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Walking The Roman Road – Lenten Season 2019

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

“What, then, shall we say in response to this?  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, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns?  Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Romans 8:31-35 NIV).

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39 NIV).

More Than Conquerors

A Pastor recently made the comment in a sermon about the verse in James that says something like, even the demons believe that God exists, and they tremble (James 2:19).  His comment was that most of us are not even at the level of the demons.  They are smart enough to tremble.  We are not.

Just the other day I was talking with a professional engineer.  A smart man.  He is Catholic in general terms, as almost everyone in Argentina is.  He told me that he believed in God.  I asked him whether or not he followed God as well.  He said no.  I told him that the demons were smarter than he was.  That got his attention.  Not that the demons follow God, but rather that they didn’t follow God, like my friend, but that is what made them tremble.  They knew they were in trouble.  My friend did not.

I think the same is true for many people in the church but in a different way.  Paul says that struggling with your sinful nature and habits and mindset is a normal part of the Christian walk.  Learning to master your sin little by little by accessing the power of the Holy Spirit in your life is supposed to be the idea.  There is forward movement, transforming power from glory to glory.  There are important lessons to be learnt on the way about ourselves, what matters to us, what idols we are still committed to and what fortresses still need to be torn down.  It’s all part of the process, part of the struggle.

The problem is that many, if not most, of the people in the church do not even struggle.  Yes, you heard me right.  Most people do not even enter the struggle.  I know that was true of me for many years and I am still reluctant to fight temptation or really commit myself to make every effort (Ephesians 4:3-8, 2 Peter 1:5-8) or resist to the point of shedding blood or dying (Hebrews 12:4).  I am not even in Kindergarten when it comes to fighting temptation or sacrificing what I want to please the Lord.  The same is true for most people in the church, at least, in the Western world.

Now, don’t come back to me with talk that everybody has struggles, that everyone has problems they have to deal with.  Of course.  That’s not what we are talking about.  So often I hear people talk about their problems as if it means that they are suffering for the sake of Christ or the gospel.  Not true.  Trials will come and we all need to deal with them.  There is help from God for the difficulties of life.  But that is not what it means to suffer for the kingdom of God.

The same is true of our struggle as Christians.  To suffer or struggle in this life to pay the bills, to deal with health issues or in our relationships is not necessarily the struggle we are talking about here.  Paul is talking about struggling with our sinful natures.  We can do that in the context of paying our bills, dealing with our health and relationships, most certainly, but they are not the same thing.

If we are simply struggling in life, that’s bad enough.  But what makes it worse is how we think about our struggles, how we respond to the trials, in faith or in fear, how we allow (or not allow) our old ways of dealing with stress and situations and relationships to dictate how we handle things.

To struggle with life is not the same thing as to struggle with our sinful natures.  In fact, how we struggle with our sinful natures will greatly improve (or not) how we struggle with life.  The inward battle always takes precedent over the outward battle.  In fact, God often allows the outward battles of life in order to teach us how to walk in the Spirit in the midst of real life.  We know that.

Still, most people struggle with life but not with their sinful nature.  They are powerless in life because they refuse to learn the ways of the Spirit and access that relational power for dealing with life.

That is what our verse today is all about.  It is a famous verse that is almost always misconstrued and misapplied to all sorts of things that Paul is NOT referring to.  We are more than conquerors, Paul says (Romans 8:31-39) and everyone is quick to apply that to everything from passing an exam to dealing with cancer.  Not true.  What do we think?  That we can climb Mt. Everest at 60 years of age because we are more than conquerors (especially without training)?  We can deal with all of our financial difficulties and get out of debt because we are more than conquerors?  We can deal with family issues because we are more than conquerors?  Not so.

We do not become supermen when we become Christians.  God is not here to help us have a great life.  He isn’t here to serve us.  We are here to serve him.  He isn’t here to help us build our kingdoms.  We are here to help him build his kingdom.

But I suppose that there is a way to apply this verse to almost anything in life that you need to deal with.  Start with the foundation that Paul is using.  We are more than conquerors in dealing with our struggle against the sinful nature.  We are more than conquerors in terms of doing the will of God (not merely our own will).  Start there.  Get your relationship with God worked out right first, then the effects and power of that will be available so that you can start to deal with the situations of life.

But even then there needs to be a word of caution.  Just because you are moving on from glory to glory in the transformation of your character into the likeness of Christ in the context of your struggle with your sinful nature in the arena of life, doesn’t mean that everything will work out the way you want it to.  The promise is that everything will work out for your good (Romans 8;28).  The problem is that we are notoriously bad at knowing what is really good for us and what is not.  We want things to be comfortable, to be easy, to be painless.  But God, for our good, allows us to be uncomfortable, for things to be hard, and for us to experience pain.  Because he knows that is the only way for us to learn to deal with our sinful nature (and with life afterwards) is through the power of the cross which we access by faith in his promises and then act on in the power of the Spirit which lives within us.

