“Dying to Change” – Romans 6-8

The first issue we explored from Paul’s letter to the Romans was the “meaning and message of the Gospel” – in Romans 1-5. In this lesson, I want to offer a reminder of Paul’s message about CHOICES and BEHAVIORS of those who are following God because of the Gospel. Romans 6-8 moved from the issues of salvation, to the issues of transformation of a believer – since God’s purpose in salvation wasn’t simply to change where you go when you DIE, but how you live in the “here and now”. Paul taught in the middle section of the Epistle to the Romans that believers are to be transformed because they have completed their old life, died, and now have a new life to live.

cemeteryLet’s start by admitting the obvious: “Death changes many things”. Finally, we don’t have to pay taxes anymore when we die. People can send whatever bill they want to us – and not only are we not going to pay it, no one expects us to do so. Death makes our old obligations null and void. That may sound so obvious that it is really stupid, but the fact is that the center section of Romans was dedicated to that single idea: When you surrendered to Jesus – you “died” as your own master and turned your life and direction over to Jesus, so you don’t have the same obligations you had before to serve self and sin.

Paul wanted believers to understand that the world is not our master, nor are our lusts and desires that which has mastery over us. Let me ask you: “Is that true of you?” Do you live to fulfill the desires of the One Who saved you?

If that is not true in your daily life, it may be because you aren’t truly one of His, or it may be because you are still somehow convinced that you are under an obligation or an authority that has been broken by your choice to follow a new Master – Jesus. This simple fact is this: Because Jesus is your Master – you don’t have to serve your old masters anymore.

Key Principle: Our surrender to Christ is like a “death” to the former masters of our life. That act breaks our obligation to serve sin and meticulous atonement laws to “keep ourselves in God’s favor” – replacing sin and service with the gentle guidance of God’s Spirit within.

All of us face the choice to let outside forces drive us, or inner desires press us to do what we do. People are very often driven by inner desires – I see them every day. They act like they are free, but they cannot find resolution in life without their pills or the bottle that seems to satisfy an inner sense of incompleteness. Many are driven by an addiction to the affirmation of other people – the hunger to be loved. They move about seeking someone to tell them how important they are and how good their work has been. They aren’t happy about it – they seem more like addicts driven to please than those at peace with life inside.

At the same time, I regularly meet people who are so hounded by fear and inadequacy – they adopt standards of a religious life because they feel God would not love them without “doing big things” for Him. They move about through life nervously practicing things, sure that if they fall off the ledge of some right behavior, God’s grace is insufficient for them to remain in His good graces – and God will withdraw in horror over their choices – never to return. They seem unaware that it is far better to be led by the God’s Spirit into grace than to be driven by the need to practice things in a way that seeks to “keep God’s interest” in them. I think they feel boring, unlovable and unstable in their tenuous connection to God.

The good news is that these tendencies – to feel driven by sin or driven by religious prompting are not new to the faith. People have struggled with both since the beginning of the spread of the message of Jesus. Paul encountered the two tendencies, and he wrote to the people of Rome about both – along with a practical solution. His basic argument was this: You can be driven by your desires, tossed about by your spiritual inadequacies – or be led by God’s Spirit – but it is always better to be led than driven. God’s leading comes with God’s peace. Driven individuals (those chasing after the hole in their sufficiency and adequacy) know little of peace. Look in Romans 6-8 for a few moments and let’s follow his basic argument…

Believers need to take control of their choices.

Paul reminded us that since God’s grace is so rich, free and complete –we should find rest in it, and live to please Him, allowing Him to continue to lavish forgiveness on us in spite of our continued selfishness. He asks a strange question that anticipates a negative answer…

Romans 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

On the surface, that may sound like a ridiculous idea – to sin more so as to experience God’s grace in a deeper way – but it is one that many believers have had over the centuries. The idea that God would “forgive them anyway” led some to think there was no urgent need to deny self and follow Jesus. That thinking is is neither new nor silly – it is an area worked over through the ages. Some extreme versions are even to suggest that we are “helping God” by allowing His forgiveness to increase as our sin does. It is flawed logic rooted in selfishness – a “God helps those who help themselves” theology. It is true that God will forgive you for sin. It is true that Jesus paid for all of your sin as a believer in Him. It is also true that your new identity in Jesus means that you aren’t supposed to think in rebellious terms anymore.

