The Providence of God

But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”” (Romans 9:20, CSB)

I’m into some of the weightier chapters of Romans. A lot of ink continues to be spilled over this theological battlefield. What do election and predestined status mean? How does God “harden” hearts? How do I teach the theology and practice of these passages straight from the Bible without driving people further into their preferred camps?

Here are some of my convictions:

  1. God is sovereign.
  2. We can trust that God’s designs are good.
  3. Righteousness only comes by faith.
  4. Until we have a great love and appreciation for our salvation, these matters are elusive.
  5. We will never fully understand the Providence of God because we are not God.

I love Luther’s summary of these chapters…


“In chapters 9, 10 and 11, St. Paul teaches us about the eternal providence of God. It is the original source which determines who would believe and who wouldn’t, who can be set free from sin and who cannot. Such matters have been taken out of our hands and are put into God’s hands so that we might become virtuous. It is absolutely necessary that it be so, for we are so weak and unsure of ourselves that, if it depended on us, no human being would be saved. The devil would overpower all of us. But God is steadfast; his providence will not fail, and no one can prevent its realization. Therefore we have hope against sin.

But here we must shut the mouths of those sacriligeous and arrogant spirits who, mere beginners that they are, bring their reason to bear on this matter and commence, from their exalted position, to probe the abyss of divine providence and uselessly trouble themselves about whether they are predestined or not. These people must surely plunge to their ruin, since they will either despair or abandon themselves to a life of chance.

You, however, follow the reasoning of this letter in the order in which it is presented. Fix your attention first of all on Christ and the Gospel, so that you may recognize your sin and his grace. Then struggle against sin, as chapters 1-8 have taught you to. Finally, when you have come, in chapter 8, under the shadow of the cross and suffering, they will teach you, in chapters 9-11, about providence and what a comfort it is. [The context here and in St. Paul’s letter makes it clear that this is the cross and passion, not only of Christ, but of each Christian.] Apart from suffering, the cross and the pangs of death, you cannot come to grips with providence without harm to yourself and secret anger against God. The old Adam must be quite dead before you can endure this matter and drink this strong wine. Therefore make sure you don’t drink wine while you are still a babe at the breast. There is a proper measure, time and age for understanding every doctrine.”

  • Martin Luther, Preface to Romans
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The Death of My Humanity

Since I am speaking to those who know the law, brothers and sisters, don’t you know that the law rules over someone as long as he lives? For example, a married woman is legally bound to her husband while he lives. But if her husband dies, she is released from the law regarding the husband. So then, if she is married to another man while her husband is living, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law. Then, if she is married to another man, she is not an adulteress. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you also were put to death in relation to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another. You belong to him who was raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions aroused through the law were working in us to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.

What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. And sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind. For apart from the law sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life again and I died. The commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Therefore, did what is good become death to me? Absolutely not! On the contrary, sin, in order to be recognized as sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment, sin might become sinful beyond measure.” (Romans 7:1–13, CSB)

Read it slowly.

Then read it again. And again.

Those looking for affirmation of their attachment to “the letter of the law” will be disappointed. The sole function of the law is to remind us of our sin, to kill us by our sins, and to make us deserving of eternal wrath.

When we are confronted with sin, a cycle begins. Either we see our sin and are mad that it is called sin–maybe our case is an exception, or we try to fix our sin with good works. When our works aren’t enough, we become frustrated and hostile because of this oppressive law.

Our will and humanity are bound by this law. The law is what we wanted in the Garden–knowledge of good and evil. And we got just what God warned us of–death. The law is not evil. It’s our evil nature that cannot handle the way that the good law demands good from us.

But when our old self dies with Christ, then our will is free.

“Not that conscience should now do nothing; rather, it should now for the first time truly cling to its second husband, Christ, and bring forth the fruit of life.” – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans

Our will is free to be bound once more to a better husband. We are free to “serve in a new spirit” and “bear fruit for God.” We are removed from the original tree that caused us to only produce evil, and we are grafted into the True Vine and source of life.


