There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2 ESV
On days when I need a word up, and a few moments of reading something nice and encouraging from a Christian (yes, there are times when the words I hear from other Christians are not encouraging) I’ll click on the blog Ministry of Reconciliation (http://debbiekaufman.wordpress.com/) and read what Debbie Kaufman has written. Chances are pretty good that what she’s put down there will be uplifting, encouraging, and written to help bring Christians together in fellowship and in unity of spirit. Over the course of the past week, which has been a wild, emotional roller coaster ride for me, she’s been discussing grace and the law, and her current article focuses on Romans.
Romans 8 is one of my favorite chapters in the entire New Testament, so much so that my well worn pocket sized ESV translation falls open to within a few pages of it when I set it down, because it has been opened there so much. You can click the link and go to Debbie’s blog to see what she has to say. Debbie is one of the kindest, most diplomatic, most compassionate bloggers on the internet, and certainly fits that bill among those who primarily blog from a Southern Baptist, Christian perspective. Her heart is set on what the title of her blog, Ministry of Reconciliation, reflects. She desires to see God’s children come together in unity and peace with each other, finding common ground to celebrate and to be the people of God on earth while we are here, as the apostle Paul might say, “for the sake of conscience.” Debbie wants other people to come to know the Jesus she knows as her own savior, and understands that, in order for that to happen for most people, they have to see Jesus living in us. Unfortunately, that’s not always what they see.
When I come to this passage in Romans, it is either because I’ve got something going on in my life that has come between me and the Lord, and I need to call on his strength and power to move it out of the way, or it is for inspiration and encouragement to remind me what God has done for me, and to help center me, and bring me to a place where everything I do is a gratitude offering to him. In my Christian life, I’ve not found the door to sinless perfection. Though I have tried, and I’ve trusted, I pray, I read the word, and I serve the Lord in a way that I believe honors his calling and direction in my life, I have not yet been able to resist every temptation to sin, and I find myself repeatedly having to call on God for the Spirit’s help to pull me out of slavery and back into his mercy and grace. This bothers me because I frequently encounter other believers who seem to have it all nailed down. They’ve got their doctrinal ducks in a row, they’ll tell me their perspective is the one with which God is the most pleased, and they are more than happy to tell me where I’ve messed up and gotten off the track. I must admit, I have done that myself, plenty of times, because it seems so commonplace in church life, so normal, so status quo. But that is only displaced condemnation. Mercy and grace doesn’t merely displace condemnation, it eliminates it.
But, when Christians engage in a discussion about mercy and grace, and what it means, and how it is to be applied, and to what areas of life it extends, it seems there are those who become wrathful, who are angered by the thought that God extends mercy and grace through the cross to all who are willing to receive it, and that it is given unconditionally. It is inevitable in such a discussion that someone will not only come along and debate the nature of mercy and grace in order to diminish its effect, but they will also do as much as possible to damage or destroy the credibility of the Christian who dares to think that he has been set free by what Jesus did on the cross, and afterward.
Not only have I indulged in such behavior, which is remarkably inconsistent for someone who has been a recipient of mercy and grace from the cross, and has been set free from the law of sin and death, but when challenged myself, I have a tendency to get sarcastic in response. How effective of a response is that? And more importantly, how much glory does God get out of it?
My ministry in the past four or five years has carried me into some places, and into contact with some people, who are outside my normal social boundaries. I’ve made more visits to people in prison or in jail than at any other time in the almost thirty years I’ve served in vocational ministry. Building and maintaining a small groups ministry has also carried me into relationships and conversations with people in coffeehouses, on the porch of a trendy restaurant, and in places where you don’t always run into the Sunday morning go to church crowd. One of the things I’ve discovered is that, for the most part, people outside the church are courteous and respectful, and not at all prone to jump to conclusions or rush to personal judgement. Oh, there are certainly exceptions, and there are those who, once they figure out you are a “practicing Christian,” they become much more guarded and cautious, but by and large I’ve found most people are up front about who they are, and generally accepting of who you are, without reservation or qualification. Of course, there are Christians who would conclude that this attitude is the end result of living without any standards or convictions, but I don’t think that’s it.
This section of Romans, beginning with “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” ends with “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Shouldn’t we, who are not separated from Christ’s love, demonstrate that through our actions toward others? The ironic contrast here is that those who are set free have chosen to place themselves under a burden of legalism, and what they reflect is the face of the Pharisee, rather than the face of freedom. That’s why there appears to be such a constrast in attitude, and why those who are “of the world” seem friendlier, less judgemental and less legalistic than many Christians do.
So, having been set free, no longer under condemnation, and not being separated from the love of Christ puts me completely out of the judgement business. Out of necessity, it should also put me out of the sarcasm business as well, at least, with regard to its use in responding to those who feel the need to judge me. I’d list some specific actions but as soon as I do that, there’d be something I’d either forget, or fail to do out of habit. I just want people to be able to sense the hope that I have in me that comes from what Paul is talking about in those last few verses of Romans 8. Being known as a nice guy is not a hindrance to understanding the gospel, nor is it “liberal” or “mainstream.” I’m so glad I am not responsible for anyone else’s behavior but my own.