How to change the world, without trying

gladIf you’re a fan of the movie, Gladiator, you might remember the elderly emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The movie was, of course, historical fiction, but here’s a piece of real history — a letter thought to have been written to Marcus’ tutor, when Marcus was a young boy, circa A.D. 130. The letter was written to give an account of Christians, and is believed to have been written by a direct disciple of the apostles, perhaps one of Paul’s. Unfortunately, history records that Marcus was hostile toward Christians, especially toward the end of his reign. But as we read, the early Christians rejoiced as ‘men who receive life‘ in the midst of their persecution. The early church, in the first couple of centuries, had no thought of transforming this present world through earthly government — they only had a ‘theology of suffering’, yet their lifestyle and sacrifice changed the hearts of men over the whole known world.

Chapter 5
For the distinction between Christians and other men, is neither in country nor language nor customs. For they do not dwell in cities in some place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the intellect or thought of busy men, nor are they the advocates of any human doctrine as some men are. Yet while living in Greek and barbarian cities, according as each obtained his lot, and following the local customs, both in clothing and food and in the rest of life, they show forth the wonderful and confessedly strange character of the constitution of their own citizenship. They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. They marry as all men, they bear children, but they do not expose their offspring. They offer free hospitality, but guard their purity. Their lot is cast “in the flesh,” but they do not live “after the flesh.” They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven. They obey the appointed laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all men. They are unknown and they are condemned. They are put to death and they gain life. “They are poor and make many rich” they lack all things and have all things in abundance. They are dishonored, and are glorified in their dishonor, they are spoken evil of and are justified. “They are abused and give blessing,” they are insulted and render honor. When they do good they are buffeted as evil-doers, when they are buffeted they rejoice as men who receive life. They are warred upon by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks, and those who hate them cannot state the cause of their enmity.
– Epistle to Diognetus, from Lake’s Apostolic Fathers in English

The Alternating Conscience

conscienceWe get a glimpse of how the conscience works in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in chapter 2:14-15.

But Paul uses a progressive argument all the way through to chapter 8, so everything he says up to that point, has to be considered as “not the end of the story”. At the end of chapter 8, he concludes that section with the real point that he wants to make, and we might as well look at that now, just so we know where we’re going:

If God is for us, who is against us? (verse 31)
He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything?

Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? (verse 33)
God is the One who justifies.

Who is the one who condemns? (verse 34)
Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? (verse 35)
Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:37–39)

So that’s the point of Romans, up to chapter 8. God does not condemn, he justifies. Jesus was the one who died and was raised – He took our own condemnation on himself. Now he intercedes for us, on our behalf.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, no anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness (shame) or even those who want to kill us for our faith.
Jesus is our victory. It is through his love for us that we are victorious. It’s worth noting that there is a tie-in here also with Romans 7. The careful reader will see that when Paul says “Who is the one who condemns?” that he’s pointing back to his own struggle in doing what he doesn’t want to do.

I remember having a moment of epiphany several years ago – I realized I am not my own victory, Jesus is! Now I am free to have unbroken union with the Father.

But there’s this little problem – the conscience – and it’s important to see something here, to learn a little about how it works, so we can be wise to its ways inside our heads.

In explaining why both Jews and Gentiles are accountable to God, Paul shows that it is the contract of keeping commands for righteousness that is what brings everyone under condemnation. Trying to be right with God based on what we do! This was the promise the Israelites made to God in their part of the legal contract of Moses – “tell us what to do, we will do it all, and we will do it all diligently, and it (our doing) will be our righteousness” (my paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:25 and Deuteronomy, chapter 28)

But what about the Gentiles? They were never given the law of Moses. Paul’s argument is that they show the same work of the law (condemnation) written in their hearts because their conscience alternately accuses or excuses them. Because Gentiles have a conscience, they’re in the same boat with those who have the law — condemned. All the world is accountable to God.

Here’s the section I’m talking about, in Romans 2:14-15

So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts will either accuse or excuse them (Romans 2:14–15, HCSB)”

This idea of alternating accusing and excusing struck me as odd one day. I realized that’s what other people do, when I heard them in conversations. I’m a little dense sometimes, so it took a little while for me to make the connection that I do the same thing! Funny, everyone else does something, but I don’t always think of myself as “like those other people”. Excuse-making!

