Chapter 1

God surrenders.

Here’s the essence of God’s wrath: In a universe where both freedom and sin are realities, surrender is a foregone conclusion. Either we surrender to God and allow Him to heal us from sin, or He will eventually surrender us to sin and the death it causes. Either we surrender, or He surrenders. Astonishingly, we are the ones who make the call.

As C.S. Lewis put it so succinctly in his book The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.‘”

Both groups will stand before God on that day. And right now, little by little, day by day, we are choosing which group we will belong to. The Bible refers to these two groups of people as the righteous and the wicked, but they could just as easily be called the free and the slaves.

You see, the wicked group will have completely surrendered themselves to rebellion. They will be utterly incapable of turning around and embracing life. By their persistent rebellion, they will have obliterated their freedom to choose anything other than death.

Paul lays out this tragic picture in Romans 1 as he describes how “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” (vs 18) Three times in this discourse, he notes that this revealed wrath is actually God giving up His sinful children to the sin that now controls them:

  • Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts . . . (vs 24)
  • Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts . . . (vs 26)
  • So God gave them over to a depraved mind . . . (vs 28)

The picture, here, is of a God who finally gives up on His rebellious children when it is apparent that there is absolutely nothing more He can do for them. They have refused to listen, they have refused to respond, and they have refused to accept God’s healing intervention in their struggle with sin. Thus, in the end, sin will have its way with them, and the results of that is death.

But it is of the utmost importance to understand that this destruction does not come at the hands of God.

God does not kill those who rebel against Him.

We have nothing to fear from God. God is good, not evil. God is life, not death. God is mercy, not vengeance. God is justice, not retribution. God is love, and when true love has been spurned, it doesn’t destroy the object of its affection. Rather, true love works hard to win back what it has lost. In the end, however, if love is unsuccessful, love lets go.

This is God’s wrath as described by Paul in Romans. He says that, in the end, God runs out of patients, not patience.

Indeed, in a universe where both freedom and sin are realities, surrender is a foregone conclusion. To think that the God of the Universe will surrender to His own creatures is a humbling, and yet somehow horrifying, thought. But this is the reality of wrath.

Either we surrender to God, or He will surrender to us.

We’re the ones who make the call.

Chapter 2

God doesn't judge a book by its cover.

In this chapter, Paul turns the tables on anyone who has been left with feelings of superiority after reading chapter 1. “Thank God I’m not like those sinners” is a thought that doesn’t hold much traction with Paul, and he quickly reminds us that we’re all in the same sinking boat.

The idea of being in the same boat or on the same footing with Gentiles was not an idea that was commonly held by the Jews. In fact, many ancient Jewish rabbis taught that God viewed the Jews with partiality, saying that God would judge the Gentiles by one standard and the Jews by another standard. Guess which standard was more lenient!

And, of course, the evidence by which one was considered a Jew versus a Gentile was circumcision. Many Jews believed that being circumcised guaranteed salvation, and in Paul’s day, many rabbis were teaching that Abraham himself would sit at the entrance to hell and make sure none of his circumcised descendants went there.

But Paul, who apparently knew the Old Testament better than many of his rabbi peers, realized that God doesn’t judge a book by its cover. He is not interested in the circumcision of the flesh, but the circumcision of the heart:

“Circumcision, the surgical ritual that marks you as a Jew, is great if you live in accord with God’s law. But if you don’t, it’s worse than not being circumcised. The reverse is also true: The uncircumcised who keep God’s ways are as good as the circumcised—in fact, better. Better to keep God’s law uncircumcised than break it circumcised. Don’t you see: It’s not the cut of a knife that makes a Jew. You become a Jew by who you are. It’s the mark of God on your heart, not of a knife on your skin, that makes a Jew. And recognition comes from God, not legalistic critics.” (vs 25-29)

You can put a label marked “Carrots” on a can of peas, but that doesn’t mean that the can holds carrots. You can put an intriguing cover on a book, but that doesn’t mean that the book will be an exciting read. Likewise, a person can claim to be a morally upright person, but only God knows the heart. And when it comes to labels and covers, He looks right past the outside to what’s on the inside.

