Milestones of an Overcomer

God loves us regardless of our failures.  Still, the cross didn’t purchase for us a license to be perpetual losers.

 Why Not Let the Lord Pick up the Tab?

When I was a kid, a truck’s parking brake failed and the vehicle rolled down our neighbor’s driveway and smashed into the front of their house.

Later, the couple got the insurance check in their hands, and the thought occurred to them that the money was theirs free and clear.   They started looking at the damage done to the house and figured it wasn’t so bad, that maybe they could just slap some paint and caulk and duct tape over the damage.  Besides, times had been tight, so why not have some fun?

They used their reimbursement money for new toys instead—a three-wheeler, a shotgun, barbecue pit, etc.  Meanwhile, the house continued in its damaged condition (though it became a problem later when they wanted to sell it).

Christians slip into this same way of thinking as they evaluate the awesome grace the Lord has provided.   We finished Roman 5 with the promise that where sin abounded, grace much more abounded.  With a free gift of such magnitude, the thought crosses our mind (if we’re honest), that if grace is so much bigger than sin why worry about sin?  For sure the Lord will forgive it.

I’ve heard some bestselling Christian authors and high-profile pastors travel down this road.  One in particular made the emphasis of his ministry the idea that no matter what you do, God will always receive you and always love you just the same.  I agreed with him on that point, but he repeated it so often and so void of balance, I wondered if maybe the people listening to him were beginning to get the wrong idea—that grace was a blank check for any kind of living.

It turns out the pastor himself had the wrong idea.  Eventually, he was exposed for systematic sexual misconduct.  Apparently he never paused to ask, “Did Jesus really die for me and rise from the dead so I could keep doing these kinds of things?”

I’m going to answer that question by pointing out Jesus died to sin and rose from the dead so you could die to sin and live a new life.

This is what we derive from Paul in Romans chapter 6, where he demonstrates that sin is not simply an act that needs to be forgiven, but a power that needs to be overcome.  The apostle indicates three milestones that are fundamental to success.

Ignorance is Not Your Friend

First, you need to know some basic facts.

1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

The most shocking and obvious thing we need to know in these verses is that we have died with Christ.  For those of us used to emphasizing “Christ died for me,” the idea of “I died with Christ” will sound like something at a distinctly deeper level.  Yet as Paul points out, it was accomplished on our personal timeline at the very outset of the Christian life when we were first baptized into Christ.

Rather than run the risk of invoking any magical properties upon baptismal water, I tend to agree with commentator Douglas Moo in that baptism here is more than likely Paul’s shorthand term for initial conversion, the repentance-faith-Holy Spirit-regeneration-water baptism entry experience all true believers have.1     And so as a done deal and accomplished work, we all “were buried with Him” and “have been united with Him” in His death.  This is a momentous fact we must know in dealing with sin, for whoever has died to sin cannot continue to live in it.

Notice that Paul doesn’t instruct us to feel anything, or check with our own experience.  Instead he appeals to our knowledge base—“do you not know?”

The Christian Life on a Tightrope 

This takes me back to an old illustration.  Imagine Fact, Faith, and Experience (or, feeling), walking a tight rope.  Fact led the way, never looking left or right, but only straight ahead.  Faith followed, and did fine as long as his eyes focused upon Fact.  But as soon as Faith became concerned about Experience and turned around to check how Experience was doing, Faith lost its balance and fell off the tight rope and took Experience with him.       

All temptation primarily attempts to move your focus from the settled facts in Christ to yourself.  You begin by asking, “Is this fact true according to my feelings?”  The more you look into yourself, the less corroborating truth you will find, because the mighty work of salvation did not originate in you.  We are such transient, fickle, changeable beings that too much sugar intake or the absence of coffee alters our universe within, every day.

If we are to overcome sin inside us, we must start with a fixed point of reference outside us.  Paul brings us back to facts in Christ, not in us, by asking, “Do you not know?” and many Christians would say, “As a matter of fact, I don’t.” We’ve been interested in a great many positive, even therapeutic sermons, but have hardly developed a palette for good theology.

God doesn’t primarily work by bypassing our brain.  He doesn’t deliver doses of spiritual steroids that give you an unexplainable high, unrelated to his word.   Doctrine matters.  We may want to leave it, like raw steak, to theologians and pastors, but when we do, we limit our ability to overcome.  God has provided these precious truths as tools in our fight against sin.

Own It

After the first milestone of knowing the glorious details of our co-death in Christ, we must still arrive at the second milestone of considering that blessed fact as ours.  Doctrinal truth is meant to be appropriated, to enter our personal space, and not remain in the realm of information, however true the information is.  We gaze into the fact, hoping and praying that the Holy Spirit simultaneously imprints the understanding of it upon our hearts.  Then in simple faith, we claim for ourselves what is true.

