“I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16)
Getting our Heads on Straight
Let us continue to discuss the Introduction to the Commentary of Martin Luther on the Book of Romans. Now that we have our heart in the right place, all the rest of these BIG words will fall into place. Let’s take them one at a time, starting with a quick review of the concept of law.
The law is always meant to be a question of the heart (love) not just of actions (obedience). It was so in the Old Testament and is also so in the New.
The covenant of works under Moses was in the context of the covenant of grace under Abraham. Was it not grace that brought the people out of the land of Egypt, parted the Red Sea and provided for them daily in the desert? All of this happened before the law was given on Mt. Sinai. The covenant of works under Moses was a national covenant that had to do with the formation of the nation of Israel in the promised land. There were expectations attached to it and requirements in order to receive the blessing of God. No doubt. But whether faithful or not, Israel was still the people of God. It was a question of the heart. If their faithlessness was a momentary fault and they fled to the safety of the sacrificial system with the right attitude, the punishments of the law would not touch them. But if their faithlessness reflected a broken relationship with their King, and they flaunted their sin in the face of the Almighty, then the law was a fierce taskmaster. The relationship always comes first.
That is why Paul concludes in Chapter 2 that the Jews are all sinners just like the Gentiles. There is no difference. One group lived indifferent to the law of God but the other were hypocrites because in their hearts they did not have a relationship with God. Their obedience was outward and shallow and full of fear or desire for reward.
That is also why Paul in Chapter 7 calls the law “spiritual” because it can only be fulfilled (in part) by those who have the Spirit (the relationship). For those who don’t, it reveals the real spirit (broken relationship) they have within. Martin Luther puts it this way. “That law, then, is spiritual which will be loved and fulfilled with such a spiritual heart, and requires such a spirit. Where that spirit is not in the heart, there sin remains, and displeasure with the law, and enmity toward it, though the law is good and just and holy” (Commentary p. xii).
Therefore there is a difference between “doing the works of the law” outwardly and “fulfilling the law” inwardly (Psalm 119). That is what set David apart as “a man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14 NIV) even though he was a murderer and an adulterer (among other things). It is about the heart.
The concept of sin is very similar in the sense that it ALSO does not refer only to the outward works that a man will or will not do. It is also about the heart. It does no good in our evangelistic efforts to talk about “fire and brimstone” and “sinners in the hands of an angry God” or call someone a “sinner” before we even talk about the relationship that person has with God.
Sin is relational. Pure and simple.
Some people want to talk about it primarily as “breaking the law” and that is true but you need to go deeper and ask why the person is breaking the law (whether he is aware of it or not). The deeper question is relational. Sin is missing the mark. True. We are not living up to the image of God in which we were created and the reason for that is sin. But that isn’t good enough. The question is why we don’t live up to the image of God within us. What is the true source of the problem? Without getting that clear, all of our efforts at evangelism will be powerless.
Jesus called unbelief the “only” sin (John 16) according to Martin Luther and I think he is on to something here. Why is unbelief the only real source of all sin? Because unbelief is a lack of trust in God (and in Christ especially). It is a relational term. Adam and Eve did not trust God to be their Father. They felt like He was holding back on them, denying them something good when He was in fact protecting them from themselves. It is always the same. Do we trust God with our lives?
I often tell people that all the proof for the existence of God in the world will not change their minds because evidence is not the problem. Sin is the problem. What is sin? It is unbelief. It is rebellion. It is relational. They do not want God to be in charge of their life. They want no master except themselves. Self-determination is everything. God has no role to play. They do not accept that a relationship with God is a necessary relationship just like a relationship with their own mother is a necessary relationship for life and love and healthy relationships.
In fact, few people would admit that the only thing in life that truly matters is healthy relationships with the people around us who matter the most. That includes, by necessity, our mother (and our father) and our family but most of all, our Creator. It is necessary for our health and well-being. But few accept that truth much less want it. That is sin.
GRACE and GIFT
A distinction also needs to be made between Grace and the Gifts of grace. Grace itself is free and full and complete. It is by grace alone that we are saved. God’s favor towards us is without merit and because of that favor, He gives us Christ and the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts and fruit we need to fulfill his will in our lives. But although the grace is complete and full, the gifts are partial and increase with faithful use.
There is a struggle in the Christian life that Paul talks about in Chapter 7 where he admits that he is a sinner but that in Chapter 8 he is not under condemnation. Understanding the process of sanctification as a struggle for which there is no condemnation, frees us to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1: 5-8) to walk in the Spirit. If it were not a struggle, why does Paul continuously exhort us to do good, be strong, work hard, and follow God.
If we were truly Christians, shouldn’t our love be automatic and free? Like a woman falling in love, there is no effort to it, no struggle with it, no doubt, no hesitation. Just a free, willing heart ready to do whatever her beloved asks her to do. Yes, that is a beautiful romantic view of love and I think it is true (and will be true in heaven). It is how it should be between us and God. But we haven’t yet factored in sin. We are not carefree, pure-hearted young people ready to fall in love with God and give Him our entire selves at the drop of a hat. In fact, quite the opposite.
