Well, we’re in a series on the end of Romans. But I remember speaking a few years back from the beginning – where Paul explains that God’s acceptance of us (God’s ‘justification’ of us) depends entirely on the death of his Son, the Lord Jesus.
And I said in that sermon, ‘So if you’re trusting in Jesus, you can be sure God accepts you because it depends 100% on what Jesus did and 0% on what you do. So at the end of the best day of your Christian life you’re no more accepted by God and at the end of your worst day you’re no less accepted.’ And this guy came steaming up to me at the end and said, ‘You should never say that sort of thing.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Because it’ll just encourage people to go out and sin!’ So I said, ‘Why will it?’ And he said, ‘Because you’ve just told them it doesn’t matter how they live.’ And I said, ‘No I haven’t. I’ve just told them God’s acceptance of them doesn’t depend on how they live.’ And he said, ‘But won’t that just make them go out and do what they want?’ So I said, ‘Yes, it will... But what you don’t understand is that when you believe God’s Son died for you, it changes what you want so that you try to live for him in a way you never did before.’
Now, one reason Paul wrote Romans was to deal with exactly that misunderstanding – because wherever he went, his message about Jesus was misunderstood by fellow-Jews. And we need to understand why. So, imagine you’d asked one of Paul’s fellow-Jews, ‘How can I come into relationship with God?’ He’d have said, ‘You need to come under the law of Moses: that’s the ‘structure’ God’s given us to relate to him through – a bit like marriage is a ‘structure’ for relating to someone through.’ And the law of Moses included things like the sacrificial system to assure you of forgiveness for failure; things like circumcision and food laws to mark you off as different from other people; and all sorts of commandments about how to please God. And the Jew would have said, ‘If you’re not willing to come under the law of Moses, you’re basically saying to God, ‘I don’t want to relate to you.’’
And then along comes Paul. And he says, ‘Look, that structure was only a temporary way of relating to God – for his Old Testament (OT) people. And it pointed forward to a new way of relating to him through Jesus. And Jesus has now come and died for our forgiveness and risen from the dead. And by his Spirit he brings people to trust in him, which changes them to want to live for him. And that all happens without them having to come under the law of Moses.’
And hearing Paul say that, many Jews thought, ‘This man is against God: he’s against God’s law, and he’s preaching a message that’s going to encourage people to go out and sin rather than obey God.’
And that misunderstanding is one reason Paul wrote Romans. So would you turn in the Bibles to Romans 1, verse 5, where Paul writes:
Through him [that is, the Lord Jesus] and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.
Ie, the message that we’re accepted by God through faith in what Jesus has done doesn’t foster sin, it fosters obedience. When you believe God’s Son died for you, it changes what you want so that you try to live for him in a way you never did before. And Paul wrote much of Romans to show that the gospel – or rather Jesus – does change people – and in a way the law never could.
Now, we’re in a series on the end of the letter, where Paul spells out what that kind of Jesus-changed living looks like. So turn on to Romans 12, one of the big turning-points of the letter. And look at Romans 12, v1:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy [ie, in view of Jesus’ dying for you], to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God...
That’s the headline for the rest of the letter, so now turn over to chapter 13 and v8 where we pick it up again today.
I’ve got two headings about Jesus-changed living.
Firstly, JESUS CHANGES US INTO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LOVE (vv8-10)
Last week we looked at chapter 13, verses 1-7, which say how Jesus changes us into people who want to submit to God and God-given authorities. And the last thing Paul mentions there is paying people what you owe them. Now he changes to the subject of being people who want to love, but carries on with that idea of what we ‘owe’ people. Look at vv8-10:
8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another [ie, we owe love to everyone, and we can never say, ‘I’ve loved enough. I can stop now.’], for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself." 10Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
So at one level, he’s obviously urging us to love. But if that’s all he’s doing, why does he mention the law so much? Why is he so keen to say, v8, ‘he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law’, and end of v10, ‘Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law’? The answer is that there was big disagreement in the early church over the law – that structure God had given his OT people to relate to him through. And many Jews who’d become Christians continued to live under it – continued to circumcise their kids, eat kosher food, observe the Sabbath and other OT special days, and so on. And many of them said that those who became Christians from a Gentile (ie, non-Jewish) background should do the same. They were saying to Gentile Christians, ‘Look, you really ought to come under the whole law of Moses, because it’s the only thing that guarantees godly living. After all, you were converted from a very non-Christian background and you still live in a very non-Christian world. And we think if you’re serious about obeying God, you should come under the law of Moses with us. And if you won’t, we question how serious you are.’ And, as you can imagine, that got the Gentile Christians’ backs up and there was big argy-bargy and division in the church in Rome – as we’ll see in chapter 14.