God doesn’t judge a book by its cover. And we ought to heed Paul’s advice to also not take up the practice. For no matter how “good” we think we are or how “bad” we think others are, the truth is, we’re all in the same boat—in need of a saving relationship with God.

If we put our effort and energy into that relationship and leave the judging to Him, we’ll never go wrong.

Chapter 3

God is a doctor.

Regardless of Jesus’ statement that He had not come to do away with the law (Matt 5:17), many Christians today argue that the law has, in fact, been done away with and is no longer relevant for us. In making such arguments, many point to the statements of Paul in this chapter (and elsewhere) that speak of righteousness apart from law. And, indeed, we are made righteous (or, made right) apart from the law, but the law was never intended to lead to righteousness in the first place.

Paul states that plainly in this chapter.

In fact, it’s interesting that he clearly states the purpose of the law right before launching into the section on righteousness by faith. But when we examine the passage on righteousness by faith, we usually don’t examine the previous verses about law: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (vs 19-2)

Nobody can be declared righteous by keeping the law, because the law is a diagnostic tool, not a curative one. Paul says that the law was not given to cure our sin, but to diagnose it. It is in examining the law that we realize just how screwed up we are. And this is designed to lead us to the realization that we need help!

Consider this picture which has recently been printed on cartons of cigarettes:

The lungs on the left are healthy. The lungs on the right are severely damaged. A doctor could very quickly help his patient understand the dangers of smoking by using this picture. By comparing the damaged lungs with the healthy lungs, a patient would easily comprehend his need for healing intervention.

Morally speaking, we are the lungs on the right. And the lungs on the left are a fantastic example of the law. In the law, God gave us a picture of what a healthy moral character looks like. When we compare this picture with the evil we know resides in our own hearts, we can easily comprehend our need for healing intervention!

But, was the law itself the healing intervention? In a way, it was. For instance, a smoker who saw these two sets of lungs side by side might immediately decide never to smoke another cigarette. In that case, seeing the picture of the healthy lung would be the catalyst for the smoker to not continue to damage his lungs any further. In the same way, the law sets boundaries to help us retard our headlong descent into evil.

But what about the damage already done? Can the lungs on the right ever look again like the lungs on the left?

In terms of our moral character, the answer is yes! All the damage that sin has caused in our lives can absolutely be healed, but it can’t be healed because we look at the healthy picture and decide that we’re going to try really hard to turn into that. On the contrary, the healthy picture (and its comparison to our damaged reality) is supposed to drive us straight into the arms of the Doctor.

Isn’t that what Paul said in Galatians? “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal 3:23-24)

The law was never intended to be a curative tool. Only God can cure the damage done by sin and, in so doing, set us right. Instead, the law is a diagnostic tool designed to make us realize our desperate need of a Doctor who can heal us. Just as patients who receive a dire diagnosis, the more we are familiar with the problem, the more we will be driven to seek out treatments and solutions and remedies.

And Christ invites us to seek those remedies in Him.

He’s the one who gave us the diagnosis in the first place. He’s the Doctor.

Chapter 4

God says you're perfect.

In this chapter, Paul addresses the issue of “righteousness”—or, being made right, being set right, being “straightened out.” After convincing us so thoroughly in the previous two chapters that we’re all in the same sinking boat, the question now is, how can we ever be made right again? Indeed, can we be made right?

And now comes the answer. Not only can we be made right again, but in fact, the minute we put our trust in God, He already sees us as perfect: “Abraham didn’t tiptoe around God’s promise asking cautiously skeptical questions. He plunged into the promise and came up strong, ready for God, sure that God would make good on what he had said. That’s why it is said, ‘Abraham was declared fit before God by trusting God to set him right.’” (vs 20-22)

I think it’s really important to notice how this works:

1.       God promised to bless Abraham.

2.       Abraham believed God could and would keep His promise.

3.       God declared Abraham righteous, set right, perfect, etc.

Abraham was declared “perfect” the moment He trusted God. He didn’t have to wait until he had actually attained some certain level of “fitness.” He was perfect—set right with God—from that very moment.