In the book of Hosea, we are told that we are more like old prostitutes who have lost every sense of what it means to love someone. Not just old hags but old prostitute hags who have sold our intimacy at the highest price (and sometimes the lowest price) in our efforts just to survive. When it comes to God, falling in love is not the question. He chooses us. He is the bridegroom and we may be swept off our feet initially but the hard work of changing our habits, our feelings, our actions and learning to be the wife (as a church) of our beloved bridegroom is a constant struggle. We need to be taught again what it means to love God and that is a process that He is in charge of and that happens as we struggle against sin.
So if the law is relational (and spiritual) in the sense that breaking the law or fulfilling it is a reflection of our spiritual relationship with God and if sin is relational (and spiritual) in the sense that it is at heart a lack of trust (unbelief) between us and our Creator (and now Christ), then faith must also be relational (and spiritual). And it is. It is not only by grace alone but through faith and this faith is a gift of God.
You cannot conjure up faith. Neither with God nor with anyone else. You can’t just decide to have faith in God. Not when your life is in the balance. Faith is a gift very much the same way that love is a gift.
We have an old friend in Argentina who used to come over to our house every time he went out with a girl on a date. He was getting on in years (almost 35 at the time) and he would ask my wife and I the same question every time. How do I know that I am in love with this girl? We would just tell him that it was too early for love and that when it came, he would know. He never liked that answer.
Then one day he showed up on our doorstep and announced that he was in love and was getting married. I gave him a hard time, of course, just for fun.
How do you know that you are in love? I asked.
I just know, he would say.
But where is the evidence? How can you be so sure?
I just am, he would claim.
And I knew he had discovered the mystery of love. Well, it’s not so different with faith (or hope or love). It is something you discover that you have. It is a gift.
Martin Luther gives a wonderful definition of faith. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (Commentary, p. xv). And we know that Martin Luther had to stake his life on it a number of times.
So faith is also relational. Faith does not need to be convinced to do good works, to fulfill the law, to seek to please God in all areas of life. It just does so. I love my wife but nobody needs to tell me to do the dishes, vacuum the rugs, take out the garbage or take her out for dinner. I know her. I know what she likes. I just naturally look for ways to please her. To help her. To make her life easier.
Sure, I could be one of those immature husbands who only think about myself and what a lousy day I had at work and I might just want to sit in front of the TV with a beer and a sandwhich and watch the football game. I may have to grow up. I may have to learn to love a woman. I may have to get rid of some bad habits. That’s not the question. The question is whether there is a relationship there of faith, hope and love that acts as a motor to encourage me to make the changes necessary in becoming a mature lover. In the case of our relationship with God we have the power of the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and encourage us to try again and who gives us spiritual gifts and fruit as rewards and tools to fulfill our ministry on this earth.
Righteousness is that faith in action. It is also a gift of God in the sense that we are legally treated before the justice of God as having the righteousness of Christ. But even in terms of our “struggle with no condemnation” there is a righteousness that grows in us but that is also the work of the Holy Spirit and is called “the righteousness of God.” It is action that comes from faith, as James points out, which is very different from actions that do not come from faith (although they may look similar on the outside).
FLESH and SPIRIT
Therefore flesh is not merely sin and the spirit is not merely doing right things. Neither is flesh to be understood as sexual sin. Sexuality and intimacy, for Christians, are a spiritual act. We are largely confused by flesh and spirit. Think of them, again, as relational (and spiritual) terms. Flesh is the unspiritual man. The man without a relationship with God. And Spirit means the spiritual man. The man with a relationship with God.
We are very accustomed in evangelical circles to say of someone that they are “in the flesh.” We do not mean that they aren’t Christians, just that they are not acting in a spiritual fashion. It is true that Christians can “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) or they can “grieve the Spirit” (Eph 4:30) but they cannot, by definition, be in the flesh. If they are, they aren’t Christians.
It isn’t about their actions, but about their relationship with God. It is true that a person can be a Christian and not be acting like one temporarily. It is even true that a Christian can sin on purpose and, for a while, not repent. But that is much worse than just being in the flesh.
It is more like a married man with a loving wife at home sitting in a bar flirting with the barmaid. He is not single. Then he would be in the flesh. No relationship. But he does have a wife at home. He is in a relationship. Now his flirting is much worse. He is grieving his wife. For a single man there is no one to grieve. No one to betray.
The same is true with God. Before we are so quick to say that someone is in the flesh, let’s make sure we understand whether or not he has a relationship with God first. If he is in the flesh, he needs to be evangelized. If he is grieving the Spirit, he needs prayer and ministry and loving concern.
Wow. That was a handful. We covered a lot of ground rather quickly. I think we have our heads on straight and our hearts in the right place and now we can dive into the gospel message that Paul has for us in the Book of Romans. Without understanding the relational nature of all of these BIG words, we would be hopelessly lost. I look forward to exploring these deep truths of the gospel with you in the days to come.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, it seems like everything is about our relationship with you. I suppose that is true. We are so quick to make everything about morality when it is first of all about love. Morality without love is unsufferable. I know because I do it all the time. Save me from myself, Lord and help me to stay focused on my relationship with you. I believe that it is the quality of my struggle against sin that matters to you the most. So help me to make every effort to show you how grateful I am to have you in my life. I fear that I am a bit like an old hag who has prostituted her life away and that I don’t know the first thing about loving you. I know that is why you gave me the Holy Spirit and the church to help in the process and I am thankful. I want to learn from you, O Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.