14. A Guilt-Free People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

14. A Guilt-Free People

Rom 3:23-25   all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.

A tighter focus: In this third Part we are going to move on from the general ways Christians are different from non-Christians to considering just what happens when a person does actually become a Christian, in God’s eyes as declared in the New Testament, AND is some practical ways. Yes, we have observed that there is a God-difference, that Christians are first and foremost believers in Jesus Christ, that they have had a supernatural experience or encounter with God that Jesus called being ‘born again’, and this followed their conviction by the Spirit and repentance. We also noted in passing, so to speak, the basic need to be saved and meaning of becoming a faith people, but now we are going to move on to see the things that happen to the believer as part of and following this experience of being born again. I want to approach it by recognising the needs that we have as we come to God and what He does to meet those needs. The contents of this third Part will be as follows:

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

We start with the guilt that we have and how He removes that, expanding on the things we considered in Study no.11, ‘Repentance and Conviction’.

A Basic Problem: There is a problem that is at the heart of human experience. It is the problem of guilt. Wikipedia comes up with a good definition: “Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or have violated a universal moral standard and bear significant responsibility for that violation.”  Now we may try and deny that – and modern thinking desperately tries to do away with standards in order to do that – but the truth is that deep down each of us feels that somehow we are falling short of some standard or other, and yes we may go to great efforts to cover that up but it is still there.

Cover-up Jobs: Oh how varied are the means people use to cover up this sense of guilt, a guilt that is sometimes very shallow, the guilt of not living up to one’s own expectations or even those of our parents, or it may be a deeper guilt where we know our behaviour towards another, or even against society, in the past was less than glorious! We try to cover up these feelings by appearing nice, trying to be good, trying to be respectable, aiming for achievement, fame, status, things that make us look good in the eyes of others.

Why? But why do we have these feelings. Well, the apostle Paul wrote that it was because we got it wrong (sinned) and fell short of the incredible potential that each of us have when we are in harmony with God (falling short of God’s glory). I have watched various Christians struggling with their lives, struggling to achieve and I have found myself saying, “Don’t you realize that God desires more success for you than you desire for yourself?”  Sometimes that success may be to simply make ends meet and create a great home for a family, sometimes it is to make millions to bless the world with jobs and so much more (consider Bill Gates), sometimes it is success that has nothing to do with money. I suggest Mother Teresa was a staggeringly ‘successful’ person, but that requires us to readjust our thinking about what success means.

The Answer- Justification: OK, we’ve faced the fact that so many of us in the human race struggle with guilt so now I am going to make a possibly surprising suggestion: Christians are possibly one of the only groups in the world who are not guilt laden – or at least should not be.  Now how am I able to say that? It is what I briefly referred to earlier, the doctrine of ‘justification’. If I say I was justified in taking a particular course of action it means I was actually right to take it. If I appear in a court case accused of murder and I plead a case of self-defence and am found ‘not guilty’ we might say I was justified in the eyes of the Law for accidentally killing someone while defending myself.

The use of the word ‘justified’ means I am found not-guilty, or innocent. Now the problem we have been facing when we come to such verses as our starter verse – “all have sinned,” is that I have to acknowledge that I am a sinner – and we all are – because I have fallen short in my life because I did not get God’s help, i.e. I was self-centred and godless. It appears to leave us in a hopeless state where we will be condemned by God, and with no hope of change or escape. But that is where we come to the wonder of the plan of God for salvation, ‘the Gospel’: I am guilty and I do deserve the punishment that justice demands BUT Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died on the Cross in my place and when I accept that truth, the Bible tells me I am justified, I am put right in God’s eyes and in the eyes of justice because the punishment has been taken for my Sin.

As the apostle Paul wrote, This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” (Rom 3:22) and then he explains, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” (Rom 4:3) and applies that to us,  The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom 4:23-25) When we believe (and remember we’ve seen previously faith means belief in action, i.e. we respond to what we hear) that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead to prove that this was right and acceptable to God, we are justified.

