Feeling Less Than Perfect? Romans 8:4-14

. . . . so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:1-8 (emphasis mine)

There is good news here for those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” This of course will raise within the Christian the question “am I walking in the Spirit?” And to many, “how could I possibly be walking in the Spirit when I find myself, well, less than perfect?” This is a very important question to answer since most of us, when honest, find ourselves feeling less than perfect. Contrary to some eulogies I have heard, I have never officiated at a funeral for a perfect Christian. Experience teaches us that there has never been a perfect person except One. Are we walking according to the Spirit if we are less than perfect?

First off, we can note that the language of Romans chapter 8 does not push us toward thinking we ought to find ourselves perfect. To “walk according to” is not “to be just like in every way.” Similarly, “to set your mind” on something is not to be so consumed by something that you cannot possibly think of anything else. If you have no musical experience or instruments and you set your mind on learning guitar, you are going to want to walk out of a music store with a guitar and not a drum kit. You are going to want to sign up for guitar lessons, and not clarinet lessons. To do otherwise is to not have your mind set on learning guitar. But picking up the sticks and having a go on a friend’s drum kit is not inconsistent with having your mind set on learning guitar. Spiritually, being less than perfect is not inconsistent with having our minds set on the things of the Spirit. Of course we want to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), however being less than perfect does not disqualify us from being people who walk according to the Spirit.

Second, God’s leadership in our lives is never described in terms that would make us conclude that we will achieve instant perfection. We are now used to living in an instant world. It is with some excitement that I download updates to my phone’s operating system. Each update comes with old problems fixed and new features added. Perhaps we expect receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit to be exactly like receiving an update that changes everything instantly. While some people experience miraculous deliverance from addictions and the like when coming to Jesus, most of us don’t feel a big instant change. The Bible never suggests our relationship with God will be like a computer user receiving a big update. The Bible points instead to a shepherd with the sheep, a father with a child, and a vine with the branches. These are all enduring mentoring relationships which require time and lead to development.

It takes time for sheep to learn and know the voice of the shepherd. It will take us time to discern the voice of God in our lives. Of course vines and branches take time to bear fruit as any gardener can confirm. Likewise, parenting takes time. Parenting takes so much time, in fact, that on average, for a parent to raise a child from birth to the age of eighteen requires about eighteen years! No parent I know expects his or her child to be perfect over those eighteen years. Our relationship with God is consistently described in ways that point to the passage of time and to development. There is no promise of instant perfection.

So if perfection is not evidence of “walking according to the Spirit,” then what is? The evidence that a shepherd and sheep are in relationship is the sheep’s response to the shepherd’s voice. Our listening may not be perfect, but we will be listening. There is a desire to hear the Lord’s voice. The evidence that branches are abiding in the vine is fruit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23) The Christian does not experience perfection in every way upon receiving the Holy Spirit, but in walking according to the Spirit will be developing in these character traits and more.

Perfectionism is not a fruit of the Spirit. In fact, perfectionism can be a tool of the devil. While I have largely given up on perfectionism, there is one area of my life where I am still a perfectionist. It is an area of my life in which I struggle with frustration and where I am most likely to sin through losing my cool: renovations. It is not that I cannot do it. It is that I cannot do it perfectly. My aunt expressed wonder at my recent bathroom renovation. By recent, I mean completed recently, though started three years ago! She exclaimed “Wow! You did this?” When I walk into that same bathroom, I see the poor drywalling work to the left and think, “yes, I did that.” Don’t fail to celebrate the fruit of the Spirit in your life because you are too focused on your imperfections. The devil is happy when we do. Perfectionism will not lead you into greater righteousness. An enduring relationship with God will.

As a rhythm guitar player I would be thrilled if my favourite guitar player, Peter Townshend, were to come to my home and offer to give me guitar lessons. I could be a glass-half-empty guitarist and say “I will never be able to play like that.” Or I could be a glass-half-full guitarist and say “with Pete’s help I will be able to play better today than yesterday.” Of far greater significance and wonder, the Lord of the universe has taken his place by our side, and on the inside, as our shepherd, father, and friend. We can be glass-half-empty Christians and say “I am not perfect and feel like I never will never be perfect. I therefore doubt I have the Holy Spirit and am beginning to doubt I am a Christian.” Or we can be glass-half-full Christians and say “I may not be perfect, but with the Holy Spirit on the inside helping me, I can be better today than I was yesterday.”

There is a wonderful affirmation in verse 9 “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Since you have the Holy Spirit, since you have God inside, live as you are; not perfect, but a growing child of God. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Romans 8:14

(All Scripture references are from the NRSV)

Feeling Condemned? Romans 8:1-4

Condemnation is in the air. Every day in law courts across this land verdicts are reached and sentences given. Whether fiction or reality, tv is full of stories of condemnation. Then there is the condemnation that shows up in our personal relationships, from friends and enemies alike. There is also the self-condemnation many of us face when we either step in front of a mirror or step onto the weigh scales. All too often we wear false verdicts as life sentences.

Perhaps this is the reason why many people are not bothered with church. “Just another place to face more condemnation.” Perhaps this is the reason why many people do not want to think about their relationship with God. “More condemnation.” Yet if we think one hundred years or so into the future, which verdicts will still matter? Will the condemnation we have faced from others, or even ourselves, matter? One verdict will matter. God’s. One sentence will matter. God’s. His verdict is a just verdict. His sentence is an eternal-life sentence. Given the supreme importance of that verdict, what can be said about it? Let is turn to the book of Romans to find out:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

The ‘therefore’ of Romans 8:1 points us back to consider what has been said earlier in the book of Romans. A thousand sermons could not do the first seven chapters of Romans justice, so let us attempt a quick summary. As we look back we find there is some good news, some really bad news, some really great news, some more really bad news and some more really good news.

