The Gospel of God’s Righteousness: Rom 1:16-17

Every day it seems like we hear about the horrific things that human beings do to one another: the school shootings, murders, wars, rape and sexual abuse, thefts and burglaries, abuses of power, scandals, and betrayals.  In our darkest moments of doubt, if we admit it to ourselves, we question the goodness or even the existence of God because it seems like He doesn’t do anything about all these horrific crimes.  But the good news is that God has done something about it, just not what we think He should do about it. If God exists, why doesn’t He stop these evildoers?  Why doesn’t He prevent these things from happening at all?  Of course we ourselves are not to blame – it’s always others who do these evil things – we’re as white as newly fallen snow, or so we think.  If God were to stop all the evil doers and judge them immediately for their crimes, in short order there wouldn’t be any human beings left, for we are all guilty in some form or another.

So in his great wisdom, God has acted in such a way as to deal with the evil without destroying humanity in the process. God did this once before – He wiped humanity out in a great flood (Genesis 6-8), but vowed never to do it again, and gave Noah the rainbow in the sky as a sign of His eternal promise.  The good news of the gospel is that God has already dealt with evil and demonstrated His righteousness while at the same time delivering evil humanity from the consequences of its own actions.  What incredible wisdom, that God can deal with our evil and save us from it at the same time! How could we not worship such a Deity?

So in Romans 1:16, Paul writes that his gospel is the saving power of God for all who believe; in other words, it has the power to save all humanity from the powers to which they now find themselves enslaved, namely sin, death, and the devil.  In the next verse, Paul reveals why the gospel is God’s saving power: for in the gospel “the righteousness of God has been revealed from faith to faith”  (1:17).  So what is “the righteousness of God” and why is it the basis of the gospel’s saving power? And how is it “revealed from faith to faith?”

In its most basic sense, God’s Righteousness is a quality or attribute of His, that is His righteous character: God always does what is right or just.  He is absolutely fixed in His commitment to justice, never veering from it, or, in other words, He always treats others rightly and only ever desires the good of humanity despite their wickedness.  In addition, God’s righteousness means that He is always faithful to His promises and to the covenants He has made with humanity and with Israel.  So God can be relied upon absolutely to accomplish all that He promises and covenants to do.

But God’s righteousness is not just a static quality or passive characteristic of God. Rather, the righteousness of God has a dynamic quality; in the Old Testament it describes God expressing Himself in action to accomplish His purposes, and is often used in contexts describing salvation, deliverance, and redemption from evil, the divine power to accomplish that deliverance, and judgment of the enemies of God and His people.  The earliest reference to God’s righteousness in the Old Testament is Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15, which forms part of the larger story of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery at the hand of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Here, speaking for Israel as a whole, Miriam proclaims that God is her helper and defender and that he has become her salvation.  In the previous chapter, Moses had said to the people at the shore of the Red Sea: “Be brave, stand and see the salvation of God which he accomplishes for you today” (14:13). In addition, in 15:13, Miriam proclaims: “By your righteousness you led the people whom you redeemed, having comforted them by your might, to your holy abode.” The Exodus is the defining event of Israel’s history in which she is formed into a people by a divine act of salvation. The event is also a pattern for later acts of God in delivering his people from their oppressors. Therefore, when concepts of salvation, divine righteousness, and divine power appear together in Paul in a statement of the main theme of his letter, it is likely that a reader knew the Exodus story would recall the mighty acts of God in saving the people and leading them to the promised land by His righteousness.

In the Psalms, the Exodus becomes the paradigm for God’s dealings with his people generally. Just as Miriam sang “By your righteousness you led the people whom you redeemed” (Exod 15:13), so now the psalmist prays: “Lead me, O Lord in your righteousness on account of my enemies (Psa 5:8). On the one hand, God’s righteousness in the Psalms, as in Exodus, is closely associated with the deliverance and salvation of his people: the psalmist essentially prays for God to reveal himself again in righteousness to save them from their enemies as he did at the time of their original deliverance from Egypt (see also Psa 21:32; 30:2; 34:24, 28; 35:11; 39:10-11; 50:16; 70:2, 15, 16, 18, 24; 118:123; 142:1, 11; 144:7 LXX). God’s righteousness and salvation are thus a display of divine power: “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your power” (Psa 53:3; see 19:7; 21:1; 70:16, 18; 105:8; 117:15; 139:8).

