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The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it……What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:14-20, 24,25a NIV)

“When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin, and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” (John 16:8-11 NIV)

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”  (I Thessalonians 1:4,5a NIV)

The Good Fight

“The problem with Christianity is that it’s hard,” my friend was saying.  “I totally get what Paul is saying here in this passage.”  He paused.  “Most times I feel like a “wretched man.”  And I don’t like it.  Not one bit.”

“Is that why you’ve decided to leave the church?”  I asked quietly.

He nodded, his head hanging, not wanting to look at me.

“What does your wife think?”  I prodded just a bit.

Silence.

“I haven’t told her yet,” he whispered.  Then he looked up at me, his eyes a bit wild.  “You know what this would do to us.  It would tear us apart.”  He was breathing heavily now.  Almost gulping his breaths.  “I want to leave the church…..not my family.  What do I do?”  Then his head was in his hands and he was weeping.

I was praying fervently in my spirit for wisdom to deal with this situation and I wasn’t completely sure I could.  Lord, I need your help…..

I put my hand on his shoulder and rubbed it a bit.  “Well, let’s talk it out a bit…..and see what we can come up with.”  I paused.  “We have time to figure this out….”


My friend is not alone.  How many times have I heard excuses from people who have left the church that the sermons always made them feel bad, guilty, wretched.  And they were sick and tired of hearing it.  I can’t really blame them….

Some Pastors are real “hell and brimstone” preachers and almost enjoy describing how sinful we are and how much the wrath of God deserves to come down on our unworthy souls.  But to be fair, most of those Pastors also preach the gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ.  But a lot of folks can’t seem to make the transition.  They get stuck in hell and never make it to heaven.

Paul seems to be in the same boat at first glance.  His description of life under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit is breathtaking.  You know even as you read it that Paul has been there.  He has lived it.  He knows what it means to be a wretched man.  This is personal.

I like that about Paul.  Everything he teaches is real.  It has to be real.  His life was on the line and he paid a big price for the stance he took and the gospel he preached.  So we need to get the story straight and make sure we get the whole gospel.

That’s a good point, actually.  The whole gospel…..not a half-gospel.  That’s part of the problem with a lot of people.  They only hear a half-gospel.  The bad half.  It may be true but it makes you feel miserable.  And it is supposed to.  Most of us live as if God doesn’t exist and that we are not in rebellion against Him.  We simply ignore Him.  Not good.

When the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, it reveals that rebellion and the wretchedness that comes from it.  Not just in terms of what happens to us in life.  Circumstances can be brutal at times but what Paul is talking about here is a moral battlefield in his own heart and in the depths of his own soul.  It is an internal battle with himself not an external battle dealing with difficult circumstances.  That’s good to keep in mind.

When the Holy Spirit convicts you of sin, he reveals your weakness to deal with sin at the same time.

It’s no good to talk about your bad habits, your addictions, your unwise decisions and actions as if we are here to show you a better way, a wiser choice or to give you a new beginning.  This is about sin and sin is a relational concept that has moral consequences.  To look only at the moral consequences without dealing with the putrid relationship with God that is causing it is a big mistake.  Getting it right is the first step in our healing process.

We need to feel wretched before we can begin to feel blessed.  Most of us need to feel more wretched at times in order to go from glory to glory in the process of sanctification and holiness.  Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you……this isn’t a one time thing.  It is ongoing.  Or better put…..it is both a one time thing and ongoing.

On the one hand, we have an initial conviction of sin in order to get us ready for the real issue of life which is our relationship with God.  On the other hand, even when we are on the other side of the “divide,” we still have to deal with sin.  It doesn’t just go away.  But now you get to deal with it from a position of power.  And that makes all the difference in the world.

But none of this is easy.

It is God’s justice that we must deal with first.  And God’s justice can be a terrible and dangerous thing.

Paul talks about the law and calls it “spiritual.”  Of course it is.  The law of God is a reflection of His justice applied to the situation of mankind.  The law is necessary as a guide to Christ, Paul says.  Yes.  But it is first of all a guide to love.

Let me explain.

I have a friend who was living on the streets of Buenos Aires.  He stayed with us for a few months.  We thought he had become a Christian and was changing his life around.  His story came out bit by bit and as we listened and talked for hours, day after day, it got darker and darker.  Half the time we didn’t know if it was real or not.  The truth seemed to be suspended in the ongoing drama of this man’s life.  But we kept on sharing the gospel (and our lives) and believed that God was up to something.