In God’s eyes it is faith that He uses to measure our righteousness. He declares us righteous (right before Him) when He sees this faith in us – this belief accompanied by action, belief in Jesus. As it was in the case of Abraham in the Old Testament period, so it is with us today. That, and only that, is why I and all of us who know we are Christians, born again of His Spirit, can say we are not burdened by guilt.

Freed! This is the wonder for the true believer, we know our propensity to get it wrong but we seek with God’s help not to; we know we are less than perfect and yet we know that the basis of our relationship with God relies upon what Jesus has achieved on the Cross, him taking my punishment and satisfying justice, leaving me to simply believe that and receive all that He has to give me as we live out this new life of relationship. I am thus freed from guilt and free to live in the wonder of this relationship with God whereby He provides for me through His Spirit.

Dealing with Failure: For the believer living in relationship with God, brought about by the work of Christ on the Cross and now enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit we are, in line with the apostle Paul’s teaching, to consider that we “have died to sin,” (Rom 6:2) and so we are to, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:11) Nevertheless, although our objective is never to sin, there will be times when we trip over our feet, if I may put it like that, and get it wrong.

The apostle John recognized that when he wrote, ”I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:1,2) and he had just written, if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil.” (1 Jn 1:9) To summarize: we should not sin, but if on the occasion we do, we are to confess it to God, repent of it, and Jesus’ work on the cross applies again to us. We do not need to go on feeling guilty, but just get on living positively for Christ. This is what all true believers are called to. Do you remember the first study in this Part (no.8) was all about the fact that a Christian is different from a non-Christian? Here is the first of the things that come about when we are born again that make us different: I am justified (put right) in God’s eyes by what Jesus has done for me. I don’t have to struggle to get right with God, just believe that Jesus has made it possible, and receive it and live it! Hallelujah!

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4. Prisoners?

Transformation Meditations: 4. Prisoners?

Isa 61:1b   He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners

The work of the Messiah is to transform us, to redeem us, to save us, and we are looking at some of the aspects of his mandate in Isaiah 61 and reiterated by Jesus in Luke 4. Yesterday we considered the broken-hearted; today we consider captives and prisoners.

Perhaps when we think of drug addicts or alcoholics, the concept of someone being a prisoner to their addiction is easy to understand. Thinking about humanity being prisoners needs a little more thought. Accepting that there may still be aspects of our present lives that indicate we are still prisoners, requires honesty and grace.

Now it seems there is specific similarity in these two words – captive and prisoner. They both imply in their meaning having had their freedom taken away by someone or something else. A definition of a ‘captive’ is ‘a person who has been taken prisoner’. Definitions of a ‘prisoner’ include, ‘a person captured and kept confined by another’ and ‘a person who is or feels confined or trapped by a situation’.

The first place we can be captives is in our head. First there are the lies we believe. Someone told us again and again when we were young that we were rubbish, worthless, failures, and so now we believe it; it is ingrained in our thinking, but it is a lie. You are made in the image of God and precious to God, you are someone, someone special. If you’ve become a Christian, God loved you so much that He sent His Son to die for you (Jn 3:16,17)

Second, there is the anguish we feel in our minds as we battle with either guilt or fear. Perhaps we did fail and maybe it was big-time and so yes, we were guilty, but Jesus died for that failure, died for that guilt and shame, and having confessed it to him, you can now be free from it. In fact if you feel it is still there and you have confessed it, realise it is the voice of the enemy you are listening to. Draw near to the Lord, resist the enemy and tell him to leave with his lies (Jas 4:7).

But then we may be captive to bad circumstances. Maybe there are those to whom we are related, or those who are over us at work, who impose on us, abuse us, and demean us. Find a spiritual friend or church leader, share it with them; you probably need support to break free from that relationship. It doesn’t have to continue. Stop being a prisoner to other people.

Some of us will be prisoner to a creeping illness, or an infirmity, or just creeping old age. We can’t escape it. We can pray against it and we can ask others to pray for us, but if at the end of that it still seems that this is the path the Lord wants you to walk, remember that His grace is always there for you and as He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) Those are not glib or trite words but the truth. Even in weakness, even in limitation, His power can be present.

