Posts Tagged ‘Romans


i am crucified with christ (2)… dead to law

If we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God we will discover that this death is not simply to sin. Our death, in Christ, has even farther-reaching implications.   We have died not only to sin but to every power and authority that would seek to control us in a fallen world.  Death severs all relationships in this world. 

If in Roms 6 we are said to be dead to sin, then in Roms 7 we have died to the law for law, like sin, is an authority in the world.

Dead to the Law


  • Is the law the ‘rule of life’ for Christians?
  • Where does the NT regularly direct us for the source and shape of our sanctification?
  • Should Christians have certain ‘holy days’ and observe festivals such as lent?
  • Are candles, impressive buildings, and other aesthetic and sensory stimulation an aid to (an advance in) Christian worship?

In Romans 7, Paul tells us that we are dead to the Law, that is, to God’s Law, the Mosaic Covenant and its commandments (and we may safely say, by implication, to all other rudimentary morality codes as binding authorities  Cf. Gals 4:9).  In Ch 6 he hinted at this when he said,

 Rom 6:14 (ESV)
 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

His point is that the Law has no authority in the life of the believer, he is not ‘under it’ rather he lives in another realm, the realm and reign of grace (Roms 3:21-30, 5:2,15-21).  Grace and law are different realms with opposing principles of rule.  In Romans 7:1-6 he makes  essentially the same point through the metaphor of marriage.

Rom 7:1-6 (ESV)
Or do you not know, brothers-for I am speaking to those who know the law-that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

In the patriarchal culture of the C1 a woman submitted to the authority of her husband and did so until he died.  Paul uses this analogy to show how Christian obedience (particularly Christian Jews to whom the law specifically applied 7:1) is no longer to the law but to Christ for death has brought about a change in authorities (or husbands).  Jewish believers were ‘married to the law’ (the Mosaic Covenant had been the authority that controlled their lives) but in death (and the analogy is inverted in that it is the woman who dies not the husband) they have been freed from this marriage to marry another, namely Christ.  Consequently, their former husband has no rights or power over them.  They are not obligated to him any more.  Why?  They have died and no longer live in the realm or world where law has authority and rights.  Indeed, as those married to Christ, to subject themselves to the requirements of the law would make them bigamists.

Now the function of the Law in redemptive history is a big one that generates much controversy.  We cannot hope to deal with it at any length in this post.  Let me sum up briefly the two main functions of the Law as I understand them (as Paul outlines them in Romans).

  • The Law was given to reveal the reality of sin
Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Sin always existed in a fallen world but the law revealed its nature and true power.  Law  (an explicitly articulated command generally accompanied by a sanction) made explicit what was previously implicit and so increased the gravity of the offence; sin became more sinful for it became an infraction or transgression of a legal demand.  Further, because fallen human nature meant none could keep the law, indeed all railed against it, sin is seen in its true colours as an evil malignant destructive enslaving power (Cf. 4:15, 5:13,14, 5:20, 7:7-12; Cf. Gals 3:19).  Law came in to increase the trespass (Roms 5:20) by exposing, exaggerating and exciting it.  

Rom 5:13-14 (ESV)
 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
  • The Law was given to point to Christ
Rom 3:21-22 (ESV)
 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

It pointed to Christ a) by showing the moral bankruptcy of humanity and so the need of a Saviour b) by foreshadowing the coming Saviour and salvation in various ways.  Other functions of the Law may be added, such as being a hard taskmaster that would contrast more clearly the liberty in Christ (Gals 3:23-25), but these are subsidiaries of the main two functions, namely to give knowledge of sin and knowledge of Christ.

Most evangelicals will happily agree that the Christian is not ‘under law’ as a means of justification.  The Law (many will agree, though not all) was a covenant of works.  Life was promised for a life of law-keeping righteousness; law’s premise was ‘this do and live’ (Ex 24:7; Lev 18:5; Deut 8:1; Lk 10:28; Roms 10:5; Gals 3:12 Cf. Roms 7:10; Gals 3:21).  Law offered ‘life’ on the basis of obedience, it did not assume life, in fact it assumed the absence of life (thus, this do and live).

However, although the Law promised life upon obedience, life by law-keeping was impossible because law-keeping for sinners under it was impossible.  Addressed as it was to fallen humanity, it was only a counsel of despair (Roms 7:7-10).  Instead of providing life it became a vehicle of death; the curse of a broken law fell on the law-breaker and all under it were law-breakers (Deut 11:26-28, 27:26, 30:15-20; Gals 3:10).  From its inception it was clear that the revelation of law, although promising life, could only purvey death (Ex 19:12, 20:19).  We need only read the many death threats explicit in the law to see its danger to sinful people.  It is probably not without significance that the Law-giver, Moses, dies outside the Promised Land; typically it confirmed the inability of law to bless.  Thus, what offered life, because of the corruption of human nature, became an administration of death (Rom 7:10; 2 Cor 3:6,7).  By the works of the law no flesh would be justified for by the law came only knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  The Law only condemns and brings wrath (Rom 4:15).  Humanity under law needed to be rescued from it.  This is, in fact, what happened in Christ.  As Paul says to Jewish Galatian believers (in Galatians ‘us’ and ‘we’ refers to Jews and ‘you’ refers to gentiles)

Gal 3:11-14 (ESV2011)
 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Law and faith, like Law and gospel-promise, are opposite in principle (Gals 3:12, 18).

The majority of the above will have unanimous consent among evangelicals.  However, while many will happily affirm that we are not ‘under law’ for justification some (many) will just as vehemently affirm that we are ‘under law’ for our sanctification.  The law, they say, takes us to Christ for our justification but Christ takes us to the law for our sanctification.   The law they will insist is the believer’s ‘rule of life’.  Such assertions are entirely mistaken.  Paul does not imply we are not under law for one aspect of salvation but under it for another; Christ is the source of both justification and sanctification for the Christian.  Christ, not the law, is the believer’s rule of life.  We ought to walk as he walked (1 Jn 2:6).  Christ is sufficient for all things.

For Paul, we are either married to the law or we are not married to the law.  He makes no subtle nuances or qualifications here.  Theologians,and theological systems may do so, but Paul does not.  There is no half-way house regarding Law, we are either under it or not under it, either obligated to it or not obligated to it.  We are not free from the law for justification but married to it for sanctification.  The relationship is absolute and admits of no exceptions.  If we are married to Christ then we are not married to the law and vice versa (Gals 5:4).  We are not bigamists and even less are we encouraged by Christ to be such, the very suggestion is blasphemous.  The second husband never sends us back to the first saying ‘obey him’.

The law is not the means or measure of our sanctification, Christ is.  Indeed the law can no more sanctify than justify.  Paul is clear and emphatic on this.  Romans 7, where Paul discusses the believers relationship to law, is less concerned with the question of justification than it is with that of sanctification.  The law produces only ‘the fruit of death’ (7:5).  It is a wife-beater demanding love but unable to either create or provoke it.  Only by being freed from it (through death) and married in resurrection life to Christ can we produce ‘fruit for God’ (7:4).  All of this is sanctification and it is Christ who is its source not law, decidedly not law.

Yes, we are told, but the law is how Christ sanctifies believers?  He sends us back to the law as our rule of life.  Implied bigamy aside, why do you say this?  Where does the NT teach this?  Paul says something quite different.

Rom 7:6 (ESV)
 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

And what does the Spirit do?  Does he send us back to the law and say follow that code?  Does he tell new believers that the Christian life is a whole series of rules and regulations that they must learn and observe – for that is what the law is?  Does he say, ‘go back to the Ten Commandments and keep them’?  Does he say, ‘grow in grace by growing in the knowledge of the law’?   No he doesn’t.  Only rarely in the NT is the Mosaic Code explicitly cited in the context of moral living and never as an absolute authority requiring obedience.  The new way of the Spirit is not to send us back to the old way of the written code. This is palpable contradiction and folly.

We are not directed to the law for holiness but to the gospel.  The measure of a holy life is Christ not the law.  We grow in grace and in the knowledge (not of law) but of Christ Jesus.  The work of the Spirit is to floodlight Christ.  He points us to Christ and the grace and truth in him (Jn 15:26).  In the gospel we have the means, motive and measure of sanctification.  It is grace, not law that saves a wretch like me.  Grace teaches our heart to believe and relieves our fears.  It is grace that brought me safe thus far and grace that will lead me home.  Married to Christ we learn from Christ and are sanctified by him (Eph 4:20, 5:25-27). Living by the Spirit we walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:20).  Under grace, we are taught by grace.

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV2011)
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

And here is highlighted precisely the difference between the method of the Law and the method of the Spirit.  The law makes us look inside ourselves and examine our lives.  It suggests righteous living comes through keeping a long list of rules and regulations and so inevitably engenders introspection and despair as we self-analyse and constantly find ourselves falling short.  Look at the person under law in Roms 7;  he is constantly looking within, constantly focussing on the ‘I’ and constantly finding only failure and frustration.  The Spirit by contrast takes us outside of self.  He focuses our attention on Christ.  He sets our mind and affections on things above.  He gives us a vision of Christ and as we gaze on a glorified Christ we are changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.

2Cor 3:18 (ESV)
 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We never need more than Christ.  In him, God’s fullness dwells (Cols 1:18).  In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Cols 2:3).  We are complete/filled in him (Cols 2:10).  What draws our hearts to hate sin is not a set of rules but a growing love for Christ.  What teaches us the ugliness of sin is the beauty of Christ.  It is the clean fresh air of heaven that makes us conscious of the foul air of earth.  We do not focus on mere restraints that when all is said and done outline only the basic rudiments of morality, but on Christ and all he has accomplished, and it is this that gives our soul power to live with God’s sentence of death upon the flesh and so produce fruit for God (7:5).

An imperfect illustration

Suppose you are driving along the road and you keep seeing road signs saying drive at thirty.  Do you obey them?  You see speeding cameras too.  You may break but it will be an external obedience – your heart won’t be in it.  Your heart resists them and wants to find ways of thwarting and outwitting them.  The law and its sanction only creates the desire to breach.

But supposing you have just viewed a beautiful sunset, or just got engaged to the girl you love, or just met and been bowled over by the person who made the road rules – will you still want to break them?  Will your heart filled with glory by the sunset, the love of the woman you adore, the worth of the one who created the rules, not find itself driving in such a way as reflects these experiences.

Let me say, if you have been taken up with Christ you will drive differently behind the wheel than if you’re simply focussing on road signs.

To the Colossian Christians who were in danger of adopting a gospel that added a number of things to Christ, including OT law, Paul says,

Col 2:6-7 (ESV)
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Everything for life and godliness resides in Christ.  Mark this well.  If you need to go beyond Christ you are on dangerous ground.  These Colossian believers were in such danger.  They were in danger not simply of adopting the law as a rule of life for sanctification but as a rule for religious observance.  They were creating a religious calendar of OT rituals and regulations such as were found in the law.  They were being encouraged to observe days, months, seasons as well as abstaining from certain foods that were to do with ritual holiness.  Paul is perplexed and appalled.  They have not grasped the significance of the cross.  Notice what he says

Col 2:8-23 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Do you see his point?  The cross ended all this form of externally imposed religious observance.  We have died to the world in which this kind of religion had place. Law was a religion designed for man in the flesh not in the Spirit (Gal 3:2, 4:21-31).  Its very basis is sensuous or fleshly.  It focuses on externals and on sensory and aesthetic experience.  It placed great emphasis on impressive buildings (the temple) religious clothing, smells and bells; candles and altars, rituals and regulations.

But all this belongs to the old age before Christ.  In Christ we died to this.  Now we must grasp this today for evangelicalism is rushing headlong down the route of religious paraphernalia.  At one time the observing of liturgical calendars, special religious feasts like lent, the use of candles, incense and icons were denounced by evangelicals now they are embraced.  Evangelicals want a religion of ‘flesh’.  We want the sensory and aesthetic mistakenly thinking a sensory or aesthetic experience is an authentic gospel-driven spiritual experience (Hebs 12:18).

We must understand that magnificent buildings, stirring music, impressive oratory, and ethereal rites do not bring us closer to God.  They will not produce the slightest knowledge of God nor lead us into a holy life.  They are, says Paul, of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh, instead they feed it.  Christ, and Christ alone, the Christ seen by the eye of faith, leads us to God.  We come to the Father through him (Jn 14:6).  That is why Paul says,

Col 3:1-4 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Instead of a focus on what is earthly (buildings, altars, incense, music, oratory, rituals, ascetic practices etc) we must seek what is in heaven.  We must focus on Christ.  He is the source of our life.  He is our satisfaction.  He is our food and drink.  He is our vision.  He is our altar.  He is our High Priest.  He is our sacrifice.  He stirs and satisfies the heart.  As Robert Murray McCheyne used to say, ‘No man can ever need more than is freely given in Christ’ We live by faith not sight.  We like Moses endure seeing him that is invisible.

No, law, in all its forms, is an authority for men in the flesh, for people ‘alive in this world’ but we are not in the flesh we are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God lives in us.  We do not live by and in the shadow we live by and in the substance; we do not seek the things of spiritual infancy but of spiritual maturity.  Christ not law is the source of our life; Zion not Sinai is the mountain to which we come (Hebs 12:18-24)

None of this is to say we cannot learn from the law nor even less that there are no obligations or responsibilities in the Christian life; we can and there are.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for instruction, reproof, training in righteousness… (2 Tim 3:16).   However, it is one thing to read OT Scripture (through the prism of redemptive history) and learn from it, it is quite another to say that the law is a ‘rule of life’ for the believer for to say this is to make the law an authority we must obey.  Let me summarise some of the problems such a mistake creates.

  • It obliges us to qualify Paul’s insistence that we are not under law.  This is exegetically indefensible.
  • It emasculates the law.   If we accept its authority then we must also accept its sanctions (Gals 3:10).  To try to ‘draw its teeth’ is to demean it.  Sanctions (blessings and cursings) lie at the heart of the covenant; they give it glory (Ex 19:18-25, 20:18, 24:16,17; Deut 5:24, 28:58-68; Hebs 12:18-21)  We cannot reject the Law as a route of justification and embrace it as a rule of sanctification for the covenant does not give us this permission.   It is a covenant which cannot be altered.  We must accept it totally on its own terms or not at all.
  • It means living culturally as a Jew.  If we are obliged to keep one command of law we must keep them all.  Law is a covenant agreement.  We cannot be obliged to keep some but free to ignore others (Matt 5:19; Gals 3:10, 5:2,3; Jas 2:10).  We cannot enforce the Ten Commandments and jettison or modify the many other commands of the covenant.  The covenant demands obedience to all or it is broken (Ex 19:8, 24:3; Deut 27:26).  Accepting the covenant means accepting a Judaistic lifestyle.
  • It means keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the seventh day and not the first day and to change the day to another day was unacceptable and covenant-breaking.  The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant (Ex 31:13; Ezek 20:12, 20). That Christianity focuses on another day strongly enforces that we are not under law; to abandon the Sabbath was by implication to be free from the covenant.
  • It means embracing what belongs to infancy and is ‘weak and beggarly not intended for sons (Gal 4:1-11) . Law is a rudimentary moral code that Christians ought to have no need to hear anyway.  We should not need to be told not to steal, commit adultery etc.  The works of the flesh are obvious (Gal 5:19).  Christian holiness should be beyond these prohibitions (1 Tim 1:6-11).  