But we haven’t yet arrived at the deep meaning of this verse yet.  Paul says that we are more than conquerors “through him who loved us” (Romans 8;37 NIV).  We gloss over that part of the verse so easily and that is the biggest mistake we can make.  I hinted at this in our last blog post together but it is now necessary to make this next step in the process of sanctification much clearer.

First, we are in misery and shame but we have initially accepted Christ and his love as the solution to that misery and shame.  Then, much to our surprise, things don’t get better but actually worse.  We start to read the Bible and begin to understand more about how God looks at the world and how much he hates sin and our arrogance about sin and how much sin and evil is actually still within us.  Now comes the test.  Will we subject ourselves to our own judgment and condemn ourselves or attempt to become perfectionists or will we accept that Jesus is not only the author of our faith but also the one who will perfect our faith (Hebrews 12:1-3)?  In other words, our sanctification is as much the work of Jesus as was our salvation.

But we are more involved, or at least, involved in a different way.  Yes, indeed.

Now comes that part that involves us.  We are asked to do something clear and precise about our sinful nature.  We are generally blind to our sinful nature since we have lived with it all of our lives.  So in the process of pointing it out to us, the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin (John 16:8) and we become miserable about it because we either think we are guilty (condemnation) for it or we think that nothing can be done about it (powerlessness).  Paul deals with both of those misconceptions.  We live under a no-condemnation clause (Romans 8:1) on the one hand and on the other, we have the power of the Holy Spirit within us (Romans 6:10-11).

So what do we do with this body of death, this sinful nature?

Here is the next crucial step in our sanctification.  We must “put to death” the deeds of the flesh, Paul says in Romans 8:12-13.  This is part of that process that Jesus talked about when he said to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24-26).  Once you see it, you see it everywhere.  It’s almost like the missing key to our process of sanctification.  To be controlled by the Spirit (Romans 8:2-6) can only happen because we put to death the sinful nature.  And we do that by denying ourselves and what we want and learning to desire what God wants for us which takes faith.  But we aren’t good at denying ourselves, and we don’t actually want to deny ourselves, hence the struggle.  The struggle is overcome and we become more than conquerors when we practice the spiritual habits of putting off the old nature (Ephesias 4:22-24) and putting on the new nature (Ephesians 4:24-25).  It isn’t automatic.  We are involved.  There is effort needed.  But we have no condemnation and we have the power of the Holy Spirit within.

What are those spiritual habits?  We call it the Way of the Cross.  Confession, Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  This applies not only to salvation but to the process of sanctification.  But it begins with a relationship.  We have the courage to Walk the Way of the Cross because we live under no-condemnation.  We are assured by the Holy Spirit that we are sons of God (Romans 8:16).  God will help us every step of the way.  We are not alone.  We also have our church fellowship.  We are all in this together.  Now we are ready to begin, knowing that the relationship is secure, that we have power to overcome and be more than conquerors, that our final end will be to stand before the throne of God without spot or blemish (Ephesians 5:27).

In that relational context, we can begin to walk the Calvary Road just like Jesus did.  We can have the courage to confess our sins.  To call them what they are.  Not mistakes.  Not misjudgments.  Not rationalizations.  Sin.  Pure and simple.  Without confession nothing else will work.  The prodigal son said to his Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you (Luke 15:21).  First of all, we need to confess and deal with our sins before God and then we need to deal with our sins and confess them to the one we have sinned against.  There is no other way.  It can be embarassing.  It can be dangerous.  Our intentions can be misunderstood.  The information we share can be used against us.  So be it.  But confession is where it starts.  That is where denying ourselves starts.  That is the first step in the process of dying to ourselves.  Confession.

Then comes Repentance.  Some people claim that repentance should come after forgiveness otherwise we easily think that we are forgiven because we repented.  This is where the idea of penance came from.  And they are right.  But they are also wrong.  Jesus preached that the people should repent and believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15) but he was talking to the people of Israel.  That’s like talking to the church.  When it comes to salvation of unbelievers, they can repent only because they are forgiven.  It starts with the intent to change our ways but the only way to follow God and overcome (to some degree) our sinful natures is in the power of the Holy Spirit which we access by faith.

When it comes to believers in the process of sanctification, they are also forgiven by God already (no condemnation) but the process of sanctification depends on their willingness to repent in faith in the power of the Holy Spirit within them.  They may need help.  Of course.  They should ask for it, even from the person whom they have offended or sinned against.  Becoming accountable (in good faith and in the relationship of fellow believers and pilgrims of the cross) is a good thing.  Repentance is a lifestyle of limiting your will and what you want with love for others and for God.