Isaiah also connects God’s righteousness, salvation, and power.  Isaiah portrays Israel’s return from the exile in Babylon as a new fulfillment of the exodus. This new exodus will be accomplished by the Lord’s mighty arm (Isa 40:10; 44:12; 48:14; 50:2; 51:5, 9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:1, 16; 62:8; 63:5; 63:12), just as the first exodus was accomplished “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Exod 6:6; 15:16; Deut 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8). Here it is the prophet who proclaims the good news of Israel’s coming redemption from the power of her enemies: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news (the gospel!), who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ (Isa 52:7, see 40:9; 60:6; 61:1). As in the Psalms, God’s righteousness is closely connected to the salvation he is working on behalf of his people, to deliver them from exile among the nations: “I will bring near my righteousness and my salvation I will not delay; I will give salvation in Zion for glorification” (Isa 46:13; see 51:5-6, 8; 56:1; 63:7).

On the other hand, God’s righteousness is also intimately connected with divine judgment: “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge” (Psa 49:6; see 9:9; 88:15; 95:13; 97:9; 118:75). This does not contradict the association or righteousness with salvation, for it is precisely in judging the enemies of Israel that God saves and delivers his people.  Divine righteousness is also associated with divine judgment in Isaiah: “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head, and put on garments of vengeance as a cloak” (59:17; see 41:1; 42:1-4; 43:26; 49:4; 50:8; 51:22; 59:11; 63:1).  As in the Psalms, God’s righteousness recalls the mighty acts of judgment which God has wrought on Israel’s behalf to deliver her from her oppressors. Thus God’s righteousness is his judgment in favor of his people as displayed in his action to save them from their plight in faithfulness to the covenantal promises which He has made to them.

In Romans 3:20, Paul alludes to Psalm 143:2 in which the psalmist asks the Lord not to enter into judgment with his servant since no one living will be justified before him. Despairing of his own righteousness before God, the writer of the psalm appeals to God’s righteousness to deliver him from his enemies (143:11).  Israel and the nations are enmired in the same plight under sin, and now in Romans Paul is saying that God has finally acted, displayed His righteousness, and judged the enemies of His people. So the righteousness of God in Romans is God in action, displaying His divine power in delivering and redeeming His people by righteously judging those powers which oppress them.  And who are those enemies? Not Pharaoh or Babylon, but Sin and Death – the powers that Satan wield over humanity and by which he keeps them in bondage (Heb 2:14-15).  Therefore the gospel is the announcement of God’s saving power because it reveals His righteous action in not only saving us but in judging our enemy, Satan. For in Romans 8:3 God “condemned sin in the flesh,” and in Heb 2:14-15, through the death of Jesus, God rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, so that might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. God’s righteousness is God acting in salvation and judgment – God has finally acted, though not in the way that human beings or indeed even the devil expected (1Cor 2:8).

But God does not just act out of the blue; He acts according to His promised word, and so God’s righteousness is also closely connected with His faithfulness or truth: “I have not hidden your righteousness; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not hidden your mercy and your faithfulness from the great congregation” (Psa 39:11, see 44:5; 84:11-12, 15; 88:15; 95:13; 118:75, 138; 142:1). And when God does act mightily on his people’s behalf, they proclaim the good news of his mighty deeds on their behalf (Psa 39:10; 67:12) and proclaim it to the great congregation (Psa 9:12; 21:31-32; 43:2; 64:9; 92:2; 96:3). Thus God’s righteousness in the Psalms is God acting in judgment to save his people from their enemies in faithfulness to his promises, often despite Israel’s own faithlessness.  So in Romans 1:17, God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, that is, it is revealed on the basis of God’s own faithfulness to those who have faith, to those who believe.

But to what promises is God being faithful?  It cannot be the promises of the Sinai Covenant made through Moses, for Israel broke that covenant (Jer 31:32).  No, God is fulfilling the promises he made to Adam and Eve, and to Abraham.  In Genesis 3:15, in what is called the protevangelium, the first statement of the gospel, God promised that he would crush the head of the serpent by the seed of the woman, who is Christ.  And Paul refers to this passage in Rom 16:20 when he states that God will soon crush Satan under the feet of the Roman believers, and indeed all believers.  God is also faithful to the promise He made with Abraham: “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed,” which God ultimately accomplishes through Abraham’s seed, Christ Himself (Gal 3:16).

