It is true that everything pertinent to life and godliness are currently in my possession (cf. 2 Pt. 1:3). In reality I struggle mightily to truly live and do so in a godly manner.
It is true that everything God could not stand about me—all of my sins, as well as my sinful, ungodly nature, and wicked heart—was crucified with Jesus Christ, i.e. killed (cf. Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20). The reality of this is that I often live as though my sinful self was fully alive, powerful, and functioning.
It is true that I am a new person in Christ Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). All that was old, disgusting, rebellious, and dark toward God is no more. In reality, I feel like the old creature hounds me, at times like a dog hot on my trail, and the temptation to live in darkness is overwhelming.
It is true that I am accepted because I am part of Christ’s life, a child of God, included in God’s estate, and declared by Him holy, blameless, and secure (cf. Rom. 8:17; Col. 1:22; 3:4). In reality, I struggle to believe that there is nothing I can do to either improve upon or diminish this standing and position that are mine.
It is true that I have been sanctified, set apart, and declared important to God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11). In reality, I labor each day to grasp what this means. On my good days, I comprehend more of the sanctification that is mine in Christ. On my bad days, I am tempted to throw myself under the bus to save God the trouble.
When what is true and what is real are treated synonymously my life is governed by what I sense, not what I hold preeminent by faith.
It is true that I live by faith (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7). In reality, it feels as though I survive by my wits, shrewdness, and street savvy. Faith is for Sundays, Bible studies, Christian small group, and for those times when spiritual lingo is expected.
I don’t have much trouble believing what is true—hardly any trouble at all, come to think about it. But in reality, I labor mightily to implement, execute, and demonstrate in real time what is truly true.
When this incongruity occurs between truth and reality, I am susceptible to diminish what is true and think it irrelevant—even impotent—to influence my reality. If I’m not careful, when what is true and what is real get confused inside my soul, then Scripture becomes suspect, God doubtful, the Holy Spirit a shadow, and the work of Christ merely philosophical.
In short, when what is true and what is real are treated synonymously my life is governed by what I sense, not what I hold preeminent by faith. My spiritual life becomes weak and irrelevant.
When Paul declares, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2. Cor. 5:7), he is exhorting us, and counseling us, in how to manage truth such that reality is influenced. Reversing this, i.e. living by experience, dictates that faith will be as fickle as my day to day reality is. James weighed in regarding this practice with the famous simile, “The one who doubts [fails to live by faith] is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6).
Spiritual truth, taken by itself—like when studying theology or hearing a sermon—is magnificent. Astounding, really. As Jay Kessler said, “Only God would try this on us.” We are accustomed to conversing about God’s big ideas inside spiritual circles, but many of them are outrageous—like being declared righteous (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).
We might as well discuss the neighborhood we are going to live in on Mars. “I want a wrap-around porch so I can see the red geography.” It makes for stimulating conversation, but as soon as I say, “Okay. Let’s pool our resources. It will take cashing out all our investments and buying space suits. I know a guy at Army-Navy Surplus whose brother lives in Huntsville and knows a guy at NASA in Houston. I’ll text him….” As soon as real dollars are on the table, the fun conversation is tested against reality.
Believing biblical truth is neither taxing nor transformative. It’s just interesting. In fact, the demons believe—and even tremble, so great is their conviction (cf. Jm. 2:7). But nothing comes of their belief. The next verse says why: Faith that is not implemented—acted upon—is pointless, i.e. lacking any meaningful function, as good as dead, notional.
The challenge is to convert truth into reality.
Talk is cheap. I recently heard a wonderful sermon, filled with exemplary theology, and four or five declarations of spiritual truth. But for each theological truth declared, the speaker leveled derision regarding the struggle to implement the truth into real practice.
Paul tells us, “You have died” (Col. 3:3)—past tense, done deal. Then he says, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31)—obviously, this dying is progressive by the day. The sermon I heard would herald the truth of the Colossians passage and castigate as bad theology the Corinthians passage.
If the Corinthians passage was outlining theology, it would indeed be bad theology in that it contradicts Galatians 2:20 and Romans 6:6, et al. But Corinthians is not describing a theological truth. Paul is expressing the experiential reality of daily considering himself dead based upon the theological truth that he is crucified with Christ.
This is a truth that is always true, but that is the dickens to apply consistently. That Paul struggles to apply the truth says everything about his earthly reality without diminishing the spiritual truth an iota. Describing his experiential struggle, Paul says, “I die daily.” The reason he even makes the statement is because he knows what is theologically true, i.e. he died with Christ (Gal. 2:20).
Truth is one thing. Application of truth into reality is another.
Have you noticed the low tolerance for struggle, and doubt, and weak, compromised faith inside Christian circles? We quickly verbalize party lines on prayer, care, and support, but sadly, as someone noted, the Christian army is the only army that bayonets their own wounded.
I don’t think the pastor I heard meant to bayonet the wounded in his audience, but he did. He was clearly indignant over the bad theology of progressive sanctification, dying daily, continual surrender, and… well, he was irritated that all of us within the sound of his sermon were struggling to implement faith and make truth a reality.
Here’s the deal: Theological truth and the journey to apply theological truth into reality are two, different things. Truth is a standard, reality is an experience.
I recently heard a Christian teacher endorse what I had hoped was a dead notion regarding Romans 7. Sadly, he has resurrected a terrible piece of exegetical work. Romans 7 is a challenging chapter in the Bible, not so much because of what it says as where it is located, i.e. in between Romans 6 and Romans 8.
Romans 6 is one of the most glorious, theological declarations in Scripture. In the space of eleven verses, Paul resolves the monstrous problem of our being dead to God because of our lineage to Adam and declares us alive to God because of our being identified in Christ Jesus. It is the primary passage from which the Doctrine of Justification comes.
