A Good Friday Poem

Come gather with me, brothers dear

I’ve longed to sit and dine

To eat my final Passover

With you I own as mine

My time, at last, is now at hand

And though I’ve told you so

I know you do not comprehend

The means by which I’ll go

The truth, so hard for you to hear

Is, one of you this night

Betrays me to my enemies

And then will take your flight

Each one, not knowing what this meant

Asked, Lord, could it be me?

The hand that dipped the dish with mine

He said, that one is he

Then Judas pressing further asked

Rabbi, am I the one?

And Jesus said, “it’s as you say”

The treason had begun

‘Tis then that Jesus took the bread

And broke it as He blessed

Take eat, this is my flesh

For you – He this confessed

And then He took the cup to Him

And giving thanks He said

This is My blood I give for you

For sin’s remission shed

Now do these in rememb’ring me

When I am gone from here

For I’ll have nothing more until

The Kingdom does appear

Then going out they sang a hymn

And to the Garden came

Where Christ in prayer so agonized

In unimagined pain

He prayed the cup might pass from Him

Three times, He cried it still

But more, He prayed – not as I wish

My Father, as you will

He prayed till angels strengthened Him

And heavenly succor came

Then prayed His own the Father keep

In God’s own holy name

Until at last the traitor came

With those who take by might

Betraying Jesus with his kiss

They bound Him in the night

And to the High Priest’s mocking courts

They dragged and beat and spit

Brought forth their lying witnesses

Whose stories did not fit

Then off to Pilate’s judgment hall

They dragged Him in disgrace

And pled to have Him crucified

The Lord and King of grace

Then sent to Herod’s gawking gaze

He stood, but gave no speech

Thus Herod sent Him back again

For Pilate to impeach

The spineless Pilate caving in

And care-less, gave the word

To let the brutal torturers

Perform what Christ endured

More mocking still and agonies

He suffered at their hands

Their wicked taunts to prophesy

And jump to their commands

No mercy pleas escaped His lips

Not one condemning cry

He suffered as deserving all

In willingness to die

Not one defense He offered up

As Calvary’s path He trod

No murmuring, no loud complaint

Just yielding to His God

Then on the cross, His seven words

Forgive them, they don’t know

And to the thief, today with Me

To paradise we’ll go

To Mary said: Behold your Son

John, make her your mother

Then: Father, you’ve forsaken me

More grief than any other

I thirst: He cried, in agony

It’s finished, then, He said

Gave up His spirit to His God

In death, then hung His head

But why no claims of innocence?

No word to change His fate

No syllable of self-defense

To set the record straight

Because, He took our guilt Himself

He bore it as His own

Though perfect in His righteousness

No sin had ever known

He willingly stood in my place

And took what I was due

And if by faith you trust His work

His blood redeems you too

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Romans Commentary, Romans 6:1-8:39

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

To download the first half of the commentary as a pdf, click here Shogren_Romans 1-8 Commentary

IV. The Miraculous New Life in Christ (6:1-8:39)

Ask citizens of the Majority World, “What is the main human dilemma?” and they might respond with legitimate concerns: economic inequality, or perhaps corruption, political oppression, lack of education, destruction of the environment. But according to Romans 1-5, our most basic and universal and intractable predicament is that we all, Jew or Gentile, are cut off from God through deliberate or even unconscious rebellion, meriting his anger. The only solution is forgiveness and reconciliation, freely offered through Christ. All other issues are secondary, all further discussion mere commentary.

“While Romans 5 speaks of this new life as a life of peace with God, Romans 6 speaks of it as a life free from the dominion of sin” (Cevallos y Zorzolli, p. 114, our translation). Paul begins with the question of whether Christians should go on enjoying sin, since God is going to forgive them anyway. Of course not, he retorts: God demands righteousness of his people, and Christ died to destroy sin, not simply conceal it. But Paul does not simply tell them to drop their old behavior. Rather he shows how they are transformed into a new breed of humanity, freed from sin, death and the law of God.

The reader of Romans may be helped by using the word “Torah” instead of “law”; some Jews prefer to translate it with the less negative term, “instruction”. Judaism affirmed that God had graciously redeemed Israel and then handed down his Torah from the mountain. Like the Hellenistic Jews, Paul translated Torah as nomos, which is usually rendered in English as “law”. It has always said that the law was not a burden, but a delight: “the law of the Lord is perfect…by [it’s rules] your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps 19:7, 11). But Paul has already proved that not even Israel was helped by the Torah. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10); “all have sinned” and for that reason “fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

The Jews believed in God’s grace, but they minimized its role, placing much confidence in their membership in the covenant and their ability to follow the instructions of the Torah. “It is not that anyone [in Judaism] said, ‘Righteousness is by law and not by grace’; no one posed grace and law as alternatives; rather they saw law as the gift of grace. It was Paul who posed them as alternatives…” (Dunn, p. 1.326). For his part, Paul teaches that salvation is wholly by God’s grace by faith, apart from Torah observance. If not wholly by grace, salvation is not by grace at all; if it is not equally available to a non-Torah observant Christian, then the gospel is not powerful to save anyone, and we should be ashamed to believe in it (Rom 1:16).

Practical Thought: People, in and of themselves, cannot live according to God’s will. We must be changed from the inside out, as we see in this parable:

“God wants you to fly!” you say to a fish. He races to the surface, but at best he might leap out of the water by a few centimeters. “But, but…God’s Book says you must do it!” you implore. “Simply flap, quickly, and don’t stop!” The fish can only stare back at you, befuddled. It is not in his nature to fly, and it doesn’t matter whether he attends weekly lessons or even memorizes verses about the importance of air travel.

This illustrates why Paul had little patience for those who looked to the law of Moses to make people spiritually successful. What matters is having the Spirit and being one with Christ.

People apart from Christ have the old self or old nature (6:6), which is also called life in “the flesh”. When a person comes to faith in Christ, he or she is not simply forgiven, but identified with Jesus so much so that they are a new creation in their way of feeling, thinking and acting. To extend our metaphor further, instead of teaching a fish to fly, God takes a fish and transforms it into a bird. We may still look the same; in fact, I have known a Christian whose unsaved twin brother looked just like him, but inside the men were entirely different beings.

A. In Christ we are dead to sin, to death, to the Torah (6:1-7:6)

6:1-10

Shall we keep sinning, since “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (5:20)? No! In 6:2, the apostle uses the phrase “By no means!” or “absolutely not!” (in Greek, mē genoito; in this section see 6:15, 7:7, 7:13). There have always been those who want to obtain forgiveness from God and go on living any way they pleased; such a “gospel” is an abomination (see too 2 Pet 2:1-3). In fact, the Christian has had the power and the responsibility to refuse to sin since the moment of the new birth. In other passages, Paul uses the word “sanctify”; in his vocabulary it usually means a once and for all experience when we received Christ: already “you were sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11). If we are united with Christ, and if he died, was buried, and lives again, then we too in an instant died to the old life and were resurrected to the new one. Paul does not say we should “act as if” or “pretend” that this is true. It is a fact that in our deepest beings we are dead to sin’s power and enabled to live in righteousness, to the extent, of course, that we depend on God in faith.

When we are baptized (vv. 3-4), we are told that we have died to sin and are raised to a new life. But the baptism that transforms us is not just the contact of our bodies with water; rather, it is the invisible inner baptism or immersion of our beings into Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion, even before we approach the water of baptism (Cranfield, pp. 1.301-302; contra Stott). As Paul says elsewhere, “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Cor 12:13a). And baptism reminds of that we have the hope of the future resurrection when Christ returns (Rom 6:5; see v. 8).

The majority of Roman Christians were slaves or had been slaves, and so beginning in v. 6 the apostle gives an illustration that tapped into their life experience. Before Christ, sin was our slave master, and we had to do whatever he demandeds. But in real life, some slaves receive freedom: some because their masters set them free, but others – and this is relevant here – because once a slave died the master no longer had authority over him. Thus, a Christian is no longer the slave to sin, since he or she has on a fundamental level escaped its authority. When sin issues his commands, the believer can hold his ground and say No.

But this is only the first half of the truth, since if we are united to Christ we are alive before God (vv. 4, 10). “…the Apostle does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he had said that the death of Christ is a pattern which all Christians are to follow; for no doubt he ascends higher… [Rather, Paul teaches that] the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh” (Calvin, p. 221). For his part, Jesus used the term “born again” (John 3:3) and “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5; see 1 Pet 1:3); in another place Paul says that the believer is a “new creation” or creature (2 Cor 5:17). Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and this we will experience only when he returns again to earth: we will live (future tense) with him (Rom 6:8; also 8:11; 1 Cor 15:22; see 2 Tim 2:11 – “If we died with him, we will also live with him”; all of these refer to the End Times). Meanwhile in this life we will be sick, grow old, die; and also wrestle daily against sin.

Some theologians believe that Paul borrowed this idea of union with Christ from the “mystery religions” of his day. These were cults that promised that the initiate would die and be reborn with some pagan deity. But these groups did not believe in resurrection in the Bible sense and probably did not affect Paul’s language of union with Christ (see especially Cranfield, p. 1.301).

Special Note: the Victorious Life. It is typical of false sects that they ignore some part or another of passage, and so they fail to live the life that God expects. The legalist believes that we need more, stricter rules in order to live a victorious life. But we know that this doesn’t happen, that mountains of laws don’t make our citizens better people, just as a command to fly does not transform a fish into a bird. In the country where I live there is a fine if people throw trash on the street – but just yesterday I saw a man open a package and throw the plastic wrapper on the ground: the law instructed him and there was a slight possibility that he might receive a fine, but the law did not – could not – transform him. In the gospel, the believer must start with the facts of his new nature and only then through daily faith in Christ begin to taste spiritual victory.

Other groups have gone astray by focusing too much on the new nature and forgetting that life is still a battle against sin. They say that they are resurrected to a new life and therefore they are perfect (see 1 John 1:8-10; perhaps also 2 Tim 2:18). So taught the heresy Gnosticism in the 2nd century and beyond, a movement that is again popular in Europe and in South America. They believed that the spiritual resurrection at the point of conversion was the single and final event, and thus all Gnostics are already made perfect. But not even Paul had reached this stage! “So, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal” (Phil 3:11-12). One theologian reminds us that “it would be a bad misinterpretation of Paul to think that the believer is thereby removed from all contact of influence with the old realm of sin. While belonging to a new realm, the believer brings with him into it many of the impulses, habits, and tendencies of the old life…” (Moo, p. 352).

6:11-14

But the story is not finished; Christians must act on the truth! Paul now uses imperative verbs, “commands”. The phrase “count yourselves” (v. 11) must be handled with great care. The verb logizomai (“consider, reckon, count”) appears 19 times in this epistle. It was critically important in Romans 4:3, where God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith. Paul does not ask the Romans to pretend that they are dead to sin, or act as if this pleasing narrative were so; his point is that believers must remember, take into account, and act upon what is already true, that already they are “dead to sin to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

What are our new abilities? The believer is able, with God’s power, to say no to sin. Sin still orders us to obey its “desires” (6:12), and scowls and shouts and persuades, but he is a pretender and has no right or power to tell us how to live. Paul speaks of our body parts as instruments (or tools or weapons; the word is used in 13:12, but with a different sense). Christians might surrender their mouth, or hands, or feet or other parts for sin to use, but they don’t have to do so; and they must take decisive steps not to. This is why Paul later issues commands to the Romans that they live in righteousness: beginning in Romans 12:1-2 he will show how the Christian must engage in specific behaviors.

Paul then concludes in v. 14 with an idea that he had hinted at earlier in the epistle, that by faith in Christ one may be totally acceptable before God without obeying the Torah, since “you are not under the law” (see comments on 7:6). Abraham not only had no law, but he was an uncircumcised Gentile when he was declared right with God! The same is true for Gentile Christians, whether in 1st-century Rome or elsewhere.

One school of thought is that Paul is speaking in this section only about certain ritual laws, such as circumcision and food regulations. That cannot be so; firstly, because the Scripture does not distinguish between moral and ritual law; nor for that matter, does it distinguish between the law of God and the law of Moses. “Law” means any and every commandment. Secondly, in Romans the apostle cites six of the Ten Commandments as examples of the law: stealing, murder, idolatry (2:21-24), adultery (2:22, 7:7-11), Sabbath (14:5), plus provoking others to take God’s name in vain (2:24).

The believer can and must live righteously, not because he focuses on the law, but because in his new nature – and through the Spirit enlightening him in his reading of the Scriptures – he will know what is God’s true path: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Rom 2:14-15). They will love others because God has taught them to do so from within his being, a supernatural fulfillment of what is written in the Word (Rom 12:9-21; 13:8-10; especially 1 Thess 4:9-10).

Torah-observant legalists come in many forms. One might say, You have to obey the laws of Moses in order to become right with God. And oh, yes, you have to believe in Jesus too. Such words should leave us aghast. Believe in Jesus too? May we be delivered from such a weak and watery gospel. It is salvation is by Jesus, period, or it is not the true gospel.

Another might insist that even Gentile believers obey the 613 commands of the Torah, which include rules about the sowing of two plants in a garden (Deut 22:9); blended fabrics (Deut 22:11); and putting tassels on the fringe of one’s robes (Deut 22:12); among many others. Or someone will say that, You don’t have to obey rules such as this, but you do have to obey the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts and you have to adopt Hebrew names – as if some 21st century “rabbi” had the power to add to or take away from how we might obey God’s Torah! An especially pernicious form of legalism says, Of course you cannot earn salvation by works; nevertheless, the truly committed follow of Jesus will gain sanctification only if he or she follows the hundreds of laws of Moses.

“Saved by grace, sanctified by works” is a heresy, a silly attempt to get good credit before God or to obtain his power through good deeds, which are, after all, works of the flesh. Our continuing growth in the Lord is, like justification, an act of faith.

Yet, Paul did not teach that we should have faith in Jesus and then do nothing. He said that we should take decisive, righteous action, seeking the power of God to make right choices, weed out bad attitudes, curb wrong behavior.

Some Christians state their philosophy thus: “Well, we shouldn’t be too legalistic; and of course, we shouldn’t be unprincipled. No, the middle of the road is where we should walk!” This “balanced” viewpoint too is alien to the gospel. Submitting ourselves to God is an absolute command, akin to Jesus saying that “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39) or to take up one’s cross to follow him (Matt 10:38). It is nothing less than a full daily surrender, a life of faith and repentance (Rom 2:4).

6:15-23

Paul regularly heard this attack from his theological enemies: Isn’t it true that once you tell Gentiles that they are free from the law, then they will run amok in idolatry, sex and cruelty? And now he asks a similar question of the Romans (v. 15): Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Not at all! For life under God’s gracious rule is a life of justice.

On the other side, he warns that a Christian, who in fact is free from sin and Torah, could make a choice to obey sin (vv. 16-22). And by that act of voluntary submission, the Christian in effect makes sin his master once again, since you are slaves of the one you obey. Turn back and follow sin, and you will place yourself on the road to death. But Paul reiterates that this is a choice that goes against nature, since they truly are liberated from sin and slaves of righteousness. The believer must decisively follow one path or another, since he can serve only one of two masters (Luke 16:13a). The believer must surrender herself as the slave of God (v. 22). This surrender is not a once-and-for-all decision (see our comments on Rom 12:1); it is a way of life which must be daily embraced.

The life of sin leads to predictable “wages”, eternal death (v. 23), which is the resurrection unto judgment. If a person, transformed by God, lives in righteousness, he receives eternal life, not as a payment, but as a “gift”.

Eternal life in the language of John’s gospel is a gift that a person receives in this life (“whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” that is, has it already; John 3:36). Yet the phrase in other authors, including Paul, means the eternal life we will receive when Jesus returns; it is the “life of the final resurrection” (Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23). Christians are being led to that future life. We can paraphrase the end of 6:23 that God’s gift to us, purely of grace, is that he will include us in the resurrection at Jesus’ return.

Every believer, at some time, even frequently, follows temptation into sin, even though technically he does not have to do so. One who falls regularly becomes what the Bible calls a person of “double-minded” or “indecisive or inconstant” (James 1:8; 4:8). Christians who do not repent might even fall into addictive sin.

7:1-6

Paul now develops the theme that he began in 6:14 but then left to one side: believers in Jesus are no longer obligated to obey the law. This was a supremely controversial position to take. In fact, we will see in 7:7-25 that Paul had to defend himself against the charge of apostasy from the Torah.

He speaks to his brothers and sisters. The underlying Greek term, adelphoi, is grammatically masculine, but means “brothers and sisters” (in this section 7:4, 8:12; see also 8:29). The apostle sometimes uses it to attract the attention of his hearers after a long section and to take them into fresh territory. “Those who know the law” might be all his Roman readers, but perhaps he is hinting that he will once again speak to an imaginary synagogue audience, as he did in 1:18ff.

“The law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives.” People who have died to sin and to death have also died to the Torah. In vv. 2-3, he uses the example of a husband and wife to show that death severs the authority of the law, once one party is dead.

While I was working on this commentary, there was a bad accident in front of my office – a man illegally ran across a busy highway, was hit by a truck and killed instantly. I went outside and saw that the victim lay on the street under a covering. For two grisly hours he remained there as the police arrived and closed the road; took the testimony of witnesses; interrogated the truck driver; and finally cleaned up. I noticed that one thing they did not do was issue a ticket to the pedestrian, even though he had broken the law. Dead to all, he was “free” from the law, no longer obligated to it.

In Judaism, once an Israelite died, he no longer had to concern himself with the Torah’s instructions on dress, food, sacred days. And those who have died to the law are free to be “married to” or in allegiance with a new master, Christ (7:4). And it is only through union with the dead and resurrected Christ that we are able to bear righteous fruit, fruit we cannot begin to manufacture on our own “in the flesh.”

