Sin, Dominion, and Grace

 

In 2011 I was leading a youth group at a local church.  Over the course of a year or two, we addressed topical passages of Scripture,  followed by an in-depth examination of discipleship, followed finally by an exposition through the book of 1 John.  One particular evening, at the conclusion of what I would have thought was a sound, doctrinal exposition of a particular passage, a wise, thought-provoking student asked if I could give an application for the passage.  To my surprise, I hadn’t really considered the application, only the doctrinal propositions.  My focus was on accuracy, not application, as though the two were mutually exclusive.  After that humbling experience, I’ve since learned to think more about application, but not necessarily to the extent of providing it on a spoon, as I still believe the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the individual, and needed, application of Scripture.  A faithful teacher should be the conduit through which the truth flows in such a way that allows the application to be easily made, not hindered.

In Romans chapter 6, we needn’t worry about how to apply the doctrinal propositions laid out by the Apostle in verses 1-11 because it is followed up by a strong application in verses 12-14.  As is common with Paul, there is a logical consistency with his writings.  Chapter 6 is not isolated from chapter 5 (as would be expected because chapter divisions were a much later insert), but is indeed a continuation of the thought.  In the fifth chapter, Paul concludes with the familiar statement that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more. This naturally leads to the question, “Shouldn’t we sin more so that grace would abound more?”  In the strongest possible language the Apostle replies, “By No Means!”  From this exclamation, chapter 6 proceeds to be a defense of why believers cannot continue in sin on the basis of grace, a defense that is centered on no longer allowing sin to reign in our lives because we are dead to it, therefore no longer slaves to it.

Doctrinally, the focus of Romans 6:1-11 is union with Christ, defined in terms of both His death and resurrection and symbolized by our baptism.  Through the union with Christ in His death, our old self or old man, was crucified with Christ such that our body of sin, literally our flesh, would be brought to nothing for the purpose of severing our slavery to sin.  Further, union with Christ in His resurrection, though already past, has a future implication of resurrection from the dead.  Because of this union, and these transactions, we are exhorted to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Out of this doctrinal proposition, we find an application with at least three parts: an exhortation, a command, and a promise.

The Exhortation

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”

Our application is expressly linked to the doctrinal proposition by the use of therefore, though in this particular translation it does not lead the sentence, it is nonetheless linking the sentence with what has already been said.  The first order of business in this application is a strong appeal to refuse to allow the rule of sin in our mortal bodies.  Literally, this is exhortation says “Do not let sin be king!”  There is an implied possibility here, that sin could indeed gain the upper hand and exert mastery over us, not in actuality, but in practice.  This is what we are warned against, because as king, sin rules as a taskmaster making us obey its passions, desires, and lusts in our mortal bodies.

This phrase mortal bodies is a reference to our actual, physical bodies, though historically there has been some disagreement on this matter.  It includes our hands, feet, eyes, ears, tongues, mouths, sexual organs all of those members that constitute a body that will eventually die.  As we will be exhorted later, these members are not to be instruments for unrighteousness.  However, collectively they are here called our mortal body in which we are to refuse the kingship of sin.  Summarily, there is a king: sin; a subject: our mortal bodies; an obligation: obedience; the command: (sinful) lust or desire.  If we allow sin to reign, we are obliged to obey.

The Command

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

Working out of the previous exhortation, we are carried into a command.  In order to combat the obligated obedience to sin, should it be allowed the reign, the Apostle provides a divine command in familiar Do Not language.  This mortal body, in which sin desires to set up kingship, consists of members – those which we briefly addressed above – and here we are told not to present them to the service of sin.  Our members, if in submission to sin, can become instruments for wickedness, literally weapons for war.  Which brings up a question, weapons for what and against whom?  As if it were not obvious, they become instruments of sin acting against God.  We should consider this more deeply in our war on sin.

As king, sin sounds a call to duty.  When it has set up its kingdom, it’s trumpet heralds a call for our members to report to duty, whether they be our eyes, ears, hands or otherwise, to be used as weapons of war for unrighteousness.  The heart of the Apostle’s command here is to not allow our members to answer that call, i.e., refuse an “at your service” response to sin.  This can only be accomplished if sin is not allowed to rule.

