This was preached at New Wine Christian Fellowship [08/26/2012]
I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:23)
“The Law of Sin dwells in my members”, so says the apostle Paul. The Flesh, the body, with its passions, its appetites, its desires, its defenses, its wounds, its ambitions, establishes itself apart from God. Being a closed system apart from God, the self-reliant flesh finds itself necessarily opposed to God. Paul continues:
the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:7)
And yet we live in an age when to give our self away is so out of step with the larger culture. How many movies or television shows can you think of where the one isolated, self-sustaining hero/heroine stands firm and saves the day. I believe the ‘Gestalt Prayer’ states this zeitgeist of this age the best:
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.
(Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. 1969)
We walk by our own council, but we are so completely ignorant of all the important facts. We are constantly making decisions that we live to regret, personally, as groups of friends, or as nations. Paul confronts us on our reliance on the flesh and on our defense of our flesh's foolishness:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32)
I hope this passage is well known to you. It illustrates a process of personal debasement, which begins with making a decision to follow a feeling or a desire, which we know is contrary to, and you can take your pick: the laws of nature, the laws of God, the desires of heaven, natural order. But the process that starts when I depart from what I know is the best coarse of action, certainly doesn't end there.
The next step is to cover my tracks with vain arguments, justifications meant to make it appear that in fact the choice was the natural and proper thing to do. We see this very clearly demonstrated by the homosexual lobby. I don't mean to single them out, but the aggressive campaign is hard to avoid.
Many years ago the campaign got started. While the world was calling these particular perverters of the truth “sodomites”, “homosexuals” and a whole host of vulgar names, the homosexual community began to call themselves “gay”. At the time gay meant a frivolous joy, not unlike the term silly. The next step was to suggest that homosexuality is a natural state, that is, a person is born either homosexual or straight. Despite the fact that there seems to be no genetic link, the search for a “Gay gene” goes on. Moreover the belief that homosexuality is natural has come to be a dogma strong enough to start a fight. Next comes “Gay Rights” and “Gay Pride”. Not only does the homosexual lobby want the right to be left alone, but they want the right to invade your businesses, your entertainment, even your churches. This is a clear illustration of Romans 1.
I don't watch television very much, but I did happen upon a promo for an upcoming television show which further illustrates the point. Apparently the show is about a girl who want to have a child, but doesn't want a husband. This already seems a bit off quilter… like have a baby is like having a pet that lives longer. One shouldn't have to be a Christian to know there is something amiss with this thinking. The number of reports linking emotional and behavioral problems to a weak family structure are endless. But the story line gets richer, and mind you this is only the trailer. This girl decides that she should have the baby with the aid of her friends, a gay couple. Which one is the father is in dispute. Both of these men are not only effeminate, but are downright neurotic. Then enters a woman, I assume the mother, who appears to be a conservative Christian. This woman, who appears to be crude caricature and not meant to flatter, is radically upset by the situation and says some things which causes offense. She is then pounced on with great vehemence by a black woman who essentially declares, “how dare you”. Now I don't know that I got the whole story line, but I would say this program is a meant first to defend the homosexual story line, and only second to entertain.
In this short promotion for whatever this show is, we can see a large number of the fruits of this degradation as Paul mentions: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”. I am sure it wouldn't be difficult to add a few more.
The point isn't to point fingers at homosexuals. We all get bogged down by missteps taken in the flesh. These become burdens, chain, bondages that hold us down. Perhaps we suffer from sexual addictions, substance abuse issues, locked thoughts, stubborn or dogmatic thinking, self-pity, fear… does this list have an end? To add insult to injury, the flesh is quick to want to pitch in and help fix the problem it has created.
The flesh has a cure: turning away from the seduction of the flesh. Whether we are talking about Greek Stoics, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist Mystics, or Ascetic Christian practices such as practiced by monks or nuns: denials through fasting, isolation, celibacy, shunning alcohol, tobacco, meat, the list is endless. At one time it was common for Protestants to discourage laughing on Sundays. It is a white knuckle life until the habit sets in, (if you make that far).
