Sunday, April 26, 2009

Romans 7: Why Are Forbidden Fruits Sweeter? (Part I)

The latest Kairos magazine is out of the stove and here is the unedited draft from my article on Romans chapter 7.

Have you ever stolen mangoes or rambutans from a neighbour’s tree? If those adolescent exploits still make you chuckle, it may seem puzzling to see why Augustine agonized with guilt over some stolen pears in his Confessions. Was he indulging in a kind of mental self-beating?

Apparently not. Augustine looked back on his ‘fruitful’ endeavor and confessed that he was not even hungry that day. In fact, he gleefully threw his loot to the pigs. His desire was not the sweetness of pears, but merely the excitement of doing what was wrong! He asked himself, “Was it possible to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?” Forbidden fruits taste better simply because they are off-limits.

This universal human experience seems to be on the apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote:

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet”. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead.” (Romans 7:7-8)

Earlier in this grand epistle to the church in Rome, the apostle had argued powerfully that sinners are declared righteous by God’s grace through faith in Christ, not through obeying the law (3:27). Consequently believers are ‘not under law, but under grace’ (6:14). They are no longer trying to impress God or earn divine favor by keeping the written code and live under its condemnation. Instead, they depend on what Christ had graciously done for their salvation and thus set free from the power of sin.

If the law only brings us wrath from God (4:15), does that mean that Paul considered the Mosaic law to be responsible for sin and death? Was he casting a shadow against the law as the cause of sin and condemnation? (7:7, 13) In Romans chapter 7, the apostle would answer these serious objections and defend the role of the law in our discipleship.

No, he wrote, the law in itself is “holy, righteous and good” (7:12). On the contrary, it is our fallen nature which is the source of sin and death. Although the law reveals and condemns transgressions, our self-centered disposition is thus aroused to produce every kind of prohibited desires (7:8). For this reason, the law is unable to rescue sinners or make them holy. It can neither be the ground for our justification or sanctification.

Paul used marriage as an illustration to explain the principle that the law has authority over a person only as long as he or she lives. “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage” (7:2). Similarly, believers have died to the law through participation in the death of Christ so that they may now belong to Him and bear good fruit to God. They were once controlled by the sinful passions provoked by the law, resulting in evil deeds that lead to death. But now they have been released from the law so that they may serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (7:1-6)

Romans 7: Why Are Forbidden Fruits Sweeter? (Part II)

The unedited draft of my article for Kairos Magazine 2009: (2nd part)

Recently, I overheard some heated discussions in blogdom about the meaning of being ‘released from the law’. Does that mean that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding on Christians? One side of the debate was accused of promoting the law without grace (legalism) while the other was indicted of giving out a license to lawless living (antinomianism). So are we still expected to obey the law? Answer: Yes and no!

Legalism says: “Obey and you will be accepted by God!”
Lawlessness says: “Disobey and you will still be accepted by God!”
The Gospel says, “You are accepted by God because of Christ, therefore obey!”

Yes, the law still has a positive role for us as the revelation of God’s will because we have been set free from sin to become slaves of God and of righteousness (6:18, 22). We are liberated so that we may belong to Christ and bear good fruit (7:4). But no, our motive to obey is not to save ourselves or earn acceptance from God. We serve out of a grace-filled, loving relationship with Christ. Not because we have to, out of mere obligation, but because we want to, out of grateful delight. Such obedience is empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, not fleshly efforts or external coercion (7:6).

“What a wretched man I am!”

If the law is not to be blamed for sin, it is also clear that it is too weak to do what it is supposed to do – that is, to make us holy. Paul wrote, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14). Biblical scholars have spilled much ink over the identity of the ‘wretched man’ caught in intense introspective struggles as described in Romans 7:14-24. He delights in God’s law in his mind (7:22) yet confesses that nothing good lives in him, that is, in his sinful nature (7:18). He could not do the good that he wants to do. Instead, he carries out the very evil that he wants to shun (7:15-16). It almost seems like he has a split personality, fighting a ferocious war within himself (7:23).

Was Paul talking about his own guilt-ridden inability to keep the law as a Pharisee in his pre-conversion days? Or does the ‘wretched man’ represent a regenerate Christian life caught in the already-not yet tension of growing in holiness in a fallen world? Or was Paul mimicking an abnormal Christian who still relies on external law-keeping rather than the ‘new way of the Spirit’ for his sanctification?

Without getting entangled too deeply in this debate (the curious reader may consult a good commentary for more details), perhaps it would be fair to say that all of us (be it Christian or otherwise) are unable to keep the law perfectly due to the power of sin living in us. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:24)! These inner struggles did not climax with a cry of despair but of anticipation for eventual deliverance. We would only read of the indwelling Spirit by whom we put to death the misdeeds of the sinful nature later in Romans 8.

Tim Keller has a helpful way of distinguishing the gospel from both legalism and lawlessness. While it is easy to detect sin in a hedonistic lifestyle, we often cannot tell how the gospel is any different from moralistic religion. But a legalist rejects God’s grace by trying to be his own savior through achievements just as a hedonist rejects God’s law in pursuit of selfish pleasures. Both are fundamentally opposed to the gospel of grace.

