Real faith, terrifyingly fragile

Sermon delivered on Sunday 18 April, 2010

The book of Romans was written to a church comprising both Gentile and Jewish believers. In the opening chapters of this book Paul addresses these two groups in such a way as to point out why they both need the salvation that is by faith in Christ, and why it is that nothing aside from faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation.

Romans 2:17-29 (The Message)
If you’re brought up Jewish, don’t assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you’re an insider to God’s revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! I have a special word of caution for you who are sure that you have it all together yourselves and, because you know God’s revealed Word inside and out, feel qualified to guide others through their blind alleys and dark nights and confused emotions to God. While you are guiding others, who is going to guide you? I’m quite serious. While preaching “Don’t steal!” are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. The same with idolatry. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, “It’s because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God,” shows it’s an old problem that isn’t going to go away.

Circumcision, the surgical ritual that marks you as a Jew, is great if you live in accord with God’s law. But if you don’t, it’s worse than not being circumcised. The reverse is also true: The uncircumcised who keep God’s ways are as good as the circumcised—in fact, better. Better to keep God’s law uncircumcised than break it circumcised. Don’t you see: It’s not the cut of a knife that makes a Jew. You become a Jew by who you are. It’s the mark of God on your heart, not of a knife on your skin, that makes a Jew. And recognition comes from God, not legalistic critics.

In a nutshell, this passage is destroying the argument that Jews would put forward that they are exempt from judgement because they have the inheritance from Abraham and the Law and prophets. Apparently it was a common belief among Jews that they would not come under judgement because of their being God’s chosen people (which I find staggering even with my limited knowledge of Jewish history!).

First Paul attacks their trust in the law, claiming that they are breaking the law and so bringing God’s name into disrepute. He uses a series of questions focusing on the second, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue. It seems that he is not so much trying to prove guilt for specific sins (in which case he would likely have used specific examples, there were probably plenty), but that he is simply showing that contrary to the ‘doers of the law’ described in Romans 2:13-15, it was usual for Jews to rely on possessing the law as exempting them from judgement. His reference to the secrets of men in Romans 2:16 implies that all Jews will know secretly that they do not fully keep the law.

Paul then moves on to address the sign of the old covenant – circumcision. This was the sign given to Abraham to show that he would be exceedingly fruitful, would be the father of many nations and that Abraham and his offspring would inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:6-10). Any Israelite male who was not circumcised was to be cut off from the inheritance of God’s people.

Because it was the sign of the covenant, and because it was performed at eight days of age (Genesis 17:12), every boy born into a Jewish family was automatically circumcised. It was effectively a personal membership badge for God’s chosen people.

Consider what Paul has been saying about the state of the heart in Romans 2:15 and then what he says in verse 29:

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:29 ESV)

Romans 2:28-29 is actually terrible news for any law-abiding Jew because what Paul is describing, namely the heart condition of a true Jew, is impossible to attain. Whereas a mark in the flesh of a Jewish male is an easy thing if your parents were Jewish and followed the accepted ritual when you were 8 days old.

So we have a warning that the outward sign of the covenant is worthless if the people of God are not keeping the commandments of God form a pure heart. What counts before God is a heart intent upon obeying Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). With man this is impossible (Matthew 19:26).

Obviously we have already read ahead in the book enough to know that God has made the impossible possible – He has provided a Way through whom we can gain access to God and has made us new, as is stated in Galatians 6:15:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

This new creation is what was promised 600 years earlier by Ezekiel:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV)

This is what we have experienced through the new birth made possible by faith in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, our hearts transformed and God has put His Spirit within us as to help us and as a guarantee of the redemption to come (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Yet, I find that I still sin! Despite God’s Holy Spirit within me and a new heart, I struggle with weakness and sin every day. I read verses such as Romans 6:11:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

And realize that I fall way short of living consistently out of a heart devoted to Christ, I am much more like the man in Romans 7:18-20:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

At times like this I find myself feeling weak and needing help to remind me of my standing in Christ, my promise to follow Him with all my heart, and the need to die to my old nature. Something like a sign in my body would perhaps help as a constant reminder to walk in holiness before God would it not?

