Isn't that what evangelicals are meant to say?
Well, it is when I've had a good night's sleep, done my morning quiet time, not glared resentfully at the city-boy with the loud tie who stole my seat on the Tube on the way to work, made the most of a brief chance to chat to a colleague about Christ, and had a black coffee and an encouraging conversation just before the study looking at Romans 8. On the other hand, when I've had several late nights at the office, only vaguely remembered what my Bible looks like in the morning (never mind where it might actually be), shouted at someone with very little provocation, missed most of my lunch break, and tripped over my own shoelaces in front of everyone when walking up stairs, and we're diving in to chapter two, all about sin and our relationship with the Jewish law...suddenly “clear” and “excellent” aren't the words on my lips.
This can feel like a slightly depressing pattern to the Christian life. Up, down, up, down. So what, if anything, does Romans to say to that? What has a year of studying it in small groups done to that?
Well, Romans makes it clear that the life I'm talking about above is not normal Christianity, because it puts the focus on me and not on Jesus Christ. Romans is a book all about the Lord Jesus and His eternally significant work for us. This is work that we could never do, because we are not God and we are not perfect. Having been a Christian for several years I am still learning – slowly – that God's promises and revelation of Himself are much bigger and much better than which side of bed I got out of that morning. And Romans is perfect for learning this.
When we sit down to read Romans, we have in our hands the heart of the gospel message, and a good deal more besides. It is a book clearly and passionately about the work of Christ – saving us from sin, for changed lives, for a hope that makes even the bitterest suffering or persecution “not worth comparing”, as a pale shadow. And we need to hear this, desperately, no matter how long we have been Christians. There is no short cut to holy, joyful Christian living that steps around the gospel. Paul doesn't really start telling the Romans how to live until he's spent eleven chapters telling the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who are already Christians. And that's what he is spelling out: Jesus alone saves, not our good works. Jesus alone transforms us and gives us joy, despite our selfishness or despair. Jesus alone gives us a hope that is worth something, because He keeps his word.
We can sit down to read Romans tentatively at times. Yes, there are parts that are hard to understand. There are even more parts that are easy to understand, but which we frankly just don't like. But how much poorer our Christian lives are if we miss out on these truths out of fear of the challenging. It's been the chapters that have taken real work to understand that have struck me most this year; the image of being before God with absolutely nothing to say for myself (3:19) has made the good news of Jesus and of His righteousness all the better. My 'good days' are not nearly enough to earn God's favour; wonderfully, God loves me on the worst of my days just as much and just as constantly – as we discovered in chapters 9 to 11, an extended rebuttal of the charge that God might ever abandon His people.
How liberating, that I'm free not to worry about whether I've done enough to earn God's favour. How wonderful, that God should love me when I am at my worst. How reassuring, that God would even give His own Son rather than go back on His word.
Reading Romans together
Romans, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, deserves to be studied together. Why so? Because Romans wasn't written primarily to educate us, or stretch us, or even to enlighten us: Paul wrote it to unite us. All alike as sinners saved by grace alone, all alike in belonging to one another as a church family. As such, reading it together – as those united in need of good news, united with one another to encourage each other – makes perfect sense.
And that unity has made a real difference. For some, it's meant that they've come week by week when they otherwise wouldn't. That has a huge positive impact on everyone: hopefully for them, because they're listening to God's word and God's word is powerful to change us, but also for others. If you have been on the fringes, please don't underestimate how much of an impact it has on everyone else to see you there frequently – to see people there even when it's hard work (as much of the Christian life can be), persevering in hardship, is a huge encouragement.
For others, it's the fellowship that draws us back – not just as a Christian buzzword, basically implying “being friends, but because it's with Christians we need to give it a label”, but a depth to relationships that is the envy of the world. We've been able to laugh, cry, chat, listen, eat, drink, pray, rest, and much more together this year. That's a rare experience for most, even more so in London, and it's precious. I have seen people who are that living the way God calls us to live, and finding it to be a joyful experience; if anything, it's strange that we're so often surprised by this!
Some personal reflections
I've felt this very sharply this year (or, at least, as sharp as emotions get for an overly uptight public-school-educated British man – I'm aware that I may be dealing in different categories to most people). There have been several Thursdays this year when I'm sure I would not have attended had I not been leading – too tired, too grumpy, too busy, or simply feeling pretty dead spiritually. I'd be feeling like a hypocrite. Yes, I know, leading a group and not feeling like a spiritual giant – shocking! It happens. Of course it happens. It will have almost certainly happened to all your leaders this year.
And coming to Knowing God week by week was so valuable, in several ways. First of all, I had a wonderful group, that I will always be convinced looked after me pastorally far more than I looked after them, and I am very grateful to God for them. To all who have prayed for me and spoken with me this year – thank you.
Secondly, the experience of studying Romans together is a brilliant antidote to this introspection that leads to despair. It slowly eats away at my guilty conscience, because “there is now no condemnation for those who are in at Christ Jesus”. It gives me hope that I can change, because “he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?” And I remember that it's OK to be weak, and to know my wickedness, because “at just the right time...Christ died for the ungodly”. And it's then that the feeling of hypocrisy goes away, and I can actually enjoy the Lord again.
He died. For me. At my worst. And he will keep me safely in Christ, at times burning brightly for Him and at others feeling dragged into God's kingdom kicking and screaming. He won't let go. What a wonderful thing to have focused on together for so many weeks this year.