A New Beginning

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Well, I guess you've been wished a Happy New Year over the past few days – and I wish you one, too. But the prospects for any New Year's resolutions you've made may not be so happy, because one survey found that 25% of people stop keeping them after just a week; 50 % stop within six months; and only 10% keep them permanently.

So much for the headline I saw in one of the papers last week – 'New Year, New You.' Because apart from the arbitrary fact that it's January again, there's nothing new about it at all. Big Ben striking midnight didn't change anything. On a global scale, war and terrorism didn't suddenly disappear. Because on an individual scale, nothing happened to human sinfulness.

So what should Christians think about the whole business of new starts and resolutions and how much we can change?

Well, at one end of the scale, you have the spiritual pessimists. And they emphasise our ongoing sinfulness and say, 'Look, the main thing, if you're a believer in Jesus, is that you're forgiven. But you're not really going to change this side of heaven.'

But then at the other end of the scale, you have the wild spiritual optimists – like the speaker I once heard at the Newcastle Christian Union who said (quote): 'It's possible to reach a place where you live above temptation. After all, if the Spirit that lived in Jesus is living in you, why shouldn't it be possible to live a life like his?' Now that is dangerously false teaching. And I went up and told him so at the end. And by the way he reacted I could tell he certainly wasn't living above the temptation to be sensitive, proud and angry (any more than I do, I hasten to add).

But the spiritual pessimists tell the optimists, 'You're expecting too much' and the spiritual optimists tell the pessimists, 'You're expecting too little'. So where does the truth lie? What can you expect in 2015 if you're a believer in Jesus? Just more forgiveness? Or forgiveness and change? And if change, how much change – change so that things you've always struggled with aren't a struggle anymore? Or what?

Well, for answers, let's turn in the Bible to Romans 8. Now in Romans 7 the apostle Paul has been talking about the law God gave his people back in the Old Testament. And he's been talking about what God's law can and cannot do. So he's said on the one hand, it can tell you what's right and wrong in God's eyes. But on the other, it can't enable you to do what's right, because for sinful people, being told what we ought to do doesn't give us the power to do it. And in Romans 7 Paul reminds us that believers in Jesus still have ongoing sinfulness inside us. So in our heart of hearts, we no longer want to sin, but sinful desires are still knocking around inside us like unwelcome squatters that we can't evict – and we still inconsistently act on those sinful desires. So look back to chapter 7 and v24, where Paul (speaking for all believers) says:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [Ie, who will get me out of this present state of not wanting to sin and yet still sinning?] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7.24-25)

And chapter 8 makes it clear that what he means is, 'Thanks be to God who will on day raise me from the dead into sinless glory.' And here's where the spiritual pessimists are right: we're not going to be rid of our ongoing sinfulness until then. Which is why, end of v25, Paul says:

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind [ie, I want to please him], but with my flesh I serve the law of sin [ie, I still fail to].

So how do we face our ongoing sinfulness? Well, the first thing Paul says to believers about that is:

1. Know that God will never condemn you (vv1-3)

If you're a believer, here's the most important thing you need to know as you face your ongoing sinfulness in 2015. Romans 8.1:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [ie, trusting in him]. (Romans 8.1)

If you're a Christian you'll go into 2015 wanting to please the Lord Jesus. But every day of 2015 you'll fail to: you'll sin every day; you'll sin the same old sins as last year; and you'll know that those sins are more and more inexcusable. So when you try to confess them and ask the Lord to forgive you, you will probably condemn yourself and tell yourself that he shouldn't; and Satan will certainly condemn you and tell you that he won't. But the one person who won't condemn you – who'll never condemn you – is God. Because look at Romans 8.1 again:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [ie, trusting in him]. (Romans 8.1)

So right now, or down the tracks in 2015, you may be feeling spiritually totally rubbish – because unforgiveness or jealousy or marital selfishness or anger towards your children or pornography or whatever it is has got the better of you again. But Romans 8.1 says:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [ie, trusting in him]. (Romans 8.1)

Ie, God is not looking at you the way you're looking at yourself. Yes, he's grieved by our sin and disappointed by our sin. But if we're in Christ Jesus, he's not condemning us for our sin – and never will.