Now why would that be? Is this just a matter of us “saying the right words” to get God to see us a certain way? If we appease Him with a declaration of trust, is He somehow endeared to us in a way He wouldn’t otherwise be?

Of course not. There is no hocus pocus at work in our salvation. Rather, spiritual development works in a similar manner to physical or emotional development. Let me illustrate.

I have a 21-month-old daughter. At her age, she is able to do a great deal of things she couldn’t do a mere 10 months ago. She walks and runs. She speaks words. She listens to and follows a wide variety of instructions. She feeds herself. She acquired all of these skills over the course of the last 10 months, day by day. How did she do it? She has no idea.

But even though she can do all these things, there are a great many things she can’t do. She can’t read. She can’t write. She can’t use a toilet. She can’t jump rope. She can’t play an instrument. Does the fact that she can’t do any of these things mean she’s not perfect? Of course not! She’s a perfect 21-month-old. She is just where she should be developmentally. And unless something interferes with that development, she will eventually be able to do all the things she can’t do right now.

In the same way, 10 months ago, when she couldn’t walk, run, talk, or feed herself, was she not perfect? Of course not! She was a perfect 11-month-old. She was just where she should have been developmentally. And because nothing interfered with that development, she has learned to do all the things she now enjoys doing.

I believe spiritual development works in much the same way, with the exception that something (namely, sin) has already arrested that development, and we need a divine intervention to make things right. This is where trusting God comes in.

God has promised that there is no damage He can’t undo in our lives. He has promised that we can be saved, healthy, and whole, no matter how lost, diseased, and damaged we are at present. This, then, puts us precisely in the same situation Abraham was in—when God promised him that he and his barren wife would have a son.

Abraham chose to trust in God’s promise, and that trust rendered him perfect before God. It’s the same for us. When we choose to trust that God can heal us, God immediately says, “You’re perfect!” In reality, we may be like a spiritual 11-month-old who can’t walk, talk, or even feed ourselves. But as long as we do not hinder God’s work in our lives, we are perfect, because there is nothing God can’t overcome in us when we trust Him with our hearts.

So don’t let anyone tell you that nobody’s perfect. There are perfect people, and they are the ones who have put their trust in God. When left to His own devices, He is the “author and finisher” of every good work in our lives, and He doesn’t know how to do a less-than-perfect job!

Chapter 5

God is on your side.

There aren’t many places in this world to find peace, but Paul assures us of the one area we don’t have to worry about: “Since then it is by faith that we are justified, let us grasp the fact that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs 1-2)

When you stop to think about it, this is what the human heart ultimately wants, isn’t it? If there is an all-powerful God, would we want to be at odds with Him? On the contrary, I think every human being knows the deep-filled longing for peace, home, belonging, etc.

It may just be that the only place we’ll ever find those things in this life is with God.

The irony of the matter is that God was never at war with us to being with. That’s why I love the J.B. Phillips translation I used above, encouraging us to “grasp the fact that we have peace with God.”

The truth is, our problem has never been with God, although we thought it was. Way back in the beginning, when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, the consequences were immediate—they hid from God because they had become afraid of Him.

Their fear was irrational and unfounded, but it was there nonetheless. Sin had entered the human psyche, and along with it came the feeling that God was out to get us. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we have now been assured of that through the testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God is on your side! You do have peace with Him! And let me suggest that you enjoy it, because there may not be too many other areas in this life where you will find peace. The Bible doesn’t say that we have peace with the world, peace with the devil, peace with sin, or peace with our own hearts!

On the contrary, Paul goes on to remind us in this chapter that life is anything but roses: “This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys—we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles.” (vs 3) Our expectation should be that we will experience everything but peace in this life, but because God is on our side, we can be full of joy in the here and now.