Illustratively, this reminds me of Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back. When Luke feels the pull towards the cave on Dagobah, he asks, “What’s in there?” Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

The cave motif is used extensively in literature to show metaphorically what lies beneath the surface of a person or an internal struggle–think Odysseus. For Plato, the cave was a false reality for persons who were trapped and confused.

What Luke sees in the cave is the evil Vader, who is revealed to be Luke himself. This fear of the evil within, wanting to fight it but not knowing how, it shapes the rest of Luke’s story.

Visibly Sanctified

But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching to which you were handed over, and having been set free from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness.” (Romans 6:17–18, CSB)

Enslavement

There is an enemy in our midst. His perpetual goal is to dim the light of God in the world and enslave us. There is nothing gained from our enslavement, just empty promises and death. Our enslavement doesn’t only harm ourselves. Just as Eve took that forbidden fruit and gave it to Adam, we are active in enslaving others and leading them towards death (6:21). Not only that, but sin always has collateral damage in the lives of those around us.

But thank God, Christian, that’s who you used to be. As certain as your sin produced rotten fruit and your only end was death, now Jesus’ gift produces good, satisfying fruit and your only end is life with him (6:22-23).

Freedom

The counterpoint in these verses is what I find compelling. Most Christians will say that they consider themselves free from sin, but few will say that they consider themselves enslaved to God. Paul shows us here that our “all in” attitude is a direct consequence of our salvation. Sanctification is visible in our life through our love for and obedience to God’s way of living.

You obeyed. We are not our own anymore. God has bought us at a great price. The Spirit awakens our heart to proper gratitude and love for the gift of grace. Once a rebel at arms against God, we throw down our weapons in surrender. This language of obedience is used often in the New Testament with regard to our salvation. Peter says that our obedience to the truth is what purified us (1 Pet. 1:22). The truth is the message of the Gospel and the commands of God. When this message is heard, a fork in the road appears: believe or disobey.

From the heart. There is no obedience without affection. Obeying God without loving God is empty. This is the argument that James makes in his faith vs. works discussion. Works without faith. Faithless works are meaningless to God. Think about the strong words God had the prophets deliver to Israel and Judah–I hate your sacrifices. I hate your festivals. I hate your songs. The peoples’ actions were all devoid of affection for God. True faith will obey God and be productive.

But grace makes the law lovable to us, so there is then no sin any more, and the law is no longer against us but one with us. – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans

That pattern of teaching. We have a God who has given us clear designs for our daily life. He has told us how to think, feel, and act. These teaching are not pragmatic, constantly adjusting to changes in the world. They are a firm foundation that we build our life upon. They are consistent, a pattern that we can step into and apply. These teachings are not loosely organized requiring us to wade through exhausting commentaries, they are systematic and simple.

To which you were handed over. This phrase can be read in two ways. (1) Our pattern of living has been passed down to us by faithful men and women. Not just the prophets, apostles, and church fathers, but also your grandma, parents, and Sunday school teachers. We now enter into this responsibility of reproducing and passing down our Christian confession and God’s pattern of living. Making disciple-makers. (2)This is the new master that we have been given to. As a Christ follower, there was never a time when we had free agent status, and we chose to start following Christ. You must be a slave to Christ, or you have not been set free from the Enemy!

Alive to God

How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2, CSB)

Why do Christians still sin when we have all of these wonderful promises about Jesus overcoming sin in our life? Paul offers several truths in Romans 6 to give a more robust theology of sin. Being armed with this perspective, we can better face our daily rebellion.

Our Sign of Hope

The first truth that Paul offers is the sign of baptism. Most Christians don’t see their baptism as a help in overcoming sin, maybe because it’s not rightly understood. Baptism is meant to be a sign of hope for us in this life. When we are baptized “into Christ Jesus,” we symbolically participate in his death. And in the same way that Jesus was raised “by the glory of the Father,” that same power lifts us from our way of death into a “new way of life.” Baptism is a beautiful sign for a Christian, but it is not the true resurrection, right? We still have to go about our daily life. We will still die, but we have a hope for true resurrection in the future.

For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection.” (Romans 6:5, CSB)

This sign, along with the hope that faith grows in us, is a tool for subjugating our sinful, mortal bodies. Much of the Christian life is about looking towards the promises of the future to overcome the everyday.

Our Weapons of Righteousness

We are now able to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). But how do we move beyond the knowing to the doing? One of the problems that I see with Christian sin management is how we only concentrate on not doing something bad, rather than being intentional about doing good. Paul is pressing this point in Romans 6:12-14. He says that you shouldn’t obey the desires of sin or offer any part of yourself for its use. Instead, we are to offer our whole self to God as tools/weapons/instruments of righteousness.

“Paul teaches us that faith doesn’t so free us from sin that we can be idle, lazy, and self-assured, as though there were no more sin in us.” – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans

Our Promise

Jesus’ conversations with religious people were often very heated. He had a problem with their devotion to the rules of God and their lack of devotion to God and people. The law was the chief end of their existence. If they suppressed their sin and kept the rules of their religion, they might obtain righteousness. But our great promise is that when we could not obtain righteousness, Christ purchased us. He did not sin. He did not break his relationship with God. Now, sin cannot rule over us, because we are not under the law but grace (6:14). God bought us with a great price and now our only hope in life and death is that we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

No law, no sin?

In fact, sin was in the world before the law, but sin is not charged to a person’s account when there is no law.” (Romans 5:13, CSB)

This verse has made me pause for a long time. Recently, I was shown the differences in the Bible’s words for sin, trespass, and iniquity. A casual definition of sin (hamartia) is missing a given target or standard. Since there was no codified law given by God, sin by definition could not be counted against people. This is why Paul says repeatedly that the law of Moses makes everyone aware of their sinfulness.

The other word that Paul uses here is trespass or transgression (paraptoma). Before the law, God established relationships with people. These relationships were always defined by an agreement, sometimes more formal like a covenant. Just like two neighbors agreeing on a shared land boundary. When relationship agreements are broken, trespass occurs. Breaking agreements in a relationship always lead to damaged trust and separation. Being separated from a life-giving God means death. Betraying an agreement made with a holy God is so egregious the punitive damages earned can never be paid. We need some way to reconcile this relationship so that the damage can be repaired. In human relationships, this type of reconciliation is near impossible. In divorce, counselors and lawyers have to be brought in either for reconciliation or termination of the relationship.

In ancient near eastern culture, a mediator would be brought in to settle family disputes and feuds between neighbors. We have the perfect mediator in Jesus Christ. His death paid the retributive cost of our trespasses. The grace shown to him in the resurrection is extended to us. We have the beginnings of a restored relationship now to such an extent that we are called ministers of reconciliation! And we have hope that helps us endure in this life until the relationship with God is perfectly restored forever.

“Christ, a second Adam, had to come in order to make us heirs of his justice through a new spiritual birth in faith, just as the old Adam made us heirs of sin through the old fleshy birth.” – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans

Works of Faith

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:1–5, CSB)

“Joy, peace, love for God and all people…assurance, steadfastness, confidence, courage, and hope in sorrow and suffering. All of these follow where faith is genuine, because of the overflowing good will that God has shown in Christ.” – Martin Luther, preface to Romans

Peace with God

I used to think that peace with God was about me. I needed to have peace in my restless heart and that could only be given to me by Jesus. But Paul tells us that we were rebellious enemies. Our betrayal grieved God. His designs were ever against us. It would have been better for the world if we were removed from it. Even in that state, Jesus came to rescue us. Now, not only has all hostility ceased, but we are welcomed in as part of the family.

W.H. “Dub” Jackson flew bombers and fighters over Japan in WWII. He knew who his enemy was. He had seen their acts of aggression first hand. Only days after General MacArthur sign the Japanese surrender, Dub and others were thinking about how he could get back to Japan as a minister of the gospel. They started to work with churches in the US to send volunteers as missionaries to the people who were called enemies.

Access to God

Adam and Eve were immediately sent away from paradise and the way back was guarded. Standing before a holy God would now mean their death. In the Old Testament, people didn’t pursue God — He came to them.  The tabernacle and the temple showed the clear separation between God and man. But through Jesus’ death, the veil was torn. Access was granted. Now we are promised that we will stand before him forever. Like Mary at the feet of Jesus sitting and listening, we will have eternal access to pure wisdom and attention.