I remember one Christian leader I highly respect saying this: 'As a father, I've sometimes been so provoked by my children and angry at their behaviour, I could have shaken them. But I don't think I've ever stopped loving them.' And that's the point here: if a flawed, human father can say that, how much more can our heavenly Father say it. And he can say it because of what he sent his Son to do on the cross. Look down to v1 again and we'll read on:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For [ie, because] 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)

So 'the law of sin and death' is that sin deserves death – ie, that I deserve to face God at the end of my life and be condemned for all I've done wrong. But through Jesus, I've been set free from that fate. Read on, v3:

For [ie, because] God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8.3)

There's not time to unpack all that, but just look at those last six words:

he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8.3).

That's about what happened as Jesus died. That's the cross in six words. 'He' – that's God the Father – 'condemned sin' – that's our sin – 'in the flesh' – that's Jesus' flesh, in his body on the cross. So when we feel condemned, how can we reassure ourselves that in fact, v1, 'there is… now no condemnation for' us? The answer is v3: because the condemnation for all my sins – past and future – has fallen, once and for all, on Jesus in my place.

So that's the first thing to take with you into 2015 to cope with your ongoing sinfulness: know that God will never condemn you for it. And that is, I think, the hardest thing in the Christian life to believe. Because who else treats you like that? But, Romans 8.1 says,

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [ie, trusting in him]. (Romans 8.1)

So believe it; memorise it; write it out and stick it where you'll see it every day. Because nothing will do your spiritual sanity more good.

Now the spiritual pessimists would be happy with me so far. Remember, they say, 'The main thing is forgiveness – but you're not really going to change this side of heaven.' But what Paul says next is that, if you're a believer, you have been radically changed already. You don't need a new beginning – you've had one, and need to live it out. So heading 2:

2. Know that you have been changed (vv4-9)

Look on to v4, which says that God did the things in verses 1-3

in order that... the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8.4)

Now that needs some unpacking – so bear with me, as they say in call centres. 'The righteous requirement of the law' is what God's law requires of us. And Paul doesn't say 'requirements' (plural), but 'requirement' (singular). Because if you ask the law, 'What does God basically want from us?' the answer is: the total commitment he deserves, because he's God, because he made us for his purposes, because we owe him everything. Or to quote the verse that sums up the law:

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6.5)

So 'the righteous requirement of the law' is simply that we love God. And v4 is saying that God did the things in verses 1-3 in order that we would. Because that doesn't happen naturally; it only happens supernaturally as people are changed by what God does in them by his Spirit. Which is why, at the end of v4, Paul describes Christians as people

who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8.4)

So let me explain that in pictures:

040115 Ian Garrett image 1

The crown on the right stands for God. And the crown on the left stands for myself or yourself. And that's a picture of what v4 calls 'walking according to the flesh' – ie, according to our sinful human nature. Because what we do by nature is to walk through life, aiming to please ourselves, with no thought of pleasing God.

So what changes someone from that, to loving God? Paul says: it's God's Spirit opening your spiritual eyes to what Jesus did for you on the cross – ie, opening your spiritual eyes to the things in verses 1-3. Just turn back a page to Romans 5.5 where, one line in, Paul says of believers:

… God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5.5)

And then he explains how the Holy Spirit 'pours out God's love into our hearts'. He does it by opening our spiritual eyes to see that Jesus' death on the cross is God's love for you and me – ie, to see what Romans 5.6-8 go on to say:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5.6-8)

I still remember when I just couldn't see why the cross was part of Christianity – and then, listening to a talk on the cross the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the truth that Jesus was there, doing that, for me. And when the penny drops that God loves you like that, it makes you want to love him back, it turns you round. And here's the picture of someone like that.

040115 Ian Garrett image 2

So their past sins have been crossed out – like Romans 8.1 says, 'There is therefore now no condemnation' for those sins. And it would be nice to say that, having been turned round, they didn't sin any more. But they do. And there is no condemnation for those sins, either. But here's where the spiritual pessimists are wrong. Because being forgiven and loved like that does change you. It doesn't make you sinless, but it totally changes your direction of life and gives you a desire to please God and a resistance to your ongoing sinfulness that you never had before.

