The Work of the Holy Spirit in Transformation

The following is an audio recording and transcript of a sermon for and with our church community, Vineyard Central, on June 17, 2012.  The sermon dwells deeply in Romans 7:7-8:16.

It is this passage from the letter to the Romans that puts verses like 7:6 (“But now, dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code”) and other like passages in context.  So much evangelical theology is built on verses like Romans 7:6 to the detriment of the church, I believe, because we don’t let Paul speak for himself.  Even more important, we don’t put Paul’s theology under the Lordship of Jesus, and we take pieces of Paul out of context, and elevate what we think Paul believes to be on par with the words of Jesus.

All the above thoughts lurk in my head often, and they informed the formation of the sermon.  The sermon is intended to address several questions that arise from the life of discipleship:

Why is it that Christians are so afraid of the simple commands of God, so worried about the possibility of “legalism,” that we avoid teaching clear commands of Scripture?

Why is God’s law so maligned in our understanding of discipleship even though Paul says “I delight in God’s law” (Romans 7:22)?

Why do we focus on “grace alone,” when Paul clearly joins with Jesus (“For the Son of Man…will reward each person according to what they have done” [Matthew 16:27])  in multiple places to say, “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6) and “if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13)?

Why, when we speak of the Spirit’s role in transformation, do we tend to speak in broad generalizations that in practice enable each person to make of the Spirit what they will?  Does Paul really set the Spirit up against written or spoken commands?

All of these questions led to four main thoughts in the sermon:

1.  God’s law is very good, and there is no gospel without it.

2.  The Spirit walks in step with the command of the Father and the gift of the Son, not apart from them.

3.  We have not been set free from the command of God to live in a state of grace alone.

4. The life of discipleship is not primarily a series of vague ideas that we get to shape ourselves, but primarily a concrete divine command followed by a human “Yes.”

Click on this sentence to listen to the sermon.

Below is the sermon transcript (my spoken thoughts deviated at times):
(Intro: How reflection times vary at VC based on situation/Scriptural passages/etc)

(Read Romans 8:1a) In some ways, I’d like the desire to begin with Romans 8 to serve as a teaching moment that hopefully will bear fruit over the course of our time this morning. As Christians, we have a strong desire to dwell primarily in places like Romans 8, “Oh yes, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Yes. Yes. I love that verse. And isn’t it just so true? We are not condemned.” But, if we value our spiritual and physical health, we should recognize that Romans 8:1a doesn’t stand alone. Plus, isn’t it just wrong on a literary level to start reading at “Therefore”?

So, we’re going to appreciate Romans 8 and the Holy Spirit as agent of transformation in a bit wider context, just including some of Romans 7. Now, if you’re familiar with Romans 7, you already know we could spend our entire time this morning in the intricacies of what our apostle Paul is trying to communicate about law, life, sin, death, and desire. I’m going to attempt to catch some of the core message of Romans 7 and how it enables us to see Romans 8 more clearly. And I want to start in Romans 7:7, which gives us enough context that we can digest this morning, and go from there.

Romans 7:7-8:16
7 “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not!”

I’d like to stop here for a second. There’s at least a small group of us this morning who might sum up our past encounters with the letter to the Romans by saying “Law= bad. Gospel = good.” And no matter how kindergartenish that sounds today, in some corner of our brain, we still believe it. But Paul simply asks the question, “Is the law sinful?” And he answers it, “Certainly not!” And if the law is not sinful, that implies that the law is “Good.” More on that as we progress here.

“Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”

