Sermon: More than Conquerors over the Curse

“It doesn’t matter.” 

I hate that sentence. Not when choosing a restaurant or a movie, but when I hear it from someone dealing with a hurt or disappointment.  

Whether as a parent or a pastor, it always makes my blood run a little cold—because I know that saying “it doesn’t matter” feels like resolution or even acceptance, when it is really escapism and gloom.  

That kind of “it doesn’t matter” is a way people lose themselves. It displays a loss of heart in the great struggle against the world that “shouldn’t be this way!” 

We are subjected to futility, and enslaved to decay (Romans 8: 20,21). This is the haunting pain of life—that life can feel futile or vain, and decay inevitable.  

In youth it creates an “angst,” in maturity, a “crisis,” and in old age, a “sourness”—and to all a kind of darkness.  

Our reaction to this pain and disappointment under futility and decay is what this passage calls “groaning.” And the apostle Paul tells us that all of creation is subjected to this:vanity, vaporousness, futility, frustration, purposelessness, decay, perishability, corruption of wholesomeness, decomposition. 

Everything seems to be against our natural hopes, either in circumstance or in the slow decay of time. Even if you get what you want, time will bury it in sand, or decompose and grow over it.  

Christians call this punishing, discouraging futility  “the Curse” because we believe that it is both unnatural (things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be), but also, that the Curse will be broken and can be overcome. 

However, without the help and hope of God, the curse overcomes us and closes out the light of hope, closes our hearts to feel life, weakens our courage to face challenges, and dims our eyes to see beauty and glory. 

When the tunnel of disappointment loses its light at the end, we fall into gloom

Gloom is the loss of the ability to hope, being overcome by despair.  

It is what happens when we think the Curse is the final explanation of suffering—pain without purpose, suffering without hope.  

Gloom preaches that this is all there is: futility unto decay” and “meaninglessness, then death.” 

How do we find the “Mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:6, 27; Ephesians 6:18) in all of this?  

Last week I said from Romans 8: Christians conquer the flesh, curse and suffering in the Spirit.  

In this sermon: Christians conquer the Curse by the Spirit.

But how? How do we conquer something so universal and so constant as the curse? Something we know will eventually, in some way, win?  

The danger: When in pain, we often reject answers because we think they dishonor our pain. Every answer sounds either trite or severe. 

Romans 8:18 may seem like both, but it is the main answer, nonetheless: 

Romans 8:15-18 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christif indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  For, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  

This is both the promise and the way to overcome in the Spirit.

ways the Spirit can make us conquerors in the curse:   

The Spirit magnifies our hope in glory in the face of the Curse’s gloom 

Gloom makes it so we can’t lift our eyes to TRUST in God. The Curse claims the final word of futility and decay over every trial. All of our pain is going nowhere because of failure and the grave. 

Christians don’t combat this by saying there isn’t pain, or that if we trust God, he will shield us from our experience of the curse.  

“Well, I’m sure God will protect you!” is a phrase that can reveal a person who thinks that if we obey God, he will keep bad things from happening to us—that our obedience will break the curse. 

Such people need grace, since some CHRISTIANS think this is true: that if they obey, God will protect them from all harm. God never promises that. He promises the opposite.

The antidote to the gloom of futility is the hope of glory. 

Romans 8:18 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  

“Hope of glory”- 2 ideas:

  1. Glorious: God’s glory revealed and experienced 
  2. A hope: Hopes are future until they are revealed

The future glory will be all from God and for all of creation.  

  • Rom 8:18 – “The glory that will be revealed in us.” 
  • All the glory that there is will be revealed “in us.” 

It’s BIG- all creation’s hope:  All creation is in “eager expectation” and “anxious watching.” The literal translation of verse 19 is, “For the anxiously watching creation is eagerly expecting the revelation of the sons of God.” 

Romans 8:19-21 “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  

All creation, including us, was subjected to futility, frustration, and dysfunction—by God, in the curse. Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. Everyone feels this. It’s a universal moral intuition, even when we are taught otherwise.  

Creation is watching someone: All creation is in “eager expectation” and “anxious watching.” The literal translation of verse 19 again: “For the anxiously watching creation is eagerly expecting the revelation of the sons of God.” 