The battle has never been between you and God. And if, for a while, you thought that it was, you don’t have to think that way anymore. Jesus had made it clear once and for all that God is for you. He isn’t fighting against you. He’s fighting with you.

He is definitely on your side!

Chapter 6

God is pro-slave.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine who objects to the picture of God he finds in the Old Testament—in particular, a God whom he describes as “pro-slavery.” I suppose people come to this conclusion because God outlined very specific rules regarding how the Israelites were supposed to treat their slaves.

But what this conclusion fails to take into consideration is the place, time, and culture of the people God was dealing with. I suppose God could simply have commanded the Israelites to release all their slaves, but whether they would have complied with this rule (and, if they had, what the immediate fate of those emancipated foreigners would have been) is unclear.

Instead, God chose to do something different. He chose to elevate the status of the slave within the culture—putting forth guidelines and setting boundaries that would lead to much more humane treatment. More than that, in many cases, this actually led to slaves choosing to stay with their masters when they were given the option to go. They had been treated so well that they had come to feel just like part of the family.

Certainly, if you examine how other cultures of the same time treated their slaves, God comes out looking, not pro-slavery, but pro-slave. Slaves of the Israelites had it infinitely better than slaves in other nations.

And now we come to Romans chapter 6. And in this chapter, there is good news, and there is bad news.

The bad news? We are all slaves. You are a slave. I am a slave. The entire human race is made up of slaves, and there is no emancipation from this slavery: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (vs 16-18)

That’s right. There is no freedom for us, in the sense of choosing not to be a slave. Nobody will be coming to sign an Emancipation Proclamation for us. We will be a slave to something. We were born slaves, and for as long as we live, we will always be slaves.

Hang on, there’s good news: We get to choose our slave master.

And Paul assures us that not all slave masters are created equal. In one of the most famous verses in the Bible, he contrasts the two choices available to us—sin and God: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vs 23)

Sin is a hard slave master, and the only thing it doles out to its servants is death. By comparison, God is a gracious and most generous slave master, taking those slaves who pledge allegiance to Him and gifting them with life.

In fact, God took it a step further, declaring through Jesus, “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (Jn 15:15) When we choose to be slaves of Christ, we won’t be treated like slaves, and we won’t even be called slaves!

So, to object to God because you think He is “pro-slavery” is to buy into the fallacy that we can be something other than a slave. The reality is, we’ll be a slave to something, but God is the only slave master who is pro-slave. With Him, we’ll have it infinitely better than those who choose to be slaves to sin!

Chapter 7

God has all the power.

In this chapter, it’s pretty apparent that Paul has no power over the sinful nature of his heart: “I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?” (vs 17-24)

Eventually, I believe every Christian must come to this realization—we are powerless against sin. We don’t want to admit that! We know how “bad” we are and how “bad” we’ve been, and in our hearts, we sincerely want to do better. Just like Paul. And it’s so enticing to believe that if we just tried a little harder, we could beat this thing called sin.

That very attitude is part of the enslaving power of sin. It keeps our eyes focused on ourselves and not on God.

As I read Paul’s dramatic statement, I was reminded of the twelve steps utilized by addiction recovery programs. Do you know what the very first step is in any of these programs? We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Anybody who wants to be free of a debilitating addiction must begin at the point of powerlessness. For, as Paul so eloquently said in this passage, if he could have done it on his own, he would have. Desire was not the problem—he really wanted to do right! Knowledge was not the problem—he knew what was right! Power was the problem—he was ultimately powerless to change his own sinful nature.

And just as any recovering alcohol or drug addict knows, you do not break free from addiction in your own power. The only way to get sober and stay sober is to “work the steps,” as they say. That means beginning (as many times as necessary) at the point of admitting that you’re powerless and then asking God for help.