The Illustration of Death

Paul flatly turned down that reasoning. He contended that sin and desire no longer hold us in chains, because they were broken by Christ. Therefore we don’t need to be driven by sin, because we died to it when we surrendered to Jesus. We don’t have to serve our desires – because of our new identity and new life in Christ! Look at how he continues…

Romans 6:2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

There it is – you can choose to allow God to transform your allegiance to following your desires and hungers – and let Him work in you to engage a new life. Let’s take apart what Paul wrote, because it has some “religious” terms that can lead us in the wrong way if we don’t carefully understand them.

First, Paul made clear in verse two that sin’s hold on us is changed because we have died as believers. I feel alive, how about you? Who has died? Clearly what he said was that our surrender to Jesus Christ was like a “death” to self-direction, or at least that is what it was SUPPOSED to be. Let me illustrate: If I were to join military service this week, I would cease my ability to serve this congregation. I would cease making most all decisions in my life, and my days and nights would be surrendered to the military authorities to whom I gave charge of my life. I wouldn’t decide when I woke up in the morning, nor when I went to bed. My clothing, hairstyle and daily schedule would be entirely surrendered to their charge. I would eat what they told me to eat, when they told me to eat it. I would, in effect, “die” to self-choices. Paul made it clear that my commitment to Jesus was intended to be very much like that.

So that we don’t pass by it too quickly, let’s make sure we understand that God never designed the Christian life to be about our comfort or our fulfillment in this life – but rather we view our earth time as the beginning of a transforming process that continues at our death, and eventually fulfills us. Here I serve Christ, in death He offers me peace and fulfillment in His presence. The Christian life simply wasn’t designed for me to choose things that satiate my desires but dishonor my Savior. That isn’t Christian – it is selfish, soulish and disobedient. I am to make choices in life that honor the Savior –every time.

As we continue looking at verses three through five, notice that Paul used the language of “baptism” to show a demarcation between my old life and my new one. This is tricky, because he used a term that is “religious” and significant to the Christian faith – but it is a word that has a symbolic (metaphoric) meaning, and a literal one. As a metaphor, it was a common idiom for “identification” at that time. When people were identified with a cause or message, they could be said to be “baptized” into it. In the literal sense, it meant that you were dripping wet because of a ritual. Did Paul mean that when I was “baptized” I began following Christ? I don’t think so, but there are some scholars believe that. Yet, it is still true that when I publicly identified as a believer (whether with water or not), I declared myself under a new authority. Instead of getting caught up in the mechanism, step back for a moment and see the whole picture. Paul argued that when I was publicly identified as belonging to Jesus, my self-choices ended, and Jesus began making my choices. Our life became NEW because the One making our choices was changed. Let me lean in for a moment… If someone were to look at your choices this week, and had the ability to see the motivation behind your choices – would they see that Jesus’ honor was the prevailing factor?

Self-willed Christians must grasp the Word and recognize they are doing something that is unnatural and unsanctioned by God. He didn’t save us so that we could keep living according to our own wisdom, chasing after our own desires. Our choices became His choices – but verse five declares they are not a heavy, dead, negative sentence, but a life-producing and exciting new life! In verse six Paul made it clear that when we served self – we served sin. We couldn’t help it. Our fallen desires led us about like a master that pulled us with a chain leash.

broken chainsFinally, in the balance of verse six and seven the truth was made plain. Our commitment to Jesus broke the leash of sin’s mastery. I am no longer required to be responsive to my desires because I died to self-choice. I don’t live, as a Christian, caught up in my insatiable hungers and felt needs – I am led by the Risen Christ.

Paul continued to try to pull the truth of my freedom closer to my life and understanding – by moving from theory to practice. Why do so many people keep living as slaves to their old selfish ways? Drop a few verses down to verse eleven:

Romans 6:11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

Paul’s argument was that some believers don’t seem to understand that our allegiance to self and sin must be broken by our CHOICE to do so. Just as Jesus was raised to a new life – so we have been given a new life. The problem is that we must RECOGNIZE that the chains of sin were cut, and make daily choices based on the leading of our new Master of choices, Jesus.

What does that mean in practical terms? Verses twelve and thirteen are very direct. Paul wrote: “Don’t let your old sinful past, or your kindling of fallen desires push you around and tell you how to live now. Don’t let any part of your life be drawn back into wickedness – things God has declared unhealthy and unsuitable for believers.

