Part V of the series “Romans: The Road Less Traveled.”
Well, after two weeks of hype, the Big Game is finally here. It’s especially interesting this year, of course, because the Broncos are in it and most us of will be tuned in this afternoon to watch the game, or at least to watch the commercials.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to play in a game like that—millions and millions of people watching. Eternal glory and immortality are on the line for the winners, while the losers will forever wonder about what could have been. In a game like this, every play is magnified and analyzed incessantly; replayed endlessly on highlight reels on ESPN and the NFL Network. And when the video plays 20 years from now, you want to be the guy who made the game breaking play, not the guy who made the big mistake. One momentary lapse in focus can make all the difference.
One afternoon this week when I got home from work I started watching the NFL Network’s recap of every Super Bowl, using the old NFL Films highlights (you know, the old John Facenda narration—“Football is a rough game, and often a cruel one”). I made sure to watch a couple of of the six (count ‘em, six) Super Bowls the Steelers have won, when I was reminded of one of those mistakes that people will remember forever. The Steelers were playing the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. In the 3rd quarter, the Cowboys had made a furious comeback that had all of us in the Steel City very nervous. The Cowboys had it third and three from the Steelers 10, with only a touchdown needed to tie the score. Then this happened:
The Cowboys had a kick a field goal and the Steelers went on to win their third of six Super Bowls. Jackie Smith, who had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL for 16 seasons, will nonetheless be most remembered for a mistake in his last game. Even people in Pittsburgh felt bad for him. And you have to think that today, as the players head to the stadium and get ready for Super Bowl whatever-Roman-numeral this is, they’re thinking about that. Some will be playing to win, while others might be playing not to lose.
The truth is that in sports your mindset often determines your success. If you focus on not making a mistake, for example, you’ll probably winding up making one. When I was in Utah there was one golf course that I played where the third hole had trees up the right side of the fairway. The first time I played there, I thought to myself, “Don’t hit the trees.” Of course, that’s exactly what happened. In fact, it happened every time I played that course. The last time I played there, I just threw the ball into the woods to get it over with.
If you focus on failure, you’re likely to fail. If you play not to lose, you might as well not play at all. On the other hand, if you focus on victory; if you visualize standing amidst the confetti at the end of the game, there’s a good chance you will play according to that vision—playing with gusto instead of playing scared. If that’s true in the Super Bowl, it’s also true in the even more important game of the Christian life.
As we’ve been working through Romans, we’ve been seeing the apostle Paul working through a long argument, unfolding for us how the good news, the death and resurrection of Jesus, are the keys to solving the world’s problem of enslavement to sin and death. God has kept his covenant to mend his broken creation, and now, here in chapter 8, Paul offers us a vision of what God’s ultimate victory will look like. Before that, however, he warns his readers to get their minds right—to play for that victory, rather than playing not to lose.
To understand chapter 8, however, we first need to briefly back up to chapter 7. There Paul takes us back again to the story of Israel and describes the effects that the law and the commandments had when Moses brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. While the law that God gave to Moses was designed to set Israel apart as an example for the world, the other effect that the law had was to identify sin and, ironically, make it more attractive. Humans want what we can’t have—it’s been that way since the Garden in Genesis 3. And so, when the law came in, identifying what was out of bounds, the people automatically wanted it! Even as Moses was bringing down the tablets from the mountain, the people were violating the first commandment about no other gods by having a Super Bowl party around the golden calf. It’s not that the law was bad in itself, it’s that the law could only identify what sin is, not how to get out from under it.
In 7:13-25, which scholars have long debated, Paul seems to be describing the kind of life that a person will live if the law is his or her only guide. The law tells him what to do, but he has a hard time doing it. In fact, he does the very things he doesn’t want to do because he’s trapped between the good intentions of the mind and the sinful urges of the flesh. As he puts it in 7:25, “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.”
But Paul reminds us that there is a way out of that dilemma. Because of what Christ has done, we can focus on victory in him rather than the defeat of being left to our own devices. As he puts it in 7:24-25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
It’s a lot easier to play like a champion when you know that victory is assured. When you know that you’re on the winning side, you can shift your mindset away from fear to faith. And faith, Paul says in chapter 8, is to be the mindset of the Christian life.
“There is therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by 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. 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” (8:1-5).
The contrast of flesh and Spirit here is important. What Paul means by “flesh” here is not simply the physical world, as opposed to the non-physical. The word translated “flesh” actually refers to people or things who share the corruptibility, mortality, and rebellion of the world apart from God. Paul believes that the physical world of creation is good, as we’ll see in a few minutes, but the wrong use of God’s creation leads to corruption and decay. “Spirit,” on the other hand, most often refers to God’s own Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Sometimes Paul uses “spirit” to refer to the human spirit, or the inner reality of someone’s life. But here in chapter 8 he is primarily referring to the Holy Spirit. The question for Paul concerns which of these we are focused on: Are we focused on the corruptible, sinful, decaying life of the flesh, or are we all in with God’s Spirit? Only one of those mindsets will lead to victory. Look at verse 6:
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God (v. 7) and it doesn’t submit to God’s law. In fact, Paul says, it cannot. If your mind is focused on the flesh, you cannot please God. You’re destined to be a loser, because you’re only focused on yourself.