Romans 8:18 – “The glory that will be revealed in us.” All the glory that there is will be revealed “in us.” Presently things are “groaning as in the pain of childbirth,” and we feel the same as the rest of creation.

A hope: Hope is by definition not experienced yet. So not happening right now isn’t a valid objection against it. 

Romans 8:23-25 “…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” 

Application: Learning to “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly” (just like creation’s “eager expectation” in vs 19).

This is the work of the Spirit—as we pursue the “mind of the Spirit.” 

Our Goal: What are we waiting expectantly for? “The adoption to sons, the redemption of our bodies,” “For, in this hope we are saved.” 

The Spirit’s work: Building this hope to be our anchor in the groaning of the curse. The Spirit wants to apply the truth of God until you feel as Paul does: “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” 

How does he do it? 

  • Know the “hope” in which God subjected creation (vs 20).
  • Hope in God’s glory—not just our glorification. 
  • Rejoice in our suffering—knowing it focuses our hope.  
  • Receive the love God “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”  

Application: You need these parts of salvation to overcome the gloom of the curse, and the futility of so much of life.  

  • Our hope in the future glory of God—and being adopted into it, through the everlasting redemption of our bodies into the freedom and glory of God and in a redeemed creation.  
  • The work of the Spirit applying this whole hope to our hearts, even in suffering 
  • So we can be waiting eagerly even as we are groaning inwardly.  

How do we really practice “groaning inwardly yet waiting eagerly” as a Spiritual practice of the heart?  

The Spirit is our help against the Curse’s confusion and weakness. 

Groans make it hard to lift our face and talk to God. 

Main example: Not being able to pray “as we ought” or “in God’s will” weakens our ability to express our groanings well, and confuses our ability to know God’s will and pray from a heart that is united with his will.  

Rom. 8:26-27 “in the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” 

“In the same way”: as God helps us wait eagerly for the hope of glory, he also helps us cope in the present with our weakness of heart.

The Spirit: “intercedes for us” 

  • Intercedes through wordless groans 
  • Combines our “hearts” with the “mind of the Spirit”
  • Helps us feel and pray in “accordance with God’s will” 

What are the “wordless groans” of the Spirit? A connection to creation and our groans under the curse—the Spirit makes his own groaning in us that are our right groan toward the Father.  

In Romans 8:22, creation groans, and in Romans 8:23, we groan wanting our bodily redemption. In verse 26, the Holy Spirit groans as a way of interceding for us to God.

God doesn’t just hear our audible prayers—he also searches our hearts. The content of our heart is what is or isn’t in line with his will, and is a communication of faith to him. It is the place out of which we pray. By coming into the place of our heart’s groanings, the Spirit both aligns our hearts with God’s will and helps us pray as we ought—though his presence is inarticulate in a formal sense.  

The main effect is that this aligns us with God’s will, and allows us to express our groaning to Abba in love—but also appropriately. 

This is our help in our weakness of expression and need of present comfort; the help we need to embrace God’s will, so we can participate in his working things for our good and ultimately our glorification (our great hope).

What is “God’s will”? (Romans 8:28) 

Romans 8:28 “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God forknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called, those he called, he also Justified, and those he justified he also glorified.” 

That is: God will glorify those he has chosen. We can hold unswervingly to our hope in Christ. because God is intent on his glorification of those who are heirs in Christ. We were his elect long ago, and those whom he has brought to justification, he will take to glorification. There is no slackness or shakiness in his promises.  

“Slap me so I don’t do something petty.” – My daughter 

I think the reason she comes to me in those moments is because she knows that she can groan with her dad, and that she is safe in her groaning when she is in my arms. I will let her feel, but I won’t let her fall into what she fears: pettiness, resentment, hopelessness, and all the reactions that indwelling sin stirs us when the curse bites us in some way. 

I know my goal is to give her hope and to help her groan. I want that because I love her; I want her to know that there is no condemnation with me, and that I want to help her be more than a conqueror as an adult. 

Conclusion: How do we do it?  

So how do we have this kind of relationship with the Spirit to receive God’s hope and help?  

