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THE WAY OF THE CROSSThe Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018

“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 7:24,25a NIV)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1,2 NIV)

No Condemnation (1)

“I believe that God is love and that I am a good guy and it will all work out in the end.”

My friend, John, was talking and he was serious.  He had been a member of our church for years.  He was over 80 years old and still of sound body and mind.  But not of spirit.  I had asked him why he did not leave the Catholic church and become an official member of our church.

“No, no, I can’t leave the Catholic Church.  I would be excommunicated,” he insisted.

We were at one of our ALPHA meetings and John was sitting at the English table by himself.  We were doing bilingual meetings and the leader of that small group was not able to be there that night.  John and I have known each other for years and I sat with him and we had our own private talk.

I was a bit surprised at his attitude to tell you the truth.  You tend to think that people who come to church “religiously” were more or less alright.  But our church was a mismatched bunch of people from every denomination; Protestants, Catholics and even a Greek Orthodox once in a while, not to mention every other denomination from Pentacostal to Baptist to Methodist.  John was no exception and I had to learn not to take anything for granted.

Still, it surprised me a bit.  This attitude.  We were talking about there being “no condemnation” for those who were in Christ and John embraced the idea with vigor.  He didn’t like judgmental people and this approach seemed to fit his beliefs perfectly.  God is love.  I am good.  Everything will be fine.  No condemnation.  Period.

Sadly, that is not the gospel and I tried to explain things to him in more detail.  But it was no good.  This fortress was years in the making and it wasn’t coming down any time soon.  The problem is that there are a lot of people like John in our churches and they would be shocked to hear what I am saying.  They are not all right.  Not in any way, shape or form.  Each and every one of them will be condemned to eternal damnation.

Why?

After all, God is love, you might say.

True.  But we are not good.  And so everything will not be fine.

But don’t you think that John meant that he was good “in Christ”?  As a Christian clothed in the “goodness” of Christ?

I wish.  But sadly, no.  That is not what he meant.

We talked it through for quite a while actually.  He considers himself to be a moral person.  Which he is.  He thinks of himself as fair and honest in his dealings with others.  He isn’t corrupt.  He is a good professional and made his living honestly in a country where corruption is rampant at every level.  But most of all, he brings up the specific good deeds he has done in his life.  He talks of his brother who was sick and in trouble in another country and how he spent his own hard earned money to go to his rescue and bring him back to Argentina and took care of him.  Like the Good Samaritan, he would be praised by God and accepted into His kingdom because he, John, was a good man.

No.  It doesn’t work that way.  If that were true, then the cross of Christ is worthless and the gospel is useless.  There is “no condemnation” only for those who are “in Christ Jesus.”

He may consider himself to be a Christian and therefore “in Christ Jesus” in some sense, but we all know that a true Christian would never get these basics wrong.  No matter how good I may seem to the people around me, all of my good deeds are like dirty rags in the eyes of God and it is only the righteousness of Christ and his death on the cross as a substitute for me that can save me from the loving wrath of God.  That is the heart of the gospel.

I remember one time near the end of our ALPHA series when I brought up this issue again but in a different context.  We had two guys off of the streets who had been coming to ALPHA and we had just finished the Holy Spirit Weekend and were starting to talk about the church and getting baptized.  There were people who still had to make a decision to follow Christ and be baptized either in the Spanish church or the English church.

And there were two guys, that we had been working closely with, who were sitting there on the front row.  One of them, Alberto, had a dark past.  He was a manipulator, a political animal, an enforcer and associated with some very dark people.  He had been given the choice to disappear or be disappeared.  He chose the anonymity of the streets and became a nobody until the political winds started to blow his way again.  The other, Rafa, was a good person.  He was divorced but committed to his only daughter and visited her regularly.  He was a personal trainer and deeply involved with Eastern ways of thinking.

Each one of them had a story that would make the hair on your arms stand at attention.  But morally, one of them was basically a good guy and the other was morally corrupt.  And they knew it.

With their permission, I spoke about these two types of people who both needed to come to the Lord and make a decision to follow Him especially by taking the step of getting baptized.

“The problem with both of these situations is that they look to be on two sides of the issue.  One person is good and the other person is bad,” I said.  I looked around at the rest of the group of around fifty people.  Even John was there, listening intently.

“The Devil doesn’t care which game you want to play,” I said.  “If you want to play the good guy.  Perfect.  He can live with that.  And if you want to play the bad guy.  Even better.  He loves that even more.”  I paused, looking around at all of them.  “As long as you are willing to play games, he will play along.  His only goal is to keep you playing games until your time runs out.  In either case, you will be spending eternity with him and that suits him just fine.”

