FRIENDSHIP AND THE STRUGGLE WITH SIN
Paul reassured the believers in Rome that since we have been “justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Your favorite version of the Bible may not say “we have peace” but rather “let us have peace.” The difference lies in the spelling of the
Greek word for “have.” Since the manuscripts are quite divided between the two spellings, the decision must be based on one’s understanding of
the whole passage. New Testament scholars have debated the matter for many years, sometimes with considerable heat!
In the meantime, Moffatt’s l9l3 translation still offers a good bridge between the two choices: “Let us enjoy the peace we have.”
The Meaning of Justification
The more important question in this verse is, What does it mean to be “justified”? Your version may not use this word at all. For some, this
Latin-based English term is simply more “dark speech.”
The Greek word Paul used means basically to set something right. The Good News Bible translates this verse, “Now that we have been put right with
God through faith, we have peace with God.”
Servant-believers understand that what needs to be put right between them and their offended Master is primarily a legal matter. The
solution to this problem, as they see it, is forgiveness and the adjustment of their legal standing. They use the word “justification” to
mean pardon and the declaration that now they are legally right with God. This brings peace with God, they say, because now they need have no
fear of his wrath, or of punishment, or of loss of reward.
But pardon alone doesn’t bring real peace. Have you ever been forgiven for something disgraceful and then, because of the embarrassment,
found yourself avoiding the one who had been so forgiving? After we’ve been “justified by faith,” God doesn’t want us to avoid him in
embarrassment. He wants us to be close friends.
Friend-believers have a different understanding of justification—if one must use that word at all. What has gone wrong, they believe, is
primarily a breach of faith, a break-down of trust and trustworthiness. To set this right, trust must be restored. To be right with God means
to trust him and to be his trustworthy friend. This, of course, means peace. Paul puts trust, peace, and being right with God, all together
in this verse. That makes very good sense to friends.
Why Then the Struggle?
The apostle Paul had long enjoyed peace with God. But he was far from being at peace with himself. He admitted this to the Roman believers:
“Oh, the good that I want to do, I don’t do. And the evil that I don’t want to do, is what I go on doing. Wretched man that I am, who will
deliver me from this doomed body?”2
Paul tries to explain his conflict. “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. . . .
“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another
law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work
within my members.”3
“A man who talks like that must not be converted,” some have said. But many devout believers have discovered from their own experience that
Paul’s struggle can continue for the rest of one’s life. Of course, no matter when the struggle is felt, the solution remains the same:
“Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”4
The Greek word for “wretched” can include the meaning of “worn out by hard work.” Paul sounds like a saint who is really
trying—but weary from the continued effort.
It seems to me that Paul is describing the transition from struggling as a mere servant and struggling as an understanding friend.
Even before he became a Christian, he had been absolutely committed to obeying all ten of the Ten Commandments. He mentioned to the believers
at Philippi that in his practice of the law, he was a “Pharisee,” which meant that he was scrupulously obedient. “By the law’s
standard of righteousness,” Paul continued, he was “without fault.”5
He had not been a thief. He had not committed adultery. He had not murdered anyone. According to his understanding at that time, what he did
to Stephen wasn’t murder. It was only doing the work of the Lord in stamping out heresy. More than that, he had always paid a faithful tithe.
In fact, he had kept every single rule that he was aware of.
But after Paul met Jesus on the Damascus road, he began to take a closer look at the Commandments. He heard that Jesus had taught that mere
external conformity to those rules was not what God wanted. That’s the kind of obedience you get from a servant. God hopes we will see that
there is nothing arbitrary about the Commandments. They describe the behavior of loving, friendly, trustworthy people, who not only
don’t murder—they don’t hate. They not only don’t commit adultery—they don’t even want to.
Paul must have recognized that Moses had taught this long before. When Moses said that the Israelites should love their neighbors as
themselves, he added, “You shall not hate in your heart . . . or bear a grudge.”6
Paul’s attention was drawn especially to the tenth Commandment.7 In the light of what Moses and Jesus had taught, he realized that
“You shall not covet” includes not even wanting to do something that is wrong.
As the meaning of that commandment dawned on Paul, it made him angry, he confessed. He had tried so hard. At times he had even wanted to break
one of the Ten, but he had successfully resisted the temptation. Didn’t he deserve credit for not giving in? And shouldn’t he get extra
credit, he may have thought, for being still in the prime of life and resisting stronger urges than other people?
I once had a college teacher who was incredibly energetic. He was also an inspiring Christian gentleman. But he was plagued with an
explosive temper, which sometimes got out of control. “You must remember,” he explained to some of us students one day, “I have
probably resisted more temptation to lose my temper than any of you have ever felt!” He made me think of Paul.
But later, Paul’s irritation at the command not to covet turned into agreement and admiration. To obey number ten would be the key to
obeying all the others. To come to the place where he didn’t even want to sin would mean receiving what David had asked for, a new heart
and a right spirit.
No longer was Paul concerned about credit. Why should he be rewarded for doing something that was so beneficial to himself? And as
far as the constant conflict was concerned, God assured him that he wasn’t condemned for struggling.8
Doctors Don’t Condemn Their Patients
Doctors don’t condemn their struggling patients. They know healing takes time. They don’t expect an injured patient to sprint home from the
first office visit.
God works like an infinitely skillful physician. He can save and heal anyone who trusts him. He is not at all satisfied when we come to
his office just to be forgiven. He proposes to bring us to the place where we won’t have to ask for forgiveness any more. He offers to heal
that place where people do their thinking. Then they won’t violate those rules any more, because they don’t even want to, and all the bad
habits are gone.
To some, that sounds ominously like perfection. And to many servant-believers, that is the ultimately burdensome requirement.
“You are to be perfect” is Goodspeed’s brilliant translation of Matthew 5:48. Servants see those words as a command. Friends
see them as a promise.
Friends don’t want God to settle for anything less. Would you ask a physician not to heal you completely? Would you say, “Seventy-five
per cent healing will be quite sufficient, thank you”?
Requirement or Generous Offer?
To servants, who think of salvation as dealing with their legal problems, perfection is yet another requirement. To friends, who think
of salvation as healing the damage sin has done, perfection is an incredibly generous offer.
Servants want to be completely forgiven. Friends want to be completely healed.
Forgiveness does not do away with sin. Sin is not something recorded in a book, to be forgiven from time to time. Sin is something that
happens in people. Sin is rebellion and distrust. This is what Jesus came to eliminate. And the antidote for such sin is the truth about
“About that matter of perfection,” the heavenly Physician might call after us, as we walk away from his office. “Don’t worry about that
at all. I’ve so designed my universe that it’s a law people become like the person they worship and admire.
“If you really stay my trusting friends, perfection will come. I’m not saying you won’t struggle any more. But the struggle won’t
be the same.”
Servants struggle to overcome sin by trying to stamp it out. Friends know they can only get rid of sin by crowding it out with the truth.