Alive To God

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. —Romans 6:11

“Alive to God.” When we’re alive to God, we’re really alive. How do we get there? How do we stay there? How do we help others get there?

Immanuel Church is all about “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That’s what we want. But there’s a problem. I saw it Thursday night on the news. They showed a picture of Bernie Madoff with one big word over his head: “Guilty.” And he is. Deep inside we all know we’re guilty, we can’t live that way, and we all want to be alive. We don’t want to lug around the guilt and shame we’ve accumulated. We want to be set free. God can do that. Only God can do that.

“Alive to God.” What are you going to for life, if not to God? Simone Weil, the French mystic, put it clearly: “No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. The only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol.” We will go somewhere for life, either to God or to an idol. The Bible says to Christians, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Idolatry is a Christian problem. It’s a Nashville problem. All our dysfunctions and compulsions and collisions come from not abiding in Christ but trusting in, banking on, putting our hopes in an idol of our own imagining – a demanding, self-centered emotional urgency that cannot satisfy us. An idol is anything we hope will do for us what only God can do for us. An idol is a false hope our hearts embrace, only to discover it doesn’t set us free, it enslaves us. In Romans chapter 6 Paul starts talking to us about our slavery. “Just say no” as a formula was created by people who don’t know their own hearts. Freedom of choice isn’t that simple. But here’s the gospel. The God whose love we have rejected for the sake of false gods that put us in bondage – the one true God still loves us. Let’s find out how we turn away from him, how to turn back to him and how to be set free by grace. Let’s live again. That’s what the gospel is about – sinners coming alive to God. And when we’re alive to God, we’re really alive. How do we get there? How do we stay there? How do we help others get there?

Paul is our guide. He wants us to know three things. One, our death with Christ (verses 5-7). Two, our resurrection with Christ (verses 8-10). Three, our new focus on Christ (verse 11). When you become a Christian, it’s a funeral, it’s a new beginning, and it’s a clarity about grace that starts changing you. The Christian paradigm of personal freedom is not self-help or willpower or religious rules; the Christian paradigm of freedom is death and resurrection with Christ. That’s radical. Let’s go there together.

Our death with Christ

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. —Romans 6:5

If you’ve put your trust in Jesus, God has already done something for you. He has united you with Christ. Do you see it here? “. . . united with him in a death like his, . . . united with him in a resurrection like his.” It’s a good idea to “make a decision for Christ.” I hope you’ve done that. If you haven’t, I’d be happy to pray with you after the service. But if you have made a decision for Christ, God has already made a decision for you. Theologians call it “union with Christ.” It’s the heart of the gospel. At least 164 times in Paul’s letters he tells us that we believers are “in Christ.” It’s how we come alive to God.

How do you see yourself? How do you explain yourself to yourself? There are alternative ways to explain yourself to yourself, each with its own version of salvation. One is scientism. By that I don’t mean science per se but believing in science so that you push God out of the picture. If we do that, then, when it comes to the life-and-death struggles we all face, your guess is as good as mine, because we’re alone in the universe. There is no salvation. Another way to see yourself is in eastern religions, offering us a way to become absorbed into God. “Salvation” is losing who you are in some ultimate All. A third way to see yourself is moralism and all forms of self-improvement, religious and therapeutic. “Salvation” is perfecting who you are. But only Christianity says, “God is there, you have rejected him, but he has still reached down to you in grace through Jesus Christ. When you put your trust in Christ, God so removes every barrier that you are deeply included, while keeping your own identity.”