Two Christians may join the same cell group, tithe regularly, serve in church, listen to the same sermon and try their utmost to be good parents. But they may do so out of radically different motives, resulting in radically different approaches to life. The legalist does these things in order to appease God, out of fear and despair that God will reject him if he fails to perform. If he succeeds, he feels proud and superior to others. On the other hand, the believer transformed by the gospel does the same things out of grateful joy in God’s free acceptance and desire to bring Him pleasure. The result is a humble boldness since Jesus alone is his righteousness and atonement for sins.

Which is the primary driver in your life - the law or the gospel?

Is our standing before God dependent on grace rather than our track record in law-keeping? Is our obedience an outflow of a personal, living relationship with God? Or do we relate to God in terms of a slavish bondage to rules and regulations, a list of do’s and don’ts, of mere duties and obligations?

God is not glorified by joyless religious duty, but by our joyful, willing and obedient delight in all that He is.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Lessons from Gethsemane

GRACE@WORK MAIL 15/09 (April 10th, 2009 Edition)

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By Soo-Inn Tan

I have been revisiting Gethsemane in preparation for Maundy Thursday. I am struck afresh by the prophetic force of Jesus' travail in the dark. Jesus is no eager suicide bomber rushing to his martyrdom. Instead He wrestles with His Father to see if there was anyway He could get out of going to the Cross. Here are His words as recorded for us by Matthew:

[Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My
Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but
as you will." (Matthew 26:39 TNIV)]

As D. A. Carson reminds us, Jesus did not suffer martyrdom. His was a unique death and a unique anguish.

[Jesus did not suffer martyrdom. Can anyone imagine the words of (Matthew) 26:53 on the lips of a Maccabean martyr? ... Jesus went to his death knowing that it was his father's will that he face death, completely alone (27:46) as the sacrificial, wrath-averting Passover Lamb. As his death was unique, so also his anguish; and our best response to it is hushed worship ... ("Matthew," The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, 543)]

Nevertheless, there was a choice to be made. There is no indication that Jesus would disobey the Father. He was asking if there was any other way. Once it was established that the Cross was the only way, Jesus embraced it. In doing so Jesus was practising what He had taught His disciples in the model prayer, in Matthew 6:10. This then is one key lesson from
Gethsemane: followers of Jesus are to obey God even when it is difficult. The lesson is clear but hard to hear in the din of today's consumerism dominated world.

Consumerism tells us daily and in many creative ways that the customer is king. You do what you like to do. And often we are encouraged to make choices that make us feel good. As Benjamin R. Barber points out, the modern consumer society has infantilised us, training us to choose the easy over the hard.

[Ours (society) rewards the easy and penalizes the hard. It promises profits for life to those who cut corners and simplify the complex at every turn. Weight loss without exercise, marriage without commitment, painting or piano by the numbers without practice or discipline, internet "college degrees" without course work or learning, athletic success through steroids and showboating ... morality without sacrifice, and virtue without effort.
(Consumed, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, 87-88)]

To Barber's list, we could add, salvation without the cross, which interestingly, was the devil's offer (Matthew 4: 8-11).

Thank God Jesus made the right choice. His obedience would lead to the Cross and the undoing of the disobedience of Adam. His obedience unto death opened the way for life and the birth of God's new humanity.

As members of this humanity we too are confronted by choices. Once in awhile we are confronted by choices that involve choosing between God's way and the devil's way. How do we find the strength to follow our Lord? If indeed the "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26: 41), how do we find the strength to make the tough, right choices in a world that encourages us to take the easy way? We find two clues from Jesus' victorious choice.

First, Jesus always trusted in the love of His Father. Even as He agonised over the prospect of the Cross, Jesus always knew that God was His Father (Matthew 26:39). As R. T. France reminds us:

[The relationship of trust and loyalty between Father and Son which was put under scrutiny at the outset of Jesus' ministry (4:1-11), proves able to survive even this ultimate test. ( The Gospel Of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007, 1002)]

We choose to obey God, even when it is tough, even when we don't understand, because we trust our Abba Father. His love is perfect and all his ways are just. Jesus knew that and chose accordingly. At some point of our Christian pilgrimage, and perhaps many times in our journey this side of heaven, we need to know in the depth of our beings, the utter trustworthiness of the love and purposes of our Abba so that we would free fall for Him if He were to ask us to.

The second clue from Gethsemane as to how we can find the strength to make the tough decisions of life is somewhat of a negative one. We need a supportive community. Jesus made it clear that He wanted His three closest disciples to be with Him because of the gravity of the test that He was facing. Jesus is no unfeeling stoic. He freely tells His friends: "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." (Matthew 26:38b TNIV) The fact that His three friends fell asleep on the job does not negate the principle that we are meant to face the challenges of life in the company of faithful friends.

There is mystery at Gethsemane. We will never fully understand all that happened there two thousand years ago. But we know there was a tough decision to be made and that Jesus made the right one. And that He now invites us to take up our crosses and follow Him, fully trusting the Father, in the company of faithful friends. This Maundy Thursday we echo the words from Gethsemane: " ... not as I will, but as you will."

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