So first the good news: God has given us the law as a gift. Without law society, and life along with it, devolves into chaos. God has given two kinds of law. There is the law that is written on the hearts of all people (Romans 2:14,15). That sense of conscience, of the difference between right and wrong. Further, to give a shining and clear example, The law was given to a specific group of people, the Hebrew people, through Moses. This was good news since this law helped people thrive together and was a proper yardstick for measuring up.

Now for the really bad news: As wonderful as it is to have this yardstick, God’s law just confirms that could never measure up.

What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; Romans 3:9-10

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:19-20

If you think that God has reason to condemn you. You are correct. That is really bad news.

Now for the really great news:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

Why?

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26

There is a lot to unpack in those few verses, but suffice it so say here that in the blood of Christ we have forgiveness of sin. The verdict has been arrived at, the sentence has been served by Jesus. This is a gift of God’s grace. Receiving that gift is a matter trust.

But now for some more really bad news: There is a second kind of sentence to deal with; a sinful life. To understand this we can think of a drug addict who has served time for being in the possession of hard drugs. A verdict has been reached, and the sentence has been served in the eyes of society. However, the addict is still that, an addict. Addiction can be a life sentence, and for some that life sentence is worse than jail time. It would be an awful thing if we were given assurance of a positive final verdict before the judgement seat of Christ, yet nothing changed for us in this life. Though looking forward to freedom, we would still be serving a life-sentence to a life in the service of evil in the here and now. Paul speaks about this problem in the very verses that precede Romans 8:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. Romans 7:21-25

And now for some more really good news: we are freed from this sentence also!

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:1-4

To say that sin was condemned “in the flesh” is akin to saying that the full sentence of the addict was served, not just the jail term, but the life-sentence of bearing the disease of addiction as well. The addict’s identity would be forever changed, no longer being known as an addict. Likewise, our addiction to sin is broken, our identity changed forever, as we are now “in Christ,” people who walk “according to the Spirit.” Paul has more to say about this in the verses to follow, and so will we next week.

We are guilty sometimes of speaking of salvation as if it is only a matter of what happens at the judgement seat of Christ. It is more than that. Because of the love and grace of God in Jesus there is no condemnation for those who belong to Him, neither a guilty verdict at the judgement seat of Christ leading to an eternal-life sentence, nor a life-sentence to  slavery to sin here and now. God rescues us from both. That is really great news!

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Useless in Laodicea. (Revelation 3)

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:14)

And so Jesus would prefer you were an atheist rather than a lukewarm Christian, right? Well not so fast! To jump to such a conclusion is to get the analogy from Jesus’ letter to the Christian community in Laodicea all mixed up. It is the water that is lukewarm. Hot water is good and really useful, and also happens to be in great supply at nearby Heiropolis. Cold water is good and useful, and also happens to be in good supply at nearby Colossae. But in Laodicea, the water was not plentiful. Attempts to get water to Laodicea in New Testament times only resulted in a lukewarm water supply. Jesus is not saying here that it is better to be red hot or ice cold rather than a lukewarm Christian. He is saying it is a terrible thing when Christians become useless.

So how does a Christian become useless? The answer to that is hidden in plain sight: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking . . .” (Revelation 3:20) Jesus is kept standing outside! He is not welcome in this “Christian” community at Laodicea. We become useless to Jesus when we shut him out:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

The letter to Laodicea goes on to tell us in what ways we can keep Jesus shut outside. The letter begins this way:

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation.” (Revelation 3:14)

Jesus describes himself as the “Amen.” He is the One with the last word. He can be counted on. Further he is “the faithful and true witness.” So if you want to know God the Father, get to know Jesus: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:7) Jesus is also “the origin of God’s creation.” His involvement in Creation speaks to His divinity. Jesus is not just a son of God, He is God the Son. When we think of Jesus as less than these things, then we push him toward the door. Jesus is kept outside when we misunderstand who He really is.

There is another reason Jesus is kept outside at Laodicea: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’” (Revelation 3:17) Laodicea was known as a wealthy city, so wealthy in fact that it refused help from Rome when rebuilding following an earthquake in AD 60. However, wealth is not actually the problem here. The problem is the attitude. For the citizens of Laodicea to refuse help from Rome is one thing. For citizens of heaven to claim no need of help from Jesus is quite another. Jesus goes on to set the record straight:

You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. (Revelation 3:17,18)

Laodicea was known for its wealth, its clothing industry, and its medicines, especially eye slave. The Christians in Laodicea, however, ought to be known for their need of, and intimacy with, Christ.

Idolatry is a theme running throughout the letters to the churches of Revelation. There is the idolatry of power; Roman power. The pressure to bow the knee to Roman power was intense. There is the idolatry of sexuality; Roman thinking on sexuality. The pressure to bow the knee to the Roman status quo was intense. There is the idolatry of religion; Jewish religion. The pressure to bow the knee to a particular way of seeing things was intense. But here in Laodicea we come up against perhaps the most powerful idolatry of all. It is found in that expression; “I have no need.” This is the idolatry of self. We force Jesus outside when we ascend the throne. We cannot bow the knee, or be of any use to Jesus if we are “all that.”

There is good news for the Christians in Laodicea, and good news for us:

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking . . . (Revelation 3:19,20)

The Christians in Laodicea make Jesus want to vomit. This is the more literal rendering of “spit you out.” But he keeps on standing at, and knocking on, the door  anyway. They misunderstand him. He keeps on standing at, and knocking on, the door anyway. They think they have no need of him. He keeps on standing at, and knocking on, the door anyway. Perhaps you make Jesus want to vomit? It turns out that you cannot ruin his appetite:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)

Perhaps Someone is knocking on your door right now?

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV