Without lowering you to the level of dirty fighting, the gospel has made you an immovable object and an irresistible force.
You Wouldn’t Have Bet on the Early Christians
The Jungle Book revolves around a boy named Mowgli who gets raised by wolves. Shere Khan the tiger hates him. At one point there’s a showdown between the tiger and the boy—Shere Khan who is big and mean and nasty, and Mowgli, small and weak.
Mowgli has a torch—a trump card because fire is the one thing all the animals fear—but he throws it into the river.
“Instantly the flames on the torch disappeared with a hiss, white smoke rising into the air. Up and down the river, all the animals looked on in disbelief. Even Shere Khan was surprised, but for him it was a pleasant surprise. ‘Oh, that was the stupidest thing you could do.’ The tiger grinned, digging his talons into the soft dirt as he moved inexorably toward his prey. ‘The one thing you had and you gave it up. Now you have nothing. No claws, no teeth, and no friends…’”
“No claws, no teeth”—that gloating taunt sounds like something Satan would say about Christians. The Bible after all, describes us as sheep—apparently defenseless, harmless, non-threatening creatures who seem to be ill-suited for survival in this world.
In fact, a 2010 research study conducted by Gordon-Conwell seminary estimated that worldwide, a little over 159,000 Christians lose their lives for their faith every year (The actual number fluctuates; last year reported 90,000). Those figures frankly sound unbelievable. It suggests an ongoing mini-holocaust. We wonder if maybe the numbers have been fudged by pious sources, a suspicion partly stemming from the fact that we are all but insulated from the brutal reality of martyrdom.
We hardly know anything but a sheltered Christian existence. As a 21st century American church leader, I have subconsciously assembled a list of “must-haves” in order to be a Christian, do church, and carry out ministry. I must have a cooperative government that will not pass laws curtailing my religious freedom. I must have economic surplus, otherwise, how will I fund ministry, mammoth facilities, and armies of staff? I must have a friendly culture, so I won’t be arrested or shot when I approach someone with the gospel.
Yet the book of Romans was written to an original Christian audience who had none of these things. They seemed fatally vulnerable. Their Lord had told them to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and pray for those who persecuted them. That doesn’t sound like a winning strategy for survival in an evil world. A group of people with this attitude aren’t going to last long. Scoffers would have laid odds that they wouldn’t finish out the first century.
And then the unexpected: the quintessential beast of tooth and claw, the Roman Empire itself, grows tired and sick and lies down on the road of history to die. Filing past its desiccated carcass, a long flock of sheep, the followers of Jesus, go on to fill the earth and prevail.
The only real “must have” is the gospel of God.
If God is for Us…
Firstly, this authoritative good news tells us no one can ever overthrow our standing with God.
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
For eight chapters Paul has clarified the robust good will of the Savior toward us. God justifies the evil and undeserving through faith in Christ. He transfers us from the fallen realm of Adam where sin reigns in power, and then transfers us into Christ where there is freedom from that slavery. Now His Spirit indwells us, and leads us unerringly to glory where we will look like the Son of God in every way. You will get there, because He has done everything to make it so.
Take a minute to do the math. If it is true that God is for us in so compelling and sacrificial a way (and the gospel says it is), who or what could ever successfully overthrow us? God has already given us the greatest thing in the universe—His Son. He has laid out the biggest banquet of all, and any need besides amounts to nothing more than toothpicks and napkins, simple items for Him to give.
Our enemies come at us with their favorite weapon—accusations. The gospel replies with the stone cold fact that God has justified us. In the midst of hostile spin and exaggerated factoids, the good news preaches to us that Jesus has died, has resurrected, has ascended, and now prays for us. This is the main reason why their condemnation fails to overthrow the believer—because nothing can undo the perfect work of God in Christ.
But they still try.
Snarky Remarks Intended to Sting
In Acts 28, The Apostle Paul was in Rome and ran into a group of Jews. They said, “We’ve never heard of you, but we’ve heard of the group you’re in. It’s spoken against everywhere.”
They weren’t kidding. One of the earliest examples of Roman graffiti, called the “Alexamenos Graffitto,” was made by a Roman mocking the Christian faith. The penmanship is horrible, but it reads, “Alexamanos cebete theon.” Roughly translated that means, “Alex worships his god,” and as you can see, the “artist” portrays Christ as a donkey on the cross.
This might have been done at a lighter moment, but there were plenty of other, more serious charges than ass worship floating around at the time. For instance, Christians were accused of cannibalism, incest, black magic, dangerous superstitions, subversive attitudes, atheism, and generally notorious depravities.
We could dismiss these as ridiculous today, but rest assured they were no joke in the first century. Some malicious claims turned into formal courtroom charges. Paul himself went on trial for some of them and was sentenced to death.
False or exaggerated charges of various kinds will never go away until God puts a stop to them at the end of the age. In the meantime, every century sees them reappear in new, cleverly obnoxious garb. I ran across a magazine article that referred to evangelical Christians as “America’s Taliban.” Of course the intent of the article was to suggest that Christians are backward and repressive, and perhaps militant activists should “do” something about us.
