MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 10, 1998 FROM ROMANS SIX
This week we return to Romans chapter six. We have seen in this section of Romans the powerful truth that Christ’s work on the cross has liberated us from sin. The grace of God in the gospel has set us free not only from the penalty of sin, but also from the controlling power of sin. This week, I had planned to dig into the second half of chapter six this week to see what our part is in relationship to being freed from the power of sin. But it seemed that for us to get maximum benefit from the text, we first had to answer one more preliminary question which many Christians need very much to be answered for them.
The question has to do with one of the paradoxes of the Christian life. The paradox is this: one the one hand, in the first half of Romans six we see that we are, because of our union with Christ “dead to sin.” That is, we have been delivered from the controlling power of sin through Christ’s victory over sin on the cross. On the other hand, the second half of Romans six tells us that we are to actively resist sin. Romans 6:12-13 says, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death top life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”
On the one hand, we are dead to sin. That is in a sense passive. God never called us to actively destroy the power of sin. We could never do that. We died to sin--to its controlling power, NOT because of what WE did, but because of what Christ did. We are in a sense passive in this except to exercise faith to believe the gospel and God himself provides that. But here in this text we are called to be active. This sin is not to be allowed to reign in our bodies. We are further told to actively offer ourselves to God, so as to be free from sin. This is a fight. Two weeks ago we quoted John Piper who said of our fight with sin, “This is mortal combat...we go on killing sins as they attack us from day to day. We do not settle in with sin. We fight and we kill.”
This is the essence of the paradox. On the one hand, we are dead to the controlling power of sin. Christ has done that for us. We are, in a sense, passive. On the other, we must fight against sin. We are active. How does that work? This is such a crucial question because most Christians know there are both more passive and more active elements to their faith. The trouble for many is, they aren’t sure when to be passive and simply trust God and in God’s word and when to actively work out their faith. Many are frustrated for the simple reason that they are active when they should be passive and passive when they should be active. In other words, they seek to fight in their flesh to do things which God has already done for them. This brings frustration. On the other hand, many believers spend their entire Christian lives in frustration because they expect God to do things that God has called them, powered by His Spirit, to do.
We must all have a good, biblical answer to the question: WHY MUST THERE BE A FIGHT WITH SIN, WHEN CHRIST HAS MADE US DEAD TO SIN’S CONTROLLING POWER? The truth is, there not only IS a fight to be fought by the Christian, but there must OF NECESSITY be a fight to be fought by the believer. And as we come to know the reasons for this, we can be more liberated to serve Christ in the joy of the Lord.
The first reason there must be a fight to be fought in the life of faith is: This has always been the way God works in the life of his covenant people. This paradox of active and passive elements is not unique to the gospel. There are in the Bible two great acts of redemption. The great Old Testament act of redemption is the Exodus. That is, the series of events wherein God delivered his people from the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt and brought them into the liberty of the promised land. The New Testament ultimate act of redemption is seen in Christ’s redeeming death on the cross to deliver God’s people from their sin and bring them into the liberty of grace in the life in Christ. In both acts of redemption God gives unspeakable grace to his people, but in both acts there were both more passive and more active responses called for by His people.
In the Exodus, God had promised to give Canaan to Abraham hundreds of years before Moses. This was a sure promise. In the initial miraculous acts of deliverance from Egypt, the Jews were predominantly passive. They simply waited on God to loosen Pharaoh’s vise like grip on them. But when the Jews came up out of Egypt to this land which God had promised to them as a gift, the place was filled with well entrenched Canaanites who did NOT want to leave very badly. How did God handle this? Did He simply pass his hand over the land and wipe out all the heathen? No! There was a fight to be fought. He called his people to fight to take possession of this gift he had given them. Even though the land was given to the people, there was still a fight to be fought.
The book of Joshua describes the sometimes bitter fighting which took place. But at the same time, you are repeatedly reminded during these great victories that each victory was won by God as he fought for them. “I will give you this land...I will fight for you.” These were the repeated promises of God to Joshua and the Jews. Without God’s intervention, none of the land would have been taken. The battle of Ai in Joshua chapters seven and eight is illustrative. A small, insignificant town puts up a huge scrap and 36 of God’s people are killed. We know the reason for this is because they went into battle without God because there was sin in the camp. We see here that on the one hand, God graciously gives something very valuable to his people, but at the same time expects his children to fight to take possession of it. This is the way God works with His people. This is the partnership he desires. He gives his people a gift, He fights for them as they claim it and he commands them to fight with His supernatural enabling. Does that pattern sound familiar? Philippians 2:12-13 says, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Seeing this continuity of God’s dealing with his covenant people helps us to see that this paradox in the gospel is not illogical or wrong or intended to frustrate us. It is simply the way God works in the lives of his people. That is the pattern. The second answer to the question “Why the fight?” helps us to understand WHY this is his pattern.