I believe that there are a great many law addicts in the Christian world. There are a lot of people who are still trying to change their hearts under their own steam. How do I know? Because I still do it myself. It seems like the scariest thing in the world to just throw up our hands and give up, to admit that we can’t change what has gone so deeply wrong within us.

But it’s in the giving up of our own “power” that we will discover that God is the One who has all the power—and He desperately wants to use it for our benefit! Only He can transform the evil heart. Only He can heal the damage done by sin. The longer we try to do these things ourselves, the longer we keep ourselves out of His healing reach.

Chapter 8

God sets our hearts at rest.

I love what happens when we fix our eyes on God—all of our doubt, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety gets blown away. You had to feel sorry for Paul in the previous chapter. He painted a self-portrait of a man in total chaos, struggling with the war between his spiritual desires and his carnal habits. By the end of the chapter, he was at the end of his rope, so to speak, ready to give it all up, wondering how he could possibly be delivered.

And then, what a change in the very next breath! Paul takes his eyes off of himself, sets them on God, and bammo! All of a sudden, he is speaking like a new man. Gone is the fear, frustration, and struggle. Paul’s problems might not have gone away, but turning his focus to God certainly altered his mental state.

In this chapter, we see that God has us covered. Paul begins by saying that in Him, there is no condemnation (vs 1-2); he ends by saying that from Him, there is no separation (vs 38-39); and in between, with Him, there is no defeat (vs 28). Suddenly, the man who was begging to see a way out can see nothing but victory. The man who was unsure of being rescued is suddenly confident of survival.

I believe this is one of the hallmarks of being in the presence of God—He sets our hearts at rest. As John said, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18) When we have been in the presence of perfect Love (and God is love), we will experience perfect peace.

No matter what our fears have been, no matter if our hope is gone, no matter if all looks dark around us, when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, we’ll find peace and rest for our souls. For His invitation is still open to us, even today: “Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Accept my teachings and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your lives. The burden that I ask you to accept is easy; the load I give you to carry is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

In God, there is no condemnation.

From Him, there is no separation.

With Him, there is no defeat.

Turn your eyes on Him, give your struggles to Him, and let Him set your heart at rest.

Chapter 9

God isn't the boss of you.

I know, I know. You’re thinking I’m crazy, because a few days ago, I wrote a blog about how all of us are slaves—either to sin or to God. And now I’m trying to say that God isn’t the boss of us. Well, hear me out. I’m not crazy.

Since we’re thinking back to the blog about slaves already, you might remember that in that very blog, I mentioned that we are the ones who get to choose our slave master. So, while it may be true that we don’t get a choice in whether or not to be a slave (because we will all be slaves to something), we do get a choice in who will be in charge of the “chains.”

But different slave masters treat the “chains” differently. For instance, in that very blog about slaves, we recalled the words of Jesus in connection with how He relates to slaves: “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (Jn 15:15) So, though the reality may be that we are slaves to Christ, He chooses not to call us slaves or even treat us like slaves! He prefers that we become His friends.

Similarly, in this chapter, Paul says that even God’s “election” of us as His children isn’t binding: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (vs 6-8)

Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. What that means is that salvation is not based on genetics, but choice. God will keep no “slaves” against their will. Only those who want to be part of His family will be part of His family. Anybody who wants to leave is allowed to leave.

The irony, here, is that the Israelites were chosen to be God’s special people—His “family”—on Earth. In fact, one possible translation of the Hebrew name Israel is “governed by God.” Yet, Paul says that there are many Israelites who have apparently chosen to not be part of the family. How well, then, is God “governing” His own people?

Well, this raises the question of God’s preferred method of governing, and as we have seen time and time again in the Scriptures, His preferred method of governing is to give the power of choice to His creatures. Ultimately, this means that, while God is surely sovereign, He isn’t the boss of you. Certainly, He is infinite in power, and He could wield that power to control you and the decisions you make, but He chooses not to do that.

He doesn’t want to be the boss of you. He wants you to be the boss of you. (That’s why one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is self-control.)

