So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
The term was new to me. Chapel bandits. No is doesn’t refer to people stealing from the offering plate. It does arise in relationship to our prison system. The term “chapel bandits” refers to inmates in our prison system who attend chapel services in the hope that such attendance will enhance their resume at the time when they are being considered for parole. It is a kind of borrowing on what is deemed a positive image of chapel. Whether faith is genuine of there is an actual corresponding change of behaviour is another matter (the term implies this doubtful).
1. Instead of “chapel bandits” think “grace bandits.” I am not wanting to coin a new phrase but it may help us uncover what the Apostle Paul was speaking about when he asked the question, “Should we continue to sin in order that graced may abound?” The Protestant reformation reasserted the gospel declaration that salvation is by grace alone. There is always more grace in God that sin in you, or as Paul stated, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” What is impossible for humans to do God has done for us in the Son. We cannot free ourselves from sin’s grip on us nor atone for our sin making things right with God. The kernel of the gospel is justification by faith—God, in what Father and Son undertake at the cross, sets us right with himself.
The Apostle Paul, in his question about continuing to sin, anticipates the caviller response of some to God’s grace. If my sin is the occasion of the abounding grace of God then my continuing in sin will make grace abound all the more. Some treat God’s forgiving grace as license. As one man put it when confronted with his double standard, a double standard he knew God did not abide, “Ah, God is good. He’s bound to forgive us; that’s his job.” The theological error here is known as antinomianism (no law applies). The gospel need not necessarily make any appreciable change in my behaviour. Some even push it to say the gospel then approves of this or that conduct thinking that God’s gracious act to save equates to God’s approval of whatever I do. The other side of that coin (with the same result) is that God is indifferent to what I do since God did not require anything of me to secure salvation; after all “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
All of this and much more of what might be called “grace banditry” is gathered up in the Paul’s question, “Should we continue to sin that grace may abound? The Apostle gives the gospel answer. “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” This, the Apostle goes on to explain, is because of the complete identification of Jesus Christ with the believer. Our Lord’s death and resurrection become ours through faith in him. The goal of God’s saving activity in the Son is so that with our Lord “we too might walk in newness of life.” While this anticipates that future consummation of all things in the new heaven and new earth it is also a present reality for the believer.
It is true that in our Lord’s saving action he receives us as we are; but the purpose of his saving action never leaves us the same. In Paul’s introduction of his letter to the Romans he gives a summary of the apostolic proclamation of the good news concerning Jesus Christ that contains his articulation of the gospel’s goal. While the preaching of the gospel was certainly to inform people of what God has done its goal isn’t merely more information. The goal of the gospel proclamation is to “bring about the obedience of faith.” (Romans 1:5) A parallel idea to “walking in newness of life,”
On the night of our Lord’s betrayal he said to his disciples, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:21) In Matthew’s gospel at the end of the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he told that parable about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his on the sand. The foundation makes all the difference when the storms came. But who is the wise person? “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (Matthew 7:24)
Everywhere in the gospel encounter with Jesus Christ in faith reorients life as the reality of relationship with Jesus forges new life in the believer. Yes, this is an act of God’s grace yet is at the same time a relationship in which the believer fully participates. It is like breathing. The respiratory apparatus in your body and the atmosphere in which respiration takes place are gifts of God—but you need to take the breath.
2. Advances in mobile technology have drastically improved security on smartphones, computers, tablets and other connected devices. A majority of devices now have fingerprint sensors or scanners on them for enhanced security—devices can be set so that only your fingerprint will activate access. However, these technologically superior methods failed to thwart a sly six-year-old girl this past Christmas, when she used her sleeping mother's thumb to unlock her phone. When the mother checked her email later, she was greeted with 13 order confirmations for Pokémon items that had been ordered through the Amazon app. "$250 later, she has shopped for all her Christmas presents on Amazon," the bemused mother later posted online, also noting that the girl was "really proud of herself."
I think there is a tendency among some Christians to treat God’s grace this way. As if Jesus has opened some great online store house and we can now surf around ordering what we want. We act out of an unspoken conviction that the grace of God exists to promote our agendas; to achieve what we want. Sometimes this conviction is said out loud in what is known as prosperity gospel preaching. Or as we pray for things they are so often prayers so that things will go well for me and my future. There is nothing wrong with asking for God’s help in your work or wisdom in deciding or for doors to open as you knock. But let our motive in these prayers be shaped by a desire to be his follower in all these things; to render our life an offering for his glory.