Watch this in other people, then once you see it, reflect on yourself too, and see what I mean. Here’s what to watch — listen to people, hear people talk, and watch what happens when you see an *accusation* come someone’s way, perhaps from their friend, co-worker or a relative. It’s an almost fail-safe guarantee that what you will see immediately after the accusation is some form of excuse. Sometimes it’s an automatic response. Sometimes you won’t hear the excuse until the accuser leaves the area. When you hear it, it might sound something like one of these phrases:

I can’t help it;

I was born that way;

I was raised that way;

Everybody else does it;

It’s no big deal;

Who are you to judge me?;

Those people are hypocrites;

I don’t care.

I say to watch others for the simple fact that it’s often easier to have a higher degree of objectivity with other people. We all tend to think of ourselves in our own guarded ways … subjectively. But when we see things in other people, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that if everyone else has this problem, then we must have it too. Then we’re able to have an honest conversation with ourselves.

After looking at others, ask yourself, “What do I do when I am accused by someone of something?” But go a little deeper and ask, “What do I do when I accuse myself of something?” What does my inner dialogue sound like when my conscience does the “work of the law” inside me. Do I make an excuse, or do I accept the charge?

Here’s the thing — we are all self-righteously programmed to do the same thing the Israelites did with Moses. Tell me what to do, I will do it, and it will be my righteousness. If we have a problem with the doing, we have two options;

1) resist the standard by lowering the bar of acceptability, or

2) make an excuse.

In reality, both options are a form of excuse-making, since the first option is really just making the excuse that there is no higher standard for us other than the one we can keep; We can be kind to Trump, but Hillary deserves all our scorn. Hillary is the blessed Virgin Mary, but Donald is evil incarnate. What about “treating everyone like we’d want to be treated” (even our enemies).

This is where the gospel comes in to meet our conscience head-on. This is the whole point of why some of our friends are Jesus-Freaks and we just don’t get it. The Good News is that we don’t have to lower the bar, the standard of righteousness, anymore. We are now free to be really, truly, for the first time, honest with ourselves! We can accept the charge from friends, foes, and our own conscience that there’s something wrong with us without making an excuse. Now, our conscience can bring a charge against us and we are 100% free to agree with it! Why? How? Because now our righteousness is no longer self-righteousness, it is Christ’s righteousness!

“…through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” Romans 5:18b

“…through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:19b

“The Law (or ‘conscience’ for the Gentile) came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” Romans 5:20

“so that, as sin reigned in death, even so __grace would reign through righteousness__ to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:21

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2nd Corinthians 5:21

Now that Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness, we are free from condemnation. We are free from the death of our own conscience. There’s no need to excuse ourselves any longer. And we are free from the accusations of others — because we accept the charges as legitimate. We can do this even when another person’s accusation isn’t legitimate, because who cares! They accuse, but God makes us righteous in Christ. Sometimes other people make accusations against us as part of their own excuse-making, but so what! We are free from the death of their accusation because we have died to self-righteousness. We are free to do so, because our righteousness is not our own! We don’t need others to think highly of us – God thinks highly of us!

The rest of Romans, up to chapter 8, deals with the faithfulness of Christ, how our faith connects us to his faithfulness, and how grace doesn’t cause us to live like the devil, because those who are united with Christ are united with him in both his death and his resurrection. But even so, there are real struggles. Our spirits are new and we have a new mindset, a new attitude, a new paradigm. We filter things differently. We think differently, but our bodies are old and not yet redeemed. In our new, holy attitude, we desire to do what is right, but don’t always find ourselves doing it. What’s the answer? Make another excuse? No, the answer is “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, i.e., those joined with him in his death, a death to the old way of thinking and doing, death to self-righteousness, ignorance of truth, hardhearted, callous selfishness. We learn with Paul that there is, for lack of a better word, an agent living in us, within our unredeemed bodies that opposes our will. But that’s the thing — we have a new will. Though we live in this old body and will still sin, we have a new mindset of the Spirit. We sin, but it is against the will of our mind. And it is this new mindset that proves we are children of God, not the ability to live sin-free.

