New Testament Principles for Mercy Ministry

Last week I posted a short article titled, Social Justice as Obedience to God. Much to my disappointment more than a few people felt it was unclear and unnecessarily theological. Let me state for the record that I do not think “theological” implies complicated; Christians should be grappling with theological truth and its implications. This means the fault is mine. I will make another admission at the start of this article: I am far from finished in my thinking about the church’s responsibility to do social justice, or even what we mean by that phrase. So this post is not my attempt to pave a clear path forward. Instead I will briefly touch on a couple of New Testament passages and draw principles from them. 

social justiceBut before we get to that, let me outline my intentions for the previous article. I wrote it because I worry that many Christians today, particularly in the West, view people as little more than souls to be saved. They argue that the church’s mission is proclamation. Sure, most will concede that Christians are called to love their neighbours practically. The ways Christians can and ought to love others is hugely diverse. But strangely the corporate or organisational  church’s love is somehow understood differently. I am not sure there is New Testament support for this distinction. Instead I argued that the Christian (and church) pursuing a life that pleases God will love her neighbours in the broadest biblical sense. This love will be practical, generous and uncomfortable—in other words, it will be much more than evangelism.

The Epistle of James

There are no shortage of passages to turn to in support of thesis. But James is as directly challenging as any, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27). To avoid an overcorrection to the body-soul distinction I alluded to above, we should argue from this verse that both material or physical and emotional as well as spiritual care must be given. Read what James wrote a few verses later, “If someone is poorly clothed and lacking food, what good is it to send them away with your blessing without giving them what they need?” (2:16). The apostle John asked a similar question, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, 10). James highlights a point we tend to miss: our faith ought to be useful and good (2:14, 20).

True and living faith is tangibly fruitful, practical and visible. Christians should be concerned about more than simply the salvation of souls. If all we can offer is platitudes about heaven or merely stating that sin is our greatest issue we are drifting dangerously close to the faith that both James and John condemned. What are the principle here? New Testament faith is more than belief. Christianity cannot be unconcerned with people’s needs. There should be visible evidence of love expressed in the church as well as by it.

1 Timothy 5:3-16

When we recognise real need we must meet it (5:3, 5). This involves discernment. It also means first looking to the immediate family for support (5:4). I think, however, that the family mentioned are also believers, who must “put their religion into practice by caring”. Failing to meet the needs of our relatives is, quite shockingly, said to be a denial of our faith (5:8). The character of the widow is mentioned (5:9-10), indicating that she is known to the church, a devout Christian, and herself generous. The unpopular principle here is that nominal Christians looking to the church for a free ride should possibly be overlooked—or at the very least challenged over their own lack of works.

Once that is dealt with, 1 Timothy 5 calls on us to help those in our churches, just as we would help from those in our biological families. In 5:11-15 Paul says there are others who the church should not commit to giving permanent support, for they have the opportunity to remarry or work. Again, we can draw a principle from this: the church cannot be expected – nor is it required – to give to everyone who asks, not even if they belong to the church family. Finally, if those with needs are having them met by someone capable in the church already, other urgent needs exist where the church should allocate its resources (5:16).

Three principles from 1 Timothy 5

  1. The lordship of Christ demands meeting the needs of those in both our immediate family and the church family or household of God
  2. Mercy ministry must be discerning and measured. This includes asking if the beneficiary is able to receive help from elsewhere
  3. The church is not expected to alleviate every need it encounters

More principles in Galatians 6

In just a few verses (6:1-10), Paul rattles off what closely resembles a collection of proverbs. Though I encourage you to read the passage and epistle in its entirety, we can quite easily draw out a few practical principles:

  1. We fulfil the law of Christ – loving our neighbours (Matthew 22:34-40) – when we carry one another’s burdens (6:2; also see 5:13-14). We might be tempted to spiritualise this, making it about carrying emotional burdens. While I am sure the verse includes that interpretation, the physical and financial aspect cannot be denied, especially when we consider the following verses
  2. Bible teachers and the ministry staff should receive support from those that they serve, the local church they belong to (6:6; also see 1 Timothy 5:17-18)
  3. Proverbs 3:27, alluded to in Galatians 6:9, reads, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Though most of us would not kick against doing good to those whom it is due, I wonder if we fail to apply the command to practise mercy when it’s in our power to do so. The principle in 6:9 is simple: you do not reach the end of doing good to others
  4. Overlapping with the proverb above, Paul calls on us to do good whenever we have opportunity, especially those in our local church (6:10). There is no shortage of opportunities, both within and outside of our churches

