Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on Sept. 7, 2008.
"Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" (John 6:28).
Karl Barth's book, The Epistle to the Romans (See Link at End), is certainly the richest delineation of the gospel of Christ I have ever read, next to the Apostle Paul's. But since Barth's world view is closer to ours than Paul's is, sometimes, he surpasses the Apostle in clarity and explanation of the unexplainable love of God which has transformed our lives and is delivering us from ourselves. Barth is not for everyone, needless to say, because we live in a fast paced world of "sound bites," breaking news via e-mail alerts, "headline news," and other efficient ways to find out what's happening while driving to work and talking on our cell phone at the same time. Barth's thought is so deep and expressed in such complex sentences, that it takes quiet time and concentration for me to understand him. The best way I've found to approach the book, is to review the corresponding chapter in the Book of Romans, before reading what Barth has to say about it. That gives me a fuller picture of what Paul was expressing. Often, the Spirit whisks me away into consideration of things I had missed before. Barth himself is so intellectually stimulating that I find my mind racing as I read him. I've been pressing forward with the studying, reading, and writing, and last week, finished chapter eleven, which to me is the absolute pinnacle of Paul's presentation of the gospel.
While waiting for an appointment, I read Romans, chapters 12-16, because Barth lumps all those chapters into two long chapters in concluding his book. After reading the glorious themes of love, grace, universal sin and universal salvation that Paul addresses so brilliantly, the emotional "floor" dropped out from under me while reading the last five chapters of Romans. It felt like I had been catapulted off Mount Zion where I'd been soaring with Paul, and plummeted onto the slippery slope of Mount Sinai below. "He should have stopped while he was ahead," I told Lenny. Accordingly, I decided to quickly whip through what Karl Barth had to say to see if there was something that might inspire a writing. There was!
One of my impressions about Paul's chapters 12-16, is that they appear to be merely more law laid on the flock, very disappointing indeed, since the first 11 chapters clearly demonstrate that we are "justified by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16).
Barth begins his discourse on Romans, chapter twelve, by speaking of the Problem of Ethics, which he calls "The Great Disturbance.": "The problem of ethics is presented once again (Rom. 7:12-13; 8: 12-13) as a great disturbance. How indeed, can it be otherwise? for human behavior must inevitably be disturbed by the thought of God. Every conversation about Him ends in disharmony, since it is undertaken by men lacking sufficient perception to enable them to keep a firm hold upon the subject about which they are talking."
The dictionary defines ethics as "a set of moral principals which govern a person's or group's behavior." In a footnote on his first page, Barth expresses his opinion that Paul's comments should not be interpreted as an imperative (a command), but based on the text, it should be considered an exhortation ("an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something"). That struck me as splitting hairs, but Barth makes it clear that anytime human beings try to speak for God (my words, not his), to interpret what God is saying for another person, to define what's right and wrong we are merely binding our own "haphazard conceits" on another. That won't work, he says, because he asks, "Are we not all patients in one hospital? Do we not all stand under one accusation? Are we not all fallen under one condemnation? What, then can we do, but be of the same mind one toward another?" (Rom. 12:16).
He insists that "the power and earnestness of Christian ethics lie in its persistent asking of questions and in its steady refusal to provide answers to these questions. Christian ethics only demonstrate, only bear witness that there is an answer. This relativity of the ethics of grace is the ax laid at the root of our own haphazard conceits. The root from which our conceits spring, the secret which lies behind all human exaltation, is disclosed in the persistent regularity with which men crown themselves with the security of some absolute answer. By putting an end to all absolute ethics, Christianity finally puts an end to all the triumph and sorrow that accompanies the occupation of any human eminence. To Christianity every human high place, every human position, every battle and controversy between men of this world, however sacred and inevitable the conflict may be, is no more than a parable."