But God’s deliverance of Israel and indeed the whole world is merely the consequence of God’s righteousness, which is really God’s action to restore his righteous rulership over creation, a dominion which Adam handed over to Satan in Genesis 3, for the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “aAll these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matt 4:8-9).  But God had promised to crush the serpent and in faithfulness to His promise God, identifying himself as the Creator of heaven and earth, now calls his servant in righteousness and makes him to be a covenant for the people, a light for the nations (Isa 42:5-6), the means by which God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth (49:6).  Thus the power by which God redeems Israel and brings righteousness to the nations is the power he exercised in creating the cosmos (42:1, 3-5). God’s righteousness involves nothing less than a new creation of the heavens and the earth, a total restoration of the whole world (Isa 65:17). Thus the righteousness of God is the manifestation of his creative power to restore the cosmic order disrupted by human sin. It is nothing less than the restoration of God’s righteous rule over the world: the enthronement of the risen Jesus as the exalted Son of God in power is the means by which God re-establishes His rule over creation. 

This righteousness of God in Christ is a revelation of divine power. It is no mistake that in Romans 1:17 Paul refers to the revelation of God’s righteousness; in Romans 1:3-4 he refers to the exaltation of the Son of God in power, and in Galatians he refers to his initial vision as an “apocalypse” or revelation of the Son of God (Gal 1:12, 16). There is a deep connection between the revelation of the exalted Son to Paul and the revelation of God’s righteousness in his gospel.   When Paul saw Christ on the Damascus Road, Jesus called him to preach to the Gentiles that the Son was the new Lord of the world, God’s righteous rule had been and was being restored, and that the nations were to submit to that rule in obedience faith through belief in message of Paul, the divinely appointed herald of God’s righteous rule.

So to return to our initial question: Why doesn’t God do something in response to all the evil in the world – why doesn’t He act?  Paul’s answer is that God has acted in righteousness to save humanity from its own evil, and to judge those who hold them in bondage. And He has done so through the death and resurrection of Christ, acting faithfully according to the promises He made to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to David, and the prophets.  It may not be the answer that humanity wants or expects, but it is the only effective answer, the only answer that judges evil without also destroying humanity.

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Deliverance from a Sin-Consciousness

For many years I suffered under a lingering sense of shame at the core of my being. It wasn’t guilt for things I had done – for that I knew and trusted in the forgiveness of God through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (Rom 3:25-26).  Of course, Satan was ever faithful to bring sins I had done in the past to mind as proof that my self ought to be hated or treated with contempt.  Maybe God had forgiven me, but at the core I was still the shameful self I felt and thought myself to be. Even though I knew about my union with Christ, the shame remained.

I did not realize it, but I was under a great deception that Satan has perpetrated over the whole of humanity since the fall.  As soon as Adam and Eve received Satan’s lie that they could be as gods over their own lives, as soon as they disobeyed God’s commands, Satan entered into them and began tormenting them from within with shame at their nakedness (Gen 3).  Their nakedness was not so much physical as spiritual – they had become afraid of exposure by and to the light of God’s glory.  So they were ashamed and hid from God in the garden.  So although God was angered by their disobedience, it was not God who produced the sense of shame, for He asked Adam and Eve: “Who told you that you were naked?”  Adam and Eve never answer this question directly, and it is never stated that the serpent outwardly told them – no, Satan told them from within – his mind had invaded them and produced in them a sense of shame about their whole being, inward as well as outward.  Of course in one sense they were right to be ashamed – they were unworthy to be in God’s presence, unfit to be the vessel-images which expressed God’s glory.  God’s Spirit could no longer dwell in vessels polluted by such evil.

