September 30, 2020

Romans 8 and the Parable of the Prodigal

For the last several weeks I’ve been following the Apostle Paul through his letter to the Romans. I’ve done it before and I’m sure I will do it again. So far, I can’t get to the bottom of it. The veil Paul speaks of in his second letter to the Corinthians (3:14-18) keeps obscuring things. True, in Christ it is taken away, but maybe it is flapping in the breeze a bit. Just as with those who read the old covenant (and I frequently spend time there), my spiritual mind gets dull. Really, sometimes I think I’m just not smart enough for all this. My one certain conclusion is that I can never be good enough, though my default has been to keep trying.

I tend toward hyper introspection instead of looking at Christ. Every hard truth, chastisement and command competes for proper application and gets me turning in circles. I was born guilty. Yes, we’re all guilty, but I’m pretty sure I was born feeling that way. Trips through Romans have me stressing over whether my flesh or the Spirit of Christ is walking around in my body. All this is to say I’ve never come to this book looking for loopholes. (Don’t loopholes give one license and make one lazy?) It’s not what I was looking for, but for once I tried to clear away all preconceptions and just listen. What I found is a loophole … and it turns out to be the very thing I most desperately need. But first I had to deal with the “O” word.

“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature to live according to it.” (Romans 8:12) Obligation! Oh, for guilty people that word sends shudders up and down the spine. It’s something more we must do, or not do. I have always taken this to mean that now, being in Christ, I must never violate the law again and always demonstrate perfect behavior. Yet, Paul has shown that if we insist on living under the law we must obey it completely and perfectly. So far, I haven’t met anyone, no matter how mature a believer, who doesn’t still sin at times. My son-in-law, growing up in a long line of pastors of a certain denomination, said that he met several members who claimed they had achieved perfect sanctification. He said their lives may have appeared void on the surface of the denomination’s top sins, but the fact that they advertised it so freely made their “perfect sanctification” at least obnoxious and irritating and ultimately a lie. In any case, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. They deceived themselves that their behavior was now perfect and that God would love them more because of it.

It’s certainly not what Abraham did and yet he received grace. We know from reading his story in the Old Testament that God called him out of Ur, showered him with wealth and promised to bless the earth through his descendents. God did all this before Abraham hiked up the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac in a radical demonstration of obedience and trust. But during his first one hundred years he got himself into a few messes, including lying to two kings that Sarah was sister and not his wife. Seems he was more worried about his own safety and well being than what degradations his beloved could suffer as a piece of beautiful woman flesh in a pagan harem. Furthermore, Abraham, in a moment of faithlessness that would create hostilities among his descendants for generations, allowed Sarah to talk him into making a baby with her handmaiden. It appeared God wasn’t keeping his promise of a son from the two of their bodies, so they took it upon themselves to help things along a bit.

No, Abraham’s justification before God wasn’t achieved by exemplary behavior. “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:3) “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before.” (Romans 4:10) It was Abraham’s faith that pleased God and at that it wasn’t even an unwavering or consistent faith in what God had promised him. At times Abraham’s faith was simply that God was and that God was mindful of him. Frankly, that is all I can muster much of the time. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

This is important to grasp because it goes a long way toward settling once and for all the “wretched man” torture we suffer in the war between our sin nature and our desire to please God. A central theme in Romans 8 is the sinful nature, so it is important to define. Is it the propensity to violate God’s laws? Paul describes it as more than that. Sins are trespasses against the law. Sins are what we do. The sin nature is the part of what we are that makes us trespassers. We might suppose that it is a part of us that desires evil. If it were that, then unbelievers, especially without an opposing will within to please God would be fully bent on it and that is not the case. I can think of unbelieving friends and family members who have an innate desire to live up to some ideal of goodness and who manage it for the most part. The sin nature is not primarily a behavioral predisposition; it is primarily independence and a refusal to receive God’s prescribed remedy for falling short of his glory. That independence is a faithlessness that God cannot abide and it demonstrates itself in two ways.

Faithlessness manifests overtly in sin. Most of us don’t question that blatant sin is blatantly faithless. But faithlessness also manifests more covertly in law keeping. Law keeping deceives us with its seeming righteousness. We think that keeping laws remedies our sinful condition and makes us acceptable, but Paul said in Galatians 5:4 “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Whew! This is serious. Utilizing the law to try to justify ourselves actually alienates us from Christ. What about mixing it up a bit … a little law and a little grace? (Maybe it is a little of the law that keeps that veil flapping in the breeze.) Why did God even give the law if it is only his grace he wants us to have? “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The law then, is not the remedy for sin, but the revelation of it. Those ten commandments Moses carried down the mountain and broke in front of the Israelites were meant to break them (and us) of self-faith and lack of God-faith. The One who is Wisdom knew they would not, could not keep his law though they arrogantly thought themselves able. Deep down, we often think we are able as well.

Jesus taught this same concept in the Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15:11 – 32.) The sinful nature, which we are not obligated to, is embodied in both the profligate younger brother and the seemingly perfect elder brother. Both brothers exemplify the sinful nature. There is really only one perfect Elder Brother and he was the one telling the story.

“For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die …” (Romans 8:13) Whether we are wild-living younger brothers or elder brothers convinced we can satisfy the requirements of the law, we will die. Our old lives are either of these, or in some cases, both. I have acted both parts to tell the truth. I have broken the Law and I have arrogantly convinced myself I could keep it … and I have been defiant to God and hideous to my loved ones in the doing of both. Anything, sin or self-righteousness, that keeps us from getting up and running to the Father is the sinful nature at work.

“Because those who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) Cain posed the question to God after he killed Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He knew the answer. From the beginning of human history, God has made his elder sons to be their brothers’ keepers. Jesus’ Jewish audience understood this when he told them his parable, particularly aimed at listening Pharisees who heaped impossible burdens on their own people and scorned the Gentiles. The Pharisees were failing in their rescue mission. The story is equally applicable to mature believers of today. Sons of God? They are the ones who are lead by the Spirit of Christ according to verse 14. They are the ones who follow him, be it out of pigsties of sin and despair or out of safe, self-preserving lives to go in search of younger brothers.

“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” (Romans 8:15) A spirit that would make us again slaves to fear says to the pit dweller, “You are too filthy to ever come home to your father. Look at you! You live like a pig! You might as well stay with pigs where you belong.” That spirit of fears says to the elder brother, “Stay where you are, slaving away trying to keep your life and your father’s house unsullied by pit dwellers like your younger brother. There’s no telling what would happen if you leave your good, orderly, clean life behind to look for that no good brother of yours. You might be corrupted by his piggish filth. You might fall into his pit. Then where would you be? You’d be lost yourself and no good to anyone, I tell you. No, it is much safer for you to never venture outside your house.”

Paul reminds us that we have instead received the Spirit of the Son who came to make us sons. To the lost brother the Spirit of the Son says, “ Follow me and I will take you home. You don’t have to live in a pit one more day. My Father will be your Father and he will lavish you with kindness.” To the elder brother the Spirit of the Son says also, “Follow me! Leave this place of comfort and help me find your brother. There’s a huge inheritance we are all meant to share … so much that you can’t begin to imagine it. And don’t worry about becoming dirty or not finding your way home. I am right here with you            and I will never leave you or lose you.”

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:16) We can know for certain that Jesus, who at his birth became God’s only begotten Son, finished the work he was sent to do and by his death and resurrection, became the firstborn of many brothers. His mission was to complete a divine family. When we follow him, whether it is out of pits and into the Father’s house or whether it is out of prisons of false righteousness, we become his brothers and children of his Father. This simple act of following finalizes the adoption he initiated before we were ever born. Before the foundation of the world, God has foreseen who each of his children would be and desired us with a holy passion that cannot be resisted. He would have us for his very own. To that end, he sent our elder Brother to earth to bring us home.

Maybe we are fresh from the world’s pigsties. It doesn’t matter. While we are still a long way off from home, the Father runs to meet us covering our nakedness and dirt with his own royal robes in the most prodigal display of all … grace. Maybe we have been spiteful and neglectful, holed up and hunkered down in our churches, shutting out a scary stinking world filled with wasted and lost younger brothers. It doesn’t matter. We can do as the Father says now and prepare the fatted calf, not begrudgingly, but graciously.

I read somewhere that Luther made himself preach the Gospel every day lest he forget grace. It’s the same reason I need to wade into the words of Christ and his apostles and hold them up when I read the old covenant. They remind me, “It’s the loophole, Lisa, not the law!” When we follow Christ, we are not obligated to stay in pigsties and we are not obligated to safeguard ourselves in statutes. Faith says, “I will arise and go to my Father.” Faith also says, “I will arise and venture forth for my Father.”  Faith lets the elder Brother rescue him and faith lets the elder Brother lead him on rescues … and God is pleased with faith.

Note: Thank you to everyone who has prayed for my husband. While he is still dealing with the effects of an autoimmune disease, a recent follow-up trip to his oncologist brought good news. A lesion originally diagnosed as cancerous has been stable for six months and now thought to be a cyst.


  1. Lisa, that is good stuff. I too am still trying to get over my need to meet God’s standards to feel good about myself. Here is my favorite line of yours: “Anything, sin or self-righteousness, that keeps us from getting up and running to the Father is the sinful nature at work.” Very true.