The Spirit’s power is in our participation with him, and with the content of the gospel (the “hope in which we were saved”).

  • Believe in Jesus work as the Christ and High Priest in breaking the debt and power of sin in his life, death, and resurrection.  
  • Believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit as an heir—a fully legitimate child.  
  • Seek the Mind of the Spirit, and put to death the Mind of the Flesh 
  • Seek the Mind of the Spirit especially in our boast in the hope of future glory. 
  • Embrace the dynamic of: “Groaning inwardly while waiting eagerly.” 

Rom. 5:1-5 NIBO Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  

 

Sermon: More than Conquerors in the Inner World

If you faint in the day of adversity, how narrow is your strength.

Proverbs 24:10

How we handle adversity is one of the most defining things about us, because it reveals the real us. It is who we are when we can’t control our environment.

At moments like this, we don’t tend to feel very much like conquerors. We are cooped up in our households, close to the refrigerator, with annoying housemates and family, and feel drawn like zombies to the pleasures of computer screens.

  1. Many of us have had a profound struggle and failure to do what’s good. That is, we experience the eruption of our worst selves. When our routine is interrupted, most people find that they had structured their behavior, but they aren’t masters of their soul.
  2. We also struggle with the world as it is; hearing reports about disease and economic turmoil, we can easily feel that the world shouldn’t be this way. We can feel that God shouldn’t allow creation to be disordered in this way. It is a struggle to be so weak and to live in a world that is broken in these ways.
  3. There is the real, daily and practical suffering of real pain, or fear that we are facing. We fear life is bad or is going to be bad, and we have fears for the present in the future.

In Christian terms, these are our three inner battles: the Flesh, the Curse, and suffering. We face an inner battle against our worst self, the groaning of a world not as we long for it to be, and we face pain that seems to find us everywhere. All of these discourage us personally and in our relationship with God. We feel wretched and discouraged, and God feels far away. It feels like he is doing nothing.

These three enemies of the inner person will either overpower us or drive us to become the conquerers we were created and redeemed to be.

3 enemies in a phrase:

  1. The Flesh: “What a wretched man I am” (Romans 7:24)
  2. The Curse: “All of creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20)
  3. The Suffering: “All day long we are like sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36)

Misnomer about Romans

It’s all about “Justification: forgiveness and imputation of righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus the Christ.

Romans is about Salvation: all the way form God’s choice to save, all the way to us seeing the glory of God.

Romans 8 deals with a very specific part of salvation: being saved from defeat. Especially the defeat of our inner self, the “inner man”—what Paul calls the mind, the will, “myself”—and how it is constantly overcome by what he calls “the flesh.”

The Flesh is our worst self, living the path that leads to death, and rejecting God as creator and king and the true good in favor of our disordered desires.

Romans 7 shows us that just knowing that God is real, and that his law is good, isn’t enough to overcome the domination of the Flesh. And even if we believe in Jesus as our savior, believe in God and believe his commands are good, we can still find ourselves consistently failing, and losing our conflict with the enslaving power of the Flesh.

Romans 7 ends this way

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. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Romans 7:19-25 19

In this state, even the “would be Christian” feels both wretched and defeated—both conquered and condemned.

Peterson’s Objection: what you do is what you believe. So how can anyone say they believe in God when they are constantly doing things that don’t show that belief. You don’t really believe. This is a problem for “salvation by faith” as cheap grace.

If you stop at forgiveness, imputed righteousness, or even reconciliation, you will not escape this wretched discouragement—and fear that you will be lost to your worst desires, and deserve re-condemning in your wretchedness.

You must go on to the whole of Christian salvation, because it is shaped around the whole of human need.

Christians conquer the flesh, curse and suffering in the Spirit.

Or for this morning: Christians conquer the flesh in the Spirit.

3 key steps to conquering the flesh through the Spirit:

God condemned our powerlessness, weakness, and wretchedness instead of us.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

Jesus didn’t just pay for our sins, he condemned sin by dying in the flesh:

  • He paid for sin as a sin offering.
  • But in dying in the flesh- he feed us from the domination of the Flesh.
  • Therefore: neither our crimes, nor our condition need condemn us.
  • Therefore, “in Christ Jesus” there is no condemnation, because there is a cure even for the wretchedness of our weakness in the flesh.