Paul contrasts the flesh and the Spirit frequently in Romans, and even more in Galatians. Great care must be taken to define the word “flesh” (Greek sarx) in 7:5 and throughout the following chapters. Sometimes Paul uses the word to refer to the physical aspect of our being (1 Cor 15:39; 2 Cor 7:1). Now, if Paul had been a Greek philosopher, a Platonist, he might have believed that the physical body was morally weak and mortal, but that the inner spirit was good. Lust and anger and jealousy come about because we are bodily creatures. In that case, death would be a relief, since the pure spirit would ascend to the heavens and leave its physical vessel behind. But Paul was no Platonist; he had been trained in the truth of Genesis, which says that God created human beings to have a physical body and that it was “very good” (Gen 1:31).

A better understanding of “flesh” is that Paul is thinking of human nature since the fall of Adam (Rom 5:12). Two descriptors characterize the human race in this age, apart from the grace of God: first, it is sinful, and the NVI translates sarx as “sinful nature”. Second, it is powerless to do righteousness; for that reason, the Spanish version, the TLA renders 7:5 (“when we were in the realm of the flesh”) as “vivíamos sin poder” – “we lived without power.” “Flesh” in this sense could be expressed thus: humanity that by its nature consistently and willfully rebels against God, and that couldn’t obey God even if it wanted to. This latter half is the key truth in Romans 7-8 – people can serve God only because God transforms them by the Spirit. Still, Christians must ever wrestle against the “flesh” while in this life: “If ‘flesh’ means unregenerate human nature, the believer still possesses this nature, even though she or he has received the Spirit” (Ladd, p. 515).

In Christ, the believer is not subject to the law (7:1 NIV has it as “the law has authority over someone”), and not called to obey it (v. 6). For some, this verse makes no sense, and one pseudo-“messianic” translation (the Spanish language Versión Israelita Nazarena) adds words in brackets that completely distort Paul’s meaning: “but now that we have died from [the condemnation of] the law” (our rendering in English). This same version alters the Bible in the same way in 6:14-15, and completely rewrites the point of 7:5. But Paul is not speaking of condemnation, but of the obligation to obey Torah. Another (the Código Real New Testament, our rendering in English) states that we have died to the “legalistic obedience of the law”, as if Paul were saying we must obey the law but only with a sweeter attitude. This of course makes nonsense of the text. Others will say that even though you are not saved by the law or oppressed or condemned by it, you should still obey God by following the ancient code. Or, as this same “messianic rabbi” expresses it:

The impossibility of the law is due to the fact that [the law] is not functioning in that person who is not tied to it in a covenant relationship, like the marriage covenant, for example, which is the figure that Paul uses in this context. In order for the law to be functioning, the sinful nature, here represented as a cruel and despotic master and husband, has to be taken away, so that the inner man, the divine soul that is spiritual, might be united to the divine law that is likewise spiritual. (El Código Real, p. 301, our rendering into English).

To paraphrase, the author is saying that it is impossible to obey the law unless you are fully committed to do so by accepting the covenant of Moses in the inner person and trying hard to obey. But this is nothing but double-talk, reading a Bible text that says no-one can obey the Torah, no matter how hard they try, and explaining it to mean that, Oh but, yes you can, so long as you try really, really hard.

Paul will have none of that: his point is that, if you try to serve God through Torah-piety, you will find yourself growing more weak within and less righteous in deed. His point goes against intuition, which says that having more rules and putting forth more effort to obey those rules will make you a better person. In fact, it makes you a worse person! The Torah does not kill “sinful passions” (7:5); it awakens and arouses them, and the more we try the more we fail. To the extent that Christians make themselves servants of the Torah or some other set of rules, to that extent does fleshly religion push grace out of their lives.

The Christian life is by the Spirit, and not by the written law of Moses (v. 6b); the NIV is right to capitalize the word Spirit here, since it is the Holy Spirit he speaks of, not some inner part of the person. He has said something similar in 2:29, that the true circumcision is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” A related verse is the famous 2 Cor 3:6 – “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This last verse has been terribly twisted in our day to mean something like “Don’t quote Bible verses at me, I will do what I feel the Spirit is telling me!” In none of these verses is this the idea: rather, they all deal with the New Covenant and the victory we have over sin by the Spirit, not by Torah-observance.

Legalists love to compose lists of rules. An always popular category is women’s clothing; one North American website has a long list – this kind of blouse, yes; this kind of swimsuit, no; this many inches here, this many there, a bit less of this, a bit more of that. Oh and, of course, these lists are always labeled with the warning, “Now we’re not being legalistic!” Some Latina friends of mine have been refused communion because the usher who was distributing it saw that they were wearing nail polish and were thus clearly not in fellowship with God. The clothing from the men’s wardrobe, of course, rarely comes under such close scrutiny.

Legalists also love to believe that their rules are universal; to go back to clothing again, I once saw one pastor who had his wife stand in front of the congregation; at that point he implied that her outfit from the (I am relatively sure) 1980s was God’s style for all women in every time and place. By nature, the legalists tend to be inflexible; confident in self; competitive; condemning of others; but to their great surprise, also frustrated at the paltry harvest of their own spiritual growth. In short, they are just what Paul meant by the word “carnal.”

Carnal behavior cannot be limited to, for example, sexual sins or permissive attitudes. For believers living “by the flesh” are those who may be making a massive effort to please God, but doing it their own way and in their own power. Thus, a Christian who, let us say, commits fornication is “fleshly,” but so is the Christian who makes every effort to obey the Torah, following his or her own strength. This is what was happening in Galatia, and that is why Paul says that the legalists themselves were producing works of the flesh and not fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-23 as read in its context).

Woe to us if we water down the words “dead to the law”, turning them into something that Paul never intended. There are people who say, Yes, we’re dead to the Torah, but we still have to obey it. That is not what the apostle wrote, but rather, given that we are released from Torah, we do not have to obey it. What could be clearer? And so while believers should carefully study the Old Testament, through the guidance of the Spirit, they are not obligated to follow its hundreds of laws; if they try to do so, they are guaranteed to make themselves ever more feeble and discouraged.

A Spirit believer focuses on love for God and love for others. This doesn’t mean we are warm and childlike personalities who go out and do whatever feels right. It does mean that love is the supreme judge of all rules, behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, goals. We will deal with this in detail in Romans 13.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the most important thing that God wants for your life in Christ?
  2. Believers are dead to sin’s power, but they can still yield themselves to its mastery. What are some ways you are returning to King Sin to obey him?
  3. Who in your life is giving you rules to follow that are not warranted by the Bible? How have they affected your standard of living in Christ – are you more successful or less? And why?

B. Paul is not an Apostate! (7:7-25)

7:7-13

Some take this paragraph to be a description of Paul’s own experience at his Bar Mitzvah, when he was recognized as an adult in Israel, personally responsible to follow the Torah. Nevertheless, it better to take it, along with 7:14-25, as a general description of life in the Old Covenant. Paul shows that even if a person knows the law, it makes no difference in their behavior.

In v. 7b he uses the 10th commandment as an example: “You shall not covet”. What effect does that law have? The hearer understands that coveting is wrong before God. But that is all the positive help it can give; the person remains the same.

But let’s go further, says the apostle. That commandment not only does not help, it makes matters worse. It awakes in the hearer all kinds of coveting (v. 8). For example: if I tell you not to think of a giraffe, you know that it will be impossible not to picture one. Likewise, tell an unregenerate to not covet, and all of a sudden that’s what they think of doing. So, Paul says, I was doing well before I heard the 10th commandment (v. 10), but when someone reads it to me “I died” spiritually.

How can the perfect law leave a person spiritually dead? Paul does not want the reader to think that he finds fault with the law, even thought he believes that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (v. 10). The problem is with the sinful human nature.

Paul has already said in 5:12 that when Adam fell, it left the human race estranged from God and unable to obey him. Despite the differences between them, Calvinists, Arminians, Roman Catholics and some other theologies (but not Pelagianism) parts company with Judaism on this point. The rabbis for over 2000 years have taught that Adam’s Fall affected only him; he gave us a bad example to follow, but we are still free to choose to obey God’s commands, if we try really hard. An example from the 1st century AD –

And not only over the fiery passion of sexual desire does reason evidently exercise control, but over all desire. For the Law says, You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or anything that is your neighbor’s. Surely then, since the Law tells us not to covet, I should the much more readily persuade you that reason has the power to control the desires. (4 Mac 2:4-6a [Charlesworth], emphasis added).

Sometimes the apostles are in agreement with rabbinic teaching (as in Rom 1:18-32), sometimes no. In this case, Paul firmly rejects his background: Judaism says that you can obey God if you want, so the Jews should just go ahead and do so; in Paul’s gospel, you cannot obey God, even if you know his law, and so we need God to transform us by the new birth.

7:14-25

One of the most controversial passages in Paul’s letters is this section about the Wretched Man (see the overview in Cranfield, pp. 1.342-47). Some say that it is about the regenerate person’s struggles (Augustine, Calvin, Hodge, Barth, Cranfield, Dunn, Cevallos y Zorzolli; some take it as the struggles specifically of an immature Christian). Others that it is about the life of the unregenerate (Wesley, Käsemann, Wilckens, Fitzmyer, Moo). Within these two camps are further divisions, for example, that this is autobiographical and describes Paul’s struggles, either before he met Christ or after.

In favor of the “regenerate” viewpoint, the man delights in the law and wants to do the good; and “not so does Paul describe the unregenerate man” (Cranfield, p. 1.346). But Paul in fact already has said that the Israelite apart from Christ delights to find God’s will in the Torah (2:17-20), that he wants to obey it, but does not (see 2:21-24). Word for word, this is precisely the dilemma of the Wretched Man.

Great care must be taken, because many read the passage and exclaim, “This describes me exactly!” and decide that it is a narrative of the Christian life, similar to Galatians 5:16-18, this despite the fact that Galatians assumes we can obey God, while Romans 7 leaves zero hope for victory. So, what was the original intention of this story?

  1. He is a slave to sin (v. 14), literally, “sold as a slave to sin.” Many commentators state that this is an appropriate label for a Christian; they are mistaken. This enslavement is not simply the possibility of sin; rather, traditionally it was a label for an unbeliever and apostate. 1 Kings 21:20 (the Greek form Paul uses is found in 3 Kingdoms 21:20 LXX; see 1 Mac 1:15, below): “you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Remember that apart from Christ, people are slaves of sin (6:13-14) and set free when they come to Christ (6:11). Thus, it means: “I am an unbeliever, apart from God, a slave to sin!”
  2. He loves the Torah (7:14, 16, 22, 25). While this might seem to describe a believer in Christ, in fact Paul has already shown that Israel would like to obey the law but cannot (2:17-24); contrast the positive outcome of the Christian life: “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us” (8:4).
  3. He hopes in vain for victory (7:15-20); not that, he doesn’t always have victory over sin, but rather he never has victory. Spiritually he is 100% a loser.
  4. He is by nature completely “carnal” (7:14) or as the NIV has it, “unspiritual”. This too is the language of an unsaved person, see under 7:5.
  5. He makes no reference to the Spirit in his life. This silence is significant, since life in Christ is fundamentally life in the Spirit (8:3b-4).
  6. 25a is an interruption of this man’s lament; it is as if Paul could not stop himself from pointing to Christ as the solution of his problems, the answer he will develop in 8:2, that “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” But in the end, he goes back to the dark, hopeless conclusion. The experience seems to be that of an Israelite apart from Christ, similar to what Paul has already shown in Romans 2 that they will be defeated by sin if they do not receive the gospel.

Beginning in 8:1 Paul will give a description of the Christian life, which is a life of victory in the Spirit. So, what is he trying to prove in 7:7-25?

First, this is the sort of material that he might have preached in a synagogue, to those who “know the law” (7:1). His point would be that Jews as well as Gentiles needed to turn to Christ in faith if they want to live in righteousness.

Second, he is demonstrating to the Roman church once again that the gospel is a universal message. Just as Gentiles cannot live apart from Christ, so the Jews cannot. Paul is trying to create excitement for his mission to Spain, where he will evangelize all people. May no Roman claim that the gospel of Christ is for Gentiles only!

Third, he is defending himself against possible charges that he is an apostate from Israel. In fact, just months after writing this epistle, he would go to Jerusalem and be charged, “you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (Acts 21:21). For a Jew, this was the gravest possible sin. After all, two centuries earlier the Maccabees had fought against the apostate Jews who “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14-15 NRSV; the festival of Hanukkah commemorates this Maccabean revolt). The rabbis taught that the one who denies that the Torah comes down from heaven “has no share in the world to come” (m. San 10.1 [Neusner]).

Stephen had been killed because of the accusation of defection from Israel (Acts 6:11-14). Is Paul a possible apostate too, one who teaches that the law is sinful (7:7)? Absolutely not! His point is that the law of God cannot transform people into obedient children, and thus Judaism is mistaken about human nature when it optimistically states that people can obey if they really want to and they study the Scriptures.

For these reasons, I take the Wretched Man first and foremost as a description of a Jew apart from Christ and without the power of the Spirit; that it is not about Paul’s own experience but a sort of parable, in which he shows that utter defeat awaits those who reject the gospel.

Next, in Romans 8, Paul will turn a corner and show how the person who is dead to sin, the law and death can live in obedience, if he or she is in Christ and has the Spirit.

Practical Thought. Because of sin, good instructions might lead to my death. I remember a television series on the eating disorder known as bulimia. People, usually young women, believe that they are badly overweight. And so, they consume mass quantities of food, and then “purge” themselves through vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise. The producers of this program had the best intentions: We must inform the public about bulimia, show how dangerous it is, and then tell them not to do it! The problem is that it produced mixed results. I have known some women who have seen such presentations, and they tell me that only then did it occurred to them: Wait! You mean I can lose weight simply by vomiting after meals? So, what was meant to be a helpful warning turned out to be an invitation for wrongdoing.

Although the Wretched Man has to do with life apart from Christ, we can read a subtle warning for the Christian life, which is: If you, a Christian, turn your focus away from the power of the Spirit; if you follow the invitation to Torah observance, mixing the law with the Spirit; then the result will be spiritual failure (so Stott, pp. 232-40). To the extent that a Christian tries to live the Torah by his own efforts, to that extent the Spirit will withdraw from his life and all him to fall back into misery. Greater effort on our part means even more shocking failure.

A final application, and an important one. People cannot use this text as excuse for their own spiritual failure. “Well, I try and try,” they say, “but you know what Romans 7 says – I can’t do the thing I want to do.” Certainly not! would have been Paul’s response. Don’t you know that you can achieve victory through the Spirit? (8:4). In this age, perfection is not a possible outcome, but regular victory certainly is.

Study Questions:

  1. How have you tried to excuse your continuing sinful behavior?
  2. If someone says that you are being unfaithful to the laws of the Old Testament, how would you respond?

C. The Spirit gives us victory in this life and into eternity (8:1-39)

Paul now invites the reader to gaze in amazement at the miraculous new life we have in Christ Jesus, expanding upon what he said in 6:22 – “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” Is it really possible, he now explores, that a Gentile can not only be saved from condemnation but even live a holy life apart from Torah observance? Indeed it is true!

  1. The Spirit gives a fresh start to the Christian (8:1-13)

8:1-4

Let us place the emphasis where the apostle wants it: there is one group and one only who will in the end escape God’s condemnation: “those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Some manuscripts – the 5th century Codex A is the oldest – add “who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” see the KJV; it was probably accidentally “borrowed” from v. 4 in transcription). This condemnation is the very wrath of God that has been hanging like a sword of Damocles over our heads ever since 1:18. We used to be in bondage to “the law of sin and death”; here “law” may refer to a general principle, as in 7:23 – it is the principle that no human effort, whether oriented to Torah or no, can yield anything but eternal death (see Moo, pp. 476-79). But a new law or “principle” has freed us – the coming of the Spirit. Neither Jew nor Gentile had access to this level of Spirit power before the day of Pentecost; everyone lived according to the flesh, the sinful and weak nature apart from Christ (see the definition of sarx in our section on 7:1-6). But with the death of Christ for sin, as Paul announces in 3:25a, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.” On that basis, for we who walk by faith, in the Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us (v. 4; see also 5:18). Does God want people to be devoted to him? He gave Moses a Torah that said so, but only the Spirit enables us to do so. To love other people? Again, people who live “according to the Spirit” can do this, not by vainly trying to internalize the rules of the Old Testament plus a long list of rabbinic traditions, but because the Spirit teaches them on the inside to live by righteousness.

Although Paul did not consider himself obligated to the law of Moses, he lived according to certain statutes in order to be a fruitful evangelist to other Jews (1 Cor 9:20b). But Paul has no illusions about the Torah: not only is it unhelpful, it can damage the Christian life if one tries to mix grace and law. Any effort in our own power is of the “flesh” and automatically offends God. To illustrate, some medications have a warning: “Don’t take this pill if you are already taking this or that medication, because it may cause bad side effects.” So too, once a person tries to mix a religion of Torah, even a microscopic amount, with the gracious gift of the Spirit, he or she will have a severe reaction, a failed life of holiness.

8:5-13

Every Christian, by definition, has the Spirit (v. 9); see also 1 Corinthians 12:13a, “we were all baptized by one Spirit.” To be sure, some are more full of the Spirit than others, some are more gifted. Nevertheless anyone who is a true believer in Christ has the Spirit since the first moment. A person is a temple of the Spirit or not; there is no gray area. Thus, for Paul, there are Christians-with-the-Spirit and everybody else, people of the “flesh”.