I could write my version of Romans 7 most days of any week.
Romans 8 is filled with matching magnificence to Chapter 6. It concludes (vss. 37-39) with the terrific statement of conviction, “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Wow! It doesn’t get much better than these two chapters, does it?
But in between Paul’s two greatest chapters lies the despondency of Romans 7. “For what I am doing, I do not understand.” “I know that nothing good dwells in me.” “The good that I wish, I do not do.” “Wretched man that I am!” Jeepers. It’s just discouraging to read.
Contrasted against the victory of Romans 6 and 8, the pastor-teacher was indignant over the despondency of Romans 7. So disgusted in fact that he declared his belief that Romans 7 was not written by the Apostle Paul but by the lost Pharisee Saul, the man who would become Paul after his salvation. The teacher was telling his audience, by implication, “It is unthinkable that Paul could write the truths of Romans 6 and Romans 8, and then as a victorious Christian, fall so hard against reality that he pens Romans 7. Consequently, I’m declaring that the author of this despondent, discouraged confession has to be lost” (and anyone else who struggles like this, must be lost as well, by implication).
The sermon referenced, and the teaching just mentioned, were whippings to listen to. Tie me to a post and flog me, Rev. Theologian.
The cold reality is, I could write my version of Romans 7 most days of any week. You could too
And so could the Apostle Paul. He was no more lost when he wrote Romans 7 than he was when he wrote Romans 6. Like all of us, he was simply a devoted follower of Jesus Christ trying to make his reality conform to what he knew was true.
Romans 6 is theological truth. Romans 7 is Paul laboring to make Romans 6 real in the cauldron of life, what he later labeled the battle between flesh and spirit. Romans 8 reflects reality, i.e. his personal application and celebration of truth applied through the catalyst of his struggle in Romans 7.
Truth that is applied—faith put into action, belief that is implemented—produces confidence that conforms and informs our reality.
Developed a bit more: The glory of Romans 5-8 is this: Romans 5 presents a God-sized problem that damns all of us unless there is divine intervention. Romans 6 lays out the truth of how God justifies granting life to us who were once dead. Romans 7 lays out in transparent candor, a) the spiritual battle that ensues given God’s intervention and our transformation, and b) the struggle to bring into daily, experiential reality what is true in Chapter 6, aka the battle between flesh and spirit. Romans 8 declares the resolution of Romans 6 stated and applied upon the forge of Romans 7.
Simply, you cannot fully comprehend nor enjoy the convictions stated in 8 without the truth of 6 and the real struggle of 7.
It isn’t good enough to know the truth, believe the truth, teach the truth, or write about the truth. As the demons are demonstrating, you can believe, tremble at the truth of your theology, and go to hell (cf. Jm. 2:19).
But truth that is applied—faith put into action, belief that is implemented—produces confidence that conforms and informs our reality. In this way, we live by faith, not by sight. In this way, we work out our salvation, i.e. figure out what truth looks like when applied in the reality of life on earth (cf. Phil. 2:12).
The experience of Romans 7 is not a falling from the grace of God. The daily struggle to remember and live from the conviction that I died with Christ (Rm. 6:6) is not a failure to agree with the finality of being crucified with Christ. Laboring, either successfully or unsuccessfully, to apply truth to reality in no way diminishes the truth. It only underscores the need for the Holy Spirit’s strength to live true in reality.
Life in Christ looks like this—over and over and over again: I fix my eyes on what is true (about God, about me, etc.). Then, in the power of the Spirit, I engage the application process of matching reality to what I know is true. If reality doesn’t match what is true, I adjust my assessment of reality. This is faith applied, and in all candor, faith must be applied constantly.
Think about driving down the highway: What is true is the highway; it is constant. What is real is that you are always making steering adjustments to make certain your driving reality follows what is true.
What is true is contained in solid theology. What is real is how I apply the truths contained in solid theology.
For the record, what is true and what is real often do not align. This is what bothered the preacher about Romans 7. An honest reading of Romans 7 reveals that Romans 7 bothered Paul as well. But unlike the preacher who felt the truth of Romans 6 threatened, Paul stayed with what he knew to be true in Romans 6 until the reality of Romans 7 dawned. When it did, he wrote in v. 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” From the revelation evident in that exclamation point, Paul summarizes beginning in 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Truth is absolute. Reality is in flux.
Live by reality, and you will live in flux. Live by reality and try to formulate a theology based upon reality and you will be classed with the philosophers known as relativists.
But identify what is true—truly, absolutely, irrevocably, unchangeably true—and begin living such that your reality is guided by truth, and you will be transformed experientially. Really! Said the other way around, you will progressively experience in reality what is already true absolutely.
I’ve written to put your mind at ease.
God’s truths are true, of you and for you, right now. All of them, in totality, without reservation, or promises to come. It is true that you are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. You will never be more right with God, nor more righteous in His eyes, than you are this moment. He said so in His book and pledged so upon His honor.
It is also a fact that what is true can do you no good. Belief by itself is not helpful.
Further, it is also a fact that when you apply what is true to daily life, there will be incongruity. This incongruity is not bad theology as the preacher preached, it is testimony that we are fundamentally and truthfully transformed. Bringing this transformation to bear upon life is what the Bible calls the battle between the flesh and the spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16ff) and this battle is real.
It would have been cruel of God to grant Paul the theological truth of Romans 6 without the application opportunity of Romans 7. Without the struggle to apply truth upon reality that is portrayed in Romans 7, there is limited joy in Romans 8.
What is true, is true. What is real is that we struggle to apply what is true.