The room was completely silent.

“Frankly, I’m more scared for the good guys than the bad guys.  Chuck Colson, the president of Prison Fellowship, often said that the bad guys in jail, or on the street, or in gangs are often closer to the kingdom of God than the corporate businessman or even the elder in the church.  They know what they are.  They have no illusions.  They aren’t fooled by hypocritical posturing and moral game playing.”

“They still need to accept the gospel of Christ and repent of their immoral lifestyle but at least they have a more realistic grasp of who they are especially in the eyes of God who uses the standard of absolute love as His measuring stick.”

“No, the ones that I fear for the most are the good guys.  The ones who are actually decent human beings.  Who have not really done anything seriously wrong ever in their lives.  They are in the most danger because their self-deception is the deepest.  They are the ones who have a hard time understanding why God would be upset with them.  Why they would be condemned.  They consider themselves to be fine, upstanding members of the community and they would be shocked at any indication that they may not, in fact, be Christians at all.”

“Playing the bad guy, Satan loves, but he knows from experience that it can blow up in his face at any moment.  Playing the good guy, makes Satan sick, but he knows from experience that he can hold on to these people much easier until it is too late.”

I looked around the room.

“The question is, which game are you playing?  Good guy or bad guy.  The solution is stop playing games, leave it all behind, the good, the bad and the ugly, and start following Jesus.  It begins with baptism.”

So what does this all have to do with our passage today?

A lot, actually.  Romans 8: 1 tells us that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” but most people just remember the first couple of words.  They focus on the fact that there is “no condemnation” and ignore the part about being in Christ Jesus or, even worse, assume that they are “in” Christ Jesus because they go to church, or because they are good, moral, upstanding members of the church.  Not true.

So, please don’t make the same mistake.  It takes humility to bend the knee and enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whether your burden is one of immorality or the burden of good deeds, it must all be left behind and a new start must be made, like newborn infants, in the path of discipleship.

This, too, is part of the battle.  In fact, it is often the heart of the “good fight” we spoke of in our last post on Romans 7.  This internal battle on the moral level between what we want to do and what we end up doing.  Remember the question.  Who can save me from this body of death?  I can’t save myself.  Only by being “in Christ Jesus” can I live in the truth of a “no condemnation” lifestyle.

Only a new relationship with God through Christ can save me from the moral corruption of my lifestyle.  Morality cannot create relationship but relationship can create morality.  The moral problem needs a relational solution mostly because the moral problem is a result of a broken relationship with God in the first place.

No judging allowed among followers is the idea.  And, yet, the church is often the most “judging” place on the face of the earth.  The testimony of countless people who have left the church gives evidence of that (not to mention the majority of people still going to church but not getting too involved).  Still, this is the first and foremost truth that we need to hang on to if we want to survive the “good fight” of the faith.

This is the first of seven truths that we will look at together in this eighth chapter of Romans which are meant to help us survive and overcome the good fight of faith that is described by Paul in Romans 7.  Seven truths that can transform your life.  Do you remember our discussion on Romans 12:1 and 2 where we discussed the path to spiritual maturity and the necessity of transforming our minds through the truths found in the Word of God.  Paul gives us a wonderful summary of seven of those truths in this famous and beloved chapter of Romans.

In my mind, two of these truths have to do with faith, two with hope and two with love.  Paul concludes his famous passage on love with these words:  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13 NIV).

They are considered the religious virtues, bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit when we are baptized and developed as we gain spiritual maturity.  It makes sense, then, that these truths in Romans 8 are rooted in faith, hope and love.

But the very first truth, the one we all quote so quickly and eagerly, if understood correctly, is rooted in all three: faith, hope and love.  “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”

Did you see that little word, “now,” right there in the middle?  It means that something has changed.  Before there was condemnation.  Now there is no condemnation.  Before we were not “in Christ Jesus” but now we are “in Christ Jesus.”  That wonderful little word makes all the difference in the world.  It condemns the inclusiveness of liberal Christianity and, at the same time, puts the lie to the exclusiveness of moral religiosity.  A pox on both your houses.

There is no way to accept this life transforming truth without faith, first and foremost.  It comes after seven chapters of discussion on our sin and wretchedness and the loving wrath of God which is poured out on all mankind.  Do not divorce the after from the before.  Context is everything.  Before we were condemned.  After we are not condemned.

It takes faith (and grace) to see our sin and faith (and grace) to look to our salvation.  I always liked the second verse of Amazing Grace, where it says, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”  Exactly.  Without faith, coming and going, before and after, we cannot get there, we cannot appropriate this truth.