In Judaism and early Christianity, writers used the trope of the Two Ways: the way of evil and the way of holiness. Paul does something similar here. For him the two ways are not legalism versus flexibility; not Gentile versus Jew; but people who walk by the flesh versus those who walk by the Spirit. The latter group has righteousness and life (Rom 8:5-7). The “mind set on what the flesh desires”, is literally “the mind of the flesh”, including “its outlook, assumptions, values, desires and purposes” (Cranfield, p. 1.386).

In v. 7 Paul states that the carnal person “does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so”. One might have expected that he would go on to say that the spiritual person is able to submit to God’s law, but he does not (see v. 10b). Only the Spirit will give eternal life, the resurrection, to those who live by God’s grace (6:23); and since the Spirit has already raised Jesus from the dead, clearly he can give life “your mortal bodies” (v. 11). There is much confusion over the words mortal, immortal, and “the immortal soul”. Mortal is the proper word to describe human beings before the resurrection, that is, they are subject to death; compared with people only God is truly immortal (1 Tim 1:17). At Christ’s coming he will give us the gift of immortality, “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor 15:54a).

Special Note: The Holy Spirit is a Person. Until recent times the Latin American church understood the Spirit’s personhood, but in recent days even that truth has come under attack. The Jehovah’s Witnesses describe the Spirit as a force like electricity. Others have played strange language games, based on the fact that the Hebrew word for spirit (Ruach) is feminine, whereas the Greek uses a neuter noun pneuma, and Latin languages such as Spanish a masculine one. This notion is rooted in a confusing of sex with grammatical gender.

What does the Bible say? First, the person who is the Spirit “distributes” spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11); in other words, he makes choices about who receives which gift. We would never say that “the electricity chose to power the lamp.” Second, in John 14-16 the Spirit teaches, reminds (14:26), testifies (15:26), guides, speaks, declares (16:13-14) – these are all activities of a person, not a blind force. Third, in verses such as John 16:14, despite the fact that Jesus uses the neuter noun pneuma to refer to the Spirit, he uses the masculine pronoun “he” (ekeinos) to speak of the Spirit, not “she” (ekeinē) or “it” (ekeino); this is a clear indication that the Spirit is a person and is “he”.

Paul ends this section with a call to action. The person who has died to sin has an obligation: he or she must not live according to the flesh, neither in Gentile wickedness nor in the form of Torah observance.

The miracle is that in the Spirit, and only by him, a believer may “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (v. 13). This is not an ascetic lifestyle, or starving the passions by fasting, vigils, or vows and resolutions and an ever-increasing list of rules. Paul believes those things have no power to control wrong desires (see especially Col 2:23). God’s plan is simple, but not simplistic. He gives victory to the spiritual (or better “Spiritual” or “person of the Spirit”) person, and we receive his power simply by asking: “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

  1. The Spirit helps us through the trials of this present age (8:14-27)

8:14-25

Believers in Jesus have the Spirit (v. 14), through whom God adopts them as children (v. 15). This is the same paradigm that Paul used in Galatians, where both Jews and Gentiles are liberated from slavery and made adopted children of God and also of Abraham (Gal 3:23-5:1), free to live in true holiness: free from licentiousness and free from a set of rules.

Only the person who has the Spirit can truly call God his “father”. Abba (v. 15) is not Hebrew, but Aramaic, the language of the pagans and the Jews of the eastern Mediterranean, and also the language of the rabbis for many centuries. All the evidence indicates that Jesus taught in Aramaic: some examples are Talitha cumi (Mark 5:41); Ephphatha (Mark 7:34). Nor did he hesitate to use Aramaic as his prayer language, calling his Father Abba (Mark 14:36). It was the language of many early Christians, which is why some words passed directly to the Greek, e.g., Maranatha (“Our Lord come!”; 1 Cor 16:22) and the word Abba here and in Galatians 4:6. It has become fashionable to translate Abba as Daddy or Papa. In fact it means simply “father”: that’s how it translates Abba here in the Greek, and among the Jews it was the word that both children and adults would use to address their fathers. In both 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, the indwelling Spirit teaches us regard God as our Father and to address him as such, just as Jesus did when he used to pray (see also “Our Father,” Matt 6:9; that prayer too was probably taught in Aramaic).

Practical Thought: We now live with the tensions of an in-between time: experiencing the blessings of the age to come but living in the present evil age (see Gal 1:4). Even the cosmos experiences anxiety and is frustrated (Rom 8:19-20). It is not entirely clear what this means in scientific terms, but at least we can say that creation is waiting for the time when God will put it in order, according to the way it was meant to be in the beginning. Not only has the primeval sin harmed the cosmos, but people since the beginning have abused their environment. In the first century “imperial ambitions, military conflicts, and economic exploitation had led to the erosion of the natural environment throughout the Mediterranean world, leaving ruined cities, depleted fields, deforested mountains, and polluted streams as evidence of this universal human vanity” (Jewett, p. 513). In particular, the country of Spain today shows how the Romans denuded the forests, which led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil. So, just as Christ’s people will be raised from the dead, so nature too will be renewed as an answer to the prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Of course, that does not give us an excuse to degrade the planet that God prepared for us.

If we are one with Christ in his death and resurrection, we will also reign with him in his future kingdom (vv. 17, 19). Paul even says, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12a; see also Matt 19:28; Rev 1:6, 3:21). Although the believers are en route to eternal glory at Jesus’ second coming, they suffer during this present age. The apostle commonly taught that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Within a short while, Christians would be accused of setting Rome afire, and Nero would torture and burn many Christians, probably including Paul and Peter and many of the original recipients of this epistle. The Roman historian Tacitus records in his Annals 15.44.4 [Jackson] –

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians…First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.

When will things change, so that believers can pass from suffering into glory? It is at the point of their future resurrection at Christ’s coming, which Paul calls “the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v. 21) and “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23). Before that time, life for the child of God is often harsh: the reader might go through 8:18-27 and underline the hard words: frustration, decay, sufferings, corruption, groaning, weakness, not knowing what to ask for (see also 8:35). And the apostle was not speaking in hypothetical terms: Priscilla and Aquila had risked their lives for Paul (16:4); some had been in prison for their faith (16:7); others undertook hard labor (16:12). And within months Paul would be arrested and spend years in jail. But even the harshest suffering cannot compare with the future glory at Christ’s coming (v. 18; see 9:23).

To use another metaphor, we enjoy the “firstfruits” of the Spirit during this age (v. 23; compare with Eph 1:13); this symbolizes that there will be a bountiful harvest in the end of time, when we possess the complete fullness of the Spirit.

Practical Thought. Too many Christians accept the notion that their eternal destiny consists in dying and going to be with the Lord and that is that. This leads to questions such as, But will we recognize each other in heaven? The New Testament is unanimous in teaching that our ultimate goal is the resurrection, when we become like Christ in his glorious new body and spend eternity in that form. We will live in a state where you will be you and I will be I, as recognizable individuals. That is our final hope and goal (vv. 24-25).

8:26-27

Prayer is not only giving thanks or asking forgiveness: it is also a militant, disciplined petitioning of God by his people, the church. During this age, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, beginning with the very first cry of “Abba, Father” (v. 15). In the confusion and difficulty of life, we don’t know what to ask God for, we don’t know how to fill in the blank of “your will be done” (Matt 6:10). But the Spirit knows, and he groans within us, in the temple where he dwells. What this means is not immediately clear; since these groans cannot be expressed in words, Paul isn’t speaking about the gift of tongues, which are spoken out loud. The likely meaning is that the Spirit intercedes for us above and beyond what we can possibly do; he knows what we would want and even better what is God’s plan for us.

Practical Thought, Suffering Today. The Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.org/) is an excellent online resource to become aware of how Christians are suffering around the world. While persecution is highest in a handful of countries, without doubt, there are believers who are suffering privation in your country and your city. In many cases, this is due to oppressive work conditions, and ironically their suffering might be caused in part by wealthier believers. Instead of praying just for the small sufferings in our own lives, we must include other believers in our intercessions, and decisive action in our economic choices.

Many Christians believe that the church cannot go through the Tribulation but that the rapture of the church happens beforehand. Since I once held this viewpoint, I know and can follow the arguments for it. But now it strikes me that a main reason for a pretribulational rapture doctrine is that people who are not suffering now cannot imagine that the church is destined to suffer tribulation, period. But here, right in this beloved chapter, it says that if we are not suffering physically, socially, and emotionally for the name of Christ, then our experience is abnormal.

  1. Christians are assured that they are part of God’s eternal plan (8:28-39)

8:28-30

“In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (see Cranfield, pp. 1.425-28 for the textual and translation difficulties). This text is precious to many; yet it is often misunderstood. Paul is not saying, Well, don’t worry, everything will work out; things will be better tomorrow; behind every cloud is a silver lining.

Rather, Paul is taking the long look at God’s “purpose”, from where we are in the world today, all the way to the day of our resurrection at the coming of Jesus when we will be glorified (compare v. 30 with vv. 17, 18, 21). His promise is that God will take us to a glorious end, no matter what we have to pass through in the interval.

For the rest of the chapter, Paul develops God’s “purpose” that he mentioned in 8:28. It is a common Jewish and Christian teaching that God has a plan that cannot be stopped: Proverbs 19:21 – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails”; and Romans 9:11, concerning Rebecca’s twins, refers to “God’s purpose in election”. Paul takes us step by step through God’s plan who love him. It is crucial to see the connections Paul is forging: there is a group of people, the “foreknown”; and “those who” God foreknew, that is, the very same group, he also predestined. There is a principle of mathematics called the transitive property. It says that, if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Paul is using the same logic when he says that those who were foreknown in v. 29a will be the very same group, no more and no less, as those who will be glorified in v. 30b.

What can it mean that God “foreknew” people? This is language of the Hebrew Scriptures. When used of God’s actions, to foreknow does not just mean that he foresaw the future. It is synonymous here to “select” or “elect,” and means that God chose to form a relationship with people, even before they were born. This was so of the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…” (Jer 1:5). God knew the nation of Israel before their existence (Rom 11:2), and likewise the church (see 1 Pet 1:2). We might translate the phrase in v. 29 as “God long ago decided to establish a relationship with them.”

People today place great value on their right to make their own decisions; they stiffen when they see the words election or predestination in the Bible. They feel the need to respond that, But, I know that I chose to follow Christ! In fact, Paul affirms that intuition in verses such as 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. So, when I myself became a Christian I was conscious of the Lord inviting me to faith. But I later learned that my choice of Christ, while a genuine decision, was part of a much larger picture: before I heard the gospel, long before I existed, God chose to establish a relationship with me and planned for my glorious future with him. My decision and God’s decision are both authentic, but God’s choice of me is from eternity and prior to me being called to believe – it is the more significant of the two choices.

Those whom he foreknew, “he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”. And God planned for me to be like Christ, during this life, but perfectly in the future resurrection. In this way Christ is our older “brother” or prototype. What he is as a human being – perfectly holy and loving and with an immortal body – so we will be.

Next, he “called” the predestined; this echoes “called according to his purpose” (v. 28). The New Testament uses “call” in two ways. First, God calls upon everyone to repent and believe the gospel (Rom 1:5; John 12:32). No-one is to go around trying to guess, I wonder if this person is predestined to glory and will be called? We preach the gospel to all and devote ourselves to prayer that all will respond (e.g., Rom 10:1; also Col 4:3).

Special Note: God’s special call. Apart from the general call, the gospel includes a special call to salvation or to blessing. For example, Abram received a special invitation – he was “called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance” (Heb 11:8). This was, as the Greek dictionary BDAG says, “to choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience.” In this sense, God called Abram only from among people of his generation. So too, there is a group of people who have received a special call in which God enables them to have faith and to call upon the name of the Lord (see Rom 1:7; John 6:44; 1 Cor 1:9; Rev 17:14). This is the doctrine of special calling or vocation. That call was not in vain – each called one went on to be justified, saved of sin, and no-one goes missing along the way. As in Pisidian Antioch, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). This means that “the history and composition of the Church is not due to chance nor to human decisions (Cevallos y Zorzolli, p. 155, our translation). But of course, human decision also has a critical role in salvation. God illuminates the person so that he may believe, but also “effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace” (Westminster Confession of Faith 10.1). The reader can and should wrestle with what election, predestination and vocation mean, but there is no way to cut them out of the New Testament. Still, Paul shows no interest in luring us into an abstract discussion of free will, fatalism, election. The question Am I of the elect? is known ultimately only by God. The question that should preoccupy us is, Am I in Christ? And a positive answer is what should satisfy all of the soul’s doubts.

We return to a main theme of the letter, that God “justified” his people. He has already proven from 1:16 onward that they are justified by faith, whether Jews or Gentiles (1:17). The saints have been declared righteous at the moment of their faith; they will also be finally declared righteous at the final judgment.

The timing of “he also glorified” is not immediately clear. The verb is in the past tense, as if believers were already in glory; but this doesn’t accord with 8:17, where they suffer now and are glorified in the future (see also 9:23). It is better to take it in this sense: the glorification of the saints in the final resurrection is so certain that it as good as done, making it appropriate to use the past tense.

And thus Paul has traced God’s redemptive plan from eternity past to eternity future. He has not done so simply to satisfy the curiosity of his readers. Rather, he writes to prove that God has always had his people in mind; that is, “God is for us” (8:31). No-one should lose hope during the tribulations of this age – they are temporary and will be soon replaced by the future glory.

8:31-39

Paul finishes this section with the language of the heart. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” Much may be said! Since “God is for us”, no-one can be against us in any serious sense. To be sure, Satan fights us, and so do the enemies of God (vv. 35-36) and hostile forces of nature, but in the end they will not matter.

In v. 32, as in Romans 5:8-9, Paul uses a figure of speech called an a fortiori argument; the Jewish rabbis called it qal wahomer, “light and heavy.” It is an argument from the lesser to the greater: if A is true, how much more is B true. If God gave the most precious gift, his Son, than how much more is it true that we will inherit all things? By “all things” Paul is not saying that God will guarantee us with prosperity in this age, but that in the age to come we will be co-heirs with Christ (see 8:17). And we will inherit not just a small tract of land in the Middle East, but the whole renewed cosmos.

Vv. 33-34 offers a reflection upon many of the themes of this chapter. “Bring a charge”/“condemn” are the opposites of “justify”. The one God is almighty; if he has chosen us, and if he says that we are in a right relation with him, then who is powerful enough to contradict him? Paul is probably thinking of the story of Job; Satan was given permission to harm, but not to destroy him. We too will face combat, but God will not allow his elect to be wiped out (see too Matt 24:22). There is a translation issue with these verses, since “it is God who justifies” (NIV and other versions) could be translated as a rhetorical question “Is it God, who justifies us?” with the implied answer, Of course not. Both versions lead to the exact same truth; as one translation puts it, “No one – for God himself has given us right standing with himself” (v. 33, NLT).

V. 34 has the same structure, and the a fortiori focuses our attention on the work of Christ: Christ died; even more, he was resurrected; what’s more, he intercedes for us at God’s right hand (see also 1 John 2:1 – “we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One”). Christ’s intercession and prayer for us is, sadly, a neglected doctrine. A beautiful expression of it is found in the The Book of Common Prayer (1928 version):

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.

Our meager prayers are taken up and made powerful, since the Spirit helps us pray and intercedes for us when we do not know how (8:26-27), and at the same time the Son is in heaven, constantly speaking of us to the Father.

As in the NIV of v. 35 the original text is literally “the love of Christ”. The phrase could be taken in two ways: as the love we have for Christ, or as the love he has for us. The same translation issue shows up at the end of v. 39, which is literally “the love of God”. In both of these cases, the context (see v. 37) shows that it is God or Christ’s love toward us; as in “God demonstrates his own love for us” (see also 5:8). In these nine verses then, the emphasis is not on our faith in God or our love for him (as it is in 8:28); rather God and Christ are the protagonists of this section, and their love for us is Paul’s theme.

The perils that the apostle mentions are taken from real life; with one exception he had already suffered all these things, and the threat of the “sword” was not far in the future. History tells us that he was likely beheaded for his faith: Nero “was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself” (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.25.5 [NPNF]). Try as he might, Paul cannot think of anything that will break our relationship with God.

In v. 36 he quotes Psalm 44:22 in order to show why even death is no threat (also v. 38). The psalm refers to the love that God has for his people Israel and how he decrees victory for them (Ps 44:3-4). But then in 44:9-16 the author complains that God has turned them over to defeat and exile. All this, “though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant” (Ps 44:17). As in so many psalms, the author states that on the one hand, God is just and protects the righteous; but then the righteous find themselves battered by the world and, why does God take no notice? Within that context is the reference to the slaughter of sheep. Paul must have seen in his own experience the same tension: I am serving God, yet God does not spare me from hardship. In fact, my life is much worse than if I hadn’t been called to be an apostle! The psalmist concludes (44:26), “Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love.” Paul used to pray to escape from persecution (see 2 Thess 3:1-3; 1 Tim 2:2), but here he goes further and shows that God’s final answer will come only in the future, when he vindicates his people. V. 37 is a gem of a statement: in God we do not merely survive; we are not conquerors; we are – and here Paul strains to find the right words – “more than conquerors”.

Only by stopping to praise God can Paul lead us to grasp the gospel truth (vv. 38-39; see also 11:33-36). He gives a long and breathless sentence, in which he touches upon so many aspects of the cosmos: life and death; angels and demons; present and future; height, depth, “nor anything else in all creation.” Nothing can stand between us and God, and if we need proof of our salvation, all we have to do is look at the cross of Christ. For the believer there will be no eternal separation from God (see 2 Thess 1:9).

The apostle launched his epistle with the bold statement that God was understandably furious with us and planning our judgment (1:18). In the conclusion of the section he rushes to tell us the good news: in Christ, God loves you so much that words cannot describe it, and he promises that from now on there is no cause for anxiety.

