Toward the Life of the Body

A look at the letter to the Romans as a journey of faith that goes from the individual aspect to the corporate one.

Gonzalo Sepúlveda

“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

As we begin with this word, we hope, by the grace of God, to make a brief trip through the message given in the book of Romans. We can think of this book, considering it in a general sense, as if all our spiritual history was told in it.

Because of Adam's transgression, death reigned over all men with quite an effectiveness. As our body ages and gets sick, we feel the presence of death very closely. Furthermore, everything that crushes, depresses, discourages, and takes us away from the Lord, is nothing else but death. This is the inheritance of Adam's fall, which chases us with its devastating effects.

If we have tried the effectiveness of death in the whole course of our life, what is now to come, that is, reigning with Christ in life, must be very much more effective than what death has been.

Who will reign in life? “...those who receive...”. If a Christian is being defeated, it is because in some way he has not entered in this abundance of the Lord. Because of this, we see that many succumb before the slightest test or live in a permanent and shameful weakness.

Apelles and a normal church

Now let us take a look at Romans 16:10: “Greet Apelles, approved in Christ”. How beautiful this is, brothers and sisters! We all long to be men and women approved in Christ. In this passage Apelles is not in heaven. He hasn’t appeared before the judgment seat of Christ yet. He is still on earth. He is a member of the church in the city of Rome, and he has come to be a brother approved in Christ.

Will it be possible to find approved men? Will it also be possible to find in the Scriptures a church that operates normally? It seems to be that it is in Romans chapter 16 where we can see it better portrayed.

Notice that in this chapter no one is called by his position. There are sisters that labor, and others that labor much in the Lord. Each one seems to have an activity and to be approved in it. There are some who are just distinguished by being full with the love of the Lord, and others that have helped the apostles to the extent of jeopardizing their life for them. Most of the brothers open their homes: “Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus... Greet... the brethren who are with them... the church that is in their house”. Their families have become families of believers, and the house has come to be an enviroment where they gather as a church. The saints attend there with full confidence of having fellowship with one another. How beautiful the church, full with the life of the Lord!

The Spanish version Reina-Valera entitles this chapter “Personal Greetings”. This seems very inadequate to us, because if they were only the apostle's simple personal greetings, we would not read it with much interest. But brothers, here we have a huge wealth: we see how the doctrine of the previous chapters of the book of Romans is actual here. It is beautiful to see all the brothers carrying out a valuable function in the body. Each one seems to have found his place and everybody works harmoniously with the rest of the brothers. This chapter is full of the life of Christ, of the practical life that the church in Rome came to experience in that historical time.

How beautiful to see this church where each member seems to be happy in his function! Here there is no leader, pastor, apostle, or elder that is being highlighted. Nobody is mentioned by his position. We rather find a mature church where all the members fulfill their tasks gladly. Nobody is idle. The church here is spiritually strong; the brethren help each other and visit among themselves. They pray everywhere, some sing, others worship, they all love each other, etc. They have even reached to such a degree of maturity that they can identify quickly those who cause division and easily judge such an evil intention.

What is most encouraging for us is the promise that is being made to this church, that Satan will shortly be crushed under her feet. Let us notice that this promise is in plural: “... under your feet” (16:20). Let us not dare to attack the enemy on our own, because we are very vulnerable as individuals. The promise is for the whole body. We, all the members, will be able to enslave the darkness and to prevail against them only by living the corporate life in harmony with the Spirit of the Lord. Satan can not stand against a church that is well built and strengthened in the Lord. God longs to see this kind of church so much! And we long to see the body working this way so much!

Beloved brothers and sisters, the Lord is working in the building of His house. He said: “Upon this rock I will build My church”. We also know that He “will present to Himself a glorious church”. We dream of that glorious church. In some moment of our lives, that church got deep into our heart. In the Old Testament, in Haggai´s time, we are said that God stirred up the spirit of His servants; then, they stopped working in their own paneled houses and came to build the house of God.