But how does he save us from our wretchedness? Romans 8:2: because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Key summary: Through Jesus Christ, the law of the Spirit of life has set you free form the law of sin and death (The Flesh: the “war in my members”).

  • Through Christ Jesus
  • The Law of the Spirit
  • The Spirit of life
  • Has set you free from the law of sin and death (The war and captivity of the Flesh—Romans 7:24-25)

This is accomplished in the death of Jesus the Christ—in the FLESH.

  • Jesus didn’t just triumph over sin by not sinning, he triumphed over the Flesh also—having been born to true humanity—in human flesh. And dying in the flesh, to the law, and for sin, he conquered all three.
  • He atoned for sin, as an offering
  • He condemned the power of the Flesh, suffering in human flesh.
  • He set us free from the Law by dying to that contract.

Therefore, his goal:

  • No condemnation for those in Christ—our fear should not be condemnation, or the belief that God holds us with contempt in our failures to overcome sin in the Flesh.
  • Set free in “the Law of the Spirit of Life”—the new drive and aid that comes in participation with God’s Spirit leading us to God and his righteousness.

You must believe in the mind of the Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Romans 8:5-11

Part of faith is repenting of the “mind of the flesh”—the logic and mental culture and desires of sin, worldliness and rebellion.

You can’t repent of sins, and not the logic that justifies them. Coming to repentance means repenting of the acts and their justification.

Faith requires embracing the mind of the spirit:

  • Rejecting the way of death
  • Releasing our hostility towards God and his moral requirements

3 Phases of Bad Spirituality:

  • Irreligion: Recognizing that before spiritual conviction, we don’t want those commands (Romans chapter 1).
  • Religion: In a “religious phase,” we apply those commands to others legalistically, and to ourselves self-justifyingly (Romans chapter 2).
  • Illuminated but unspiritual: after we received spiritual conviction, we may be hostile toward God and his requirements because we find we can’t do them (Romans chapter 7).
  • All are a “law of death” and all lead to avoidance and hostility toward God.

What is the “mind of the spirit”? How do we unite with the Spirit?

Step one: It is a “mind,” or being “in” the Spirit. It’s an act of inner faith, of trust in the truth of God’s gift of the Spirit in Christ.

What is the Spirit “of”?

Spirit of life: Psalm 1 and Proverbs say that God’s ways lead to life, and the ways that stray from his wisdom and truth are the ways that seem right but lead to death.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

Proverbs 14:12 NIBO

The law of the Spirit who gives life has set you1 free from the law of sin and death.

(Romans 8:2 NIV)

The Spirit of Christ: The one who is God made flesh.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

ESV Romans 8:9

The Spirit of sonship: The one that points our heart to the one that accepts us tenderly, and wants to help us.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. {Or adoption} And by him we cry, “Abba, {Aramaic for Father} Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Romans 8:15-16

How do we appropriate this life in the Spirit?

You can conquer in participation with the Spirit.

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:11-17

How do we accept and receive the spirit of life and Christ? 4 ways in this passage:

Embrace your obligation to the “law of the Spirit of life.”

The Spirit is the new “law” for the Christian, both in directing us, and as the new obligating power. So we can fulfill the law without being under it. We fulfill its moral “ordinances,” without being under its specific written code (Substance chapter 6, Freedom For).

Embrace the death and resurrection identity.

Death: In Christ’s death the flesh is condemned. This is imputed to you if you are dead in him. Have you embraced and accepted that you are in Christ in his death, and have you participated in it in baptism?

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:1-4

Resurrection:

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

Romans 8:11

By the Spirit, execute the Flesh—with extreme prejudice (Spiritual brutality/ferocity).

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Romans 8:13-14

The Spirit gives us peace with God, not peace. We are newly hostile to the Flesh, and seek to kill it like a disease.

Accept the “spirit of sonship”…

…and that the whole of the gospel is a “demonstration” of God’s love meant to support our boast, and joy in the hope of his future glory to which we are heirs. The joy we take in this hope, that is rooted in the demonstration of the love of God in Christ, and in the giving of his Spirit of life that sets us free, is the foundation of our conquering in the inner man, in the face of the curse, and in the direct sufferings of daily life.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Romans 8:15-16

Power versus participation

Any attempt to serve God in true godliness without embracing a cooperation and participation in the Holy Spirit will leave us wretched and defeated.