The second answer to the question “Why the fight?” is All our salvation, including our role in living out Christ’s victory over sin is for God’s glory, not our short term pleasure. Again, this is so crucial. So many Christians today have a fundamentally self centered view of their salvation. They are at the center instead of God. God saved me primarily because he wanted to do something for me. Its first and foremost about ME, my needs. That attitude will, without exception produce a superficial, shallow believer if it produces a true saint at all. If we could look at our process of salvation and ask the question, “How could God design a plan of salvation which would provide for himself maximum glory, which would most comprehensively display his power, his mercy, his grace in the lives of his people?” If we would ask that question, then this paradox would be far less confusing than it is to our self centered minds.
The reason we are saved, the reason we are gradually made to look like Jesus Christ is for the glory of God. God saves us for His glory, not for ours. This is all but lost today where we can see God as little more than sort of cosmic bell hop who exists to satisfy our every appetite. This is such profound arrogance. God graciously, through the cross gives us the gift of salvation. In this initial miracle of justification and regeneration he is glorified. The depth of his love and saving grace is seen in this, he saves sinners from a hell they deserve and pardons them of their sin. This is done free of charge with nothing required of the sinner except saving faith which he imparts to them. In this he is glorified. He has shown his superior power by defeating Satan and sin and has “purchased people for God” for his glory. They are his bride, the gift to him from his father. Jesus says of the church in John 17:6, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me...” Do you that God-centered view of the church? We exist for Christ and the glory of God.
But in addition to his initial saving act in conversion and regeneration, God is again glorified as his people, by the enabling power of his Holy Spirit, drive out the sin in their lives. As his people repeatedly choose to die to themselves and to by faith believe that what He has promised them is better than the fleeting pleasures of this world, he is glorified. His children trust Him and the promise of his word. He is glorified as his children repeated choose him over sin. He is glorified as his children live for an unseen heaven and not for this material earth. He is glorified as they say no to the strong urges of their flesh and yes to Him. When you see that the agenda is the glory of God, then this sometimes brutal fight makes all the sense in the world. In the midst of the fight He is glorified repeatedly. As his children learn to trust him, learn to humble themselves and draw upon the power of the Holy Spirit to live supernatural, inexplicable lives which manifest Him, he is glorified.
All this is possible only because of what he has done for them at Calvary. He is glorified in his initial grace to them which is provided through the cross in bringing them into covenant with him, he is glorified by keeping them in covenant in spite of their sin and he is glorified by their Holy Spirit led repeated choices to trust Him and choose him over their own, self centered desires.
The problem with many Christians is the same problem we see with the Jews in the books of Joshua and especially Judges. After God had given his people the promised land and had miraculously delivered them from the bondage of Pharaoh, they didn’t want to fight very badly. They failed to trust him when they saw the giants in the land and they spend years in the wilderness. So it is with so much of the church today. So many Christians have experienced the glorious deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, but when it comes to the fight, they don’t trust in God to give them the victory over sin in their lives. Like the Israelites, they refuse to give up the treasures of their old life in Egypt, the lust, the materialism, the consistency and they spend their lives in the wilderness--one foot in Canaan and the other foot in Egypt. James calls this double mindedness and it destroys people.
Still others make good initial progress, but when the really hard issues come up in their life--the ones they really struggle with, they refuse to purge that evil out--they get tired of fighting and try to maintain a level of spiritual depth which, although better than they knew before they were saved, is still filled with sin. We see this in the book of Judges. God had told the Jews who they were to drive out but we read in Judges 1:27, “But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. God had given these people the land and had promised to give them victory over those who stood in their way, but some of these Cannaanites were tough and they didn’t want to leave at all. They were really tough to expel--God had promised that he would go before them and expel them, but that didn’t mean that these people were just going to roll over, leave the homes they had built, the vineyards they had planted and volunteer for massacre. “Oh, yes, we understand that YAHWEH, a God we have never known or served has given you this land, so now that you are here to claim it, we will be lay down before you and let you do away with us, come on kids, the Jews are here, its time to die.” To expect that would have been utter nonsense.
The same is true of us. Satan has been defeated in our lives, the power of sin has been decisively defeated in our lives, that is Paul’s main point in Romans 6:1-11, but our salvation is not complete until we are glorified in heaven. Until then, there is a fight to be fought and some of the sin in our lives is tough and will not leave without a fight--a fight which, when we engage it will glorify God because as we fight the fight of faith he is glorified--as we trust him in the midst of extreme pressure, as we surrender our idols, as we choose him over our carnal appetites. These tough enemies can be driven out of our lives. But if we, like the Jews don’t fight with endurance and energy then we will do just what they did. We will allow these sins to cohabitate with us. They will linger around and will keep us from knowing God. They will continually be a snare and trap to us just as the Cannaanites were to the Jews. Every time we start to move out spiritually, feel a greater measure of the joy of the Lord, begin a new ministry, start an outreach to our neighbors, step out in faith in a new way, that sin which we have allowed to live in our souls will rear its ugly head and beat us down, unless we, in the strength God provides, brutally kill it. This is the place many in the church find themselves--able to go just so far and no farther. They are burdened by this, but when it comes down to looking at the sin in their lives and giving up their idols, they repeatedly say “No thanks” to God. They are as holy, or in this case as unholy as they want to be.