But it was not God who shamed them – it was the serpent speaking within them, though they knew it not.  They thought they were as gods, independent selves who made their own decisions about good and evil, who ran their own lives, even if they experienced shame at the core of their beings. Adam and Eve knew they were wrong persons, but did not realize what the sources of that wrongness was and who ultimately was hiding within their very hearts. To this day Satan hides himself in the hearts of human beings (see Eph 2:2; John 8:44, 1John 3:8; 4:4; 5:19), whispering his deceptions and lies, and producing his evil desires within them.  He hides by speaking in the first person, and so if we stumble in a sin, the first thing we tell ourselves is “there I go again!” or “I hate myself” or “I am so ashamed of myself.”  Do not be deceived – this is not mere negative self-talk, nor is it the conviction of the Holy Spirit – they are the words of the devil, trying to keep you ensnared in sin and shame.  As long as he can keep you ensnared in a shame-consciousness, he is free to do his work through you.  If we believe his deceptive words, no wonder we end up in Romans 7 and find ourselves doing the same things over and over again!

Of course, an unbeliever does not trust in Christ has no recourse, no defense against the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10), because they are wrong persons: the shame for them is real and there is no deliverance from it apart from Christ. For the believer, however, there is a remedy for this sin and shame consciousness – the blood and bodily sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  Hebrews 9-10 specifically addresses the issue of a sin consciousness. In Hebrews 9, the author writes of how Jesus has entered into the heavenly tabernacle, into the Father’s presence by his own blood (9:11-12). The purpose of the blood is purification or cleansing (9:22), and under the old covenant, the holy of holies was purified with the blood of bulls and goats.  The purpose of this was to purify it from the sin of the people which had collected there and which threatened to drive the glory of God from the midst of the people. So now Christ offers Himself and His blood to cleanse both the Holy of Holies in heaven and in believers: namely, their hearts and consciences from dead works (9:14, 23). Sometimes we take this purification/forgiveness for granted, but it is the true answer to Satan every time he brings up something we have done in the past: it is all under the blood.  And this is how the saints can now overcome the accuser of the brethren: “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11).

But Christ does more than just cleanse our consciousness of past sins – he cleanses our consciousness from the shame in which Satan has held us in bondage from the beginning.  He does through his bodily death on the cross: “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).  We are sanctified not just from our sins, but from the very presence of sin in our inner man, our spirit.  The apostle Paul says that we are “dead to sin”:  “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. The old person we used to be, that shameful self, was crucified with Christ on his cross, and we entered into that crucifixion by being baptized into his death (Rom 6:4). And now we have risen with Christ as a new person, free from the spirit of sin, the spirit of Satan who had entered into us and concealed himself within out hearts (Eph 2:2).  And so now we are sanctified, set apart as vessels of Jesus Christ, and it is no longer the old “I” who lives, but Christ who lives His life through us (Gal 2:20), if we grab hold of this truth by faith and do not submit again to the Satanic deception of a shame-consciousness.

For there is nothing left to be ashamed of, for “by one offering Christ has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:14).  Wait a minute! Perfected?!! What could the author possibly mean by this! I hear Christians all the time practically stumbling over themselves to say how imperfect they are, how their selves are a work in progress and have so far to go.  But Paul says in Rom 6:7 that you are dead (see Col 3:3). The self has been crucified and buried and new self has taken its place, but Christians believe and live as if they were still the old self operated by Satan.  But that identity, that ego is crucified, gone, buried, never to rise again, and only a Satanic deception will lead you to believe otherwise.  Instead, in our new inner man, in our spirits, we are already perfect in Christ, regardless of whether our behavior yet matches up with who we are.  Christ is the perfect one within us, and He is the one who lives through us.

Of course our lives don’t look perfect to us – after all we remain our silly human selves with all our apparent weaknesses that Satan is quick to point out, whether directly or through other people. We are not the judges of what perfection looks like, and nor is any other human being, let alone Satan.   If you commit a clear biblical sin, confess it to God and quickly place it under the blood. Otherwise, leave all things to God to judge, as Paul says: “in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1Cor 4:3-5).  If we are constantly looking at our behavior, then we are no longer looking at Christ. Instead, let us, “with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the bglory of the Lord” be “transformed into the same image (that is, into Christ!) from glory to glory” (2Cor 3:18).


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James 1:13-15 and where sin originates

A friend of mine recently asked me how I reconcile James 1:13-15, which seems to imply that sin has its origin in our own human desires, with our teaching about sin and righteousness arising from one of two spirits which dwell within and operate us.  This has important implications, because if believers have a sinful human nature, as many Christians believe, then we are not vessels expressing a spirit, but either self-operating selves with the power to control ourselves (and therefore to keep the law independently of Christ), or else we are hopelessly bound up in sin and Christ really has not inaugurated the new covenant in which His Spirit will cause us to walk in His ways (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek  36:27).

