|The Gospel of Godís Grace #9 . . .
Itís a Matter of Life and Death
November 9, 1997 / Romans 5:1 ó 6:10
We are at a turning point in Romans. While my outline of the epistle has Paul tracing the meaning of the gospel in the section that runs from 3:21 to 5:21 and explaining some of its practical implications from 6:1 to 11:36, the apostle wasnít following my outline with rigid precision. In the text for todayís study, he "slides" from meaning to implications rather adroitly.
The outlines modern students like to impose over biblical texts are just that ó impositions. They are our attempts to discern the form and structure of an ancient narrative or piece of correspondence. We have to be careful lest we become too wed to our systematizing devices and lose the natural flow of an authorís thought.
Against the very deliberate tone of the first four chapters, a reader can sense the excitement and celebration at the start of chapter 5. Verses 8-10 are the key lines of our text for today, and verses 12-21 (i.e., Christ as the Second Adam) constitute the bridge from meaning to implications, justification (i.e., right-standing through faith in Christ) to sanctification (i.e., right-living through the imitation of Christ).
Jesus Changes Everything
The key word that ties Romans 5:1-11 together is "reconciliation." Because of Christ, the hostility between humankind and God has been removed. Through faith in him, men and women have entered into the glorious state of grace in which we now stand. Life in this new sphere makes everything new.
Reconciliation is needed whenever people have been at odds. Thus warring nations may be reconciled or separated marriage partners or alienated friends. By definition, it is the bringing together in peace of parties once estranged. What put us at odds with God? How was reconciliation brought about?
Because sin is the transgression of Godís law and the refusal to submit to his authority, all of us have been his enemies. By the grace of God, however, Christians have been reconciled to him through the death of Jesus. Our state has been changed ó from rebellious sinners to people of right-standing. Our status has also been changed ó from enemies to friends. "For if, when we were Godís enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" (5:10).
Donít miss the point of this dramatic statement. Since a dying Christ reconciled us to God, surely a living Christ will keep us from the horrible wrath sin deserves (5:9; cf. 1:18ff). Since Jesus went to the cross for us when we were enemies, surely he will save us now that we are his friends (5:10). Since the Son of God overcame the initial difficulty in saving us (i.e., death), surely he will overcome any other obstacle that might get in the way of his purpose to save us. Christ has changed everything by his death on the cross.
I donít have to tell you that modern-day Arabs and Israelis live as enemies in the Middle East. That is why it was newsworthy when a Jewish woman named Braha Kaveh and an Arab woman named Aani Aljaroushi wept in each otherís arms recently. You need to know what happened to change the natural relationship these two women had with each other.
The Israeli womanís eight-year-old son was killed in an accident on October 9, 1997, while riding his bicycle. His heart was then transplanted into the chest cavity of the three-year-old daughter of the Arab woman. "Do you know what heart she received?" Braha Kaveh asked through her tears. "She received an angelís heart ó you donít know what a heart his boy had." When the death of one motherís child gives life to the dying child of another, what a bond must be created ó despite the background of animosity and war in their ethnic history.
We have been reconciled to God through the death of his son. We have his life in us now. His heart that is responsive to the Father beats in the place of hearts that were once hard toward him. What a bond has been created!
From this reconciliation, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:1-2a). Further, now "we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" as we look forward to sharing the divine glory throughout eternity (5:2b). "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings . . ." (5:3-5). And we live in the confidence that nothing will defeat Godís purpose to bring us safely through the challenges of this life to the glories of the one to come (5:9-11).
All these things are true because of the gospel message Paul has been expounding in Romans. And here is his summary of all that has gone before:
Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didnít, and doesnít, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadnít been so weak, we wouldnít have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him (5:6-8, The Message).
The Two Fountainheads
In a section that is difficult for moderns to understand because of the significance we attach to individuality, Paul asks his readers to see the meaning of Christís death against the background of Adamís original sin. He anticipates someone questioning how the one event of Christís death reconcile both Jews and Gentiles to God. His response is to trace the problem all the way back to Adam as the fountainhead for the whole human race and to set Christís death in bold relief against him. As the entire human race fell victim to death because of Adam, so do all people have access to life because of Jesus.
Adam is allowed to stand for sin and death on the one hand, and Jesus is put for righteousness and life on the other. The Hebrew concept of "corporate personality" or "totality" employed here is a bit of a problem for some of us. Even so, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon and said, "Thatís one small step for a man and one giant step for mankind." It is possible for the acts of certain individuals to permanently affect the lives of all who ever follow them.
Both Adam and Jesus are pictured as standing at the head of the human race, with the deeds of both having far-reaching consequences. "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned . . ." (5:12-14). The death-dealing consequences of Adamís sin passed to all humankind, and his deed continues to fill cemeteries. In this way, however, Adam is also a type of Christ. The Son of Manís single act has conquered death for all. "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22).
What is even more important, Christís righteous deed at the cross was adequate not only to undo the temporal consequences of sin (i.e., death of the body) but also its spiritual consequences (i.e., separation from God). "For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive Godís abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ" (5:17).
In the raceís solidarity with Adam, sin "increased." By means of the Second Adam, "grace increased all the more" so grace could triumph over sin, so life could triumph over death. Law exposed sin and revealed the reign of death, but Christ revealed grace and showed how its reign could be realized in human experience through faith in him (5:20-21). At this point, Paul abandons our relationship to Adam for the sake of tracing out the meaning of our solidarity with Christ.
Alive to Christ
One writer has claimed that one has not taught grace correctly unless he leaves himself open to the misrepresentation that he is giving people permission to sin.
There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.
I suspect he is correct in his claim. If so, Paul certainly taught it correctly.