May the Lord stir our hearts up, because the faith that we have today is not only for the eternal individual salvation, but rather we have come to be living stones for the building of the house of God. For the Lord wants to have eventually a glorious church. And we have to work in the same direction that the Lord is working. We have to fight like Paul said: “… I also labor, striving according to His working, which works in me mightily” (Col. 1:29). He prayed, and many times he cried, that Christ would be formed in the believers (Gal. 4:19), for he yearned that the Lord would receive that “chaste virgin” as he mentions in 2 Corinthians 11:2.

The letter to the Romans is one of the most orderly books in the Bible. It begins with the most basic things and goes on get to the loftiest. Each chapter is similar to a step of a stairway. As believers, we could be in the third step, or in the fifth one. May the Lord grant us that soon we could reach the 16th step (chapter) of our Christian experience.

Let us contrast two verses: Romans 16:10 and Romans 1:29. While in Romans 16:10 Apelles appears “approved in Christ”, in Romans 1:29 we find the most absolute contrast: “being filled with all unrighteousness …”. Here we have the two ends of the stairway. There was a moment in which Apelles was full of sins and wickedness. He was a sinner like anyone of us. What happened to Apelles? What did this brother discover? How did he come to be approved in the Lord?

Brothers and sisters, Apelles was not always approved. The approved person is first someone that had to overcome many trials. How many difficulties and conflicts our brother would have faced before appearing finally approved?

If we look at the book of Romans under the perspective that it is necessary to go stage after stage to get to the maturity that chapter 16 speaks about, it is quite possible that we could identify in what step of this stairway we are today in our Christian experience. Are we just in Romans 3? Or have we already progressed to Romans 5? Are the truths of Romans 6 and 7 already part of our experience? Are we in Romans 8, maybe? However, it doesn't matter if we are still in the 3rd. The important thing is that we are! But, may the Lord grant us to be at least in chapter 5!

The truths of Romans

Thinking that most of the readers know this book, we want to give some keys that will help in the upward progress of the way of the Lord.

In chapter 1 we find quite a description of the fallen and guilty man– the man without God and without Christ. We all were in that condition for some time, until one day the grace of God was manifested to us and we came to know the Lord, His gospel, His love and His salvation. When we take hold of grace, we already find ourselves in chapter 3 of Romans, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). Jesus Christ’s blessed blood washed us once and for all. Praised be His holy name!

It is beautiful to be strengthened in Romans 3. The position is very favorable: we can lift every praise and worship to our God and Father and proclaim at the top of our voice that our sins have been washed with the blood of the Lamb of God.

Let’s continue progressing. In Romans 4 we find ourselves enjoying the blessedness that our iniquities have been forgiven and that the Lord no longer finds us guilty of sin (4:7-8). Then we come to Romans 5, where “we have peace with God,” and the love of Christ is lavished in our hearts by the Holy Spirit that was given to us, and where we rejoice in the hope that doesn't disappoint.

In the second half of chapter 5, we already begin to know something of our adamic, mortal and sinful inheritance. We now begin to know ourselves: that we are related to Adam, the transgressor, and that it is necessary that we are transferred from Adam to Christ. This happened from the moment that we believed in the Lord. It is a great find to be able to see that we are no longer in Adam but “in Christ”. Thank you Lord! We can go forward.

Sadly, many brothers and sisters spend years going over the same basic truths. They just remained in Romans 3. Their problem continues being “the sins”, and they have to go continuously to the blood so that it cleans them again. Their sinful acts still trap them, and their Christian life is stuck.

In Romans 5 we find there is something more important than sins (plural). Now we begin to speak of sin (singular). Romans 5:19 says that we “were made sinners”, and this needs a radical solution that goes beyond the blood. Jesus’ blood is beautiful and valuable, yet we need something deeper that not only cleans us of the external acts, but also that sets us free from this “sin-producing machine” that we are.