And Paul’s answer was simply this: the law doesn’t guarantee godly living, because it can’t actually change people. Only Jesus can. The law is like a map: it can show you your destination, but it can’t get you there. So take, eg, the part of the law Paul quotes at the end of v9: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The very way that’s put presupposes that we’re sinful, doesn’t it? It presupposes that what comes naturally is to love myself .in preference to you, to see myself as the centre of the universe and what I want and need as far more important than what you do. That’s why, if we ask someone how they are, and they tell us but don’t then ask us how we are, we feel miffed, don’t we? Because deep down, we feel that we’re more important – that talking about how they are was only the ‘warm-up’ to the really big topic of how we are. And, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is a corrective to that. It’s saying, ‘See everyone as just as important as you, and what they want and need as just as important as what you do.’
But how does our sinful nature react to the law? Is it changed by it? No. The answer is: it either breaks it, or tries to minimise it. Take the areas of the law in v9, for example: ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But wanting a new relationship wins out over the faithfulness their spouse needs. Or, ‘Do not murder.’ But wanting a life undisturbed by an unplanned pregnancy wins out over the needs of the baby. Or, ‘Do not steal.’ But wanting more for oneself wins out over paying the tax one should do: to meet the needs of others. And ‘Do not covet’ gets at the root problem: ‘Don’t live as if what you want is the most important thing and should therefore win.’ But that’s exactly how the sinful nature sees things – and the law can’t change that. The sinful nature either reacts by breaking it – or by trying to minimise it, eg, by defining ‘my neighbour’ as just my family and friends – the people I find lovable and who’ll love me back in return.’
As I’ve already said, the law is like a map: it can show you your destination – it can say, ‘Look, here’s what real, God-like love looks like’ – but it can’t get you there. It’s powerless, as Paul says back in chapter 8 (Romans 8.3).
So what can change us – and go on doing so for a lifetime? Paul’s answer is: understanding and accepting God’s all-forgiving love. Listen to this from back in Romans 5:6-8:
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And when you do understand and accept that, and your heart is won over by that, it dethrones your sinful self and leaves you wanting to love God in return and to love others as he’s loved you. Not that you ever do, anywhere near perfectly. But that’s what you want.
So can I say: if you’re flagging in love, look at the cross. Because if our love (for God and for other people) is like a river, the cross is its source. So if you’re flagging in love because of the costliness of caring for a demanding or difficult child, or an elderly parent, or a depressed friend, look at the cross. If you’re flagging in love because it involves forgiving something big, look at the cross. If you’re flagging in love because someone’s behaving more like an enemy to you than a friend, look at the cross. Because that’s where Jesus changes us into people who want to love. And Paul knew that the gospel had that power to change the Gentile Christians That’s why he says in vv8-10, for the Jewish Christians to hear, ‘Look, love is the fulfilling of the law – and your Gentile brothers are fulfilling the law thanks to being changed by their relationship with Jesus – even though they’ve not come under the law like you.’
Now does that mean we can ignore the OT law – that none of it is binding on a Christian as God’s will for us today? Of course not. Every part of the law that reflects God’s unchanging character (like truthfulness) and every part of the law that reflects God’s unchanging creation order (like the sanctity of life and marriage) is still God’s will for us today. And all those parts together – five of which Paul quotes in vv8-10 – tell us what love looks like. And we need them like a river needs riverbanks to channel its flow. If you’re a Christian and God’s love has won your heart, it’s like there’s a river in you that wants to flow out in love to God and others. But that needs channelling – it needs telling, ‘Look, this is what love involves in this situation, and this situation, and this situation.’ And the law is part of what God has given us to channel our love.
But it can only channel that love. It can’t create it. Only Jesus can do that. So that’s the first thing: Jesus changes us into people who want to love.
The other thing Paul says here is this:
Second, JESUS CHANGES US INTO PEOPLE WHO RESIST SIN (vv11-14)
Remember that one of Paul’s aims is to show his worried Jewish Christian readers that far from fostering sin, the gospel fosters obedience. And in v13 Paul goes on to mention the kind of behaviour that was typical of the Gentiles. Look at v13:
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery...
