John Piper offers an interesting perspective in looking at the role of the law… what it can and cannot do:

First, then, what is it that the law could not do? The answer is given twice in Romans 8:1-4, once in verses 1-2 and once in verses 3-4. Verse 1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is what we call justification – if we are in Christ Jesus – that is, if we are united to Jesus by faith in him – our condemnation from God because of our sin is taken away. God acquits us. Counts us righteous. Justifies us. He does not look upon us any longer as guilty and condemned, but as forgiven and righteous because of what Jesus did for us.

Then comes verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” This is what we call sanctification. After we are justified, and because we are justified, the Spirit of God is poured out in our lives and begins to free us from the dominion of sin and death. This means that Christians are not only “counted” righteous in justification, but actually transformed by the Spirit of God into more and more actually righteous, loving, holy people. This is the practical evidence that we have trusted Christ and are united to him and are justified in him.

Now my answer to our question is that these two things are what the law could not do. The law could not justify us and the law could not sanctify us. It was powerless to do both of these things. The first sign of this is that verse 3 begins with “for.” You could read it like this: Justification is “in Christ” (verse 1), and sanctification is “in Christ” (verse 2), for the law could not do these things, only Christ could, and so God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. That’s the first answer to the question from verses 1 and 2. Justification and sanctification come to us by union with Christ Jesus (“in Christ”) for the law could not make them happen.

Now the same answer comes in verses 3 and 4 as well. Verse 3 says that what the law could not do is condemn sin in the flesh, that is, it could not deal with sin, absorb its punishment, remove our condemnation. So God did this by sending Jesus into the world to die for us: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” So here we have the same point as verse 1: There is no condemnation because God executed the condemnation for our sin on his Son. That is the basis of our justification. That is what the law could not do. It could not remove the condemnation for our sin. It could identify it and name it and point away from it and stir it up and rub it in. But it could not remove our punishment. God did that in Jesus’ death. So again we see that justification is something the law could not do.

Now verse 4, like verse 2, says that this justification leads to sanctification, which was also something the law could not do – since it could not justify us. Notice verse 4 begins with “so that.” This is a purpose of God’s condemning sin in the flesh. God put our condemnation on Jesus and provided the basis for our justification “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Walking according to the Spirit is what we mean by sanctification. So what we see here again, as in verses 1 and 2, is that sanctification is the result or the effect of justification. And that means that both justification and sanctification are what the law could not do.

You can see it most easily if you just say verses 3 and 4 like this: What the law could not do God did, namely two things: he condemned sin by sending his Son to die for us, and because of this basis for justification he enables us to fulfill the essence of the law by giving us the Holy Spirit. That is what the law could not do: justify us and sanctify us. It could not remove our condemnation or bring about our transformation. And yet both of these are absolutely necessary if we are going to be saved in the last day and have eternal life. []

In all of this, it is perhaps instructive to remember that the mercy seat was the covering for the law – that is, mercy always covered the law.

What is perhaps even more important is this effective transformation of which Piper speaks, for if your accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior has not resulted in a transformed life, you might want to take a closer look at whether it was actually Jesus you accepted. So what is the result? Micah 6:8 makes it clear what it is the Lord requires of us, one component of which is to “love mercy.” It is not simply to show mercy, but to love it. This is a challenge for a people that finds it hard to forgive – and not only others, but ourselves. This is the transformation, though – that of reflecting the character of our heavenly Father through the power of the indwelling Spirit. It is He that loves mercy so much that He sent His Son. It is only through reflecting on Him that we, too, can love mercy – extending it to ourselves and neighbors alike, recognizing that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no use in looking around at others and creating a false hierarchy of sins that we might feel better about ourselves. If we are looking at others, let it be through our Father’s eyes, that we might extend a hand of mercy and help others grab hold of that same grace that has been extended us!


redemption in romans adult bible study guide cover imageSo, I’ve been delinquent in my posts, but with this quarter’s studies being on my favorite book – Romans – I’ll try to get back on track.