We will feel 10x worse off than before we knew about God—we’ll be nearly as sinful, but feel 10x more condemned and defeated. The Flesh cannot be defeated by any part of salvation other than receiving the inheritance of a new life and mind in the Spirit.

Being “in the Holy Spirit” doesn’t mean that we forfeit any of our responsibility to make our own decision or fulfill our calling to serve God as his image bearers. It means that the Spirit empowers and informs us in that process. He teaches us the way of life and righteousness. He teaches us the mind of Christ. He teaches us to how to embrace the identity of being God’s beloved and intimate children. And in these we can walk out of condemnation and defeat into freedom and triumph.

In this life, God has not given us final victory over the Flesh. That is probably so we can find humility, and learn to truly participate in and with the Holy Spirit in our mind and life. You will never have the power in yourself only to overcome the flesh. But in the Spirit, you will always have the power to do so. And even when you fail, in the mind of Christ, you will return to the attitude of sonship, and therefore fail in the right direction.

Romans 5 — 8 Devotional Plan

In this unique season, many of our usual rhythms, structures, and comforts have been suddenly stripped away. Because of this, it is an opportune time to turn (or return) our hearts and minds to the discipline of devotion to the Lord. If you’ve never had consistent devotional times before, or haven’t had them recently, you might feel intimidated. You’re not alone! We’re all reading together, and we’ve put together some resources for you.

What to read: Romans 5-8

In the weeks leading up to Easter, we’ll be studying Romans 8 on Sundays. During the week, we will read passages that lead up to and tie into Romans 8.

  • Week of March 29: Read through Romans 5
  • Week of April 5: Read through Romans 7
  • Week of April 12 [Easter]: Read through Romans 8

You’re not reading alone.

Devotional Drills videos

In these videos, Pastor Nic will break down the passage and train us how to engage with the Scriptures that we are reading. Subscribe to the High Point Church YouTube channel to get notifications of when these videos are posted throughout the week.

Devotional podcasts

We will be discussing the passages we are reading together on the Engage & Equip podcast.

Further resources

How to have a devotional time

Reading the Bible

If you have any questions, contact Jill at jreasa@highpointchurch.org.

Having a Political Voice as a Church

For more on this topic, listen to the Engage & Equip podcast episodes #174: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? and #175: How Should Christians Engage in Politics?

Should a church have a political voice? Should a pastor?

Should I go to a church if the church’s or the pastor’s political voice doesn’t seem to be what is approved of by the party or philosophy I most approve of?

How should I think about politics and the church as a Christian?

Christian faith has always been called “political.”

The Bible is a “political” book, and Jesus was considered a “political” figure. After all, he was always talking about his “kingdom.” In fact, all of Scripture makes “political” claims: The book of Genesis claims that our God is the God of creation and, therefore, is the sovereign governor over the entire natural realm. He also claims ownership of all image bearers, or human beings. He declares how they should be treated by other human beings, by families, by religious orders and by governments, declaring that they have what we call “rights.” He also declares how human beings should be treated economically, with at least minimal standards regarding economic justice. Many of the Old Testament prophets specifically criticized the government for its corruption and economic favoritism. These men spoke “politically” for God. His judgment concerned, in part, the acts of their government.

Jesus was executed as a political dissident and as a traitor against the Roman government. James and John were flogged for not obeying the government’s policy to manage the spread of Christianity. The apostle James was killed in political instability caused by people politically rioting against the rise of Christianity. The apostle Paul was whipped, beaten and imprisoned numerous times by government officials; he was a political prisoner virtually all of the time he was imprisoned. The early Christians were persecuted by their governments, and the apostle John was exiled by the Roman government. Some of the earliest Christian public writings were written to emperors, arguing against the injustice of how Christians were being treated by the empire.

Many biblical commentators, of both liberal and conservative persuasions, have noted the interplay of religious faith and politics in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Whatever Christianity is, and whatever its politics, we find that its practice is always running afoul of politics. Said another way, Christian faith and doctrine is always at least being mistaken for politics.