Paul’s teaching in this section is not, What happens to a backslider or even someone who comes to deny the faith? The Bible states that people do go astray; for example, Paul would come to lament that “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10; see especially Matt 13:22). Like the other voices of the New Testament Paul affirms that a true believer is known by visible behavior, not just words (Rom 2:28-29; also Matt 7:16-20). This is why it is so bewildering when someone says that you can deny Christ entirely but still be saved in the end. The Bible says nothing like this. In fact, one of the evidences of being one of God’s elect is that you will persevere: “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). Therefore, Romans 8 gives great comfort that salvation is secure; but it gives no comfort to those who grow cold in their faith or deny Christ. Such people must “make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet 1:10).

Special Note: Prosperity Teaching. Perhaps the greatest enemy of the true gospel today is the prosperity teaching, also known as the Word of Faith or the Rhema doctrine. The idea arose in the North America, but in Latin America in particular, there is a tendency to equate suffering with the Catholic church, one more ancient notion to be rejected. And so the doctrine “rescues” the believer with its doctrine that, just as God created the universe with a “word” (in Greek, rhēma), so we can create our own reality by voicing it aloud; or alternately, create negative circumstances by our words. Its non-Christian parallel is the popular book The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. If someone starts from that framework, Romans 8:28 seems to fit right in: “all things God works for the good.” Are you sick? God is obligated to heal you. Are you poor? God has to prosper you. Everything will work out if you have faith!

The difficulty of course is how to explain why there was so much suffering in the early church and why most or all of the apostles endured horrible deaths. Logically one would have to say that, Well, in olden times the apostles were called to suffer, but they were special cases (this by the way directly contradicts 1 Thess 1:6, and also Rom 8:35-39). Or perhaps the early believers must not have had the same quality of faith that modern “faith preachers” do, who live well, jet in and out of meetings, and collect large sums of money.

Paul says nothing about speaking an alternate reality into being; he tells us we should pray, that is, address our concerns to God, not to the cosmos or to air; Christ speaks to the Father about us, and the Spirit helps us to know what to ask for (8:26). And we are not told to dissolve away our tribulations by uttering a rhema, but to remember that already we are more than conquerors, whether in hard times or easy.

Study Questions:

  1. Paul warns us not to mix God’s grace with legalistic rules. It what ways does the church rely on such rules to keep its members living correctly?
  2. How can your future destiny with Christ help you through the trials of your daily life in this world?
  3. Have you ever wandered away from Christ, reasoning that he will save you even if you let him go? Or on the other hand, do you live in terror that God will abandon you and you will be lost? Give details about how this chapter should correct your thinking.

“Romans Commentary, Romans 6:1-8:39,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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New Documentary: “Fragments of Truth”

UPDATE! This was a one night special showing, but I am told it will be out as a video. You can sign up here to get the announcement when it is due out.

I am extraordinarily excited about a new documentary on the manuscripts of the New Testament. This is a topic I teach on, and I can tell you that this is based squarely on the best historical research, by the world’s top experts (Craig Evans, Dan Wallace).

That is, it is not one of these “Ancient Aliens”-style productions we usually see in the media.

This is especially helpful to counteract these weird ideas, that old manuscripts are somehow a Roman, Gnostic, Alexandian Cultic plot to destroy God’s Word.

Tell your friends! Better than the next Marvel movie!

In the United States, you can reserve your tickets through Fandango.
P52_recto

p52 is one perhaps the oldest known scrap of the New Testament. And it is starring in the new Fragments movie.

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When News is not News

I invite you to read two news articles:

ARTICLE #1 –

Eco-Terrorists Attack Clean Energy

The millennials have finally gotten off their couches, but unfortunately it was to get involved in illegal mischief. This Lancaster Against Pipelines group trespasses into energy projects in order to get themselves intentionally arrested. Their new Satan is the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, a natural gas conduit that will convey clean, cheap energy over several states. In October 2017, 23 were arrested, and in January three more. Atlantic Sunrise’s website demonstrates with factual data that, “Not only will construction create job opportunities, but the development is expected to increase economic activity by $1.6 billion in project regions.” But apparently their “green” enemies would prefer to ship jobs and investment overseas, to protest that which they do not understand, while depending on their parents to pay the mounting heating bills.

The company has had to hire outside security in order to protect their project. Several guards from Global Security repeatedly asked the LAP protesters to vacate the private property, but in the end they had to call the police to arrest these hoodlums for criminal trespassing. Atlantic Sunrise also alleged that their high-pressure tactics were tantamount to terrorism.

ARTICLE #2

War Against Christmas Rolls On:
14-year-old Christian arrested
for singing carols

The secular culture has been waging a war against Christmas for years. Already it’s not permitted for cashiers to say “Merry Christmas” to their customers. Public schools can’t state that Christmas is the commemoration of Jesus’ birth. The White House has a “holiday tree.” Nativity scenes are banned. And now the forces of leftist political correctness have claimed fresh victims. In December, a 14-year-old was arrested, and an adult who was with him was convicted and fined $200. What was their crime? They had taken home-made Christmas cookies to some people along a public road and just outside of a construction site. And they sang Christmas carols; but apparently “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World” are too religious for our secularized society. The workers had even asked them if they might have some of the cookies, but that meant nothing to the forces of the secular state.

AND NOW, our own analysis:

We are attracted to headlines that fit into our “confirmation bias”; that is, we tend to believe what they say if they confirm what we already believe, but reject them if they run contrary to our beliefs. Think of the news stories you have seen over the last few months (Did the Russians interfere in the 2016 election? Is so-and-so a sexual predator? Does global warming affect weather patterns?) and your first impression of these issues will probably slide in the direction of what you already believe. This is simply the way the mind works; if we had no confirmation bias at all, we could never function as humans!

What about the two articles above?

Believe it or not, both – the Eco-Terrorism one and the War against Christmas one – are my own write-ups of one and the same event that happened not far from us. The photo for article 1 is genuine, and I searched and found the image for article 2. Apart for some minor editorializing, both report facts. I first saw the news at THIS LINK. I would guess that your emotions were excited by seeing the one headline and not the other one, and that might be an example of confirmation bias. (And I too would have been emotionally up in arms about one rather than the other, showing my bias!).

Is there no relief from confirmation bias? There are three main options.

The first solution is to offer our confirmation bias little resistance, and select either article #1 or article #2 or some third version as the truth, rejecting the other as the product of media propaganda.

second option is to assume that neither story is true, because “Everything you read in the media is a lie!” Logically, this cynical approach is impossible to maintain for long, although some try.

third option is to display a healthy sense of skepticism and assume that both the article we resonate with and the article we don’t resonate with might not be telling the whole story, and that we should leave ourselves open to new facts and alternative interpretations. In the case of inflammatory headlines like the ones above, it is especially necessary to partially suspend judgment until we have more insight; it is an expression of the virtue of humility.

Many of the news posts I have read in Christian media outlets are shaped to appeal to the confirmation bias of their readers. They are hardly the only ones guilty of this, but as a believer, I think we Christians should be held to high standards of truth.

Let’s keep our eyes open and our minds as well!

RELATED POSTS: start with this link and you will find several essays on the same theme –

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on Truth and Social Media – Part I

“When News is not News,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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Revelation 1-9 Recap – Getting our Bearings

Revelation Part 20 – Recap

Revelation Ch. 9

Having just covered this unusual chapter in 2 parts, someone asked if I might do a brief recap to help put it all together. I thought that was a stellar idea. At the same time wanted to show you just how and why I arrived at some of the interpretive decisions I made, with the hope that it will be both useful and encouraging to each of you in your own study.

While there is no question Revelation is a challenging book, with just a few key ideas under your belt, there is no one here who cannot read it without great understanding and profit – as long as we avoid assigning arbitrary meaning to the symbols and pictures it contains.

So today will be a bit different as a sermon as I attempt to explain some of the methodology of approaching it.

Basic Method: Questions.

  1. Are the symbols self-explanatory or even common to John and his first readers?
  2. Are they explained in the immediate text?
  3. Are they explained elsewhere in the Bible?
  4. Do the concepts accord with other clear Biblical teaching?

What is certain?     What is reasonable?      What is mere speculation?

I try to be careful to tell you where that is the case on my part.

Quick recap up to Ch. 9.

Ch. 1 – Introduction & Commission

Chs. 2-3 – The Letters

Ch. 4 – The Throne of God

Ch. 5 – The Lion, the Lamb and the Scroll

Ch. 6 – Opening the 6 seals (Revealing and enacting)

Ch. 7 – Sealing the Saints

Ch. 8 – The 7th Seal and the 1st 4 Trumpets

Ch. 9 – The 5th & 6th Trumpets  /  What can we know for sure, and how do we know it?

1. Books as we have them, were quite rare in John’s time. Scrolls were the norm. A sealed scroll was the typical means of preserving very important documents untampered with. Especially the wills of important people in John’s day. When a will was opened, just as today, it then entered the stage of its contents being carried out. Disbursements. In this case, taking into account the rest of the book – God’s final plan for judging sin and evil, and granting the saints their inheritance. We take that scenario from reading the book as a whole. That is how it ends – sin and death and Satan being finally dealt with, and Believers entering the fullness of their promised inheritance.

Writing on both sides would indicate the contents were entire. There was no part 2, say on another scroll.  Someone took pains to be sure it was all written in one place and made tamperproof. This was the whole deal.

2. From the OT we firmly established how God appointed the use of trumpets to signal action on the part of His people militarily, civilly and even ecclesiastically. Military use of trumpets has been common through the ages up to and including our own civil war. Hence our view that the trumpets serve as announcements and warnings. And as we’ve seen, they appear to enlarge upon aspects of God’s judgments as revealed in the opening of the seals. There are a dozen or more passages in the OT where God tells His prophets to “blow the trumpet” in warning God’s people judgment is coming upon them for their sins.

III. Rev. 9:1

Stars: As early as Job 38 angels are sometimes referred to as “stars”. Rev. 1:20 clearly explains that picture and sets the tone for its use in the rest of the book. In this verse, the star is even personified as “he.” So we KNOW it is an entity.

Angels as “fallen” are never referred to positively in Scripture.

IV. Rev. 9:2

The bottomless pit or abyss we’ve seen addressed in other places like 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Additionally, this will reappear in Rev. 20:3, where the pit is identified as the place where Satan is bound – so that he can “deceive the nations no longer.” There we also see another very important fact: The activity of Satan and the main concern about his activity is – deception. Darkness from the truth.

V. Rev. 9:3-5

Natural knowledge of locusts combined with the revelation of darkness and deception from Satan and his minions is clear. Natural locusts eat plant life – these do not. Natural locusts would not make a distinction between people – these do. The previous chapter showed us by demonstration from the OT that this sealing of God’s people was invisible and spiritual – keeping them from the harm of the locusts, just as Jesus told us that if it were possible, even the elect would be deceived in the last days.

Matthew 24:24–28

Again, the natural knowledge of the 1st readers would have recognized the 5 month period as simply the season of locusts – indicating this demonic deception has its season too.

VI. Rev. 9:6

Common knowledge would tell us there is no state of immortality for people, which would rule out the idea this inability to die is a purely physical thing – not to mention the fact that later in the chapter, 1/3 of mankind ARE killed. Physical death in that sense is not the issue. This coincides more closely with spiritual or psychological pain as the result of the demonic darkness and deception.

VII. Rev. 9:7-10  

The language here is clarified for us in detail back in Joel 2. There, a genuine locust invasion is used to symbolize God’s judgment on His people – just like the locust plague on Egypt in Ex. 10. And all of the same military language is used of the locusts back there too – because they are in effect, an “army” sent from God in judgment.

IIX. Rev. 9:11

In case we had any doubt this plague is Satanic and demonic in nature – the text then says explicitly that Satan is the one behind this invading force which inflicts woes on those who do not belong to God in Christ.

IX. Rev. 9:12-16

Keeping with the involvement of the angelic hosts, both holy and fallen, one sent from the very altar of incense before the throne in Heaven – where the prayers of the saints are offered up (so we too factor into this) God sends an angel to loose 4 demonic entities to marshal an innumerable army of other demons to bring about the loss of 1/3 of mankind. Exactly how is not explained. But whatever the means, it seems to have zero impact on people in terms of turning from their sin and to God.

X. Rev. 9:17-19

Once again, we are given images to reinforce the attack nature of God’s judgments in military imagery. And in keeping with what we have seen already in the first part of the chapter, these do their damage by what comes out of their mouths. Just as in Ch. 1 it is a sharp, two-edged sword which comes out of the mouth of the Risen and glorified Jesus, so here, their word is the means whereby people are destroyed in great number.

It is the propagation of deception and darkness from the truth. This is a recurring motif throughout the Bible where the figures of light for truth, and darkness for the obscuring of truth is common. Especially in John’s writings.

John 3:19–21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

We see it in Paul too: 2 Corinthians 4:6

Colossians 1:13

2 Corinthians 4:1–5

And in Peter as well: 1 Peter 2:9

1 John 1:5–10

XI. Rev. 9:20-21

Given the ways mankind is suffering to this point, even to a 1/3 of it being wiped out in the era of this 6th trumpet – it seems to have no impact on the hearts and minds of those remaining.

As the text marvels at their unrepentance, so should we. And marvel that in God’s economy, repentance is still being held out as a hope – though it is rejected.

The previous 2 times we’ve looked at several lessons we can take away from all this – and there are yet more for us to consider as we think about this recap.

  1. What can possibly be more cruel, than to seal the fate of people such that they die in their trespasses and sins? That they be blinded from the truth of reality – of Who God is, who and what mankind is, why we are here, why things are the way they are, what the purpose of creation and life is, and what will come after this.

“In 1944, Hiroo Onoda was sent to the small island of Lubang in the western Philippines to spy on U.S. forces in the area. Allied forces defeated the Japanese imperial army in the Philippines in the latter stages of the war, but Onoda, a lieutenant, evaded capture. While most of the Japanese troops on the island withdrew or surrendered in the face of oncoming American forces, Onoda and a few fellow holdouts hid in the jungles, dismissing messages saying the war was over.

For 29 years, he survived on food gathered from the jungle or stolen from local farmers.

After losing his comrades to various circumstances, Onoda was eventually persuaded to come out of hiding in 1974.

His former commanding officer traveled to Lubang to see him and tell him he was released from his military duties.

In his battered old army uniform, Onoda handed over his sword, nearly 30 years after Japan surrendered.” CNN Website article.

Think of the sad deception of world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who just passed away last week. Deceived into a wholly materialistic view of life and the universe, standing finally before the Creator he steadily and emphatically denied. How tragic is that?

2. While Christians, as sealed by the Spirit are protected against the great delusion of unbelief, we are not immune to the enemy attempting to deceive us as well in making us ineffectual for the Kingdom.

We can all too easily buy into some of the World’s current thinking as well – and be deceived in some ways. This was a key issue in the letters to the 7 churches in Chs. 2-3.

The Ephesians were deceived into thinking that as long as they had their doctrine straight, their lack of passion toward Christ was irrelevant.

Smyrna was in danger of hiding their Christianity due to persecution.

Pergamum was in danger of syncretism – blending their Christianity with false religions and what it could lead to. Losing the exclusivity of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross alone.

Thyatira was being deceived by a false prophetess who was convincing them in matters that led them into sexual immorality.

Sardis was living on their reputation as hot, hip and happening, when their spiritual lives were all but dead. Deceived into relishing external demonstrations over internal life in Christ.

Philadelphia was in danger of thinking that because they were small and marginalized, that they didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Of losing their grip on how important patient endurance is.

Laodicea was wealthy, prominent and self-sufficient, and were deceived into settling for that even though they were not of any real spiritual value to anyone else.

We must guard our own hearts and minds – for this enemy of ours will attempt – if it were possible – to lead the very elect into the great deception of rejecting Christ.

Knowing he cannot do that, he will do his best to distract, discourage, demoralize, doubt and derail us from our mission to the world.

3. This is the great deception WE are called to dispel in the preaching and living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our age.

1 John 2:7–11

If you are looking for purpose in life – what can possibly be greater than helping people see and understand the truth about all of life – in the light of glory of Jesus Christ? Seeing them reconciled to the God who made them? Forgiven of all their sins. Freed from the bondage of those sins. Becoming inheritors of eternal life. How?

Prayer.

Giving so the Church continues to preach and teach the Word of God.

Public Worship in making God known locally.

Personal growth in the image, the character of Christ so others are exposed to Him through us.

Sharing the Gospel of justification by faith alone in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Serving the local Church so it continues its testimony in the world.

Missions – so the Gospel goes abroad.

Newton:

You have only to repose

On my wisdom, love, and care;

When my wrath consumes my foes,

Mercy shall my children spare;

While they perish in the flood,

You that bear my holy mark,†

Sprinkled with atoning blood,

Shall be safe within the ark.”

4 Sinners, see the ark prepar’d!

Haste to enter while there’s room;

Though the Lord his arm has bar’d,

Mercy still retards your doom:

Seek him while there yet is hope,

Ere the day of grace be past,

Lest in wrath he give you up,

And this call should prove your last.

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When Did Evangelical Christianity Begin?

One of the most debated questions recently about the history of evangelical Christianity is when evangelicalism began. Some scholars, especially Christian historians, have tended to see continuity between the evangelical Christianity of the Great Awakening and earlier Reformation traditions. Kenneth Stewart and Michael Haykin edited an important volume, The Advent of Evangelicalism, on this theme of continuity. (I have an essay in that volume on the Puritan roots of evangelicalism.)

Other scholars (who probably tend to be more critical of evangelicalism itself) see little continuity between the evangelicalism of the 1740s and that of the 1940s, when the neo-evangelical movement defined itself in opposition to mainline, modernist Christianity.