Be a person who draws near to Him and knows His presence and in that presence, you will find power to cope; not merely to survive but to glow, even in adversity, even in affliction, even in illness. You may be a worn ‘earthen vessel’ but you contain the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6,7). May you know it. “He has sent me to … proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” 

7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Focus on Christ Meditations: 7.  The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Isa 61:1,2   The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .

As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery’ that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.

Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel, say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week’s reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter’ is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?

Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit’s enabling he brings God’s word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God’s blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.

Oh yes, God’s word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God’s word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.

You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch’ of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?

And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now….   A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.

The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?

The ‘what’ we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)

Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren’t ready for that, for ‘religion’ then and now, wasn’t and so often isn’t open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)

But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more’ come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?

To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?

65. Freedom

Meditations in 1 John : 65 : Freedom

1 John  5:18-19    We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.

Perhaps one of the reasons that cynical unbelievers reject the Gospel and the teachings of the New Testament is that it is so explicit in its revelation, and it is ‘revelation’ for we could neither know it nor teach it if it had not been revealed by God. The other thing about it, which is often missed, is that it answers the questions of the world and, in fact, without it these questions go unanswered, such questions as what is evil, why is there evil in the world and why do we need laws to protect the poor and weak, why do people do wrong, and why are people self-centred?

These questions respond to a state of affairs in the existence of life on this world that is highly questionable. In personal terms, why is it that I have aspirations to be good yet so often fail to be so? As the apostle Paul wrote, I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom 7:15) and “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19) This doing evil that he spoke about is what the Bible calls ‘Sin’, that propensity to be self-centred and godless resulting in wrong living, resulting in individual sins, individual acts of wrong doing and that, we find, we are stuck with and cannot break away from. Why, the earnest seeker might ask, am I like that? Why is life like this?

It is to these questions that the Bible speaks and explains we are all sinners because we were born tainted with this propensity called Sin. It was because of this that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came and died on the Cross to pay the punishment for our wrong doing and offer us a new way of life as children of God empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Paul again described this: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Col 1:13,14) explaining that there are two rulers and that the individual lives either under the domination of Satan or in the freedom of the kingdom or rule of God. Those are the ONLY two options.

When we come to Christ we are delivered out of that dominion of darkness and, as John now says, “anyone born of God does not continue to sin.”  i.e. anyone under the rule of God no longer is driven by that old power called Sin, is no longer self-centred and godless, but is Christ and God-centred and is led by God into right living.

But John also picks up this other aspect that was referred to in Paul’s verse as ‘the dominion of darkness’, the domination by Satan, when he says, “the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.”  Satan is still there domineering over unbelievers, and wanting to lead astray the children of God, but Jesus is there, seated at God’s right hand ruling, and he protects and guards the children of God, and his Holy Spirit within us is there countering the lies of the enemy. All we have to do is listen to Him. The enemy can no longer pressurize us into going his way and disobeying God and doing wrong; we have been freed from that and from him.

When John goes on, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” he is, like Paul, making a distinction between the children of God and the rest of the world. The children of God, Christians, are under God’s protection and are no longer under the control of Satan and so, as he said earlier, do not have to sin, but the rest of the unbelieving world still are under Satan’s sway and so he is able to make wrong suggestions to them (as he did to Eve – Gen 3) and lead them astray and into wrong living.

This is one of the fundamentals that the world does not like, this claim that it is being led by the nose by an evil force, even though it cannot break free from self-centredness and godlessness and thinking, saying or doing wrong things. Indeed this way of life is so common that the unbeliever doesn’t even think about it. It is so normal to think badly about others, to speak badly about them or to them, and to do things that are utterly self-centred and harmful to others, that that is all they know and expect. They might consider it normal – accompanied by the stress, worries and anxieties that go with that lifestyle –  but that is a long way from God’s design for humanity

Sadly in recent decades in the West, standards in the Christian community have fallen and so often it is difficult for the world to see the distinction that should be there. So we see divorces, we see drunkenness, we see over-eating, we see self-centred materialistic lifestyles, we see angry upsets and divisions, and it is no wonder that the world fails so often to see the distinctive lifestyle of love and goodness that should characterize the Christian community.   It is time for it to change! John reminds us, we are children of God, different (or we should be!) from those who are under the control of the evil one. Check it out: are you?

