“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5.1-5).
Paul shares his calling in a unique and dynamic way in the letter to the church at Rome. Not only has Paul experienced a conversion experience (Acts 9), but he also has been commissioned to preach the Good News of the Gospel as a divinely appointed apostle. Paul defines his relationship with the community of faith as one of mutual encouragement. Paul points out that he will share his calling and spiritual gifts to preach the Good News with them.
Paul begins his letter explaining justification. Paul emphasizes that grace is free not earned; it is a gift from God. Everyone is under condemnation apart from the grace extended to us in the God-man Jesus. Water baptism becomes the symbol of the new life given to those who believe by faith alone in the redemption of humanity in Christ Jesus. Later in the text Paul points to the union of Christ to be the beginning of the new life or new creation for each believer. Because this union is not only spiritual but material in its scope, believers are no longer held sway by sin. This new approach to sinfulness changes the way believers live their lives.
Paul establishes a universal understanding of human sinfulness that permeates all creation. Jesus came to offer a saving act of grace for all people. His unconditional grace is extended by faith alone to those who believe (1.15-17). To be sure sin has gained a choke hold on all people which can only be broken by an act of God. God has made himself known through creation, or what we would call prevenient grace. People choose of their own volition to turn away from this revelation in creation. For the Jewish community God’s will has been clearly defined on stone tablets but for believers God’s will is written upon their hearts. Sinfulness can only be overcome by doing the will of God.
Being justified means reconciliation to God or making peace with God (5.1). Christ himself takes on the battle for us regarding sin and the flesh if we choose to allow that process to happen. God promises to offer us a way out of the battle, aiding us to overcome sin and our flesh. Because of the grace offered us through the justifying work of Christ Jesus, the power of sin has been revoked giving us confident assurance that we no longer have to struggle with restraining ourselves. The amazing news is that the Gospel has the power to transform our lives and save us from our very self. The transforming power of God’s grace occurs from the inside out. If we could change ourselves, we would not need a savior! But God does not give us a savior for the purpose of our own good works, as God is the one who does the work within us. Ultimately, the work of transformation begins and ends with forgiveness.
Paul continues the spiritual journey by explaining the union with Christ and the work of God’s Spirit to bring sin issues to life. This life-changing event of justification brings revelation to the believer through the impartation of the Holy Spirit into the spirit person. When the believer relinquishes the will, they are imparted with the will of the Father written upon the heart. To be sure the natural mind beholds an ethical/moral consciousness that gets tainted and with actual sin. At best the natural mind understands the need for morality, but the natural man/woman cannot live out the natural law. As believers grow in faith, they are given the mind of Christ that moves them from captivity to the sinful nature of depravity, fleshly, and sinful thinking to being enslaved to Christ Jesus as transformed people who are fully convinced within themselves of how to they should personally live and possessing a made-up mind about how they will live righteously toward their neighbor until they come into full alignment with the attitude of Christ having one mind and one voice. This life in the Spirit begins at the moment of salvation, and continues into Eternal Life.
Paul emphasizes the significance of Israel’s place in the process of bringing the Greeks into the spiritual fold where two people become one in Christ Jesus. Paul is addressing his concern that believers are trying to live their faith in the legalism of social justice (of doing good for their neighbors) but not the heart of transformed living (of unconditional forgiveness). The most difficult acknowledgement for those of us who have a strong sense of the need for hard work in the area of social justice is balancing that with reflections on our inner lives.
Dr. Ellsworth Kalas noted his “mixed feelings about the times in which we live” in an article while presiding at Asbury Theological Seminary in May 2014. His concern as he looked back over the life of the church in his lifetime was the lack of meaningful evangelism instead the church opted for more of a social club experience. My observation is that the church grew to become a combination of social club and service organization, but missed out on the sanctifying power of the Gospel.
