On the basis of what God said to Israel regarding the way of their possession of the promise, it is safe to conclude that the kingdom of God is a gradualism. I mean by that, that our experiential consciousness or realisation of the possession of that kingdom is a matter of growth- and growth is progressive and takes place within a definite process. It is this reality of gradualism I want us to consider in relation to these words in Romans, which have been the centre of so much, shall I say, “lively debate” down through the years.
Some considerations from Romans:
The book of Romans is a truly amazing document, and is often described as the book in which the ‘gospel of the grace of God’ is set forth. The good news is you do not need to understand Romans to be saved, but equally I would suggest that you will never understand the gospel of your salvation without some understanding of this book.
Look at Rom.1:5 and 16:26: ‘through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,’
…but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith;
Notice that in the beginning and at the end of the book there is reference to the obedience of faith. What we discover between these two references concerning the gospel of the grace of God is that the grace of God demands the obedience of faith to the gospel.
The teaching that grace excuses disobedience in the name of faith is contrary to the scripture. Grace, faith, and obedience can never be separated.
TIT 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
Notice with much care that the demanded obedience of the gospel of the grace of God is the obedience of faith- which is to say it is an obedience generated in us by a true and living faith within our spirit- as opposed to a learned behaviour, maintained by the self-energy of the soul.
The second great discovery between these two verses is that the same grace which demands obedience to the gospel secures that obedience by its powerful working in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
This may be a bit simplistic, but at least at some core level the book of Romans can be expressed in three words- sin, salvation, and exaltation. From Rom.1:18 to Rom.3:20 we have an incredible picture of universal sin. From Rom.3:21 to the end of Rom.4 we are given a brilliant expression of the gospel of the grace of God, by which we have received salvation. And then notice how chapters 5,6,7, and 8 end: (chpt.5) ‘eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (chpt.6) ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (chpt.7) ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…’ (chpt.8) ‘nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Notice the progression from sin to salvation through the gospel of the grace of God to the exaltation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Please note that the phrase- Jesus Christ our Lord- is not just a phrase, but is a declaration of the Lordship of Christ. This fact of His lordship is set forth in relation to the reality of man’s sin and the salvation of the gospel of the grace of God. In other words it is the lordship of Jesus Christ that saves me from my sins- and there is no truth to the idea that He can be my savour apart from being my Lord.
The whole fact of salvation rest upon the Lordship of Christ. To dilute the demands of that lordship is to pervert the grace of God. But beyond this, it is to limit the infinite potential of the grace of God in our experience.
Against the background of these brief considerations let me bring you to these words from Rom.7:18-19- For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
Who in this house can identify with these words of the apostle?
This is what I call the ultimate articulation of frustration. And the question at the heart of this presentation this morning is this- ‘How are we to understand or interpret (not only these words) but the experience they define in relation to what the apostle already stated concerning the glorious gospel of the grace of God and the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ?’
In times past you have heard me use the term ‘the frustration gasp’. Let me refresh your memory regarding the origin of that term- at least its origin in terms of my discovery of it.
The decade of the sixties has become known as ‘the decade of unrest in America’. Those who have considered this period of American history pretty much agree that this time was extremely dangerous and threatened the very stability of the nation.
One sociologist who wrote about this referred to the frustration gap as being the major contributor to the issue of unrest. According to his thought, the ghetto had become conscious of suburbia. The advent of television had done something that books and radio could not do; it brought suburbia to the ghetto.
The frustration gap was the distance between what the man in ghetto saw on the television and what his real life experience was. He now wanted suburbia, but was confined to his ghetto. This was true socially, educationally, and economically.
I would suggest this morning that this is also true spiritually- and that this portion of scripture in Romans has caught the essence of that frustration: for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
How do we deal with this?
The first very obvious answer is that we turn off the television and stop reading. We tell ourselves that suburbia doesn’t really exist. We limit our vision to our ghetto. We return to the narrowness and false security of the womb. We restrict our hope to present experience- which, of course, is to live without hope. We stop reaching because what we are reaching for always exceeds our grasp.
