When in Romans: Life and Peace

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

            It’s good to be back!

            I’ve been to two big Baptist meetings while I was away and visited three different countries. I hiked to the top of Pulpit Rock in Norway, went swimming in a lake in Sweden, and flew through the streets of Copenhagen on a bicycle. I came home sunburned, blistered, and bug bit, which for me only means that I’ve had a great vacation. But it’s good to be back and especially good to be back with you. I’ve said it before, but there is no place I would rather be on a Sunday morning than right here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

It’s good to see you.

I’m grateful to Steve Blanchard and Allison Collier for filling the pulpit so capably while I was away. Steve preached from the Old Testament and Allison preached from the Gospel, but I’m going to continue this series called, “When in Romans,” based on the epistle of the same name. We’ve already worked our way through the first few chapters, looking at how Paul understands the human condition: despairing over the depravity of the pagan world in chapter 1, but recognizing in chapter 2 that those who claim to be religious are not much better. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he writes in chapter 3, and for Paul, sin is a problem. In fact, it may be the problem. He uses the word 59 times in the Book of Romans and when he does he makes it clear that sin is what separates us from God. It’s what makes it impossible for us to have a relationship with him that is both life-giving and life-changing. “What we need is to be justified,” Paul says, that is, made right with God, and in chapter 4 he explains that we do that through faith. In the same way Abraham trusted God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness, we can trust Jesus to do whatever it takes to make us right with God. And Jesus has. Now, Paul writes in chapter 5, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And as I said, that may have been what Paul had been looking for his entire life. 

            “What then,” he asks, at the beginning of chapter 6: “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Absolutely not! The old you was buried in the waters of baptism. What came up was a whole new you, ready to live a whole new life. Sin shouldn’t have any part of that life. You should be done with sin forever!”

            Should be.

But the way Paul talks about sin in chapter 7 makes me think that even he wasn’t completely done with it. “I want to do what is right,” he says, “but I can’t.  There seems to be some lower nature in me, at war with my better self, that makes me want to do the things I know I shouldn’t do. When I want to do what is right I end up doing wrong, and when I try to stay away from what is wrong I still can’t seem to do what is right. What’s the matter with me? Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And then he answers his own question. “Thanks be to God,” he says, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that leads him to a whole new line of reasoning.

            At the beginning of chapter 8 he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and when I read those words this time around I remembered a Time magazine cover from 2011 that asked the question, “What if there’s no hell?” It was a reference to a book called Love Wins, by Rob Bell, in which he argued that it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.[i] When I read that article in 2011 I thought, “Well, that’s true; it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.” But I also wondered: “Does that mean there isn’t a hell, and if that’s true, then what becomes of Christianity?”     New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once observed that for many Christians, “the afterlife is central.” He said that in the Lutheran church of his boyhood the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loomed large. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if you had been able to convince me at age twelve that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian.”[ii] So if there’s no hell Christianity crumbles, right? Or wrong?

            When I read that verse at the beginning of Romans 8, and remembered that Time magazine article from 2011, it struck me that Paul would answer the question of whether or not there is a hell by saying there isn’t. Not for those who are in Christ Jesus. They might be judged but they won’t be condemned. Christ has already taken their condemnation for them. He has literally gone to hell for them. So they can stop worrying about that, and for some people that would be a tremendous relief.

Because there are still churches where the afterlife is central, where the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loom large. When I started preaching nearly forty years ago there were a few members of that rural Kentucky church who seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more of a fire and brimstone preacher. “That’s what brings them down the aisle!” they would say, suggesting that it was my job to scare the hell out of people. Some preachers still try to do that. But according to the latest surveys sixty percent of Americans don’t even believe in hell anymore. Another thirty percent would say that when it comes to religion they don’t believe much of anything at all. And I suspect there is a relationship between those two numbers: that if you don’t believe in hell then, like 12-year-old Marcus Borg, you may wonder why you should be a Christian at all.

            But please notice that Paul didn’t say there is no hell. He only said that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He might say that hell is as real as it’s ever been but those who are in Christ Jesus don’t have to worry about it anymore, they don’t have to be afraid. They are free at last to live the life God has given them. So I’m wondering: what does that even mean? What does it mean to be in Christ Jesus? I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and I think I’ve come up with an analogy that even Paul would approve.

Have you ever taken a sponge that is dry and hard and dropped it into a sink full of warm, soapy water? Something happens to that sponge: it begins to soak up that warm, soapy water until it is completely saturated, soft, and pliable. You can pick it up, squeeze it, and warm, soapy water will trickle down your forearm. I think Paul might say that’s what happens to us in baptism. We are baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, like a dry, hard sponge dipped into a sink full of liquid divinity. We soak up the nature of Christ, the spirit of Christ, until it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. But here’s the problem: if you put that soaking wet sponge on a windowsill in the sunshine and leave it there for a few days, it will get dry and hard again. And what about us? In the hours after our baptism we were radiant. We had been baptized into Christ Jesus and it showed. Our faces shone like the sun. But then weeks went by, months, and that holy glow began to dim. And if your baptism was it—if that was your first and last experience of the divine—then your soul may have eventually become as dry and hard as that sponge on the windowsill.