    I also agree with you that the law does drive us to the gospel by showing us the inability to keep it. However, imho, it is also something wonderful in itself. It shines the light of righteousness in a dark world, and thereby gives us the blessing of walking in that light, even if none of us make it out of the shadows very much. Or, to change the analogy, it is like showing Michelango’s Pieta to a sculptor of much less talent. It may make her despair of her own abilities, but she still is glad to see it, both because of it’s beauty and because of the very promise that beauty like that exists.

    • I’d take it one step further: More than giving us an inspiring example for us to fail at imitating, it is good because it is 1. A reflection of the character of God Himself, who created us to bear His image, and 2. it tells us about our Savior. Jesus kept the law perfectly, so when we look intently into it, we are learning what He was like.

      According to my tribe, we’re not supposed to preach the law like it is something that we are capable of obeying. To do so directs our focus away from Christ and back toward self. Yet at the same time, we have to teach that obedience to the law is good. Which brings us right back to Jesus, of course.

      But I’m totally with you when it comes to feeling good about myself, which I pretty much never do. Still working toward my “Christian perfection,” but in the mean time, consider me “weak on sanctification.”

      • In Christ, you are perfect…already.

        “We are to consider ourselves dead to sin.”

        We are declared holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake. Right now. No project of ascendancy as the Catholic and Evangelicals are on. Even though they would deny that.

        • Right. Hence “Christian perfection” in quotes: I was trying not to take a stab at Wesley there 😛
          Our perfection “in Christ” is before God, but before man we are still sinners. It does no good to preach that Christians are already made perfect and leave it at that. We are saints, but the story is far from over.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    My son-in-law, growing up in a long line of pastors of a certain denomination, said that he met several members who claimed they had achieved perfect sanctification. He said their lives may have appeared void on the surface of the denomination’s top sins, but the fact that they advertised it so freely made their “perfect sanctification” at least obnoxious and irritating and ultimately a lie.

    “Denomination’s Top Sins” as in Homosexuality, Voting for Obama, Homosexuality, Women Preachers, Homosexuality, Evolution, Honmosexuality, Demon Rum, and Homosexuality?

    That spirit of fears says to the elder brother, “Stay where you are, slaving away trying to keep your life and your father’s house unsullied by pit dwellers like your younger brother. There’s no telling what would happen if you leave your good, orderly, clean life behind to look for that no good brother of yours. You might be corrupted by his piggish filth. You might fall into his pit. Then where would you be? You’d be lost yourself and no good to anyone, I tell you. No, it is much safer for you to never venture outside your house.”

    Or outside the four Thomas Kincade-decorated walls of your full-service 24/7 church with its Harvest Festivals and Trunk-or-Treat and JESUSween and all the other “Just like Fill-in-the-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” pop culture knockoffs.

  3. What an honest, timely message. Thank you Lisa, for sharing. One small quibble though….in your article you say “…Jesus, who AT HIS BIRTH became God’s only begotten Son…” According to the Nicene creed, Jesus was “…begotten of his Father BEFORE ALL WORLDS…” so his incarnational taking on flesh and being born of a virgin is not where you find his “begotten-ness.”

    I do love that so many people seem to be discovering afresh the pure milk of the gospel and it seems Martin Luther is playing a large role in its modern day resurgence. Just what those of us coming out of the evangelical wilderness are dying for!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Well, the Lutheran Church is Western-rite Liturgical. More like you’re coming out of the evangelical wilderness and can’t get as far as Rome, so you’re stopping and settling down in Wittenburg.

      • I personally grew up Catholic, so I was familiar with the landscape. As a young adult I left and joined the (evangelical) circus. Since finding Luther, no need to go back. 🙂

      • There’s not much difference in between Rome and Geneva. Both point to law in the end.

    • I am personally pretty happy to see Luther’s law/gospel distinction becoming more readily grasped in the wider evangelical world. A lot of reformed folks are having a good time with it. For me, it is just emotionally healthy to understand that I am simultaneously saint and sinner. Being able to admit the problem is the first step, and living in denial is never good for the soul. And it’s great to not live under delusions of grandeur concerning my ability for reform. It leaves me with no choice but to trust in Christ, that his death was enough to buy my life if I never get any better at all.

    • Yes, I agree with this, Laura. He was also “slain before the foundation of the world.” Both his birth and death were accomplished in eternity. When Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33), God made him “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). For all eternity he has been Lord. Had he refused the cup, he would have returned to Heaven as Lord, but not Christ. We needed a Messiah who would die and make atonement for us. Yet, dying was never a question. Jesus and the Father are One and laying his life down was a perfect depiction of that oneness and display of submission for us. In the same way, leaving Heaven to be born in human flesh (Phil. 2:7) was also a display of submission. “But made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Both acts exist in eternity outside time and space, but it was necessary also for them to take place in time and space.

      • Sorry, this didn’t appear in the right order. It was in response to Laura’s first comment.