Glory of God

Our old selves would have run for our lives from God’s presence and glory. We were like those who will hide in caves and ask the mountains to fall on them on the Day of the Lord. But now, we look forward to it. It motivates us. Even though we will stand before the Ancient of Days in judgment, we have full assurance and we hope to see his glory. This is the same glory that Moses asked to see on Mount Sinai and was denied because “no man can see God’s face and live.” Our affliction, endurance, proven character–they all affirm our new identity. This life is lived with confidence knowing that we will see his face forever.

If faith produces endurance in spite of afflictions and if we are exhibiting proven character, then it is undeniable that true faith produces true works of faith. These works were never able to bring peace with God, give us access to God, or make us holy in the presence of God. In the church, there have always been ingrown traditions, actions, and rules of living that are said to prove your Christianity. But that’s not what Paul says. Only Jesus gives us a new identity through faith. That faith produces genuine works of faith.

“They invent for themselves their own works in which are neither peace nor joy nor assurance nor love nor hope nor steadfastness nor any kind of genuine Christian works or faith.” – Martin Luther, preface to Romans

Why grace?

I just began studying Romans again, and I was struck by Paul’s train of thought regarding grace.

Through [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles, including you who are also called by Jesus Christ. (1:5-6)

We have received grace to bring about the obedience of faith

Paul spends a great deal of time in this letter defining the vocabulary of our belief. In Romans, grace brings us completely into God’s favor through the mediating work of Jesus. When God says, “What about sinful John Smith?” Jesus replies, “Don’t look at him look at me. His identity is forever wrapped up in who I am.”

Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God…Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans

We are saved from sin for a purpose. Our salvation by grace is evident through actionable obedience to God calling us out of our old life.

…for the sake of his name…

Individuality is sacred today. Everyone must be free to express themselves and pursue their own interests. But salvation is not about us. It’s not for our joy and success. It is for the glory and honor of God. It’s so that he would be the focus of all respect, recognition, and honor. Paul, wants us to see from the very beginning that the purpose of our salvation and our call to evangelize is rooted in God’s glory and fame.

…among the Gentiles…

God’s interest in us doesn’t stop with our conversion. He wants our changed lives to be contagious and multiplying. When Paul talks about Gentiles here, he means those who haven’t heard about YHWH, the God of the Bible. Many of Paul’s fellow workers were still struggling with the idea of crossing the cultural divide between Jew and Gentile. But the gospel is for all, especially those who have never heard and few are working to reach.

…including you who are also called by Christ Jesus.

The message of Romans is not just for the lost. It’s been used as an effective evangelism tool for years because of its foundational truths on the human condition and the process of salvation. But our contagious grace and our life of faith must be seen by those in the church. The building up of the church and the strengthening of believers is God’s plan for evangelism. We must understand these words like law, gospel, grace, and faith. They must be a source of joy and strength in our church people.

Your personal salvation is not the conclusion of grace. The impact of grace in your life ripples out into your church and community. It has lasting, eternal impact for the glory of God.

Luther’s 95 Theses

October 31 is Reformation Day, marking the day on which Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against the selling of indulgences on the church doors in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. Though there are many things that paved the way to this rather inauspicious moment, it historically marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

It’s encouraging to see the pastoral nature of Luther’s 95 Theses. Many of his points reflect the need for believers to live with true repentance, care for the poor, and for pastors to guard the pulpit from false teaching. He also speaks strongly against the unbiblical policies coming from the Pope in Rome.

The heart of the Reformation was about salvation. Are we justified before God through our own actions and the policies of the church or does justification come by grace alone through faith alone? I am thankful for Martin Luther. And I am thankful that I am made right with God through no effort of my own.

Below is a restating of Luther’s 95 Theses which were intended spark discussion in the fall of 1517. I’ve marked the ones that stick out to me in bold.

1. When Jesus said “repent” he meant that believers should live a whole life repenting

2. Only God can give salvation – not a priest.

3. Inwards penitence must be accompanied with a suitable change in lifestyle.

4. Sin will always remain until we enter Heaven.

5. The pope must act according to canon law.

6. Only God can forgive -the pope can only reassure people that God will do this.

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