As valuable as this discussion is, it seems to me that we’re on solid ground by affirming that evangelical leaders of the 1730s and ’40s were drawing on deep biblical and Reformed traditions, and they also represented a substantially new version of Protestantism that adapted to new realities in the early modern period. This idea of traditional Christianity adapting to new realities is one of the concerns of Bruce Hindmarsh’s new book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalismsee my recent interview with Hindmarsh here.

One of the most concise explanations for the origins of evangelical Christianity in the 1730s and ’40s comes from Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World, which is also one of my favorite books ever on the history of evangelicalism. (See my TGC review of the book here.) Brekus writes:

Although many people associate evangelicalism with modern religious leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren, its roots can be traced back to the eighteenth century. In response to social, political, economic, and intellectual transformations that were transatlantic in scope, eighteenth-century Protestants throughout the Atlantic world gradually created a new kind of faith that we now call evangelicalism. The word itself was not new, and its roots stretch back to the Greek evangelion, meaning “gospel.” The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers used evangelical to emphasize their reliance on the gospel message they found in scripture.

Yet during the eighteenth century the word became increasingly identified with revivalists who emphasized a personal relationship with God, the joy of being born again, and the call to spread the gospel around the globe. Although Sarah described herself simply as a Protestant, she seemed to sense that her faith represented something new, and like other converts she settled on the adjective evangelical to describe it. After a night of prayer, for example, she wrote about her experience of “true evangelical repentance.” . . .

Like thousands of other converts, Sarah was drawn to evangelicalism because it helped her make sense of changes in everyday life that did not yet have a name. Words like capitalism, individualism, Enlightenment, and humanitarianism were not coined until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but language often lags behind reality, and Sarah seems to have recognized that the austere Puritanism of her childhood was under attack by a growing faith in human goodness and individual freedom. She admired evangelical ministers because of her belief that they offered convincing answers to the most pressing questions of her day—questions about the nature of God, the meaning of suffering, and the definition of truth.

Sarah wanted to know what sort of God had created the world, why evil exists, and whether there is any inherent goodness in human nature. She wondered why “the poor are always with us” (in the words of the apostle Matthew) and whether slavery could be just. She wondered whether the pursuit of happiness should be the ultimate goal of human life. And most of all, she wondered what her individual story meant in the larger scheme of the universe.

Brekus’s brilliant book demonstrates how one prolific evangelical grappled with these huge emerging questions, even as she also dealt with personal struggles including illness and poverty. In spite of all our focus on famous public figures such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, one gets the sense that Osborn’s experience was even more typical of regular evangelicals at the movement’s birth.

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Revelation Ch.9b – Seeing the Invisible

Revelation 9:13–21

Daniel 2:1-45

Seeing the Invisible

We are currently in the 2nd portion of Revelation ch. 9. As we saw last time, a pretty challenging chapter due to the nature of its imagery.

Once again, we are approaching this structure of Jesus addressing the 7 churches in Asia as they were in John’s day; moving on to Jesus opening the 7 seals of the scroll which lays out and begins God’s final program for judging sin and rewarding His saints; and now the sounding of the 7 trumpets which appear to be warnings and enlargements on the way God’s judgments will take place; and then on to the 7 bowls which seem to be the actual final events being accomplished.

And just as John reminds us in his own 1st letter, 1 John 2:18 “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” – All the way through this book of Revelation we have this dynamic of the very final things yet to come, but in some capacity we’re are already experiencing some of those things now. I believe this 9th chapter gives us a real sense of that.

This of course is fully in keeping with Jesus’ words to John in Rev. 1:19 “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”

Because Jesus reveals Himself several times as: Rev. 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” We should expect this back and forth between things which are already history, some things contemporaneous with ourselves and some things yet to come. Trying to slice these too thinly may be not really be possible with much certainty. Though there are places where the timeframe is more evident.

So, at the sounding of the 5th trumpet, we were introduced to the reality that not only is God in Heaven and doing things, and that we are on earth doing things, but also there is the unseen realm of the demonic and that also has to factor into how we understand what is going on around us. And we saw that the chief work of Satan and his demons is to perpetuate deceptions to keep people from knowing God as He truly his, our own sinful, fallen condition and its implications, and especially our need of salvation and how that has been provided for in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus – especially His substitutionary death on the cross and salvation by faith in it.

Now, at the sounding of the 6th trumpet, a voice comes from the altar in Heaven – an indication this would be the voice of God Himself – issuing a command that has further massive implications on earth.

  1. (13-15) “Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind.”

The command is to set free 4 angels, who had apparently been kept bound by God – most likely in judgment. That would be in keeping with what we saw last time – how the angels who rebelled against God earlier were consigned to chains of darkness. (2 Pet., Jude 6)

These particular angels are bound at the river Euphrates. And they are released according to a divine time table of some sort.

What we are probably looking at here is not so much a geographical reference, as it is what the geography represents.

Looking back at the whole Old Testament and especially the passage we had read for us in Daniel, we recall the Euphrates basin was where Babylon was located. And the figure of Babylon always represented 2 things to the Jewish mind Biblically. We’ll see this developed more later in the book. But the 2 things Babylon most often represented to John and his 1st readers are these:

  1. Babylon was used as symbol of the contrast between human government and the World system, as opposed to God’s Reign and His people. This will be developed more in Revelation later.
  2. Babylon represented global conquest. The great Babylonian empire which conquered and destroyed Israel gave way to the Medo-Persian empire, then the Greek and the finally the Roman empire. And as the prophecy in Daniel demonstrates, there will NOT be another world empire like those – for in the days the Roman empire, Christ came and began to establish His empire, before which all other world empires had to crumble.

There will never again be a world empire the likes of those previous ones. But that does not mean the idea behind those empires is gone.

When prophecy mavens look for a one-world government politically or militarily, they are probably barking up the wrong tree. From what we see here, the “one-world government” is spiritual in nature. We are being exposed to the global deception of it even now; which is keeping people from the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and bound in the deception of human religion, material wealth, cultural morality and personal autonomy.

The world is captive to this system. This is the global empire of darkness as we saw last time. All the more insidious because of its seeming invisibility.

It is this invisible empire that is being exposed in this chapter as we began to see last time – and which is now expanded upon in the 6th warning, announcement or trumpet.

There is no bondage as great as that of the invisible chains of deception.

  1. (16-17) “The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.”

Once again, we’re being confronted with images that are surreal, but communicate important ideas.

The number is simply meant to communicate immensity – 200 million. Just like the picture of the vast number of “locusts” in vs. 3 that darken the sky.

Breastplates clearly speak of war or battle of some sort. They are referred to as “troops” – the same way the locusts above were, both here, Joel and elsewhere.

Lion’s heads indicate ferocity.

Fire, sulfur and smoke are common images of judgment lumped together which we can trace throughout Scripture: (Gen. 19:24, 28; Deut. 29:23; Isa. 34:9–10; Ezek. 38:22 etc.).

But the most important feature is that “fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” Again, images like this one on the screen completely miss the point.

We’re already familiar with this kind of imagery, aren’t we?

Remember what we saw back in Ch.1 and the vision of the risen Jesus John saw there? Revelation 1:16 “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

Do we imagine Jesus actually has a sword coming out of His mouth? Or do we instantly recognize that what is being depicted is the power and action of His word?

The same here. What is dangerous and devastating about these demonic entities is what they communicate! How they lie against the truth of God and spread deception that blinds people to the Gospel, so that they die in their sins.

  1. (18-19) “By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.”

By the lies these demons propagate, and what ensues or follows from those lies (the picture of their tails biting like serpents) – 1/3 of mankind dies.

And immediately our minds run to a picture of either some biological disaster or perhaps war – especially with the idea of 200,000,000 mounted troops. A specific event or battle.

But I am not so sure those interpretations fit with how this is all the result of darkness and deception.

Note first of all that earlier in the chapter, we’re told those sealed with the mark of God are spared from this. But in all human wars Christians have always suffered and died along with unbelievers. Something else is happening here.

Perhaps more fitting, and I am only suggesting here, but just perhaps – we’re witnessing something far more insidious. What if through the darkening of people’s eyes from Biblical truth, a doctrine, a pervasive point of view began to spread that justified the murder of untold millions – but all in the name of doing good, supporting human autonomy, in line with economic expediency, with the moral approval of the culture and even justified by those claiming to be religious ? Something like a global capitulation to – abortion?

Population today: 7.4 billion

Total number of abortions worldwide since 1980 – 1.5 billion

We’re not far off from 1/3 of mankind being slaughtered with governmental, cultural and moral approval, in the darkness of demonic deception and all right under our noses in those nations most championed as enlightened and evolved.

I’m not saying that specifically IS what is being referred to here. But it sure makes us realize how it can happen, with nary a hand raised in opposition. Happening, but still not alarming those in the following verses to repentance.  For that is precisely what is recorded – they aren’t alarmed. They don’t repent.

  1. (20-21) “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”

By virtue of their false teaching – what comes out of their mouths – they will seal the fate of 1/3 of mankind.

What’s happening here? Mankind is being decimated in unimaginable numbers, and the rest of humanity witnesses it, but doesn’t comprehend what’s going on.

The darkness and deception has so clouded their minds, they cannot see the reality of it. And so they don’t repent. They don’t understand that this is judgment for sin and demonically inspired. They just go about their business of serving material goods under the influence of demons. Increasing in their violence against one another in war, abortion, the character assassination that pervades social media, their humanly invented religion and spirituality, their sexual immorality and their greed.

None of it sinks in. They truly have become dumb sheep marching to their own slaughter.

So they do not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And for many, their idols of gold are enshrined in their bank accounts, while they live in their temples of stone and wood.

Nor do they repent of their murders (war, abortion, etc.).

Nor their sorceries.

I know it is common today for many to make a connection here between the Greek word “pharmakon” from which we have the English word pharmacy and the prevalent use of drugs in our culture. There is a slight possibility there, but that’s not really how language works. Like no one imagines that a butterfly has anything to do either with butter or flies.

The word as it was used then, had more to do with using means to manipulate reality – or especially manipulate God – or the cosmic or spiritual powers. It is more akin to the idea behind books like The Secret or even some books in Christian circles, like The Prayer of Jabez. More subtly, using rites, rituals, promises or behaviors etc., to get God to do what we want Him to do.

Bargaining with Him. Using obediences as means of bribery or cosmic arm twisting.

All of which is utterly and completely contrary to Biblical truth, and who God is and who we are.

The idea that God can be bought off to give us what we want if we promise to read the Bible more, or pray more, or give more or go to Church more make Him out to be a deity for hire! It is blasphemy.

It demeans Him as God, and we as made in His image.

Deut. 10:17 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.”

Nor do they repent of their sexual immorality. No indeed. They even justify it – Biblically!

Nor their thefts. Greed governs all.

So we’re reminded in 1 Tim. 4:1–3 “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” Teachings of demons that destroy biblical notions of marriage and even how we eat in the name of a humanly created religion.

2 Tim. 3:1–9 “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

2 Tim. 4:3–4 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

All of this resulting in a Cross-less salvation, personal autonomy, invented legalism for salvation (political correctness), license for sin and false Christs.

What if anything then are we to take away from this? Let me suggest just 3.

  1. Grasping the SPIRITUAL REALITY OF OUR SITUATION. We must remain aware of the demonically influenced BLINDNESS OF MEN.

That even as Christ’s Kingdom is already among us, but not yet fully realized, so this demonic darkness and deception is already at work and increasing.

Hence our need to be aware of, and to live in, the light of this revelation. This will greatly impact what we do.

There are no political solutions to spiritual problems.

There are no legal solutions to spiritual problems.

There are no scientific solutions to spiritual problems.

There are no economic solutions to spiritual problems.

There are no religious solutions to spiritual problems.

We must act responsibly in all of these spheres, but realize that nothing short of true, inward spiritual renewal through the Holy Spirit’s application of the Gospel can change fallen human nature.

Humankind needs Christ!

  1. Resting in God’s SOVEREIGN SUPERINTENDENCE. Rev. 9:15 “So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind.”

So completely is our God still actively in control, that even these demonic hordes cannot act except He permits them, and that, down to a year, a month, a day and even a specific hour.

How comforting for those sealed with the seal of God in their foreheads – those who are Christ’s!

We are kept by His love and power. In the midst of all of these grizzly things – God still knows His people, and sets the limits on those who seek to do us the most harm – even the very forces of Hell.

  1. Committing to the MISSION and METHOD OF THE CHURCH. God’s chief method and means of protecting of His people is by sanctifying us, setting us apart by the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.

I wish I could go back this morning and unpack Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as it relates to all of this – because it instructs us by example to face all that is coming. But there is this all important point in that prayer that speaks to the heart of all of this for Believers – the importance of God’s Word as our source of unimpeachable truth.

John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Beloved, Read, know, meditate on, study God’s Word. It is God’s means to separate His people from those upon whom these plagues are poured out.

Sunday school and preaching and the Bible studies we offer aren’t just to keep people busy or “involved” – they are to keep the truth before our hearts and minds in the face of demonic opposition.

And His Word IS sufficient for all these things, by the power of His indwelling Spirit – come what may.

Christ has died for us, that it might be so.

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Why Dwight Moody Was Billy Graham’s Key Predecessor

I have tended to think of George Whitefield and Billy Graham as the two titans of evangelism in the English-speaking world. But Michael Hamilton makes a good case that Dwight Moody was an even more important predecessor for Graham, because of the way that Moody fused traditional evangelical beliefs and piety with the flexibility and power of the parachurch organization. Hamilton is one of the most astute scholars of modern evangelicalism, so whatever he says on the matter is worth considering.

Hamilton contributed a piece for the remarkable Christianity Today retrospective on the life of Graham. Here’s an excerpt on the connection between Moody and Graham:

If there were a Mount Rushmore for English-speaking evangelists, Graham would be the fifth in granite, alongside Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Sunday. For the most part, it’s easy to imagine why huge crowds pushed and shoved to hear them preach. George Whitefield—short and cross-eyed, with the voice of a tornado—cavorted, posed, and wept on outdoor platforms as he brought Bible dramas to life. Charles Finney had terrifying eyes that drilled out soft spots in the soul, his fiery preaching about the wrath of God going straight to the exposed nerves. Billy Sunday was charming, with jazzy suits, movie-star looks, and a smile that lit up auditoriums. But up on stage, after joking and mugging and flattering the VIPs, he would throw down his hat, rip off his tie, and jump onto the pulpit—sometimes waving a large American flag—attacking sin and beseeching sinners to come to Jesus.

Dwight Moody’s appeal is harder to figure. Of grandfatherly mien, he was portly and genial. He preached less about sin and more about love. All the old drawings of him in the pulpit give the impression he must have been stolid and ponderous. Yet it was Moody—more than Whitefield, Finney, and Sunday put together—who was Billy Graham’s true predecessor. It was Moody whom Graham admired; Moody who, in fact, made it possible for Graham to do what he did. For “Crazy” Moody was the architect who drew up the plans and laid the foundation for 20th-century evangelicalism. Then Billy Graham took over the project and built it to dimensions beyond any of Moody’s craziest dreams. By the start of the 21st century, the Moody-Graham project had reshaped the skyline of American Christianity and had launched a new kind of ecumenical movement that reached into every corner of the globe.

It’s easy to forget that Billy Graham’s early pulpit style owed more to Whitefield and Sunday than to Moody. He pranced and shouted until his hair was a mop. He clenched his fists, pointed his fingers like pistols, and spoke so fast that German newspapers called him “God’s Machine Gun.” Graham’s eyes were arresting—sharp blue, blazing out from dark sockets. His preaching, like Whitefield’s, was sometimes performance art; it produced this description in 1950 by an astonished Boston reporter:

He prowls like a panther across the rostrum. . . . He becomes a haughty and sneering Roman, his head flies back arrogantly, and his voice is harsh and gruff. He becomes a penitent sinner; his head bows, his eyes roll up in supplication, his voice cracks and quavers. He becomes an avenging angel; his arms rise high above his head and his long fingers snap out like talons. His voice deepens and rolls sonorously—the voice of doom. So perfect are the portrayals that his audience sits tense and fascinated.

Like Sunday, Graham’s early preaching seamlessly blended God and country, most often in warnings about the threat of communism. “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ,” he said. The answer was “old-fashioned Americanism. Through the ideals of early Americanism we built the greatest nation ever to exist in all history.”

But Graham’s future lay behind Sunday in territory that Moody had staked out. Moody’s genius had been his ability to draw together and fuse traditional evangelical touchstones—a Bible-based, conversion-centered faith; simple preaching and popular songs; extensive publicity and self-promotion; and a restless “I-must-keep-working-for-the-Lord” style—with newer elements like dispensational premillennialism and an urgency for foreign missions. He then poured this mixture into a new institutional mold—the parachurch organization. After Moody, evangelical visionaries weren’t so much churchmen as entrepreneurs launching their own non-denominational start-ups, employing lay workers to carry out highly specialized missions.

At the same time Moody was creating a new evangelical synthesis, an anti-supernatural form of Christianity calling itself modernism (or liberalism) began entrenching itself in the seminaries and headquarters of the large northern Protestant denominations. When conservatives tried and failed to push them out of these “mainline” denominations in the 1920s, the center of evangelical gravity shifted from the denominations to the parachurch network started by Moody. It turned out that the independence and non-denominational character of the parachurch gave evangelicals a tremendous advantage. They could bypass denominational leadership and go directly to the people with a simple, vibrant evangelicalism that transcended denominational differences. Billy Graham would exploit this advantage better than anyone before or since.

Whitefield also operated in a parachurch mode, in a time when it was shocking for an Anglican minister to cooperate with “dissenters” like Baptists and Presbyterians. But Whitefield hardly left any organization. Aside from his Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia, and to an extent the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movement, Whitefield was the organization. In his generation, John Wesley was the great evangelical organizer, and his organization eventually became the Methodist Church.

