The Definition of Idolatry

Idolatry (n.): the treatment of a creature as if it were the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).

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Teaching on Romans 8:14-19

This is a short clip from my recent class working verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter through Paul’s letter to the Romans. The video deals with Romans 8:14-19 (my translation):

14 For such as are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons and daughters of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery again for fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption in whom we cry, ‘Abba Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself witnesses together with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, we are also heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, if we actually suffer together that we may also be glorified together. 18 For I count it that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy of the glory coming to be revealed in us. 19 For the urgent expectation of the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons and daughters of God.


My thanks to Bethel Gospel Tabernacle for hosting, Soundbox Productions for audio equipment and Danny Burnett for recording and editing.

The Sinful Desires of this Mortal Body in Romans 6:12

Most manuscript variants–that is, different words appearing in different ancient copies of parts of the Bible–are theologically insignificant. They change some bit of grammar or other, but don’t affect the meaning. When it comes to Romans 6:12, however, this is not the case.

The majority reading of the manuscripts–the one that appears most commonly and in the oldest manuscripts–reads like this: “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires.” The ‘its desires’ part refers here to the body, the body’s desires. (It’s impossible to tell in English, but the Greek pronoun αὐτοῦ–meaning ‘its’–refers to the neuter word ‘body,’ not the female word ‘sin.’) To obey the desires of this ‘mortal body’ is to give into sin and allow it to ‘reign’ over us.

But this verse is worded differently in some manuscripts. Some say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [the female αὐτῇ, referring to ‘sin’]”: do not let sin reign by obeying it in your body. Others say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the body’s] desires”: to obey the body’s desires is to obey sin–meaning, in effect, the same as the majority reading.

The most interesting variant is one that appears in only a single manuscript, a lectionary from the eleventh century. Here Romans 6:12 reads, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the female αὐτῆς, sin’s] desires.” What is fascinating about this reading is that the body is not the source of sinful desires. Sin can reign in our ‘mortal body’ if we let it, if we ‘obey sin in sin’s desires.’ But it has no power over or connection to our very body’s desires, as in every other manuscript.

Of course, this interesting reading is not the correct reading. There are good textual–it only appears once, in the eleventh century–and theological reasons for rejecting it. Ever since our first parents’ sin, sin, like death, has ‘come into’ humanity (Rom. 5:12). It is no longer an external word tempting us from outside, but a force within us, stirring up desires that bear the ‘fruit’ of ‘death’ (6:21). Even after we have ‘died to sin’ in baptism (6:2), it is still the ‘sin living in me’ (7:17) about which Paul cries out to God, “Who will rescue me from the body of this death?” (7:24). Only after the resurrection will it be true that our bodies themselves will be free of sinful desires.

The Things Paul Wishes Would Never Be

In writing his letter to the Romans, Paul often imagines an objection or an alternative to his teaching. Many times he then responds, “May it never be!” (In Greek, μὴ γένοιτο.) What are these things that Paul wishes would never be, things that are unthinkable for the apostle? It is a revealing list.

In Romans, Paul’s expression “May it never be!” occurs nine times. It is impossible or unthinkable: that Jewish faithlessness would undo God’s faithfulness (3:4); that God would be unable to judge the world (3:6); that the Law would be undone (3:31); that we should live in sin, since we are dead to it (6:2); that we would go on sinning because we are ‘under grace’ (6:15); that the law itself is sin (7:7); that the Law, in itself good, became death to him (7:13); that God is unjust (9:14); and, finally, that God has thrust away his people Israel (11:1).

To summarize: it’s impossible that God’s purposes for his chosen nation should be frustrated by their failures; God is a faithful keeper of his promises (3:4; 11:1). It’s unthinkable that God’s judgment will not take place (3:6; 9:14), because God alone judges impartially  and ‘in line with the truth’ (2:2); he knows the secrets of human hearts (2:16). For God not to judge the world would mean the triumph of evil. It’s impossible that the Law should be ruined or bring death into the world (3:31; 7:13), since it is ‘the form of truth and knowledge’ (2:20) and, in itself, ‘holy’ (7:12). Finally, it’s impossible for us to keep living in sin who have died and live anew with Christ (6:2), even as we live under the continuing promise of God’s gracious forgiveness (6:15). That’s just not who we are any more.

The World of Paul’s Letter to the Romans

I’m teaching a Bible study at my church on Romans, chapter by chapter and verse by verse. Studying a book of the Bible so closely–and then having to teach it–is a wonderful experience. Even though you’ve read a book a hundred times, new aspects and new connections are brought home as God opens it up for you.

In his letter to the Romans, I’m finding, Paul is doing something far more expansive than outlining fundamental doctrines (that is, teachings)–though he is doing that. When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he wanted to help them understand the truest and grandest picture of the world: God and God’s action toward all people; humanity in its injustice and need for redemption from its slavery to sin and death; the good news of God for the whole world about his Son Jesus, through whom we no longer receive a death sentence but new life and a promise of resurrection. In order to help us see the world as it truly is, in other words, Paul had to teach us about God and what God has done in Jesus.