Everything is political now.

Second, it may be noted that more and more in American life is being taken into this sphere of what is considered political. The definition of totalitarian fascism, as determined by dictator Benito Mussolini, was “everything inside the state, nothing outside the state, and nothing against the state.” One might define totalitarian politics as, “everything inside politics, nothing outside politics, and nothing against the importance of politics.” Over the last eight years I have heard both Democrats and Republicans say that we were moving towards dictatorship, depending on whether President Obama or President Trump was in power. (In fact, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR were our most dictatorial presidents. And two are on Mount Rushmore. FDR openly admired and was admired by Mussolini.)

However, I think it is more obvious that over the last 15 years we have been moving towards a dictatorship of politics—that it is politics itself that is swelling up and claiming to control all of human life. Everything is political. Everything is inside politics. Everything reveals your politics. Everything requires a political framing, every false step a political reprisal. Everyone has to be trying to control everyone and everything else. More and more people judge each other and approve of themselves based on their political creed rather than the basis of their own moral acts of virtue.

Whether those in power are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives, this is a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs.  It may be argued now that this writing itself is a “conservative” view, that I am seeking to smuggle in a “small government Republicanism.” But I am much more concerned about the size of politics than I am about the size of government.

For example, we could have an enormous government that was only in charge of national defense. In such a case, the government would be large in size, but narrow in scope. Virtually all of human life would be outside of government, in what has been called “civil society.” Civil society is the realm of commerce, free associations, families, churches, and anything that stands between the government and the individual. It is the realm of institutions that we make for ourselves and use to form ourselves. It is also the part of life least constrained and controlled by people other than those involved—it is the realm of liberty.

This liberty can only exist where even democratic majorities cannot tread. Otherwise the 49% shall be controlled by the will of the 51%, and they will live under the tyranny of democracy. There is such thing as a democratic totalitarianism. Two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch. 51% gets to pee in the oatmeal of the 49% minority. This is why the West created a common law radically limiting the scope of government with a reel of “rights,” built up from the Magna Carta to the time of the Revolution, even to the removal of the last vestiges of Jim Crow. This idea that a civil reel of rights should create a large space free from the tyranny even of democratic government, in which people could freely associate and build the lives they chose, was called “liberalism.” Liberalism was the idea that we should not coerce anyone’s life without grave need, and that we should leave people free to pursue happiness according to their own rights and conscience. And the early Americans believed this could only be done if religion had a large place in that civil society.

From the time of the New Deal forward through the Great Society, and the increase in regulations and entitlement/relief programs, the scope of this “liberalism” has been shrinking. More of life has been taken from the realm of liberty and placed in the safeguard of technical administrators put in place by democratically elected representatives. As the government was responsible for more and more, the stakes for controlling that government went up and up. The fight for every post and seat became more and more vicious. Money poured in, and everyone had to become an advocate. No one could afford not to be on a team. And once everyone is on one team or another, everything is the game. Everything is politics, and all that matters is who’s winning.

Damned either way

When all of human discourse and life is swallowed up into “politics” (claims that an insinuate grab for power on behalf of a certain policy were by a certain group), no claim can be made that isn’t a kind power grab. So no claim is truly a moral claim. No claim can be a spiritual claim. There are no metaphysical claims. There aren’t even any scientific claims. There are only political claims pretending to be moral, theological, spiritual, anthropological, metaphysical or scientific. Well, unless our team is making the claim, and then it’s obvious that all we care about is the truth. It is the other guys who are never sincere, but only grabbing power. I can hardly think of a more depraved and demoralized public square than one in which politics becomes totalitarian, because it has become total and partisan.

As American public life has become more politically totalitarian, all speech is consider political speech. More positions are considered political positions. More ideas are considered political ideas. And in this transition, many Christian claims that are moral and theological are now assumed to be mainly political.