Probably the most common and most favorite means used worldwide and in every religion is prayer. Prayers written out and repeated endlessly. What is the purpose of rosary beads? To keep count while praying through a cycle of standard prayers. There is nothing uniquely Christian about prayer beads. They are used not only by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Christians, but also by Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and the Bahá'í. Like the Jews, who write prayers and wear them (phylacteries) or in boxes on the doorpost (mezuzahs), the Eastern Religions, who believe the prayers must be waved, have strings of prayer flags, often placed on high mountains, or prayer wheels either hand-held or fixed along passage ways, that are spun to release the prayers. These are all mechanisms of the flesh meant to get the flesh under control.
John the Baptist is perhaps the best known ascetic. He wore a camel hair shirt (Matthew 3:4), the hair shirt or cilice, like sackcloth, is meant to be uncomfortable. You will know what I mean if you have ever tried to wear a wool shirt without a t-shirt underneath. The purpose is to keep you constantly conscious of your misery, particularly in regards to repentance. John's food was locusts (like grasshoppers) and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). This was an extreme pleasant food fast. John's message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), so his life reflected his repentance.
For Jesus who calls hatred and abusive language “murder” (Matthew 5:21-22), or Paul who suggests that anyone whose mindset is set by the flesh is “of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 3:3), the bar of judgement is set so high that only the most extreme asceticism could possibly match this standard. At this point the acetic is of no earthly good, for in defeating the flesh all humanity has disappeared. Jesus was very human. And Paul was very human. While both had times of fasting and prayer, both had periods of denial, neither could be called an ascetic.
Jesus attacks fasting (Matthew 6:16), alms giving (Matthew 6:1-2) and prayer (Matthew 6:6) done for show. He also warns against repetitive prayers (Matthew 6:7) Paul vigorously attacks the quarreling over various religious practices which were becoming common in the churches of Christendom:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16-23)
Paul concludes that the various practices for overcoming the flesh “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. Ascetic practices may redirect the flesh, but since they are practices of the flesh they cannot overcome the flesh. While I have never been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have attended a couple of AA meetings with other people. The first thing I noticed was that most of the individuals there drank cup after cup of coffee, chain smoked and/or were prowling for sexual attention. Calming one addiction, their focus was redirected to other areas inflamed by the flesh.
Paul is not attacking self-denial or religious practices. He is attacking the devotion to self-denial and various peculiar practices which are held to. He directly attacks the judgments against others. When I compare my practices against someone else practices, shining the light on what I think I am doing right, I become “puffed up without reason” because my own “sensuous mind” (i.e. my flesh inspired mind).
Notice that the center of attention here, is not Christ or the Father but what I am doing and what you are doing. The reliance on denials, methods, or practices is self-centered. This leads to comparisons, which further leads to defensiveness, judgments, and quarreling, and finally to pride. So in attempting to overcome the gross sins of the flesh, the believer now falls into even more insidious sins of the flesh: pride, stubborn dogmatism, condemnation and judgment. The popular term for this adoration of the religious practices is “religion”. But our religious practices aren't the issue. James speaks of religion “pure and undefiled”:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
I think Paul would say that pure religion is the love of Christ, the love of God the Father, and to love our fellow man. This gospel of reconciliation is religion pure and undefiled (Ephesians 3:19-21). The Reformers where very keen to replace the badly stained practices of the church with a pure and undefiled religion. The fault is in the practice of religion.
I hope that no one is ready to suggest that prayer and fasting of no use, or that good doctrine is not important. Surely the Bible testifies against the very thought.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelations 2:4-5)
Ouroboros is the name for the occult image of a serpent swallowing its tail, or some cases two serpents swallowing each others tails. You may have seen such an image. The ouroboros seems like a fitting image: the self, gone bad, trying to remove the mistakes with its own good deeds. If we rely on the flesh to overcome the flesh, the results are not the spirituality that we are seeking. We, as born again believers must come to the essential truth, if we are in Jesus, acts of penance are no longer necessary. Sanctification is needed. This is not accomplished by purchase, as in the case of Simon the Sorcerer's attempt to purchase the gift of the laying on of hands (Acts 8:18-24). It is accomplished by coming into relationship with Jesus. We attack the adversary with the Holy Spirit.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:3)
I am currently reading Jim Bakker's book I Was Wrong. Jim Bakker, for those too young to remember, was the face of Christian television for many years. He and his wife Tammy had built an huge television empire and were in the process of building a large Christian resort and conference center. And then it all came crashing down. Infidelity, jealousy, unfaithful friends, Jim Bakker went to prison, lost everything, the television empire, the resort and conference center, his marriage.