As a Christian, you’re more than close to Christ; you’ve been united with Christ, while staying who you are. The word translated “united” means “grown together,” like a limb grafted onto a tree. The limb wasn’t there before. It isn’t there naturally. But that limb has been so united to that tree that now it draws life from that tree, it lives there. That’s what God has done for you. He has connected you with Christ. When you became a Christian, God was doing more than you were doing. He made a decisive end and a decisive new beginning for you, like the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why becoming a Christian is not like joining a club. Real Christianity is God speaking over your life and redefining you by his grace. He says, “You are no longer the person you’ve been. I put a death sentence on your old you, that you you want to get rid of. I put that old you on the cross with Christ. It no longer damns you. It has no claim on you any more. Everything bad thing you’ve done has no right to haunt you and keep you up at night. You don’t have to lug it around any more. The shame you feel – now the only power it has is the power of a bad dream when you finally wake up. And I now declare you alive and make you alive in Christ. When he rose from the grave on that first Easter, he overcame everything that has held you down all your life. I now give my risen Son to you, I give you to him, you are now in Christ, and all the hope and certainty of his endless life is your new destiny forever. And for this to break down, Christ himself would have to disappear, and so would I.” That is the word God speaks over us when we come into Christ. Remember verse 3 from last week – we have been baptized into Christ. Becoming a Christian is a radical change created by God. It’s how we start coming alive.

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. —Romans 6:6-7

I can’t find room in the gospel for self-admiration. It’s the air we breathe as Americans today. But it isn’t Christianity. What I find in the gospel is appropriate self-rejection. Do you see how dismissive Paul is here: “our old self”? The gospel awakens in us a new humility and realism about ourselves, as we see our stories now inside Christ’s larger story of death and resurrection. Nicholas Emler, a researcher at the London School of Economics, writes, “There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful. . . . We’ve put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves. These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves.” Do we need confidence? Yes. But the gospel calls us to confidence in Christ, who treats us better than we deserve. So we look back on our old selves, when we were running our lives, and we wave it all off as “our old self.” We’re glad it was crucified with Christ. Now his grace gets us thinking, “I am tired of being a slave to myself. I’m thankful Christ paid the penalty for me on the cross. The man I once was brought to nothing? Thank the Lord!” That is a new confidence in Christ. We’re coming alive to God.

We still struggle. We’re inconsistent with our new confidence in Christ. We get confused and we stumble. The reason why goes deep. I had lunch years ago with a psychiatrist friend. He told me the human brain is basically simple. Our brains are alert to positive things and to negative things. Our brains tell us to move toward positive things and away from negative things. God made us this way, because he is very positive. But now that sin has messed with us – Paul speaks here of “the body of sin,” not that our bodies are sinful but our bodies can be enslaved to sin, and who hasn’t experienced that? – now that sin has messed with us, our very brains can misread positives as negatives and misread negatives as positives. Our very bodies cry out for things that enslave us, and our hearts don’t always light up when we encounter the living God. That’s how broken we are.

But what has God done for broken people like us who sometimes can’t help themselves? Verse 7: “One who has died [with Christ] has been set free from sin.” Or, as the alternative translation in the margin says, we have been “justified from sin.” Here’s the point. The cross of Christ 2000 years ago was God’s up-front commitment to us. When we come into Christ now, we’re stepping into something already accomplished. Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). We still struggle with confusion and temptation. Sometimes we fail. But the deeper reality of our lives is in Christ crucified. We sinners who are in Christ not only have forgiveness, we’re living in it as in an atmosphere. And no damnation can come at us except by passing first through that shield, that force field of Christ crucified. In him, we’ve already died for our sins. They’re paid for already. And that gospel just has a way of making us come alive to God, doesn’t it?

Our resurrection with Christ

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. —Romans 6:8-10

I’m glad verses 8-10 are here. Any moralist can talk about death to sin. But is that all? Do we stop with negation? No. The gospel also takes us into newness of life. Why? We’re also united with Christ in his resurrection. Christ rose from the dead, his newness is irreversible, and his life is now our future.

I have no patience with religion that makes everything negative. It turns the lights out. It serves up tasteless food. All it does is tell me what I can’t do and what I can’t be. I hate it. I hate being bored and cramped and nagged. I want to live. So do you. Are there things about us that need to die? Yes. But Christian renewal is death and resurrection. How could it be otherwise, if we’re one with Christ?