Concluding Principles from 2 Corinthians 8-9

So much could be said about these two chapters in 2 Corinthians, but this blog post is fast becoming a lengthy paper. Let me highlight a couple of principles, focusing on the heart of the giver, those carrying out mercy or justice:

  1. Generosity is not the act of the wealthy but the generous (8:1-5). Paul tells the Corinthians how another group of believers, the Macedonians, gave according to their means in a time of severe affliction and even “extreme poverty”. 
  2. Flowing from the previous point, being generous with what we have, whether abundant or meagre, is an outworking of God’s grace (8:6-7), and true expression of Christian love (8:8, 24).
  3. This love, however, must be motivated by the gracious generosity and love of Christ, “Though he was rich…for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). 
  4. The gospel (above) means that giving under compulsion is not generosity. Paul says it must be willing (9:5), without reluctance (9:7); rather, it should be cheerful (9:7) and one of ways we express our gratitude towards God (9:12). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (9:15).

In conclusion, the above is far from conclusive. My modest hopes for this post and its predecessor was to bring Scripture to bear on questions about ministry mercy and social justice. Admittedly, most of the principles above apply primarily to mercy ministry (carried out within the local church) rather than social justice, which we might define as practising mercy towards those outside of the church. Taken together, I pray that these posts will impress on my readers that love should not be narrowly defined or made exclusive to spiritual needs. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.”

Pastor, God Grows Churches

God is LoveWhen I finished writing this post I had a toss up over what its title should be. So here is the alternative heading: Pastor, Neither Men Nor Methods Grow Churches. Theologically I am hugely indebted to Gerald Bray. This is true in part because in addition to being a world class scholar and superb writer he endeavours to make difficult theological concepts not only accessible but applicable and pastoral (see these two recent posts, on mixed-sex friendships and the Bible). In addition to the above, Bray is delightfully witty. These attributes were recently on display when Bray was asked a question about the church growth movement.

Bray asked us to imagine a conversation taking place soon after the events of Pentecost in Acts 2. A man says to his friend, “Hey, did you hear about Peter’s new church in Jerusalem?” “No,” replies the friend. “He’s doing incredible work there: 3000 conversions last week. It’s still really early but I heard he’s going to start offering seminars to outline his ministry model and impart strategic tips.” “Amazing. Do you know what books he’s been reading: Julius Caesar or Philo? Maybe Plato’s Republic.” “Let’s be honest, it’s definitely Julius Caesar. Everyone knows when he came to Rome it was a city of stone but he’s left it a city of marble.”

Bray’s point was simple. Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem resulted in 3000 conversions, but that incredible success had very little if anything to do with Peter. He was not a dynamic leader, visionary, or master strategist. In fact, he stumbles his way through the Gospel accounts and falls at the last hurdle—only to be graciously reinstated and commissioned by Christ. Peter did actually go on to write two books, or letters (1 Peter and 2 Peter), which tragically omit his secrets to successful ministry and church growth. Or did they? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Paul puts it another way, in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “God gave the growth…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 

Bray’s imagined conversation, which I have taken liberty to embellish, highlights a few related and dangerous trends in the church today. One, which I have highlighted in its own post, is the overemphasis of secular leadership principles. But it is a short step from enshrining corporate gurus to treating pastors in the same vein. Today coming from almost every corner, from social media to conferences and seminars, church leaders are being called to imitate more successful church leaders. As one friend often says to me, ‘Everyone is trying to clone success.’ This is because we wrongly attribute growth to men and women, to human strategies and ministry paradigm shifts. We forget what both Peter and Paul express clearly above: God grows churches. We forget what is evident in Acts 2: God saves sinners. Listen to F. F. Bruce on the latter passage, “Their numbers were constantly increased as more and more believers in Jesus were added by Him to the faithful remnant. It is the Lord whose prerogative it is to add new members to His own community; it is the joyful duty of the community to welcome to their ranks those whom Christ has accepted.” As John Piper often reminds us, ‘The one who does the work gets the glory.’ Therefore, even if only unwittingly, when we ascribe the growth of a church to men or methods we rob God of his glory.