When we believers listen to this kind of talk, several reactions can occur. One is that we become ashamed of what we believe and compromise our fidelity to the Bible in order to avoid criticism. The second is that we become angry and hate-filled. A third is simple fear—When are they coming for us?
We can’t afford any of these, therefore the question of the hour is, Who has your ear? Whoever it is, he or she currently determines your emotional state. The verses here in Romans are the equivalent of Jesus taking your face in His hands, and saying, “Look, some of the things they say about you are true—you really aren’t a good person. That’s why I died for you to pay for your many sins. I resurrected from the dead to give you new life to live above this decaying world. I ascended to the right hand of God where I rule over everything in order to accomplish the will of God in your life. I intercede for your fragile soul daily. You need to deeply re-acquaint yourself with that, and tune out the noise around you.
The Normalcy of Suffering and the Gospel Promise
This same gospel assures us no one can separate us from the love of God.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.
The certainty of never being separated from the love of Christ rings hollow to a lot of Christians, because we tend to measure reality according to emotion. Worse, various sufferings blindside us because we unconsciously live life assuming bad things won’t happen. If they do, then they happen to others living on the far side of the world.
When the unpleasant finally occurs, it is as though someone has strolled up and delivered a sucker punch to our stomach. While doubled over, what could we feel except ambushed and forsaken? We deserve better treatment than this, we tell ourselves.
And so Paul inserts a quote from Psalm 44 that reminds the faithful about the eventualities of suffering for God. The Psalmist tells God, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long.” Ultimately affliction, if not death, will befall us because of our stand for righteousness, the gospel, or for other believers.
It happens “all the day long.” The approximate 159,000 lives lost every year indicate that somewhere in the world, hourly, someone dies for Christ. Suffering for His sake is not a hidden clause in the fine print of the Christian life. It is a large statement repeated throughout Scripture.
Our enemies see us as “sheep to be slaughtered,” easy kills, since we serve a God who loves and forgives, and since our compulsion in turn is toward forgiveness and not retaliation.
The slaughter is deep, and long, and bloody. Can it separate us from the love of Christ? Paul’s one word answer is, “No.” Scenarios that apparently victimize believers are actually arenas where we conquer all and thus exhibit the power of “Him who loved us.” We are more than survivors. We are even more than conquerors.
During the first phase of the Golden Gate bridge construction in the early thirties, some 25 men fell and lost their lives. Contractors put together $100,000 and purchased a massive net that they suspended under the construction area. Phase 2 of the bridge then proceeded at a rate 25% faster than the previous phase. The correlation is easy to see. Once workers were aware they wouldn’t lose their lives, they moved faster and more boldly than they had before.
This is precisely the effect the gospel has upon us when we see the love of Christ in it. Once we’re aware that He will never lose His affection for us, desert us, or forget us, threatening environments tend to transform from uncertain gloom to hopeful victory.
This often contributes to self-sacrificial ministry among Christians in troubled areas. Global surveys reveal the highest annual Christian growth rates occur in some of the most disadvantaged places. Nepal and mainland China, for instance, despite having uncooperative and often hostile governments, both report about 11% increase every year, the highest on earth.
India’s church plants regularly number in the hundreds, if not thousands, though the culture is saturated with paganism. Due to Africa’s sustained Christian growth rate, now almost 1 in every 4 Christians who live on this planet, live in Africa, war-torn environments and deep poverty notwithstanding.¹
Iran, a flagship of militant Islam, has a burgeoning underground Christian presence. The government mentioned in a national speech that house churches are the greatest threat to Iran²—little groups of people who secretly gather in their homes and read Scripture and pray, but never hurt anyone.
Even after setting aside possible sensationalized claims and exaggerated numbers, we cannot dismiss the millions of faithful believers in the worst situations imaginable who have become “more than conquerors” without claws or teeth. The only “must have” in their arsenal is the gospel that tells them Christ has died, has risen, has ascended, and now prays for them and loves their souls.
Today, fully 7 in 10 believers live outside the U.S.³ I find that statistic both encouraging and challenging. It is encouraging because so many are proving the promises of Romans 8, and demonstrating to the rest of us that such a life exists, that Christ goes to the deepest places of sorrow and suffering with his saints.
I find it challenging because the lowest Christian growth rates consistently come from first world countries equipped with all the additional “must haves.” No doubt we should be grateful for the extra benefits and blessings that can make ministry more effective. But our relatively moribund state suggests that it is time for a return to the one true “must have.”
It is time to swim again in the pure water of the gospel of Christ. We have been dog paddling in a polluted pond for so long, it is hard to imagine being “more than conquerors” unless that means triumphing over social-political opponents.
Tooth and claw is all the unregenerate understand, so we shouldn’t take our cues from them. They model for us the ethics of outrage and spin, manipulation and violence. Their message says it is intolerable to lose, unthinkable to accept pain. It is especially shameful to be a sheep.
Against the canvas of this dark counter gospel, Paul closes Romans 8 with a call to confidence, not in oneself, but to Him who does all things well, whose work is flawless, and whose love cannot dim.
We are more than conquerors, he says, through Him who loved us. And long after this present world lies in the dust, gasping its final breath, the saints of God will be found in glory.
Sheep overcomes wolf—the only fitting end for the gospel of God.
Photo credit: Irene Steeves