Conversely, we are to answer, “at your service” to God, commending our whole selves to Him.  Sin has the power to only bring death, whereas here we see that God not only has the power to bring from death unto life, but He has actually done it, first with Christ and then to those of us who have been united to Christ, in both a death like His and a resurrection like His, all of which is symbolized by our baptism.  This simple phrase, those who have been brought from life to death, joins our command here in the application to the doctrinal proposition from the earlier verses (6:1-11), rightly placing the command in subordination to the Gospel.  We are commanded not to answer the reveille of sin because of the Gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Christ, but more than that, because of our union with Christ.  Instead, we are to present our members as weapons of war for righteousness.  Notice here that there is not an implied change of the weapons – still our members, nor of the use – still war, but there is a change of purpose – for righteousness.

The Promise

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We now arrive at the promise, linked to the previous statements by the little word, for, followed by a declaration that “sin will have no dominion over you,” which itself is followed by the justification, “you are not under law but under grace.”  This particular promise brings up a couple of questions, or at least should.  What makes this a promise?  How can it be guaranteed?  Is it dependent upon some personal action?  Why is the law brought into view?

The first observation that needs to be made is the declaration that sin will have no dominion over you.  Clearly this statement is issuing a promise.  Given the context of the exhortation, do not let sin be king, and the command, do not answer sin’s call to duty with your weapons of war, it would appear that a promise like this is unfounded or at least disjointed.  In the previous verses we are presented with the reality that sin actually could reign, therefore the call to action not to let that happen.  Why would that action, command or exhortation, even be necessary if sin won’t have dominion over you?  In other words, why tell us not to let sin reign if there is a promise that it will not reign anyway?  It is seemingly a paradoxical statement.

Practically speaking, verses 12-13 are the working out of our salvation, with fear and trembling.  There is an exhortation and a command.  These are part and parcel of our sanctification, an ongoing and progressive, divinely-wrought, purification from sin to conform us more to the image of Christ.  In this sanctification process, we are prone to sin and could be prone to extended periods of falling into sin.  But this is not a reality based on our justification in Christ.  In other words, the preceding discourse on the gospel, by the Apostle, going back into chapter 5 (and earlier for that matter) is the grounds for the promise that sin will not have dominion.  Sin cannot have dominion because it’s rule has been broken by the death of Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection.  Our union with Him, by faith alone, ensures that sin’s dominion is broken.

Furthermore, in this promise we see a return to the discussion on law and grace joining us to the previous statement from Romans 5:20-21 that led to this entire discourse in the first place.  In essence, the Apostle is saying that if we were still under law, it would magnify sin in our lives thereby establishing the rule and reign of sin, not because the law was bad, but because our flesh would be stirred up by the law to sin, a point that he will elaborate on in the remainder of chapter 6 and all of chapter 7.

In essence the application of Romans 6:12-14 goes like this: Don’t let sin be king and capture your members as weapons for war.  Why?  Because it’s not an actual king anyway, nor can it be – it’s a pretender to the throne – so stop living like you’re under its rule!  The believer’s practical day-to-day sanctification is grounded in the reality of our justification – made right with God by means of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection, no longer under law, but under grace.  That is the application of the doctrinal proposition.  One without the other is insufficient.  It is in this application that we must live daily in our pursuit of holiness, realizing that it is grounded on the reality of having been crucified with Christ, united with Him by faith.

Always and Forever

 

In Hebrews 7, following upon the extended discourse of Melchizedek as the type or pattern for Christ’s own priesthood, we arrive at a profound statement on the application of this better priesthood.

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25

The contextual basis for this summary is derived from the earlier comparison between the numerous priests, under the Levitical priesthood, and their temporary office, limited due to death, with the singular, permanent, and perpetual priesthood of Christ. Consequently, or based on this, Christ always lives to make intercession, and is able to save, those who draw near to God through Him.