James 1:13-15 states: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.  However, James also says “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (4:7).  So how is it that we are tempted both by our own desire/lust and by the devil?  The answer is that the devil appeals to and stirs up the desires and appetites in our flesh. He can tempt us in no other way. Even when Satan tempted Adam and Eve, he had to make disobedience to God’s commands tempting by appealing to Eve’s fleshly desires: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6).  Satan appealed to her senses and the appetites of her flesh for food, for beauty, and for wisdom in order to cause her to disobey God.  But beneath the obvious temptation to fulfill the desires of her flesh was concealed the deeper temptation to receive Satan’s lie of independent self: “you shall be as gods,” discerning good and evil for themselves independently from God (3:5).  So Eve was led astray by her own lusts, but Satan was doing the leading and stringing her along. Until we actually receive and believe what the serpent is saying to us, the lust remains just that: a flesh desire, not sinful in itself, but conceiving sin when we have joined ourselves to what Satan is telling us and identified ourselves with the desire. Conception requires more than one person, both on a physical level and on a spiritual level.  We conceive, but Satan impregnates us with his lie. The desire or lust is only the womb which conceives, it is not the source of the sin.

There is really nothing wrong with the flesh – it is what it is and operates by two principles which Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle and the pain principle – it seeks pleasure and avoids pain.  There is nothing wrong with this, but as spirit people we are not to be controlled by pleasure-seeking or pain-avoidance, that is, to live on a soul-body level as if we were mere flesh beings.    That is Satan’s deception – that we are only flesh beings who are needy and incomplete. Satan attempts to direct us away from our fullness and completeness in Christ and toward our feelings or neediness and incompleteness in the flesh.  That is why James can say that we are enticed and led astray by our own (fleshly) lusts and at the same time refer to resisting the devil.

Finally, I would say that this passage does not really affect the view that we exchange spirits when we believe, because James is talking about believers not unbelievers here.  Satan doesn’t have to tempt unbelievers with their fleshly desires; he just expresses himself through their fleshly desires.  It is only the believer joined in holy union to Christ who can be led astray from their union identity into a false identification with their fleshly desires. The way to deal with such fleshly desires when they come up (and they come up often!) is to recognize that we are not flesh people anymore, but spirit-people.  Our true identity is not with who we were as flesh people (the old man), since we are no longer “in the flesh,” but “in the Spirit,” if indeed the Spirit of Christ lives in us (Rom 8:9). In fact, as far as their identity is concerned, believers “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). this does not mean that we do not continue to live in the flesh (Gal 2:20), that is, the mortal body, but that it no longer defines who we are.  Rather, our new identity (the new man) is Christ Himself, for Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).  If it is no longer I but Christ, then Christ is the one living and He is our new identity.  Nevertheless, Satan can still tempt us through the desires of the flesh, not just to live according to it, but to identify ourselves with it and its desires.  Once we know that flesh is no longer who we are, Satan is powerless to get us to obey its desires. But until we experience that inner knowing of our deliverance, however, Satan’s continual temptation is just good practice for standing by faith in our new identity.


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The Covenant and the Curse: Gen 15:7-21

How do we know that God will fulfill His promises to us?  How can we be sure that God is the kind of God He portrays Himself as in the Bible?  How do we know that He truly is love, as John says in his first letter (1John 4:8)?  These are not minor, insignificant questions, since the trustworthiness of God is at stake on the one hand, and our need to live life based on a secure foundation.  One might say that the need to trust God is our most fundamental need as human beings.  If God is untrustworthy, then nothing is safe: we are left to fend for ourselves and live a life of hopelessness.