Let me bring another passage from Acts to mind. In Acts 8, Peter and John lay hands and pray for the Spirit to descend onto the Samaritan believers. This episode is theologically laden so I will tread lightly. But notice how one bystander reacts. Observing their success, for the Spirit comes upon the Samaritans, Simon offers Peter and John money saying, “Give me this power” (Acts 8:18-19). Peter’s rebuke is fierce, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (8:20-21). I wonder if those would be Peter’s words for many today. Do we really think we can buy power or success, in the form of ministry strategies and newfangled models? Can we create growth through the imitation of powerful leaders and growth gurus?

Grace alone sola gratiaA few years back I showed a video series titled Echoes of the Reformation, to offer a crash course in reformation history and theology at my church. It was filmed as a table discussion between Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax. In the session on Sola Gratia (grace alone), one of the speakers says, “You’re not the centre of all things. You don’t have to be the center of all things. And you’ll never have the joy that you can have in Christ until you realise that that burden is not meant to be yours.” The danger today is that when we make men, strategies and models the centre of church growth we inadvertently begin to think the same thing about ourselves—that we are responsible. This is not merely an unbearable burden but an impossible and crushing expectation. Subtly, I wonder if it is the reason church leaders and pastors believe growth can be created or manipulated. Hear DeYoung, in the same video mentioned above, “If I know how to grow this church using means other than preaching the Word and prayer then I’m aiming at something different to what God desires.”

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Pastor, Imitate The Apostle Peter

When I began the pastor series I had nothing more than a handful of anaemic drafts and almost no direction. I have appreciated interacting with readers (often pastors) about those posts and thought that I was finished with them. But over the past few weeks I have been mediating on 2 Peter. Yes, there is a New Testament book titled 2 Peter, somewhere in the wilderness between Paul’s epistles and Revelation. Rereading this short epistle I have been struck by the apostle’s pastoral heart, particularly on display in 1:12-15. My intention for this short post is to unpack those verses.

PastorBefore we get to 1:12-15 let me offer a few comments on the epistle’s historical setting, which also shapes our understanding of what it means to be a pastor. 2 Peter seems to be written to combat theological error. This is implied as early as 1:16, where Peter refers to “cleverly devised myths.” These inventive errors are likely what lies behind Peter’s exhortation to live a certain way (1:3-11). He reminds them of his authority as an apostle (1:16-21), which he later extends to Paul (3:15-16). This authority is contrast with “false prophets [who] also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2:1). We cannot say precisely what these false teachers were preaching but 2 Peter 2 warns against licentious immorality, possibly being presented hand-in-hand with the denial of Christ’s promised return to judge (3:3-4). To summarise, Peter was writing in order to correct dangerous heresy that was poisoning the church’s faith, distorting their lives and witness (3:17-18). As Paul wrote in Titus 1:9, one of the elder’s functions is to refute error with sound doctrine.

It is with the above purpose or situation in mind that Peter wrote, “I intend always to remind you of these qualities [1:5-7], though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to stir you up by way of reminder…And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-13, 15; see 3:1-2). These verses are very unlikely to find their way into a church leadership seminar. They are not visionary or gripping. In fact, they are a little boring and uninspiring. But we should pay careful attention to this apostle’s aspirations. A few years ago I remember hearing a sermon on legacies. The preacher, a bishop over a large diocese and pastor of a church bordering on megachurch status, urged us to consider what kind of legacy we will leave behind. All these years later, I am struck at how far that man’s aspirations were from Peter’s. Aware of his imminent death (1:14), Peter outlines his desired legacy, his aspirations for the congregation he would soon leave behind.