To me, ethics as a philosophical study is more fruit of the poisoned tree, trying to define good and evil and then applying that to our lives. It didn't work for Adam and Eve, and it still brings death to us, for only His Life in the Spirit can show us how to live. Only the indwelling Christ can lead us out of the wilderness where we've been wandering, and into the promised land of our Father. I like Barth's discussion of good and evil. He said,
"Evil means, in Christian language, the necessary condition of all visible human action. Evil is the inert mass of human activity as such. Good is the dissolution of evil, its judgment. Good is the impossible possibility of redemption from evil. Good is the justification of men by God." Oh the wonder of that thought: "Good is the justification of men by God!" It means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is back slapping, foot tapping, dancing-a-gig, "hallelujah" shouting "Good News," causing us to run through the streets telling everyone we meet that Christ has won, the battle with the "Grand Inquisitor" (Barth's title for the devil) is over, and God has won single handedly, easily, definitively, and absolutely!
And yet, in spite of our human confusion, or lack of spiritual discernment, our inability to govern ourselves, let alone others, we still ask the question, "What shall we do?" When I saw that Barth himself raised this question over and over again in his discourse on Romans, chapter 12, I knew that this question would be the title of this writing. Men have been asking it since the beginning, some for sincere help, and others for justifying behavior which in their heart of hearts they know is questionable. When the crowds asked Jesus, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"; He answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:28-29). Believing in God sounds simple and easy to do, but is it? If He puts faith in our hearts, then there's no problem, but if we are trying to drum it up out of thin air, it is an impossible task. It seems to me that Christians are always trying to do something for God. We attended a funeral a few years ago in this town, during which the Pastor was proud as punch to report that on the morning of her sudden death, the deceased had asked her husband, "What shall we do for Jesus today?" What did Jesus need, I wondered, someone to bake Him a casserole? someone to drive Him to the doctor? someone to read the Bible to Him? Just WHAT CAN we do for God? "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay Him?" (Rom. 11:35).
The bottom line to Christian living, it seems to me, and I never tell you anything that does not bless my own life, is this: Whatever we need has been given to us by our Father, Paul declared! "What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?" (I Cor. 4:7). We want to get a little glory, take a little credit, sound our trumpets on the street corners while giving our alms, make others glad they know us personally. But in truth, all our self efforts are as dung, and the only works which carry the eternal weight of glory are those that the Father does THROUGH us by the power of the Spirit. Those are hard words to hear, but true nonetheless.
Christians love to quote James' declaration, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:17). I have always considered James' audience to be Babes in Christ, ones who needed to hear a little law to get their engines revved up, or perhaps James himself had not been sufficiently nourished by Brother Paul's revelation that we are "not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16). But as I was writing this, I saw that there's no problem here when you embrace the truth that Paul declared so magnificently, that FAITH IS "A GIFT OF GOD, LEST ANY MAN SHOULD BOAST" (Eph. 2:8-9). It is the Faith OF Christ by which we live (Gal. 2:20, KJV), not our faith. Bearing that in mind, we believe, we work, we preach the gospel, and we succeed in all these things BY the Faith OF Christ operating in us and through us. "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things" (Rom. 11:36).
For those to whom the question "What shall we do?" still poses ethical and spiritual problems, I recommend Harry Fox's paper entitled, "Three Hard to Learn Words: Ask, Receive, Give," (See Link at End). In it, he gives an excellent answer to the pesky question, "What shall we do?" It is nothing at all other than to RECEIVE what God has already given us IN CHRIST! Harry's comments come from a speech he gave in 1995. Here are some excerpts which provide insight into the question itself and God's answer to it.
"In Japan, where I was born and lived until age 14, I noticed how reluctant most people were to accept gifts. When I became acquainted with their social system I began to understand why this was so. According to that system it was wrong to accept a gift unless one was willing to repay the gift with something of equal or greater worth. In other words, in that system there was no such thing as a free gift. Every accepted or received gift placed the receiver under heavy obligation to the one from whom the gift was received. Thus, there naturally tended to develop a skepticism toward any and all "gifts," a questioning of the motives of givers of gifts, a desire to know what "strings" were attached to every so-called gift. Although this attitude toward the acceptance of gifts has been formalized and institutionalized in Japan to a degree beyond what we have in America and elsewhere, we know from experience that a similar attitude exists here. We are especially aware of it in regard to gifts accepted by politicians, from wealthy donors seeking thereby to influence legislation, even though donors and recipients try to get us to believe that no such doing occurs.
