Matthew 15:16-18--And he [Jesus] said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.
I love theology. I love gaining insight drawn out of the truth of God's word that points to his attributes and glory. I love seeing how all of the doctrines of Scripture find their home in God's creation and redemption of both humanity and the cosmos through his Son, who is also an accurate depiction of the Father, as the book of Hebrews says, “he is radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). But it is also apparent to me that I am not a neutral observer of God's acts and words in history but a needy recipient of his work. Mike Horton puts it aptly, “What happens for us is the basis for what happens to us and in us.” We are actors in God's divine drama culminating in the redemption and rule of the cosmos through Christ.
With that rich theology flowing through my mind, something so grand, something that effects the very core of my heart individually and the heart's God's people collectively (that God has opened the way through Christ to dwell in us spiritually, that is through the Holy Spirit), it also becomes apparent to me that I do not always live in this truth. I live in the half-truth. I live as though I must obey the law in order to be a partaker of the gospel. But this preoccupation to obey for this purpose is the very thing that produces death in me. But why? Isn't God's law the height of goodness and righteousness? Obedience to the law is necessary right? The apostle Paul fleshes out this dilemma in his letter to the Romans when he writes,
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin...For apart from the law, sin lies dead...The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:7a, 8b, 10-11, 24)
We all know what he says next:
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:25-8:4)
Wonderful theological truths. And not to do any disservice to the clarity of Scripture but after trying to understand that time after time (of course applied in Rom. 12-14) the questions still pop up in my life as to why I do not live that way. What does it mean to serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh to serve the law of sin? What does it mean to be set free in Christ by the law of the Spirit? And how is Christ condemnation of sin in the flesh purposed so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us?
Surely the best way to come to that answer is to do an exegetical study on this passage in Romans. And to the best of my ability I have. But in focusing my efforts on studying how this particular passage relates to sanctification I fear that I have silenced how the apostle Paul was thinking through (I suppose) the rest of the canon of Scripture and consolidating theological truth to communicate to the Roman church God's sweeping plan for the world as a whole (as related in Romans 9-11). In short, I believe that I have emphasized one aspect of the Scriptures teaching on sanctification as it relates to the gospel to the silence of the whole, in essence distorting the wholistic teaching of the Scriptures. So with that aside, here is my effort to understand my dilemma canonically.
The problem isn't with God's law. It never was. His law was (and is) and expression of his character, righteousness, holiness, and even his grace in his giving it to us. But the law never had the power to save because of one reality. A reality that plunged the human race and the cosmos in to utter chaos and eventually ruin--sin. The law did not change people hearts or their desires. It served as a mirror to reflect God to the people and in the midst of that reflection to show them that they were desperately sinful people. They were in need of cleansing. Of course, I am presupposing that all died when Adam died (sinned). All were plunged into this mysterious and defiling reality manifested in their hearts from birth because they were born out of Adam's seed. They were born into sin just like the rest of mankind with Adam as their father, their life/death giver (Rom. 5:12-14).
So where does the rubber of theology meet the road of life? Well, that analogy seems a bit inadequate now that I write it. Even better, how does the truth of God's word illumine our hearts to see our sin, trials, feelings, actions, our lives rightly (and hopefully)?
- First, let me say that I am writing this out of an existential type of angst. A feeling that things in my heart are not as they ought to be but I want them to be as they ought to be. So forgive me for thinking out loud here.
- Second, I constantly reflect on how my theology informs my worldview, especially in the areas of sanctification and counseling. I believe that God's word is sufficient for all life and godliness. In the midst of besetting sin I am challenged to remember and examine what I believe about this because it would be easy for me to latch on to excuses for my behavior (i.e. psychological problems). I believe that it is a replaying of the temptation in the garden, “Did God actually say...?”
- Third, without getting specific, I have been struggling with bad habits both internally and externally. Bad behavior if you will, sinful behavior on different levels. These behaviors are not necessarily overt. But does sin have to be overt in order for us to take it seriously and seek to kill it? Recently, I have been thinking about these behaviors within the context of Proverbs 1-9 and the fear of the Lord. As Proverbs 1:28-31 states,
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
30 would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
- Not to say that I haven't been thinking about the moral implications of my sin (I think the fear of the Lord covers that) but focusing more on their destructive nature in my life, eating the fruit of my ways as a fool does.