“I intend always to remind you”

The word “remind” occurs throughout 2 Peter. The apostle understood his ministry as one of repeatedly calling Christians back to the simple truth. Even though they are established in their faith (1:12), he makes it his mission to continually remind them. The comfort and challenge of this observation is that Peter did not feel the lure of innovation, novelty and trends. I imagine most pastors are tempted by all of those and many have succumbed to them. But Peter saw his task as a pastor as teaching and reteaching. Of course, this does not mean Peter majored in the basics or that he was content with spiritual immaturity (see 1 Peter 2:2-3; also Hebrews 6:1). Yet he did not feel the need to move outside of the revelation of God in Christ, and all its entailments, promised in the Old Testament. Peter’s example is liberating. Pastor, imitate Peter by reminding your people of the truth and urging them to live in ways consistent with it.

“To stir you up”

In the verses preceding those we are focusing on, Peter lists a set of qualities or characteristics (1:5-7). These are to be added to our faith (1:5), as we depend on God’s gracious power and pursue godliness (1:3-4). But notice what Peter says about those qualities in 1:8, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful”. While the presence and propagation of godly characteristics mean productive Christian living, Peter delivers an uncomfortable point about their absence, “Whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (1:9). The Christian is incomplete apart from these things, perhaps even lacking assurance (1:10-11), therefore Peter seeks to stir his congregation up by way of reminder (1:13). It is important for us to note that he does not whip up fervour by something other than the truth. Godliness is inseparable from the gospel. We must hold these first two points together, for Peter did not desire mere morality. He longed to see believers so gripped by the gospel truth that their lives were utterly transformed.

“So that…you may be able to recall these things”

Finally, Peter’s did not aspire to be remembered. As we have seen above, his message pointed away from himself and translated into Christian maturity not personal recognition. There are no ambitions beyond that. Peter’s legacy was only that once he had put off his body his congregation would remember Christ. Admittedly I am venturing beyond what the text says when I imagine that Peter would happily have been forgotten. Because it was never about him. Pastor, what do you aim to leave behind? Does it hurt that you may not be remembered, that they might never name a youth hall or library after you? If it bothers you then seek to imitate Peter, as we meet him in 2 Peter. Here is a desirable, noble and God-honouring legacy to aspire for: that your congregation will be able to recall the truth you taught and continue living that truth out. Soli Deo Gloria.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Words of Eternal Life

After a particularly challenging sermon during Jesus’ earthly ministry we are told, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Some of Jesus’ followers found his teaching hard to hear and considered it an unbearable burden (6:60). After many of the crowd had left, Jesus invited “the twelve” to go with them (6:67). Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ invitation is one that I wish I believed as firmly as the apostle clearly did. He starts by answering Jesus’ question with his own question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (6:68). But notice that Simon Peter is not merely drawn to some aspect of Jesus’ personality. He cannot envision departing from Christ because, as he continues, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

Icon St PeterI wish I believed Peter’s words more often. Even now, as I am writing this blog post, it is the end of another day in which I have demonstrated that I do not believe God’s words to be significant, let alone the words of eternal life. Sure I am a full-time theological student, and I can ease my conscience by reminding myself that I spent the day poring over rich theology. But that does not mean I spent any time today treasuring Christ, or acting in such a way that imitates Peter’s convictions. Peter goes on to say, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). In the Gospels, despite his numerous failings and follies, Peter is a man devoted to Christ. In John 6 we see that his commitment to Christ brought with it a commitment to his words.

Earlier in the same section, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Of course, the Bible teaches us, as this passages does, that this life is tied to the work of God the Father (6:65), as well as the Holy Spirit (6:63). This observation should challenge Christians who imagine the Spirit to work separately from God’s Word, which I have done elsewhere. We could also make a Trinitarian observation here, that the work of the three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – are inseparable. But these segues would only distract us from the topic at hand: Jesus’ words give and sustain life; or as Peter understood, Jesus had the words of eternal life.

DevotionalUnfortunately, as is evident from my own experience and many readers’ too, I am sure, we struggle to appropriate this truth in at least two ways. The first is not a little ironic, we allow the busyness of life to keep us from the words of eternal life. Years ago I would frequent a second hand Christian book store not far from where I lived. The owner of that shop traded in the embarrassing acronyms sadly associated with Christians. One of his favourites was Bible: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I still shudder thinking about it. Peter was not hanging out with Jesus hoping for a couple of helpful throwaways and guidelines—certainly not acronyms. Peter clung to Jesus because his words were eternal life, spiritually sustaining and life changing in the present. I imagine if we told Peter that our lives are too busy to mediate on Jesus’ words he would be confused because those words are life.