Life under grace, by the Spirit, married to Christ, produces a morality in excess of laws demands.  Law expressed the demands of relationships existing in this life and no more. It did not require that a man lay down his life for his friends, far less that he lay down his life for his enemies.  It did not conceive or demand pure self-sacrificial love motivated by nothing other than pure love.  This is a life modelled only by Christ who reveals the Father’s heart.  Such Christ-modelled, grace-induced, Spirit-enabled love is the heart of Christianity.  Such love fulfils the law (Roms 8:4, 13:8,10; Gals 5:14) and fulfilment in Scripture usually eclipses/excels the original expectation.  Or to put it another way, against such Christ-like, Spirit-produced love there is no law (Gals 5:23).

Gal 5:1-14 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The cross means an end to law-keeping religion.  For Paul and for the early Jewish converts this was precisely its offence (Gal 5:11) and the reason why they were being persecuted by their fellow Jews (Gal 6:11-16).  The world will tolerate religion that makes much of ‘the flesh’ but it will not tolerate Christ. Christ and all who follow him it will crucify.  We must live as those crucified with Christ, as those who having received the law’s own sentence of death, have died to it.  Such is the effect of the cross in Christian living.

Gal 5:1 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


I am crucified with christ (1),,, dead to sin

Recently, I was asked to speak on the implications of the cross in the life of the believer.  The following three posts are simply my presentation on this topic.  I hope they will prove useful.  Please excuse the less literary and more oral nature of the post.

The Living Cross

We are gospel people.  And we are gospel people in the fullest sense. Our lives are created and shaped by the gospel and right at the heart of this gospel is the cross.

The cross is critical to the gospel as this winter series has reminded us.  The cross is God’s answer to the fundamental problem of existence – the problem of human sin. God’s glory and man’s happiness are both jeopardized by human sin.  What is the solution?  The solution, the only solution, God’s solution, is the cross.  There in the death of Jesus all is made right.  God’s glory is vindicated.  His heart of love towards man, even though he is a sinner and a God hater is declared.  His own integrity is revealed as he shows how he can be right while declaring right the ungodly.  His holy wrath is displayed in all its glory against sin yet in a way that exonerates the sinner. The cross is God’s propitiating sacrifice for sins.  There the debt of sinful humanity is more than fully met as Christ who knew no sin became sin for us and underwrote our liabilities. There the stain of sin whose defiling effects have pervaded the whole universe was expunged in Christ through whom God has reconciled all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

At the cross, God’s power is placarded as every cosmic enemy of God and man that found strength through sin was disarmed and defeated and disgraced as Christ triumphed over them by removing the sin that gave them leverage through the sacrifice of himself.

An inglorious Roman cross, paradoxically, is the great revelation of God’s glory and basis of all human happiness. I say paradoxically for of course to any other than those who have eyes of faith the cross is an object of derision.  It is a symbol of folly and failure.  Criminals died on crosses. Failed messianic pretenders died on crosses.  Wisdom, power, salvation did not lie in a cross; it was the opposite of these.  Such is the perceived wisdom of the world.  Yet God’s wisdom delights in confounding the worldly-wise and his power mocks the pretensions of the strong. Ironically, God reveals the glory of his infinite wisdom in the folly of crucifixion, and the glory of his mighty power through the weakness of one crucified.  Such, and much more, is the story of the cross.

In this cross we believe.  Of this cross we preach.  But, and it is an important but, the cross is not simply a spectacle we observe, and a paradox in which we believe, it is an event in which we participate. If our lives as gospel people are gospel-shaped then this means they are cross-shaped.  The cross is not an icon we wear it is an experience we share, our identity, our lives are cross-shaped, they are cruciform. We are a crucified people.  Identities are shaped by histories or narratives; our history, our narrative, is that we have been crucified with Christ.

In Philippians Paul says it succinctly,

Gal 2:20 (ESV2011)
 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

In a sense, Paul’s whole understanding of the Christian life is packed into this text.  It is a life of faith-union with Christ that takes us out of this world and into another.  At conversion by faith and through the Spirit we are united to Christ and share in Christ’s death and resurrection life.  At the cross our moral history as people alive in this world came to an end.  When Christ died we died.  When Christ was raised to a new life in resurrection so too were we.  If Christ is now in heaven then so too are we; holy and without blame before God in Christ is our true moral position.  This is where God sees us and it is here we must see ourselves.  For Paul, Christian living is simply this reality of death and resurrection unpacked and applied.

Our task tonight is to explore some of the ways Paul unpacks this reality, particularly the reality that we are now crucified with Christ and are now dead.  We could turn to may Scriptures to do so but we will limit ourselves to a few.

Firstly, Roms 6.

Died to Sin


  • What would be your response to someone who said they were a Christian but seem unconcerned about sin in their life?  What would you say to a Christian who said all evangelical talk about seeking holiness was legalistic pietism and a denial of our justification?
  • How would you counsel someone who claims to be addicted to some sin?
  • How would you answer someone who claims to keep trying to die to sin but with no success?
  • What do you say to someone who feels disgusted/hates at who they are and tends to despair?
  • A popular slogan is I am simultaneously a saint and a sinner?  Is this true?
  • How would you counter the claim that the gospel of grace is a licence to sin?

Paul’s answer to each is found in Roms 6.

Paul has taught that we are right with God purely by grace apart from works (Ch 3-5).  We can do nothing to bring about our own salvation.  Our right standing with God is a gift and comes through grace (5:17).  Indeed Paul has just said, where sin has abounded (by law making sin more sinful) God’s grace has abounded all the more (Roms 5:20).

If, however, our salvation is all of grace in the face of human sin and has nothing to do with our own efforts does not this encourage sin?  If my standing with God has nothing to do with my personal responsibility but is sourced in God taking the entire responsibility for my righteousness will I not cavalierly give myself to sin?

Rom 6:1 (ESV2011)
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?

Paul’s answer is clear.

Rom 6:2 (ESV2011)
 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Don’t you know, Paul says, your baptism enacts your participation in Christ’s death (2b).  In his death, not only were our sins dealt with (Roms 3:25, 4:7) but so too was sin – the entity or power.  It was dealt with because at the cross the person we were in Adam died; we were crucified with him for the express purpose that sin should lose any rights over us and so any hold upon us (vv 6,7).

You can’t accuse a dead man of sin – he is beyond it.   Sin cannot demand his obedience for he is no longer alive; dead men don’t sin.  Sin has no rights, no claims, no power over someone who is dead.  While a man is alive he is responsible for his actions and will be judged by them but when he is dead he is beyond all of this – he is no longer accountable for them.  Nor is he going to sin again because he is dead. All living people in the world are under the authority of sin.  It rules their lives (Eph 2:1-5).  It dominates their existence.  But dead people are not ruled by sin.  Sin cannot come to a dead person and accuse him or demand his obedience.  He is beyond its jurisdiction, its claims, its sphere of influence and control.

On the cross Jesus placed himself under the jurisdiction of sin.  He took sin’s charges and accusations upon himself.  But in death he moved beyond sin’s authority never to have any relationship with it again.  The death he died to sin, he died once for all, but the life he now lives he lives to God (Roms 6:10).  He rose out of death into a realm where sin had no place, no influence or authority.  He lives now in the presence of God, and for God, never to have to do with sin again.

Now says Paul this is your location as one who participates in Christ.  Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Roms 6:11).  As he is now so are you in this world.  Treat this as the reality of your life.   He does not, in Roms 6, tell us in detail how this is realised in our lives.  He does not tell us that we are born of God, are partakers of the divine nature, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit who enables us to hold the flesh in the place of death and live a new life to God.  All of this will come later.  Here we are simply told it is all the product of living under grace (Roms 6:1,11).  For at the moment he simply wants us to grasp the change in jurisdiction is what the cross achieves and the moral implications it carries.  We are says Paul, as far as this world is concerned, dead.  We no longer live in the realm where responsibility to gain righteousness and life lies in us.  All the responsibilities of the old age have no legitimacy in our lives for we do not live in it.   This is the logic, the moral force, the moral imperative of the cross in your life.  At the cross whatever was involved and entailed in being a son of Adam (authorities, relationships, and responsibilities/obligations to these) came to an end.

But, is not all this talk of gospel grace dangerous?  Is it not a licence to sin?  If you tell a man he is, from God’s perspective, no longer a responsible man living in this world will not this result in antinomianism and freedom to sin?   If you tell him when he does sin that he can say ‘it is no longer I but sin dwelling in me’ (Roms 7:17) is not this a means of passing the buck and promoting evading moral responsibility?  Will it not simply encourage sinning with a sense of impunity?   No, says Paul, for how can we if we have died to sin wish to live any longer in it?  It is a moral contradiction, an incongruity.  The whole reason you became a Christian was to be done with sin.  To be free from its rights over you.  You wished to be free from the great burden of being a failed person.  You saw just how much of a sinner who were and that if you were held responsible for right living  you would ever stand condemned.  You needed to be free from all of this responsibility and this is precisely what God did in the cross.  He took you out of the realm where responsibility for living lay with you and so sin reigned and placed you in another realm, the realm of grace where all is ‘of God’.

Little wonder such teaching frightened people and led to accusations of antinomianism.  But Paul’s response is not to water down his claims.  Rather it is to press home the inner logic of them.   Your participation in Christ has taken you out of the world where sin has rights why would ever want to subject yourself to it again.  If you give yourself to obey sin you have not understood what the cross is all about.  The moral force of the cross means you have done with sin.  The moral imperative is now to live as one dead to sin (one who will never allow it authority again) for that is your new position and standing and anything else is contradiction and inconsistency.

Rom 6:17-18 (ESV)
 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

But you don’t understand sin has a grip on me.  There are sins I am addicted to.  First of all remember we are talking of sin as a force and power not individual sins.  You may commit individual sins because Christians fail and slip back into unbelief.  We fail to live consistently with who we are in Christ.  But this must not shake our confidence in who we are.  We must not think because we sin, we must sin.  Grace has freed you from this power, this tyranny.  Grace works in your heart through the new nature and Spirit so that you need not sin.  You may sin but you are not addicted to sin, nor to any individual sin.  This is a lie of Satan.  You have died to the realm where sin has authority and cannot be resisted.  You live in the realm of grace where the authority is ‘grace’ and so all is of God.  Sin for a Christian should not be regarded as an inevitability to which we resign ourselves.  All God’s power in grace is available to enable you to overcome sin.  You need not yield to sin.  Sin has no longer dominion over you.  It cannot force your obedience.  You may find it difficult to forsake any specific sin but I assure you, in Christ, you can.

It is a matter of faith.  It is a matter of asserting to yourself – I have died to sin’s power, I need not sin, I will not let this particular sin or any other sin have control in my life.  This applies to anything.  It applies to addictions of every kind.  It applies to the draw of pornography, lying, stealing, covetousness, greed, etc.  I must never assume as a Christian these are inevitable for they are not.

A temptation may present itself and do so powerfully but you are free and must tell yourself this.  You must grasp and insist on your new identity in Christ.  This is the fight of faith. Turn away from sin.  Refuse to listen to its lusts and desires.  These are not yours.  They come from the old life to which you have died.  Refuse to listen and refuse to do what the temptation demands.  It may call powerfully, insistently, like a past lover, but you have died to that relationship.  That life has passed.  You may say you do not ‘feel’ you are dead to sin.  This is understandable for indwelling sin (the flesh, or the old person you once were while living in this world) is crying out to be obeyed.  But it is not a matter of how you feel but of living by faith.  Faith lives by what God says not how we feel. Faith believes what God says is true and acts on that basis; it takes God at his word.  Faith inhabits the gospel realities.  Faith is a gospel-shaped life.  Thus Paul writes,

Rom 6:12-14 (ESV)
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 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. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

And yet,

I keep trying to die to sin, but I can’t.  All the old desires just keep coming into my mind.  All the old weakness and temptations keep raising their ugly heads.  It seems as if my soul is still full of sin.  But who asked you to try to die to sin?  Certainly not me.  Not the Bible.  Paul doesn’t say we must die to sin he says we have died to sin.  It is a matter of affirming this in faith.  He does not say sin has died.  Sin is still as powerful as ever.  It is still within as insistent as ever.  The flesh (indwelling sin) is always clambering for attention.  Look within and you’ll still see all kinds of volcanic sin ready to erupt.

It is not sin that has died, it is you who died.

This means, in practice, at least two things.

Firstly, it means you must not feel depressed and guilty about the sinful tendencies of your heart.  When you see all kinds of evil smouldering in your heart you must not despair, rather you must refuse ownership.  This is not the real you.  This is the old you who God has declared dead and you must reckon this to be so. The new you (of resurrection faith) is the real and true you.  The old is sin dwelling within.  It is the flesh seeking place and power.  But it is not ‘you’.  You have died and passed through death into a new life.  Therefore you must not feel guilty about these old lusts and desires.  You must not think they are yours, they are not.  You are not responsible for them.  You must disown them.  They belong to a world and personal identity that died at the cross.  Never accept any accusations about these tendencies.  Never take responsibility for them.  Never feel depressed and despairing about them.  God does not view them as you and neither must you.  You are a new person.  You are risen with Christ.  You are the new life created and sustained by God’s indwelling Spirit whom God already sees seated with Christ in heaven, holy and blameless and beyond sin and accusation.  What a glorious freedom the gospel brings from guilt and the terrible crushing sense of failed responsibility and a corrupt heart.

Secondly, we should realise we are not called to try die to these thoughts and inclinations, that is, we are not called to find some way of stopping them arising in your souls.  We can’t stop sinful thoughts and inclinations arising.  What you are called to do is by faith recognise that these are not the real you.  The ‘you’ to whom these belong has been pronounced dead.  This ‘you’ was crucified at the cross.  Judgement has been carried out on this ‘you’.  These are the inclinations of a life which is gone and all you need to do is accept this judgement (concur with it) and live in the light of it.