“I allowed myself to be drawn away from my first love. Instead of fostering an intimate relationship with Him [Jesus], I loved the spectacular, the supernatural, the signs and wonders....
At PTL [Bakker's Praise The Lord Club], I was always looking for a new spiritual sensation, a new truth, a new revelation, preaching a gospel ‘of stuff,’ when all the time I was missing one of the most basic truths of all: Jesus wants us to have an intimate relationship with Him.” (Baker, I Was Wrong. Page 464).
Jesus wants us to have whatever delights us, on one condition, we are not drawn away by it and loose our relationship with Him. Jesus is most delighted with us, when we catch his heart, when we try with all of our might to snatch those caught by the adversary out of the fire, when we give ourselves, as He gave Himself for us, to breaking the tormentors hold on the lives of those around us. It isn't meant to be a side show. Jesus tells many of those healed not to tell anyone (Mark 1:44).
Glory to God! Glory to God!
In the highest, in the highest, in the highest!
Peace be on Earth, peace be on Earth
To the people whom God delights in.
(a traditional song of the Dutch Reformed)
The Book of Acts tells of Paul and Silas's journey to Macedonia, where they found some eager to hear of the gospel in Philippi. As Luke relays the story a young slave girl with a spirit of divination continue to follow Paul crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” (Acts 16:17). This annoyed Paul greatly, so that after several days he turned, rebuked the spirit and cast it out of the girl. As I said above, the gospel is not a side show. Her masters collected a great deal of money from the girl's Miss Cleo fortune-telling. So when they realized that their continued income from fortune-telling was gone they were furious. They dragged Paul and Silas to the magistrates, who had them stripped and beaten in front of an angry mob, and then directed that Paul and Silas be taken to jail (Acts 16:19-23). A Roman prison was mainly a holding cell for those awaiting trial and those awaiting death. Wealthy individuals were kept in house arrest. Roman prisons did not have toilet facilities, so the stench was overpowering. The men trapped in this place were haunted men, waiting for death. Paul and Silas are dragged bruised and bloody into this rat infested hell-hole. They are taken to the inner prison and shackled (Acts 16:24). Can you picture this. Two men beaten bloody are dragged in, taken to the inner prison and chained. The prisoners in the outer prison must have thought these were the worst of the worst ready for speedy execution. I imagine they thought, “I hope they don't start wailing, I hate it when they wail”. Instead, Paul and Silas recover themselves and begin to pray and sing . Clearly this is not rote repetition on songs and prayers, these are so heartfelt, and so delighted in God that the atmosphere changes in the prison. Reinhard Bonnke recalls a visit to a group of prisoners who had come to Christ in the dreaded Bukavu prison in Zaire:
“I was appalled by the conditions inside the brick wall of the holding cell. The men slept on filthy mattresses scattered about on the floor of that large, cement block room. The place was crawling with vermin. Buckets of sewage were gathered to one side. Clouds of flies swarmed over them. In the stifling heat, none of us could escape the stench. And the song, that wonderful chant of praise, punctuated by the rhythmic rattle of chains, continued to rise to the Lord like sweet incense.” (Bonnke, Living a Life of Fire. 2010. Pages 428-437).
He tells of a prisoner by the name of Richard who had been unjustly sentenced to death. He was welded into his chains because reprieve was not an option. Yet he joyfully led his fellow prisoners in worship. Reinhard prophesied and Richard was released a year later. So too Paul and Silas clanked their chains and sang until the stench dissolved. The door to the inner prison falls flat, the chains fall to the ground. The astonished prisoners see Paul and Silas emerge as the outer door falls flat (Acts 16:26). Now the whole prison is worshipping God.
When the jailer arrives, he prepares to kill himself. The penalty for a jailer loosing his charges is death (Acts 12:19). “But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here’.” (Acts 16:28). The prisoners did not flee. They stayed to hear Paul and Silas worship. The grateful jailer gave his life to Jesus, along with his entire household.
The very real chains were of no match for the freedom of the those whose spirits were free.