 

 

39. Love & Death

Meditations in 1 John : 39 : Love and Death

1 John  3:14,15   We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

The word ‘life’ appears 12 times in this letter. Death just appears twice here and three times in chapter 5. John’s focus is, therefore, very much on life, but here he contrasts it with death. We have seen how a number of times he contrasts light and darkness; well now he does the same thing with life and death. Of course this is spiritual death he refers to because he says “we have passed from death”.  We had been dead but now we are alive. Link this with the light and darkness concepts and think of death being like living in the darkness of a cave. That was not where we were designed to live but sin had imprisoned us there. Through the work of Jesus on the Cross we have now been delivered out of that cave into the open air, into the light where we are free to enjoy the world as God designed us to do.

Let’s chew on this idea a bit more. The psalmist uses this idea of a big open place to contrast the imprisonment he felt when opposed or oppressed: They confronted me in the day of my disaster… He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” (Psa 18:18,19) and “You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place.” (Psa 31:8) Life means enjoying the freedom of God’s world in the way God has designed us to enjoy it and that includes enjoying Him. Spiritual death refers to being unable to sense things – a dead man senses nothing – unable to sense the goodness of God’s world, unable to enjoy it as we’re designed to, unable to sense God Himself. Yes, we have passed from death to life.

But that’s only the start of what John is saying. He has been talking about being children of God (v.10), loving one another (v.11), evil Cain hating his brother in the same way the world sometimes hates us (v.12,13) and now he says that this expression of our love for our brother is a sign of how we have come out of death and live in life. In other words, now we live in this big place of light and freedom, we are freed from the things of darkness (hatred) and are free to enjoy and indeed love those close to us.

Of course the other side of the coin refers to those who don’t love. Anyone who doesn’t love, says John, is still in that old place of death. Real, genuine love is one of the indicators of just where a person is – in life – and if they do not have love it is obvious that they have not come into life and are still spiritually dead.

Spiritual life is the very presence of God Himself in our life, the presence of the Holy Spirit living out His life in us, and again, as we have noted before, later in the letter John says “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). He brings life to our spirit and we start to become aware of the Lord and of His will for us, the wonder of His plan and purpose for our lives but if we have never invited Him into our life, then we are still spiritually dead. This is such a fundamental teaching in the New Testament. But when His life comes to us His love also comes to us. With God, life and love come together. Likewise death and the absence of love go together. Love is always outward looking, wanting the best for others. The absence of love is self-centredness, wanting the best for me. When we come to Christ we lay down our old self-centred life and it dies and it is replaced by the God-energised life which is always outward looking and looking for the wellbeing of others.

Now John pushes this a stage further to show how bad hating another is. He has already recently mentioned Cain who was jealous of Abel and hated him and eventually killed him. So now John says, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”  If you actually hate someone you want their destruction and so whether you have got round to achieving it or just think it in your heart, you are still a murderer, at the very least a potential murderer, but that is what you want to achieve at the end when you hate someone. When we get to this place of hating someone we want to get rid of them from our life, our wishes are for their destruction, for them to be removed from us. Hatred can be the outworking of upset and hostility and breakdown in relationship. When we have been deeply hurt we can want the source of that hurt to be removed from us, to end the hurt, we want their death and although we may not have done it, we hold the desire for murder in our hearts.