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Our death in Christ is not a promise for the future but an accomplishment in the past.  Paul tells us to “consider” it already ours.  The original Greek word for “consider” (or, in some translations, “reckon”), is logizomai, a term associated with numerical calculations, like in accounting.

This tells us that when we’re considering accomplished facts in Christ, we’re dealing with math, not wishes, or positive thinking.  We’re supposed to own the fact that our old self—our previous identity in Adam—was crucified with Christ.  In fact, the only way to get out of Adam is to be killed out of him.  No one can meditate or behave their way out of him.  If we don’t consider this fact as ours, it will be hard to imagine being entitled to the outcome—that the body of sin was brought to nothing and we are therefore free from sin’s dominion.

No Head Games

We deal with these facts in the same fashion as dealing with our bank accounts.  If the figures in your account aren’t high enough, you don’t go shopping, not even window shopping.  Sorry, but you have to own the poverty.  It’s a simple matter of accounting, and the numbers must be obeyed.  But when the math comes out on the high plus side, you behave differently, with new levels of boldness that allow not only a visit to the grocery store, but to the car lot, or to the realtor’s office.

God doesn’t tell you to consider or reckon something for yourself that isn’t real.  In the accounting world that would be cooking the books—playing with the numbers until you get them to come out however you want.  Instead, these verses tell you to own what you have, and be what you are—dead to sin and alive to God.

Sin will Lie to You, but Don’t Listen

Once the numbers in your spiritual account add up to death and resurrection in Christ, the third and boldest milestone emerges—presenting yourself to God.

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We are told to present ourselves to God, because it matches reality.  This is what people do who have been crucified and then raised from the dead.  Yet we still need a warning.  We might still default to allowing sin to rule over us.

We may for instance, interpret residual urges or “passions” as proof that we aren’t so dead to sin after all.  Billy Graham might be dead to sin, or certain “holy” people you know, but not you.  Sin will say, “Look, I’m still here, you can feel me.  You may as well obey me and go through with it; you’re almost there anyway.”

In the heat of this moment, it’s important to know first of all, that temptation itself is not a sin.  Only obeying it.  Secondly, we’re not told our body of sin was eradicated.  It wasn’t extracted like a rotten tooth, leaving us as angels.

The old you in Adam, the owner and operator of your body of sin, was crucified (6:6).  That left your sin nature idle, and brought it to nothing, but didn’t make it vanish.  Paul cautions us about passions that still remain.  We have them, but we are not indebted to obey them.  They try to beckon us backwards, into a chapter that was forever closed at the cross.  A visit to our sinful past will only result in a conflict with our new identity and a lot of unwelcome dissonance.

Instead of paying attention to these passions, or even trying to reason with them, Paul charges us to act one-hundred-eighty degrees out from them, by presenting our members as instruments for righteousness.

The Two Sides of the Coin

A while back, a youth pastor picked a Florida beach for a summer mission destination.  But the more he thought about it, the more worried he became that the teens on the trip might be stumbled by the antics of partying, drunken crowds.  In an unorthodox move, he decided to have the kids gather lumber and build a cross, and wherever they went on the trip, that cross had to go with them.  On the bus.  In the restaurant.  And yes, right there on the beach.

At first it was inconvenient and embarrassing, lugging that cross around. Later though, the teens began to see it as a point of honor. Before they left, the pastor invited them to take two nails, and pound one into the cross, but keep the other with  them.  Many years later, one of the teens on the trip who had since become a stockbroker, related how, when he felt tempted to to unethical or immoral conduct, he would go in his office and pull a desk drawer out and look at that nail.  It was a concrete reminder that he was in fact, dead to sin.

While one side of the coin in our Christian experience lies in not presenting ourselves to sin, the other positively lies in presenting our members—our eyes, ears, mouths, hands, and feet—to God.  This makes any day potentially an adventure.   How will God use you?  In some cases you already know, because He has already led you, but you have procrastinated in the matter down to this very minute.  In other cases, you might not know until you deliberately offer yourself for His use.

Don’t wait for the short-term mission to Haiti or the full-time vocational opportunity to occur.  In fact, some of us involved in “professional” Christian service begin to think of ourselves as presented to an enterprise, and not to God.  Dulled by the pace of needs and schedules, we forget that we began by presenting ourselves to a Person, not a thing.

God uses people who are dead to sin, alive to Him, and present for His ongoing use.  As that happens, you win.

You win big.

 

¹ Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 366.

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