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Invested with new life

A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 24 / Romans 6

by Tim Gallant

Beloved family of Jesus Christ,

How many of you have seen the bumper sticker, "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven"? It used to be pretty popular, although I haven't seen it for a while.

The thought behind it, however, remains as strong as ever. And it is a thought that includes an ever-so-subtle distortion of the biblical faith. This evening, as we consider the subject of "Man's Sanctification and Good Works" as raised by Article 24 of our Confession, I will get a sense of where that distortion is.

Paul teaches us that grace invests us with new life. This evening we will be reminded, very briefly, of the basis for this new life, and then we will also be reminded of the character of this new life. And to help us understand how this all fits together, we will see, finally, the logic of this new life.

1. Grace invests us with new life. Paul is always emphatic about the basis for this new life. It is by grace. He has been saying this consistently throughout Romans up to this point. Back in chapter 4.6-8 Paul cites the Psalms:

David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin."

What Paul is saying is that it is God Himself who brings life into our death, the death that our bondage to sin has worked out. "God imputes righteousness apart from works" - in other words, He doesn't stand by until we can reform ourselves to a certain degree of respectability and morality. He doesn't tell us: "I will save you, but first get your act in order."

Our Confession echoes Paul in the second sentence of the second paragraph here: our good works
are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good before the tree is good.

We are justified "even before we do good works."

This is true of necessity. God does not recognize the "good works" of His enemies. They are dead to Him, and therefore nothing they do is pleasing to Him. As Paul says later, in chapter 8.8, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God."

So God Himself brings life into our death, stirs faith in us, and counts that faith as righteousness. Apart from works. Salvation is by grace, and it is by grace alone. We don't buy it; we don't earn it; we can do nothing but receive it by faith. God in Christ is the Saviour, and He alone. We cannot save ourselves, even in part.

2. Grace invests us with new life. We consider, second, the character of this new life. This is what our article in the Confession is keying on here. The Belgic has just talked about justification by faith in the preceding articles, and now it begins here by talking about this justifying faith:

We believe that this true faith - in other words, this faith which justifies - being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.

In many ways, that sentence is a nutshell summary of Romans 6. Over and over in this chapter, Paul says that the believer has been given a new life and freed from slavery to sin. We do not continue in sin in order that grace may abound, because we have died to it, Paul says in verses 1-2. We were united to Christ's death, our old man was crucified with Christ, "that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin," he adds in verses 5-6.

And thus, Paul's instruction in verse 12: "Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness."

Sin is not allowed to reign, because sin is about death, and you are now alive in Christ. So you must pursue submission, obedience to Him. Throughout this chapter, Paul sets submission to righteousness - meaning, submission to Christ - over against submission to sin - meaning, submission to death. These two are as incompatible as being alive and dead simultaneously. As the apostle puts it succinctly in verse 23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

How does this differ from our bumper sticker theology, "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven"? As we know, Christians aren't perfect. And yet, Paul's message does differ from the bumper sticker. Because what the bumper sticker implies is that slavery to sin is an indifferent matter. The only thing that counts is forgiveness. If you get your theology from the bumper sticker, you may well think that the wages of sin is not death, after all. "I can live my life however I please, in complete bondage to sin. But it's okay, because I'm forgiven."

This is related to a myth that has arisen in the past few decades. And that is the separation of Christ as Saviour and Lord. The thought is that you're "saved" - meaning, according to the lingo, forgiven - by "Christ as Saviour." But submitting to Christ's Lordship may or may not come later. You can be a "carnal Christian" who has Christ as Saviour but not as Lord.

What? Is Christ divided? Is it true that we can pick and choose which Christ we will have? Is it not precisely in His Lordship that Jesus is Saviour? Is not His triumph over sin and death a revelation of who is Lord?

No, this "carnal Christian" bumper sticker theology is not how Paul thinks. If you are in bondage to sin, if sin is your master - well, then, you are going to reap death. In the words of verse 22[b], the Christian's fruit is "to holiness, and the end, everlasting life." And that is set over against verse 21, slavery to sin, and the things which it brings; "the end of those things is death."

There is, then, no salvation without obedience. There is no salvation without the fruit of righteousness. The wages of sin is still death. To use the old terminology, it's "holiness or hell." If Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is life, then those in Him will submit to that Lordship and live out of that life. The crazy notion floating around modern North American Christianity that you can live for yourself and think of yourself as justified by faith is a dangerous lie. As Paul says in the passage we read last week - a passage talking about justification by faith, no less - what counts is a "faith working through love" (Gal 5.6). Any "faith" that does not work through love is a dead faith and does not justify. And a "faith" that does not justify is worthless.