In other words, refuse to listen to their clambering and cries.  Give them no credence.  No foothold.  When they arise simply dismiss them from your mind.  Remind yourself these all belong to a past you, a former self and you have died to that self and will neither be condemned by it nor conned, cowed, or coerced into obeying it.  Whatever it urges refuse.  This is what Paul means when he says we are, by dependence on God’s Spirit, to put to death ‘the deeds of the body’ (Roms 8).  There may be pain in this, and cost, for the flesh desperately wishes to be pampered, but we must crucify it, or rather recognise it is crucified and treat it as such.

Unconverted folks have great difficulty in looking with equilibrium at the corruption that is in their own hearts for they (rightly) think of what lies in their heart as ‘them'; they are identified by their ‘flesh’ and thus find the truth about themselves hard to face at but Christians should not be like this.  We should be able with a steady eye to look at inner corruption and condemn and disown it for that is precisely what God did with it at the cross and what we accepted in conversion. We realised then that the flesh had no profit and was evil and we have gladly done with it that we may live in a new life of grace, beyond responsibility and its corollary condemnation where all is ‘of God’.

Paul earths this faith-perspective in Ephesians and Colossians.

Eph 4:17-32 (ESV)

 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!- assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [your having put off] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and [having put on] to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.


This is how we live in the reality that we have died to sin and are alive to God (Roms 6:10).   In Colossians, Paul expresses it slightly differently but it is essentially the same point.

Col 3:1-17 (ESV2011)

 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Sin is a moral contradiction for those who participate in the cross.  It is a denial of all we have become in Christ.   How can we who have died to sin live any longer therein?

Let me consider one further point.

What if as a Christian I do sin?  And both experience and Scripture tell us we will and do.  Surely I must take ownership for this sin.  Surely this sin condemns me and defines me.  Surely for this sin I am responsible.  Surely I must hate myself because of this sin?  Well, this is a point where it would be easy to get our thinking skewed.  On the one hand, there is a sense in which of course we do take responsibility for our failure.  We recognise that we have failed to live by faith.  We have not lived as close to Christ and as dependent on the Spirit as we ought and so we have sinned.  Our response should be to feel the shame of our action and hatred for our sin and to confess it with the intent of forsaking it knowing God will be faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

However, and it is a very important ‘however’ we will do this never wavering in our consciousness that we are sons, seated with Christ in heaven, holy and without blame in God’s sight.  We will insist the sin does not define us.  We will insist it is inconsistent with who we are and not a reflection of our proper identity.  We are saints, not sinners.

In this sense we can rightly say, that this sin is not of me but of sin dwelling within me (Roms 7:17).  Its source is not so much in me (the new me) as in the principle of sin that still resides within, namely, ‘the flesh’ (7:18,22).  Thus I will hate the flesh and hate the sin but refuse to hate myself for ‘self’ or my true identity is that of a new person in Christ.  I may as well hate Christ for my life and identity is in him.

Responsibility for sin in any ultimate sense I will reject for responsibility (of the kind that brings judgement) can only be laid at a living person in the world and I am not alive in the world; I am dead, crucified with Christ.  The source from which this sin originated has already been condemned in the flesh of Christ and is no more.  Thus I refuse to wretchedly self-condemn, though, by faith, I do condemn and disown (and hate) the sin and the nature from which it erupted.  By faith I concur with God’s verdict upon this nature and all that flows from it. Through the cross I have now what the writer to the Hebrews calls, ‘no more conscience of sins’.  He does not mean I do not care about sin but that I do not stand condemned by sin.  In Pauline language, I have died to sin and my life is hid with Christ in God.  Or, as in Roms 8

Rom 8:1-4 (ESV)

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.

Praise God for such a salvation.  With Horatius Bonar we exclaim,

I bless the Christ of God, I rest on love divine,
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear,
Each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of peace, I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.
In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth,
And me He loveth still.

’Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me; I live because He lives;
My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light,
My midnight into day.


Some further implications of participation in Christ’s death I will consider in the next couple of posts.


the righteousness of god in the gospel (2)

Our previous post argued that when Paul speaks of ‘the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel’ (Roms 1:17) he means precisely that; in the gospel God reveals himself acting righteously, that is, acting consistently with all he is in himself (Roms 3:21-26).  Among the ways God reveals himself acting righteously is in declaring righteous those who are ungodly; he passes a verdict of righteous (justifies) on people who are unrighteous.  How he does so righteously remains to be explored, however, what ‘justifying the ungodly‘ (Roms 4:4) does underline is that the righteous standing of sinners is not one they deserve but one God gifts.  Thus Paul speaks of ‘the gift of righteousness’ (Roms 5:17), in fact, lest there is any doubt he speaks of, ‘the free gift’ of righteousness (Roms 5:15,16,17), indeed ‘a free gift by grace’ (Roms 5:15,17; 3:24).  In this sense our righteousness is truly ‘of God’.  It finds its source, initiative, and quality or nature in God.  Paul writes,

Phil 3:9
…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith.

But how can a righteous God declare righteous the unrighteous?  How can he render a righteous verdict on lives that are unrighteous?  On the face of it, such an apparently false verdict does not glorify God’s righteousness but shames and disgraces it.  Where is God’s righteousness in imputing (reckoning or counting) righteous those who are ungodly?

Scripture tells us faith is imputed or reckoned as righteousness (Roms 4:4).  Does this mean that faith itself is the righteousness that God requires to declare us righteous?  No, for this would make righteousness ‘of man’ and not ‘of God.  Understood in this way faith becomes a form of works and the righteousness procured ‘my own’ (a righteousness which Paul repudiates) and not a righteous standing sourced in God. Besides faith itself does not deal with the problem of human unrighteousness; faith cannot cancel existing guilt and is not said to so do.  No, while faith is reckoned for righteousness it is not because faith is itself righteous. The reason faith counts as righteousness must be found elsewhere?

Is, as some say, the righteous life of Christ imputed to the believer as his righteousness?  Well, certainly Scripture does not say it is.  Scripture does not say that God takes the righteous life of Christ and reckons it to us as righteousness.  To be sure the righteous life of Christ gives value and worth to Christ’s death nevertheless the life of Christ it is not said to be imputed.  We must let Scripture speak and not our traditions. Again and again Scripture locates the basis of God’s justifying verdict in the death of Christ.  It is there and there only God finds a basis to declare the ungodly righteous.  The death of Jesus is God’s great initiative to establish a righteousness sourced in him and displaying his glory.

Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Notice, we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift‘.  Why?  How?  ‘Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation [mercy-seat, propitiatory] by his blood’.  Here, is God’s righteousness in the gospel.  Here is solved and unveiled the justifying verdict of the unrighteous. Here God finds an adequate moral motive to ‘justify the ungodly‘.  In sinners there is none, in the blood of Christ there is.

Redemption was necessary.  Sin had created a debt that must be paid. It is an offence that must be addressed.  Left unpunished sin impugns God’s righteousness.  God’s glory is at stake where sin is unjudged. The debt of sin must be met. The price must be paid.  It could of course have been paid by God simply wiping out humanity.  But such a way of displaying his righteousness is not where the heart of God truly lies.  He wishes to righteously bless not curse, save not destroy.  Thus the glorious wisdom of the cross. Here God’s heart of love and grace is displayed in all his righteousness in salvation.  Here the debt of man is paid in full and in such a way that God is perfectly glorified in who he essentially is.  

How is this redemptive debt paid?  By faith? No.  By Christ’s life imputed? No. It is paid by the value of the blood of Christ.  Christ’s blood is the ransom price (Rev 5:9).  In the words of Romans again, ‘ and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [mercy-seat, propitiatory] by his blood, to be received by faith.’

This language is alien to us unless we are familiar with the ceremonies of the OT law (intended as models of what would  be realized in Christ). To these we must turn if we are to understand the basis of our justification.

the mercy-seat

When Israel left Egypt they travelled through the desert living in tents.  God resided among them in his own tent (the tabernacle); it was his travelling palace and sanctuary.  In the innermost tent of this travelling palace was the ark of the covenant.  The ark was a box containing (among other things) the two tablets of the covenant, the law. Covering the box was a slab of pure gold called ‘the mercy-seat’ above which were cherubim (symbols of rule and authority). Although God could not be contained by heaven and earth, the ark was God’s designated throne in the world. From it he ruled Israel and in fact the nations. He ruled righteously, the tablets of law below the throne expressing what he required of man.  If they were flouted then God’s righteous anger would necessarily be aroused for he hates all unrighteousness.  It defies him and destroys all that is good and right.  His throne is dishonoured  and everything defiled by it.  Where sin erupts  under his rule (a defiance of all that God is) his glory (all that he is) must be upheld thus judgement and cleansing/purging must take place.  

And the reality, of course, is that Israel did sin and did arouse God’s anger.  Their sin both defied and defiled yet in grace God provided for sin.  Mercy was available from the very seat of his throne.  It was called, as we noted, ‘the mercy-seat’ or ‘covering’.  Its title hints at its function; although the seat of God’s throne from which he ruled it suggested that God’s rule in a sinful world, although righteous, would be merciful and would provide a covering for broken law.  But it could not be merciful per se.  The slab did not cover sin just by existing.  It functioned in mercy and became a covering for a broken law only when sprinkled with blood.  The blood of an animal sacrificed as a sin offering must be splattered on the mercy-seat and it was the value that God placed on the blood of the sacrifice that enabled him to forgive sins and cleanse from unrighteousness.

The blood meant the High Priest and people (both sinful) did not die, instead the judgement was borne by the sacrifice and God’s holy justice satisfied*.  The blood provided purification.  It cleansed. It made a sinful people clean before God (Lev 16:16, 30).  The blood of a slain goat apparently satisfied God’s moral nature enabling him to accept as righteous an unrighteous people; it (along with the scapegoat) made atonement (Lev 16:16). Blood enabled a throne that must otherwise, because of sin, be a throne of righteous judgement, become a throne of righteous mercy; God could justly justify.

The basic principle of the OT is that it is blood that atones and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebs 9:18-22).   However, these OT sacrifices were of mere dumb animals, in reality they had no atoning worth.  It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebs 10:4). These sacrifices were not pleasing (of moral value) to God (Hebs 9:8).  Their fragrance was merely sensory and not spiritual. Their value was symbolic and not substantial.  They had no intrinsic moral virtue that could deal with the problem of sin.  They but pointed forward to blood of a different value; the blood of Christ.  When Scripture speaks of the blood of animals it simply speaks of ‘blood’ but when it speaks of the blood of Christ it is always identified distinctly with him; it is ‘his blood’ (Roms 3:25), ‘the blood of Christ’ (1 Cor 10:16), ‘the blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor 11:27); ‘his own blood’ (Acts 20:28), ‘Jesus blood’ (Hebs 10:19), for it is ‘precious (valuable) blood’ (1 Pet 1:19)

It is the value of this blood, his blood, that enables righteous mercy.  Here was not the blood of an uncomprehending animal but the blood of a Son who voluntarily came to do the will of he who sent him. Animal sacrifices though chosen carefully by men were worthless, Christ’s body, fashioned by God for the express purpose of sacrifice, would be the sacrifice to fulfil and finish all sacrifice (Hebs 10:5).  Every aspect of his full and selfless obedience in life prepared him to be the perfect flawless sacrifice for sin. Every step in life was one of intentional consecrated obedience in the direction of the cross where he would be the sin-bearer.  The cross with all its awful implications of sin-bearing and divine judgement was willingly embraced because it was the will of God.  Here was immeasurable obedience.  Here was a righteous act of surpassing moral worth – the Holy One willing to be made sin and become a curse, bearing our sin in his own body on the tree, the one who had life in himself entering death and dismissing from his body, his spirit.  Here in this conscious and deliberate act of self-immolation, intended that God may act in and through it and be perfectly glorified in all that he is – his truth, wisdom, power, holy wrath, grace, love and righteousness – a ransom was found that redeemed.  The debt of sin was cancelled and indeed so great was the glory that this bloody selfless sacrifice bought to God, God was in turn indebted.  If Christ in an intentionally sin-bearing death (ordained by God and undertaken by his Son) brought such glory to God then God was in righteousness obligated to honour this intent.  He must show mercy for mercy is that for which this righteous blood cries.  Mercy is God’s only righteous response.  And, of course, he does, for the mercy which this blood demands is the same mercy that the throne upon which it lies splattered delights.   Blood, the blood of Christ, is the great basis of justification (Roms 5:9). Hear once more the words of Romans 3

Rom 3:25-26 (HCSB)
God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.

Here then, is the basis of the justifying righteousness of God, apart from law-keeping, though both law and prophets bore witness to it. It is as simple and plain as it is sublime.  The infinite value of Christ’s atoning blood is reckoned to us, and reckoned for righteousness by faith.   When God sees Christ in death he sees a mercy-seat covered in blood, the blood of sacrifice for sin, blood that pays debt and cleanses and thus he can be righteous and declare righteous those who have faith in Jesus.  This is the righteousness ‘of God'; he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Thus with Horatius Bonar we say

I hear the words of love,
I gaze upon the blood,
I see the mighty sacrifice,
And I have peace with God

’Tis everlasting peace,
Sure as Jehovah’s Name;
’Tis stable as His steadfast throne,
For evermore the same.

And with Isaac Watts

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.

But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.


 *  Controversy rages as to whether atonement simply expiates (removes sin) or also propitiates (removes wrath).  It appears to do both.  Wrath after all is simply the divine reaction to sin.  Thus, if the blood does not atone the High Priest and nation die. Death here, as always, is punishment, it is judicial wrath.  In fact, the institution of the Day of Atonement is a direct result of God’s wrath erupting in fiery judgement, a symbol of consuming wrath, because of disobedience (Lev 16:1).

Lev 10:1-7 (ESV)
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.

Fire consuming is a symbol of purifying judgement.

Exod 15:6-7 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, ​​​​​​​your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; ​​​​​​​you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. ​​​

Deut 4:23-24 (ESV2011)
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

Lam 2:3 (ESV2011)
He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around.

Thus the fire that consumes the sacrifice implies righteous wrath and judgement, propitiation.

Lev 6:8-13 (ESV)
​The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall be on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. And the priest shall put on his linen garment and put his linen undergarment on his body, and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and he shall arrange the burnt offering on it and shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.