And in this truth – we GROW. We don’t enter into the kingdom knowing everything with years of wisdom behind us. We enter as babes, and in the grand scheme of eternity, everyone of us is a babe – a newbie. God’s development of us takes time.

The experience of Israel is a lesson to us, when God said to them (about their enemies), “I will not drive them out ahead of you in a single year; otherwise, the land would become desolate, and wild animals would multiply against you. I will drive them out little by little ahead of you until you have become numerous and take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:29–30). That’s a type for us. Israel didn’t just walk up to the Holy Land one day and walk right in. It took time. And Moses, the representative of the Law (and by extension, the conscience) couldn’t even go into the Promised Land. Why? Because he goofed up one time. The Jews didn’t go into the Promise until they stepped into the Jordan by faith with Moses’ successor, Joshua, whose Hebrew name happens to be same as our Savior’s – Jesus. It is Jesus who takes us into the Promise, and we follow with him in faith – dependent trust. The condemnation of the law, or the conscience, we leave behind us on the wilderness side of the Jordan.

Going Beyond Red Letter Christianity

There’s no such thing as a Red Letter Christian – the idea among some political activists who attempt to blend their brand of progressive, social justice with (some of) the words of Jesus. Never mind that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”, the term itself is an oxymoron, since the disciples of The Way weren’t called Christians until Acts 11, several years after the death and resurrection of our Lord, well into the black letters.

John 18:36 – Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

Apparently, the disciples didn’t get the memo that the gospel wasn’t about social activism. But we can’t be too hard on them, because at the time when Jesus was being handed over to Pilate, the disciples didn’t have full knowledge of exactly what the gospel was. They had been banking on this idea of political overthrow and were ready to fight for that kingdom (even ready to cut someone’s ear off to resist Jesus’ capture). But, they would have to wait for Jesus to die and rise again, to put an end to the Red Letters, then wait again for the black letters, where Jesus would send the Spirit of truth to guide them into all the truth.

John 16:12–14 (NASB95) – 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.

The word ‘bear’ above means ‘to carry, to pick up’, and when applied to concepts, takes on the meaning of ‘to comprehend, to accept’.

31.55 βαστάζωf; φέρωk: to accept, but with the implication of the truth being difficult to comprehend or to respond to properly—‘to accept, to receive.’ – Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, Louw, Nida

Jesus was saying, about the things which the Spirit would reveal to them later, that the disciples couldn’t accept them now… couldn’t receive them… couldn’t comprehend them at that time.

The disciples in Jesus’ earthly ministry could not fully comprehend what Jesus had yet to say to them through the Spirit, who would come later, after the cross. In other words, there is no such thing as a “Red Letter Christian” because Jesus’ pre-cross message was incomplete — there was more to come! Anyone who restricts their base of doctrine to only the words spoken by Christ during his earthly ministry to the Jews, is getting only partial revelation because the Lord had much more to say, and he wouldn’t say it until after the red letters came to an end!

Acts 9:15 (NASB95) – 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;

When our risen Lord called Paul and confirmed his calling through Ananias, the Lord explains to Ananias that Paul is a ‘chosen instrument of mine to __bear__ my name before the Gentiles’ — to bear — to pick up, to carry, to make my name comprehensible to the Gentiles.

Thus, that which was incomprehensible to the early, Jewish disciples would later be ‘carried’, ‘picked up, ‘made comprehensible’. Our risen Lord, chose Paul to make comprehensible to the Gentiles that which the other disciples could not receive before the Spirit. If we disregard the message that Christ has sent to us through his Apostle Paul, then we are willfully disregarding Christ’s own, complete message.

willful ignorance: The practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguments because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs – The Urban Dictionary

But God first revealed to Peter this fact that Gentiles are saved by grace and continue to live by grace apart from works and without being circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses (Acts 10 & 11). Imagine the conundrum if Paul had appeared out of nowhere and said “Here I am… your former persecutor … here to take your message to the Gentiles!” They would have laughed him out of town! But Peter’s authority was well-respected, so it had to be revealed first to Peter. Even then, the Jewish Christians were ready to give Peter a verbal lashing, until Peter recounted what the Lord had showed him and said to him in a vision — beyond the red letters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.