- Fourth, this reflection (post) does not take the place of confession, repentance, and the seeking of wise counsel in my local church. This has always been a scary thing for me, since I am a student studying to be a pastor, knowing my life is called to be above par, and I would like to be thought of highly (sin/pride/fear of man).
- Fifth, my wife has been very, very helpful to me during these times in my life, with this time being no exception. As I was praying tonight, I asked God to give me a glimpse of his glory as he did Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. I realized that he has done this through Messiah on the cross and in his resurrection but in more tangible way through my wife. She has been Christ to me, his hands and feet, a manifestation of his peace and reconciliation with man in spite of his rebellion. He has drawn near to me through her, his servant.
- After all of those disclaimers (with one more: according to my wife I am long-winded. I think that I am fully trying to explain things;), my purpose here is to both reflect upon my own sin problem(s) and hopefully offer insight to others as another clay pot that houses treasure (2 Cor. 4:7).
With all that inside my heart, my real focus is on how much distress my sins have caused me, both in my relationship to God and others, in my work, and in school. I am so tired of them. Jesus' statement above is so liberating. I have focused so much on how my behavior has fallen short of God's glory that I miss real the reason why. Because they are idolatrous. The seek to reflect the glory of another. A big issue that causes distress in my life is a lack of personal discipline. I am easily distracted, often looking for something that is more fun to do. This opens the door for worldliness and complacency in my life. I so have a lot on my plate, being a husband, father, and student but I am not driven toward personal discipline by these things but away from it. But as you can see from that statement my problem isn't with behavior (although is manifests itself that way) its with desire. What's more fun to me or what is easier motivates me. The heart of the issue is that I love myself more than God and others.
If discipline for the purpose of godliness, loving others, and being pleasing to Christ were high desires in my life then they would manifest themselves in my behavior. My problem is with my heart. John Calvin calls it an idol factory. In truth I do discipline myself for things, the things I love. And lately it has not been godliness. How can one change his heart? Can a leopard change his spots? Since Adam fell all that has come out of the human heart are “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person (Matt. 15:19-20a). I have a heart problem. How can my heart be changed?
There is One who changes the heart. And he has done it in the most glorious way. He chose in Christ us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-4). This Christ or Messiah was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the Passover Lamb whom God's people fed upon as their sustenance (Ex. 12). He causes the angel of death to passover us because of his sacrifice. He was the wind that held back the waters of the Red Sea and the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that led his people out of Egypt (Ex. 13, 14). He was the consuming fire and booming voice at Sinai that spoke to his people and gave them the gift of the law (Ex. 19-20). He sustained them in the wilderness with bread and meat from heaven and led them in triumphant battle into the promised land at the same time judging the wickedness of the nations (Ex. 16, Josh.). When his people went astray he prophesied his coming as a Son of Man and a Suffering Servant (Dan. 7:13; Is. 42-53; Matt. 26:64). He would be the One who would make many to be accounted righteous (Is. 53:11). He “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He is the One who glorified the Father by being lifted up on the cross to and in his resurrection, ascending to from the earth to draw all people to himself (John 12:27-33). He is the one, who as the last Adam became a life giving Spirit...Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:45, 49).
This is how we change. This is how our desire and consequently our behavior is changed. By re-membering ourselves in Christ. It is worth repeating Mike Horton's statement again, “What happens for us is the basis for what happens to us and in us.” Something has happened to us and in us that God has wrought for us in Christ.
This is far from cheap grace. God has changed our very nature (2 Cor. 5:17) but as sojourners on the earth making our way home to the promised land we deal with the sin that still resides in this mortal body, awaiting what Christ has foreshadowed: that we would become like him, bearing the image of the man of heaven in a changed spiritual, yet physical, glorious body. As we wait in sure hope for our bodies to catch up with what Christ has wrought in our heart “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)
The second part of Hebrews 12 is worth quoting at length as it draws the hope of the Old Testament and the New Testament in Messiah and how this motivates us to live now while pursuing our heavenly home...
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (Heb. 12:12-13).
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:18-29)
This is how we serve the law of God with our minds while we await the redemption of our bodies to glory. This is how we are set free, in the Last Adam, the man of heaven, united to him as our life giving Spirit. Consequently, this is how we fulfill the righteous requirement of the law, seeking to obtain the grace that is ours through our mediator of the New Covenant, enrolled in heaven with those who are the firstborn, the heirs of the heavenly Jerusalem.