I’m just throwing this out there, but I think Paul just used a rhetorical ploy here when he said, “Once I was alive apart from the law.” Because if it’s true that we’re alive apart from God’s law, then Paul should pack it in and quit writing to the church there in Rome. Every specific statement he makes, or any reference to God’s commands he makes from that point on will lead these poor people down the road towards death!” Again, for us one-verse quoters, we could make hay with this verse.” If I was alive apart from the law, then the law must cause death, so the law, again, is bad!” What Paul is addressing here, most specifically, is what we could call a state of naïve ignorance. The law is God’s command; God’s concrete, practical word that gives guidance about what to avoid and what to pursue. Apart from hearing from God, we are hopelessly caught in the clutches of a very sad ignorance. We believe we’re living in a wonderful state of freedom, but we’re really bathing in the seas of confusion and darkness. That’s why the law brings such a shocking, heart-wrenching move to the life of a new follower of Jesus. Coveting, for example, comes very natural to us. It is the waters we swim in in our culture. We want what others have. Heck, we even have it enshrined in our declaration of independence, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What if our wife, our job, our living situation, our bed, our stove, our coffee isn’t making us happy? We get another one! 20/20 on ABC is airing an interview with John Edwards’ mistress Rielle Hunter this Friday. As much as we’d like to demonize this woman, she wanted what would make her happy and pursued it. Who are we to stand in the way of her happiness, if we she is to pursue it?  And apart from the statement, “Do not covet,” how can we stand in her way?

So we hear this declaration from an authority other than us, “Do not covet,” and if we believe with the smallest shred of faith that that authority is true, we have to deal with what has been spoken. There is no turning back to our prior ignorance.

“Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting…when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”

I’d like to consider some of the different facets of how sin springs to life in response to a command. Coveting is good place to start. God gives a clear word. We at least care a little bit about what God says, so we’re at least somewhat affected by the command. How do we respond?

One way to respond is to separate between big and small things, “Well, God means don’t desire to steal a neighbor’s house from under them, but maybe there’s some wiggle room when it comes to his smaller possessions.” God anticipated this more incremental form of disobedience in the command in Deuteronomy 5. Not only should you not covet your neighbor’s wife (a big possession). You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or ANYTHING that belongs to your neighbor.” I love how comprehensive this is. It’s as if God anticipated how crafty and scheming the human heart is in response to a command.

Another way to respond is to separate the outer and the inner. “Well, God means I shouldn’t outwardly pursue someone else’s possessions, but I can still kinda want it on the inside.” Jesus addressed this very clearly in his ministry, teaching that carrying a desire on the inside is no different than expressing it on the outside.

One of the most ancient and practiced human responses to God’s command is to call it vague and subjective when it is practical and clear. (repeat because of centrality)  Our response to the clear commands of God is (without quibbling, without philosophizing, without separating inner and outer, without protesting or grumbling) to obey. Comprehensively. And we quickly find this to be a paralyzing reality, as Paul moves on to confess,

“22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

So Paul moves on from stating not only that the law isn’t sinful, but that he DELIGHTS in God’s law. So not only does the author of Psalm 1 before Jesus meditate on God’s law, but here a disciple of Jesus finds delight in the law of God. This is after the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is the apostle proclaiming grace.  He DELIGHTS in God’s law!  Would that change our perspective on Paul if we let that sink in a bit?  That’s a powerful statement!

And the pain that is dripping from every word of this paragraph is not the pain that comes from seeking to obey God when convenient, or when God’s commands seem to come more naturally. This pain comes from a person who clearly desires to renounce everything he once believed to be true and to follow his new Master, no matter what the cost. And this person, Paul, finds this pathway to be soul-crushingly hard. Paul has found how deep his human selfishness, how dark the depravity of his heart really is. He does not say he is totally depraved, but he gives a picture of just a small glimmer of light in a deep darkness. Keep in mind that he delights in the law of God! There is something in God’s command that awoke a joy, a desire in him, that had long lain dormant. And he wants to feed the flame of that joy so deeply that his sinfulness cuts him that much more painfully. Paul introduces a second law here. God’s law is good and right. But there is another law at work in him; the law of sin, that seeks to place him in chains. That is the law Paul is opposed to, not the law of God.

And now we reach chapter 8;
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what the sinful nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the sinful nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the sinful nature is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.”

I proclaim to you, brothers and sisters, that here where Paul rejoices in being released from condemnation, not a single time…Not. One. Single. Time…does Paul speak negatively about the law of God. He mentions that the law is weakened by the sinful nature, but the law of God remains, the authority of God that stares human claims at independence in the face and scoffs, the command of God is VERY VERY GOOD. Paul simply adds in that in some mystical way, in the gift of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, we have been given a way out of our confusion and pain. We have been empowered to fully submit to and fully obey God. And we are governed by the Spirit, not left to govern ourselves. We have a master, and it is not ourselves, our personal perspectives. And it is most certainly not our experience. And the Spirit walks in step with the command of the Father and gift of the Son.