All this indicates a group of people who are, like the Jews of old, believe that God gives gifts like salvation and sanctification primarily for us, and not for His glory. As long as we have this man-centered, self-centered view of salvation, we will not know the victory over sin which Christ has purchased for us. We will constantly be whining about, “Why does this have to be so hard?” instead of asking God, “How can you be glorified in the midst of this?” People with a God-centered view of their existence and their salvation will know the over coming power of grace over sin in their lives because they are humbly putting God first and “God gives grace to the humble.”
People who are constantly complaining about how hard and difficult their Christian experience will not know the joy of the Lord. The greatest and wonderful truth about all this is our greatest joy is found when we zealously pursue God and His glory. God made the universe in such a way that the path to his maximum glory and our maximum our joy converge with each other. Its when we live a God centered life--the life God wired us to live that we will know joy IN THE MIDST OF THE FIGHT. This is so hard for so many in the church to receive today because we have been inundated with the attitude of the culture today which says, “if something is difficult or hard, it must not be right and certainly can’t bring joy.” That is the logic behind most of the gadgets and so called labor saving devices--the short cuts, the instant foods.
We buy into this thinking even though our experience regularly contradicts it. I don’t know many mothers who enjoy the labor of child birth--it is excruciatingly difficult, but I never met a mother who hated labor so much, that when that baby came out, they say, “Take it away, it wasn’t worth it.” Cooking something from scratch is much more work than buying a ready made product, but if you’ve spent the time to learn how to cook, it brings rewards far and above that of just pulling something out of the freezer case. This last week I saw a program on the difficulties of climbing Mount Everest. It is unbelievable what people will put themselves through to climb that mountain, but dozens climb it every year because to these folks the very reason it is so rewarding is BECAUSE it is so difficult. John Piper says, “Raking is easier than digging, but if you rake all you get is leaves, if you dig you might find diamonds.”
Sanctification and the fight we are called to is hard, sometimes excruciatingly hard. We must face that truth right up front. We’ve quoted the wag many times who said,, “Christianity has not be tried and found wanting, its been found difficult and left untried.” But for those who will learn to trust Christ, appropriate his power by faith and fight the fight of faith, there is great joy and the hard work is part of what actually CONTRIBUTES to that joy. Because in the midst of the fight, we begin to know God and experience his wonderful grace in its manifold expression. We should not look at this militant, difficult aspect of the Christian life as a curse. NO!--that’s the influence of 20th century laziness. This fight is God’s good plan for us so we can know maximum joy and bring Him maximum glory.
Those who have been fighting for years and who, by faith have seen the reality of the overcoming power of grace over sin may have some war wounds, some battle scars. But these people know God the most intimately, love him the most passionately and walk most consistently in the joy of the Lord. The reason is because they have understood that as they abandon their self-centered pursuits and fight for God’s glory in their lives, they come to know true, deep abiding joy.
There are three points of application I would like to make. First, We should not be discouraged by the fierceness of the fight, it is normal. For some people, just knowing that the Christian life is supposed to be difficult at times is liberating. There are many today who would have you believe it is a walk through the park. This causes sincere believers who are fighting against sin tooth and nail to wonder what is wrong with them. There may not be anything wrong—you may be moments from victory—don’t give up—keep fighting!
Second, When God is in the fight, we always see victory over our enemies. Its notable that there is no account in the book of Joshua which reads, “The Lord went before the armies of Israel and fought for them, but the people of Zoar were very strong and overcame him.” You will look in vain for that narrative—it’s not there. Whenever the children of Israel engaged the enemy with simple, child-like trust in God, they ALWAYS prevailed—ALWAYS prevailed! The same is true for us. We will never battle against a sin or stronghold which, when we trust in God, will overcome us. Sometimes the battle is long and hard, but victory will come—God never loses.
Third, Cohabitation with sin will bring defeat and frustration. God told the Jews to drive out the Canaanites. Their Achilles heal was that they allowed certain, particularly strong enemies to remain with them. Don’t misunderstand—I’m sure they were very nice people and their religion was certainly pleasurable to the flesh, but God said, “Kill them!—if you don’t they will eventually destroy you.” Some of our sins are not all that alarming to us. They don’t seem to be hindering us all that much and they do offer pleasure to our flesh, but God’s counsel is the same, “Kill them!—if you don’t they will eventually destroy you.” If you have sins which you have allowed to remain unchecked and unaddressed—if you have left the really tough ones to remain in you—know this: at the very least, the sins will steal your joy keep you from moving on with Christ and are destructive to your soul. May God give us grace to embrace the fight of faith for His glory and our joy.
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