Here are some examples:

  1. Abortion is the taking of innocent human life. All human institutions should be structured against the taking of innocent human life, and it is always immoral for a person, no matter what their institutional role, to take such life.
  2. Racism and sexism are violations of human dignity and should be opposed in every context they are found.
  3. Poverty is produced by both rapaciousness and dysfunction. Therefore, every society must have mechanisms to help the poor while distinguishing its cause. Therefore, every society must balance protecting the poor against the wealthy seeking to monetize their work for themselves, and dysfunction among the poor that produces indigence and dependence. Historically, more emphasis must be given against the rapaciousness of the rich, since it’s more likely that they can capture the institutions of society, including government. Therefore, societies must have a strong anticorruption bias and support for the legal rights of the poor, while not supporting indigence independence.
  4.  Covenantal and comprehensive heterosexual marriage is the fundamental building block of healthy families and human society. This does not mean a society won’t make any deviation from this norm. However, for society to be healthy, the vast majority of families must submit themselves to this norm for their own good and for the good of succeeding generations.
  5. Human beings should be accorded the right of conscience, religious belief and moral practice, and be free from unnecessary coercion, with a heavy bias towards freedom and liberty. Freedom of conscience, the will, and religious sentiment are supreme to the existence of authentic human consciousness and being. Governments have no right to suppress the religious and moral conscience of men, especially within the realm of natural theology.
  6. People have the right to benefit from the work of their own hands.
  7. Societies have the responsibility to alleviate poverty of misfortune. Societies have the opposite responsibility to not alleviate poverty of indolence.
  8. Governments have the responsibility to punish those who do wrong.
  9. Court should either favor the rich nor the poor, but should produce impartial justice.

In such a context, you’re stuck either way. If you say nothing, in trying “not to be political” you’ve succeeded in not preaching the whole counsel of God. But pastors, and by implication, churches, are responsible to communicate the full will of God.  The Apostle Paul said it this way in Acts 20:26-27, “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” Christianity has views about things that affect public life, and they must be declared in a full throated way in every generation, and even to the government and its officials. Not to do so is to displease the Lord. It’s not an option.

But if everything is political, this will be considered political speech. Many feel like the church “shouldn’t get involved in politics.” So their response is that this is a foul against how a church or pastor should speak. When people hear what they think is “political,” they grow offended and complain, or leave.

Fighting for Devotional Time: Practical Tips

Listen to discussion on the Fighting for Devotional Time series on the Engage & Equip podcast, episode #173.

Now that we’ve covered the three biggest introduction topics—developing the discipline of devotion, focusing your mind, and approaching the Scriptures with open honesty—you may wonder, “Yes, but there have to be some basic helpful techniques you can give us.” There are. Here are a few:

  1. Get a very readable translation of the Bible. I’m not against the King James Version, but it is written in 1611 English. Most people just don’t understand that version of English. The English Language has many incredible translations, Including the NIV, ESV, NET, HCSB, NASB, NLT, and so on. 
  2. Don’t read the Bible straight through. For most people, it is best to start with one of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. If you wish to start at the beginning, Genesis is a fairly interesting book, and so is at least the first 20 chapters of Exodus. If you get into the law starting in Genesis chapter 20 and then get bored and distracted, then flip forward to the New Testament and read something else. Some of the fairly understandable books of the New Testament are Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 1 John, Galatians, and so on. Also, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and Kings in the Old Testament are narrative books with lots of action. Young men especially tend to enjoy these books. If you’re looking for comfort and emotion, many people like the poetry of the Psalms; you don’t have to read those in order, they are all individual songs. If you have any trouble, ask somebody. Almost anyone who has been reading the Bible for a while can help you out with where to read.
  3. Read the Bible in “sections.” Many modern Bibles will have little subheadings in the text. These tend to mark out biblical sections pretty well. Generally speaking, you want to read a complete story, or a complete argument. It’s the best way to make sure you aren’t taking something out of context. Some of these can be fairly long, while others can be very short. However, biblical authors try to make sections of the text complete in themselves. Try to read a complete “section.” You’ll have a better chance of interpreting it well, and taking away the right truths. 
  4. Don’t get upset if you don’t understand 100%. You will almost never understand 100% of any text of the Bible. If you understand 5%, but you really do understand that part, then you have gotten something from God’s word and you should cherish it. Next time you’ll understand 15%, and so on. If you think you have completely misunderstood a section, again, ask for help. But just remember, we read the Bible for incremental change, not perfect understanding. I have read many passages in my life where I didn’t understand many good and important things in the passage, but I did understand one real thing from the passage. To the extent which I believed and applied that one thing, God used it in my life. 
  5. Almost every detail matters. So, don’t just read for something that sounds spiritual. Virtually every detail is important as part of the story or part of the argument. The more little things you assume don’t matter, the less likely you will understand what’s really going on. It’s often the detail you overlooked that will open up the meaning of the passage. Go back and reread.
  6. Before you read, pray and ask God to open up some truth to you. God will respond, and it will open your heart. It’s important to know and believe that God is active in your devotions, not just you.
  7. I find it helpful to write down the main thing I’m taking away from what I read. Especially the first couple of years I had personal devotions, I practiced this for about 25% of my devotional time. In those days I set aside about an hour. I read the Bible for about 25 minutes. I wrote in my journal for about 10 minutes. I meditated about what I read for about five minutes before I wrote and after I wrote, rereading what I had written. And then I prayed for whatever time I had left.
  8. Have someone with whom you regularly share what you are learning. Preferably somebody further along in the faith, and in studying the Bible. 
  9. Check out a Bible study class, or a book. I don’t encourage people to do this right away. Don’t read about reading the Bible before you read the Bible. Read the Bible for a little while first. Then go and learn from someone, or read something. You’ll learn a lot more if you have some prior experience. 