Moody and Graham will have both left greater institutional legacies than Whitefield, though it remains to be seen how much of a factor the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will continue to be in its founder’s absence. But in his time, Graham employed the parachurch model to a massive evangelistic and entrepreneurial effect, the likes of which the world had never before seen.

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New Billy Graham Archive Collections to Be Opened to the Public

Archival work is essential part of the historical process. If you have benefited from reading good history, you should be thankful for the unsung heroes who collect, catalog, and make available old documents and letters for future generations.

For 20th-century evangelicalism, Billy Graham stands at the center. So it is noteworthy when more archival collections become open, now that he has gone on to glory.

Today the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College announced that on March 19, 2018, they will open two new collections that had been embargoed by Graham and the BGEA until his death.

Those who donate their papers to an archive have agreements on how the materials may be used. With these two collections, Graham did not want researchers to access them while he was still living. And even though these two collections have been opened, some of the documents within them have further restrictions. For example, documents that are less than 30 years old are closed to users. (That means that a letter from, say, 1965, would be open, as it is over 30 years old, whereas a letter from 1990 will remain closed until January 1, 2021.) A couple of the folders have a restriction that closes access until 75 years after the youngest document in the folder. This essentially guarantees that the material, presumably sensitive in nature, will not be made public during the correspondent’s lifetime.

The complete statement from Wheaton archivist Robert Shuster is below:


The Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College will open two new collections on the ministry of Rev. Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) on March 19. The collections are being opened to the public in accordance with the wishes of Graham, who died February 21, and the BGEA.

“These collections are a treasure house for anyone interested in Rev. Graham, American evangelicalism, or global Christianity, among many other possible subjects,” says archivist Bob Shuster. “People will benefit from Rev. Graham’s generosity in making them available for many years to come.”

Collection 580 – Records of the BGEA: Montreat Office, 1940-1948, 1950-2012 includes letters, sermons, reports, memoranda, transcripts, clippings, manuscripts, and other materials maintained at the Montreat, North Carolina office of the BGEA. Montreat was Graham’s personal office and administrative base for his ministry. Topics covered in the records include Graham’s management of the worldwide activities of BGEA; the planning and conducting of his evangelistic campaigns; his involvement in the work of other Christian institutions; numerous interviews; and articles by and about him that appeared in print and electronic media for decades. This collection also includes some files from Rev. Graham’s pre-BGEA ministry with Youth for Christ and The Village Church (now The Village Church/Western Springs Baptist Church) of Western Springs, Illinois. Complete information about the collection is available here.

Collection 685 – Records of the BGEA: Montreat Office – VIP Notebooks, 1946-2015 consists of digital copies of letters, photos, notes on phone conversations, programs, and other documents kept at the BGEA Montreat office in notebooks labeled VIP.

Most of these notebooks document Graham’s personal relationship with every US president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. One notebook relates mostly to Pope John II; two others document contacts with various world leaders. Complete information on this collection is available here.

The documents in both collections are closed until they are 30 years old; some documents have additional restrictions.

The Billy Graham Center Archives is a department of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. It collects, preserves and makes available materials about North American parachurch evangelism. For more information, visit the Archives’ website or its Facebook page.

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Will There Ever Be Another Billy Graham?

Over at First Things I have a piece reflecting on evangelical Christianity after Billy Graham, and whether there will be another evangelist like him. Here’s a sample:

As soon as word broke about the death of Billy Graham, the most influential Christian evangelist of the twentieth century, scholars and admirers began asking: “Will there ever be another Billy Graham?” The consensus seems to be “no.”

Scholars note that evangelical Christianity and our dominant media culture are both too diverse for anyone to take on a singular role like Graham’s again. Admirers contend that Graham’s relentless devotion to Christ and to the gospel also made him a unique figure.

Were Billy Graham around to hear this discussion, I am confident he would remind us that God made Graham into the titanic figure he was. Thus, if God chooses to raise up “another Billy Graham,” then there will indeed be another.

But commentators on Graham’s uniqueness are missing another, more mundane point. Some scholars say that our media environment is too diffuse for someone like Graham to capture its attention. But we could turn that argument on its head. Perhaps all we need is another evangelist with Graham’s hard work and savvy for tomorrow’s media, and he or she could become a sensation like Graham, too. Such savvy presumes a forward-looking, entrepreneurial aptitude. We don’t know what a future Billy Graham would look like. Great entrepreneurs are hard to anticipate.

Read the rest here.

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Book Review: Lisa J. Radcliff, Hidden with Christ – Breaking Free from the Grip of your Past

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Ideally, a young girl should grow up surrounded by love; the adults in her life should be dependable; they should respect boundaries; they should alleviate fear rather than stir it up. We instinctively feel that all of these shoulds ought to be a given. But the sad reality is that a large percentage of girls, and boys, are sexually abused.

It has been repeated so often that it has achieved the status of a mantra: Most molesters are people known to the child, be they relatives, family friends, teachers, community leaders, and even religious leaders.

And to multiply the evil, many in society and church have chosen the path of least resistance, going on the presumption that adults are more believable than children; that men are more believable than women; that abuse is caused more by the victims’ behavior or dress than the choices of the perpetrators.

Lisa Radcliff has lived this whole narrative, being sexually abused as a child and then spending decades learning to unravel her experience. Abuse left her with a cluster of fears: not just fear of (some) men but also fear of bridges, enclosed places, bees, bats, tractor-trailers. “Fear monopolized my life,” she reports.

That picture hardly seemed to match the Lisa that I have known for more than 25 years. Lisa in my mind is a woman who is quick to serve church and community, God-fearing, and bold to the point of sassiness. I never would have guessed that she had such ugly experiences as a child. No-one ever does! reports Lisa. But she has taken the hard and brave step of telling her story: that she was regularly abused by a local man, a friend and neighbor who enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community. She could not convince the adults in her life that he was wronging her, and so she was left to her own resources to protect herself.

Hidden With Christ is not just another tell-all: yes, it is Lisa’s story, told with vulnerability; but it is also a thorough, rigorous development of God’s solution to her prison. She starts out by warning the reader against simply giving a Bible Band-Aid to cover up the hurt. But on the other hand, she says:

…Scripture is the only thing that can truly change a heart. As an author, I can’t sit down and listen to every reader’s story. It’s not possible for me to put an arm around you and offer comfort other than the words of this book. But I know that God’s Word is living and active and can give the peace that victims so desperately desire.

And that is precisely what she sets about doing, taking us through dozens of verses, but more importantly, giving a precise sense of how those texts answer the problems she and others face. Now, I am always a bit surprised when I hear some friend interpreting the Bible and sound doctrine with such aplomb; usually, as in this case, it’s because we have never talked about the topic, and they have been praying and mulling over it for decades.

Lisa also gives some concrete advice on how to help others who are suffering; and how your church might prevent such abuse within its walls.

Hidden With Christ is out just this week, available from Kindle and paperback from Amazon. Do yourself a favor and pick it up, plus an extra copy for a friend who needs to hear its message.

Lisa J. Radcliff is a fellow blogger, and I can highly recommend her site. You can find it at http://lisajradcliff.com. From there you can link to her second blog, “People, Puppies, and Parables: Seeing God in the Everyday.” The puppies in question are the dogs (22 so far!) that she has trained for The Seeing Eye, Inc.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Let me recommend two other books written by friends who have worked through God’s teaching on their own issues. Again, both are available on Amazon and as Kindle books:

Brent McNamara, No More Hiding No More Shame: Freedom from Pornography Addiction (rev. ed., 2017). I wrote the Foreword for it.

Carol Cornish, The Undistracted Widow: Living for God after Losing Your Husband (2010).

“Book Review: Lisa J. Radcliff, Hidden with Christ – Breaking Free from the Grip of your Past,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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Romans Commentary, Romans 3:21-5:21

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

To download the first half of the commentary as a pdf, click here: Shogren_Romans 1-8 Commentary

III. Salvation in the Gospel of Christ (3:21-5:21)

Paul has moved step by step to reach his goal, “that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (3:19b); he needed, as previously noted, approximately 68 verses to close everyone’s mouth. But now that he has arrived at the solution for the human dilemma, he needs fewer than 10 verses. This disparity reveals what was the mindset among the Roman Christians – no-one doubted that salvation was through Christ; some may have doubted that Christ was indispensable for Jews (in Spain? in Rome?) who were faithful to Torah.

A. Salvation may come through only one channel – Christ’s death, and faith in him (3:21-31)

3:21-22a

Paul now reiterates the heart of the gospel that he announced in 1:16-17, that it is only through Christ, and faith in him, that one can experience the righteousness of God, now “revealed” (compare 3:21 with 1:17) in human history. It is testified by the Torah, but comes “apart from the law”, that is, apart from doing what it commands.

The phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” has come under new scrutiny, since Paul’s intention is less clear than the NIV and the other versions make it out to be: it might also be translated “the faith of Jesus Christ”, that is the faith that Jesus had; or even the faith that comes to people from Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, given that the believer’s faith in Christ is the theme of this section (3:26), the NIV and the others are to be regarded as correct.

3:22b-23

Again, we must keep in mind that Paul is constantly thinking of the Jews – at times arguing that they are no better off so long as they reject Christ, and at times arguing that Jews and Gentiles are equally acceptable before God if only they believe. 3:23 is often used as a proof text that all people need Christ because they are sinners. This does not distort the verse, but it does weaken its meaning by removing it from v. 22b and v. 24. The case that Paul is making is not that all people sin; but rather that all people, who in fact universally sin, are in an equally catastrophic position. The pessimism in v. 23 in particular is often underestimated today, since people make it to say something like “we all make mistakes, therefore we are all sinners”. This is not at all Paul’s point, namely – any and every sin, by anyone in any race, has the end result that they “fall short of the glory of God”. This is probably a reference to a traditional interpretation of Genesis: before the Fall, Adam and Eve were supposedly clothed with God’s visible glory; when they sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Gen 3:7 and,  from the first century AD, the apocryphal Live of Adam and Eve [Apocalypse] 20.1-2 [Charlesworth] captures the reaction of Adam: “And at that very moment my eyes were opened and I knew that I was naked of the righteousness with which I had been clothed. And I wept saying, ‘Why have you done this to me, that I have been estranged from my glory with which I was clothed?’”). In that case, Paul is saying “all of us have sinned as ruinously as did the first parents, which led to sin and death” (the themes the apostle will develop in Romans 5). We might paraphrase him as saying that “all have sinned; all who have sinned are sinners; and all sinners are cut off from God”; that is, they are as bad as the apostate Gentiles in 1:18-32. And in the end, believers will once more be “glorified”, in the resurrection (3:2; 6:4; 8:17; 8:18; 8:21; 8:30).

3:24-25b

Paul now provides a densely-packed set of verses, putting on dazzling display the special vocabulary of Christian soteriology: justification (which we will examine under v. 26); redemption; sacrifice of atonement (so NIV); faith in his blood. Equal disaster in v. 23 is met by equal relief in v. 24, that all the sinners of v. 23 can one and all come to the same justification. This is through faith, and the redemption found in Christ.

In his theological vocabulary, Paul uses the word “redemption” in two ways. First it is eschatological, the future time at which God through Christ will restore his creation. This includes the resurrection of the saints (Rom 8:23; Eph 4:30; see also Eph 1:13-14), but also the redemption of the whole universe (Rom 8:21). But redemption is also an experience for this age, and it is this present redemption that is Paul’s topic here. In Romans, sin is the master of all humanity (see Rom 7:14-25) and Christ’s death is the price to pay for their deliverance (see also Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:19-20; Gal 1:4; 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14; Tit 2:14). Christ has redeemed his people from sin, from death, and also from Torah.

The next term (in the original hilasmos) is controversial; it is rendered as “sacrifice of atonement” or expiation or something similar by the NIV, NEB, NAB, NRSV, REB; it is “propitiation” in other versions (D-R, KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV). The same word is used again only once – Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2 NIV). Most commentators today take it to mean that the sacrifice of Christ was “atonement” directed toward the sins committed by people, that it covered them up. Others take “propitiation” to mean that the sacrifice was designed to turn away wrath (Rom 1:18), that it, that it was directed toward an angry God in order to appease him. Of course, some reject from the outset the idea that God is wrathful, and that could eliminate the idea of propitiation. But this hardly resolves the issue, since many scholars believe that God’s wrath is real but that “atonement” is the better rendering of the verb in v. 25. We accept the traditional view of “propitiation” (as Stott, pp. 121-24). The important point of the word is that Christ’s death on the cross altered forever the relationship that God had with sinners, meaning that we are now regarded as righteous in his eyes through Jesus and his sacrifice of blood (see also Rom 8:3).

3:25b-26a

Paul touches lightly upon a part of his preaching that one also finds elsewhere – “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul is not saying that sinners in other times and places were allowed to go free; no-one who had written Romans 1 would make that concession. Rather, he now presents Jesus as the Savior to all in human history, and from now on no-one has any excuse.

3:26b

This is the key verse to understanding Paul’s doctrine of justification as the acquittal of believers in Christ: “so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”. The sentence holds in tension two ideas that, according to normal logic, should be contradictory. First is the truth that God always acts righteously as a judge, that is, he recognizes sin and righteousness for what they are, and unlike human judges he cannot be bribed or misled – “for the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” (Deut 10:17). In the dialogue between Abraham and God over Sodom, Abraham declares, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). In this passage he was not asking God to bend the rules, or even to show mercy to Sodom. Rather he was asking God to spare the city if there were 50 people therein whom God would recognize as already righteous. The Scriptures are filled with such verses about divine justice, for example, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Dan 4:37). And so, one side of the equation is that God will not “justify” (the crucial verb dikaioō, see below) the guilty (Exod 23:7).

The other side is that God will declare to be just certain individuals who according to all the evidence have been wicked. The question then becomes, How can God set criminals free and still be a just God? The answer is Christ, says Paul. Just as the Torah had a system of sacrifices for different situations, so Christ is the one sacrifice for all sin. Sinners are not made acceptable because God shows favoritism (see 2:11), but because they have received forgiveness in the cross.

This then is the miracle of “justification”. The corresponding Greek verb dikaioō, “justify”, is related to the words “just” and “justice”. The verb is used in two ways in the Greek Scriptures. First it means “to declare someone to be righteous because in fact he is righteous”. This is its principal forensic or legal meaning in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, thus: “When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting [dikaioō] the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut 25:1). In the New Testament, apart from Luke-Acts and Paul, dikaioō has that same meaning: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:37; see also 1 Cor 4:4; Acts 13:39). But the apostle introduces a special, “Pauline” usage of the term, which is found throughout Romans (with the exception of Rom 3:4), Galatians, and for example in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Titus 3:7. In this case dikaioō means not that God declares righteous those who really were righteous; but rather that through their faith in Christ, he declared righteous – acquitted – those who were sinners at the time of their act of faith: “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified” (Rom 8:30). God will condemn or justify people on judgment day, but just as the wicked are already feeling the revelation of divine wrath (Rom 1:18), so also believers have already been exonerated in anticipation of the End.

This Reformed viewpoint has always been at odds with the Roman Catholic, which is that justification involves the transformation of the sinner (see the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church §1266); “[the Catholic theologians] think that these two things well agree, – that man is justified by faith through the grace of Christ, – and that he is yet justified by the works, which proceed from spiritual regeneration; for God gratuitously renews us, and we also receive his gift by faith. But Paul takes up a very different principle …” (Calvin, p. 135). Even among Protestants the Reformed viewpoint is less popular today, as some wonder if the Reformers were not interpreting Paul’s writings through their lens of their own debate with Rome in the 16th century. Nevertheless, Paul shows that justification brings about the pardon of sins apart from all sorts of works, be they covenant rituals or attempts at morality. Thus, the view we will take in this commentary is that justification is “forensic”, that is, that it has to do with God’s work as judge in declaring his people free from judgment because they are now identified with Christ, in whom they trust.

The justifying act of God is not simply a mathematical equation, but the establishment of a right, comprehensive, and joyful relationship between him and his people: “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).

3:27-31

Paul now asks three rhetorical questions, which will answer any lingering Jewish objections to his gospel, but also lead the reader to the exposition in Romans 4:

Where is boasting? (vv. 27-28)

Is God the God of the Jews only? (vv. 29-30)

Do we nullify the law by this faith? (v. 31)

There is no room for national or personal boasting in his gospel. One way in which Israel might boast would be to glory in its selection by God to receive the covenant. In addition, we must take Paul seriously when he says that some, or many, Israelites were confident of their own performance of the law’s requirements. That is how he remembers his own experience prior to the Damascus Road (Gal 1:13-14) and he contrasts confidence in Torah observance with “boasting” in Christ (Phil 3:3-6). In Romans he argues that synagogue teachers, especially those who fancied themselves to be guides to the blind, were typical candidates for falling into self-justification (see 2:17-20). But if the only way to justification is through faith in a crucified Savior, then all boasting is taken away and believers can boast only in God (Rom 5:11; 1 Cor 1:29, quoting Jer 9:24; Gal 6:14; Eph 2:9).

Vv. 29-30 has a key truth that must be regarded as fundamental to Romans, that God is not the God of the Jews only, but of all nations, Jews and Gentiles. Paul will deal with this in 15:8-12, that it is God’s ultimate goal to have all nations united in singing his praise. Paul taps into the basic creed of Judaism, the Shema confession, that Yahweh Elohenu, Yahweh echad – “Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4). If God is one, then he is the only true God for Gentiles as well as Jews. Of course, as Wilckens points out, the synagogue could retort that anyone could join themselves to Israel if they wished, making God in a sense the God of all who repent – but otherwise God’s power will condemn the wicked nations; but this is not Paul’s point at all: “The gospel, on the contrary, proclaims the one God as he who shows his power, superior to all, for the salvation of all” (Wilckens, p. 307, our own translation), that is, “of all” regardless of their nationality. Says Paul: God is the God of the Gentiles if Gentiles seek him through the only path he has laid out, through faith in Christ.