Because of our history with it in this sinful world, we all think slavery is a dirty word—and we have certainly seen the treatment slaves receive at the hands of sinners! But spiritual slavery remains a reality in God’s universe, and that’s why He wants us to be wise in selecting the master to whom we will give control.

There is only one slave master who will hand that control right back. And it’s God.

He is not the boss of you.

Chapter 10

God is gracious.

I recently saw an episode of Dr. Phil in which he interviewed a woman who “ran away from home” eleven years before and, in all that time, had never been in contact with her family. For many years, her family held out hope that she was alive, but eventually, she was declared dead, and they gave up on her. Her ex-husband was the subject of suspicion in her disappearance for quite some time, and her children (ages 8 and 12 when she left) grew up without a mother.

As you can imagine, when she finally surfaced, there were a lot of people who were very angry with her for what she had done—especially her children. But when Dr. Phil interviewed her own mother (who hadn’t yet been reunited with her runaway daughter), she said she wasn’t angry with her daughter at all. She said she was simply overjoyed to know that she was alive, and she couldn’t wait to be reunited with her and rebuild their relationship.

In such a situation, I think only a mother could have that attitude.

Yet I saw a glimpse of it with Paul in this chapter: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” (vs 1-3)

As I read this opening to Romans 10, I thought it was quite magnanimous of Paul to say anything good about the Israelites who had been persecuting him so mercilessly. Even though he concludes that they are seriously misguided, he says, “They do have zeal. I’ll give ‘em that.”

In one sense, Paul might have been trying to be kind to these Israelites because he realized just how much he used to be like them. But I also think that the more we come to know God, the more gracious we become to others—even those who have done outrageously wrong things.

That’s what God is like. He is gracious. He is just like that mother who was ready and willing to accept her prodigal daughter back home—no questions asked—after eleven long years. He is always looking for ways to put people in the best light possible, to be gracious to them, to not unduly expose their misdeeds. Perhaps this generous character trait rubbed off on Paul the more he came to know God.

Maybe we can catch it too.

Chapter 11

God alone is worthy of praise.

I absolutely love the way Paul finishes this part of his letter to the Romans: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (vs 33-36)

Pure worship. I especially love the statement from him and through him and for him are all things. That just about encompasses everything, doesn’t it?

Everything is from Him. Our world, our families, our selves. Everything has been fearfully and wonderfully made by Him, and even when sin stepped in to screw things up, God had a plan for redemption. It wasn’t our plan. We didn’t have a way to find God, and He didn’t wait for us to devise one. He came after us, seeking us while we were yet sinners. Everything—our creation and redemption—is from Him.

Everything is through Him. Once He had devised this plan to redeem us, He didn’t ask anyone else to carry it out. Even though it involved an immense amount of suffering on His part, our freedom from sin and death came through Him. We couldn’t save ourselves from the slavery of sin, but through Him, we are given the gift of eternal life.

Everything is to Him. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the universe doesn’t revolve around you, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around me. None of this is for you or me; it’s all to Him. We were created for His pleasure, and we find our greatest fulfillment in life when we bring Him honor and glory.

Being a “Christian” isn’t about going to church on one day of the week. It’s not about relegating worship to a specific time and place. Instead, it’s about realizing that God permeates our entire lives. Everything we do should be an act of worship, because everything we do should be done with the awareness that all we have is from Him, through Him, and to Him.

He alone is worthy of our praise.

Chapter 12

God transforms us.

In this chapter, Paul reveals that while God loves us just as we are, He doesn’t want us to stay that way: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (vs 1-2)

It’s interesting to notice that the difference between conforming to the world or being transformed is in the mind. Christians, first and foremost, aren’t unique because they feel differently or behave differently, but because they think differently. Their transformation occurs with the renewing of their minds.

This is certainly not to say that God is against feeling and doing. God Himself expresses very passionate and powerful feelings, and Scripture repeatedly commands us to be doers. Yet these come as a result of transformation, not as a means to it!

