Romans 8v1-11               The Fifth Sunday After Trinity                   12th July 2020                                                                       

On the Day of Pentecost, 1738 Charles Wesley had his conversion experience. He wrote in his journal ‘that the Spirit of God chased away the darkness of my unbelief’.  Scholars debate which was the first hymn he wrote after his conversion, but the most likely hymn is ‘And can it be that I should gain an int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?’ with its chorus telling of Wesley’s wonder of the amazing love of God:  ‘Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?’

When I began this series of sermons in Romans on the First Sunday After Trinity I mentioned this hymn which tells a deeply personal story of his own conversion. In v4 of the hymn he tells of his experience of the release he felt knowing that in Christ Jesus he was eternally safe in the everlasting arms of God, and his realisation of God’s amazing love for him:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night;                                                                                                              thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;                                                                                                        my chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose went forth, and followed thee.                                                                                          Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Our granddaughter at the age of about 4 used to ask lots of questions. ‘Grandpa why is your face so prickly?’  ‘Why is soap so slimy?’  ‘How can God see everyone in the whole world at the same time?’  It reminded me of the story of a father and his little daughter sailing to the United States.  They were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the little girl asked her daddy, ‘does God love us as much as we love mummy?’  Yes, he replied.  ‘God’s love is the biggest thing there is’.  ‘How big,’ asked the child?  ‘I’ll tell you how big,’ he said.  ‘Look across the sea, look up, look down.  God’s love is so big that it stretches round us further than all this water.  It’s higher than the blue sky above us. It’s deeper than the depths of the sea beneath us.’  The child thought for a moment and then turned to her father and said ‘daddy, we’re right in the middle of it’. .  Amazing love, how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

I commented last week that in Chapter 7  of Romans, Paul writes about God’s law, the moral law, the Ten Commandments – and of our inability to keep the law – because of our sin. And Paul writes as though there is a conflict, a civil war going on inside him. ‘the good that I want to do, I don’t do; and the evil I don’t want to do is the very thing I do’.  In our own strength we are helpless to keep God’s law, we need God’s help. Interestingly in the whole of Chapter 7 there is no mention of God’s Holy Spirit.

By contrast todays passage in Romans 8:1-11 is a passage about Life in the Spirit, indeed the Spirit is mentioned 11 times in these 11 verses.  Chapter 8 begins: ‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’, words on which Charles Wesley based the last verse of his great hymn ‘And can it be’. He wrote ‘No condemnation now I dread, Jesus and all in him, is mine’. That is Good News and Paul goes on to explain in  8:2-4 ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death’. For God has done what the law, weakened by the 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’.  

Through his death on the cross Jesus cleansed us from our guilt and by the presence of his Spirit he breaks the power of sin within us –  but Paul goes on to say says that this demands a response from us – ‘that we walk not according to the flesh but according to  the Spirit or ‘that we live according to God’s Spirit and not according to our human nature.’ v4 GNB.   And yet, and yet ‘the good that I want to do, I don’t do; and the evil I don’t want to do is the very thing I do’. We too experience the conflict.

Then Paul says in v5 ‘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’. It is a case of where our priorities lie, the ‘things of the flesh’ or ‘the things of the Spirit’. ‘The flesh’ in this instance has been defined as ‘the sin-dominated self’, a life focussed on self.  Sin is a small word with a big ‘I’ in its centre. I recall a little ‘ditty’ I learnt at my Confirmation Class many years ago:

‘I gave a little tea party, this afternoon at three.                                                                                                                                                  ’twas very small, three guests in all, I, myself and me.                                                                                                                                         Myself ate all the sandwiches, while I drank all the tea.                                                                                                                                    ’twas also I who ate the pie, and passed the cake to me.’

On the other hand the ‘things of the Spirit’ refers to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit-controlled life, the life which is Filled with the Spirit, the life which displays the Fruit of the Spirit, the life which uses those Gifts of the Spirit which God has given to us. (Read about the ‘Works of the Flesh’ in Galatians 5v16-21 and ‘The Fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5v22-26.)

There is a spiritual civil war going on inside us.  This is why, in Ephesians 6, Paul tells us to put on the armour of God, so that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. ‘put on the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, feet ready to proclaim he gospel of peace, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, etc’.  It is as though the old self clings to me and I am always tempted to drift back into the bad old ways.  Even Paul himself said ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ 7v19.  That was his experience, and I guess the experience of each one of us.

But Paul can say no condemnation because God has acted in his Son and gives new life to all who have faith in Christ.  No condemnation because we are in ‘Christ Jesus’.  No condemnation because the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free. God says to us ‘No condemnation’Amazing love, how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

This love of God for all who are in Christ Jesus is a summary of the whole Christian faith. Our aim as Christians is to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Yet we always live in the Romans 7-8 situation. Our human nature always bobbing up and getting in the way of this goal of the love of God dominating our lives through his Spirit.

As we read the N.T. we see the disciples arguing amongst themselves, being ambitious, arguing over who was the greatest, being critical of each other. Many problems arose in the early churches, which is why the Letters to the Churches were written to them. But never once did Jesus withdraw his love from them. Neither does he withdraw his love from us. Hold on to that!

In the Alpine Museum in Zermatt Switzerland, is a broken rope.  It is a very thick, stout rope, it looks very strong, but it failed at a critical moment.  The story behind the rope is about a group of mountaineers who in 1865 climbed the Matterhorn.  They got to the top alright, spent an hour up there enjoying the views, then re-roped themselves for the journey down.  As they were coming down, one man slipped and knocked another and they both fell down the mountain.  But they were roped together by this thick rope, and two experienced climbers aware of what was happening stood firm, and braced themselves   The rope ran its length until all the slack was gone, but instead of holding firm the rope snapped, and the 2 climbers fell 4,000ft to their death.  Later the rope was examined and found not to be a genuine Alpine Club rope.  They are distinguishable by a red strand running through them.  This rope did not have that red strand.

The love of God runs like a red strand through the heart of the Bible. This love is seen supremely in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Our salvation is through accepting Jesus as our personal Saviour.  That is the unbreakable cord, trusting in a substitute will not stand the strain of our sin. Every substitute will break when it is needed most. But ‘there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.

Wesley’s assurance comes in the last verse of the hymn. It was the realisation that ‘No condemnation now I dread’, enabled him to move from: ‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night’, to:

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine!                                                                                                                           Alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine,                                                                                                                    bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

                                                                                                                                  Colin Wood