Abram was faced with the same issue in Genesis 15.  God had promised him descendants; so how was he to be sure that God would fulfill those promises.  We have to remember that Abraham grew up in an idolatrous culture that had no experience of the living God. But Abraham believes God anyway (15:6).  In response to Abraham’s faith, God makes or more literally, “cuts” the covenant between them with a ritual sacrifice and oath. Following the standard form of a covenant in the ancient Near East, God identifies himself and recites the history of his relationship with Abram: “I am the Lord (or Yahweh), who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess” (Gen 15:7). At this point, Abram is rather bold (or cheeky as my English friends would say), and complains: “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (15:8). He believed God about having descendants, and now has the cheek to question how he knows that God will give him possession of the land of Canaan. I don’t think I could muster up that kind of courage and boldness to ask a question like that it I were faced directly with God’s presence. But God is not offended by Abraham’s boldness, since God was not ashamed to call him friend (see James 2:23).

Instead God commands Abraham to prepare several animals for sacrifice, and to cut the heifer, the goat, and the ram in half, but not the birds. The animals are three year olds because that signifies that they are mature animals, and therefore “perfect.” An immature animal would be less than perfect, even if possessing no other flaws.  This sacrifice serves two purposes. On the one hand, it ratifies or “cuts” the covenant, putting it into effect through the pouring out of the animals’ blood. The blood, though not explicitly mentioned here, consecrates the covenant partners, that is, it sets them apart from all others in a special personal covenant relationship. Later in the Bible, atonement for sin is accomplished in a similar way, since the blood from the atoning sacrifices re-establishes the covenant and re-consecrates and re-sanctifies the people who have become defiled by sin. In other words, the poured out blood of the atoning sacrifice returns the people to a right relationship with God.

On the other hand, the dividing in two of the animals’ carcasses serves a different purpose: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘to your descendants I give this land…’” (Gen 15:17-18). Like every covenant, this covenant has a curse, symbolized by the cutting of the animals. The one who walks through the pieces, calls this curse upon himself if he fails to fulfill the covenant (self-imprecation). Children sometimes make promises and invoke a curse like this to one another: “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” In Gen 15, it is God, appearing as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch who passes between the pieces and invokes the curse upon Himself. This ritual self-curse is God’s answer to Abram’s complaint: “how am I to know that I shall possess this land?” (15:8). God calls a curse upon Himself if He ever fails to fulfill His promise. In other words God will die before He fails to fulfill His promise.  Of course God will not fail, but the oath establishes that God’s intention is fixed and absolute, and that His promise can be relied upon without question.  For this reason the author of Hebrews said that it is impossible for God to lie: “God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:17-18). It is said that God cannot lie not because he lacks the ability, but because He has eternally chosen to be love, he has chosen to be the Eternal Self-for-others, first of all for one another within the Holy Trinity, and secondarily for His human creation.  The invoking of a curse upon Himself in the covenant He cuts with Abraham and is merely the demonstration in time of a choice He is eternally making in eternity.

This ritual divine self-cursing also foreshadows what will happen to Jesus on the cross, when He takes the curse of the law: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal 3:13). What is this curse? The curse is the indwelling presence of the spirit of sin, in which we were all imprisoned and held captive (Gal 3:22-23, Romans 7). In Christ, God came down, assumed human form (John 1, Phil 2:6ff), and became sin for us (2Cor 5:21), that is, he took the sin-spirit upon Himself and delivered humanity by dying to the spirit of sin Himself on the cross: “the death he died, he died to sin, once for all” (Rom 6:10). If Christ died to sin, then at one point he was subject to its power, specifically, on the cross itself. Thus, in order to enable the people of God to take possession of the heavenly Canaan, Christ took upon Himself the curse that laid over all humanity as a result of Adam’s sin, just as God ritually took upon Himself the curse of the covenant in the time of Abram, to reassure him that He would surely fulfill His promise. Again, the sacrifice of Christ is simply the demonstration in time of God’s eternal choice to the be the slain Lamb before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8).

So how do we know if we can trust God? How do we know that God is love? – because He demonstrated His love for us in the death of Christ for us: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  He took upon Himself the curse of the covenant (Gal 3:13) and became the body of sin upon the cross (Rom 6:6-8), paying the ultimate price for our salvation. He has graciously laid down His life for us; how can we not trust Him to keep His word?


