THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, July 23, 2017
To Whom Is Our Obligation
In the sentence before our reading begins, Paul has told the Roman believers that
“If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.” (Romans 8:11closeAn error occurred.)
If we parse what Paul has said here in his usual dense style, we will realize that this is an affirmation of the Trinity. It speaks of the Spirit, the one who raise Jesus, and Christ. All three are connected, intertwined, and responsible to each other in the greater work of fulfilling God’s purpose.
So then, Paul begins his next thought: “So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation.” “We are debtors.” That’s not exactly something we want to hear. Our monthly credit card bills, car or house payments all too enthusiastically remind us of that. We dislike having that frequent reminder. It lowers our self-estimation, and that’s a real downer. Worse than that, being told we are debtors when all our IOUs are cleared and the bill collector has no reason to pound on our door is a real drag. We would resent that implication. After all, we tend to agree with Polonius in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, when he counseled his son Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” This concept is a good ideal, but it’s not practical.
Having told his readers that they are debtors, Paul then goes on to explain. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases the apostle, “We don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent.” That is, we are not debtors to our flesh, we don’t owe anything to our selfish ways of living.
There is not a thing we could have done saving ourselves. God has done everything we needed to be done. Therefore, we have an obligation to respond, not to ourselves, not to our human nature wracked with sin, but to God. That’s something more than our mother whispering in our ear, “Say ‘Thank you,’ Rick.” Because of all that Christ has done and is going to do for us, we are obligated to live in the power and control of the Holy Spirit.
The way that Paul puts this is that we are to refuse the drives and desires of our still attractive but crucified sinful nature. We are to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions. Paul says that redeemed life in Christ is a call to live “sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now” (Titus 2:12closeAn error occurred.). The old, sinful nature may present its demands, based upon the past but we have no obligation to cooperate. It is like having fraud protection on our credit cards. We aren’t required to pay for something fraudulently charged to our account. Jesus has cancelled the debt to sin.
I suppose that we could look at this as refinancing our debt. We no longer owe a debt of death to sin. The debt we now owe is a debt of life and it is owed to God. Why is that? Because “all who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters….[Y]ou received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.”
The true children of God are everyone who are led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit-led life stands out. It can’t be hid. Believers not only have the Spirit, they are also led by the Spirit.
Paul uses adoption to illustrate the believer’s new relationship with God and his or her privileges as part of God’s family. In Roman culture familiar to both Paul and his readers, the adopted person lost all the rights which came from the old family and gained all the rights of a legitimate child in the new family. The adoptee became a full heir to all the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and assets and debts of the new family.
That’s why Paul uses the image about becoming a Christian. When a person comes to Christ, he or she gets everything that goes with being a child in God’s family. One of the outstanding privileges of family of God membership is being led by the Spirit. What a gift the new family relationship provides!
Former American poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about a boy making a lanyard at summer camp. With the help of his counselor he wove the plastic strands into a lanyard which he gave to his mother. Collins writes:
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied.
Collins concludes the poem,
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.(1)
We are like that boy giving the lanyard to his mother. There is nothing that we can give to God that is equivalent to all that God has done for us in Christ. There is no way to place a human value on the inheritance we receive with Christ through the Spirit.
Paul’s Jewish co-religionists understood themselves to heirs of God in terms of being the possessors of the “Promised Land.” They had lost it completely once, and gotten it back (by dint of God’s activity). Now it was overrun by foreign overlords. Paul told Jews and Gentiles about a different inheritance that God had prepared in Christ, not geographical land but God’s spiritual kingdom, the realm of God’s rule. Too often that gets interpreted as something in the future. But Paul’s emphasis about the Spirit being in believers suggests that the realm of God’s rule is a present reality when the Spirit is fully dwelling in the hearts of believers.
Many Christians are conditioned to think of atonement as Christ’s cross paying the debt owed to the law, or the devil, or even to God. That would mean that sinners have a debt defined by the law. But Christians are debt free, due to Christ’s payment in the crucifixion. This would mean that at one time each of us was in debt to the law; but now, with Christ, we don’t owe the law a thing.
Just as we are about to breathe a sigh of relief, Paul makes the astounding claim that we are still debtors. But for Paul everything depends upon to whom the debt is owed. He says that the debt we owe is owed to the Spirit. As he said, the now-cancelled debt to sin gave death. The debt we now owe gives life. What a strange debt this is!
If you talk to your accountant, you know that debt is a liability. When your CPA puts your balance sheet together, liabilities – debts – are subtracted from assets to determine net worth. That’s the accounting law. Debt reduces assets. However, the Spirit doesn’t do accounting according to human principles. Debt owed to the Spirit increases your net spiritual worth; it doesn’t take away from it. Spirit debt is not what must be repaid, but what is paid to you. Christ said it this way: “Everyone who has will be given more” (Luke 19:26closeAn error occurred.). In other words, whoever has the Spirit of Christ will receive more as the person grows and matures in Christ-like faith.
Debt is not our basic problem; it is to whom we owe the debt that matters. The more we seek to have the Spirit power our faith, the more we try to live the kind of life Christ modeled for us, the more we hand over our lives to God, the more we add to our debt to the Spirit. The more we owe the Spirit, the greater our total worth is as an heir with Christ to the glory of God’s holy rule. That’s a debt everyone of us needs to take on. That’s the debt we owe, and we owe it to the Spirit.