Another way I often show I do not share Peter’s evaluation of God’s truth is when I am faced with other options. Unlike the above point, this occurs when I have too much rather than too little time. For example, it is Saturday afternoon and my son and wife are taking a nap. The way our weekends go it is likely that this is the only time I will get to myself on any given Saturday. What should I do with that time? I regularly struggle to give up that time because I wrongly turn to other life-giving things: recreational reading, exercise or blogging. Yes, those things are good gifts from God, and you likely have your own, but if Peter and Jesus are correct in our passage, are we overlooking one of God’s greatest gifts? Let us say with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life”. Then let us delight in them, be sustained by them and desire to know God better through his Word.

Why Bother With Church?

Why bother with church? Do I really need to attend this Sunday? Do you find yourself asking these question? Sunday rolls around and you can think of ten places you would rather be. For some, this apathy is the result of making church about ourselves, what we get out of it. So when the church service stops delivering we stop attending. I have challenged this consumerist view of church previously (here and here). But the primary reason many of us wonder about the value of attending church is that we have lost sight of God’s purpose for gathering his people, wrongly believing you can be a Christian but not a churchgoer. The problem is that I do not attend church following God’s directives, which is why gathering can feel pointless. In this short post I want to pick out two reasons to bother with your local church, from Hebrews 10.

Empty churchHebrews is one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. There is almost no agreement among scholars about when it was written, who wrote it, why it was written and who it was written to. Aside from the lack of those details crucial for interpretation, Hebrews arguably contains the most technical rhetoric, not to mention a truly bewildering structure. The unfortunate outcome of these challenges to understanding Hebrews is that it receives little airtime, outside of proof texting. Apart from 13:8 — “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” — and 1:1, the most quoted lines from Hebrews are, “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting meeting with each other” (10:24-25). It was actually one of the first sections of Scripture I attempted to memorise. But like many readers of Hebrews today I did not give due consideration to its context.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that these verses fall into the fourth and final warning section of the book—the others are 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; possibly 12:25-29. In 10:18 the author concludes the central exhortation of the epistle by emphasising that because of Christ’s singularly effective sacrifice: (a) sin is forgiven, (b) therefore no more sacrifices are necessary. His finished work is the cause of the Christian’s confidence to draw near and worship God (10:19-22), so we read, “Let us draw near” (10:22). But before we get to the verses we are reflecting on in this post we read, “Let us hold to the hope we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful” (10:23). After them the author writes, “If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). It is a terrifying warning. It is the negative implication of 10:18. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness of sins, because no sacrifice for sin remains. It is within this larger section that the imperative to keep meeting together and encouraging each other is located. The day is approaching (10:25), so we cannot give up meeting and reminding each other of that day, urging each other to persevere. Those who turn away from Christ’s sacrifice have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment (10:27).

Empty churchLinked to the above is the idea that church attendance is active, not passive. The author is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians. “Consider how to spur one another on to love and good works…encouraging one another” (10:24-25). We saw above that this encouragement in intended to strengthen faith, helping our brothers and sisters persevere, but is one of your aims when meeting with other Christians to spur them on towards love and good works? I know that I fail on all accounts, regularly. Perhaps it is because the church is rife with consumerism or nominalism. However, the reason it is not true in my own life is simply that I do not obey God’s directive in Hebrews 10. Or, on the other hand, I have grabbed the convenient meaning in these verses — do not skip church — but ignored the responsibility given to me by God to: minister to other Christians. You may think that is the role of the pastor or preacher, but only if you ignore the obvious sense of these verses.

To summarise, we must commit to meeting with our local church for two reasons. Firstly, believers are in danger of giving up. All of us are regularly drawn away from Christ. The Christian life is hard, which is why God provides brothers and sisters to hold us accountable, to spur each other on as the day approaches. Secondly, this is the task given to all believers. If you feel that no one would miss you if you stopped attending your church it is probably because you are not actively ministering to others. We must reclaim God’s vision for church gatherings. Every Christian must remember that the Christian life is fraught with temptations to walk away. So let us consider how to spur one another on.

Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.