But, says John, you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.  Eternal life is the life of God, of the Holy Spirit living within us. If we hold such feelings and desires, we stand in opposition to God who desires life and love for everyone. While we hold such feelings we quench the Spirit and deny Him access in us. Hatred is darkness and light and darkness cannot exist together. If we have been hurt and hatred arises in us, we must seek the Lord for His grace to be able to come to a good place and good attitude towards the one who has offended us, because until we do, we are living a stunted life. The amazingly good news is that in such situations the grace of God is still working to draw us back into a good place. We may not realise the darkness we are living in, the lack of His life flowing in us, but He will be working to show us our state and bring us to repentance to release that person so that they too might come to repentance and seek our forgiveness, but until they do we must ensure we hold a good attitude towards them because God’s love wants to reach them as much as He wants to reach you. Let Him bring it.

29. Live Righteously

Meditations in 1 Peter : 29:  Live Righteously in Freedom

1 Pet 2:16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.

I wonder how many of us are really free?  The New Testament has quite a lot to say about freedom. For example James refers to “the perfect law that gives freedom.” (Jas 1:25). The context there seems to suggest the will of God, originally expressed in the Law of Moses but now fulfilled in Christ, the law of love, which brings freedom to its followers. The apostle Paul writing to the Galatians declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” (Gal 5:1) when he is speaking about no longer having to comply with Old Testament regulations. In fact throughout that letter he is suggesting a freedom from a rule-keeping mentality that still hung on from Old Testament times but which was no longer appropriate.

Why is it no longer appropriate? Because as Paul says, we are now freed children of God: “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21). Moreover because we have the Holy Spirit within us, He brings freedom: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 4:17). Freedom is the outworking of the ministry of Jesus: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners …. to release the oppressed” (Lk 4:18). All the things of the past – a sense of failure in rule-keeping, shame, guilt, fear etc. – have all been swept away when we were redeemed and were adopted as children of God empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Our sins have been dealt with: “Christ … has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Heb 9:15). Part of this means we no longer have to fear facing God in eternity: “that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb 2:14,15).  Paul, speaking of this was then able to declare, “now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Col 1:22) or as he put in to the Romans, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). No longer are we having to worry about keeping the rules (and failing) and having to face God after death. All of our sins have been dealt with by Christ on the Cross and so we are free to live as children of God. We are free children of God and we can look forward to meeting Him!

But there is a danger that Peter has in the back of his mind:do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” Freedom that is unrestrained reverts to license. Here is the young Christian who hears these things. Before they were a Christian they used to drink too much. They were convicted about that, became a Christian and then heard the good news that they were no longer under the Law or having to adhere to rules, and so say, “Fine, I can drink as much as I like then.” Hold on, says Paul, that is silly; you’ll be leading yourself into greater temptation and the likelihood of a fall: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18)

“Just a minute,” I hear you saying, “that is a rule; you’re putting us under the Law again, surely?” Well yes, the Law is always there in the background. It acts as a safety factor if we are being insensitive to the Spirit. He will always be seeking to lead us in righteous living, that is ‘right-living’, living according to God’s design, that is not harmful to us or to others. If we are immature, slow of understanding, or insensitive to the Holy Spirit, then we find the Law being applied by God, or at least the teaching with which the New Testament is full. Freedom does not mean we are free to do anything. Too much food is gluttony and leads to obesity, sex outside the confines of marriage leads to promiscuity, adultery and a whole host of other damaging actions. Excessive use of alcohol leads to drunkenness and again, a whole host of harmful spin-offs. If we are unable to enjoy our freedom without falling into excess, it probably means that we have obviously not yet realised what incredible lives we now have, i.e. low self esteem still rules, which needs to try to boost itself in some harmful way.

Peter has a helpful motivating thought: “live as servants of God.” So how is that helpful? He is saying, realise the wonder of who you are and you won’t do these things, you won’t feel you need to do these things to boost your ego. You are a servant or representative of God; that is an incredible privilege. All of heaven looks on at the wonder of who you are: His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 3:10) Our lives make the angels gasp at the wonder of God’s love being expressed in us. How can we possibly live as anything less than the wonderful, holy, love-filled children of God who are salt and light to the rest of the world (Mt 5:13-16). Let’s live in the freedom that Christ has bought for us, with wisdom and understanding, avoiding anything that leads others to deride His name as they watch us. Let’s live with His grace and goodness that is called righteousness.

