…but I’m totally there, dude.
…but I’m totally there, dude.
Jesus is called the “prince of peace”, and rightly so. But I don’t think we usually understand what that means. The prince of peace is — and must be — a conqueror. He must be a warrior. The prince of peace does not reconcile the warring elements within our nature; he does not reconcile good and evil. He destroys evil. He brings the dawn of a new peaceful era by waging warfare for us, in us, and (God willing) with us.
God, I repent of every time I have sought peace through the reconciliation of my spirit with my flesh. I resolve to see my flesh crucified on the battlefield of a Holy War, so that peace might be with me this day and forevermore. Make my enemies your footstool, that they might leave me and all your people at peace.
I am sitting in Starbucks, reading about the cave image in Plato’s Republic, reading about the way that the light of the sun illuminates reality and makes it hard to discern the objects that lurk in darkness. Meanwhile, the sun shines brilliantly through the window into my eyes, and onto my computer screen. In the dazzling light, I can hardly make out the letters on my computer screen.
Is the internet a new version of Plato’s cave? Are we frittering away our lives in unreality, while the sun beckons to us each moment about something else, something new, something bright and warm — some reality I can hardly even begin to imagine? Who shall lead me up the difficult pass, and into the light of day?
We usually think about the “flesh” in Paul’s letters as a principle focused on sexual or sensual gratification. This reading is not entirely arbitrary, but it is extremely limited. In Romans 8:6, Paul gives us a characterization of the flesh that we would be wrong to ignore: “the attention of the flesh is focused on death, but the attention of the spirit is focused on life and peace.”
We should ask, here, immediately, where our attention is focused. What are you intent on? Paying the bills? Entertainment? Doing your job well? Pleasing people? Fulfilling your desires for food or sexual pleasure?
THAT is the work of your flesh, if it distracts you from God’s work in your life. All these things are, biblically, vitally focused on death. Why do you worry about paying the bills? Because you fear that the “treasures” you have here on earth will be lost to you — because you fear death, or a kind of death. All the objects of fleshly attention carry with them some sort of anxiety about death or meaninglessness, and all of them keep us from the love of God — from life and peace, from the life of the birds of the air, whose needs their heavenly Father attends to.
This insight, I believe, opens up Romans 7-8 in a powerful way to all people — and just as importantly, to people whose struggle with sensual sins might distract them from the core anxieties that constantly fuel the flesh. We ALL tend to be concerned overmuch about the world; we just do it in different ways. When Jesus and Paul challenge THAT attachment, we all sometimes feel perfectly hopeless to change it — how can I stop being concerned with these things that are, literally, my lifeblood? “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
As if Paul didn’t think we were hopeless enough, he piles on the hopelessness in verse 8, one of the simplest and shortest verses of the New Testament: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Except that’s not what it says. Yes, this is one of those times where I show off my knowledge of Greek. (Look, mom! No lexicons!) The verse says this, when properly translated: “While someone is in the flesh, he cannot please God.” The point is not that God is constantly displeased with us because we often worry. The point is that God is not pleased with us when we worry, when we focus on pleasure, when we obsess about our jobs, when we fear for the futures of our families.
The verse is a perpetual instruction. Want to make your Daddy happy with you? Stop with this flesh business! When? Now. Worry about tomorrow tomorrow. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
What do we do with the flesh? The same thing they did with Jesus’s flesh: we crucify it. We “remain” in the Spirit, in the vine, by constantly redirecting our attention toward Him who is at every moment redeeming us. The Spirit “lives” in us, and the Father will “make alive our death-prone bodies” just as He raised Christ up from the grave. The futility of the flesh is realized, decisively, upon the cross — the moment of pure hopelessness, for those that lack faith — but the vitality of the Spirit is realized in the Resurrection. Even so, every time we turn from the flesh and heed the Spirit, we reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our bodies, so that “in our bodies the life of Christ may be revealed” (2 Cor. 4).
And every turn brings joy and delight to our heavenly Father!
There is a law of sin and death at work in me, and in you. Think about that. It’s not merely that I sometimes do bad things. It’s that evil is a law — a rule — at work within me. I am occupied. As John Donne puts it, in his love poem to God: “I, like a usurped town, to another due, / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end / Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.”
My crimes, my sins, these both are and are not my own. They are the work of that law that makes me “do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15). And yet, they are my responsibility — for, in God’s economy, it is only by taking responsibility for my crimes that I can be freed from them. I let the dragon in the door, and thereby made myself accountable for the havoc it has wreaked upon my life. It is my dragon. But it is not my dragon to coddle or to forgive or to be kind to. It is my dragon to destroy.
My friend Josh and I have been having some discussions lately about sin, condemnation, and redemption. (Josh blogs here). We decided to do a series together on Romans 8, a chapter that — I think — should become a central rallying point for anyone who attempts to wage a battle against sin. This is my first entry in that series. I’ll just be looking at the first few verses of Romans 8.
In the sections leading into chapter 8, Paul describes the Old Testament law, a law which both (a) created the possibility of sin, and (b) created the possibility of redemption. I will call this the “Law”, with a capital L. Then, in Romans 7, Paul introduces another law: we might call this the “law of concupiscence”. The Law is spiritual; Paul is not spiritual. The law of concupiscence is — unlike the Law and unlike Paul — carnal. The human person is neither spiritual nor carnal, but rather subject to both spirit and flesh. He is divided between “ton eso anthropon” (the inward man, Rom. 7:22) and “ton exo anthropon” (the outward man). In other words, he is a battleground.
The power of a law — any law — is its power to condemn. The law of concupiscence drives on almost infallibly toward the violation of the Law of God. By following one law, we are condemned by another. This is the experience I’ve had with pornography addiction: when I follow the law at work in my members (the “addiction”), I am condemned, and condemned, and condemned. If Romans 8 did not exist, I might assume — logically enough — that this condemnation came from God.
But Paul says quite clearly it is not from God. There is NO condemnation if I am IN Christ Jesus. Why not? Because He has taken it upon Himself. “He who knows no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5). Whenever the devil tells me I am unrighteous in myself, the proper response is to say that I am righteous in Jesus. Blessed be God for that wonderful truth!
The only person who is not worthy of condemnation is an innocent man. The only innocent man is Jesus Christ.
But this is the reality of the crucifixion: that now, when God the Father looks at me to assess my guilt, He sees Jesus Christ His precious Son. It is unthinkable to condemn me, so long as I am in Him — so long as I am in the vine. Romans 8:1 is the central rallying cry of everyone who longs for innocence. It is here, forever, when I offer myself up to the Father in pure and eternal gift.
To quote Jars of Clay, “He has washed us in His blood. He presents our souls to God.” Innocence at last!
To be a son, in biblical terms, means to be subject to a rightful inheritance. All Hebrew or Greek sons inherited portions of their father’s wealth; there was no single heir. Nevertheless, an inheritance could be withdrawn, and sons were compelled to give honor and service to their family in order to receive their rightful lot.
The prodigal son’s father was under no compulsion to give him an early inheritance — in fact, he could have taken the request for an early inheritance as a reason to disinherit him. When my son says, “Give me my inheritance now”, does this not mean, “I wish you were dead”? The son took advantage of his father’s virtue and humility, knowing very well that his father was not the type of person to disinherit at such a request.
Another biblical father, however, is not known for his virtue nor his humility:
John 8:43-44: Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
What does it mean to be a son, here? It means to want what your father wants. Those who are in submission to the devil desire what the devil desires — indeed, when we are slaves to sin, we are very good sons of our infernal father. What is our inheritance, if we follow the devil? We will become like him, with all his resources: we will be selfish and destructive and deceitful. We will — as the prodigal son did — wish death on all those who stand in the way of our desires.
Our heavenly father will, in turn, die for us.
But not because he wants us to get what we want; rather, because he wants us to learn the emptiness of any inheritance on our own terms. We were sons in Eden, but we are not sons anymore — that ship has flown. And yet, in Christ Jesus, there is a new thing: a new sort of sonship. It is not the sonship of a natural son, but that of an adopted son. By the action of the Spirit, we become the adopted sons and heirs of the living God.
Galatians 3:27-28: For you are all now sons of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. After all, everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There are two points here: (1) We are sons and heirs, and (2) We are ONE son and heir, since we are one in Christ Jesus. Who is God’s son? Jesus. Logical conclusion: we are Jesus.
Rational correction: Eeek, we’re not Jesus!
But wait. Yes, we must be Jesus. If we are to be worthy, if we are to be heirs, we cannot be anyone else than Jesus Christ. My identity must be IN Christ; it must be wholly subsumed to Christ. How can this be? Well, I will be the HEIR of God precisely when I desire what my Father desires. It is not OK, then, for me to want what I want, and follow Christ despite my ungodly desires. No, I must aspire to desire all and only the things that the Father desires. I must place myself at the mercy of my Father as a servant, and allow Him to treat me as an heir.
This, my friends, is precisely what I do every solemn sacrifice of the mass. Indeed, it is aptly summarized by one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic offering, perhaps the most beautiful words I have ever heard:
So great was Your love that You gave us Your Son as our redeemer. You sent Him as One like ourselves, though free from sin, that You might see and love in us what You see and love in Christ. Your gifts of grace, lost by disobedience, are now restored by the obedience of Your Son.
When God the Father sees in us what He sees in Christ, then His gifts to us — our inheritance — is restored. We are sons, because the Son lives in us. Thanks be to God!
A little Greek…
Πάντες γὰρ υἱοὶ Θεοῦ ἐστε διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· ὅσοι γὰρ εἰς Χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε, Χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε. οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.
My translation: “For you are all now SONS of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. After all, everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This passage is often used to deconstruct masculinity and femininity, but look what it says. We are all SONS. People who translate this “children of God” are missing the point. The Son was made complete/perfect through what he suffered. Just so, when we put on Christ, we are completed and brought to maturity only when we lay down our lives. This is something that we do AS Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man — but the fundamental reality behind it is the reality of SONSHIP.
We botch this in English, because “son”, for us, means merely “male child”. For the Greeks, though, “son” strongly implied “heir”. The Greeks would never call a “child” an heir, only a son. When people mistake this passage as a deconstruction of gender, they miss the radical nature of the passage: that women, slaves, and Greeks were invited to inherit the kingdom. There isn’t the slightest notion that, once a slave has been baptized into Christ, they can abandon their master, or that, once a Greek is baptized into Christ, they equivalent to a Jew.
There is, however, a sense that these sub-identities (like male or female) are subsumed to our central New Covenant identity: the identity of a son. My daughter is a daughter of Eve, but a “son” — which is to say, an heir — of the living God. The power of this language is phenomenal, and yet it has become ordinary and casual in our ears, especially when we water it down and say that we are all “children” of God.
Children, schmildren. We are sons.
So what is a son — aside from someone who receives the inheritance? I’ll leave that question for my next post…