A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.
I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”
Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?
Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.
Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)
● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)
If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.
photo credit: imdb.com
Daniel LaRusso’s first three days of “karate training” are filled with menial chores around Miyagi’s oasis in the junkyard. Each chore must be carried out according specific instructions, “Wax on, right hand; wax off, left hand. Make big da circles. Breathe in the nose, out through the mouth.” The next day, “Paint the fence.” The one after, “Sand the floor.” Each time, the method is specific. Posture, style, breathing- they all matter. The master’s unorthodox style confuses Daniel but he has agreed to do whatever he is told without question. That agreement comes to an end when by the afternoon of the third day, Miyagi checks on Daniel on his way to go fishing. Daniel unleashes a string of expletives in Miyagi’s direction and impugns his master’s motives. Miyagi interrupts Daniel with the stern command, “Daniel san, show me ‘sand the floor’.” The master begins to throw a series of punches and kicks at Daniel who watches himself block each one. Daniel stands stunned as Miyagi bows. Through unquestioning obedience to his master, Daniel has unknowingly received his imprint.
The figure I discovered in the pages of Matthew’s gospel compelled me to emulation. I fantasized about wearing a white robe and teaching under a tree somewhere. But that’s not what the Master told me to do. He put the sponge of forgiveness in my hand. The next day he gave me the brush of mercy. On day three I found myself stooping to sand off the sun-scorched outer layer of my greedy heart.
After training this way for years, I made the startling discovery that I had actually begun to care about other people like I care about myself. How did he do it? It could not have come through standing over people preaching to them even though that is the activity I saw my Lord engaging in. I, selfish and immature as I am, had to take the route of unquestioning obedience.
Here are the Master’s words about his method of training:
39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.- Luke 6:39-42; 46-48 NIV
The question for Daniel and for all of us is not what am I accomplishing here but who am I becoming. When we receive the imprint of our Master, we will be ready for whatever gets thrown at us.
The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se. How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism? There weren’t any atheists. I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists. Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.” However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God. The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools. He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.
So who are the fools? The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down. Such people by their actions deny God as their source. They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth. They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire. Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions. Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.
As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV) These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus. From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else. They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth. Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed. “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)
Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept. People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God. Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence. The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article. Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived. Beware religious unbelief.