Apparently, he was an enforcer (and a killer for hire), although he wouldn’t admit to anything specific.  Far-fetched?  Maybe.  He was also a political player, a businessman and a womanizer.  And he was proud of it all.  He was trying to get back to his life where he was the “Master of the Universe,” (his favorite phrase sadly).  It didn’t matter what we said or did, he obviously had a major problem with money and power (and ego) and embraced that temptation with vigor and energy.  He expected the church (and God?) to help him get off the street and back into the game.  He missed the point entirely.

At one point we talked about doing some business together.  He wanted to pay me back for all the help he was getting and offered to provide funding from his sources to make all my projects happen.  I wanted to support him so I told him that we could try.  But it had to be on my terms, otherwise it was over.  He agreed.

The business meetings and conversations we had were crazy (and that’s an understatement).  He had a lot of favors that he could call in and he spoke about needing a few guys to enforce his “request” for funding.  It would all go into a foundation and be used for good.  He even talked about doing ministry together with me.  I would preach and he would give his testimony.  It was surreal.  Why?  Because he also insisted that a little “persuasion” would be necessary to make it all happen.  After all, they owed him and he intended to collect on his political favors.

So, I found myself saying things like, “Look, no physical aggression and no threatening of any kind, or I am out.”   He didn’t like it.  It wasn’t practical.

“I need to vet every contributor to our foundation personally, because I am not interested in drug money or laundering money in any form or manner.”  At one point he got angry with me and said that I gave him too many rules.

I told him that there was really only one rule.

He asked me what it was.

I told him that he needed to love everyone he met and treat them with the utmost respect and kindness no matter who they are or what they have done.

He laughed.  Yes, he literally laughed out loud.  He was incredulous.  It wasn’t practical.  Nobody lives like that.  There was no way…..

Obviously, it didn’t work out and I was not able to bring him around, mostly, because the convicting work of the Holy Spirit had not yet taken root in his heart.  He had not yet become wretched.  So he could not be changed by the love of God in Christ.

But it made me realize one thing that I had never thought of before.

The law of God is good.  It is spiritual.  It is love.  Now I understood better how God felt about giving us the Ten Commandments.  Like my friend, we aren’t very good at this thing He calls “love.”  So he has to give us some guidelines, some rules.  “Don’t kill people.  Don’t steal.  Don’t go after other people’s wives.”  I was saying the same things to my friend off the street.

I remember specifically having that conversation.  “No, you don’t get to kill people.  That part of your life is over.  You are a new man now, right?”

No comment.

“No, you can’t just take money from these people or get aggressive with them or threaten them in any way just because you did a political favor for them once.”

He scowled.  “It wasn’t just political favors, you know.”

“Well, what did you do for this guy up in Cordoba for example?” I asked.

“I saved him from getting killed by his competition.  I had to shoot someone and almost got killed myself.  He should be good for about $300,000 US dollars.”

“Did you kill him?”

“No, I just shot him in the leg.  But I should have just killed him.  It would have saved my friend a lot of trouble in the future.”

“What kind of business is he in?”

“He isn’t a good guy if that’s what you’re asking.”

I just shook my head and sighed.

You get the idea.

God’s law is a reflection of His justice and His justice is rooted in His love.  His justice was revealed when mankind decided to rebel against Him and His rule of love.

He has to give us these guidelines because we really aren’t good at love and we need His perspective to begin to realize, first of all, the depth of how far we have fallen from that standard and secondly, how to start going back in the right direction with His help.

And I think that is the point of what Paul is saying here.

The Holy Spirit first convicts us of our “sin” which has to do with our relationship with God.  It is a relational category not just a moral one.  It isn’t just about that fact that we have fallen short in a particular way but that “falling short” or “missing the mark” of true love is a natural consequence of a broken relationship with God.  The biblical word “sin” has both the connotation of “missing the mark” as well as being “in rebellion” against God.

We understand the first one better than the second one.

Missing the mark is an external measure that we either did or did not do.  But being in rebellion is personal.  It means that we missed the mark on purpose.  And that is also true.  But we hate to admit it.  We are willing to accept that we make a mistake once in a while (and perhaps even a bad mistake) but we aren’t willing to say that it was intentional (when it often was) and even less so, say that we were rebelling specifically against God.

I get it.  For many of us, God didn’t even enter the picture.  Maybe our conscience, maybe social expectations, but God?  Not even close.

Well, the Holy Spirit does NOT agree.  The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, not mistakes, not poor judgment, not bad decisions…..sin.  Rebellion against God (relational) which results in missing the mark (moral).

If we don’t agree, we haven’t even started on the path of our healing yet.

The problem with rebellion is that it sounds like it should be an intentional, front of the mind, type of experience.  And that is sometimes true.  But rebellion can also be a way of life.  When a young man is living a life of drugs, alcohol and women, we know that he is in rebellion against society, against himself, against everyone else who tell him that this lifestyle will destroy him.  But he, himself, doesn’t see his rebellion.  He thinks it is just normal behavior….at least for him and the guys he hangs around with.