The final question (3:31) is Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. Paul consistently refuses to allow anyone to label him an apostate from Torah; this is why he states that the Torah helps us to prove that the gospel is true. He will also spend time in Romans 7 showing that the Torah fails to make us righteous, but that the fault lies in us. And he will also show that believers, new creations, actually do fulfill the intent of the law in their thoughts, words, motives, deeds (Romans 12-13). He is also thinking ahead to Romans 4, where he will show that the Torah teaches us that Abraham was saved by faith too, not by circumcision or Torah.

Study Questions:

  1. What substitute “gospels” do you hear today, from television, the internet, books, the pulpit? What criteria will you use to distinguish the false gospels from the one true gospel?
  2. God says that we already may enjoy acquittal from God’s final judgment, even now during our lifetime. How does that truth allow us to live free from fear and anxiety?

B. The Heroes of the Old Testament prove Paul’s point (4:1-25)

Already Paul has argued that the Torah is God’s word, and that as such it points forward to salvation in Christ through faith; “the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (3:21) and – in a verse that is unfortunately cut off from 4:1 by a chapter division – “we uphold” or the Torah (3:31). He already used the Old Testament, especially psalms where the author is complaining about his wicked adversaries, to demonstrate that the entire human race is in need of Christ. Now he will ask both of his audiences, the Roman Christians and the fictitious Jewish synagogue (see comments on 2:1), to consider the major hero of the Scriptures, Abraham. Paul is saying that, If you were to ask God how Abraham came to be considered his friend, the answer would not be that he was circumcised, but that he had faith in God.

4:1-3

Paul calls Abraham “our forefather”. While he is thinking of Father Abraham as the ancestor of the children of Israel, “according to the flesh” (as the NIV and other versions correctly retain), in fact he will go on to show that Abraham is the father of all who believe, be they circumcised or not (vv. 11-12). The synagogue said that he was acceptable before God because he did what was required of him: leaving Ur, circumcision, being willing to sacrifice Isaac, and of course, also demonstrating faith in God’s promise. Paul returns again to “boasting”, the sin of magnifying oneself in the presence of God and others, in the case of the synagogue, because they have the Torah (2:23, also 2:17). Paul calls upon Genesis 15:6 as the key to understanding his relationship before God, since it is the principal statement of Abraham’s faith – when God promised him a seed, Abraham believed. This is not to say that faith was counted as a good work, but that it meant that Abraham was given credit for all righteousness – faith is the foundation of any relation with God. Through that faith Abraham was declared to be right with God (see our comments on dikaioō in 3:20). In fact, the just God can declare righteous any believer, even though he is a “ungodly” at that critical moment (v. 5).

4:4-8

As Dunn (p. 1.202) explains, “The subsequent exposition (vv. 4–21) focuses on the meaning of the two verbs used in Gen 15:6”, that is believe (vv. 9-21) and credited or accounted (vv. 4–8).

Paul now brings King David as the other example of a man who was justified and forgiven despite his wickedness. If these two towering heroes of the Old Testament, Abraham and David, could not be justified on the basis of their works, then what hope do the rest of us have? And so, Paul cites Psalm 32:1-2, which is considered one of the psalms he wrote concerning his wickedness with Bathsheba and his forgiveness and reconciliation to God in response to Nathan. The point is, that God is willing and able to forgive even gross offenses such as exaggerated sexual sin (Rom 1:24!) and even murder (1:29). Paul sees in the text another example of justification apart from works. This proof text is perhaps not as clear as Genesis 15:6, since after all David is following the path that all Jews did, by repenting of his sin. Nevertheless, whereas Abraham is important since he is the father of all who believe, David is crucial as the ancestor of Jesus according to the flesh (1:3): and if the father can be justified by faith, then the Son can be the Savior of those who likewise have faith to be forgiven.

We must remember that Paul is not giving us an objective textbook description of the Jewish theology of salvation in these verses, but is exaggerating it for effect: Abraham would have reason to boast! (v. 2) David would have earned forgiveness like a paycheck! (v. 4) What he does here, as in 7:14-25 (see our comments there), is reduce to an absurdity the teaching of the synagogue. The synagogue would have expressed itself in subtler shades: Abraham had faith, but his faith worked together with his works and his fidelity to the covenant; David had faith, which was expressed in his repentance, as stipulated by the Torah. Paul wants to show that both traditional paths terminate in a dead end.

4:9-12

Paul raises another rhetorical question for his Jewish compatriots – “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” (v. 9). From the Jewish rabbis the answer would have been more complicated than simply saying “those who are circumcised”. The rite of circumcision is never a mere formality, it is the first step in a commitment to following the whole covenant as a newly-added child of Abraham. And so, a more considered answer might have been: In the first instance, this blessing is only for the circumcised, including the “blessed” proselytes or converts. A minority of rabbis might have allowed that Gentiles who did the best they could would be shown a measure of mercy (that is what most modern rabbis teach), but the norm then was that Gentiles could not have it both ways.

Paul says that the Gentiles can experience forgiveness and reconciliation with God, without requiring them to become Jews, and without petitioning an indulgent rabbi for leniency. How might that work? Paul uses the history of Abraham’s experience to demonstrate his point – Genesis 15:6 says that God accounted him as righteous, but when did that happen? Any Jew would know the order of events as told by the Torah: Abram was declared thoroughly right with God in Genesis 15, and only decades later received the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17. The rabbis might respond that Paul’s statement in 4:11 could form the basis for a Judaizing gospel. But for Paul, this glimpse at salvation history opens up a possibility that the one individual on the planet who was even a monotheist, right with God, and walking in righteousness remained uncircumcised for years; doesn’t that open door to saying that there are Gentile believers in Christ who are right with God through faith in Christ, who thus have an inner or spiritual circumcision, and who in fact obey God more authentically than Jews who reject the gospel? (see 2:27 – “The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker”). Paul used a similar logic with the Galatians (Gal 3:1-6) who were following after a Judaizing gospel, again quoting Genesis 15:6 – didn’t the Galatians receive the Spirit long before they decided to accept circumcision, thus straying from the right path? And if God gave them the Spirit, that meant he had already accepted them solely on the basis of faith – ergo, Gentiles not only didn’t need to become proselytized, it was actually dangerous for them to do so, since “[you] have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4).

In vv. 11-12, Paul now makes explicit what he had merely hinted at in 4:1 – Abraham is the father, the root, of all who believe in the gospel, whether Jewish or Gentile. There is a special note in v. 12 – that Jews are right with God only if they “follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (see also 4:16). That is, there is no “second way” for Israelites who choose to opt out of the gospel of Christ – and this is a major point of Paul in this epistle, that it is imperative that all Jews – be they in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Spain – hear the gospel and be urged to receive it.

We will argue later in the commentary (see 11:17-24) that in the “olive tree” allegory, the “root” is Abraham, and that all who believe in Christ are now genuine descendants of his. If they do not happen to be Jewish, no matter, since Abraham, both lineally and spiritually, is the father of “many nations”. On the other hand, Jews who reject Jesus are not truly children of Abraham (9:6-13).

4:13-17

Jesus is the heir of the promise to Abraham, and through him all believers in Christ will be the “heir of the world” (v. 13). Paul now becomes repetitious, but it is because he is making a case that most other Jews would find feeble: the promise was “not through the law”. Now we are moving even further into the future, across the hundreds of years between Abraham’s justification and the reception of the Torah in the desert. Paul makes a division, a dichotomy, between faith and Torah here, once again breaking with the teaching of the rabbis. They would argue that, of course, we cannot separate Torah and faith – after all the Torah teaches us to trust God, and people without faith in the God of the covenant are apostates; thus, Paul would be absolutely mistaken to say that for people of the Torah “faith means nothing” (v. 14). But in order to prove his point, he utters what is close to sacrilege – that the Torah does not empower people into being better (see Rom 2; Rom 7), but serves mainly to stipulate punishments for doing wrong. That this was the case was inarguable, since many of the commandments have to do with punishment. Break the Sabbath, and you will be executed (Exod 31:14-15); likewise with sexual offenses and disobedience to one’s parents.

In v. 16 Paul once again restricts the options to two: either one tries to be saved by the Torah, or one comes to God by faith, but there is no admixture of the two. He now cites another key verse, that Abram receives his new name Abraham, because it means that “I have made you a father of many nations” (from Gen 17:5). The synagogue might have taken the Genesis verse to mean that, Abraham would be the progenitor of many nations, beginning with the descendants of Ishmael. He was also the father of many kings, starting with David. But as Christians now know, Abraham is the father of another king, Jesus: “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1, and of course Rom 1:3-4). What is more, Abraham is “the father of us all” (v. 16).

Paul now reiterates the truth that Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of all who do as he did and believed God (v. 17b); he is the common denominator among all Christians. Abraham’s faith was not some virtuous decision to be a faithful person in his ways – his hope was in the one Creator, the “God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (v. 17b). First, God allowed him and Sarah to have a son even though they were as good as dead and infertile. From them God created new life. Later Abraham offered his son on the altar in faith that God would provide a sacrifice (Gen 22:8). The author of Hebrews comments that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb 11:19). Paul also points out that God “calls into being things that were not”; in another place he says, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor 1:28) to show why God chose people of little repute and power in Corinth to be his people and to shame the wise of this age.

4:18-22

Here in Romans 4 there is no reference to Sarai’s laughter, nor to the scheme whereby they conceived Ishmael. Instead, Paul focuses on how “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (v. 18); “he did not waver through unbelief” (v. 20); he was “fully persuaded” (v. 21). The picture of Abraham in Genesis is less black and white. Still, if he were to concede that Abraham’s faith was multi-faceted, it would not have helped his opponents either, since they were assuming that Abraham was accepted by God primarily on the basis of his fidelity and good works.

Let us not imagine that it is the measure of one’s faith that is powerful; it is the measure of the power of the true God that matters. Paul uses the noun dunatos here, which is related to the word dunamis that he used in 1:16 – the gospel is the power of God. If “God had power to do what he had promised” (v. 21b) in patriarchal times, then that same God is the one whose power can saved all who believe now, both Jews and Gentiles.

4:22-25

In vv. 22-24a the apostle shows the neat parallel between Abraham’s experience and that of the Christian. Genesis 15:6 applies to believers in Christ, who are now accounted righteous. Paul has just mentioned God’s power, and he now links the life of Abraham to other gospel words: faith, righteousness, accounted, resurrection, justification. If Abraham believed that God could raise the dead, how much more so can Christians believe in the resurrection, given that Jesus himself has been raised to be their Savior and declared Lord of all. Paul will develop this truth later, in Romans 10:9 – “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.

The reader will benefit by underscoring the first-person plural pronouns in what follows: “but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (vv. 24-25). Far from being a model of how the covenant of how and why circumcision saves, Abraham turns out to be a near letter-perfect pattern of how people come to God in this new age.

Before moving on we should think about James 2:18-26, which bears a close resemblance to Romans 4. Some scholars point out that the parallel is so striking, even to the point of using Genesis 15:6, plus the rhetorical figure of diatribe (arguing with an imaginary opponent), that perhaps both Paul and James were using a form of tradition that was current in Second Temple Judaism. The position we take here is that James was not engaging the epistle to the Romans, but that he was speaking into a very different context than was Paul. Paul wanted to show that Gentiles (and Jews) are saved by faith in the resurrection of the Lord. He assumes for the sake of argument that one’s faith is genuine – after all, that is what everyone would have assumed about the faith of the patriarch Abraham. James, for his part, thinks in terms of a claim to faith that in fact is dead (James 2:17; 2:26) – not ill, not weak, but without all life and therefore devoid of any value (2:20). Our position is that if Paul were dealing with that same set of circumstances, he would have had an answer similar to that of James, and like him be energetically committed to the good works that must follow upon salvation. We should also note that Paul himself complained that people were interpreting his gospel as “Let us do evil that good may result” (Rom 3:8). Galatians 5:6 has a very useful summary of Paul’s approach, that true faith produces works: only “faith working through love” counts for anything. In the same way, says James 2:21, Abraham “worked” when he obeyed God and went to sacrifice his son.

Practical Thought: Although the story of Abraham took place four millennia ago, we must follow the apostle’s lead and understand why his example is completely relevant today.

First, we Christians are a part of a very long story. The Latin American church, like the church in many regions, has a collective amnesia with regard to its historical roots. The church where we attend celebrated its 50th anniversary not long ago, but not many congregations have roots that go even that deep. Maybe we belong to a denomination, such as the Methodist, which particularly treasures its history. But for most of us, we have only a vague memory that the pastor came from somewhere a few years ago, and started the congregation where we attend. Romans 4 shows us the great value in coming to an understanding of our relationship to other people of faith, Abraham or David, that they too were people like us who struggled with their faith but were ultimately victorious. In the seminary where we teach, we also insist that students study the history of the church, from Pentecost to the present – this even though some students find it distasteful to learn “Catholic” history.

Second, and church history also reminds of us this, we must interpret the Old Testament correctly. Many of the heresies throughout the church had a strange understanding of the role and meaning of the ancient Scriptures. For example, the Sadducees and the Samaritans accepted only the five books of Moses, and this had a harmful effect on their doctrine. The Gnostics of the 2nd century AD and later rejected completely the Old Testament canon; this meant that the teaching about Abraham in this chapter was irrelevant, as was the teaching about Adam in Romans 5. At the other extreme are those who focus their energy on conforming to the Torah, to the expense of studying the New Testament. For his part, Paul rejected all of those paradigms. He taught that the Scriptures God’s Word, hence “it is not as though God’s word had failed” (9:6), that they foretold the salvation that would come by Christ (1:2); are given for the instruction of all (15:4) and for “endurance and encouragement” (15:5), but that the regulations of Torah were not binding on the Gentile believer.

C. There are now only two peoples among humankind: those in Adam, those in Christ (5:1-21)

5:1-4

In this section, Paul turns from using the rhetorical “we” from early chapters and now speaks of the “us”, himself and the Christians at Rome. This passage must be read in terms of what comes before it (especially Rom 4:22-25).

In v. 1 there is a textual variant. Some early manuscripts read “let us have peace with God”, as if this were a goal for which the Christian must seek. Other manuscripts, including those that back the Textus receptus, have a different form of the verb, meaning “we have peace with God” as a settled fact. The reason for the confusion is that both forms of the verb sound identical and thus were confused early in the transmission of the text. “We have peace with God” (NIV, contra D-R) is correct, and indicates that Paul is now beginning to speak in positive, non-polemical terms about the wonders of the Christian life. Abraham came to be the “friend of God” (an idea not mentioned in Genesis, but see 2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; also James 2:23), because God initiated a relationship with him through his faith. And we Christians are at peace with God (v. 1); reconciled, that is, friends and no longer enemies (v. 10).

The first two benefits are that we have access to God’s grace (v. 2), not simply a once-for-all justification by faith but a way of life in which we can count on God to be receptive and loving to us through Christ. Beyond this the believer can look forward to the eschatological glory, which was lost in the fall (see our comments on 3:23) and will be restored at the final resurrection.

God’s plan for his people does not need to tarry until Christ’s return, since he equips us to live a full life in the now, even if it is within a context of social ostracization, persecution, poverty. In vv. 3-4 there is the promise that the hardships of Christian life produce a range of virtues: they make tougher people, more centered in the hope that awaits them.

Special Note, persecution. It is conventional wisdom among some Christians that persecution automatically leads to revival, in numerical growth and in greater depth. Some even say that if we want revival, then we should pray that persecution come upon our land. Both the Scriptures and church history tell a different story: Paul taught that believers should pray that they have a good, peaceful and predictable environment in which to preach the gospel (see 1 Tim 2:1-4). And history has shown that persecution might result in major damage to the church, for example in Turkey during the Middle Ages; in Spain and France during the Reformation; in Mali, Egypt, South Sudan, Iraq, North Korea today. If we really want revival in our land, then revival is what we should pray for, not tribulation.

5:5

A “paradigm shift”, as defined today, is not simply coming up with new answers to an old problem; rather, it involves questioning one’s assumptions and attempting to reframe the most fundamental questions. In Romans 5 Paul offers sweeping paradigm shifts: in v. 12, he will appeal to Adam as the cause of human sin, and he will also demolish the idea of the “two impulses” or inclinations. But the first new paradigm appears in v. 5, where he appeals to the New Covenant/Spirit as the basis for the Christian life. He had hinted at this new element somewhat abstractly in 2:14-15, that Gentiles could do what the Torah requires – that is, the life of love that is the goal of the Torah (13:10). The new element is the gift of the Spirit in the New Covenant, predicted in the prophets and now brought to fruition in this age. Jesus said that by shedding his blood he was initiating the New Covenant (1 Cor 11:24-25), and Paul self-identifies as a minister of that same covenant (2 Cor 3:6). It is the basis for transformation of believers in this age (1 Thess 4:9-10). All of this might escape the attention of the casual reader, who is accustomed to see references to the Spirit and his transforming power everywhere.