            So, what’s the remedy? Do you get baptized again, and again, and again? Do you come down the aisle every time you begin to feel a little dry, spiritually, and ask the preacher to put you under the water one more time? No, I don’t think so. I think you immerse yourself in worship, in fellowship, in Bible study and in prayer. I think that whatever else you might say about these ancient spiritual practices they are meant to keep the sponge of your soul saturated with the divine. They are how you remain “in Christ Jesus.” And it may sound too simple, but all of these things are available to you simply by going to church.

            As I was working on this sermon I tried to remember a time when I didn’t go to church, and there has only been one. It was when I went off to prep school at the age of fifteen. I started as a sophomore, having tried and failed to get into that school the first two times. The first Sunday I was there the force of habit got me out of bed and carried me to the church closest to my dormitory: a Baptist church. I’d like to say that I went back the next week, and the week after that, but I didn’t. When my parents asked I said I’d found a good church close by, but I didn’t tell them I’d stopped going. It wasn’t that I meant to; it was almost like I had to. That school was hard, and for someone who had never had to study much before it was a big adjustment. We had classes on Saturday up until noon, and then everyone took the rest of the day off to play, and play hard. Check in on Saturday wasn’t until midnight, and when Sunday morning rolled around everybody slept in, and then went to the dining hall for brunch before settling in to do homework the rest of the day. There was so much homework! It felt almost necessary to fall into the same pattern as everyone else, just to take the break I needed so desperately on Saturday afternoon, and then to get my work done before Monday morning. 

            For two years that’s what I did, but when my mother suggested I apply to college early, I did, and when I got in (to everyone’s surprise, including mine), I went. I was glad to get away from the never-ending workload and the cutthroat competition of prep school. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I went. I learned a lot at that school. I gained a sense of confidence that I might not have found elsewhere. I came away with this feeling that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere.

But I barely made it.

I had this cheap electric alarm clock that would click before it buzzed in the morning—the tiniest click, and then a half-second delay, and then that buzzer telling me it was time to get up and get going again, from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. I hated that buzzer so much that I developed a new reflex. When I heard that click in the morning, before the buzzer could sound, my hand would shoot out from under the covers and turn off that alarm. 95 percent of the time my hand got to it before the buzzer sounded. 

            That’s how tired of that school I was. And although I made some good friends there and had some good times, my mother knew me well enough to know I wasn’t thriving. That’s why she suggested I apply to college a year early—to a tiny college in a southern state where my uncle was on the faculty. I did, and as I said, I got in and went. And I did well there. I thrived. But it wasn’t until I was working on this sermon last week that I realized the only time in my life I didn’t go to church was when I was in prep school. That changed when I went to college. My older brother, Ed, transferred to my new school and went with me. He was a good role model. He got me up early on Sunday mornings to go to church with him. On Monday nights we went to an on-campus Bible study. As I said, I thrived there, but was it because of that? Was it because I got myself grounded again in the things of God? Did it help me realize that it wasn’t all up to me, that I was part of something bigger than myself? At prep school I was lonelier than I’d ever been before. I suffered from a kind of stress I’d never known. A good psychologist may have said I was clinically depressed. Was some of it, or all of it, because I’d given up going to church? 

            I don’t know, and I don’t really know if that’s what Paul is talking about in this passage, but in verse 5 he tells his readers to set their minds not on the things of the flesh, but on the things of the Spirit, and going to church is a good way to do that. I mean, look at you this morning, both you who are in the room and you who are watching from home. Instead of dreaming up new ways to indulge the flesh you are listening to a sermon. Good for you! I tell people sometimes that to sit in church for an hour on Sunday morning and listen for a word from outside yourself, a word from the Lord, is a wonderful, weekly discipline. It’s a way to unplug from the world around you and re-boot your life.

I wish someone had told me that while I was in prep school. Can you imagine, if I’d gone back to that Baptist church the following Sunday, and the one after that, and the one after that? Can you imagine how that congregation might have looked at that fifteen-year-old boy sitting all by himself on a church pew and taken some pity on him? How they might have loved him, and encouraged him, and occasionally taken him home for Sunday dinner? I mean, it’s what you would do, right? If that had happened for me I think I might be telling you a different story today. I think I might be telling you the story of how, even in that stressful situation, I was able to remain in Christ Jesus by keeping the sponge of my soul soaked in the Spirit of God, and how even then, even there, I was able to find life and peace.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Jon Meacham, “Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?” Time, April 14, 2011 (https://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2065289,00.html).

[ii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.(Kindle edition, location 266-270).