  4. (First, Lisa…sorry to admit that I haven’t been praying for your husband…didn’t rally know he was in need of prayer…but glad to hear the news, and will now try to remember to lift you all up periodically in prayer.)

    Second, just this morning I was overwhelmed to the point of tears with the thought, “I did nothing to deserve God’s mercy.” The thought that He loves and comforts those who are totally undeserving…simply amazing! I think that fits well with the message you’re sharing here.

    Thanks! Great stuff!

  5. Thanks be to God for the good news that you and your husband have recently received, Lisa.

    And thanks for the fine post.

  6. Quite a bit of “meat and potatoes” in your post, Lisa. Appreciate your sharing of your thoughts and struggles. The tension between sin and grace has to be one of oldest and most universal struggles of Christians, with most of us finding ourselves leaning too hard in focusing on one extreme or the other.

    In my heart and soul, the law is the blueprint of thoughts and behaviors of a fully formed Christ-follower. It looks a bit like the blueprints for a huge catherdral or 120 story skyscraper. Unfortunatley for me, the only tools I have are a screwdriver, hammer, and manual saw—-and very little spatial ability or construction talent. Yet somehow, by grace, a Master Builder has taken over the work for me, and seems terribly pleased with me when I manage to nail a few boards in place. He knows what I cannnot due on my own, and still applauds my feeble efforts. He only gets annoyed with me if i fail to show up for work at all.

  7. I hope this doesn’t come across as dismissive, but I don’t think Romans 8 was written to promote ‘morbid introspection’. It really leads us to miss Paul’s whole point – which is assurance, not doubt. I think a lot of the reason we have trouble with that as we read Romans 8 is twofold (maybe more).

    First, most translations don’t do a good job with Paul’s terms ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’. The NIV is a perfect example, translating ‘flesh’ as ‘sinful nature’. Doing so totally obscures the dichotomy Paul uses as the framework for this part of Romans (and Galatians). He sets up terms (see especially Rom 5-7) in groups – Adam, sin, death, flesh, law on one hand and Christ, righteousness, life, spirit, grace on the other. He sees the first group as characterizing the ‘pre-Christ’ age, and of those who are not believers. The second group of terms characterizes the ‘post-Cross’ age, and specifically of believers. In short, when Paul speaks of those who are ‘in the flesh’ (NOT ‘controlled by the sinful nature’ [NIV, Rom 8:8] – terrible translation that misses Paul’s point completely!) are non-believers; those ‘in the Spirit’ are believers. He is not talking about a spiritual dichotomy within believers; he is contrasting those with the Spirit – believers, with those who don’t have the Spirit – non-believers. He sees the ‘flesh’ and the ‘Spirit’ as different realms and he uses the terms ‘in’ and ‘according to’ to denote the ‘realm’ in which one exists – saved or not saved. But translations like the NIV obscure Paul’s framework to the point that we question the very assurance Paul wrote this chapter to provide.

    Second, the reason Paul writes this chapter (in addition to providing assurance) is to point out that God’s kingdom has begun but hasn’t come in its fullness yet. That’s why he says in v. 10 that even though the body is ‘dead’ (is of the ‘Adam, sin, death, flesh, law’ realm) we are ‘alive’ because of the Spirit (KJV and ESV get this right). Even though it doesn’t look like the kingdom has come yet – it is operative, and operative in the believer (despite appearances, too much of the time). In v. 11 he says that God will give life to that body when Christ comes again. The process has begun, and the Spirit is at work in us, but it wont’ be complete (and neither will we) until the resurrection.

    The purpose for this is probably that Paul is arguing against those who question God’s justice (his righteousness) in regard to his covenant with Israel and the logical question for the Jew to ask is: ‘Well, Paul, if God has done what you say – kingdom and all that stuff – why are things still a mess, including you Christians?” His answer is Rom. 8! The ‘Christ, life, righteousness, Spirit, grace’ age has begun and is active in his people, but it’s not complete yet. However, the fact that the Spirit has come guarantees God will complete what he began. That should give us assurance, relying on God’s grace, that, as he ends the chapter, nothing can separate us from God’s love (those who are ‘in / according to’ the Spirit – those who believe in Jesus).

  8. Devin Rose says

    I always love your writing. The tendency of the institution is to preach free grace and then- as soon as that grace is accepted- hand the newly converted a list of new laws (or old ones arbitrarily chosen from the Old Testament), pat them on the back and quip, “Faith without works is dead.” leaving the newly converted standing there both confused and worse off than they were before.

    The Gospel only works when grace and freedom are allowed to run their course with no idolatry of legalism poisoning that truth. Sola Fide.

    • Good point Devin.
      Too often the theme is that you don’t have to follow the law, but you MUST to do these things to ‘imitate’ Christ. No more laws to follow, just principles to live by.