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Paul’s Gospel: A Source of Shame or the Power of God? Rom 1:16-17

In verses 13-15, Paul declares his obligation and desire to preach the gospel to the non-Jewish believers in Rome, so that he might have some fruit among them, in other words, so that he might perfect their understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He is obligated to them because God had called him to be the apostle to the nations (Acts 22:21; Rom 11:13).  For this reason, he writes, he is not ashamed of the gospel (1:16).  It might seem surprising to us that there was any occasion for shame with regard to the gospel, but in the ancient world the gospel seemed like so much foolishness (1Cor 1:18-23). First of all, a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms: a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah.  Jesus did not deliver his people from Roman power and oppression, and he never led any kind of revolt against Rome, let alone a successful one.  Instead he was killed on a cross, the most brutal expression of Roman power against one who supposedly risen up and rebelled against the supremacy of Rome.  How could a dead man save anyone? Pilate scoffed at him as a loser when he posted the sign “King of the Jews” on the cross.

But Paul knows that the rulers of this age would not have crucified the Lord of glory if they understood who it was they were killing and what would happen if they killed him (1 Cor 2:8).  Second, the idea that people would rise from the dead provoked ridicule and sneering (Acts 17:32). Even in our own age, unbelievers scoff at the idea of a resurrection, or at the miraculous in the Bible, or at the idea that Jesus will one day return in power and glory.

Since the Roman Christians already believed in a crucified and risen Messiah, however, it is likely that Paul also had another source of shame in mind: several times in the letter Paul refers to slanderous accusations made against him and the gospel that he preaches. In Romans 3:7-8, for example, he says: “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come?” In other words, some are accusing Paul’s gospel of encouraging libertine behavior that recognizes no laws or boundaries, and that acting this way somehow brings about good and magnifies the truth of God.  Paul dismisses this ridiculous charge contemptuously: “Their condemnation is just.” In Romans 6, Paul raises the objection twice more: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? (6:1) and ” What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (6:15).  In other words, some people are interpreting Paul’s statements about freedom from the law as an excuse for immoral and sinful behavior.  Paul provides an extensive answer to this objection in Romans 6, but the important point here is that some Roman believers may have believed that Paul’s law-free gospel had shameful libertine implications. 

But Paul was not ashamed of his gospel, because he knew that the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than old covenant law contained God’s transforming power to save all humanity from sin and death, the consequences of our own rebellion.   God was within His rights to leave us to the consequences of our choice – that would simply be justice. Graciously, however, God chose to prevent the destruction of His creation, and acted to redeem it from the powers of sin and death.  The content of the gospel is that Jesus has become the Lord of the cosmos through his death and resurrection and heavenly enthronement, but the powerful effect of the gospel is that the restoration of God’s righteous rule over humanity results in the salvation of humanity from the powers of sin and death.  How blessed we are that God has eternally chosen to be for His creation and not simply discard us as so much useless rubbish!  How blessed we are that God came down in the form of a human, gave up His divine privilege, and humbled Himself even to point of dying the humiliating death of a slave on a cross for our sake (Phil 2:6-8).  As shameful and humiliating as such a death would have been, he endured the cross for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2), namely the recovery of His people whom He loved with an undying love.  How can we not bow down before Him in worship?

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Why Paul wrote Romans: Rom 1:5-13

In the first five verses of Romans, Paul has written about the gospel he preaches, and the gift of apostleship that God has granted to him.  His gospel or good news concerns the transformation of Jesus from mortal flesh to His resurrected state as life-giving spirit, His heavenly enthronement as Son of God in power and as the cosmic Lord over all creation.  And Paul was given the grace of being a royal emissary to preach this good news and bring about the submission/obedience of the nations to it.  The nations or non-Jewish nations show their submission not through works, for they have none, but through placing their faith in Jesus as Messiah and Savior.  Through faith and faith alone, the Gentiles are able to participate in the transformation that happened to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Basically, then, in these verses Paul is summarizing his gospel and presenting His credentials to preach it to the Romans.

But unlike the other churches to whom he had written, Paul as not the founder of the church at Rome, nor was he responsible for their conversion/faith in the gospel.  so unlike his letter to the Galatians, where Paul assumed a tone of angry rebuke and correction, since they had departed from the gospel which Paul had preached to them, Paul here assumes a tone of persuasive appeal: he wants to convince the Romans of the truth of the gospel that he preaches, as God revealed it to him.  He brings up His apostleship to the nations, and then adds “among whom you are called by Jesus Christ, who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (1:6-7).  So Paul is writing specifically to the Gentile believers at Rome, and is asserting his apostolic authority over them. While Paul affirms the genuineness of their faith in Jesus Christ and thanks God for it (1:8), Paul’s real desire is to visit them so that he may bear some fruit among them as he has among the other nations (1:10, 13), to impart a spiritual gift to them to strengthen and encourage them (1:11), and to preach the gospel to them in Rome (1:15).  These desires are all basically one desire: He want to perfect their understanding of the gospel by preaching to them the full truth of what God has revealed to him, just as Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and explained the truth more accurately to him (Acts 18:26).