And his Jewish Christian readers would have said to themselves, ‘That’s exactly what the Gentiles in our church need to hear – after all, that’s what they were up to before they became Christians, and that’s what the people they’re surrounded by are still up to. And surely if they were to come under the law of Moses like us, it would protect them from falling back into that kind of sin.’
Now that’s a good concern, isn’t it? And those Jewish Christians were not the last to think that a very strict and separate Christian subculture is the key to helping people break with past patterns of sin and be protected from temptation. But once again Paul doesn’t look to the law for the power to change people like that. Instead, he looks to the gospel.
We’ve already thought about how the past events of the gospel – Jesus’ death and resurrection – have the power to change us. Now in vv11-14, Paul shows us how the future events of the gospel – Jesus’ coming again and our own resurrection – also have power to change us. So look at v11-14:
11And do this [ie, this loving of others], understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation [ie, our finally being taken into the wonderful, sin-free kingdom of God that lies beyond this life] is nearer now than when we first believed. 12The night [of living in this sin-spoilt life] is nearly over; the day [of living in that sin-free kingdom] is almost here. [And looking forward to that is as much a motivation for obedience as looking back to the cross. Read on:] So [therefore] let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13Let us behave decently, as in the daytime [ie, as people who are heading for that sin-free kingdom, in fact as if we were already there], not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
So just take one example of individual obedience, along the lines of v13: I was talking to a Christian guy a while back and he told me he was disillusioned about the change in his life as a Christian. I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Lust.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to be like this, but I just seem to undress women in my mind. And I’m beginning to think that the change people talk about isn’t real – at least, that it hasn’t happened to me. Because it seems to me that I just am lustful, that that’s just me.’ So I said, ‘I disagree. I don’t think that is you – not the real you. After all, why does lust bother you in the first place? It bothers you because you don’t want to be like that. And that’s sure evidence that Christ has changed you, that something has happened in your life.’ And we talked about how important it is to distinguish between the real you – the you who wants to be holy – and the unwanted sinful desires that you continue to find within yourself, like unwelcome squatters you can’t evict.
And that’s where vv11-14 come in. Because Paul says, ‘To help your holiness today, start in the future: think where you’ll one day be, in a resurrection body, when all the sinful desires inside you have finally been evicted, and when all the temptations outside you have finally been removed, and when your obedience is perfect and is an utter joy. Well, that’s the real you. And now think back to today and see your sinful desires for what they really are – that they’re not the real you, that they’re not here to stay, and that they’re not invincible. And on the strength of that, keep resisting them for another day.
I’ve used an example of individual obedience. But Paul also has our corporate obedience as a church in his sights. Look again at v13. You remember I said Paul’s talking about the kind of behaviour he knew was typical of Gentiles. Well, that’s true. But at the end of v13 he’s talking about behaviour that he knew was going on inside the church in Rome, as we’ll see in chapter 14 – ‘dissension and jealousy’ (or you could translate that last word ‘rivalry’). Because Jewish and Gentile Christians were at each others’ throats about whether or not you ought to come under the law of Moses if you were really serious about God. So, Christians were disagreeing, fighting and dividing.
And again Paul says, ‘To help your unity today, start in the future: think where all of you who are trusting in Jesus and his death will one day be – in the kingdom of God. Think how your attention will be focussed not on your differences and disagreements – not on yourselves at all – but on the Lamb on his throne – the reason you’re there at all, in the first place. Think how you’ll never try to avoid any of your brothers and sisters there, how you’ll never argue or fall out with them, how you’ll just get on, in joy, with loving them all. And now think back to today. And see your differences and disagreements for what they are – eg, differences and disagreements over baptism and the timescale of creation and the use of spiritual gifts and how church should be done and over 1,001 other matters of both truth and taste. See them for what they are: secondary, and often trivial. And get on with loving one another not just because Jesus loved you to death in the past. But because you’re going to spend eternity loving your brothers and sisters in Christ in the future – so you might as well be getting used to it now.
So, does the message that we’re accepted by God solely through faith in what Jesus has done for us foster sin? No, it fosters obedience, because of the power of the past events of the gospel and the future events of the gospel to change us. So as you meet people this week, look back to the cross and find there the power to love them as God in Jesus loved you. And as you meet sin this week, look forward to that final, sin-free kingdom and find there the power to say ‘No’ to it.
Jesus changes us into people who want to love. And Jesus changes us into people who resist sin. I wonder if you answer to that description this morning?