Paul gives believers the ultimate goal of being of the same attitude with Christ Jesus – being united with one mind and one voice. This unity Paul speaks of as one mind and one voice is not the cultural social norms (reason experience) of the day that would reflect the Greek understanding of right living, and it is not the law presented to Moses or the community laws in the Torah (tradition experience). Both those who live according to cultural social norms and those who live according to the customs of Israel must come to the understanding that the mind of Christ Jesus is the third way (transformational experience).
Harvey Brown a gifted UMC Pastor, Navy Chaplain, and international educator on forgiveness issues recently wrote a pamphlet entitled Forgiveness: Finding Freedom From your Past. The pamphlet is designed in baseball terms to be a line drive. To be sure when the Apostle Paul discusses theological and doctrinal topics he hits us hard with line drives that seem impossible to catch.
I love how Harvey explains that God doesn’t torment or inflict us with pain because we are unforgiving. But he does allow the natural consequences of holding unforgiveness in our hearts and minds to yield the fruit of creating a mental and emotional prison of our own making. Without unconditional forgiveness we get locked into bondage with the person. It is so easy to be offended, and so hard to release unconditional forgiveness toward others. Offense is the greatest trap in the kingdom of darkness.
The unrest in our thoughts become a gift from God to signal to us that we are being convicted of our own sin of unforgiveness. We have a choice to give up our right to be right. We witness that with Jesus on the cross. When we hold a grudge against someone else, we often forget the third party in the relationship is God himself. We may disregard another person by compartmentalizing and minimizing the relationship in order to avoid the conflict in the heart and mind. But that conflict signals unforgiveness that needs to be dealt with in our own hearts. Unforgiveness does minimal damage to the other person and God, but creates personal suffering within the spirit, mind, will, emotions, memory trauma, and physical problems. When we keep an attitude of offense, we become offensive. The answer is unconditional love and forgiveness.
As we grow up and develop interpersonal relationships with one another, we develop coping mechanisms or what Harvey defines as “life strategies.” These life strategies become inner vows and constructed attitudes to protect those inner vows. We make decisions every day about how we choose to live, and we are often unaware of the consequences of those choices and decisions. These places in our mind become strongholds that need the power of the Holy Spirit to blast us into a new way of thinking and relating to others. Inner vows become impenetrable fortresses in our thinking blocking out God and others, and deceiving ourselves. Tormented thinking comes by way of these inner vows. The outcome comes by way of emotional distress, loneliness, distrust, anger and hatred, sleeplessness, anxiety, indigestion, or arthritis.
Inner vows and constructed attitudes can be the means to get us out of difficult situations. They can help us manage our feelings when we can’t figure how to get out of a situation. But those life strategies, coping mechanisms, inner vows, and constructed attitudes can become roadblocks and strongholds that prevent us from receiving God’s love for our self and giving that unconditional love to our neighbors.
Sharing these sacred stories from my chaplaincy days offers a glimpse into the power of God to transform our lives. When I share stories from time to time, my attempt is to honor the testimony of those who found God in a very real and tangible way here on earth. I share my God moments to bless others with the blessings I have already received in these stories. Hear the story of Charles. I have changed his name to protect his identity even though he has given me permission to share my observations of his healing experience.
I first met Charles in the Emergency Room as he and the flight team came barreling through the hospital facility. Charles had been flown in from an outlying community where he had been riding an all-terrain vehicle with his buddy. The driver had over corrected on gravel and turned the vehicle over on its side catching Charles’ leg underneath. Charles was overwhelmed with pain as the staff worked to save his leg.
Charles went into to surgery that night uncertain as to whether his leg would be amputated. The doctor made every effort to restore his leg, and the recovery process was grueling. In the early days of his recovery Charles had several reconstructive surgeries and with each one his life was held in balance between life and death. Infection had set in and the medications were failing to do their job. In a desperate plea for God’s intervention Charles called for the chaplain. As I walked into the hospital room that day, my mind went back over all the moments I had been present with Charles.
