The Gospel Applied: “Mission Impossible” – Romans 13

peter-gravesWhen I was a kid, Peter Graves used to get his spy assignments for a secret team of agents on a reel to reel tape recorder. Every episode, we heard the words: “Your mission, should you decide to accept it is…” The fun part was the end of his listening to the message when it ended with: ”This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” Right in front of our eye the tape would start smoking, and evaporate! Oh those were simpler days! We sat mystified at how these secret spies of the underworld could pass undetected messages beneath the nose of an unsuspecting public. During the whole series (1966-73), Bruce Geller (the producer) kept us guessing at how the “IMF” or “Impossible Mission Force” would trick one bad guy after another. Every problem seemed insurmountable. Every enemy seemed clever. Yet, episode after episode, the “Impossible Mission Force” pulled out some new magic.

Don’t lose me on the illustration… As I was preparing anew the lesson from Romans 13, I recognized it was a very simple passage. It contains plain instruction and is not written in a pretentious style that demands too much of any reader to grasp. Yet, though it is simple on the surface, the demands of the passage require an understanding of the broader context that we must recognize, or the passage will leave us wanting. We will read God’s Word, seek to do what He told us, and find ourselves defeated and depleted. What do I mean? Look for a moment, even before reading the whole chapter, at the last line of Romans 13, found in verse 14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to [its] lusts.”

Now ask yourself, “What does that truly mean?” Am I about to listen to a message that encourages me to look at a model Christian as one who leaves today in their car without using the air conditioner? Will they refuse a good restaurant for lunch and go home to eat bread, drink water and send the money they would have spent to missionaries? Will they avoid comforts through the week, and sleep on a hard floor rather than a soft mattress? “You’re being silly!” some will protest. Maybe. Now, let me ask you, how does one make NO PROVISION for the flesh in regard to its lusts and walk through a buffet line? There must be more to this! The passage appears to tell us what God expects from us, but not HOW God expects us to do what He told us to do.

In an effort to make clear what I believe must be understood about the passage, I am going to ask you to allow me to change the normal way I construct a lesson. If you will be patient, I would like to take a few minutes and take apart the passage BEFORE we look at the key principle we will consider… If you will be patient, the method will make sense.

Before moving into the lesson, we should note again that our text is part of the section that deals with God’s desired behaviors from those who have first recognized their sinfulness (Romans 1-3), and the gift of God that is our salvation (Romans 4-5). It is written for those who know that God empowers us to walk with Him (Romans 6-8), and for those who trust God for doing what is right in His plan – keeping His Word at all times, as exemplified in His relationship with Israel (Romans 9-11). Romans 12-16 was clearly written for the believer and about the measure of a believer. In that context, it offers four simple, straightforward instructions.

Four Instructions for Believers

Instruction One: We must recognize that God gets to put people in charge, and accept the truth that God is ultimately in charge of the whole plan.

As a follower of Jesus, we accept that what is happening in the physical world is but a symptom of the spiritual world. We believe that behind the scenes are two competing agendas – that of a loving God and another of a deceiving enemy. Though God’s enemy has great power on our planet, he is limited to the realm God has set for him until the time that evil is brought to an end. Ultimately, all things happen under the authority of our Heavenly Father – even the things He is not pleased by. Yet, the underlying system, though at times suffering from later corruptions, is still a reflection of His original establishment. Paul put it this way…

Romans 13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.

The text argued for obedient and respectful believers in the public realm. Don’t miss that there are three important principles related in this portion:

• Design: First, God had an original design for civil authority. Part of honoring God in this text is choosing as believers to in practical ways place ourselves beneath the authority the Word claims God placed over us (13:1a). The text also made clear that it was God’s design that authorities were placed to help those who desired to do good and cooperate with society, and to keep those who did evil in fear (13:3-4). Government had a divine design. Civil authority had a God-strategy.

• Rebellion: Second, God expects believers to follow His appointed authorities. Refusal to follow the authorities (with the exception of the most radical circumstances covered in the few places concerning civil disobedience elsewhere in Scripture) is ultimately a refusal to follow God’s ordained order (13:1b). In fact, our rebellion against God’s placed civil authority is another form of rebellion against God. The statement is not absolute – for there were times when believers had to stand against civil authority to preserve life and obey God – but they were the rare exception. We must remember that there is a distinction between people in Scripture who were motivated by an intense desire to follow God with their whole heart – that ran into conflict with the authorities, and people who were motivated by rebellion and self-will to fight the authority at hand. With rare exception, God expects His followers to respect civil authorities.

• Results: Third, God endowed civil authorities with effective tools to punish those who would not follow. Those who refuse to follow the God-ordained authority do so at their own peril and should anticipate no aid from God in doing so (13:2). Standing against God-ordained authorities will not only incur certain negative outcomes, but will also violate your sense of guiltlessness before God and man (13:5). God has not appointed them without some real power.

Instruction Two: We must act out submission by paying our taxes.

The theory of obedience was made much more practical by Paul pointing to our use of money to show obedience and honor. He noted:

Romans 13:6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for [rulers] are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax [is due]; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

This isn’t heady, it simply requires that we not “in theory” to embrace civil authority and then feel justified starving its ability to collect revenue necessary to perform its vital civil tasks. The passage requires that we openly agree to pay, honor and show respect to those in authority. Bear in mind Paul was a Roman, writing during the early years of Emperor Nero. Though he was not yet acting out, there were ample illustrations of inequitable rulers readily available at the time.

Don’t cynically read this as some kind of patronizing passage to keep the authorities off the back of the early church leaders – it is both their record and the breathed Word of God! The instruction was clearly to respect, fear and honor civil authority based on their placement by God. This included paying taxes into a system that used the money for purposes we wouldn’t individually agree to as believers. There is yet a third instruction…

Instruction Three: We must be clear: taking or withholding something that belongs to another (according to God) is both a violation of God’s law and an unloving act.

It is important for us to note that when God calls for us to give honor, fear and treasure to civil authority, He has the right to direct my finances. All that I have has come into my life because of My Heavenly Father. Listen to what God directed:

Romans 13:8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled [the] law. 9 For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of [the] law.

We are to keep our ledger clear of debt, but recognize there is one part of the ledger that can never be clear: the part concerning our love. We OWE it to people to love them. If we violate the sacredness of another person’s marriage – we steal from someone. We steal their special bond, violate the sacredness of their promises and covenant to each other, and potentially wound their children and family. When we kill another human being, we steal their right to more opportunities for forgiveness, more chances to find love and experience grace – we take from them what is not ours to take. When we take from another the things that are justly theirs, we remove from them the fruit of their labors, and we show ourselves discontented with what God has placed rightfully in our hands. All these are sins: adultery, murder, theft. We must not take, but we are equally commanded not to withhold – or we also sin. We are not to withhold our deliberate action to meet the needs of those around us, without the expectation of any specific return on our action. We are to love, because we were commanded to by God. – that is reason enough. There is one final command…

Instruction Four: Because we claim to be Jesus’ followers, we should endeavor to take on the Master’s looks: His actions, attitudes and the focus He had on finding fulfillment in His Father, not the flesh.

Perhaps summarizing the whole passage, the end of the text calls for us to deliberately change our appearance…

Romans 13:11 [Do] this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to [its] lusts.

God called on every follower of Jesus to lay aside the works of a life built on self, and put on the attitudes, character and action that were exemplified in our Savior Some things are to be removed: carousing and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, sensuality, divisions and the poison of jealousy. Some things are to be increasingly evident: Christ-like focus on fulfilling the desires of our Father in self denial.

What is absolutely clear is this: Paul, under the direction of God’s Spirit, made a list of things in Romans 13 he wanted believers to observe with their lives. He instructed them to DO some things. Left by itself, Paul’s words can look like a “self-help” directional seminar. It can sound like he is giving us a shopping list of things to do in order to have God “check off” on our life sheet – “Good job!” To some limited extent, that is true…but only in the context of a yet greater truth – and here is the point you waited so patiently to understand…

Key Principle: What God calls us to do MUST be understood in the context of who we are in Christ and what He does with one who trusts in Him. Without that context, we will try to walk with God in the power of the flesh.

Years ago I heard a Pastor in Canada say that he thought of these kinds of Bible passages like a J C Penney catalogue. He could look through the catalogue of God’s Word and see the things he wanted to have, spiritually speaking, in his life. To get them, he would pray. He looked at prayer like “placing the order” from the catalogue of the Scripture. He could visualize himself praying, and as he did, his request was sent it up to Heaven. He imagined a long room full of angelic employees who would take his request, let’s say, to be “more loving” – and drop it on the angel’s desk marked “more love”. They would package some special amount of love and shoot it down to his heart with a spiritual arrow. If he read that he shouldn’t be jealous, he would ask God to give him more strength to keep him from succumbing to jealousy, and then could just see an angel at the “spiritual strength” desk shooting an arrow at him as he slept, hitting him in the heart. This is how he viewed his Christian life for years – the Bible catalogue and the “angelic arrow” Federal Express. The problem is that kind of life gets heavy – because it isn’t a whole view of what God told us about the spiritual world and walking in it well.

Behind the problem with that thinking is that doesn’t take into account ALL of what God told us, only part of it. Paul knew something about the list he gave the early believers that we must understand or we will work hard to be good Christians and fail every time. Here is the truth: the standards were absolutely impossible for them to pull off on their own.

Let me say it another way directly from the passage we have just studied. You may want to walk in constant obedient subjection to those in authority over you. You may desire to pay everyone everything you owe them – all the time. You may seek to be known as the most loving neighbor in the history of mankind. You may have a sincere yearning to reflect only works that are in harmony with the life and teachings of Jesus. You may aspire to walk without a hint of sexual impurity in your innermost thoughts. You may voraciously hunger to live a life without a single conflict with those around you, and never allow the cancer of jealousy to eat away at your soul. You may truly, whole-heartedly and with all your best intention crave a life that could stand before God and man and say: “Inspect me, within and without, and you will see one who makes not even a slight provision for my fleshly hungers – but lives a life of purity and wholesome thinking.” Here is the truth: you don’t have the power to pull it off. There isn’t one Christian you have ever met that can make the claim that they have successfully pulled off that list – not one.

But I have the Bible!

Some will react inside with objections because they have worked to know the Word and believe that alone should bring about victory. Your knowledge of God’s Word will be helpful, but it won’t get the job done, either. Before you reject what I am saying… listen. Most of you know me. I am a Bible teacher and I push with all my strength to get people to study the Word and know the Word in order to LIVE the Word. Yet, I have to woefully admit that that isn’t the whole story – by itself that prescription won’t work.

Consider the context of Paul’s earlier words in Romans 7, where he clearly showed that while the Law of God made clear we are self-willed and fall woefully short of right behavior, that same Law was entirely inadequate to make me pleasing to Him – because it didn’t provide the power to pull it off. In fact, Paul went on to tell us HE couldn’t pull off the Law:

Romans 7:15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I [would] like to [do], but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want [to do], I agree with the Law, [confessing] that the Law is good.

Paul made it clear: He was inadequate in his will power to follow the patterns and practices God outlined for him, and the knowledge of the will of God didn’t come with the power to obey God in and of itself. Is it any wonder you and I struggle with the same thing? Most of us have far less training, far less successful church planting and far less impact on our generation than Paul had on his, and yet HE couldn’t pull of godliness with his own power. He couldn’t get from text to practice without dropping the ball!

Here is the truth: Your knowledge of God’s Word will make greater obedience eventually possible, but it will not, by itself, make you obedient to Jesus. Those of us who have both known Christ for a long time, and who have carefully studied His Word can testify without exception that we are sure of our salvation, that we are thankful for the Word of God – but that we are very much still strugglers against sin in our own lives. There is no question about it, I won’t “learn my way out of temptation” or “learn my way into consistent victory over sin.” The power simply isn’t there. If Paul couldn’t, what makes me so arrogant to think that I will be able to accomplish this? But wait… that isn’t the whole problem. I must also face a world that is cold to my labor to obey and honor God.

My Environment is no help!

Add to the truth that I am a fallen vessel the fact that I live in times that are increasingly discouraging me to walk in a way that pleases God. This world is no friend to grace, to obedience and to honoring Christ. It hasn’t been since Paul’s day. He wrote:

2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 [we are] afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Paul made clear that his power wasn’t from the flesh, but the weakness of his flesh would make it clear to anyone who was watching that when he did right it was God working through his broken life. You read no arrogance in 4:7, but a broken man who exalted Christ in each victory! Immediately after, Paul made clear that life wasn’t easy. The world wasn’t friendly to his faith. He described the constant pressure on him in 4:8-10. Listen to the words closely: “afflicted – not crushed; confused – not despairing; persecuted – not alone; struck down – not destroyed; marked by the call of the Cross – dead to self. He didn’t want to live for Himself… he wanted Jesus to live through Him.

Here is the great challenge of our time – not battling people who believe they found liberty by forcing an agenda through judicial fiat, but by battling a false view of hope, love and true fulfillment. As God’s church in this age, we must renew ourselves to the task of articulating clearly the truth that finding ultimate freedom cannot come from trust in this world and its pleasures. The call of Christ is to “come and die to self that I might live through you!”

The Bible is clear: true happiness will not be found in even the best human relationships, because all of us are fickle, fragile and frail. Our “lifetime lover” may believe they will be faithful, and they may love us deeply – but we may still end up sitting beside their empty chair. Don’t forget that they are not in control of the length of their days, and if they were, they would honestly reveal they struggle to be in control of their wandering desires throughout their life. We rob people of the truth when we act as though real fulfillment can be found in relationships with people.

Come now, believer, let us renew ourselves to the grand message yet again! Relationships on a broken planet filled with flawed people cannot be where ultimate fulfillment is found. It is the Gospel that sets people free. It is Jesus Who saves! It is God’s Spirit Who brings true liberty! No acceptance by the crowd, no sense of empowerment, no decoration of earthly riches and no form of sexual expression ever will make me free. Only Jesus can do that.

If I cannot pull off obedience to God in the flesh, how can I take the Word and grow? How can I be held responsible for what happens in my growth.

Your growth isn’t dependent on you alone, but you play a role in it.

First, I must reckon that the foundation of my relationship with God is not based on my performance – but on Christ’s work.

Romans 8:1 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God [did]: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and [as an offering] for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us…

That doesn’t mean that I should get mystical and fuzzy about obedience – it means that I shouldn’t look at my relationship with God like I am hanging over a precipice and clinging with my fingertips to God – hoping to stay strong enough to get through and not fall. Jesus said the Father holds me in His hand, not the other way around. I am to live my life on the solid foundation that God loves me, wants me to succeed in my walk, and is willing to help me do it. Listen to the words we read from Romans 8:

I do not live under a heavy weight of condemnation, because I am in Christ. The Atonement Law was temporary and brought renewed need for sacrifice – but Jesus paid it all. He became all the condemnation to lift it from me once and for all. God won’t condemn me. He isn’t looking for a way to get rid of me, judge me or guilt me. He wants me to respond to our relationship – not to try to earn one. That part is DONE.

I need to grasp that the operation of “Christ in me” is to become my directing force, and not the threat that more condemnation and death. When I read, I skipped verse 2, where this idea is very clear:

Romans 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Did you notice the two laws that were posed against one another? The first was the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ” and the second was the “law of sin and of death”. What are these laws? Work backwards from the end.

  • The law of sin and of death was the law that God made in which He planted the whole framework of substitutional atonement. It is the law that said “Sin brings death. When one sins, one must die.”
  • The law of the Spirit of life in Christ supplanted the “law of sin and of death” when justification replaced atonement. The new law was this: Jesus took all your condemnation and replaced your identity with His own. God sees you as clean in and through Jesus. He sees your spiritual life as the new breath of Jesus in your once dead flesh.

Let’s unpack the verse anew… the law that there must be constant sacrifice to keep you in standing with God has been replaced by Jesus breathing life into the dead and marking them before the Father as His very own – filled with His life. We live in constant fellowship with a Holy God Who sees us as alive with the life of His Son. We walk, not to earn His love and His acceptance, but embracing that we fully have both.

Second, we must recognize the beauty of the empowering work of the Spirit. This is not a mystical force, but God doing in and through us what we cannot do, as we open the doors of our inner man to Him. We offer Him control, and He does with that openness what we cannot:

Romans 8:5 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able [to do so], 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Note the phrase: “set their minds”. This is a term about our human responsibility. We have the Spirit of God indwelling us (8:9a), but that isn’t all there is to the operation of the Spirit. In fact, there is a process of “setting our mind” according to our Spirit-filled status. We can open ourselves to God’s direction by refusing to feed on rebellion and deliberately refusing that which would quench His work in us.

Years ago I read a story about men in one of the concentration camps in World War II. The war was nearly over, and the SS guards left the camp early one morning as the Allied army approached. They left the gate unlocked. Remarkably the bewildered prisoners did not leave. Some thought it was a trick. Others were simply beaten into subjection by their evil captors. In the end, they all realized them were free men living in the trap from which they had now been freed. Many believers are like that. They live under sin as though it is still their master – but the power of Christ and the work of His Spirit has set them free to please the Father!

Finally, we must see the world properly. Paul wrote again in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

• We recognize that we cannot put our hope for fulfillment in the flesh, because it is falling apart.

• We commit ourselves to allowing God to renew us within even as things fall apart without.

• We recognize that physical suffering is temporary and small compared to eternal reward.

• We measure life, not by what the eye sees, but by the eternal nature of the spiritual world.

James White illustrated this when he wrote: “I sat down and looked through some magazines this past week. I discovered that if I want to feel right, I need to get a NordicTrack. I don’t have a NordicTrack, just a membership down at the gym, so I suddenly realized that I didn’t feel as healthy as I thought I did. I then read that if I wanted to be stylish, I would need to buy a Toyota Camry. Our family van was in the shop, so I had been driving our old Mercury Sable. That felt bad enough. Real men drive SUVs or bright red sports cars. I’ve got four kids, so I don’t have the luxury of driving what real men drive. So I found out that I couldn’t be stylish with the cars I owned. Then I saw that if I wanted to really feel the spring season, I had to dress for the spring season, and the only place for that was at Dillard’s. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to go to Dillard’s that week. Suddenly the beautiful weather just didn’t seem that beautiful. I just wasn’t dressed for it. It didn’t get any better. I learned that I needed to be opening my mail with knife from Oneida. I only had a two-dollar letter opener from Office Depot. Now even my mail was disappointing. On top of that, I discovered that I couldn’t have a good meal if I wasn’t in Texas – at least not a meal that would satisfy me. So much for my Lean Cuisines. Then I read that if I wanted to be a man, at least a manlier man than my neighbor, I had to drive a Yard-Man mower with a Briggs and Stratton engine. At least it was cheaper than a new SUV. I like my house until I saw the new development’s ad. I thought my family and I were close until I realized we didn’t have season passes to the amusement park. I even thought I loved my wife, but since I hadn’t bought her a diamond necklace from the jewelry store, I was informed that I didn’t. I found out that I can’t even be romantic with my wife unless we use Sylvania light bulbs. Wouldn’t you know, we have GE. By the time I got finished with those magazines, I wasn’t just depressed – I needed counseling. Ever felt that way? We all have. It’s the sad fruit of living life that covets. James Emery White, You Can Experience an Authentic Life (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 139-140

Believers don’t look at the world the same way as those who haven’t yet met Jesus! We live in JOY to follow our Heavenly Father – but we do it in His power and Jesus’ identity. We know what He called us to do, but we also recognize that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.

The things we are called on to do in our walk with God MUST be understood in the context of who we are in Christ and what He does with one who trusts in Him. Without that context, we will try to walk with God in the power of the flesh.