And faith is a gift of grace.  As Paul points out in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”

It takes faith to get there, but it is love that keeps us there.  Not our love, you understand, but the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.  This is what is meant by being “in Christ Jesus.”

It is a deep and mysterious truth that we are talking about here.  It is the truth of relationships the world over that provide the merest glimpse into the godhead, the relationship we can have with our Creator.  He has not left himself without a witness in the relationships we have among ourselves.  A father with his child.  A mother with her infant.  A husband and wife in marital bliss.  A friend who is closer than a brother.  All of it gives us a glimpse of the glory of the godhead, veiled and hidden though it may be to many.  Love is the key to life.  It has always been so because God is love.  His wrath is based on his love.  His sacrifice on the cross is based on his love.  It is we who are willing to sacrifice the demands of love for the sake of our own convenience and safety.  It is we who struggle with the true nature of love.

All the best things in life are not things, so the saying goes.  And they are free, though they cost you everything.  Love is free, entering into a relationship with someone is free, but it will cost you everything.  Having a child is free, but, as any parent knows, it will cost you everything.  Especially in this world of hurt and suffering, pain and evil, where anything can happen.  Some even choose not to love, not to get involved, not to hurt or be hurt.  Love is a harsh taskmaster but it is what makes this life worthwhile.  God is love.  He hurts.  He gets involved.  He pays the price.

To be “in Christ Jesus” is both a judicial statement as well as a relational one.

If we are Christians, God has declared us to be righteous with the righteousness of Christ and has declared Christ to be a sinner worthy of his loving wrath with the sin that belonged to us.  It has been declared and it is true already now and will continue to be true for all time.  In that sense, judgment has already been passed on the cross and it only remains for us, in a temporal sense, to “confess with our mouth and belive in our hearts” in order for us to have that judgment (and mercy) applied to us.

But in a deeper, more mysterious sense, beyond the judicial but rooted in it, there is a relational, even physical, change that takes place.  When we are “in Christ,” he is also “in us.”  Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:14 “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…”

Entire books have been written on this topic and I can only touch on it briefly but the point must be made clearly.  If you are truly a Christian, you have received the Holy Spirit and there will be evidence of “Christ in you.” Evidence not just in terms of morality.  That is true but nowhere near enough.  It is in terms of relational truths, such as godly sorrow, true confession and repentance, forgiveness of others and self based on the cross of Christ and an unwavering commitment and pursuit of true reconciliation with God and others especially among believers that provides the real evidence of a new relationship with God through Christ.

The fundamental virtue that undergirds all of this is humility since the cross takes away every excuse to rely on our own efforts and transforms our addiction to ego into the dignity of self worth in the context of transforming love.

Yes, it takes faith to get there, but it takes the love of God expressed through us and in us that keeps us there.  But finally, it takes hope.  Specifically, the hope of glory.

That is the thing, isn’t it?

Christians are a bit nuts after all.  It is such a basic truth of human existence that this life is to be protected above all, that this life is what matters more than anything, and anyone who thinks differently is suspect.  Think about it.  How many movies have you watched where the hero does amazing things to save people’s lives, especially the lives of his family or friends.

Satan thinks like a man, but God thinks of eternity.

So the saying goes.  And that is the difference, isn’t it.  When we start to think like God, people think we are off our rocker… just a bit.

But Jesus invited us to think like God.  To have our eyes and our hearts set on eternity.  To be willing to sacrifice this life for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of eternity.  Paul said that if we are only hoping for some sort of recompense in this life, then we are truly to be pitied.  It only makes sense to sacrifice this life if we believe in the life to come.  Otherwise, we are just stupid.

All of the suffering and persecution, all of the pain and evil, all of the difficulties that come to us because we follow the gospel of Christ and prioritize (even in the church) the agenda of God, all of it is without value if we are without hope for the future.

The problem is that there is real hope and there is false hope.  It depends on what your hope is based on.

My friend, John, and many others like him, have hope for the future based on their own goodness.  They are blind to the truth.  Their hope is false and has no foundation.  The religious majority in our churches are dedicated to the status quo not to the furtherance of the gospel.  They are more interested in programs than people and more committed to the prosperity gospel than to the gospel of suffering that Paul preaches.  It is a false hope that is divorced from faith and does not express the love of God which now lives in our hearts.

What is true hope, then?

Paul tells us in Colossans 1:27b that it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Christ in you.  Did you see that?  Paul roots our hope in this deep, mysterious judicial and relational experience of the Holy Spirit within us as a seal guaranteeing our “glory.”

Paul tells us later on in Romans 8:17, that “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.”

Like any relationship, it is free but it will cost you everything.  And it’s worth it.