The ancient Greek word translated “transformed” in this verse is metamorphoo which, as you can tell, describes a metamorphosis. Paul uses this word only one other time: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18)

It seems obvious that, for Paul, being transformed and experiencing the renewal of our mind occurs as we behold God and spend time in His glory. This means that the process of learning more about God is transformative. The more we know Him, the more we will become like Him. The more we know Him, the less we will be conformed to the world.

We will never be transformed by feeling a certain way or doing certain things. Only God can transform us, and He does it by spending time with us, teaching us what He is like, and renewing our minds with truth.

Chapter 13

God is in control.

It sounds like such a cliché to say God is in control. But what else may be concluded from the opening verses of this chapter? “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (vs 1-2)

There is a lot that may be inferred, interpreted, and understood from these verses, and I wish this forum provided the opportunity for that. Alas, perhaps all we shall be able to say for now is that Paul is proposing that (1) God guides and directs the movements of governments, (2) as Christians we should be good citizens, and (3) we should submit ourselves to worldly authorities.

Having said that, my mind immediately jumps to living in 1930s Germany under Hitler, the dictator. Were Christians at that time expected to simply go with the flow and submit to being partners in genocide? Or were they supposed to riot? Or was there another option?

My mind goes back to the story of the three brave Hebrew boys who refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. (Find the story in Daniel 3.) They did two remarkable things in that story. First, when the command of the worldly authority contradicted the command of God, the boys demonstrated their commitment to God above all else.

However, they also submitted themselves to the punishment meted out by the worldly authority for their refusal to obey. They didn’t protest or riot or lead a coup. They didn’t argue that they were being unfairly punished for refusing to do something they shouldn’t have been asked to do in the first place.

No, they made their decision according to the dictates of their conscience and then submitted themselves to the consequences. How could they do that? Because they knew exactly what Paul would write hundreds of years later—that God is ultimately in control: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’” (vs 16-18)

As Christians who live under the authority of worldly governments, we don’t have to be the average citizen. We can (and should) think differently! When we are committed first to God and firmly rooted in the knowledge that He is in control, we can submit ourselves both to the requirements and/or the punishments of the state.

We don’t have to worry that we’ll be forced to do something against our conscience or that our rights will be trampled. God is ultimately in control—even of the movements of worldly governments. We can rest in Him and, in so doing, be a different kind of citizen.

Chapter 14

God doesn't have a neutral zone.

In this chapter, Paul illuminates the battleground of salvation, and it’s in the mind, the heart, the conscience. This is still a difficult concept for many evangelically-minded Christians to grasp—that ultimately, God wants each person to be convinced in his own mind. This means that when others disagree with us, it’s okay. We shouldn’t try to force people to see things the way we do.

At the same time, we should never be tempted to think that what we do as Christians doesn’t matter. In fact, everything matters. As C.S. Lewis once said, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”

Paul affirms that in this chapter: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (vs 7-8) This means that the part of our life which involves God isn’t just the time we spend in church. It’s every minute of every day.

There is no neutral ground. Every second, we’re deciding for God or against Him.

Paul drives this point home further when, at the end of the chapter, he gives one of the clearest (and most provocative) definitions of sin: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (vs 23)

Everything that does not come from faith is sin?

All of a sudden, this removes sin solely from the realm of “misbehavior” and opens it up into something altogether different. In fact, what Paul is saying is that sin doesn’t really have to do with behavior at all; rather, it is the motive that counts. I can spend my life in service to others, but if I do that apart from trust in God, then it is sin.

That doesn’t really leave much middle ground in sight. Either I trust God or I don’t. You can’t “sort of” have faith in God. You either do or you don’t. And if you don’t, whatever you do apart from that is sin. That sounds pretty black and white to me.

God doesn’t have a neutral zone. We may think that we can relegate Him to one part of our lives or simply ignore Him altogether. But ignoring Him doesn’t change the reality that, every minute of the day, we are deciding for God or against Him.

There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan. One of them is going to win you.

Which one will it be?

Chapter 15

God puts others first.

