I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 55, Proverbs 7, and Romans 13–16.
Paul doesn’t pull punches, and he is not interested in making things easy on Christians. As soon as he has finished his theological foundation in Romans— the most lengthy of any such argument he makes in any of his letters—he moves immediately into some remarkably profound exhortations. They are worth quoting at length and pondering at length:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9–21)
This list of exhortations is stunning in its breadth and depth. It is impossibly difficult. We could easily become discouraged, and recognizing our own hypocrisy despair and give up,1 but this was clearly not Paul’s intent. Rather, he was setting before his audience—and thus, before us—a picture of the true Christian life and calling us to pursue it. He was no fool; he had spent much of the book discussing the very challenges that face every would-be follower of God and knew well the weakness of our own flesh. Moreover, immediately after this list, he turned from these instructions to deal with the kinds of weaknesses that have come up in every congregation from his day to ours.
Paul knew we would fail at this list, yet he gave it to us anyway. The authors of the New Testament do not shy away from this move. Jesus told us flatly that we must be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, and the apostles picked up this theme and ran with it. Why in the world would they do this, knowing we would never meet such a standard (most of all our Lord, who alone has lived righteously)? Is this merely more Law designed to point us back to the Gospel and show us that even as believers, we can do nothing, or are these real instructions—and if the latter, how are we to respond without being crushed by our inability?
I think it is the latter: a geniuine call to a righteous life. The idea that these kinds of instructions exist only to point us back to the gospel does not do justice to the text, and in fact leads us fairly quickly to a quiet antinominianism. Where we think that we are unable to fulfill God’s law and that even aiming to do so is somehow wrong, we quickly stop pursuing real holiness. This cannot be right.
Still, the problem remains: even for the faithful Christian who wants to fulfill these commands, we recognize our failure. Here, the gospel is the answer—just not in the way so many antinomian-tending believers take it. The gospel reminds us first of what Christ Jesus has done on our behalf and removes the weight of thinking that we must meet these standards to stand before a righteous God. We never could. We can stand before him only because we are clothed with the righteousness of the Incarnate Son of God who clothed himself in all our sins and bore every drop of the Godhead’s wrath on our sin already. Second, the gospel reminds us that we are presently united with Christ by the indwelling of his Spirit. The Spirit that raised Christ from the dead—the third person of the Trinity who empowered Jesus to perform his earthly ministry without sinning—lives in us. It is God who works in us both to will and work for his good pleasure. Third, we remember that we have an advocate before the throne of the Father who is always interceding for us, and that the Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to pray for ourselves.2 We have not been left alone.
So we look at the gospel over and over again, and in so doing are empowered to press on when we do not love perfectly, when we are wise in our sight, when we fail to do what we ought and when we do what we ought not to do. We remember what Christ has done, how he stands now before the Father on our behalf, and how we will stand righteous in him come the final day.3 We remember how the Spirit indwells us and empowers us just as he did Christ. We remember that we have been raised with Christ even as we will be raised with Christ. And we can press on. We can work hard, knowing God is at work in us.
I was talking with an acquaintance recently who took precisely this course. It broke my heart. We need not despair.↩
Do not miss this! All Christians have two members of the Trinity always speaking to the third on our behalf, and the third is delighting to respond!↩
A small point of wonder: the final day will also be the first day in many ways. It will be the end of this age, and the beginning of an age without sorrow or tears or calamity. Hallelujah.↩