Obey whatever you learn. God has no incentive to teach you what you are unwilling to do. Knowledge of God is in some sense an end in itself if it grows our devotion or helps us in our understanding. But, studying Scripture should lead us to things in our life that we will have to change or adjust or think of in completely different ways. If you want God to show you more, act on what he has shown you already. This way you will show God that you are truly interested in him; additionally, it’s amazing how much you will learn about God in the act of obeying itself. Reading the Bible is not the only time we learn about God and ourselves. Ultimately, we are called to live lives of active love.

Fighting for Devotional Time: Open Honesty

Listen to discussion on the Fighting for Devotional Time series on the Engage & Equip podcast, episode #173.

So far, I have written about two ways to fight for devotional time: developing a discipline of devotion and focusing your mind. These practices both require that we intentionally stop, or at least put aside for the moment, many urgent tasks and diversions in order to make them happen.

The first positive practice of actually doing devotions is to read God’s word with open honesty. You must treat the Scriptures like someone you’re just getting to know. It would be wrong to try to make this new acquaintance just like yourself. You must get to know them for who they are before you know how they might relate to you.

Similarly, we have to come to the Scriptures humbly. They are God’s word, not ours. And we should not expect to know what God wishes to tell us before we read them. One of the great themes of the Scriptures is that we make God in our image, and we don’t listen to what he says. As we begin to read the Bible, we must be as vigilant against this human failing as possible.

Although this may seem like a simple point, it is perhaps the most transformative along with being the most important. The most likely way to get nothing from reading the Bible is to read it self-righteously. For example, it is usually best to assume that you are most like the worst human character in the story. Otherwise, we imagine ourselves as agreeing with God, looking over his shoulder at the idiotic, piddly humans who are much worse than the two of us (us and God).

This is not the intention of the writers. For example, well after the apostles had become heroes of the early church, they caused themselves to be portrayed as foolish followers of Jesus who didn’t understand his teachings and never seemed to have faith or understanding in the moment. Portraying themselves honestly in this way was intentional, as we then identify with them as dense, foolish, faithless and weak. It may feel uncomfortable, but by identifying with the person who is failing in the story, we put ourselves in the position to learn the lesson either they did learn, or that they should have learned. It makes us a true pupil—a real “disciple,” which means a “learner.”

Although this is not a very technical idea, it is the most important attitude when coming to read the Bible. If you have this attitude correct, over time, you will read the Bible for great benefit. If you get this one thing wrong, no matter what technical concepts you understand about interpretation, in the end, you will learn nothing.

So read with humility. For the God of Scripture loves to give grace to the humble. He loves to teach the inquisitive and make the simple wise. The right attitude will make all the difference. Learn to read the Scriptures with both humility and faith.