In preparing to teach this morning, it seemed important to recognize the pivotal historical role the notion of justification by faith has played in Christianity, so I share words from perhaps its most famous apologist, Martin Luther:

People don’t earn God’s approval or receive life and salvation because of anything they’ve done. Rather, the only reason they receive life and salvation is because of God’s kindness through Christ. There is no other way.

Many Christians are tired of hearing this teaching over and over. They think that they learned it all long ago. However, they barely understand how important it really is. If it continues to be taught as truth, the Christian church will remain united and pure – free from decay. This truth alone makes and sustains Christianity. You might hear an immature Christian brag about how well he knows that we receive God’s approval through God’s kindness and not because of anything we do to earn it. But if he goes on to say that this is easy to put into practice, then have no doubt he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he probably never will. We can never learn this truth completely or brag that we understand it fully. Learning this truth is an art. We will always remain students of it, and it will always be our teacher.

The people who truly understand that they receive God’s approval by faith and put this into practice don’t brag that they have fully mastered it. Rather, they think of it as a pleasant taste or aroma that they are always pursuing. These people are astonished that they can’t comprehend it as fully as they would like. They hunger and thirst for it. They yearn for it more and more. They never get tired of hearing about this truth. Similarly, Paul admits in Philippians 3:12 that he has not yet reached this goal. In Matthew 5:6, Christ says that those who hunger and thirst for God’s approval are blessed. [as recorded as April 19 devotional in By Faith Alone]

Walking with God is not about the destination. …As with Abraham, we may walk our whole lives without reaching an apparent destination, but when we are in danger of becoming discouraged, we should have markers along the way that remind us of how God has led us and delivered us in the past. (Walking Humbly)

So it is with Christian character. We are told to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), and too often think of that as some remote future place, but just prior to that, in Christ’s model prayer, He seeks for “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The kingdom is a reality here and now, and must be lived in our present-day lives. Indeed, the only way some people will be able to be part of the future kingdom is if those that profess Jesus Christ live out kingdom principles daily.

It is reported that when Gandhi was asked what he thought of Christianity, he responded, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And so we come to the heart of the matter of building Christian character (more…)

Christians often speak of “having the truth,” but unfortunately when this is said, it is more often in reference to right doctrine than Jesus, who we’re told is Truth.

Wednesday’s lesson asserts that “objective truth alone is not a fruit of the Spirit. Truth lived out in our life, that’s the fruit we need to bear.” Indeed, as we’ve been looking at the Fruit of the Spirit, we’ve noted the transformative nature of the Spirit’s work in the lives of Christians. If all we have is right doctrine, but we have not allowed Jesus to transform our lives, we have nothing.

The rich young ruler had right doctrine, but went away sad, not willing to allow Christ’s directive to transform his life. Saul of Tarsus was a ‘Jew of Jews,’ had studied with the best, and knew and lived “right doctrine,” but came into so much greater truth when he allowed Jesus to transform his life (and even change his name to Paul). As a result, countless others were transformed (and are still undergoing transformation) through Paul’s ministry and the truth of Jesus Christ revealed through his writings.

In a blog post on Jude, Aaron Armstrong asserts that “if we are to contend [for the truth], we must know the truth.” Indeed, Saul thought he was contending for the truth…until he met the Truth! We would do well to follow the examples set forth for us throughout the Bible, being well-versed in the objective truth of God’s Holy Word and setting aside regular time for study, but always placing head knowledge in proper submission to the Truth as revealed in communion with the Word become flesh.

When we speak of “having the truth,” let us mean that we have Him, and not an impersonal “it.” Only in having Christ Jesus can the Truth transform our own lives and the lives of others rather than serve as simply another ideological debate in which no one – and certainly not the Spirit of Christ – truly prevails.