Working through this passage, we arrive at the first point of application built upon the establishment of this better priesthood, namely that this Priest, Christ, is able to save to the uttermostFirst we must ask, save from what or whom?  This salvation is first and foremost from the all-holy God who has every right, first as Creator, then as Sovereign Lord, to distribute punishment to all those whom He sees fit.  As we saw in our overview of the Levitical priests relationship with the tabernacle, keeping the people from wrath of God, much more with Christ who shields His people from God’s wrath on the basis of His propitiatory sacrifice.  All of humanity, by birth, is under the wrath of God as a consequence of our sin.  Which brings us to the second point, this salvation is a saving from sin, both its guilt and its defilement.  Through His sacrifice, which Hebrews reminds us is by His own shed blood, Christ purifies the consciences of those who have placed their faith in Him while likewise purifying, or literally cleansing them from sins defilement.  Third, it is a salvation from ourselves, our internal corruption, old man, or flesh, that has been integral to our beings since birth.  The new man that began in Christ at salvation is brought through unto final salvation in glorification.  Finally, it is a salvation from death, both spiritual and physical.  Because of Christ’s validation as Lord and Savior through His own resurrection, He defeated death thereby defeating death for all those united to Him by faith.

Therefore Christ, the author says, is able to save, to the uttermost.  This peculiar word choice here is vague as to whether it refers to complete, meaning in time, i.e. forever, or whether this means completeness in its extent, essentially the aspects we have just enumerated above.  Its likely, especially when this concept is traced throughout Scripture, that both are true.  The salvation that Christ secures is complete in its eternal duration as well as complete in what it provides; salvation to the uttermost.

Next, we arrive at those who receive the action of this salvation, which we’ve hinted at above as those who are in Christ by faith. Here, however, we find the phrase, those who draw near to God through Him.  The concept of drawing near to God is not unique to this verse in Hebrews, as it as been previously mentioned in Hebrews 4:16, which calls us to draw near to God with confidence on the basis of our sympathetic high priest.  Then in Hebrews 7:19, our drawing near to God is upon the basis of a better hope, namely Christ.  Finally, and coming up in 10:22, “since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with a pure water.” 

Back to our verse in Hebrews 7:25, the little prepositional phrase, through him, is not a throw-away, but is integral, not only to understanding the group identified as those who draw near, but also the relationship between Christ and those who would draw near.  Through him implies union with Christ.  Christ, by means of election before the foundation of the world, then dying for them, and uniting them to Himself by faith, becomes the channel through which the blessings of salvation, not the least of which is His priestly intercession, flow.

One final statement draws this passage to conclusion and supplies the basis for this salvation, that “he always lives to make intercession for them.”  The implication of Christ’s resurrection and His eternality let us know that this priesthood is not limited by death, as the Levitical priesthood was.  Additionally, it is not simply a passive priesthood, but Christ is actively, always and forever, making intercession for those who draw near to God through Him.

Though extensively removed from the time and culture of those who were under the Levitical priesthood, Hebrews calls our minds to understand the role of this priesthood instituted under the Old Covenant so that we might better, more clearly, understand the nature of our Lord’s Priesthood under the covenant that He mediates.

What a comfort it should be for us to know that He always lives to make intercession for those who draw near.  It should be an overwhelming assurance to know that our salvation is guaranteed on the basis of our eternal High Priest who saves always and forever.

[For the entire series on the Book of Hebrews, see the Scriptural Index link.]

Finishing Well

 

Judges 6:11-8:35 introduces us to a man with whom most followers of Christ are or at least should be familiar.  Gideon is perhaps best known for his call from God to lead Israel against the Midianites, a call which he requested God to validate by means of a sign, a wet fleece surrounded by dry ground and then subsequently a second sign, a dry fleece surrounded by wet ground.  This sign was to be evidence that God would be with him in the battle against the Midianites.

Prior to this, and the ensuing battle, God tested Gideon by requiring him to destroy the idols and altars of his family.  His obedience, resulting in a name change to Jerubbaal, meaning “let Baal contend against him” nearly cost him his life.  However, it is out of this test, that of destroying the idols closest to him, that God called him to lead Israel out of the bondage of the Midianites.