What would life be like without someone to love, without children, without friends.  But it means that you have to get involved and getting involved can get messy and hurt.  Suffering is a good bet.  In this case, to suffer with Christ means to suffer for the gospel.  The point is that we identify with Christ and with his plan to save the world.  We have a purpose and that purpose will cost us dearly and we will pay the price because our hope is in another life, not in this life.

Yes, it takes faith to believe in another life after this one but, more importantly, it takes love.  What binds us to the life to come as our top priority is a relationship.  Anyone who has lost someone dear to them begins to understand this.

But we are not just hoping for salvation.  If we are “in Christ” that is a done deal.  We have been declared righteous with the righteousness of Christ.  There is “no condemnation,” not now and not then.  Not ever.  That is our new status “in Christ.”  If God does not judge us, then who can condemn us?  No one.

No, it isn’t just the hope of salvation that motivates us.  It is the hope of glory.  The same glory that Christ receives from the Father, we will share in, if we share in his sufferings.  That “glory” as we have pointed out before is the character of Christ.

The glory of God is in his character of goodness.  Perfect justice.  Perfect love.  The one rooted in the other.  The other fulfilling the first.  Both parts one integrated whole.  His glory.  His character.  The willingness to die for his enemies to make them friends.  God made human for all eternity.  The glory of true love in the face of real evil.

That glory will become ours as well, fully expressed in the life to come but rooted in the experiences and trials and tribulations of this life as we suffer for the gospel as emissaries of the One who suffered and paid the ultimate price to save us on the cross.  He leads the way and we follow.

Our hope is to become like him.  Our hope, as we fight the good fight, is to overcome, to be more than conquerors, to prevail in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our hope is that the fight, itself, will come to an end, that there will be no more night, no more struggle, no more addictions, no more pain, no more weakness, and temptation, and trial.

Not because it is all taken away when we enter into our glory.  Which is true.  But, more importantly, because, in this life, we have been made new, we have endured our hardships as discipline and because we have learned the lessons of our sufferings and, through faith, in hope and rooted in love, we are transformed.

In our minds, in our hearts, in our behavior, in our attitudes, in our relationships, in our priorities, in our values, in our perspective.  Addictions will be overcome.  Temptations will be dealt with.  Relationships will be restored.  Not perfectly.  Not completely.  But we will move on from glory to glory, increasingly mature in our use of the Way of the Cross, and increasingly focused and committed to suffer for the gospel of Christ in radical discipleship.

That glory is the hope of those who are fighting the “good fight” of faith in the ongoing rescue operation that God is committed to until the end of days.  If you are not in the fight, no doubt, you aren’t that interested in overcoming anything, much less your own sin and weakness.

It is a key element to your spiritual maturity that you want this glory and you are willing to fight for it.  That is also a gift from God.  But your sinful desires are at war with your new spiritual desires.  That is the battle.  You must set your mind on things which are above and not on things which are below.  You will get better at it as you go along.

You can’t do it on your own, you know.  You’ll figure that out soon enough.  It can only be done as you rely on God and are grafted into the vine, which is Christ.  At first you will struggle with all of what that means but you will get there.  The Holy Spirit is a patient teacher.

But you have to be in the fight.  You have to be on the way.  There is no steering a parked car.  You have to try and move and “make every effort” as Peter would say.  Then you can learn.  The good fight is always in the context of ministry.  The ministry of reconciliation creates the tension, empowers the dichotomy, insists on a new standard, a new way of thinking, a transformation.

Paul talks at length about being “controlled by the Spirit” and not by “the sinful nature.”  Obviously, that is the goal.  But it it s a fight.  It isn’t automatic.  You need to “set your mind” on Christ and “reckon” yourself dead to sin, just to name two exhortations that Paul gives us in this battle.

But the battle is not divorced from ministry and it is rooted in the fundamental truth that we cannot lose.  Already now, there is “no condemnation.” The battle is already won.  We still need to fight because there are people to be saved and our spiritual maturity is a key element in our testimony that Jesus Christ can transform lives today.

We will start with these seven truths found in Romans 8.  It is a good starting point.  But without being “in Christ” none of it matters.  It is all worthless and none of it will be understood.  We start with “no condemnation” but the idea is to end with becoming “more than conquerors.”

The Desert Warrior

Let us pray…..

Lord, I want to become more than a conqueror and I know that that isn’t a free ride.  I don’t take it lightly and I know it will cost me everything.  But that’s all right.  Everything that I have and everything that I am today is nothing compared to the glory I will become when I finally stand before your throne.  Not because I did such a good job but because you did everything in me and through me.  Thank you.  I know that you are both the initiator and the finisher of my faith and that I can do nothing without you.  In your name I pray.  Amen.