19. Given Over

Meditations in Romans : 19 :  Given over by God

Rom 1:24. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.

So often in life there are two ways of looking at things and this is no more true than in the spiritual realm. Over the past thirty or forty years in the West we have seen a loosening up of sexual morals, heralded by some as a great freedom. That is how they see it, but in reality it is something completely different. It is the disciplinary judgment of God. Now back in Meditation 15 we observed that when God brings discipline or judgement, it is a form of remedial action. It is either to stop permanently a course of action by removing the person who God sees will not change whatever they say or do, or it is corrective in the way it stops a person following the course they are following so that they follow a new path that is not hurtful, harming or destructive.

The story or parable of the Prodigal Son told by Jesus is a classic illustration of this. The son wanted to leave home and do his own thing. Now the father could have stopped him and given him nothing to prevent him going but he didn’t. Instead he gave him his share of the inheritance and let the son go away and do whatever he wanted. As we hear the parable unwind, we hear of the son going away, spending all he has and ending up feeding pigs who he considers better off than himself. It is that at this point that he comes to his senses and goes back to his father who welcomes him with open arms.

What people have not realised is that God does restrain us, does restrain society, probably by speaking quietly into our hearts and pointing out the folly of our thoughts, but when God sees that our hearts are strongly turning away from Him and desiring to go into wilful disobedience, He stops any restraining activity and gives them over to the behaviour that they have thought about. In other words He removes any restrictions and allows Satan to encourage them into their folly so that, like the prodigal son, they will go to the depths in their folly until they come to themselves and realise their stupidity and return to God. Of course not everyone does but through this strategy God gives them every help towards coming to their senses, and so they can never say He didn’t warn them!

But note in our verse today the starting word, “Therefore.” This links the verse with what has gone before. It is God’s response to what has gone before, i.e. because people had turned away from God and gone into futile thinking, the Lord stepped back and gave them over to, or simply allowed them to go into all of the weird things their minds could dream up. Of course we are sensual beings and so sexual desire is perhaps the most obvious way their thoughts will turn – why can’t we do that?  It was because they were turning their minds to the ways of futility, that God allowed their desires to rise up under the power of sin to do things that would become self-destructive.

But what did God give them over to? God gave them over ….  to sexual impurity.” At this stage Paul is speaking in generalities. To understand “sexual impurity” it might be easier, first of all, to consider what sexual purity might mean. Surely God ‘designed’ sex for both procreation and for pleasure and, within the confines of the teaching of the Bible, it is within a stable, committed relationship as an expression of love between a man and a woman. That would be ‘pure’ sexual activity. ‘Impure’ would thus be any sexual activity outside of a stable, committed relationship and which does not flow from love between a man and a woman, hence some versions translate it as ‘sexual immorality’ indicating sexual activity outside of such a relationship.

Modern TV in the West at least, trivializes sexual activity and makes it no more than another physical activity like, say, eating and drinking. If you feel like it and you have someone else who feels like it, then do it. This demeans it or as Paul puts it, ‘degrades’ it. It is no longer an expression of love but of pure personal self-gratification. Bizarrely it has made the forming of real and meaningful relationships more difficult. That has been one of the negative aspects of ignoring the divine design.

Of course it has also led to the breakdown of committed relationships through adultery which is common today. The hurt, pain and rejection and hostility that so often follows, are simply spin-offs of the inability to exercise self-control. It is also, surely, no coincidence that teenage pregnancies are at an all-time high, as are STDs. The fruits of this casual approach to sexual activity are clear and obvious in the twenty-first century. Our society is certainly demeaning or degrading itself, in the name of freedom, while all the time it does not realise that it is the work of God allowing this unrestrained ‘freedom’ to wreak the fruits of this folly to bring people to their senses. This is a subtle form of disciplinary-judgment that will eventually bring destruction if not heeded, but which gives every opportunity for repentance to come as people see the folly of this godless lifestyle. May we understand this!