Confession and Repentance are two arms of the cross.  I put Confession at the top because that is where Pilate put his notice (his confession) that Jesus Christ was the King of the Jews.  He meant it as ridicule of course.  But God meant that confession to be a declaration of war against the forces of darkeness.  Repentance I put on one of the arms of the cross and forgiveness on the other arm.  One is used because we are the aggressor.  The other is used if we are the one sinned against.  Then, at the foot of the cross, I put the concept of Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is key of course.  Without forgiveness from God we would be lost but without forgiveness from each other as well, we are condemned to fighting and bitterness and resentment.  We have work to do.  We are involved in the great rescue operation of God to save the world from the consequences of sin.  That is the only reason the sun comes up in the morning according to Peter in 2 Peter 3:9.  It isn’t about our petty differences and disagreements.  Something greater is at stake and we need the power of God to fulfill our mission.  We must deal with our sinful natures in the power of the Spirit and deal with our relationships by walking the way of the cross and learn to forgive people, even if they continue to sin against us.

This forgiveness is not like the worldly forgiveness that is talked about so much in books and movies.  That worldly forgiveness is for your own benefit.  You need to move on, they say, for your own mental health.  Well, that isn’t the issue at all.  Most people find it difficult to forgive because they think that somehow if they forgive the other person it will lessen the value of what happened.  That doesn’t seem fair.  And it isn’t.

God’s approach to forgiveness is to look at sinful reality straight in the eye (the cross, an instrument of torture) and transform it through the sacrificial death of Christ.  God basically asks us a couple of questions when we are faced with the task of forgiving someone (whether they ask for forgiveness or not).

The first thing he tells us is that this sin against us was far more serious that we can imagine.  The person who sinned against you also sinned against Him.  That sin, just that one sin, demonstrates that the person is godless and wicked and is deserving of eternal punishment in hell.  Unless they have been forgiven of all their sins by God through Christ.  So, God asks you a question.  Will you accept the death of my Son on the cross as sufficient payment for this sin against you?  I have already done so on my part, He says.  Will you do the same?

Far from being something that is devalued with forgiveness, the cross makes what happened so important that no payment is sufficient except the blood of Christ.  And if we are still reluctant, God reminds us that if we do not accept the cross of Christ as sufficient payment for the sins of others against us, how can it be sufficient payment for our own sins?  (see the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13).

But our job is not done quite yet.  There is still the final step of reconciliation.  We are ministers of reconciliation, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21.  This is what everything is pointing towards.  Obviously, our job is to be mid-wives, ambassadors of reconciliation with God but also with each other.  So God asks us another key question.  Will you treat this person whom you have just forgiven as they are in Christ and not as they are in their sinful nature?  Even if they continue to sin against you?  Will you look at them with your holy imagination and see what they will become on that final day, what God guarantees that they will become, and therefore what they already are.

After all, that is what God does with us.  We are declared righteous by the blood of Christ.  Our final judgment is guaranteed because it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Christ and his work is already done.  It’s a done deal.  Because of that, we can receive the Holy Spirit even though we continue to sin.  The Holy Spirit is not blind.  He knows that we still sin but he prays for us, he convicts us of sin, and he helps us to walk the way of the Cross in confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In Psalm 133, David says that God’s anointing rests upon us when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.  Spiritual unity based on the cross is the highest calling of the church as a body.  It is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit to help us walk the way of the cross in all of our relationships.  But when we live in that sweet spot of reconciliation at the foot of the cross, there is a great release of power in our lives, an anointing, an abundant life, an ability to do the will of God and to please Him like we have never done before.

Our prayers become effective because they are based on the righteousness of Christ (James 5:16), which is what makes us righteous men and women.  God listens very carefully to the prayers of those who have been sinned against.  He wants to know whether we are claiming justice or mercy on the basis of the cross.  The power of the cross is what transforms our lives and puts to death our sinful nature.  Not completely and not permanently until we are presented by Jesus on that final day in all of our glory that we share with him.  The character of a life that reflects the character of God which is best seen in the cross of Christ.

That is the message of Easter.  That is the power of the resurrection.  That is the anointing of God when we live in the power of the Cross.  That is what it means to be more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The Desert Warrior

P.S.  Let’s talk to God….

Lord, I want to live in the power of your Holy Spirit.  I want to be more than a conqueror by learning to walk the way of the cross in all of my relationships.  I can feel that transformational power already at work in me.  No condemnation on the one side and healed relationships, reconciled relationships on the other.  The truth is that healing relationships by the power of the cross is the only thing that really matters.  Physical healing is nice.  Financial healing is always welcome.  But you prioritize our relationships and we do too.  Thank you for teaching us what it means to be more than conquerors through Christ who loves us enough to die on the cross for our sins.  In your name I pray.  Amen.