Becoming Real

Dr. Michael Allen

Becoming RealOftentimes we overlook the obvious. We search our houses for glasses we are already wearing. We scan what seems to be the whole cosmos for keys that were right where they should be. And, far more serious, in important discussions about the Christian life, we manage to avoid precisely those passages where the apostle Paul speaks most candidly about the Christian life. I suspect that for most evangelicals, Romans 12-16 is functionally inoperative – these are the missing chapters that we just can’t see (likely because they follow the soaring heights of the first eleven chapters, with which we already have our hands full). But it is precisely in this latter portion of Romans that Paul drops down to address where the rubber meets the road regarding the Christian life.

Walk in love
First of all, Paul tells us that Christians are to walk in love (vv. 8-10). There is a calling to fulfill the law by loving one’s neighbor. It is very clear that the ten commandments are referenced here, in as much as the four specific commandments mentioned all come from that text. Paul follows Jesus in summing up this part of God’s law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul is in exhortatory mood, calling Christians to live well together.

Worship & freedom
Secondly, Paul says that Christians are to worship Jesus and be freed (v. 14). Finally, Paul connects the dots. He has mentioned the threats to love: orgies, drunkenness, sensuality, etc. (v. 13). He does not deny their power – they promise much delight. In fact, he respects their power and realizes their pull upon us. Thus, he does not conclude this discussion without offering an antidote: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Notice what Paul is not saying: he does not go the route of stoicism. No, Paul acknowledges the place of desire and commands us to satisfy it appropriately. Notice that verse 14 is a command: “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We are called to live in such a way that our desire is met, though not according to the (sinful) flesh’s whims. Paul mandates our concern for our desire. But he locates its fulfillment in one place: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). Paul suggests that worship of Jesus is what frees us from the power of sin. We do desire, and we will act to satisfy it. But we can either find our satisfaction in Christ, who has met our deepest need and promises to meet all the rest of our needs, or we will turn to the strategies of the flesh. Paul realizes that we cannot keep the commandments and love our neighbor, if our deepest desires are unsatisfied.

Satisfaction in God
This proves to be a general principle in this portion of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. We can point to two examples. Just prior to these verses, he called them to refrain from vengeance and, instead, to love their enemies (12:14-21). He did not call them to lay down their weapons (whether sticks and stones or, more likely, words) without offering them a promise of grace to be believed. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (12:19). God’s promise to right all wrongs and bring cosmic justice undergirds and sustains the Roman Christians in their peacemaking and selfless service. Later, following our text, Paul comes to disagreements among the Roman Christians themselves – disagreements swirling around the question of freedom from the law (14:1-23). Paul offers moral exhortations and addresses the issues of eating and drinking. But Paul refuses to conclude his discussion of this topic without offering one final salvo: “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Only satisfaction in God (faith) can fuel God-honoring obedience to the law and God-pleasing service to our neighbors in love.

Obedience of faith
None of this should surprise us. The very point of Paul’s letter to the Romans is to bring about the “obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26). Paul is after lifestyle change: genuine obedience to God’s commands. But he is not pursuing just any sort of obedience or morality. He writes to lead them to the obedience that flows from faith, the only kind that is not sin and that pleases God (Rom. 14:23; cf. Heb. 11:6).

Becoming real
Moral growth does not happen by growing more confident or self-sufficient. It happens by going deeper into astonished trust in Jesus, even as we see our need for him in ever-greater ways. This is illustrated by a passage from the children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit. In this scene, the velveteen rabbit is speaking to an older, wiser friend, named the Skin Horse:

‘“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”’

Unconditionally loved by another
Becoming real involves being more aware that you are loved. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t even more aware of flaws: losing hair, shabbiness, etc. But it does mean that your flaws no longer matter in the same way, because you are unconditionally loved by another. You are not loved because you become the genuine article; rather, you are loved, and thus you become real. This kind of knowledge of unconditional love only comes bit by bit and takes a long time. But it makes you real. And, in the Christian life, it’s only the genuine article that can offer grateful and generous service to their neighbors in faith. Paul’s general principle lines right up with the Skin Horse’s explanation: we must go deeper into who we are in Christ if we are to go further into our neighborhood in self-sacrificial service.

Michael Allen is Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Dean of the Faculty at Knox Theological Seminary (www.knoxseminary.edu). He is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Justification and the Gospel (Baker Academic, 2013).

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