Through the first five chapters of Romans so far we’ve already seen: the varied kinds of human injustice in idolatry (1:18-25), sinful behaviour (1:26-31) and hypocritical judgment of others (2:1-5); Paul’s attack on Jewish grounds for justification in the keeping of the law (2:17-24) and circumcision (2:25-29); the precariousness of human life ‘under sin’ (3:9), since no one–Jew or not–will be ‘justified from works of the law’ (3:20); God’s wondrous provision of a new source of justice before his judgment in Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice (3:21-26); our welcome into the people of God as a spiritual descendant of Abraham and heir of that man’s promises as we ‘follow in the footsteps’ of his faith (4:12); the majesty of the God who ‘makes the dead alive’ (4:17) and the daring of Abraham’s and our faith in him (4:18-25); the gifts we receive ‘through our Lord Jesus’ by having faith in him (5:1) and the ‘superoverflowing’ of his grace over our sin and death (5:20) in order that we would ‘reign in life’ (5:17).

Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about ‘God’s good news … about his Son’ (1:1-3). It is this ‘good news’ which gripped Paul’s spirit, for the sake of which he ‘left everything and followed’ Jesus (Mk. 10:28). This is the good news that, through Jesus, God has made a way for us to be saved from everything wrong with ourselves and the world, that is, with our propensity to harm one another and offend our Creator and with our imperfect, mortal bodies: through Jesus we are justified before God’s judgment and released from the grip of sin on our hearts and death on our bodies. Let our hearts and minds be taken with this same good news.

Barth’s Romans Commentary

I’m finally reading the famous commentary on Romans. Of course, there are all the sharpened descriptions of contradiction between God and humanity, stunning and blunt: “In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it” (30). “But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself” (36). “Precisely because the ‘No’ of God is all-embracing, it is also His ‘Yes’” (38).

What is most striking just now, having spent last week with him, is how much I feel like I’m reading a biblical commentary written by Kierkegaard. Barth quotes him on the very first page, and throughout you can almost touch the Dane, he’s so palpably present. His ideas are ubiquitous: the “Paradox” (29); “contradiction” (38); “seriousness” and the demand for “choice” (39); God in “incognito” (39); the “qualitative distinction between God and man” (39); the impossibility of “direct communion” (50); and more than any other, the absolute difference between “time and eternity” (29, 44, 47), which is the presupposition of Barth’s whole text.

Yet, there is also another strand, it seems, running through Barth’s commentary, the side that sees the rest on the other side of judgment. This may well be the kinder (less polemical, more pastoral) part of Kierkegaard: “No, he who opens his arms and invites all–ah, if all, all you who labor and are burdened, were to come to him, he would embrace them all and say: Now remain with me, for to remain with me is rest” (Practice in Christianity, 15). And Barth: “the Creator has not abandoned the creation… the faithfulness of God to [humanity] still abides” (41); and, “He is the hidden abyss; but He is also the hidden home at the beginning and end of all our journeyings” (46). Of course, Barth had been a pastor ten years when he wrote this text, so he knew well the need to be assured of God’s faithfulness, that the “Yes” will be heard on the other side of the “No.”

I’m curious how much Kierkegaard’s influence will appear through the rest of the commentary, both explicit and not so subtly hidden.

Romans 11:33-12:8: Sneak Peek

Since I’m speaking at youth on Friday, I thought I’d put my two years of Greek to work and translate the text I’m speaking from. Here it is:

[11:33] Oh what rich depth and wisdom and knowledge are God’s, that his decisions are so beyond examining and his paths are untraceable! [34] For who knew the mind of the Lord, or who was his advisor? [35] Who first gave him something so that they would be repaid? [36] Because everything is from him and through him and to him—let the glory be his into eternity. Amen.

[12:1] Therefore, I challenge you, brothers and sisters, through God’s compassion, to offer up your bodies as a living, holy sacrifice pleasing to God—your thoughtful worship. [2] And don’t be patterned just like this age, but be transformed by a change of mind, in order to test what the will of God is: good, pleasing, complete.

[3] For through the grace given me, I say to each one of you: do not think better of yourself than you should, but think sanely, since God has given a piece of faith to each of you. [4] Because just as we have many parts in one body, and every part does not function the same, [5] so many of us are one body in Christ, and each person is a part of the others. [6] But we have different gifts based on the grace given to us, whether that’s prophetic—based on one’s piece of faith— [7] or for service in the church’s ministry; or as a teacher in education; [8] or as someone who challenges people, encouraging them; someone who shares with others in generosity; someone who leads others by working hard; or someone who happily extends mercy.

This section marks the end of a long three chapters on how God has spread Israel’s promises and gifts into all the world (Romans 9-11). Paul then enters into a longer section on how we should respond to all these gifts by offering up everything we are as “a living, holy sacrifice pleasing to God” (12:1-15:13). So in a way, this passage is a sneak peek on the last part of the letter to the Romans too.