There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners, who believe themselves righteous. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts), 1660)

With that thought, I return to my general identification with the older, rather than younger, son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As the one that made a decision for Christ early on and mostly appeared to do what was “right,” I knew I should see myself, as Paul did, as the “chiefest of sinners,” but never really did. This is not to say that I thought I had any righteousness of my own, but throw a returning “prodigal” or one “missing sheep” in there, and I’d have to check myself on wondering why so much effort was put into the one and not those of us who’d dutifully stayed at home and not gotten ourselves lost.

God has certainly worked on this with me at different points in my life, and perhaps never so much as right now.  As we discussed self-control in Sabbath School last week, I was reminded that the spiritual being is just like the physical in that it needs exercise. I can no longer take for granted those areas in my life in which I used to be strong if I have not had to exercise control over them of late.

The challenge, then, is not to take God for granted, as both the older and younger sons did in their own ways in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is to continue in a meaningful relationship with the Father, neither abandoning (younger son) nor simply going through the motions day in and day out (older son). It is in finding the relationship to be an end unto itself, neither taking and squandering our godly inheritance before our time (younger son) nor being so concerned about the inheritance in the end that we neglect the relationship with our Father and our brothers (older son). It is allowing the Holy Spirit to continue to work His fruit in and through us, transforming and replacing our stony hearts with hearts of flesh, full of the love and mercy of our Father.

So, I was going to go a whole different direction with this, but I guess the benefit of not having posted earlier is that it gives time for God to offer His insight. I can’t even remember what prompted it now, but for some reason today, the picture of Christ hanging on the cross came to mind, and it occurred to me that that was the ultimate in self-control…for God to hang on the cross, not calling on the legions of angels, nor simply taking Himself down, but allowing Himself to be nailed to that instrument of torture and allowing God to be killed, as it were!

And why? Because there was something greater to be accomplished! Could He really see it then? Not so much as the sense of being forsaken set in, but how much greater, then, is the demonstration of self-control? In the moment of greatest separation in one sense, the Father and Son are closest in their unity of purpose as the Son hangs on the cross! (The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, Moltmann)

Our self-control, then, is not dependent on our own will or feelings. It is not something we can accomplish in and of ourselves or at any given moment — it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit and through a continued experience of walking in God’s will.

In light of the self-control demonstrated by Jesus in order to accomplish the greater good of our salvation, what excuse have we for not demonstrating the little self-control asked of us along the way that we, too, might accomplish the greater purpose God has for our lives now that He’s endured the cross to redeem them?

The world puts a lot of emphasis on self-esteem, and those living in the United States are particularly ready to argue their “right” to do a whole host of things, and talk to this generation about “turning the other cheek” and they’ll let you know they’d do just about anything but look “weak.”

Contrast all this with the fruit of the Spirit meekness. Like so many Christian teachings, this one has been too often twisted so there is little understanding of the Biblical idea of meekness. The definition of an “attitude of humility toward God and gentleness toward people” I think is an interesting one to consider. Think of the three components given in Micah 6:8 as to what it is the Lord desires: (1) act justly; (2) love mercy; and (3) walk humbly with your God. It is the walking “humbly with your God” that makes the other elements possible, for we cannot know or understand God’s justice or love of mercy until we have walked with Him. [But “Walking Humbly” is a whole ‘nother message…]

This meekness, then, is a thing of strength and not of weakness. This is where what Oswald Chambers terms “God-esteem” must trump self-esteem. We must see ourselves and others through God’s eyes and with His heart instead of our own sin-tainted ones.

Take a moment to think of those in history you would consider meek. Were they “weak”? Did they conform to how the world tends to define meekness as something akin to doormats? Besides Jesus, Mother Teresa and Gandhi come to mind for me…hardly people lacking in confidence, inner strength, courage, or fortitude!

Let us, then, walk with our God, trusting in His goodness and control over all things, and allowing that attitude to manifest itself also in how we relate to others, giving glory to God in all things.