In Jeremiah this covenant would involve full transformation of God’s people Israel: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33) and the forgiveness of their sins. It is this same New Covenant, Paul agrees, that will bring about the eschatological transformation of “all Israel” in the end of the age: “and this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Rom 11:27). Ezekiel 36:22-28 contains a reference to the gift of God’s Spirit and also the sprinkling of purifying water, the two elements that underlie Jesus’ teaching of the new birth (John 3:5). Another important prediction, fulfilled on Pentecost, is that the Spirit would fall upon all of God’s people (see Joel 2:28-32). What is lacking from these promises is any indication of the scope and the early arrival of this covenant: that Gentile believers would experience its forgiveness of their sins, the gift of the Spirit, the righteousness guidance of God; and that the gift of the Spirit would be experienced not just in the age to come, but now, during this age. As we mentioned in Romans 4, it is important for Paul to demonstrate that the gift of the Spirit comes before anything else in the Christian walk (see Gal 3:1-6). Galatians 5 and of course Romans 8 are constitutions for the Christian life as a life in the Spirit. And if God himself promised that “I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols” (Ezek 36:25) – the very evils they inevitably fall into (Rom 1:23, 24) – then it becomes ridiculous to argue that they would be better if only they would follow the hundreds of statutes of Torah in order to keep them on the narrow path. Paul will pick up that theme again in 6:15.

Special Note: Modern Judaizers. It is commonplace in Latin America today to hear that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22b). The point seems to be that, if someone wants to find salvation, then he must turn to Judaism as the revelation of God’s mercy. The problem is that the quotation is taken completely out of context. The Samaritan woman is wondering aloud whether people should worship in the Jerusalem temple or the Samaritan. Jesus replies, in short, that the Jews know God and the Samaritans do not. But he goes much further and rejects the old paradigm entirely: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Although that statement sounds like a conventional theology of worship for us Christians today, in fact it was a revolutionary statement: Yes, go to the Jerusalem temple! says Jesus. But the time is already upon us when temples don’t matter, since the believer can worship truly, exclusively through the Holy Spirit. By the time John wrote his gospel, that new arrangement had been the norm for decades. This is language of the New Covenant, and it shatters the old system of temple worship in favor of God transforming the lives of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus, and serve him wherever in the world they find themselves.

5:6-11

Paul goes on to cheer up his readers with the joys of being reconciled to God. What comfort to know that God revealed his love for them even before they existed, by sending Christ to die “for us” (v. 8), who were “ungodly” and “powerless” (v. 6). In v. 7 it might seem as if he were backtracking, first saying that no-one would die even for a just man, but then conceding that perhaps someone would do so; we take it that Paul is not changing his opinion, but is using a rhetorical device. History is full of people who have followed great leaders into death; the Romans had their own tale in the slave rebellion of Spartacus, who followed their leader to their fate in crucifixion. If Christ died for us while we were sinners, then the believer has hope that God will finish the work he has begun in them, unto the resurrection (Rom 8:30) or redemption of the body (8:23; also 11:26) or until the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Phil 1:6). The salvation Christ has bought is not a cheap or incomplete product, but one which covers every contingency.

In vv. 9-10 he twice uses a common rhetorical device, “from the greater to the lesser” (in Latin it is called an a fortiori argument; in Hebrew the rabbis called it qal wahomer; see another example in 8:32). He has already named the most difficult part of the gospel in v. 8, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. If people have been saved by Christ’s blood (the hard thing to accomplish), how much more are we saved from his wrath, that is, we are already “justified”. If God reconciled us while we were his enemies (the hard thing), how much more easily are we saved now! And if we are reconciled to God, then we can not only relax, we can positively boast (v. 11) – boast about God’s works, not our own.

It was a part of the Judaism of Paul’s day that God’s people suffer during this age, given that the wicked wield power and hate the righteous. As we noted in the introduction, the greater part of the Jewish population in Rome lived in a poor section of the city. And like Christians they too expected that God would vindicate them at the end of the age. One major difference in Christian theology is that their Savior, Christ himself, suffered and died, and that his death and resurrection are the path to the renewal of God’s creation at his return.

Practical Thought: A Christian might live in slum conditions and still be on the path to the most glorious existence in Christ’s kingdom. There is no contradiction between having God as one’s Father (8:14-16) and being forced to live without adequate food, shelter, pure water, education, and other services. The Christian must balance a life of fearlessness (8:15), hopefulness (5:2), and still drive to seek social and economic justice for himself and his fellows.

5:12-21

Beginning in 5:12 Paul offers one more change of paradigm, that one can now divide the whole race, with every nation and tongue, into just two camps. For the synagogue that line would of course be drawn between Israel and the Gentile nations: “We have Abraham as our father” (see John the Baptist’s message in Matt 3:9). Paul will now take them to a new level with a new idea: first, whether you are Jewish by race or Gentile, your common ancestor is Adam; and second, that this genealogy is more determinative than having Abraham as an ancestor. This assertion is of course straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Adam, Seth, Enosh…Serug, Nahor, Terah and Abram (that is, Abraham)” (1 Chron 1:1, 26-27).

There is an ellipsis at the end of v. 12, that is, it is an incomplete sentence, which Paul only continues at v. 18 – “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned – just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people”.

Special Note, Adam. There has been an ongoing discussion since the 19th century over whether Adam really existed, or whether he is a symbol. This is not entirely new; in the 5th century AD, Augustine (see below) believed in Adam but rejected a creation within six literal days. Traditionally, Adam was created thousands of years ago (although not necessarily in 4000 BC) and therefore may be regarded as the ancestor of all humankind. This is the view that Paul seems to take. For those who regard the earth as thousands of millions of years old, then Adam – if he was a literal individual – appeared very late in time, and in fact much later than earlier hominids. In that case, some suggest, Adam and Eve were perhaps the first true Homo sapiens, even though the DNA evidence that has come to light in the 21st century raises some objections against this possibility. Others think that God selected the pair as representatives of all their kind. None of these viewpoints is without problems (see especially Stott, pp. 181-85). This is an important question for Romans, since Paul predicates the coming of sin and death upon Adam’s disobedience as recounted in Genesis (see also 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49); and like most of his contemporaries in Judaism refers to Adam without hesitation as to an individual human being; this contrary to the philosophies current in his day and ours.

5:12 is a key verse in Romans and its meaning has been debated for centuries. First, we can see that Paul is rejecting the paradigm that was all but universal in Judaism, the idea that every human being had two inclinations or impulses (in Hebrew yetser; in Greek diaboulion; the Essenes spoke of having two “spirits”), one good and one evil, and that the individual with his conscience was able to choose between them. This doctrine still shows up in cartoons today: when the person has to make a decision, a good angel appears on one shoulder and speaks good counsel to him, and an evil angel on the other shoulder gives wicked advice. The Jewish book Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), which is today a book in the Roman Catholic canon, says the following:

It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sir 15:14-17 NRSV)

It has been the conventional Jewish perspective for over 2000 years that when Adam and Eve sinned, they fell, but that act did not fatally contaminate their offspring. In effect, each of their descendants was free to choose righteousness or evil. Gentiles chose evil, because they did not have the Torah to show them a better way; meanwhile the Jews went to synagogue and heard the Scriptures, which gave them the motivation and information they needed to serve God. All to say that, the synagogue has never had a doctrine of the Fall in the Christian sense. Paul will deal with the doctrine of the two impulses, we will argue, in Romans 7:14-25.

What is Paul’s approach? First, that because of Adam’s fall, death came to all people (Gen 2:17), but also that death comes to all because they have personally sinned. In the end there is no need to differentiate between whether we experience death because of Adam or because of ourselves; both are true. And Adam’s fall resulted in the condemnation of all, even before they did good or evil (5:18), and through his sin many were made sinners (5:19) – not influenced to be evil, but actually made so. The phrase “because all sinned” in 5:12 and its relation to Adam’s sin is a point for theological argument; we agree with the viewpoint that all have sinned because they sinned in Adam their forefather (see the discussion in Cranfield, pp. 1.274-79).

Paul now brings in the role of the Torah – for long millennia people sinned, without having a written code to tell them was right and wrong. When Paul says that sin was not “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (5:13) he does not mean that they are let off free, but rather that there is no way to keep score when there is no objective standard of righteousness. Still, sin clearly was having its way all the time from Adam to Moses (v. 14), which is plenty of proof that people were condemned.

Paul’s message is based on the contrast of Adam and Christ. Adam sinned and many – all! – died, but Christ brought grace to the many (v. 15). “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification” (v. 16). And in a nice play on words, death “reined” over the race, so Christians “will reign” (v. 17): this is eschatological, it is their participation in Christ’s kingdom when they will be resurrected and reign together with him (see 2 Tim 2:11-12).

As the Savior, Jesus is the perfect obedient man, the one who did what Adam chose not to do, and because of his death and resurrection, he is able to “bring about justification” (v. 18; a better translation than the NIV with its “many will be made righteous”, v. 19).

Special Note: Augustine and Pelagius on Romans 5:12. Christians have never been united as to what Paul meant in 5:12. Around AD 400, a monk named Pelagius came from Britain to Rome. He modeled a strict holy life, and argued that if God told people to obey, then logically they have the means to do so; this was particularly true of Christians, that in theory, at least, they should be able to live completely in righteousness. The main damage that Adam caused us was that he gave us a bad example. His opponent was the mighty theologian and pastor Augustine. He argued that Romans 5:12 means that we are born already contaminated by sin; we are subject to death and we have a corrupted nature, the flesh. To put it another way, Pelagius believed that everyone has their own fall into sin; Augustine that simply by being descended from fallen Adam, everyone had already fallen (v. 14). The church condemned Pelagius and upheld Augustine at the Council of Carthage in AD 418.

If Pelagius were alive today he might have expressed his message thus: we fall into sin because of the bad example that our own parents gave us. And if we trace our ancestry back as far as it can go, Adam and Eve were the original dysfunctional parents – because of their wickedness, Cain killed his brother, and sin only multiplied from there. Pelagius would urge us to take the first baby steps toward God, and we would find that he is willing to reach out to us. We can reject what our ancestors have impressed upon us. “You can make the right choices!” might have been his slogan. It is not hard to imagine Pelagius with his own television program, books and DVDs, urging his listeners to reject their past and to make better life choices.

Augustine was a forerunner both of Roman Catholic doctrine and that of the Reformers. On the Roman side, he taught that when babies are baptized, that grace removes original sin. On the Reformed side, the Augustinian view of total depravity forms the basis for the doctrine of election

Another view in the last several centuries is the Arminian one, which teaches that God gives “prevenient grace” to all fallen people, which attracts them to the gospel, and is enough of a push to allow everyone to have saving faith in Christ if they so choose.

The view we take in this commentary is that Augustine was right about the effect of Adam on our nature, but not correct with regard to baptismal grace. Rather than baptism, we each depend on God’s call is the summons of the Spirit to believe, given to those whom God foreknew (8:30).

Paul cannot help but again bring in the Torah at this point, since he is aware that he seemingly skipped over an important chapter in saving history – the Sinai covenant. It was brought in “so that the trespass might increase” (v. 20). This statement is consistent with Paul’s statement earlier, that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (v. 13).

v. 21 is one of those “dense” Pauline declarations, whereby he packs much meaning into few words. We are helped by knowing that “eternal life” in this context is the eschatological life of the resurrection (see also 6:23), that is, it is the foil to “death” – through God’s grace we are justified and have the promise of the resurrection – and all of this, and Paul wishes to use his full title in dramatic fashion, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Paul leaves us on a very positive note in Romans 5:21 – and beginning in 6:1 he will take the Romans into the realm of “how will we, in Christ, serve God during this age”?

Study Questions

  1. How have you reacted when suffering came into your life? Has it helped you to become a better Christian? (5:3-4).
  2. Through the blood of Christ we have become “friends of God”, just like Abraham was; God took the initiative to show love to us (5:8), and now we have peace with him (5:1). What does it mean to be God’s friend?

“Romans Commentary, Romans 3:21-5:21,” Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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Bruce Hindmarsh on the Spirit of Early Evangelicalism

Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and the author of books such as John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition and The Evangelical Conversion Narrative. I recently interviewed him about his new book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press).

[TK] You note at the beginning of the book that “the rise of evangelicalism occurred in tandem with the rise of modernity.” What does that mean and how might this change the way we view the early years of the evangelical movement?

[BH] Yes, the subtitle of my book is “True Religion in a Modern World.” The significance of this form of Christian devotion emerging “in tandem” with the modern world is central to my account of the rise of evangelicalism.

The gospel (or “evangel”) as the good news of Jesus Christ to needy sinners transcends time and place. God’s decisive word has rung out for all time: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him.” The gospel is, as Luther said, “nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.” Yet a new episode in the history of Christian spirituality came about 300 years ago as the gospel was preached afresh under the conditions of a newly modernizing world. What do I mean by this?

Bruce Hindmarsh

As you and I go about our day-to-day lives, participating in the modern world, driving a car, warming up coffee in the microwave, buying our groceries, voting in the election for the local school board, or reading an online blog—as we do these everyday things we are receiving a kind of catechism about what it is to be a human being and what the world is like. Rapid transportation, long-distance communication, powerful technology, a ubiquitous media, the consumer economy, urban diversity and anonymity, democratic politics—these and other features of modern life speak to us the human being as mobile, capable, self-contained, sovereign, rational, and agential (the maker of choices).

In addition to these forms of modern life, there are also, of course, the messages of modern life that speak to us all the time, and more overtly, about the nature of human beings and the world. The combined effect of the forms and messages of the modern world is to drain anthropology and cosmology of any sense of transcendence. These cultural conditions, and their intellectual correlates, are what I mean by modernity.

In my book, I trace the emergence of these conditions to the early 18th century. It was not then the internet but the periodical press that was the first powerful modern media. It was not travel by car and jet airplane, but turnpike roads and the merchant marine. It was not modern democratic politics but the slow expansion of the franchise. It was not the advanced religious pluralism of today, but the first constitutional guarantees of limited religious toleration. It was not multiculturalism and globalization, but the beginning of large-scale people migrations and a transatlantic exchange of people and goods. It was not Coca-Cola, but Wedgewood pottery.

Slowly, the modern world was built from the bottom up, and the conditions that shape our imagination of what the world is like changed along with it. I pay particular attention to how these modern conditions emerge in three critical domains: science, law, and art. These represent, if you like, the naturalizing of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Yet, right at this moment in history, there emerged a new form of Christian devotion that we call “evangelicalism.” The fiery ardour of a new evangelical spirituality first appeared among English-speakers in the middle third of the 18th century. Across the North Atlantic, evangelical devotion centered on the atoning death of Christ and the necessity of personal conversion, and it drew laypeople into practices of Bible reading, small group fellowship, extempore prayer, personal testimony, and hymn singing—all of which have remained central to evangelical spirituality throughout its history. The spiritual awakening that followed was international and interdenominational, and it was characterized above all by a focus upon “true religion” over against nominal affiliation to church establishments and a religion of law and custom.

So I try to show the significance of this evangelical drive for “true religion” in terms of both culture and ideas. Leaders such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley were keenly aware that the material world and human nature were being described in ways that increasingly marginalized any sense of God’s presence or agency in the world. And so out of their evangelical devotion they offered a considered and exemplary response to these conditions.

What is the “spirit” of early evangelicalism, in your book’s title?

At one level I mean “spirit” as the essence of something, as when we point not to the letter but to the “spirit of the law.” But then, more deeply, I am interested in what the word “spirit” means in a modern world newly preoccupied with nature and natural explanation. Are spiritual realities sealed off in another sphere from material realities? Is spiritual insight now a private sort of knowledge, separate from the publicly accredited truths of reason?

With the conviction that it was possible to know, as a fact of experience, what one of their favorite authors called “the life of God in the soul of man,” evangelicals pushed back against the marginalization of “spirit” in the modern world. Gospel was connected to life, message to experience, word to spirit. The promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit therefore became a great theme.

So at the end of my book I say that if you asked someone like Charles Wesley what was the spirit of early evangelicalism, he would have had a ready answer: it was the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit led countless women and men to see the world described by science differently. One came to see God in the world, and this led to a response of “wonder, love, and praise.”

Most treatments of the great revivalist George Whitefield focus, understandably, on his preaching. But you focus on his early spiritual life. Why?

Whitefield was undoubtedly one of the greatest preachers there has ever been, but I am interested in the years just prior to his emergence as the “boy parson” for the way they allow us to observe the making of evangelical spirituality. How did all the kindling come together? What was the spark? How did earnest young men in the early 1730s become the evangelical preachers of the late 1730s?

With some help, I was able to decipher Whitefield’s highly abbreviated personal diaries from the period in 1735 and 1736, when he was an Oxford student, and these proved immensely valuable for reconstructing the elements that came together to produce an evangelical spirituality. One of the surprises—and this is something that you first alerted me to, Tommy—was the growing centrality of the Holy Spirit in Whitefield’s early formation. This was ultimately the spark that lit the flame of evangelical devotion.

In recent years, there has been a lot of scholarly discussion about how much evangelical religion in the 1730s and ’40s represented a break from, or a continuation of, earlier Christian forms. What’s your take on this question?

I try to place this question in the context of the wider 18th-century quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. In the end I see evangelical devotion as a new, dynamic form of spirituality, highly adapted to the modern world, but take its message of salvation to be in direct continuity with the Reformation and Augustinian strands of the Christian tradition. The evangelicals themselves made this argument for continuity over and over again.

Additionally, in their concern for spiritual life, they were often happy to warm themselves at the fire of earlier Christian devotion from unlikely sources, such as Thomas à Kempis and other traditionally Catholic authors. I outline a process of simplification, naturalization, and democratization by which such texts came to stimulate a genuinely evangelical concern to experience the presence of God.

In your conclusion, you suggest that “the flame of devotion still burns bright” in evangelicalism’s contemporary forms around the world. In what sense is there continuity between the evangelicalism of the mid-1700s and the evangelicalism of today?

Historians and sociologists have traced both genealogical and theological continuities in the history of evangelicalism that would connect the dots between the early evangelicals and evangelicalism today, but it is a complex story, and there are certainly breaks and hiatuses as well as persisting themes. In my book I really only gesture toward some of these continuities, but I do think the desire to see the gospel message awaken spiritual life in individuals and communities is central. In the end, evangelicals are most themselves not when trying to be evangelical, but when seeking to live by gospel.

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