This episode, following the sign of the fleece, is accompanied by the well-known test of Gideon’s army, those who lap water versus those who kneel to drink, a test that narrowed down his army from 10,000 to 300 soldiers (The original size was 22,000 soldiers, which itself was narrowed down to those who were not fearful).  In God’s narrowing of the army from 22,000 to 10,000, we are given an explanation why this was necessary, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.”  This statement provides us with a universal principle which warns us against relying on our own strength, rather than upon God.

It might not be a large army, it might not even be physical strength, but we are prone to self-reliance which in turn robs glory from God and causes us to boast in our own accomplishments rather than in how God has worked.   In the case of Gideon, God was not satisfied with merely cutting the army numerically in half, but taking it to such drastically low numbers that it would be humanly impossible to explain the victory.

Finally, Gideon and his small band of 300 soldiers embarked on their famous military campaign against the Midianites where the army gathered with trumpets and torches

16 And he divided the 300 men into three companies and put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jars. 17 And he said to them, “Look at me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. 18 When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’” Judges 7:16-18

Now, perhaps in the statement that Gideon instructed the army to yell out, “…and for Gideon” we’ve got a small indication of a problem.  Nevertheless, when Gideon and his army blew the trumpets and smashed the torch jars, God confused the Midianite army such that they began fighting against each other in the chaos.  After this battle, Gideon and his men pursued the kings of Midian, though exhausted, captured them when again their army (15,000) was thrown into a panic.  Judges 8:10 records for us that in all 120,000 soldiers were killed due to Gideon and his 300 men.  Surely such a victory is due solely to the sovereignty of God.

With all of this in mind, the legend of Gideon is a well-known and rehearsed story and there are many more details left out of this brief overview that we could’ve discussed.  However, the last chapter in Gideon’s life is lesser known.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it included in any discussion of Gideon nor have I really paid much attention to it until reading it for myself.  The passage is below

22Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” 24 And Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.” (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 And they answered, “We will willingly give them.” And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. 26 And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. 27 And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. 28 So Midian was subdued before the people of Israel, and they raised their heads no more. And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.”

Despite the calling from God, the signs from God, the victories from God, and the favor of God on Gideon among the people of Israel, Gideon did not finish well.  One would be hard pressed to determine what exactly the failure of Gideon was, perhaps it was pride as in the instructions to shout his name.  Maybe it was the taste of success or simply suppressed but not fully eradicated idolatry that found opportunity to surface.  Nevertheless Gideon desired more than what God had given him.  He was not content to have rule over the people, but wanted to preside as priest.  To lead a body politically is one thing, to lead a body spiritually is an entirely different matter altogether, one that had not been granted to Gideon, particularly as it was exclusively given to the tribe of Levi.  As a result, he caused not only himself to fall into idolatry and false worship, but he led all of Israel to whore into idolatry as well.  The simple test of faith that he had initially passed in tearing down the personal idols of his family became a snare and a downfall for himself and Israel.  it was a failure to destroy the idols closest to him.

This final chapter of Gideon’s life should cause us to reflect on our lives, particularly as we see God’s sovereign grace working in and through us, calling, gifting, perhaps even granting various victories.  In this life we are called to persevere and to keep ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

If this were all we had to remember of Gideon, perhaps it would be another in a long line of men and women who did not finish well.  Yet for Gideon, there was an additional word to be said, that from Hebrews 11 and the so-called “Hall of faith”.

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” Hebrews 11:32

Though his mention is brief, nevertheless, the fact that he is hailed by God alongside other men and women who were wrought with failures, yet extolled for their faithfulness should give us encouragement and hope.  This chapter of epitaphs does not mention the failures of God’s people, but rather their faithfulness as a mark of perseverance.

Narratives like Gideon’s serve as patterns and examples, both for the positives and negatives.  Our lives, though certainly possessive of failures, should be marked with the constancy of faithfulness and lifelong perseverance to avoid tapering away from God in our final days.  Surely, we should long for the day when God says well done good and faithful servant, enter the joy of your master.  Until then, let us persevere and strive to finish well.

 

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"