“The death he died he died to sin.” In other words, when Jesus came into our broken world, he had one focus: to die for our sin and destroy our guilt. But now that mission is accomplished. He didn’t die just to die. He died in order to live. He practiced what he preached, he took up his cross and lost his life in order to find it (Matthew 16:24-25). It worked. The living Christ right now is experiencing no bitter aftertaste from death. It’s over, never to be repeated, never to be regretted. He is now totally alive and happy. You and I are not totally alive and happy. But what matters for us is who Christ is. Who Christ is matters more for us than who we are. That’s freedom. So, who is he? He is “the living one,” according to Scripture (Revelation 1:18). And “the life he lives he lives to God.” In other words, he was raised from death with intensified powers to love God with all the might of his nuclear-powered heart, soul, mind and strength. He is alive to God. He is walking in newness of life. And he is the One we’ve been united with. Whatever weakness you bring into church today, it’s temporary, because Christ is risen from the dead, never to die again. Here’s how it all nets out:

Our new aliveness to God

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. —Romans 6:11

What would Paul think of people who “accept Jesus” but stay the way they are? We have that problem in Nashville – treating Jesus as a religious drive-thru happy meal while we’re on our way to do the stuff we really care about. And the reason we choose his fast food place rather than another is that his place is more convenient. Is that being “alive to God”? That is the false religion that hangs like a pall over our city and keeps us enslaved to what we are. The Bible says that becoming a Christian is like a death and resurrection.

Let me be practical. Here’s what you need to say by faith to that sin that sticks to you and shames you and enslaves you and damns you and diminishes Christ in your life. You need to say this every day to that familiar sin: “Hasta la vista, baby! I’m so dead to you in Christ. You have no claim on me any more. You are the merest fleabite compared with what the mighty Christ has done for me.” That’s the kind of thing you need to say by faith, in obedience to Romans 6:11. Will you believe the gospel, and will you trust in the power of God’s grace? The victory you need was won 2000 years ago. You entered into it when you came into Christ. Believe it, swallow it whole and defy your sins that lie to you that you wouldn’t be “normal” without them. And when the devil and your idols and your own foolishness want to dictate to you and dominate you and tell you what a worthless piece of pond scum you are, which is a demoralizing lie, this is what you should say by faith in Christ – whatever they say to haunt you and defeat you, here’s what you should say, however intimidating they may be: “Is that your best shot? Jesus Christ is a far greater Savior than you are damners, the whole lot of you put together. Do you seriously expect me to believe that the holy Son of God came down into my world and died for my sins and rose from my grave and returned as my Advocate to the Father only to be defeated after all by the likes of you? And do you realize who you’re talking to? I am a living member of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has joined himself to me by grace. He is making me alive to God forever. He tells me I am more than a conqueror. He tells me I am an heir of heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ has promised me his complete salvation. Deal with that, you loser morons!”

The grace of God is not a concession he makes. It is not weak. The grace of God is the power of God. And we come alive to God with that power as we apply his grace boldly to our sinful hearts. Every one of us is learning and growing and working on something. But as we struggle, let’s not look for a second blessing. Let’s feed on the first blessing, the forgiveness of our sins by the grace of God in Christ. It’s the smelling salts of the gospel under our noses. We wake up. We come alive to God. Sanctification is not a step beyond justification; sanctification comes from a growing awareness of our justification. Do you want to change? Are you tired of your bondage to your idols? Do you want to walk in newness of life? Believe the gospel all over again. Apply it to your heart all over again. Everything you need is in Christ, where you began. Is there death involved? Yes. But it’s the death of death. It’s the only death that leads to resurrection for you.

This week I was reading a book from my dad’s library. He’d written in the margin the first few words of an old gospel song I hadn’t thought of in years. I looked it up in a hymnal. This old song tells us who we are and who Christ is and what we need to do. I hate the music, but I love the words:

Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus, I come
Into thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus, I come to thee
Out of my sickness into thy health
Out of my want and into thy wealth
Out of my sin and into thyself, Jesus, I come to thee.

Come to Jesus.