Rebellion against God has become a way of life for most people.  It has become second nature, a normal lifestyle, expected even.  It is a basic right of every human to make up his own mind, to decide for himself, to be his own master even if he makes bad decisions.  This is our modern concept of freedom to which we aspire in our budding democracies.

To say anything else will make you the outsider, the one in the wrong.  Just try it and you will see.  Try telling people that what they think is freedom is actually slavery and that true freedom is slavery to love, and specifically the love of God.  That is not an interpretation of life that most people will accept.  At least not without the work of the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts for the gospel.

After all, my cousin doesn’t believe in God or follow him and he isn’t all torn up inside about his sin.  He isn’t in conflict between what he does and what he doesn’t do.  He would never say with Paul, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  At least not in terms of the law of God (which is the context of Paul’s words).  Maybe if he was dealing with an addiction, he might begin to understand.

But most people don’t even make it to first base.

So if you are struggling with your “wretchedness,” thank God for starting to intervene in your life.  It isn’t enough but it is a necessary starting point.

We need to see our sin AND our inability to do anything about it.  Not in terms of our moral decisions.  We can always make different, better moral choices.  No one is off the hook there.

But, rather, in terms of the battle with our sinful natures.  We have no ability to change our sinful natures and therefore knowing (and agreeing) to the moral law of God is not enough.

Dealing with the problem at the moral level isn’t going to cut it.  It needs to be dealt with at the “sinful nature” level and that is corrupted because of our broken relationship with God.  Therefore it can only be fixed, made new, changed by a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

And I think that is the point here.

The Holy Spirit not only reveals that all of our wrong moral choices and our lack of love is, in reality, a reflection of our more basic rebellion against God, but that we are helpless to do anything about it because it has to do with our sinful natures which are corrupted because we were not created to live independently of a conscious, loving relationship with our Creator.  

The conviction of sin brings with it a conviction that we are “slaves” to that sinful rebellious nature and way of life and that we need to be set “free.”  We cannot do it alone.  There is no point even in trying.

Still, it is a first step and a necessary one.

We need to become “wretched” in our sinful nature first in order to understand that the “freedom” we need to change our natures comes in the form of a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  If our rebellion is a reflection of our broken relationship with God, then our “sonship” is a reflection of our new relationship with God.  This change will literally change your life.

So there you have it.

You need to become miserable before you can become happy.

We sometimes lose people on the way.  They become miserable but never find freedom in Christ.  Sometimes because we don’t explain it right.  Sometimes because they aren’t yet ready to hear it.  I don’t know.

My friend from off the streets ultimately left, disgusted with the rules, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to follow them and not even wanting to.  He wanted to get back on top of things.  He wanted to become the master of his own universe, his own life.  He was tired of his messed up life, not even realizing that it was a blessing because it brought him to the foot of the cross.  But, like the rich young ruler that Jesus loved, he walked away and chose money and power over a new relationship with God, even if it meant poverty and suffering.  It is often that way with people.  They have to choose.

And normally more than once.

Don’t think it will be an easy road.  You may enter into this new relationship by making the first decision the right one.  Choosing a new relationship with God is the first step but the truth is that we come with a lot of baggage and we are not always willing to leave it at the foot of the cross all at once.

Sometimes our idols (desires) and fortresses (fears) have to be revealed to us over time, step by step, little by little so that we can see them for what they are and deal with them one by one.  It is the process of holiness, of sanctification, of spiritual maturity.  So don’t be surprised.  But once you’ve started on this journey, you have all of the help of the Holy Spirit and the continued love and grace of Jesus at your disposal.  Now you have strength for what lies ahead.

Welcome to the good fight.  The one you’ve already won because of Christ but also the one you still have to win to be useful in his service.  You are saved but now you need to be readied for the work at hand.  There are lives to be saved and you are a key part of the team.

The help you need can be found throughout Scripture but the very next chapter, in Romans 8, Paul summarizes seven truths that you can live by that will transform your life.  We will look at each one over the next seven posts.

Like I said.

Welcome to the good fight.

Now let’s learn to fight like a warrior in the desert, with our eyes on Christ, our minds transformed by the Word of God and surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the heroes of faith (both dead and alive) in our local church.

This is a fight we are guaranteed to win once we enter into this new relationship with God through Christ.  Welcome.

The Desert Warrior

Lord, I want to learn how to fight the good fight.  I am weak in myself and in my sinful nature.  Give me a new nature, make me into a new creation and teach me the ways of your Spirit and the path of love.  I want to become a desert warrior for you so that you can use me to save lives for the Kingdom of God.  In your name I pray.  Amen.