expressed it, we must gouge out our offending eye and cut off our offending hand or foot (Mt 5:29ff). That is, if temptation comes to us through what we see, handle or visit, then we must be ruthless in not looking, not touching, not going, and so in controlling the very approaches of sin. Positively, we are to set our minds on the things the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5), set our hearts on things above (Col 3:1f), and occupy our thoughts with what is noble, right, pure and lovely (Phil 4:8). In this way ‘mortification‘ (putting evil to death) and ‘aspiration‘ (hungering and thirsting for what is good) are counterparts. Both verbs […] are in the present tense, for they describe attitudes and activities which should be continuous, involving taking up the cross every day (Lk 9:23) and setting our minds on the things of the Spirit every day.

Thirdly, why should we practise mortification? It sounds an unpleasant, uncongenial, austere and even painful business. It runs counter to our natural tendency to soft and lazy self-indulgence. If we are to engage in it, we shall need strong motives. One is, as we have seen, that we have an obligation (Rom 8:12) to the indwelling Spirit of life. Another, on which Paul now insists, is that the death of mortification is the only road to life. Verse 13 contains he most marvellous promise, which is expressed in the single Greek verb zesesthe, you will live. Paul is not now contradicting himself. Having called eternal life a free and undeserved gift (Rom 6:23), he is not now making it a reward for self-denial. Nor by ‘life’ does he seem to be referring to the life of the world to come. He seems to be alluding to the life of God’s children, who are led by his Spirit and assured of his fatherly love, to which he comes in the next verses (14ff). This rich, abundant, satisfying life, he is saying, can be enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. Even the pain of mortification is worth while if it opens the door to fulness of life.

This is one of several ways in which the radical principle of ‘life through death’ lies at the heart of the gospel. According to Romans 6 it is only by dying with Christ to sin, its penalty thereby paid, that we rise to a new life of forgiveness and freedom. According to Romans 8 it is only by putting our evil deeds to death that we experience the full life of God’s children. So we need to redefine both life and death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death, whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life.

Holy Spirit, would you indeed give us the ‘desire, determination and discipline’ to reject evil. May we actively reject sin and embrace life.

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thoughts on Romans 1:20

This afternoon I had the privilege of studying Romans 1 with two friends. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is probably the most theologically stimulating (and challenging) book in the Bible, addressing issues ranging from predestination (soteriology) to the deity of Christ (Christology), from the righteous wrath of God to homosexuality – and all within the first chapter alone! This post, however, merely concerns my thoughts on one verse, Romans 1:20, set out with its context, below:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23 (ESV))


Verse 20 is the fulcrum of Paul’s argument. In this section (from 1:18 to 3:20) he seeks to argue that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23); and therefore all are fallen and in need of God’s saving grace in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross – the Gospel. By “fulcrum”, therefore, I mean that his argument turns on this premise: all man is “without excuse” for we have “clearly perceived” God’s “invisible attributes… ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made”.

 

This is a bold claim. But let us resist our inclination to leap to moral objections and unpack the text a little. V.18 talks about “suppress[ing] the truth”. V.25 confirms that this “truth” is about God – it is his “God-ness”, viz. His status as Creator, immortal, glorious. This “truth”, according to Paul, is self-evident – “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v.19). Indeed, God’s invisible attributes have been “clearly perceived” (v.20), and we knew Him, but did not honor Him as God (v.21).  

 

The question, therefore, can be formulated as such: are these attributes of God (his “God-ness”) truly “clearly perceived”? Are they really as self-evident as Paul suggests, such that it is enough to condemn us as “without excuse” (v.20)? Looking at the verses 19-20 again, we can see a few characteristics of this “truth”:

  • It is plain to us, because He has shown it to us.  How has he shown it to us?
  • His invisible attributes … have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. It is apparent that these attributes of God have been revealed to us in creation, as they have been perceived since the creation of the world, and in the things that have been made (viz. creation itself). In other words, we have been able to perceive God’s invisible attributes from His creation, or from observable phenomena.
  • These attributes are invisible – his eternal power and divine nature. Since these attributes of God are “invisible” and must be “perceived”, there must be an intervening step here of surmising or inference. In other words, the observable phenomena (or factual evidence) points us in a certain direction by which we can make a theological conclusion – that there is a God.

 

Theologians refer to this as the doctrine of ‘general’ revelation, as opposed to ‘special’ revelation. In summary, this revelation is ‘general’ as it is made to everybody everywhere (as opposed to ‘special’ which is revelation only to God’s covenant people at certain times through certain people); it is ‘natural’ as it is made through the natural order (as opposed to ‘supernatural’ revelation through the incarnation of Jesus and inspiration of Scripture); and it is ‘creational’ in revealing God’s glory in creation (as opposed to ‘salvific’ in revealing God’s grace in Christ).


I found this passage in John Stott’s Commentary on Romans helpful in understanding v.20:

“For example, after the satellite detection of the birthpangs of the universe was announced to the American Physical Society in April 1992, an anonymous Guardian contributor wrote: ‘It is difficult to know what the appropriate reaction to such mind-expanding discoveries should be, except to get down on one’s knees in total humility and give thanks to God or Big Bang or both, for cunningly contriving to allow this infinitesimal part of the universe called Earth to be bestowed with something called Air.’ At the opposite end of the size scale, a consultant surgeon wrote to me a few years ago: ‘I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for an Ultimate Purpose.’ Anthropologists have also found a worldwide moral sense in human beings so that, although conscience is of course to some extent conditioned by a culture, it still testifies to everybody everywhere both that there is a difference between right and wrong and that evil deserves to be punished.”

 

Now, I find the last sentence in the above quotation helpful in dealing with a certain objection, couched as follows: “What about the primitive tribesman in Africa who has no access to the Gospel, and has no access to modern scientific thought? (e.g. knowledge that the universe had a beginning; also known as the “cosmological argument”) How is it fair that he be condemned as well, for his ignorance?” Put another way, what is the lowest common denominator between all people groups throughout all human history which is enough to condemn us? In my humble opinion, the existence of an objective moral standard is the key – the “worldwide moral sense in human beings”, to use the language of the passage above. As humans, we bear the imago Dei, which separates us from the other animals. The human capacity for Reason and a conscience is common to the entire human race, and this, perhaps more than other factors, gives us the biggest clue as to the existence of God. I commend Part I of C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity – ‘Right and Wrong as the Clue to the Meaning of the Universe’ – as an illuminating illustration of this point.


v.20 also has important consequences for apologetics (and therefore, evangelism). In an earlier paragraph I drew a distinction between factual evidence and theological conclusions. I find this distinction rather helpful. (You may not.) There are many observable phenomena that point towards the possible conclusion that there is a God. For example, the theory of relativity shows us that the universe is expanding, and consequently that the universe had a beginning or starting point (this is also known as the “cosmological argument”). One theological conclusion (and the most plausible one, in my opinion) is that since the universe had a beginning, it must have been created; “something” does not come from “nothing”. However, there are many who will try as best to come to an alternative theological conclusion. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design is such an example; it attempts to reach a different theological conclusion based on the same factual evidence, running into philosophical difficulties in the process (see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/stephen-hawking-and-god).

 

Indeed, there will always be those who choose to resist the conclusion that there is a God. And we shouldn’t be surprised; Scripture tells us that fallen human beings “suppress the truth” despite God’s showing it to us. In apologetics, we are called to always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). The theological conclusion which comes afterthe factual evidence presented is the result of faith; and it is a gift of God, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8-9).

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