So turn back over to Romans 8.5, where Paul talks about that change. He's contrasting those who haven't been changed by God's Spirit with those who have. And he says, v5:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh [so that's the people on the top arrow in my picture], but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit [so that's the people on the bottom arrow].  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8.5-8)

Now you may feel verses 7 and 8 are way too negative and over the top as a description of someone who's not a Christian. But when I look back to my pre-Christian life, that's what I was like. Because verses 7 and 8 are not saying I was totally evil. They're simply saying that my mind was set on pleasing myself and that, consciously or subconsciously, I totally ignored God. Which is true. That's the way I was. But, v9:

You [believers], however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8.9)

So as you look at that second picture, let me ask you: which arrow are you on? Because the question isn't, 'Have you done Christianity Explored or Discipleship Explored or are you coming regularly on Sundays or have you joined a small group?' The question is: are you someone who's been changed by God like that? Not changed to sinlessness, but changed in direction – changed so that, in your heart of hearts, you want to please God and you're trying to please God – even though you can still be woefully inconsistent in that?

If that's not you, or you're not sure it is, can I encourage you to take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk and read it? It's about what a Christian is, and what has to happen to make you one.

But if that is you, can I say that's the only new beginning that counts.

This morning's title was 'A New Beginning'. And the only thing which that's really true of is when God, by his Spirit, brings us to faith and turns us round – when we're born again, as Jesus put it. Because nothing else actually renews us. God's law can't. Our resolutions can't. But God by his Spirit can – and then can sustain an ongoing work of renewal throughout our lives.

So to help us face our ongoing sinfulness as believers, Paul says: 1)
Know that God will never condemn you; 2) Know that you have been changed. But then he says:

3. Know that you still need resurrection change (vv10-11)

Ie, you have been changed – but only partly, only phase 1. And what you need most of all is phase 2 – which is the big one. Look on to v10:

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8.10)

Now that's not totally clear at first glance and I don't have time to 'show my working'. But it's basically saying: although right now you're experiencing ongoing sinfulness and mortality, you will ultimately experience sinless, eternal life. And v11 does make that clear:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8.11)

Just look back again to chapter 7 and v24, where Paul says:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7.24)

Ie, who will get me out of this present state of not wanting to sin and yet still sinning? And in chapter 8, v11, he's saying the answer is: God will, when he finally raises us from the dead into sinless life beyond this life. Because that's when all our sinful desires – those unwelcome squatters in the house of our lives – will finally be evicted. And there'll be no more inclination inside us towards sin, and no more temptations or pressures to sin around us, either. And we'll finally be the people we want to be. That's phase 2. But meanwhile, we're in phase 1 – where we're only partly changed, where we've got just the beginning of the new beginning.

Over the years, one Christian friend of mine has often said to me he feels disappointed in himself – because the same old sinful character traits keep marking his life. And he's said to me, 'I sometimes wonder whether I've really changed at all.' And I doubt there are many believers here this morning who've not felt and wondered the same. And in Romans 7 and 8, Paul says, 'That's just what I'd expect to hear from someone who has been changed like this by God.' Because although it's real, it's only partial right now, it's only phase 1. And that is disappointing and frustrating. Or to put it more positively, it's a mix of real change and ongoing sinfulness that leaves you saying,

 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me [fully and finally] from this body of death? (Romans 7.24)

And the answer is: God will, when he finally raises us from the dead into sinless life beyond this life.

Just look at Romans 8, v12 to end with.

So then, brothers [and sisters], we are debtors, not to the flesh [ie, our sinfulness], to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8.12-13)

040115 Ian Garrett image 3

So looking at the picture above, Paul is saying there are just two ways to live. In one, the direction is to please my sinful self and the destination is death (separation from God). In the other, the direction is to act on the new desires God has given us to please him and the destination is sinless life with him in glory. And Paul is saying in verses 12 to 13 that if you're on that bottom arrow, then you owe your sinfulness nothing. It does nothing but spoil your enjoyment of God and of others; it's not the real you; and it's not going to be part of you forever. So put it to death – keep up the work and struggle of resisting it; and keep living out the new desires God has given you – which are the real you.

And in contrast to what that speaker at the Newcastle Christian Union said, there is no magic spiritual formula or second blessing that will get us (quote) 'to… a place where you live above temptation.' That's phase 2. That's resurrection. And some of us in JPC may enjoy that this coming year. But meanwhile, in 2015, those famous words of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, will continue to be the story of our lives:

I'm not what I should be, I'm not what I want to be, I'm not what I one day will be in glory. But by the grace of God, I'm not what I once was. 

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