Another way this tendency to treat God as a promoter of me in moralism. It is the opposite of the antinomianism we spoke of a moment ago. If antinomianism is, in a manner of speaking, grace banditry then moralism is grace insufficiency. The moralist treats Jesus as offering superior category of morals and sees herself as capable of improved morals. Again it becomes all about us. Grace in this scheme is understood as God pointing the way and we are confident that we can take it from here. God is rendered a kind of bystander whose purpose is to reward me for achieving morally above others.
This problem surfaces in many places in the church. I observe the championing of things like “radical inclusion” or “affirming congregations” as if these were to advance to some kind of moral high ground. Those who might have questions about such initiative are labelled as phobic or biased. I hear much about social justice where so often the focus in in us being socially just. Our focus in not on our Lord whose “compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9) Our gaze is not on the cross were our Lord died for the sins of the whole world. Our focus is on us and how we are fixing things for God, but mostly for ourselves.
The Apostle Paul cleared the deck of all moralism earlier in his Roman letter when he wrote, “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.” (Romans 3:22-25) If we could fix the world by human moral effort it would have occurred long ago. All our human agendas for achieving life as we imagine that it should be have been found wanting—human ills stubbornly won’t go away.
3. In light of the gospel how then is the believer to live? With the self-giving of the Son on the cross for our sakes in view what is the way forward for us? How is the believer to go on living now that she is united with Christ in his death and resurrection? This is the question the Apostle answers when he writes, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
In a comment on this scripture and reflecting on our modern era a minister wrote, “we are still into sinning but are not into “sin” language.” In reading media news that chronicles the ills of our world the word “sin” does not often appear. We are more likely to hear about extremism or unpredictability or dilemmas or secretiveness or rampages or neglect. Sin not so much.
When we read the New Testament we sometimes miss the point that when it comes to chronology the letters of the Apostle Paul are among the first written Christian documents. This is to say that in proximity to the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth the Apostle’s letters are written within thirty years of that event. The Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written later—to be sure the stories of Jesus life are circulating but the written form in which we have them are published after Paul’s letters. This is to note that Christianity has not penetrated the popular culture when Paul writes to the Christians in Rome. Roman society does not speak of sin as a category for the ills of humanity either. Yet Paul writes of sin anyway.
Sin is a category that is known in relationship to God; God who reveals Godself in relationship with Israel and then in coming among us in the Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Sin is spoken of subjectively, we are sinners or all have sinned, and objectively as an alien power with grip over us. Jesus died bearing the penalty of sin and breaking the power of sin and his resurrection to life is vindication that this is so. At its essence sin is rebellion against God, it is telling God to take a hike we can handle human life just fine without God meddling.
Earlier in the Roman letter Paul described to root of sin and its consequence this way: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. (Plus a long list of like ills.) (Romans 1:28-31) Or take Isaiah (53:6); “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Sin may be a foreign idea to our world’s self-understanding but is disclosed as the disease by the gospel and we must not shrink from asserting so.
When Paul speaks of considering ourselves dead to sin but alive to God he uses a Greek word from which we get our English word “logic.” Here is the gospel logic. Here is how the believer thinks about the nature of living in the world. Dead to sin, alive to God. Paul speaks about our old-self being crucified. Yes the old self may be crucified but as Martin Luther, in his earthy manner put it, the corpse still twitches. This is ongoing and daily for the believer.
Thomas Chalmers, a nineteenth-century Church of Scotland minister, spoke often of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” He meant that only a qualitatively new affection could expel the old affections and passions that haunt us and hurt others. This is what Paul means by “alive to God.’ A relationship of love with Jesus Christ is this new affection.
In his best-selling book The Reason for God, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, shares the story of a woman in his congregation.
Some years ago I met with a woman who began coming to church at Redeemer and had never before heard a distinction drawn between the gospel and religion. She had always heard that God accepts us only if we are good enough. She said that the new message was scary. I asked why it was scary and she replied: If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with "rights"—I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by grace—then there's nothing he cannot ask of me."
She understood the dynamic of grace and gratitude. If when you have lost all fear of punishment you also lose all incentive to live a good, unselfish life, then the only incentive you ever had to live a decent life was fear. This woman could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had an edge to it. She knew that if she was a sinner saved by grace, she was (if anything) more subject to the sovereign Lordship of God. She knew that if Jesus really had done all this for her, she would not be her own. She would joyfully, gratefully belong to Jesus, who provided all this for her at infinite cost to himself.