Lev 6:24-30 (ESV)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the Lord; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is splashed on a garment, you shall wash that on which it was splashed in a holy place. And the earthenware vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken. But if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured and rinsed in water. Every male among the priests may eat of it; it is most holy. But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the Holy Place; it shall be burned up with fire.



the righteousness of god in the gospel (1)

This is the first of an intermittent series of posts that reflect on aspects of what is involved in the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel.  The subject of God’s righteousness is large and has been the focus of fierce debate in recent years.  These short posts can only hope to be snapshots of  some aspects that I hope will stimulate reflection and worship.
When the gospel speaks of ‘the righteousness of God’ the fact we should note before anything else, before any discussion about imputed righteousness in justification, is that the righteousness in the spotlight is God’s righteousness.  In this respect, Gospel righteousness exists in direct contrast to the righteousness of the Law (or the Sinaic covenant).  In the old covenant the righteousness that was ‘revealed’ was man’s righteousness and not God’s*.  The Law promised blessing of every sort to Israel if the people lived righteously.  It’s  focus was on human righteousness.   The Law revealed what human righteousness looked like.   It was human righteousness that was under the microscope and it was human righteousness that the law, if obeyed, displayed.   Had the law been kept then human righteousness would have been the object of praise and glory for it would have been human righteousness that would have been placarded and achieved life.

Of course, human righteousness did not triumph.  The Law, far from revealing human righteousness, revealed human sin, as God both knew and intended it should (Roms 3).  It could not be otherwise.  It could not be otherwise for human sinfulness is such that even privileged Israel, given every opportunity and incentive possible, could not live righteously; the human heart is inveterately given to rebellion and evil.  It could not be otherwise for God must be God and cannot allow any to glory in his presence.  It is unthinkable that humanity should bring about regeneration and a new heavens and earth and have  occasion to boast that it had been achieved by human righteousness, ingenuity and wisdom.  We do not know God if we have not grasped this elementary fact.  None may glory of their achievement in God’s presence, God alone must be glorious.  No flesh can boast before him; it would be morally incongruous, and repugnant to all right thinking.

1Cor 1:28-31 (ESV2011) God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Humanity’s failure in righteousness is not only a given predicated on human sinfulness but predicated also on God’s own being and purpose.  No flesh shall glory before God. It cannot, must not, shall not be.  Thus redemption, renewal, and blessing, must come through the gospel for the gospel is a revelation not of the righteousness of man but of God.  God is the actor in the gospel.  It is what he is and does and provides that is in the spotlight.  It is his wisdom, his grace, his righteousness that is on display.  Thus Paul writes of the gospel,

Rom 1:16-17ESV2011 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

In the gospel, righteousness ‘of God‘ is revealed’.   This is not in the first instance a righteousness from God (though it surely includes this) but God’s own righteous activity.  If I want to see God’s acting righteously (consistently with all he is in himself) then it is to the gospel pre-eminently I must look.  Under Law, God is seen to act righteously when he punishes disobedience (Roms 3:5) but such righteous action is not the kind of righteousness that most precisely reflects his nature.  God is righteous when he judges but judgement is his ‘strange work’.  His righteous judgments are glorious but he does not wish to be simply known as a God who punishes.  Punishment is not where his heart lies.  God has a heart of love that wishes to bless and to be gracious.  It is the glory of his righteousness in grace that reveals his righteousness most perfectly.  At the cross God acts righteously in grace and thus reveals the glory of his heart as it truly is.  He is a God who is slow to judge and quick to bless.  He is not keen to condemn rather he is keen to declare righteous.  He does not desire that any perish but that all come to him and live, thus it is his righteous saving action in the gospel that best displays his heart.  What was perhaps brief and abstract in Romans Ch 1 is unpacked and specified in ch 3

Rom 3:21-26ESV2011 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Note the last lines, ‘This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just (righteous) and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’  Twice we are told the gospel shows (reveals/proves/exhibits/demonstrates/displays) God acting righteously.  It shows he acted righteously in passing over sin in the past.  By his sin-bearing death we now see how forgiveness was possible in the past without God’s mercy compromising his righteous need to punish sin.  We see how ceremonial animal sacrifice was not simply a moral whitewash  but was acceptable because God saw in it a preview of the real sacrifice that would deal with sin – the sacrifice of Christ.  Furthermore, if God forgives in the present and declares a man righteous we see that this is not a fiction but is God acting righteously for it is the only righteous response he can make to the one who believes in Jesus since Jesus’ obedience in death was specifically to provide a basis for God to righteously declare righteous the ungodly. Indeed, in this text the sacrifice of Jesus is God’s doing.  Undoubtedly, Jesus came of his own volition and offered himself, but that is not the point here; the point is that ‘God put Jesus forward as a propitiation by his blood’.  The action is God’s.  He takes the initiative in the provision of righteousness, a righteous initiative.

We could look elsewhere and see how the gospel reveals God acting righteously at the cross in judging sin and in overthrowing Satan.  He acts righteously when he raises Christ from the dead and places him at his right hand in glory for how else could God righteously act when Christ had so glorified him in death (Jn 13:31,32).  Again and again the gospel reveals God acting righteously in blessing.  Thus the gospel glorifies God’s righteousness for it reveals it in action. The gospel is not only God acting wisely, powerfully, graciously, mercifully, and lovingly, it is God acting righteously; the consistency of God’s character to its true nature is seen fully in the confluence of of righteous acts at the cross and the subsequent resurrection to glory of Christ and those united to him, who in turn become ‘the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor 5:21). Thus God’s righteousness shines in unrivalled brilliance in the gospel and the eyes of faith see, live, wonder, and worship.

*  We often hear that the Law reveals God’s righteousness.  It doesn’t.  It reveals the standard of righteousness that God demanded of man.  It does not reveal anything about what righteous behaviour in God looks like.  It would be ludicrous to apply these commandments to God (whether the Decalogue or the wider covenant stipulations).  God is not called to love his neighbour as himself.  Righteousness in God is not abstaining from committing adultery or stealing etc.   These are meaningful demands upon the responsible creature (and a sinful one at that) but not the Creator.  Thus the Law reveals the behaviour that God demands of man if he is to be righteous (live consistently with all the relationships he is placed in by God) but it does not reveal God in righteous activity (except when he punishes disobedience), the gospel, however, does.  The law shows the righteous behaviour God demands of man but not what righteousness looks like in him.


in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing…

I am no longer in the first flush of youth.  In fact, if truth be told, I have passed the hump (or am passing, depending on your perspective) of middle age; I won’t see my fiftieth birthday again nor some following it.  And you know what dismays me?  I find that the flesh is just as devious and disgraceful and debasing  and demanding as it ever was.  Sinful desires, ugly and vile, readily suggest themselves.  Passions that are viciously self-regarding all too readily raise their pernicious heads.

In some ways the passions change.  They are no longer the passions of youth.  The desire to be heard (though I rarely was) , to be cool (which I never achieved), to impress (so shameful I am reluctant to admit it), to be liked (how pathetically weak)  and other drives common to youth are not so strong.  Or more accurately, they have morphed into other shapes and different forms have gained ascendency.  The desire for reputation takes on a different hue, now I want to be a sage not a spearhead.   I no longer inordinately lust after the buzz of windsurfing but the tranquility of sea kayaking.   Where once I may have held my counsel to protect myself and facilitate wider acceptance now I am inclined to curmudgeonly behaviour impatient at being ignored.  I confess, the flesh is just the same as it always was in John Thomson; it is ever self-important, self-regarding, self-promoting, and hostile to every competing authority – especially God.   I have given you the barest glimpse of the stinking cesspool that is my flesh for I am ashamed of all it contains.  Indeed, I am horrified to look too closely myself.

I say, I am dismayed, but I oughtn’t really be.  Dismay shows just how poorly I ‘hear’ what God clearly says.  Scripture leaves no doubt that the flesh never improves. Flesh’ is always ‘flesh’ and can only produce ‘flesh’ (Jn 3:3).  It is ever and only wicked.  In ‘flesh’ dwells no good thing (Roms 7:18) and  ‘profits nothing’ (Jn 6:63).  You can educate flesh, civilize and manner it, make it sophisticated and even make it religious but you can’t change it.  ‘Flesh’ remains the same: rough or refined, crude or cultured, in casuals or cassock, flesh is always viciously self-regarding and opposed to God.  It does not submit to God nor can it (Roms 8:7).  Flesh is invincibly evil.

Flesh, of course, in the sense I am referring to it and Scripture often speaks of it is simply humanity in a fallen Adam.  Sometimes, in Scripture, ‘flesh’ simply means being human without reference to whether humanity is fallen or not, but most often it refers to fallen humanity, sinful humanity.  It is the heart of which Jesus speaks when he says,

Matt 15:19 (ESV)
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

Its works, Paul reminds us are obvious to all.

Gal 5:19-21 (ESV)
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

These are the murky passions that rage in the human heart.  These are the nature of flesh.  It is human nature controlled and corrupted by sin.  In this humanity, in this nature, says Paul, ‘dwells no good thing’.  And there is nothing more vital than learning this if we are to live  in the full liberty and power of the gospel.  We must first grasp the bankruptcy of self if we are to learn to live by grace in the power of the Spirit.  We must come to an end of self-trust in every shape and form.  There is no good in self.  All good lies in Christ.

And so I say, don’t be surprised at the loathsome eruptions of flesh that swell in your breast yelling to be noticed.  Never look within for a power to live for God and to please him.  If you look within you will only find lusts and sin vying for expression.  Salvation has not improved your old nature and never will.   The flesh cannot be renovated or rehabilitated.  It cannot be remediated.  Flesh is always flesh.  It is a rotten tree and remains a rotten tree until the day you die or Christ returns (Matt 5:17,18).  Flesh is beyond redemption.  All that God can do with flesh is what he warned Adam would happen if he ate of the forbidden fruit.  ‘The day you eat of it you will surely die’.  God was not issuing an idle threat.  He was not exaggerating for effect.  God can do only one thing with recalcitrant flesh – put it to death.  Adam must die.  Flesh is condemned; it is beyond salvage.

And put it to death is precisely what God has done.  In the death of Jesus not only did he punish our sins as sons  of Adam, but he brought to an end Adamic humanity itself.  He finished once and for all the life of ‘flesh’.  Adamic humanity met its terminus at the cross.  Romans 8 puts it like this:

Rom 8:3 (ESV)
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…

The verdict of condemnation and death passed on ‘sin in the flesh’ was executed at the cross.  The execution of Christ was the execution of humanity in Adam.  It was the end of ‘flesh’, of humanity as we know it.  At the cross, he who knew no sin became sin for us, made in the likeness of sinful flesh, he was treated as sinful flesh.  The death that he died he died to sin once and for all (Roms 6).  In his resurrection, Jesus entered into a new life, a life of a different kind and order.  The man Christ Jesus, lived now by the power of a life that could never end, a life that was indestructible (Hebs 7:6), a life that would never again have to do with sin or death.   In this resurrection life he ascended to heaven as the firstborn of a new creation, no longer like sinful flesh he now had a body of glory.  Christ has become the source,  the archetype, and the heir of this new creation; it is a new creation from him, for him, and like him (Col 1:15-20).

And in this resurrection life of Christ we share.  As he was raised by the Spirit of holiness so we live too in the Spirit in holiness and righteousness.  We are born by the Spirit (Jn 3) and have a life that cannot sin.  Our life is Christ’s resurrection life, through the Spirit.  The Spirit of Christ, of God, now lives within us (Roms 8:9).  As far as God is concerned, our life in Adam, our flesh and all it is, came to an end at the cross.  It is finished.  It is gone.  We are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit (Roms 8:9).   What does this mean?  It means that when I see the passions of the flesh seething within me I need not be dismayed.  I need not be condemned or despair.  Why?  Because, by faith I recognise  this cauldron of corruption is not the true me.  It once was me but is so no longer.  I will not hate myself because of it.  I will hate it but not myself for it is no longer the true me. A Christian is not ‘in the flesh’.  A Christian’s identity is in the Spirit.  He lives in the realm of the Spirit.  In Paul’s gloriously liberating words:

Rom 8:1-17 (ESV)
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. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.  So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

The cross has condemned flesh and finished our relationship to it.  We are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit and by walking in the Spirit we fulfil all righteousness.  What do I do when I observe within me the tug of sin and the surging of the flesh?  I remind myself this is not the true me.  These passions belong to an ‘I’ that died on the cross.  God does not see me in terms of ‘flesh’ and nor will I.  I have begun a new life in the Spirit.  I will not listen to these siren voices of flesh, I will not give them my allegiance or heed them (I will not set my mind on them).  I will treat them as they ought to be treated – as something dead.  I will mortify all inclinations flesh advances.  Flesh is that which is all about ‘self’.  It loves self, believes in self, trusts in self, and exalts self.  I will have nothing to do with it.  I will not look to self for strength or for approval.  I will not feed self or feed from self. For to look to it for one moment is to stumble and fall and lose the joy and power of salvation.   Instead, I will steadfastly, by the Spirit, put self in the place of death and so find life.  I will live in the Spirit, listening to and following his leading as he guides and empowers the inclinations of my new life into righteousness and holiness.

When Satan accuses and points to sinful lusts within I will not be depressed and defeated.  I will agree with all he says but point out that this ‘me’ has ended.  I no longer accept it as the person I am.  I am a new creature in Christ.  As long as I am in this body I know that sin still has a foothold because of indwelling sin.  Thus I must always be vigilant.  But, in confident faith that one day I will have a body like Christ’s  body of glory which will be entirely free of sin, I will presently put to death the temptations that arise from within, and, if in weakness and foolishness, I heed flesh (trust it) and sin, I will repent.  I will humbly confess my sins knowing that forgiveness is mine for Christ died.  I will feel the sorrow of sinning and hate it for all it is.  But  I will not be defeated by it.  I will remind myself that sin has no rights over me.  I am no debtor to it.   In the Spirit I have a new heart that longs for righteousness and not for sin and it is my true centre and being.  I will look to self for nothing and find everything in grace.   I stand in the grace of God.  Grace is the realm of my existence.  It is the power by which I live, my only resource and the only resource I need and it is mine in abundance.  I live in grace.  I live in the Spirit.  I live in Christ.

In Christ, I am free from sin’s condemnation and sin’s control.  Therein, and only therein, is my peace and my victory.  And so daily I will put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil its lusts (Roms 13:14).


romans, and the righteousness of god (2)

Rom 1:16-17 (ESV)
I am not ashamed of the gospel… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed…

A world that is right is what is needed.  Creation groans eager to birth a world right in every way,  a new world suffused with righteousness where righteousness is the plumb-line (Isa 28:17),  flows like the waves of the sea (Isa 48:18), ​​​​​​​and like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).   The yearning of the righteous is for a creation where the clouds rain down righteousness (Isa 45:8) and righteousness sprouts from the ground like a fruit (Isa 45:8), and where all the people are oaks of righteousness before the Lord (Isa 61:3).

But…  the reality is far from this.

Unrighteousness is the reigning paradigm.  Creation’s steward has despoiled it with unrighteousness and its fruits.  This anatomy of human unrighteousness Paul lays bare in Roms 1:18-3:20: absurd idolatry (1:18-22); unnatural sexuality (1:24-27); brutish behaviour (1: 28-31); permissive morality (1:32); and, perhaps worst of all, moral and religious hypocrisy, epitomised most clearly in the Jewish nation, God’s chosen people (2;1-29).

The Jewish nation believed themselves a cut above all other nations, and they were.  They were God’s chosen people.  They alone had been given God’s Law.  They were God’s chosen mouthpiece to the nations (2:17-20).  Yet Paul is unambiguous – they too have failed and failed abysmally (2:21,22).  The Law was of little value if they did not keep it; the unrighteousness of the supposedly righteous, is the greatest unrighteousness of all (2:23).

The conclusion is as inevitable as it is chilling; if  the most privileged nation on earth (Israel) was pervasively and incorrigibly unrighteous what hope had any other – every mouth is stopped and the whole world is guilty before God (3:20). Because of wilful unrighteousness, the wrath of God is announced from heaven and is inevitably coming (1:18, 2:5-11).  What humanity need fear is not its destructive self, nor even on-going tsunamis, earthquakes and famines awful though they may be, but the final, dreadful, terrifying cataclysmic judgement of a God whose patience has finally ended and who is determined to purge his creation of its moral filth, consigning the unrighteous to Gehenna, the eternal burnings.  Such righteous judgement is the only righteous way for a righteous God to act.

Or is it?  Is a vision of a righteous universe where all the people are ‘oaks of righteousness’ and ‘justice flows like rivers and righteousness like an ever-ending stream’ no more than a prophetic pipe dream?  Is it merely a Seer’s romantic fancy? Is God’s righteousness something we must inevitably fear for it means we must perish?  Thankfully, it is not.

The glory of the gospel is its declaration that God has found a way to be merciful in righteousness, a way to righteously declare the unrighteous, righteous,  a way to establish righteousness by saving not destroying.

The  previous post noted four points about this gospel righteousness implicit in Roms 1:17.  It is… eschatological righteousness … God’s righteousness… saving righteousness… and righteousness received by faith.  In Roms 3;21-26 Paul expands all four aspects.  In five key verses of compressed theology Paul explains the central elements of the saving righteousness of God.  Any attempt to understand what the Bible means by ‘righteousness of God’ must grapple with this text.  I shall comment on a number of its expressions hoping to unpack some of its meaning.

Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

But now…

Paul’s ‘But now‘ signals a contrast.  The contrast is not simply a change in his exposition but more particularly a change in eras –  a change in God’s working in history.  The previous era of Law which condemned by exposing human unrighteousness  has given way to a new era of gospel which saves by exhibiting God’s righteousness.  The eschatological age of salvation-righteousness predicted by the OT prophets has now arrived.  As J R W Stott writes,

The ‘Now seems to have a threefold reference – logical (the developing argument), chronological (the present time), and eschatological (the new age has arrived).

Israel believed that its salvation and that of the world lay in the Law of God (2:17-20); in law-keeping lay righteousness and life.  It was a profound mistake.  The Law, even before it had properly embedded, was exposed as inadequate to establish righteousness.  Even as the tablets of the covenant were being given by God to Moses on Sinai, they were being broken on the plains below as the people worshipped an idolatrous golden calf (Ex 32).  This incident portended the future.  The Law would not keep the people from being just as depraved as the surrounding nations who had no such Law.  It was clear that the Law could not deliver righteousness or deliver from wrath, all it could do was expose sin.  As Paul writes,

Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

If righteousness (and so life) was to be established then it would need to be from another source than humanity.  And so the prophetic voice, informed by the Lord, announced a righteousness sourced not in man but in God (3:21).  It anticipated a time when God himself would act in salvation and righteousness and establish both.  It spoke of the ‘good news’ of God’s coming saving righteousness, this saving righteousness Paul says has now arrived, or ‘been manifested‘.  (Of course, God’s saving righteousness always existed.  From Adam sinners were always justified by God’s righteousness received by faith, but now this righteousness is ‘revealed’, that is, the death of Christ has accomplished and exhibited it.  The gospel, once anticipated, has now been realised and fully revealed.)

righteousness of God apart from law (without law)…

We should reflect deeply on this expression.

  • Paul does not say the Law is one example of God’s righteousness and the Gospel is another.  For Paul, the Law never reveals God’s righteousness, what it reveals (if kept) is man’s righteousness.  It is only and always the gospel that reveals ‘righteousness of God’.  We create a non-Pauline paradigm and so confusion when we speak of the Law as revealing God’s righteousness.  I repeat, for Paul, only the gospel does this.
  • Paul does not say, ‘In the gospel righteousness is established not by you keeping the Law but by Jesus keeping the Law in your place and on your behalf’.  If this is what gospel righteousness is then here would have been the ideal and obvious place for Paul to have said so.  But he doesn’t.  Instead he insists on the opposite.  He states unequivocally, that the ‘righteousness of God’ has nothing to do with law-keeping.  Indeed, it has nothing to do with the Law.   It is righteousness ‘apart from law’ or ‘without law’, that is, it is righteousness different in premise and principle, and in fact belonging to a different period of redemptive history altogether.   This is a critical point to grasp for failure to appreciate this contributes to mistaken ideas in justification that plague much Evangelical thinking, particularly Reformed Evangelical thinking.  Gospel righteousness is not simply law-righteousness gained for me by another (IAO). It is not merely law-righteousness by another route, by the back door.   It is righteousness of a different kind, of a different epoch, and of a different source altogether.  This is precisely why Paul emphatically refers to this righteousness as... ‘righteousness of God apart from law’
  • The old era of Law put the emphasis on human responsibility; it looked for righteousness in man.  The righteousness of Law was predicated on ‘do this and live’.  It promised life for righteous living.  Yet, though this was its promise it was not its intent.  God did not give the Law hoping to establish righteousness through fallen human beings but to prove conclusively the futility of such a route to righteousness; he gave it to expose sin (3:20).  Only when all human attempts at righteousness have been exposed as the abysmal and abject failure they are, establishing beyond doubt humanity’s incorrigible unrighteousness and moral bankruptcy (Roms 3:9-20), does God reveal the glory and grace of his own saving righteousness.  Only when it is  established in history that humanity cannot be the architect of its own salvation will God’s salvation-righteousness be revealed.  God will have it crystal clear that if there is to be a saving righteousness then it will be and must be his and not man’s, and that the only ‘righteousness’ celebrated and boasted eternally will be God’s; boasting and glorying in any other is anathema (2:23, 3:27, 4:1,2; 1 Cor 1:28-30).  The gospel reveals God’s righteousness and in it he is glorified and no other.

Of course humanity refuses to learn the lesson of Israel and the Law.  It still seeks to establish its own righteousness.  But it does so against the damning evidence of history.  If Israel failed under Law all have failed (3:20).  Humanity post-cross is pronounced ‘dead’ in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1)  There is no hope in human righteousness; hope of averting God’s wrath (1:18) lies only in the gospel, in ‘righteousness of God’.

I would add one further comment here.  We should not confuse ‘God’s righteousness‘ and ‘Christ’s righteousness’.  When Romans speaks of ‘God’s righteousness‘ it means just that, ‘God’s‘ righteousness.  It does not mean the righteousness of Christ.  God’s saving righteousness of course intimately involves Christ as the text we are considering shows but we confuse Paul’s thought if we conflate Christ’s righteousness and God’s righteousness.  They are distinct and should be kept distinct.  That Paul means ‘God’s‘ righteousness is emphatic in the text.  Three times in five verses we read of  ‘God’s righteousness‘  (3: 21,22, 25. Cf. 1:17, 10:3; Phil 3:9; 2 Cor 5:21) and once of  ‘his righteousness’ , meaning God’s (3:26).

The text could hardly be more emphatic; in the gospel the eschatological age of salvation has dawned.  It is an age where God’s righteousness is the focus and no other (Cf 3:27).  When we have established that Paul’s focus is God’s righteousness, not man’s, not even Christ’s, we have established something profoundly important and we are thinking across the synapses of the gospel.

witnessed by the Law and prophets

I have already alluded to this expression above.  If there is discontinuity between the Law and the gospel (both different epochs based on different sources of righteousness) then there is also continuity.  The continuity lies in the predictive element of both the Law and the prophets (often a term that covers the whole of the OT).

How did the Law predict the gospel?  Principally and specifically, the gospel is predicted in the sacrificial system of the Law.   Thus the following verses speak of redemption, sacrifice and the mercy-seat as the means by which God’s righteousness is revealed and administered (22-25).  The prophets, as we have already seen, regularly anticipated the Age of Salvation when the righteousness of the Lord would be revealed (  E.g. Isa 46:13; 51:5,6,8).

And so, in 3:21 Paul begins to put in context the ‘righteousness of God‘.  In the verses which follow he unpacks the meaning of the expression.  We shall consider these verses in a further blog.  For now let me re-assert we have understood nothing of the rationale of the gospel if we have not grasped this fundamental truth – the gospel is nothing if it is not ‘righteousness of God’.


romans, and the righteousness of god (1)

Righteousness gets a bad press in life.  In fact, it is a word rarely used today (we may speak of justice, or right, but not righteousness).  If used or conceptualised it tends to suggest ideas of a moral uprightness devoid of love.  We connect it with assumed moral superiority; righteousness for us means self-righteousness.   Even in biblical times such impressions of righteousness were current.  That is why Paul says,

Rom 5:7-8 (ESV)
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

But righteousness is not a cold charity, it is all that is good and right.  Imagine a world where everyone does from the heart what is right in every situation.  Imagine fathers who always act just as a father should or husbands who always are proper husbands.  Think of leaders who are utterly responsible in their role as leaders.  Leaders who care passionately about true justice and the rights of those they lead.  Imagine all creation giving the Creator the glory and worship that are rightly his.

Righteousness is right-living flowing from hearts that love what is right and hate what is wrong.  It is behaviour (in motive, thought and action) totally consistent with what ought to be.   While righteousness requires a holy nature or heart it is probably better, at least in the strictest sense, not to speak of inherent or intrinsic righteousness.  Righteousness is always in reference to something.  In God, righteousness is all that is consistent with who he is in himself; in us, it is consistency with the demands of the created relationships  in which he has placed us.  I may be inherently holy (God is) but I am righteous if I do what is required of me (1 Jn 3:7).

And so, righteousness means a world where everyone is right and everyone receives his rights;  and so too, it is a vision of a world without guilt (for there is no wrong-doing) and without grief (for there is none and nothing to harm and none who deserve to be harmed).  Such a utopian world is the stuff of dreams. It is the kind of society that many labour to achieve but never do.  Men are always frustrated not simply by the unrighteousness of others but by the unrighteousness of their own lives. This is the anxiety of the human condition.  No matter how hard we try we cannot begin to come close to achieving the kind of personal righteousness far less societal righteousness that we know should exist.  We are stymied at every turn by endemic unrighteousness.  When we know what is right we so often simply don’t do it even at the most rudimentary and basic level.  The chaos and injustice of life is ample evidence of this even if we are unaware of our own hearts.  We cannot even achieve a modicum of personal or societal righteousness that may satisfy us as human beings and make for a fairer world, even less can we achieve the deep and radical righteousness of motive and action that would be heaven on earth and be pleasing to God.  There is none righteous, no not one.

Yet such a world will one day exist.  The Bible anticipates ‘a new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells’, or, ‘where righteousness is at home’ (2 Pet 3:13).  Romans is the primary book in the Bible that tells us how this cosmic and radically righteous creation will be achieved.  It reveals the basic building blocks on which it is founded.  In fact, the establishing of righteousness is the ‘good news’ that constitutes the Christian gospel.

In Romans 1 Paul introduces this gospel.  He describes it like this.

Rom 1:16-17 (ESV)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

  • the righteousness of God  is saving righteousness or gospel righteousness

The gospel is about ‘salvation (Roms 1:16) and it is in this context of ‘salvation’ that ‘righteousness of God” is revealed. God will of course be righteous in his final judgement on the wicked just as he has been righteous in all his judgements in history but this is not the righteousness referred to here.  Here it is saving righteousness, or gospel righteousness.  Of course, saving righteousness can only take place in the context of judging and overthrowing wickedness, nevertheless we should keep firmly in our minds the locus in which God’s righteousness is revealed in Romans, is saving (1:16).

We should note too it is gospel righteousness as opposed to legal righteousness, or law righteousness.  The Law of Sinai was a revelation of the righteousness that God required of man whereas the gospel is a revelation of righteousness that is all of God .  In Romans, law righteousness and gospel righteousness exist largely in contrast (Roms 3:21a) though the law does witness to gospel righteousness (Roms 3:21b).

  • the righteousness of God is eschatological righteousness

The OT regularly anticipated a day when the saving righteousness of God would be revealed.  The prophets of Israel saw the sin and suffering of Israel and envisaged a future when idolatry, unfaithfulness, injustice, unrighteousness, oppression and all the entail of these would be no more.  They spoke of it as the day of salvation and righteousness. Some time ago I  posted tracing God’s righteousness in Isaiah.  Below are a few examples.

Isaiah speak of a time when the Lord would say,

Isa 45:8 (ESV)
“Shower, O heavens, from above, ​​​​​​​and let the clouds rain down righteousness; ​​​​​​​let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; ​​​​​​​let the earth cause them both to sprout; ​​​​​​​I the Lord have created it.

Isa 46:12-13 (ESV)
“Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, ​​​​​​​you who are far from righteousness: ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, ​​​​​​​and my salvation will not delay; ​​​​​​​I will put salvation in Zion, ​​​​​​​for Israel my glory.”

God’s salvation righteousness while first to Israel is not, however, limited to Israel, it is for all peoples.

Isa 51:5 (ESV)
My righteousness draws near, ​​​​​​​my salvation has gone out, ​​​​​​​and my arms will judge the peoples; ​​​​​​​the coastlands hope for me, ​​​​​​​and for my arm they wait.

And so when Paul says the righteousness of God  is now revealed (1:17) or manifested (3:21);  he is saying this End-Time salvation long anticipated has now arrived.

  • the righteousness of God is exactly that, ‘righteousness of God’.

In each of the above Isaian references salvation and righteousness are accomplished by God.  He speaks of ‘my righteousness’ and ‘my salvation’.  This is critical to understanding the gospel.  The gospel is all about ‘righteousness of God’.  It is God’s righteousness in specific contrast to man’s righteousness.  The OT is the story of human unrighteousness in the fall and beyond.  From Adam’s sin the history of humanity has been desperate and despairing.  Humanity is incapable of righteousness. God proves this conclusively in the story of Israel.

Israel was chosen and privileged of God.  She was like a vine especially cultivated and cared for by God (Isa 5).  She is given God’s Law and promised life upon obedience (this do and live).  Such righteousness if achieved would be human righteousness, a righteousness of works, man’s righteousness.  However Israel did not keep the Law, indeed it was never God’s intention that she would.  God knew human righteousness was impossible.  The Law was really given not to effect human righteousness but to expose human unrighteousness; unrighteousness in fallen man in the most favourable of circumstances.  Israel failed utterly.  She proved to have a rebellious heart, and the Law which promised life and which Israel promised to obey only demonstrated this rebellion as it was repeatedly and pervasively flouted.  The law which promised life produced death.  Israel’s guilt, humanity tested under the most favourable conditions in a fallen world, served only to establish the guilt of the whole human race.  As Paul says in Roms 3

Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Human righteousness by law had proved a complete failure.  If there was hope for the world it must lie outside of man and outside of the law; it must lie in God.  Humanity could not save itself, God must save it.  Humanity had no righteousness and could not make itself righteous, righteousness must be sourced in God.  In Isaiah 59 God says,

Isa 59:3-21 (ESV)
For your [Israel's] hands are defiled with blood ​​​​​​​and your fingers with iniquity; ​​​​​​​your lips have spoken lies; ​​​​​​​your tongue mutters wickedness. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​No one enters suit justly; ​​​​​​​no one goes to law honestly; ​​​​​​​they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, ​​​​​​​they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​They hatch adders’ eggs; ​​​​​​​they weave the spider’s web; ​​​​​​​he who eats their eggs dies, ​​​​​​​and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Their webs will not serve as clothing; ​​​​​​​men will not cover themselves with what they make. ​​​​​​​Their works are works of iniquity, ​​​​​​​and deeds of violence are in their hands. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Their feet run to evil, ​​​​​​​and they are swift to shed innocent blood; ​​​​​​​their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; ​​​​​​​desolation and destruction are in their highways. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​The way of peace they do not know, ​​​​​​​and there is no justice in their paths; ​​​​​​​they have made their roads crooked; ​​​​​​​no one who treads on them knows peace. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Therefore justice is far from us, ​​​​​​​and righteousness does not overtake us; ​​​​​​​we hope for light, and behold, darkness, ​​​​​​​and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​We grope for the wall like the blind; ​​​​​​​we grope like those who have no eyes; ​​​​​​​we stumble at noon as in the twilight, ​​​​​​​among those in full vigor we are like dead men. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​We all growl like bears; ​​​​​​​we moan and moan like doves; ​​​​​​​we hope for justice, but there is none; ​​​​​​​for salvation, but it is far from us. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​For our transgressions are multiplied before you, ​​​​​​​and our sins testify against us; ​​​​​​​for our transgressions are with us, ​​​​​​​and we know our iniquities: ​​​ ​​​​​​​​transgressing, and denying the Lord, ​​​​​​​and turning back from following our God, ​​​​​​​speaking oppression and revolt, ​​​​​​​conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Justice is turned back, ​​​​​​​and righteousness stands far away; ​​​​​​​for truth has stumbled in the public squares, ​​​​​​​and uprightness cannot enter. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Truth is lacking, ​​​​​​​and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him ​​​​​​​that there was no justice. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​He saw that there was no man, ​​​​​​​and wondered that there was no one to intercede; ​​​​​​​then his own arm brought him salvation, ​​​​​​​and his righteousness upheld him. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​He put on righteousness as a breastplate, ​​​​​​​and a helmet of salvation on his head; ​​​​​​​he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, ​​​​​​​and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay, ​​​​​​​wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; ​​​​​​​to the coastlands he will render repayment. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, ​​​​​​​and his glory from the rising of the sun; ​​​​​​​for he will come like a rushing stream, ​​​​​​​which the wind of the Lord drives. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, ​​​​​​​to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. ​​​ “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”

I have quoted the whole of this chapter for even a cursory reading reveals how heavily Paul draws from it in Roms 3-8.  The first paragraph establishes Israel’s unrighteousness.  Paul parallels it in thought and quotes it in terms in Roms 3:1-20.  There is no hope for Israel or humanity in personal righteousness.  Humanity has feet ‘swift to shed blood, innocent blood‘ (expressed most damningly in the blood of Messiah).  But precisely when ‘there is no man‘ and universal guilt is established (Roms 3:20) ‘then his own arm brought him salvation, ​​​​​​​and his righteousness upheld him. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​He put on righteousness as a breastplate, ​​​​​​​and a helmet of salvation on his head’. In the moment when hope is lost God works salvation.  He establishes righteousness, but it is not righteousness sourced in man and on the principle of law through works but righteousness sourced in God and upon the principle of grace through faith (Roms 3:21-30).

A Redeemer shall come to Zion (Cf.  Zech 9:9; Roms 3:24) bringing redemption not only for Israel but to the nations, ‘they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, ​​​​​​​and his glory from the rising of the sun’ (Roms 3: 22, 29,30).  He shall come ‘like a rushing stream which the wind of the Lord drives‘ (stream and wind are both images of God’s powerful and refreshing Spirit of God) and the Spirit of God will be upon them and mouths that once ‘spoke lies… wickedness… lying words… where truth stumbled’ now overflow with the word of the Lord (Cf John 7:37-39; Acts 2:17,18; Roms 5:5, 7:6, 8:1-30, 10:5-13).

Righteousness is established, but we must underline again, it is ‘righteousness of God’ (an expression, though not an idea, exclusive to Romans save for 2 Cor 5:21).  Notice, in 1:17 there is no definite article.  It is not ‘the righteousness of God’ but ‘righteousness of God’.  It is an abstract term deliberately contrasting righteousness which has its source and value in man with righteousness which has its source and value in God.  It is emphatically ‘God’s righteousness and not man’s.  In the gospel God in grace acts ‘right’ and is seen to act ‘right’ in righting all that is wrong.  The gospel will achieve righteousness in our standing before God, in a life given by God, and ultimately in a new heavens and earth where righteousness will reign.  But it will be all  ‘of God’.  In God’s salvation man shall never have anything to boast about, all will be to the glory of God (Roms 4:2; 1 Cor 1:29-31). In the gospel it is emphatically ‘God’s’ righteousness that is revealed and God that is revealed as righteous; that is, it is not simply righteousness ‘from’ God, though it is this gloriously, but it is righteousness ‘of’ God.  In the gospel God not only vindicates but is vindicated.  The glory of the gospel is that it glorifies God’s righteousness.  God is true when every man is a liar; any boasting can only be in God (Roms 1:17).

Rom 3:27 (ESV)
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law [principle] of faith.

For by grace we are saved through faith and that not of yourself it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast (Eph 2).

  • the righteousness of God is by faith

Rom 3:21-22 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For our purposes at the moment there are only a few brief points to underline; God’s righteousness is embraced ‘by faith’.  Paul says it is ‘through faith for faith‘ or if you like gospel righteousness is received ‘on the principle of faith by people of faith‘.  Faith here we will see as Paul’s argument progresses is in explicit contrast to ‘works’ or attempts to be righteous by our own efforts.  Faith is simply the acknowledgement that it is all of God.

There are two corollaries:

  • God’s saving righteousness is universal in scope

Unlike law it does not particularize the covenant people as Israel and those who have Law, rather it is for ‘everyone who believes’ (1:16), ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’.

  • God’s saving righteousness starts with the individual

There is much emphasis today on the cosmic elements of salvation.  We are told that God intends to renew the whole of the Cosmos; he intends to create a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.    And this is gloriously true.  However, the only way into the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells is to be declared personally righteous by faith.  All too often this cosmic salvation is presented in a way that denigrates and even denies individual salvation.  The requirement of ‘faith’ gives the lie to this view.  Faith is emphatically individual.

Thus from Roms 1:17 we can deduce that ‘righteousness of God’ is God’s righteous activity as he intervenes in history to vindicate and save. The unpacking of this takes place throughout the letter.  In a future blog we will consider 3:21-26.


romans 7: dead to law (1)

I have written a few blogs previously related to ‘the law’ and to a related topic ‘flesh and spirit’.  These are somewhat of a background to a few intermittent blogs that I intend to write on Romans 7 (God willing).  At the moment, I want simply to flag up a couple of major blinders that require removed if we are to listen to Roms 7 on its own terms.

the blinkers of experience

The problem with Romans 7 is many Christians approach it in terms of their experience.  They look inside themselves and without looking too hard, see indwelling sin, feel the weight of it and the conflict in resisting it, then read the latter section of Roms 7 (vv13-25) and think ‘Ah, that’s what I am like.  Paul is describing me here.  He is clearly sketching the Christian life in this chapter.’  But that is a poor hermeneutic.  We do not interpret Scripture by our experience; we allow our experience to be interpreted by Scripture.  We must interpret Romans 7 by its own terms.  We must understand it in its context and not by our experience.  Scripture does deal with the believers response to indwelling sin but not in Roms 7.  If our experience is the controlling factor in our interpretation we are wearing dangerous blinkers.

the blinkers of tradition

A second related difficulty that many believers have with Romans 7 is that they approach it through a Reformed tradition.  Now, there is a great about the Reformed tradition(s) that is good and helpful.  However, the Reformers did not get everything right.  They were, after all, emerging from centuries of medieval Catholicism and so it is hardly to be expected that they would.  Thus the Reformers and Confessions based on Reformed teaching tend to understate the radical newness of the New Covenant.  They refer often to the believer’s obligations to the moral law (generally meaning the Decalogue), something Scripture does not.  Mainly they subscribe to the slogan, ‘the Law takes us to Christ for justification and Christ takes us to the Law for sanctification’.  Unfortunately, the second half of this slogan is wholly wrong and the first half is only partially right.

Sanctification has nothing to do with the law; it is entirely gospel based.  In the strictest sense, the Law was given to Israel and was given to them as a restraint until the coming of Christ.  Its exposure of sin created in some a longing for deliverance and in this sense prepared Jews for the arrival of their ‘Deliverer’.  However, since the Law (the Mosaic Covenant) was given only to Jews it did not lead gentiles to see the need of a Deliverer.  Paul never uses the Law to bring about conviction when preaching to gentiles, rather he points to God’s goodness in creation, conscience and the revelation of Christ in the gospel. In fact, for gentiles the Law had little relevance.  Its high-profile in some NT books is because Paul must explain its relevance to Jewish converts for whom naturally the Law had been hugely important framing as it did their whole history, religious and cultural experience.  They had to learn its place in salvation history was secondary.

The mistake of much classic Reformed thinking is that it also gives the Law too much significance.  Paul makes clear in Galatians that the Law was an interim measure ‘added because of transgressions’  (Gals 3:19) while in Romans the heart of the juxtapose is Adam and Christ with the Law again merely an addition ‘because of the trespass’ (5:20).  Jewish converts had to learn this (and found it hard) so too must many godly believers of a Reformed persuasion today.

Do not misunderstand me, the Law, properly understood teaches us much today.  I am not advocating some form of Manichaeism (who denied the importance of the OT).  But it must be properly understood within its salvation-history context and not given a role or significance never intended.  One main reason for giving it to Israel was to underline to them that salvation is all of grace apart from works.  This insight was vital to the Reformers as they combatted medieval Catholicism which was in many ways analogous to legalistic Jewish thinking at the time of Christ (actually very similar to the Mosaic Covenant, and still is).  The Reformers successfully demonstrated the very contrast between works and grace that the Law intentionally highlighted.

However, the Reformers did not go far enough.  They could not bring themselves to say ‘the Law’ had no authority in the life of the believer.  That may well have provoked spiritual, perhaps even civil anarchy.  It was ‘antinomian’.   Thus the law, for them, must remain as a ‘rule of life’ for believers.  In essence it was a lack of clarity (faith!) that the gospel had within it the wherewithal not only to justify but also to sanctify.  They did not grasp (or believe) that not the law but the gospel reveals the contours of the life of the Kingdom (a point I have tried to demonstrate here).   The gospel is all-sufficient for life and godliness .  Peter says unequivocally and without embarrassment:

2Pet 1:3 (ESV)
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.

Mark Peter’s point well – through knowing Christ we have everything we need for life and godliness.  Godliness comes through knowing Christ not through the knowing the Law.  Paul says the same thing in Titus.

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

I quote only two of a plethora of texts that make a similar point either implicitly or explicitly.  I’m afraid until my Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ cease to give to their confessions the allegiance and deference they ought to give only to Scripture they will continue to misinterpret Roms 7 and the role of the Law.  When tradition trumps revealed truth we are invincibly blinkered.

I suggest therefore any objective appraisal of Roms 7 can begin only when these two sets of blinkers are recognized and removed.


flesh and spirit in romans, and beyond (4)

A previous blog explored the anatomy of humanity in ‘the flesh’.  Flesh, we noted is weak, wayward and ultimately at war with God.  If we are to have any hope, our sins in the flesh must be atoned and we must be delivered from flesh itself; we must die to it.  This we noted, is exactly what happened at the cross (Roms 8:1-4). As believers, at the cross, we not only have our sins forgiven but we are delivered from the realm where ‘flesh’ dominates and rules.  In Christ we died to the world of ‘flesh’.  Believers are no longer ‘in the flesh’ but ‘in the Spirit’.

What it means to no longer be ‘in the flesh’ is spelled out for us in Romans and beyond.  The first point to note is we are:

no longer ‘under sin’

We must learn to think of our salvation much more radically than we tend to do.  Most of us think, I was a sinner and God has forgiven my sins through Jesus now I must try to follow him and sin less.  This of course is true so far as it goes but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in understanding what happened to us in the gospel.  We must grasp that we are now people who no longer live under the impulses of that old world.  We are no longer the ‘old man’ we once were living in the realm that sin controls.  This, first and foremost, is a matter of fact that we must simply grasp and affirm by faith for in so doing it creates a powerful moral imperative in our lives.  This is Paul’s point in Roms 6

Rom 6:1-2 (ESV)
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

To no longer be in the flesh is to have died to sin.  When a man dies he is removed from the world in which he once lived.  He no longer lives in the realm where sin has authority and power.  This was true of Jesus.  he died not only for sin but ‘to sin’ (Roms 6:10).  And in him it is true of us (6:20).  For Paul, living as a Christian is all about getting this truth embedded deep in our souls and letting its implications regulate our lives.We must grasp our new position and live according to it. Nothing else makes sense.

Imagine a young criminal, a pick-pocket living in the criminal underworld, a young Oliver Twist (or Artful Dodger).  He is hopelessly entangled in crime.  Tyrants above him (Fagin and Bill Sykes) control and manipulate him.  They regularly remind him they are his only friends and if he tries to escape the law will catch up with him.  He does not belong in good society.  He cannot, his crimes make him an outcast and imprison him.

One day a miracle happens.  He is caught pickpocketing and taken before a magistrate.  To his amazement the magistrate does not imprison him but frees him into the care of a middle-aged man.  He discovers this man has met the charges against him and atoned for his crimes.  He learns the man is his long-lost father who is very wealthy, good and kind.   He is honourable and prestigious.  Oliver (or Artful) is taken from the shadowy underworld and takes his rightful place as a son in the family.

Perhaps he is only living his new life a matter of days before he needs a few pennies to buy someone a small gift.  He thinks to himself, ‘I know, I’ll go out and ‘pick a pocket or two’ .’  Old habits die hard.  Then he pauses and realises, ‘I can’t do that.  I’m not a thief now.  I belong to a good and respectable family and will let my father and family down if I act like that.  Pickpocketing was my old life but I’m different now.’ He realises pickpocketing is utterly incongruous with who he now is and his new standing in life.  It is a way of life he has left behind.

It is precisely this reasoning that Paul invites Christians to apply when they are tempted to sin and fall back into old and sinful behavioural patterns.  They must stop when tempted and say, no, all of this belongs to the old way of life.  It belongs to the lifestyle I had when I was in the flesh and hostile to God.  But I am not part of that world of flesh any more and will not live by its standards.  I once gave into whatever whim crossed my mind.  I once allowed myself to rile easily.  I once made no or little effort to censor my thoughts and emotions.  I allowed my mind to lust and my eyes to wander.  I was cocky and smug and lived by my own rules and wits.  I liked to think I was the big man.  But that is the old me and I have left it behind.  I have put it off.  All these ugly things are the sins that Jesus atoned for.  He died to deliver me from these kinds of thoughts and attitudes.  I can’t possibly indulge in these again.  It is an utter contradiction of all God’s goodness towards me. That old life is an abomination.

To think and reason like this is proper Christian thinking.  Realising that to be no longer in the flesh implies a need to be different is vital to healthy Christian living.

And there is another implication we must realis; not only is it incongruous to live as if we were still in the flesh but there is now no need to give in to sin.  It has no power or authority or rights over us.  It cannot intimidate us.

Rom 6:6-12 (ESV)
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin …  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.

Imagine Oliver (or Artful) sitting alone in the garden of his new-found family home reading a book and suddenly Fagin’s face appears from behind a hedge.  He says perhaps in a wheedling voice, or perhaps in a threatening vicious voice, ‘Oliver, you don’t belong here.  You belong to me.  Think of all those years I looked after you.   You owe me Oliver.  Come on. Look lively and follow me.   The lads are missing you.  And Oliver, I’ve got an exciting job lined up I want you to help me with.  You know that’s what you want.  It’s who you are.  You are a thief Oliver.  Nothing can change that’.

Young Oliver’s (or Artful’s) first reaction is probably to agree,  ‘Your right Fagin.  I do owe you.  And I miss my old friends too.’  He feels a surge of excitement at the thought of being involved in criminal adventure.  And he fears Fagin.  He remembers in the past he always did as Fagin told him.  How can he defy him now?  Fagin’s right, he’s a thief.  That’s who he is.

Then he thinks a little more rationally.  He reasons to himself, wait a minute Oliver, you don’t need to fear Fagin now.  He has got no power over you, no hold on you.  He had only power over you because you were on the wrong side of the law.  That was his hold on you.  But he doesn’t have that leverage now.  And don’t be fooled by his wheedling voice.  He was not so kind and generous.  He used you and exploited you.  You know that.  And the lads don’t want you unless you are one of them.  Fagin wants me back in the underworld but I don’t want to go there.  Yes there was excitement but it was the illicit excitement by harming others.  I have been rescued from that world.  It has no rights over me.  I never want to live in it again.  I’m not that person any more.  I’m not a thief, I’m a son.

When we realise we are no longer ‘in the flesh’ we realise we are no longer ‘under sin’.  Sin is a tyrant we need serve no longer.

Rom 6:14-18 (ESV)
For sin will have no dominion over you… you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

The Christian least of all people has a reason to sin.  If we deliberately sin, it is not because we must but because for some utterly inexplicable reason we choose to.  There is great freedom in realising this and it all flows from grasping by faith that we now no longer ‘of the flesh’.  I don’t need to lie, cheat, be promiscuous, get drunk, hate, and do all these things that once I did.  I did these when I was ‘in the flesh’, when I was dominated and controlled by sin but I am no longer in that realm.  I don’t need to live like that any more.  In the words of Paul,

Rom 8:9-12 (ESV)
You, however, are not in the flesh… So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

Thus as Christians we learn having put off the flesh to put to death every temptation and allurement that the old world we were part of throws our way.  We remind our hearts daily that

5:24 (Darby)
They that are of the Christ have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts.

We seek by God’s grace to

Rom 13:14 (ESV)
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

And we remind ourselves that we must be vigilant for this is no trivial matter.  Its implications are cataclysmic

Rom 8:13 (ESV)
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

This is the first implication Paul draws from being no longer in the flesh but there are others.  We will consider these in future blogs.


flesh and spirit in romans, and beyond (3)

We have been considering two alternative realities in Paul’s theology – the flesh and the Spirit.  For clarity’s sake we should emphasize again that these two realities – flesh and Spirit –  although involving principles and peoples are for Paul perhaps primarily , provinces or principalities.  They represent two realms, spheres, kingdoms, – two distinct cosmologies or creations.

With the First Coming of Christ, especially his resurrection and subsequent glorification, the long promised eschatological Age of the Spirit arrived (at least in embryonic form).  From Pentecost, and the outpouring of the Spirit as the crowning gift of the New Covenant, history was thereafter divided into two eras – the old era/age/world of ‘the flesh’ and the new era/age/world ‘of the Spirit’.  Humanity therefore is now  also divided into two; either we are ‘in Adam’  and belong to the old era and so are ‘in the flesh’ or we are ‘in Christ’ and belong to the new era and so are ‘in the Spirit’.


‘Flesh’ in the first instance is a word without moral connotations.  It is virtually a synonym for the first creation.  It was a creation described by God as ‘very good’.   Yet, although ‘very good’, it had inherent weaknesses.  It was for example (unlike new creation) a realm that sin and death were able (and permitted) to enter.  More significantly still, it was a creation in which God placed responsibility on man without empowering him to fulfil it.  Adam received a divine fiat – he must not eat the forbidden fruit and if he did he would die (Gen 2:15).  Herein lies creation’s essential weakness: its identity and destiny is tied to the obedience of  its human head, Adam; its well-being depends partly on man and not totally on God. Adam’s name means ‘frailty’ (Cf.  Mark 14:38;  Gals 4:13; ), signalling his weakness, and perhaps too, the precarious nature of creation itself.  At any rate, Adam disobeyed the divine fiat, failed in his responsibility, and sin gained a foothold.  The first creation was in trouble.

However, God was not wrong-footed. God’s plans did not depend or centre on the first creation but on the second.  It was not the ‘first man’, Adam, in whom God’s purposes were to be fulfilled, but the ‘second man’ , Christ (1 Cor 15:22, 45, 47; Roms 5:12-21); God’s final vision was a creation not of  ‘flesh’ but ‘Spirit’ (1 Cor 15: 42-49).  He planned to deliver humanity from the frailty, failure and futility of the first creation and bring him, by grace,  into the fullness, faultlessness and finality of the second and new creation.  In a word, the vulnerability of the first was but a prelude to the vigour of the second. He planned to do this to his own glory through Christ, his Son (Eph 1:3-9); as always with God, the last, truly would be the first (Matt 20:16), for, in yet another sense, he was first (Jn 1:15; Col 1:17).

We have already reflected a little on how God in Christ accomplished this – see here and here.  God’s Son, in Jesus, was born, in weakness, into the old creation, the realm of ‘flesh’ (Roms 1:3) that he might rescue his people from it and bring them, with him, through death and resurrection into the powerful realm of ‘the Spirit’ (Roms 1:4).

What ‘flesh’ is, is clear in Romans and beyond.  It is weak.  In Christ flesh in weakness  is revealed (Roms 1:3; 2 Cor 13:4; Hebs 4:15).  However, flesh is not only weak, in all other than Christ it is wicked and wanton.  In Romans the corrupt and ultimately hopeless nature of ‘flesh’ is unravelled.

flesh is culpable

In Roms 1:18-3:20 Paul sketches the utter failure of  humanity to meet its responsibilities.  He demonstrates that all humanity – gentile and Jew – have failed in their obligations and responsibilities and consequently are exposed to the wrath of God.  In Ch 1, he establishes that gentiles have failed in their responsibility and so are sinners for knowing God they did not glorify him as God but became idolaters (1:18-23). As a consequence they are both ungodly and unrighteous (1:18).   In ch 2, he establishes, rather more surprisingly, that Jews too are sinners (2:12-24).  I say ‘surprisingly’ for Jews, because of their special relationship with God, were inclined to consider themselves above the accusation of sin; gentiles were sinners, not Jews (Gals 2:15).  However, Paul’s conclusion is as ringing as it is remorseless. Citing the every OT Law in which Jews boasted and that symbolised their special favour with God he indicts them,

Rom 3:10-12 (ESV)
“None is righteous, no, not one;  ​​​​​​​​no one understands; no one seeks for God.  ​​​​​​​​All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

The Law, it appeared, did not absolve from sin it accused of sin and indeed aggravated sin (3:20; 7:7,8).  It exposed sin (3:20).  The conclusion is stark: if the Law in which they boasted , a symbol of Jewish superior moral knowledge and privilege, (2:17-20; 3:1-3) did not shield them from the accusation of sin, but in fact asserted it (3:9-19), then who could be declared just and good?  Who possibly could escape the wrath of God?  If the most privileged were sinners who then could be righteous?

Who had lived responsibly?  The answer was none.  If the best and most favoured were sinners then all were sinners.

Rom 3:9 (ESV)
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,

Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

And so Paul establishes the guilt of all.   Humanity has utterly and universally failed in its responsibility.  Before God all are culpable, all are sinners.

But why are all sinners?  Why are there no exceptions?  Why do none (except Christ) break the mould?

flesh is captive

Ch 5-8 develops the answer.   The answer is, however, already alluded to in the above text.  Paul says we all sin because all – Jew and Greek – are ‘under sin‘ (3:9).  Here a significant conceptual change takes place.  Until this point Paul has focussed on SINS.  Sin has been individual acts of unrighteousness.  Now sin as depicted as a power, an authority, and a controlling tyrant.  Sin is personified; it is no longer an act but an actor.  The focus in Ch 5-8 shifts from SINS to SIN.  We discover we commit SINS because we are controlled by SIN; we are ‘under [the rule of] sin‘ (Gals 3:22).   To be ‘in the flesh’ is to be enslaved to sin, conspiratorially so, but enslaved none the less (6:17).  Romans 7 expresses this unambiguously,

Rom 7:14 (ESV)
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

In fact, to be ‘in/of the flesh’ is to be ‘under’ other authorities too.  It is to be ‘under judgement‘  or wrath (3:19; Cf Eph 2:3); ‘under Law‘ if Jewish (3:19; Gal 3:23); ‘under a curse’ (Gals 3:10); and ‘under the basic principles of this world‘ (Gal 4:3).  And, although humanity  ‘in the flesh’  is not described in so many words as being ‘under Satan’ or ‘under the world’, other language expresses the same idea (Eph 2:1-2).

To be in the flesh is a dire condition.  It is not simply to be weak and guilty, but to be in the grip of destructive powers that one can neither control nor escape (Roms 7:5: 8:6).  Like Gollum in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, those in the flesh are in the grip of destructive powers which they nevertheless willingly serve.  The picture is both repulsive and pathetic.  Gollum is Adamic humanity.  To be  an heir of Adam is to be bequeathed condemnation and death (5:12-21).

flesh is contrary

If the foregoing is bad then it is in Romans 8 the real horror of ‘flesh’ is exposed.  The chapter is visceral in its exposé of ‘the flesh’.

Rom 8:6-13 (ESV)
For to set the mind on the flesh is death… For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God… For if you live according to the flesh you will die.

‘Flesh’ in its responsibility before God, is not simply weak, guilty, and enslaved, but also antagonistic and contentious; it is implacably hostile to God (Roms 5: 10; Gals 5:17; Col 1:21; 1 Jn 2:16; Gen 6:12).  There is nothing good in flesh (Roms 7:18).  Responsible man ‘in the flesh’ – if I may alliterate with abandon – is frail, failed, fallen, fettered, and an irremediable foe of God. Flesh, Adamic humanity, is ‘beyond salvage’ and with it the whole creation it represents; all is condemned and must die (1 Cor 15:21,22).

the end of flesh in the flesh of Jesus

And in Christ death is exactly what it received.  Humanity ‘in the flesh’ was humanity responsible to God.  It was humanity under obligation to obey and in this responsibility it singularly and spectacularly failed.  ‘Flesh’ became corrupt humanity in opposition to a good God, a rebel without a cause; it became moral filth (1 Pet 3:21).   In the moral landscape of a holy God the abomination that ‘flesh’ now is cannot be tolerated.  Flesh must be condemned and finished.  This happened on the cross.  When Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh, he came that in his body of flesh sinful flesh may be condemned and finished.  In the flesh of Christ, flesh – rebellious Adam – received its due – death.  And thus Adamic humanity, humanity in flesh, came to an end.   In resurrection Christ was no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit; death in the flesh gave place to life in the Spirit (1 Pet 3:18).

Thus the Christian is not ‘in Adam’ or ‘in the flesh’.  He needs no ‘flesh’ righteousness (which is what IAO is all about) for he lives not in the world of ‘flesh’ but of the world of ‘Spirit’.

Rom 8:3-6 (ESV)
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.

In the cross, Jesus shed his blood for our sins and so we are justified (Roms 5:9).  However, our righteousness although involving acquittal (Roms 4: 7,8), is much more.  For not only did the cross bring to us forgiveness through Jesus’ blood it also through Jesus’ death brought to an end our life in the ‘flesh’.  ‘The only hope for humanity is if they die to the realm of flesh and live in a different realm.

In Christ this is exactly what has happened.  We are participants in his death and resurrection.  This means we share in his death to life ‘in the flesh’ and share in his resurrection life ‘in the Spirit’.  There are two senses in which the death of Jesus saves.  Firstly in shedding his blood Christ atones for our sins (Roms 3:21-26) and secondly in his death he brings flesh to an end.  Flesh’ cannot be redeemed, renovated, renewed, or ‘righteoused’, it can only be eradicated; flesh must be put to death, terminated. It has been for believers in Christ and will be for unbelievers in the eternal destruction of the Lake of fire (Gen 6:12,13, 1 Cor 5:5; Gals 6:8; Rev 20).  Our righteousness, as believers, before God is new creation righteousness, the righteous standing we have in a resurrected and reigning Christ who was ‘delivered for our offences and raised for our justification‘ (Roms 4:25). Moreover, it is new creation life, life in the Spirit (Roms 1:4, 2:28, 7:6, 8:1-16).

