The epistle today from the sixth chapter of the book of Romans is about whom we serve, about what purposes we seek to achieve in our lives. It is good that we should understand the choice before each of us. Will we continue to sin or will we seek to be holy?
In one sense, we all sin at different times in our lives, in different ways. However, it is important to distinguish between thoughts and actions. Just because we think of something sinful does not mean that we will act upon that thought. We still have a choice: are we going to sin or shall we try to be holy? Earlier in this chapter, a few verses before today’s reading, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart translates the key verses as “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and [present] your bodily members to God as weapons of justice, for sin shall not dominate; for you are not under Law but rather under grace…. [Thanks] be to God that you [who] were slaves to sin [are now] obedient from the heart to the pattern of the teaching to which you [have] been entrusted. And having been liberated from sin you [are now] enslaved to righteousness” [David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (Yale University Press, 2017)].
The faithful Jews in first century Palestine, especially the Pharisees were very much under the Law. They thought that by trying to observe the many rules about what to do and not to do, they would draw closer to God. However, there were so many rules about what to do and not to do, it was very, very difficult not to sin against the Law. With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, it became possible for each person to be holy. David Bentley Hart captures this new possibility of holiness beautifully with his translation that now “sin shall not dominate;” for with the coming of Christ into the world those who seek to draw closer to God are no longer “under Law but rather under grace.”
As we each seek to draw closer to God, we no longer have to figure out every rule we are supposed to follow. Instead, our goal becomes to be “obedient from the heart to the pattern of the teaching to which [we have] been entrusted.” I find two phrases here very helpful—“to be obedient from the heart” and to understand “the pattern of the teaching to which [we have] been entrusted.” In other words, we each seek to do our best, from our hearts, to follow the Lord. The way we do our best from our hearts, is to seek to understand “the pattern” of the teaching which the Lord Jesus Christ has “entrusted” to us. In other words, as we seek to be better Christians, we are not required to understand every theological dispute that has happened over 2,000 years. We are simply asked to follow the Lord from our hearts. To do that we need to understand “the pattern” of what the Lord Jesus Christ is teaching us.
St John Chrysostom has preached that “no human power could have set us free [from sin], but ‘thanks be to God,’ who was willing and able to do such great things. And [when we are] ‘obedient from the heart,’ [and are] neither forced nor pressed, but [come to the Lord] of [our] own [wishes], with a willing mind….this shows that [we have] exercised [our own] free will,” concluded St John Chrysostom [Homilies on Romans 11].
The third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria asks: “What is it [that] sets us free from sin?” Origen’s answer is immediate and profound: “Knowledge of the Truth, of course! This is what Jesus said to the Jews: ‘If you believe my Word, you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.’” [Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans]. Origen is citing part of the Gospel of St John, chapter 8, verses 31and 32. The full Biblical reference is “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free.”
St Augustine has preached: “It is a small thing for a disciple to come to Him; it is a much greater thing to continue in Him. Therefore, [Jesus Christ] does not say if you ‘hear [Me]’ or ‘come [to Me]’…. He says, ‘If you continue in My Word.’ What do you think, brothers [and sisters]?” asks St Augustine, “is continuing in the Lord hard work or not? If it is hard work, look at the reward. If it is not [hard work], you receive the reward for nothing. Let us then continue in Him who continues in us,” concluded St Augustine [cf. John 15.7]. That’s lovely phrase: “Let us then continue in Him who continues in us.”
That’s our situation today. We have each begun to follow the Lord Jesus Christ in His Church. We can each “continue in Him.” We can continue to trust Him because He “continues in us.” We are all sinners who are becoming saints. Psalm 50 (51), verses 12 to 14 capture this dual presence of sinning and seeking sainthood beautifully with the words: “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with Your guiding Spirit.”
St Augustine explains this tension between sinning and seeking sainthood by pointing out that the word “create” means “to begin something new.” However, since the psalmist composed his prayer “after committing some sin,” the creation of this “clean heart” is linked to a plea to “renew a right spirit with me,” concluded St Augustine [On the Psalms, Discourse on Psalm 50, cited in Joanna Manley (Ed.), Grace for Grace, Menlo Park: CA, p. 180]. I think this combination of creating “a clean heart” and at the same time “renewing a right spirit within [each of us]” happens together, because both in the creation of the “clean heart” and in the renewal of the “right spirit” we are upheld by the “guiding Spirit” of God, the Holy Spirit. In other words, what both Psalm 50 (51) and St Augustine are saying is that the tension within us between sinning and seeking sainthood is real, but so is the resolution. The dictionary defines “resolution” as “the act of making a firm decision, finding the answer to a problem.” To conclude, once we each make the decision to continue to follow the Lord Jesus Christ each day of our lives, then He continues with the Mother of God, the Theotokos, and all the saints to GUIDE each of us into holiness.