Oddly enough, as gentile believers we are at risk of the Galatian error: seeking outward signs of what, by faith, Christ has done in us. It happens in various ways, church buildings are an obvious one, wearing cross pendants is another. There are bumper stickers, T-shirts and WWJD bracelets. On a more subtle level there is the underlined verses, dates, notes and various bits of paper we stuff our bibles with as reminders of significant incidents in our Christian life.

I am NOT saying that any of these are innately wrong, it is just worth being aware of what they can become – a substitute for an ongoing walk of faith in Christ. This would happen if we were to look at the sign of something God had done in the past and trust in that as proof of our salvation rather than trusting in Christ alone right now as the only ground for being justified before God.

As an example, I have something like a very permanent WWJD bracelet on my arm – 13 years ago I got a tattoo in the likeness of a crown of thorns engraved on my right arm as a reminder to myself that I am nothing apart from Christ. At the time that seemed like a good way to remind myself that I am in the world but not of it, and I’m sure the fact that tattoos were becoming increasingly trendy around that time was also a factor! (Which sort of contradicts the idea of not being ‘of the world’ doesn’t it – at age 27 I was just as blinded by the world as I am now.)

So I got the tattoo, and for a few weeks it was a sharp reminder of Christ as it itched on my arm.

What I didn’t realize is that having such a sign in my flesh could also be a lie, my intention was to remind myself that I belong to Christ and so have died to myself and sin, yet I continued to sin. So in the end the mark on my skin actually become a symbol of hypocrisy – what should have been a sign helping me remain faithful to Christ ended up as a testimony to my faithlessness, proving that even within days I was still a sinner who disobeyed God despite an outward statement to the contrary. This is why I don’t tell anyone it is a sign of my faith in Christ or even think of it that way myself anymore. It is just a mark on my skin.

What makes this story even more ludicrous is that four years prior to getting the tattoo I had an experience in which God made me acutely aware of the nature of faith, the ongoing gift that faith is from God.

I was experiencing a very low point in my life, feeling lonely, stressed and depressed. Some elements of the Christian life that I had relied on as essential to my faith had been smashed out from under me and frankly I didn’t really want to be a Christian anymore, the cost seemed too high and what the world had to offer seemed more attractive. The only thing keeping me from throwing my Christian convictions away was fear: if God actually was real then so also was hell and Satan and demons and I was really scared of the idea of all of those.

I distinctly remember praying, or complaining, to God that there was nothing supporting my faith – it looked set to crumble at any moment and I was desperately afraid that it would indeed fail. At that time I received one of the very few immediate and direct answers I have ever gotten from God: It was as though God replied that this is the very nature of faith, simple trust in Christ without any grounds in myself for being able to trust in Him. By nature my faith will always feel terrifyingly fragile because there is nothing in me to merit God’s approval, I am utterly at the mercy of Jesus and come to Him based on His promises, nothing else.

In a sense, the weakness of my faith, my fear that it would be non-existent tomorrow and my pleading with Jesus to not let me fall was proof that it was actually faith in Him. In this small way, I can see what Paul is meaning that “when I am weak, then I am strong” ( 2 Corinthians 12:10). I cannot trust in myself in any way, not even with constant reminders to live a holy life, because my only hope is in Christ. Any ‘outward sign’ will always become a stumbling block because it will draw me to trust in it rather than in Christ alone.

So my challenge to you all is to face your fears and be weak. Let your strengths fade away, discard any crutch that convinces you that, ‘you are a good Christian because…’. Being a good Christian is not worth having, being Christ’s is worth losing all else to gain, as Paul so eloquently states in Philippians:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Philippians 3:8-9).

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