It is likely that the Roman believers had a basic understanding of the gospel, that Jesus was the promised Messiah and son of David, that he was crucified and died for their sins, that he rose from the dead, and was now enthroned as Lord in heaven and would one day return for His people. But in other respects their understanding was woefully inadequate, as the rest of the letter makes clear.  How was one accepted by and justified before God?  Did one have to become a Jew first and be circumcised in order to participate in the blessings that Jesus brought to us?  And what role, if any, does the Law play in justification and in the life of the believer?

In verses 3-4 Paul gives a clue as to how he will answer these questions: the transformation of Jesus from weak mortal flesh into life giving spirit.  What the Romans fail to understand is the depth of the human plight as flesh in Adam, the enslavement to the spirit of sin in the flesh, the law’s total inability to deliver them from this plight, and consequently they misunderstand how participation in the resurrection-transformation of Christ saves them from this plight.  The Roman believers are living as mere flesh-people, as evidenced by the divisions and strife among them (Rom 14), by their boasting either in an external status conferred by the law and circumcision (Rom 2:17-29), or by boasting over unbelieving Israel (Rom 11:17-25). They do not yet understand their new identity as transformed spirit-people in Christ, and so do not yet walk according to it.  And so in the following chapters, Paul lays out before the Romans how the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe (Rom 1:16), a salvation not just limited to forgiveness of sins and going to heaven when you die, but a transformation of God’s people from weak mortal sin-filled flesh into the heavenly spirit-people of God indwelt and operated by the Spirit of Christ.

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From Flesh to Spirit: Romans 1:3-4

In these verses we witness the transformation of Jesus by the Spirit of God from his weak earthly flesh into the resurrected Son of God in power.  For although Jesus was the promised seed of David (2Sam 7:12-14) and Messiah of Israel, he could not enter His cosmic Lordship in his earthly flesh, for flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 15:50).  The flesh refers here to what is merely human in contrast to the divine, more specifically to what humanity became when Adam fell, with all its weakness and mortality. To save us, Jesus had to participate in our fallen fleshly condition: “since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

But it was not enough to share our flesh, our earthly mortal flesh must be transformed into a spiritual, heavenly body of glory: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1Cor 15:42-44).  God “will transform  the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory (Phil 3:20). So it was with Christ: he was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by God’s power (2Cor 13:4).   He had a perishable body, but was raised imperishable; he endured the humiliation of the cross (Phil 2:7-8), but was exalted in the highest and enthroned by God’s right hand (Rom 8:34) and given the name which is above every name (Phil 2:9).  Jesus was transformed from flesh to spirit, not that he became a mere ghost, but rather He became the heavenly Son of God enthroned in power by the Spirit of holiness through His resurrection from the dead.

In the same way, we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, transformed from flesh to spirit even in this life (see Romans 8!), and will be finally manifested as the sons of God in glory when we receive the redemption of our bodies.  What hope the resurrection-transformation of Christ gives us, both in this life and in the life to come! Even now we are being transformed from glory to glory, manifesting the very life of Christ in our bodies (2Cor 3:17-18; 4:7-11).  Even now we have been raised with Christ in our spirits (Col 3:1) and are a new creation in Him, the old has passed, the new has come! (2Cor 5:17).  Even now we can walk in our new identity as the new man, who is Christ Himself living His life through us (Col 3:10, Gal 2:20). This is walking in the Spirit, walking according to our new identity as resurrected Spirit-people, and not in our old identity as flesh-people in Adam, operated by the Satanic spirit of sin.  The transformation of Christ from his crucified flesh body into the spiritual resurrection body of glory has made a new life possible for us. What complete deliverance! What perfect redemption! And one day our bodies of flesh will be transformed to match who we really are in spirit (Rom 8:23). Oh glory!

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