But, Paul says (v. 9), “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Here is another effect of justification by faith—God dwells within us with his own Spirit. And if that’s the case, if the Spirit dwells in you, then (v. 11) “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” When God’s Spirit dwells in you, you become part of God’s future—a future where the corruption of death is defeated by the power of resurrection and God’s new creation. You will be part of the great victory celebration when the final whistle has blown! And when you focus on that, when you get your mind right, then your body will follow!
This is why Paul says that, by the Spirit, we must “put to death the deeds of the body” (v. 13). Our sinful natures make us susceptible to all kinds of temptations to use our bodies in ways that are fleshly. Paul does not believe in a dual nature of humanity, the separation of body and spirit. That’s Plato, not Paul. Paul is a Jew, and that means he views the body and the spirit as one—what affects one affects the other. When both our spirits and our bodies are under the influence of God’s Spirit, however, we become the people God created us to be. We become “children of God” (v. 14). We are no longer slaves to our fleshy way of thinking, driven by self-gratifying passions and lusts, but we begin to think and live as adopted children. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit [of God] bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Indeed, we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him” (v. 16-17).
And what is that inheritance? For ancient Israel, the inheritance, the road to victory, was the Promised Land. In fact, the “promised land” is a vision that lots of people aspire to, even football teams. An Associated Press article online a couple of weeks ago had the headline, “Manning lifts Denver to the Promised Land.” The promised land is that place where the victors enjoy the spoils, where the confetti rains down, where smiles and parties abound, where all is right with the world.
But in Romans 8:18-25, Paul describes an even greater promised land. The inheritance of those who are in Christ, the long-awaited promised land, is nothing less than the whole world, the whole creation, made new. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us,” says Paul in v. 18. It’s a glory that even a Super Bowl winner cannot imagine. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” What Paul reveals here is the end result of the great victory over sin and death that God began with Abraham, that reached its climax in Jesus, and is embodied in his people—both humanity and creation put right. In verse 22, Paul says that the whole creation has been “groaning” in anticipation of humans getting put right so that the creation itself can be put right.
This is a major departure from the goal of the old Romans road method of looking at the gospel (Indeed, this part of Romans 8 gets skipped in that sequence). The ultimate goal of God’s great redemptive plan for the world isn’t to evacuate humans from the creation and into a distant heaven, but rather to refill and renew God’s creation with new life—a renewed humanity within a renewed creation. The hope is not the abandonment of our bodies for a spiritual life somewhere else, but the “redemption of our bodies” through resurrection into God’s new world (v. 23). Like linemen fighting in the trenches, this is what we’re “groaning” for—the promised land, the ultimate victory of God over sin and death.
This is the victorious vision that should drive us as followers of Christ—it’s been the vision since the day Jesus walked out of the tomb. But along the way of 2,000 years of history since, Christianity has defined victory not by the renewal of God’s people and God’s creation, but by individual salvation. That’s kind of like a player focusing on his individual stats in a game, rather than on the team goal. Yes, our individual salvation does matter, but it matters within the larger context of what God is doing with the whole world. The goal of the Christian life isn’t for me to get into heaven, it’s for me to be part of God’s team, working for God’s goal. As Paul puts it in verse 29, we were “predestined” or made from the beginning to be “conformed to the image of [God’s Son], in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family”—we were made to be part of the team!
Not that it’s easy. Victory on the football field requires a lot of practice, sweat, and focus. Sometimes we, too, will drop the ball. We need each other if we’re going to lift the trophy, but more importantly we need the Holy Spirit. Paul says in verse 26 that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The Spirit helps us to keep our eyes on the prize.
That’s the assurance in verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” From the very beginning, God has called creation “good,” and his human creations he called “very good.” Those who love God will see their lives made good, no matter the present circumstance, because God’s ultimate purpose for his creation is to make it “good” again. When we set our minds on that purpose, when we set our minds on the Spirit, when we turn from the old way of life to the new life God is bringing forth in Christ, we know that God’s victory is close at hand.
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
“No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (v. 37-39)”
This afternoon, one team will walk off the field victorious, carrying the Lombardi trophy amidst a sea of confetti. The other team will be the Seattle Seahawks!**
But any victory that happens today pales by far in comparison to the victory that we, and the whole creation, will have because of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
May we focus our lives today and every day on that victorious good news!
**Clearly, though I am a preacher, I am not an oracle! Seahawks 43-Broncos 8