3. Grace invests us with new life. Finally, what is the logic of this new life? This is an important question to ask, because some people may well say that what we have given with one hand, we have now taken away with the other. "Yes, you say that justification is by grace alone, but then you turn around and make works mandatory. Therefore, your position is inconsistent, and what it really boils down to is salvation by works, after all."

I'm hoping you can already see that this objection cannot be sustained, but I want to make explicitly clear why it is wrong. It is very important that we see what sort of grace is given to us in the gospel.

As we noted already here in Romans 6 Paul speaks in the terms of death and life. In truth, he has been doing this throughout much of Romans. Already back in chapter 1.32, he says that "the righteous judgment of God" against fallen and rebellious man is that he is "deserving of death." And then he goes on in chapter 2 to speak of the opposite: eternal life.

Again, in chapter 4.17, Paul speaks of Abraham, who believed in God as the One "who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did," and in the last two verses of that chapter, he describes Christian faith as believing "in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification" (4.24b-25).

And then, leading up to our passage, in chapter 5, Paul retraces his steps and goes back to the beginning, telling us that "through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (5.12). This lays the groundwork: Adam brought sin and death, but Christ brought righteousness and life. As Paul writes in chapter 5.21, "as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

That is the very last verse before chapter 6 begins, and it therefore shapes the life and death language of our passage. In verse 2, Paul says that we have died with Christ, and in so doing have died to sin. He adds in verse 4, "we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."

What does all this have to do with the logic of our new life? What does it say to our question of whether or not we have reintroduced salvation by works?

Well, Paul says that bondage to sin is the mark of the old state of death - of the unjustified old fallen order in Adam. If you are in that fallen order, you are not justified. Because when Christ died, that old state of affairs was put to death. And so too, when we were united to Christ, we were put to death with regard to that bondage to sin. And then we were raised into a new life - a life that is, as we have seen, marked by righteousness.

Where then is salvation in all of this? Salvation is what God has done in taking us from death to life. The good works are not the foundation of that salvation; rather, good works are the natural result, the mark, and the embodiment of it. The Confession quotes Jesus regarding the tree that bears good fruit. What bears good fruit, a thistle or a peach tree? The peach tree, of course. The logic is that you have to have the tree in order to have the fruit.

Now back to our picture of death and life. Paul depicts righteousness as the activity of life. It's like breathing. If you are dead, you don't breathe in order to become alive. You don't breathe at all. But if you were to be resurrected, what would happen? Well, you would breathe, of course. In fact, resurrection is the gift of breath, isn't it? Breathing is not the cause of resurrection or new life - but it is the indispensable result of it. If you don't breathe - well, you're just not living, are you?

So that is what Paul is saying here. If you have died with Christ and been raised with Him, the result is a newness of life, a life of righteousness.

And that is what is so insidious about our bumper sticker. "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven." Of course, Christians aren't perfect. That much is obvious. But "just forgiven"? Is that what salvation is? Just forgiveness? In other words, the gift of life is nothing more than forgiveness and nothing else changes?

That's not what Paul says. He pictures the gift of righteousness as God effecting a transfer from death to life, and that means a transfer from sin's lordship to the lordship or rule of righteousness. Notice again what he says in verses 14-16:

For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?

In other words: "Look, you can't claim to be risen with Christ and then 'live' like you're dead." Living people breathe. Dead people don't. Likewise, those outside of Christ are slaves to sin; those inside of Christ are slaves to righteousness. If you present your members to sin's mastery, then sin is your Lord, not Jesus. If you are sin's slave, you are not in the way of eternal life, but in the way of death. And on the other hand, if your are in Christ, then you are risen with Him into new life. You are a slave of obedience, leading to righteousness.

That, then, is the logic of this new life. It is not that your good works can somehow save you. But yet, obedience does lead to righteousness, Paul says here, while slavery to sin leads to death. Refusing to breathe is deadly; and yet breath is a gift. The wages of sin is still death; eternal life is nonetheless a free gift. That is not a contradiction; it is the logic of the new life which God has given us by grace.

It is no defense of grace to say that you can live like the devil and be forgiven and heaven-bound all the while. No, that is not a defense of grace, it is a reduction of grace. It strips the power from the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The gift of the gospel is forgiveness, yes - but it is a forgiveness that confers a transfer from death to life. It is a mockery of grace to live in death and call it life.

No, if we are to give glory to God, if we are to live out the rich gospel of Jesus Christ, we will not say "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven." Rather, we will say: "I am forgiven, and have been given a new life that was not possible to me before. I am not perfect; I have a long way to go; I am still weak and sinful in so many ways. But by God's grace, I am alive to righteousness; by God's grace, I am living a new life. I have already begun to taste the righteousness of life eternal."

That is the power of the gospel, which is a gospel of life.


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