I knew that Charles had been raised in church and his family members were faithful people. When I first met Charles in the Emergency Room, all he could do was to call out for his mom to forgive him. She had instructed him not to go ATV riding that day. He repeated over and over, If I die, make sure mom knows that I am sorry for not listening to her and doing what she said. He said, Tell her I got right with God and I’m going to be okay. I have never in my life seen such an openly repentant heart that desired nothing but goodness. Charles realized he had to make peace with God and his mother. Charles was secure in his peace of mind that God was with him.
But his final cry was what caught my attention, Oh, God! Will I be able to play baseball this year? You see he loved baseball; it had been his whole life. He truly understood that his life was forever changed by this decision he had made. And, my calling as a chaplain was to help Charles imagine the possibilities of his uncertain future.
On that day as I walked into the room the smell of the infection was overwhelming, and I knew Charles was close to the veil between life and death. The presence of God was strong and I could just imagine the holy angels of God around his bed ministering to him, his family, and his teammates who had come to visit. As I entered the room Charles called to me, Chaplain, I’m glad you are here. I know when you pray God hears you. I have felt your prayers before. I feel like I am dying, and I want you to pray for me. I apologized to my mom, and she has forgiven me. If God takes my life, pray that my family and teammates will be okay. But I want to live, and play baseball again. The doctor says I don’t have much of a chance. Will you pray? And, so we prayed. In our prayer time with family and friends around his bed, God touched his heart with the fire of the Holy Spirit and Charles saw Jesus in a vision. Charles cried out, I feel God healing me! I sensed the power of God healing him, too. Charles had been suffering from a blood infection, and from that moment forward Charles began to heal.
It took weeks of recovery, but Charles would eventually leave the hospital to go to a rehabilitation facility. At the rehabilitation facility his courage was astounding. No one expected him to walk again – except Charles. The very first day he walked on his very own two feet happened while I was visiting. He told me, God has given me the strength to walk. Thank you for believing in me! He was such a humble soul. He just needed someone to be his encourager from God’s perspective. When his doctors were telling him he would never walk, Charles needed someone to believe he could be “whole” in a new way. When the doctors were taking away his old life, Charles needed someone to give him hope for a new life.
After many weeks of rehabilitation, Charles returned to the hospital for another procedure. He called and asked me to stop by his room. I shared with Charles my own injury story of how I had played softball and sprained both my legs breaking out of the batters box to run for first. The loose sand had given way under my feet, and the injury had put me up for 6-weeks. After that incident, I gave up on my love for sports because I was afraid of reinjuring myself. I explained that living with regret is an awful feeling. If I had to do it over again, I would have kept up my love for sports but in a new way. And, I gave him my old softball glove. On my glove I wrote all the heroes of the Bible that inspired me with their Scripture references. I told him to never live with regret but to become all that he could be in this newly healed body, and I said good-bye.
A year passed by before I saw Charles again. He came in for his check up with the doctors, and then he came to see me. He couldn’t wait to show me that he was walking on crutches and by spring the doctors said he could play baseball again. He had been training with his teammates and keeping his arm warmed up during the off season. As he finished reliving the last several months that we had been apart, he arrived at the real reason for his visit. Charles told me how he and his grandmother sat down together and read the stories of the bible that I had shared with him on my old softball glove. Then he asked me if it was okay to use my glove when he took the field in the spring. He had came to ask me if it was okay for him to keep the glove and use it.
From time to time I still carry a baseball around in my car or my purse to remember Charles’ amazing courage, his love for his family, and his awareness of God. When I look back over his story what lays hold of my heart the most is his understanding of his need for forgiveness, his repentant heart, and his desire to honor his mother. His heart attitude gave God room to move for the healing that needed to take place in his body.
Charles has an extraordinary story, but his story is not unlike any one of our own extraordinary stories. We have hurts in our lives that begin in our hearts that need to be healed with the deep reconciliation we find only in and through Christ’s example to us on the cross. May the peace that passes all understanding free your heart today to forgive and to be forgiven just as Charles did! Go in peace.