The assumption that Paul brings in this passage is NOT that God redeems people in their sinfulness and covers them in grace forevermore no matter what follows. Keep in mind that the heart-wrenching pain expressed in chapter 7, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!” That pain, that anguish, is being experienced by a follower of Jesus AFTER having been empowered by the Spirit to battle against his sinfulness! Paul has not been delivered by Jesus to a life defined only by victory. No, Paul has been delivered to realize that he has a battle to fight! To use another metaphor, when we are delivered by Jesus at our moment of conversion, we have NOT reached the finish line. Instead, we have just stepped up to the starting line and begun to race.

The assumption that Paul brings into this proclamation of deliverance is the responsibility to actively battle against our sinful nature. We have not been set free from the command of God to live in a state of grace alone. We have been set free to revere the command of God, to cherish it, to seek it, and grace empowers us to make progress toward it. This sub-passage is all about orientation; are we oriented toward God? Are we listening? Is our self-will chastened? Is our desire to blunt the command of God kept in check?

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what the sinful nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs —heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, IF indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I suspect when you heard verse 13, if you are like me, you were a bit uneasy, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

Aren’t you being a bit dramatic there, Paul? Do you have to cast the picture in such stark black and white categories? I’m more comfortable with the shades of gray conversation.

Yes, we would prefer our leaders to keep their words of instruction comfortably vague.
We would like to make truth into what is most palatable for our tastes.
But the life of discipleship is not primarily a series of vague ideas that we get to shape ourselves.
It is primarily a concrete divine command followed by a human “Yes.”

And MAN I felt uncomfortable with that IF in verse 17. We are heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ IF indeed we share in his sufferings. There’s another troublesome passage in the New Testament that states that “Jesus learned obedience through suffering.”

If the Son of God learned obedience through suffering, how can we suggest our pathway could be any different?

Vineyard Central is a Christian community that deeply values beauty, that deeply values individuality and diversity. In such a community, we learn to listen more closely to one another, to be challenged to see God in one another’s perspective, to believe that we haven’t fully arrived at the truth and can find it in one another through a shared life together. In this community, I am reminded I must live my life with a chastened approach to truth, believing I have never fully arrived, and if I ever believe I have arrived, you will remind me that I haven’t.

All of those things I value.

Yet it is tempting to make the whole thing about sharing different perspectives, valuing one another’s voices, and finding the truth somewhere in the mix. We cannot rest in that place primarily. We cannot primarily see the kingdom as a good idea for us to think about for awhile; a different perspective that causes us to slow down, or causes us to be surprised again by the beauty and love of God. We must not primarily access the kingdom through a good conversation with friends, even Christian ones.

No, we must primarily access the kingdom through falling to our knees and declaring that we are lost and that we need God.

This declaration of need is not a declaration of the need to see things differently, to consider things from a different perspective. It is instead a declaration that we are hopelessly lost, that we are deeply selfish and depraved, that we are so captured by the darkness that we no longer know what the light is. It is a declaration that because we are so lost and confused, we cannot construct our own meaning of life, cobbling together what works.

In summary,
I am not the authority.
We are not the authority.
God is the authority.
At times, God has spoken in mystical ways that require us to consider different points of view as we seek to live truthfully.
In many ways most of the time God has been bluntly simple. And our responsibility is to sit on our knees before God, listen, and do whatever needs to be done to fully obey that command until we die, without quitting, without drenching the command in cheap grace. The Spirit joins us in that lifelong struggle, empowering us to change; sometimes in big quick ways, but most of the time in small, uncomfortable ways where we learn to rejoice in small victories and lament the many failures and the slow pace of change.

This is the gospel. It requires all of us for a lifetime.
It must consume us, or it is not the gospel of Jesus.
It must transform us, or it is not the gospel of Jesus.
We must be different than our surrounding culture, or we do not follow the gospel of Jesus.
It is worth it. It is good news. It is painful. It is what we are created for.

Amen.

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