Paul begins this chapter of Romans with advice that is pretty counter-cultural in our society: “If our faith is strong, we should be patient with the Lord’s followers whose faith is weak. We should try to please them instead of ourselves. We should think of their good and try to help them by doing what pleases them. For even Christ did not try to please himself.” (vs 1-3)

Especially for those of us who live in Western countries, the drive to get more, do more, and be more is relentless. We don’t live in a culture that tells you to think of others first. Instead, we generally buy into the skewed philosophy that “whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

There’s just one problem with that way of thinking: it’s literally a dead-end, in more ways than one. Of course, we all end up in the grave, no matter how many toys we have, but while we’re on the way there, the quality of our lives depends upon how much time, energy, and effort we put into others versus ourselves.

Our society tells us that the way to find lasting fulfillment—the “good life”—is to acquire as much as possible and retire as young as you can so you can enjoy all the luxuries money can afford. If you decide to have a family, it is also suggested that putting a designer roof over their head and parking luxury cars in the garage will bring you lots of happiness.

But Paul suggests a different way of thinking and living—to use our time and talents to help build up others in the faith as much as we can. “For even Christ did not try to please himself,” Paul writes.

It’s humbling to realize that God puts others first. He uses His resources, His time and energy and effort to build others up in the faith. He works tirelessly for the benefit of others, not Himself. He relentlessly pursues what is best for others, not Himself.

As Christians, God has provided a personal example that “lookin’ out for number one” isn’t the best strategy for satisfaction and fulfillment. On the contrary, as we trust God to take care of “number one” and we work on building others up, we’ll find that we are also “built up” in the process.

Putting others first: this is the secret to enjoying true success in life.

Chapter 16

God will crush Satan.

It’s one of the earliest promises in the Bible: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen 3:15) Right off the bat, God promises that He will one day crush Satan.

Paul reiterates that promise in the closing chapter of his letter to the Romans, but he does so in a way that struck me as odd: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” (vs 20)

Did you also find that odd? Why would Paul link God’s peaceful spirit with His promise to crush Satan? Can somebody who is committed to peace crush another person? That would seem to be a violation of peace . . . or is it?

I’m sure there are many Christians who would say that, while God is normally a God of peace, He’ll get to a point where He’s fed up with Satan, and that’s when the crushing will occur. There may be a lot of people who are satisfied with that explanation. But I’m not.

And I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul has linked peace with crushing Satan.

Notice what Paul has been admonishing his readers to do immediately before this verse:

  • Keep away from those who cause division. (vs 17)
  • Beware of smooth talk and flattery. (vs 18)
  • Be wise about what is good. (vs 19)
  • Be innocent about what is evil. (vs 19)

Division, smooth talk, flattery, evil . . . these are the main tools Satan carries around in his toolbox, and unfortunately, the church often falls prey to them. When that happens, Satan finds a ready playground to stir up mischief among God’s people. In such a situation, he can thrive.

On the other hand, when God’s people shun division, flattery, and evil, they being to live in peace with one another. And choosing to fellowship with one another in this manner literally shuts down Satan’s best avenues of wreaking havoc in the church. When believers choose peace, there is very little Satan can do among them.

In other words, peace is actually the thing which crushes evil spirits like Satan. When they encounter peace, their power is suddenly taken away. They can’t thrive in an environment where peace reigns.

It’s similar to the way kindness is a consuming fire to those who hate you. Paul reminded the Roman believers of this back in chapter 12: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom 12:20) In other words, kindness is actually the thing which consumes evil spirits like Satan. When they encounter kindness, they can’t stand it. They can’t function in an environment where kindness reigns.

Peace and kindness are two of the tools God carries around in His toolbox. He isn’t some sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—acting one way when He’s happy and one way when He’s not. He may indeed crush Satan and consume His enemies, but peace is His hammer, and kindness is His fire.

Evil is no match for love. Evil can’t defeat it. Evil can’t overcome it.

Love always wins.