"In Romans 6:23, the Apostle Paul communicates to us the refreshingly good news that what God offers us is FREE, with no strings attached. Here is what he says: "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (RSV). In Matthew 10:8, Jesus tells His disciples that what He had given them had cost them nothing and since they had "freely received" they were to give just as "freely" (KJV). This is such a hard lesson to learn! For even here in America we have been taught that "there is no such thing as a free lunch." We are taught that everything worth having must be EARNED. That is why we look with so much disapproval on anyone who receives "welfare." Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus said in Mark 10:15, "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (RSV).
"And what was and is and forever will be the "Kingdom of God?" It is the entire package of all God's gifts to us: His sacrificial love on our behalf in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in which we are forgiven and reconciled to God and given the Gift of the Holy Spirit and the community of loving relationships known as the church. Peter, in Acts 2:38, says that even the rite of entrance into the "Kingdom" is a gift to be received when he tells the multitude gathered before Him to "repent and receive baptism" (Japanese version).
"Another word encompassing this gift package is "grace," as stated by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:17 where he says, "If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one Man Jesus Christ" (RSV, emphasis mine)." End Quote.
Most of us do not view repentance or baptism or anything else about the Christian life as a gift, and as a consequence, we spend our lives trying to become what we already ARE in Christ. We KNOW we do not deserve God's gifts, His grace, His salvation, and we are too right in the flesh, but in the Spirit, He has overshadowed our poor self esteem, our sinful flesh, and our eminent death caused by eating the poisonous fruit. He has sacrificed His life for ours, given us the mind of Christ, transformed our carnal nature by the New Creation, and declared that "the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (II Cor. 5:17). He has called us therefore, "children of God" (I John 3:1).
When Joshua sent the 12 spies out to reconnoiter the land of Canaan in preparation for their invasion of it, 10 of them came back and said, "Oh no, we can't win there. There are GIANTS in the land." There still are, my friends, for in Christ, we ARE the promised land, the holy land. The giants, against whom the Holy Spirit's mop up work still continues, often land knock out blows. We go down for the count; we grumble and we gnash our teeth, but in spite of that, God perseveres, and He brings us through to His healing Victory in Jesus! "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." And He gives us even our belief!
Father, we thank You for being our Champion, our Answer to all things. Heal us of everything which stands as a barrier to Your love in our lives. We love You and worship You and praise You! Grant us to be instruments of Your peace to all men, so that all may know You from the least to the greatest. In Christ, we ask it. Amen. Jan Antonsson
To Be Continued....
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail Address)
"Three Hard to Learn words: Ask, Receive, Give," by Harry Robert Fox
Healing, or Stealing God's Glory?
Risky Business, Healing, Part II
The Royal Priesthood, Healing, Part III
Rest in the GIFT, Healing, Part IV
Restoring the Glory Land, Part V
Organizing the Church, Part VI
Victory Through Helplessness,Healing, Part VII
What Does Faith Have to do With It? Healing, Part VIII
The Death of Death, Healing, Part IX
The Death He Died, Healing, Part X
Freed From Sin, Healing Part XI
Money, the Kingdom, and Bifocal Vision, Healing, Part XII
Flesh, Spirit, & the New Man, Healing, Part XIII
The Church, the Gospel, and God's Will, Healing, Part XIV
The End of the Law, Healing, Part XV
The Divine Possibility, Healing, Part XVI
The Tyranny of the Vegetable Eaters, Healing, Part XVIII
The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
The Glory Road
We always enjoy hearing from you!
This writing was uploaded to the web 07/04/08,
By Jan Antonsson, webmeister,
and last updated 11/19/08.