2Cor 5:14-15 (ESV)
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

Rom 8:9-11 (ESV)
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Flesh and Spirit are not two friendly states, they are worlds at war.  They are antagonists, colliding creations. ‘Spirit’ and ‘flesh’ cannot become friends

Gal 5:17 (ESV)
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  (Cf  Gals 3:3; 4:29; 5:16; 6:8)

But we begin to get ahead of ourselves.  This blog is intended simply to sketch an anatomy of ‘the flesh’.  The implications of what it means to be dead to ‘flesh’ must wait for another blog as too must any discussion of life in the Spirit and its implications.


flesh and spirit in Romans, and beyond (2)

This is the second in a short series of blogs reflecting on the ‘flesh/Spirit’ contrast that controls Romans and beyond.  In a previous blog we observed that this contrast is not metaphysical, a God/Man divide nor anthropological, a Body/Soul divide but chronological and eschatological, a divide of two Realms and Eras.

The gospel is about transformation.  It involves the ethical transformation of sinners but it is so much more.  It at heart a radical transformation between two different worlds, two different realms, two realities.  It takes people who belong to the realm and reality of ‘the flesh’, and translates them into the realm and reality of ‘the Spirit’.  Indeed it is not simply transformation, but translation.  It is a change so fundamental and far-reaching that Paul is able to say of it, ‘…  the old things have passed away; look all things have become new.’

While this is a transformation that takes place in God’s people, it first takes place in Christ.  In his transformation, the transformation of God’s people and indeed creation itself is realised.   The history of Christ involves transformation.  It translates him by a means no less radical than death and resurrection from life in ‘flesh’ to life in ‘Spirit’.  Romans 1:3,4 and  records this transformation or translation.

Rom 1:1-4 (ESV)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

However, Romans does not stand alone, other Scriptures also record this fundamental change of realm- reality in the history of Christ.

1Tim 3:16 (ESV)
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

2Cor 13:4 (ESV)
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.

1Pet 3:18 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

The 1 Timothy passage probably notes this realm-divide in three vivid contrasts.

Humiliation                                                        Glorification

manifested in flesh                                                 vindicated in Spirit

seen by angels                                                       preached among the nations

believed on in the world                                           taken into glory

Scripture is consistent and clear, Christ ‘in the flesh’, metamorphs via death and resurrection to a new existential reality, ‘Christ in the Spirit’.  It is a transformation involving both continuity and discontinuity.  A previous blog considered what it meant for Christ to live ‘according to the flesh': this blog explores what it means for Christ to live ‘according to the Spirit’.

Christ in the Spirit

If, as we noticed in a previous blog,  ‘flesh’ describes humanity in the weakness and impermanence (and in our case rebellion) of the old creation, then ‘Spirit’ describes humanity in the power and vitality of the new creation.  Christ is the bridge between these two worlds.  He became one with us in the realm of ‘flesh’ to the point ultimately of being identified with our sin in his ‘flesh’ on the cross that he may in his death end the old reality of ‘flesh’ (which due to sin had written over it the sentence of death) and in his resurrection birth a new realm, a realm of ‘ the Spirit’, so radical that elsewhere Scripture refers to it as ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17).  Indeed so, important is this new realm of existence that Paul says it is the one we should primarily have in mind when we think of who we are as Christians and who Christ is.

2Cor 5:14-17 (ESV)
… one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Jesus, while on earth, impressed this new relationship upon Mary Magdalene consequent to his resurrection.  She would have clung to him ‘after the flesh’ but he wishes her to now know him ‘after the Spirit’ .  The eschatological age of the Spirit, the End Time Salvation, which the OT regularly anticipated, arrived in fulness not in the earthly Christ but the heavenly one, the risen and reigning Christ, this Mary must realise and it is this Christ to whom she must now relate  (Jn 20. Read previous blog).   Of course, in one sense the Eschaton arrived with Christ ‘in the flesh’ for even then he was God’s Servant-Son endowed with and energized by the Spirit.  Yet, in resurrection, this Spirit-Sonship entered a new phase, a new dimension, for in resurrection he is ‘designated the Son of God with power by the Spirit of holiness‘ (Roms 1:3,4).  The emphasis is on the recognition, power and authority that becomes Christ’s in a new way in resurrection.

Christ in the Spirit is recognised for who he is.  He is vindicated (1 Tim 3:16).  While on earth Christ was never properly recognised and vindicated.  The voice of God was heard from heaven by a few.  His manner, message and miracles pointed to the unique glory of his person, yet he was crucified as an imposter, a misguided Messiah.  He was crowned with thorns in mock parody of his  rightful crown as King.  It is not ‘in flesh’ he is vindicated but ‘in Spirit’ in resurrection.  He is ‘designated [appointed] son of God in power by the Spirit of holinesss by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Roms 1:4). God exalted him when men did not.  God enthroned him when men refused.  God declared him righteous and worthy of life when men declared him a sinner and worthy only of death.  When he is raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit it is his vindication as righteous.  And his vindication, his being raised to glory, is proclaimed to all the nations (1 Tim 3:16).  The apostolic message to the nations was and is,

Acts 17:30-31 (ESV)
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Whether to gentile or Jew, the apostolic message is of a risen and reigning Christ – ‘this Jesus whom you crucified has become both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36).  Christ, in the Spirit, is established as God’s King.  He is exalted at the right hand of the God (Acts 2:33), the Majesty on high  (Hebs 1), given a name that is above every name (Phils 2), declared to be ‘Lord’ (Phils 2:9), and God’s anointed King-Son (Hebs 1; Ps 2), to whom every knee must bow (Phils 2:10) and whose enemies will become the footstool of his feet (Hebs 1:13).  For Christ, the new realm is one of reigning and ruling.  It is a realm where ‘all authority is given to him‘ (Matt 28).  Thus it is a realm of power, power which he wields on behalf of his people (Eph 1:19-22).

Christ in the Spirit lives in the sphere of life.  Of course, while alive on earth, he had ‘life in himself‘.  Yet he had a human body that could die.  It subjected himself to the limitations of ‘flesh’.  Resurrection materially changed all this.  He entered as mediator a new realm of ‘life’.  While he is still physical, with a human body (Lk 24:39), its composition is different (cf 1 Cor 15:39).  We can do no better than use the language of Scripture to describe this new life.  Hebrews tells us he now lives  in the ‘power of an indestructible life‘ (Hebs 7:16).  He is no longer able to die.  He died to sin once for all while in the flesh but now he lives to God and death has no hold on him; he will never die again (Roms 6:8-10).  The reasoning of Roms 6 is simple: Christ lives in a new realm where these old malevolent powers of sin and death have no power.  He is in heaven, no longer facing testings and temptations.  He no longer inhabits this polluted world but lives continuously in the presence of God  ‘holy, harmless and undefiled, separate from sinners, exalted above the heavens’ (Hebs 7:26).  Thus, he is not a priest in weakness, distracted by the difficulties of life in a fallen world, but a priest ever living making undistracted intercession (Hebs 7).  His is not a body of humiliation, weak and susceptible,  but a ‘body of glory‘ (Phils 3:21).  He exists no longer in weakness but power (2 Cor 13:14; Cf. 1 Cor 15:42).

Christ once lived in the old age with its powers and conquered and overthrew them.  He is now ‘perfected‘, and perfected ‘forever‘ (Hebs 7:28).  However, Christ’s victory in the old world and the consequence of it, life in the new world of the Spirit, was not for him alone.  It was for us.  He was the seed that must die to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24).  He became ‘flesh’ that he might deliver us, through the death of flesh, from the realm of ‘flesh’ and bring us with him into the realm of ‘Spirit’, to what Paul calls, the ‘glorious freedom of sons of God‘ (Roms 8:21).  He is, in resurrection, ‘the beginning, God’s firstborn from among the dead’ (Col 1:18).

Herman Ridderbos, in his, ‘Paul: an Outline of his Theology’, writes,

“As the Firstborn among the many … Christ not only occupies a
special place and dignity, but he also goes before them, he opens up the way for them,
he joins their future to his own. … In him the resurrection of the dead dawns, his
resurrection represents the commencement of the new world of God.”

To begin to grasp the implications of this is to begin to grasp the gospel; we begin to grasp the implications of this Easter Sunday. In the words of N T Wright,

“With Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation.”

In future blogs we will examine what it means for Christians to be no longer  in ‘the flesh’ but in ‘the Spirit’.


flesh and spirit in romans, and beyond (1)

We cannot properly understand Romans until we learn  it describes two realms of existence.  In fact, the Christian gospel, which is of course the theme of Romans, has not been truly grasped until it is seen as the story of two distinct and deeply different worlds.

Different images are used in the Bible to describe this distinction: nature and grace; natural and spiritual; old man and new man; Adam and Christ; ‘in Adam’ and ‘in Christ'; and especially, creation and new creation.  Romans does not use the more absolute and dramatic language of ‘new creation’ (Gals 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17) but does develop another way of saying pretty much the same; it speaks of  ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’.  This distinction is first mooted in the opening verses of the book.

Rom 1:1-4 (ESV)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit
of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

This text is clearly significant.  Paul signals, right at the outset of Romans, in this compressed summary of the gospel, that it centres on Christ and his two stages of humanity, flesh and Spirit.  By ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, Paul is is not referring to Christ as he is essentially, that is, in his hypostatic union of humanity and deity, nor is he referring to Christ anthropologically, that is, psychosomatically, in his human composition as body and soul, rather he is referring to Christ redemptive-historically, that is, in his two spheres of existence as incarnate ‘Messianic-Son’, namely, his humiliation and exaltation; before resurrection, Christ is Son ‘according to the flesh‘ and upon resurrection, he is Son ‘according to the Spirit‘.

If we are to make any sense of the flesh/Spirit divide so important to Paul (and other NT writers) we must first consider it as Romans does, that is, Christologically, in terms of  Jesus.

Christ ‘in the flesh’

In doing so, however, a complication must be addressed.  For the distinction between old creation and new creation that applies to us does not apply in direct parallel with Christ. The parallel exists, but only with qualifications and contrast (rather like Roms 5:12-21).

  • Firstly, in one profoundly important sense, Christ was from incarnation ‘new creation’.  He was always, not ‘Adam’ but ‘Christ’ (Roms 5), not ‘the First Man’ but ‘the Second Man’ (1 Cor 15:47).
  • Secondly, although he came as the First of a New Creation he was also truly ‘ in the flesh’ (Jn 1:4; 6:51; Roms 8:3; 9:5; 2 Cor 5;16; Col 1:22; Hebs 2:14; 5:7; 10:20; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 Jn 4:2).  In a very real sense he was our ‘flesh and blood’.
  • Thirdly, he was not ‘flesh’ in precisely the way we are.

‘Flesh’ in Scripture can convey a number of ideas.  Two are especially important.  One conveys the idea simply of being part of the first creation even in its primal state.  Animal and human life is simply ‘flesh’ (Gen 2:21; 1 Cor 15:39).  In this sense it conveys the weakness and frailty of humanity, whether living in Eden or beyond Eden (Ps 78:39; Roms 6:19).  However, ‘flesh’ often conveys the idea of fallen and rebellious humanity, humanity in opposition to God and under the power of sin, Satan, and death.  Christ became ‘flesh’ in the first sense but not in the second sense (though, as we shall, see even here some qualifications must be made).

Thus, although Christ is from incarnation God’s new creation humanity, ‘The Second Man, the Lord from Heaven’, yet he entered truly into our first creation humanity.  Scripture establishes this in a number of ways.  He is,  ‘the seed of the woman‘ (Gen 3:15) who ‘takes hold of the seed of Abraham‘ (Hebs 4:16), and is ‘born of a woman‘ and ‘under the Law‘ (Gals 4:4).  Significantly, we discover in each text cited he embraces our humanity that he may save humanity.  He became ‘the seed of the woman‘ that he may ‘bruise the head of the serpent’, that is, that he may overthrow Satan (Gen 3:15).  He lays ‘hold of the seed of Abraham’ for the same reason.

Heb 2:14-17 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

He must identify with us if he is to deliver us.  And so he was born of a woman and under the Law to ‘redeem those who were under the law and all their lives subject to bondage’ (Gals 4:4,5). Scripture therefore takes great care to affirm that he was really part of our humanity – his body would weary, his mind tire and be troubled, and his emotions be in turmoil.  He even subjected himself  in some ways to the powers and authorities that rule ‘flesh’ – he lived in a world where the power of Satan, sin, death, and Law were active all around.  In various ways these impinged on him  – in temptation, weariness, opposition,  suffering, submission as a Jew to the Law, and finally submission to sin and death in the sense that he became sin and entered death (Roms 6:9,10; 2 Cor 5:21).   Yet, he was himself ‘without sin‘ (Hebs 4;14) and ‘knew no sin‘ (2 Cor 5:21).  Romans 8 sums up the ambiguity of the mediator’s ‘flesh’ well

Rom 8:3 (ESV)
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. (Cf Phil 2:7,8)

Notice again, his identification with us in ‘flesh’ is redemptive in aim.  Christ came in flesh, yet not sinful flesh, that in flesh, his crucified flesh, ”sin in the flesh’, may be condemned and die.  This is the profound mystery of the incarnation.  God’s Son, Israel’s  promised ‘seed of David’, the Mighty Warrior-King destined to destroy God’s and his people’s enemies came in flesh.  Yet the enemies he must destroy were far greater than Israel ever imagined; the greatest enemy was not outside the people, it was inside the people, it was the people itself.

‘Flesh’ itself, was the enemy that must be eliminated, the rebel that must be executed.  ‘Flesh’ must die for only in its death and the death of the old order of which it was an integral part was salvation possible.  And in Christ, that is precisely what happened.  He became real flesh, the only righteous flesh, that he may in death represent flesh, rebellious flesh, and so revoke flesh.  In his death the history of ‘flesh’ is finished.  But it is finished that a better humanity, a better life, and a better world may be born.  A world, humanity and life existing not in the weak realm of ‘flesh’ but in the powerful realm of ‘Spirit’.  Romans 1:3,4 is compressed further and echoed in the words of 2 Corinthians and of 1 Peter

2Cor 13:4 (ESV)
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.

1Pet 3:18 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.

Death is the transition of Christ from humiliation to exaltation, from flesh to Spirit, from weakness to power.  The two biblical realms of existence, ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ find their bridge in Christ.  In flesh, incarnation, he came down to where we are in our weakness and death; in Spirit, resurrection and exaltation, he raises us to where he is in power and life.

And that is the subject of the next blog on this topic.

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


Site Posts

August 2014
« Jun    

Recent Comments

Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Don J Chiechi on an apology…
Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Don J Chiechi on an apology…
Follow Cave Adullam on


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers