Would we be transformed into a kind, loving, caring society? Or would there be mass confusion, outbreaks of crime and civil unrest? It is very difficult to imagine, of course, a complete absence of laws. Most people have a hard enough time with uncontrolled traffic intersections. How would they handle it if there were no stop signs or speed limits for any aspect of their daily lives?
Imagine the confusion, then, of early Christians when Paul preached to them: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14 ESV). Not under law? This must have caused a few jaws to drop.
The advent of grace to humanity has never meant, of course, the abolishment of laws, whether they be biblical or man-made (see Matthew 5:17). It has meant, to Christians, a new understanding of sin and salvation.
"What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin." (Romans 7:7). This is a complex subject and Paul pours out his explanations throughout the book of Romans. Yet the key to understanding the various concepts of law, grace, suffering and salvation begins with something very personal: our own sinfulness. Have any of us sinned lately? Have any of us indulged in a bit of pride, burst into a fit of anger, slumped into a little sloth, gathered up some greed or done any of the things humans are liable to do? Would anyone care to assert otherwise?
This leads us to the confession of Paul, and perhaps it is a mark of a Christian leader that he should lead not just by exhortation, or by service, but by prayerful personal confession. Here is our model:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7: 18-20).
The necessity of law, combined with the universality of sinfulness leads us to a picture that is not very pretty. Paul spells it out: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7: 24). For our friends and neighbours that have not heard the gospel, the story ends here. Depressed and disconsolate people, drowning in an incomprehensible sea of sin, have been known to commit suicide. They do not know that there is an answer to Paul's question, and he breathes it in his very next statement: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25).
Like rays of sunshine bursting through the darkest clouds, Paul goes on to say words of joy: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8: 1-2).
What a privilege, what an empowerment, what a relief it is to have heard the good news!
Do we remember the first moments of our conversion? Everyone has a different story to tell. It is usually not the result of long, logical arguments. The love of God finds different ways to penetrate our sin-tangled hearts. We spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what has happened and what is going on. And we may find that mixed in with all the joy is the possibility of a call to suffering.
Paul gives us this to think about, (as if our poor brains didn't have enough!):
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30).
We think we understand this. Or do we? Eugene Peterson offers this version of the same verses:
God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. The Message (Colorado Springs: Navpress) 1993. Pages 319-320.
We can ponder these lines for a long time. Jesus led a life filled with unexpected and astonishing events. We can expect a few such things to happen to us.
If we feel any fear, we might simply remember these words: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31).
Praise the Lord!