Or to state it in the words of the biblical text- we refuse to recognise the good we want to do because of the evil we do not want to do.
But Rom.7:19 is not written to fill the reader with despair and hopelessness. In this very positive document of the gospel of the grace of God, this portion of the document must also have a positive interpretation. That shift begins with a change of terminology. What if the ‘frustration gap’ becomes the ‘gestation gap’?
We all know what gestation is- pregnancy; that period between conception and birth. This period is extremely critical in the ‘ongoingness’ of life- and it is all about change or necessary adjustment.
There are physical, psychological, and spiritual changes on the part of the mother. There are changes brought to the physical setting into which what is being birthed is to be brought. And, of course, and perhaps most importantly of all, there are the changes occurring within that which is developing within the secret place.
To interfere with that process of gestation is to run the risk of miscarriage. Our impatience with the conception and development of Christ in ourselves and others has led to many spiritual miscarriages- or at best to a great deal of artificial fruit.
The apostle Paul groaned out of a deep spiritual reality: ‘My little children of whom I travail again until Christ be formed in you.’
Jesus illustrated this principle of growth- which I am calling ‘gradualism’- when He referred to-“ first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.”
And then He added, what has become for me, the most critical part of what He said- “we know not how.”
I see a couple of things here: First, the core of our basic frustration lies in the fact that we do not know how this program of fruitfulness really works. Secondly, the fact that we don’t know, makes this whole progression from the ghetto to suburbia a journey or movement of faith.
Consider how God dealt with Abraham. First, “I will show you a land.” Second, “I will give you a land.” Third, ‘And into the land of Canaan they came.’
We need to understand that what God speaks today seldom appears tomorrow. And in keeping with this thought of gestation, and the gradualism of growth and development, it is illustrated all around us.
For instance, the gestation period for a mouse is about nine days. The gestation period for an elephant is about twenty months. Given the choice, we would all choose the mouse rout. But there is a far more important factor here- and that factor is that the length of the gestation period is a prophetic indicator of the significance of what is being birthed in you- a mouse, or an elephant.
My whole point this morning is simply that the frustration gap is a normal and natural, and quite unavoidable reality of growth. It is an evidence that we have refused to be satisfied with present experience- with the statuesque. It indicates that we are seeing beyond where we are- that we are beholding where we have not yet arrived. And the glory of what we see is of such a nature that it creates a certain Godly discontent, a certain and essential frustration with present reality and position.
As frustrating as it may be to reach for “spiritual suburbia” it is a deadly and no-win situation to close our eyes and ears to all that is beyond present settledness.
The Bible makes it clear that Christ is our High Priest. The same Bible also makes it clear that the high priest could only offer to God the offering brought by the worshiper. The priest had no authority to alter the offering.
If we confess Christ before men- guess what?- Christ confesses us (or the way I like to put it) Christ confesses my confession before the Father. This means that despite the distance between my confession of faith and my experiential possession of that confession, I refuse to compromise that confession and expectation of faith- for to do so is to limit or to stagnate the possibility of reaching that which my true faith has envisioned.
I use the terminology “true faith” deliberately because there is a world of difference between my true faith and the mere wish list of my religious soul. And though there’s a world of difference between the two, the line is not so easily discerned.
Noah heard a word and believed- and for the next one hundred and twenty years reached (through the obedience of his faith) in the direction of that heard word.
Abraham heard a word and believed- and for the next twenty five years reached (through the obedience of his faith) in the direction of that heard word.
Moses heard a word in his youth, and having reached for it through the arm of flesh, and having failed- spent the next forty years in the wilderness until he was brought back to it through a meeting at a burning bush that did not burn.
Joseph hear a word in a dream and for the next thirteen years reached (through the obedience of his faith) in the direction of that heard word.
David heard a word a word about ruling and for about the next twenty years reached (through the obedience of his faith) in the direction of that heard word.
Rom.7:19- Evil is part of the ghetto of my flesh- but in the deepest part of me (the true self) I am conscious of good. My resolve is to perpetually reach for that good- and though I am slow to recognize it- through the power of the Holy Spirit I am growing up into that good.