The Illustration of Slavery

A few verses down, Paul offered the law in terms of an illustration that Roman citizens could really understand – that of slavery. Nearly half of the Roman empire consisted of slaves. They could be seen on virtually every city street, scurrying about in service to their masters. They were routinely bought and sold, and by the time of Paul (thankfully) they were no longer forced to be summarily executed on the death of their masters. Paul made clear that when entered the slave service to their own desires, they make a choice to follow the path to a life separated from God. He wrote:

Romans 6:16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

The simple fact is this: we were servants of sin and self-desires, but are now servants of the Savior and His desires. Since Paul has argued that sin cannot force a believer into servitude, he now clarifies the fact that it is OUR CHOICE to continue to serve our own lusts. Don’t try to victimize yourself – sin is your choice. He continued:

Romans 6:19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. … 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. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul helps us understand something important: We choose the daily path we take. We aren’t forced to “look out for “number one” – we do it because we are used to doing it from our former life, or we are simply not being diligent to choose in a way that honors Jesus as we should.

Here is the point: Every day we make choices about what is truly important to us. When we choose simply on the basis of what we want, we go to work when it suits us to do so. When we love our family and want to provide for them, we choose to go to work even when we aren’t feeling well. When we love our infant child more than ourselves, we wake up and feed them in the still of the night, because they are hungry.

The problem is that far too many people think they are believers, but they have some permanent right to be selfish and spend their lives on their own lusts. They want to have stuff – so they work – not to steward the things they earn to honor God, but merely to enjoy life for themselves and do what they want with what they earn. God isn’t the God of their time – they control that part… but they do try to drop by on Sunday every now and again. God isn’t the God of their treasure – they “earn it” and spend it on whatever makes them happy.

Here is the truth: If I am freed from service as a slave of sin – then my choices to act in selfish ways are my own – and I cannot blame God, temptation, my boss, my spouse, the world around me, or the devil himself for my choice to serve my lusts, my desires, my selfish dreams. That choice is mine, and I must be honest and own it.

Believers need to set aside their hunger for earned righteousness.

Sometimes we chase after inner desires. Other times, it isn’t LUST that we serve, it is a LIST. Paul went back in Romans 7 to the DEATH ILLUSTRATION he used in Romans 6, this time to move into the argument against living to serve religious lists and keep God happy:

Romans 7:1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 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 that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man. 4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.

Paul understood the Law at a level few of us ever will. We didn’t grow up raising a sacrifice lamb and keeping it spotless for presentation in the Temple. We don’t really understand how hard it was to follow exacting rules regarding food and clean living in a time and place where running water was just becoming common in the wealthiest of homes. He knew that keeping the list – albeit a holy list – meant much effort. He didn’t choose a tough subject of law, but rather a simple and well understood principle: “You are under the terms of the Law while the parties are all alive.”

Just as in Romans six he drove home the point that our choices are our own, and that we are dead to the old master of “self” or of “sin” – so now Paul proclaimed that believers were “dead” to atonement law because Jesus replaced it with full justification. He didn’t “amend” the atonement; He cancelled it and replaced it. You don’t have to “maintain” a constant observance to be assured of God’s full acceptance.

Does that mean my life is now a free for all? Can I live anyway I please? No, not at all. In fact, the last chapter made that plain. What Paul was explaining was that Jesus DID ALL that was necessary for our complete acceptance by God, but verse four made clear that He did it for a purpose: that we might “bear fruit for God”. We were given a new life that we might choose to serve God with our life and produce things that please Him.

Feeling the Fight

feeling the fightFrom Romans 7:5-20 Paul verbally wrestled with himself. He wanted to do good things, but the old man followed him throughout his life, and he kept finding himself doing the opposite of what he knew he should do. Trying to follow God, while I walk through this life with the old nature still alive within me is TOUGH. The Law informed Paul of what he did wrong, but didn’t help him DO RIGHT. It showed him many things about himself – and most of them weren’t good! Paul continued:

Romans 7:21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

The Apostle knew of the very famous reference in Virgil’s Aeneid in which there was a reference to an ancient king, who offered a cruel punishment for the capital crime of murder. He was said to have chained the dead man to the killer until the murderer died of the “dead tissue transfer”, unable to separate himself from his rotting burden. The story was famous, as was the whole of the Aeneid, written a generation before at the time of Caesar Augustus. Paul employed the image as an extreme reference, certainly because his nagging sin nature made him feel wretched from time to time, with the stench of his old man’s sinful desires – just as any believer who really looked at the things that well up inside of us from our old life would begin to feel!

The point of Romans seven was that a war is at work within us. We know we don’t do the right things because God’s Word tells what the right things are. At the same time, we don’t have to struggle so hard under the weight of constant guilt. God knows you. He knows what He got when you came to Christ. That is not and should not become a reason to be lazy, undisciplined and unwholesome – but our walk with God is also not supposed to be a drudgery, an unreachable goal stuck around our shoes sinking in the muck. God called us to Himself to walk through life WITH us, not to make it harder to navigate life. With God, we can make good choices. With God, we can fill our homes with laughter. With God, we can know the thrill of being right with our Creator. Following the rules will leave you exhausted – following the Savior will fill you with wonder over God’s goodness.

Let me ask you honestly: “Have you lost the wonder of a walk with God? Does holiness sound like a burden?” In the world you will be trained to think that all the fun is in the wrong doing. It isn’t true. There is no relationship more fulfilling than a good and guilt-free marriage. There is no bond like two brothers in Jesus. There is no joy like embracing another who has just surrendered their heart to Jesus. The world knows little of “guilt-free joys”.

A New Approach – Life led by the Spirit

The simple fact is that many people around you today are driven. They are trying to satiate their inner lusts. Others are clothed in religious piety and chasing a list. Neither of those things will work for very long… they are both exhausting and will leave you tired and empty. There is a third way… and Paul offered us a picture of it in Romans eight:

First, get rid of the guilt, and grab the Savior’s hand:

Romans 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Christians notoriously get wrong the meaning of this passage. The “law of sin and of death” is this: “sin brings death; where there is sin, one will die.” The atonement system was a temporary substitution – a man sin but a lamb died. In Christ, a man sinned but the Savior died, once for all. The law of continuous and temporary atonement through the death of animals was voided, because Jesus paid the full bill for sin.

Step back for a moment. Take a breath and recognize that Jesus paid for your sin. Take your choices seriously, but don’t think that it all rests on your shoulders. Jesus is walking through this with you.

Second, remember that Jesus’ payment was for a purpose:

Romans 8:3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Atonement was able to cover sin, but not change the heart in the way that surrender to Jesus does. His coming as a man, and His full payment at the Cross offered us a new relationship, characterized by the lodging of the Spirit of God within us. That should change our focus. Jesus didn’t come to make us miserable list-keepers, or licensed sinners. He came to make salvation fully available, and the Spirit’s indwelling permanently operative.

Here is the problem: without the indwelling Spirit, we would have to tough out a walk with God, fighting relentlessly against the sinful desires of our flesh – but that isn’t the call of the believer. Jesus came to bring us peace with God and the powerful work of the Spirit within. In fact, Paul made clear:

Romans 8:5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

Third, recognize that you need to choose to live the life God called you to live:

Romans 8:7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. … 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. …14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. …

We have a choice, but we also have an obligation. Don’t think that God doesn’t notice how little you regard Him in your life’s decision making. He knows. He notices. He is ready to offer you the greatest gift you will ever be given – more intimate time with Him – if you will desire it and choose time with Him!

Finally, stop worrying about doing it all right, and start focusing on a walk that embraces God’s love.

Make choices BECAUSE HE LOVES YOU, not to get Him to love you!

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Beloved, the days are drawing to a close when we can keep “playing at our faith”. We must look more carefully at the choice to follow Jesus, and how that affects all of our life choices. We must not dabble in lust and license or chase after loveless lists. It is time for us to recognize the great gift Jesus offers us – Himself. He will walk with us. His love will move our hands and feet if we learn to move at the impulse of His will. Giving yourself to Jesus is an act of dedication that needs to happen again and again – until we truly recognize that a Spirit-led life is something more than avoiding big sins and saying God words. Dedication is costly. An old story reminds…

Bertoldo de Giovanni is a name even the most enthusiastic lover of art is unlikely to recognize. He was the pupil of Donatello, the greatest sculptor of his time, and he was the teacher of Michelangelo, the greatest sculptor of all time. Michelangelo was only 14 years old when he came to Bertoldo, but it was already obvious that he was enormously gifted. Bertoldo was wise enough to realize that gifted people are often tempted to coast rather than to grow, and therefore he kept trying to pressure his young prodigy to work seriously at his art. One day he came into the studio to find Michelangelo toying with a piece of sculpture far beneath his abilities. Bertoldo grabbed a hammer, stomped across the room, and smashed the work into tiny pieces, shouting this unforgettable message, “Michelangelo, talent is cheap; dedication is costly!” – Gary Inrig, From: A Call to Excellence

Our surrender to Christ is like a “death” to the former masters of our life. That act breaks our obligation to serve sin and meticulous atonement laws to “keep ourselves in God’s favor” – replacing sin and service with the gentle guidance of God’s Spirit within.