The first several verses of Romans 6 are Paulís response to a question to which he had deliberately left himself liable: If sin evokes a grace response from God, why shouldnít we just continue to sin and thereby elicit and enjoy more grace? (6:1). Whether he feared such a rejoinder from some careless soul who might misunderstand him or from a malicious hearer eager to twist his words isnít clear. His answer, however, is crystal clear: "By no means!" (6:2a). Grace is not a free pass to disobedience.
Imagine that you owned a fine cafeteria. One day you hear this tremendous commotion out in the alley where the garbage dumpsters are. You open the back door to see whatís going on, and you see the most pitiful-looking human being you have ever seen in your life ó me ó fighting with several stray cats over the food scraps in the dumpster. I am a virtual living skeleton. Itís obvious that Iím living on the edge of starvation, and probably have been for a long time. There is nothing about me to provoke liking or affection in you, but you are moved to pity.
"Hey, hey!" you yell. "Get out of the garbage. Donít eat that stuff! Come over here." I trudge over to you, half-seeing you through hopeless eyes. "Listen," you say, "I canít stand to see you eating garbage like that. Come into my cafeteria and eat."
"But I donít have any money," I reply.
"It doesnít matter," you say. "My chain of restaurants has done very well, and I can afford it. I want you to eat here every day from now on, absolutely free of charge!" You take my arm and lead me inside the restaurant. I cannot believe my eyes. I have never seen food like this before: vegetables, salads, fruits, beef, fish, chicken, cakes, pies. . . . In my wildest dreams, I have never even imagined such things could be.
I look at you intently. "Are you saying I can eat anything I want?"
"Really, anything I want?" I ask again.
"Yes, I said anything you want," you answer.
Then slowly, with a gleam in my eye, I ask, "Can I eat some garbage?"
What would you think of me? You would think I was insane, wouldnít you? In the face of all that delicious food, all I can think of to ask is whether I can eat garbage. But itís the same thing when people ask if they can sin because they are under grace!
But Paul didnít use the cafeteria-garbage analogy. He stayed with the solidarity concept he had introduced in the previous chapter. Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection means ó among other things ó that one would be insane to continue in sin after being saved. Christianity, after all, is not a new moral code, world-view, or set of behavioral demands. It is a new life in Jesus that is lived by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And this has been symbolized to every Christian in his or her baptism into Christ.
Christianity did not introduce baptism (i.e., the immersion of an individual in water) to the world. Several ceremonies under the Law of Moses required self-immersion (Heb, tebilah) for ritual purification. Proselytes to Judaism had to undergo tebilah as well. John the Baptist immersed people in the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance and to prepare them for Messiahís coming. Also, certain of the so-called "mystery religions" of the non-Jewish world in Jesusí time practiced baptism as a rite of initiation.
The gospel of Godís grace gave this ceremony its full and beautiful meaning for the Christian faith. And there is no text in the New Testament more important to appreciating that meaning than Romans 6. What a shame that Christian history since the first century has witnessed such confusion over baptism. Put most simply from this text, baptism symbolizes a believerís solidarity with Jesus Christ. Just as physical birth from our motherís womb affirms our solidarity with Adam, so does spiritual birth of water and the Spirit attest our solidarity with Christ.
For Paulís argument here, the significant point about baptism is that it answers the objection that one could be under grace and continue living in sin. To the contrary, baptism means that one has embraced "a new life" ó not that he has received permission to continue his old one.
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or donít you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection (6:2b-5).
The ultimate point of baptism is not death but life. The significant act to the candidate receiving it is not her being plunged beneath the water but being yanked from it ó for the water symbolizes Christís grave. He was not abandoned to the grave and its decay (cf. Acts 2:27) but raised in triumph over it. Similarly, one who has been saved by him is called to new life. Death has no more mastery over Christ (6:9), and the life he lives now is lived to God (6:10). The same must be said of his followers: We do not live in the grip of sin and death any longer, but to God.
Indeed, Christ has changed everything.
The Christian faith is, in the most literal sense, "a matter of life and death." It acknowledges the two states of saved and lost, believer and unbeliever, alive and dead. And it affirms that every human being has a stake in these two states. Because of Adam, we have all been under the penalty of death; because of Christ, we will all be raised from the dead. More significantly still, we have stood with Adam under law, sin, condemnation, and spiritual death; in Christ, we may stand under grace, free of sin, without condemnation, and living a new life.
Bruce Jenner, the Olympic decathlon champion in 1976, recently wrote a motivational book. He says there is a champion within every person. That champion is ready to rise and inspire every aspect of your life. But you must first "find your arena." And just how do you do that?
According to Jenner ó who claims he found an arena in the 1970s when he trained for the Olympics and later in a business career ó someone who wants to live as a champion has to "die before being reborn." Imagine yourself at your own funeral, he says. See yourself in your casket. See the mourners milling around. Remember all the things you did in your life. More important, remember the things you didnít do. What was the great calling you heard but didnít heed? What great adventure did you miss? What noble path did you fail to take. Then visualize yourself on that path ó and enter it immediately. Donít hesitate. Donít hold back. "Cut off all lines of escape. Put yourself in a situation where the only answer is action!" Jenner says. "Vow total commitment to your cause."
Didnít Paul say that centuries ago? Didnít he say it was a matter of life and death for you and that you would need to die before being reborn? There is indeed something "motivational" about his profound theological point.
Just think about the time some of you have wasted by staying with Adam when you could have been with Jesus, embracing death when you could have been living, chasing lifeís trivial things when you could have been seeking the kingdom of God. The time has come for you to die, rise to new life, and cut off all the lines of escape to the world.
Christ is calling. Eternity is in the balance!
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