Sins are as apples of an apple tree. We realize that this apple tree is poisoned. What is required indeed is to cut the apple tree down and to plant another life that produces true fruits. That is exactly what Romans 6 teaches. There we read: “we who died to sin”. You will have taken a great step if you understand the difference between “sin” and “sins”. Sins were (and they will always be) washed by the blood of Jesus. Let us not accept any accusation, because “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Now then, Romans 6 tell us that we have died to “sin”. Let us notice that sin doesn't die, I am the one who dies.

Dead to sin and to the law

Allow me to stop here. Many times I have come into conflict with the Word of God, because I find that the truths of the Bible are not a reality in my life. They are truths in the text, but not in my experience. Then I lift up a clamor: “Lord, help me so that this be true in my practical life!”. Many times this experience is lived with anguish, deep groaning, prayers and even with fasting, with questions to other brothers or referring to writings of servants of God that can give us light about important truths.

When we discover in the Scriptures a wealth that we cannot discard, we should seize it with diligence. It would be foolish to do otherwise. If everything to be victorious in Christ is offered to us, why should we be continuously coming back to Romans 3, if we can come to be more than conquerors, as it is stated in Romans 8? But to get to Romans 8, we first need to experience the truths of Romans 6 and 7.

Let us take a look at Romans 6 and 7 by drawing a parallel between them. Romans 7:4 says: “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law...”. Stop here! Romans 6:2 says that we have died to sin, and here it says that we have died to the law! Let us continue reading: “...through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God”. We like this verse so much! Because everybody wants to be fruitful and nobody wants to be barren; therefore, let us pay attention to these words: sin and the law won't die. We have died to sin and to the law!

What is sin? It is basically everything that we should not do. In the same way, the law represents everything that we should do to please to God (because the law is just, holy and good, 7:12). God doesn't demand unfair things from us. However, we see that our nature is absolutely powerless for both things (have you found it out?). We cannot avoid evil and neither can we do the good that we want. As we advance in our Christian experience, our awareness of the inability of “the flesh” will be greater, that is to say, of our own strength to please to God. The pious efforts of the religious man in his attempt to please a holy God will be useless.

However, brothers and sisters, the Scriptures say that we already died to sin and to the law! (I imagine Apelles going through this hardship that represents Romans 6 and 7. He didn't go from Romans 3 to 16 all of a sudden. I think of him praying: “Lord, reveal this word word to me! Because if it is possible to die to sin and to the law, I want it completely fullfilled in my life”). When we don't have enough spiritual light, we imagine this is a long and painful process. However, that is something that already happened! So that if a brother is trying to die to sin or to the law, he is mistaken. He has not still understood the work of God for us in Christ Jesus. He is still outside of the power of the gospel, or he has only understood it partially. “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith”, and those who reign in life are the ones who receive abundance of the grace.

Brother, allow me to put it this way: you and I needed Christ's blood (this is very clear in Romans 3 already). But we also needed to die and to be raised. We needed a blood that would cleanse us of our sinful acts and we needed a death that would bring us to an end, and we also needed a resurrection that would raise us from the dead. This seems to be foolishness, but the Word tells us that “we were buried with Him... that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life”.

I ask: did Jesus die? Did He rise again? Our answer is an emphatic yes! Now, do we believe what is written? Of course, we do! We believe it! Then, we have also died and risen with Christ! I invite you that in the same way you believed that Christ's blood washed all of your sins, that you also believe that Christ's death is inclusive—it included you, also, and His resurrection includes us as well.

Then, we conclude that we, believers, have died with Christ and have been raised with Him! Brothers and sisters, isn’t this something that causes us to be jumping of joy? Isn’t this God’s wide provision for all of us? You and I needed to die and to rise again, and if we haven’t seen these things – because this has to be seen spiritually– our understanding should be illuminated. For that reason the Holy Spirit came from Heaven, to give us this language and this heavenly experience.

For men, this language is foolishness, but for us, Christ is the power of God and wisdom from God. Thus, my brothers and sisters, in Christ you came to an end, it is no longer you who live! Have you heard somebody say this before? You have, because it was the experience of Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). He was not a fool (although some unbelievers wanted to depict him as such). He understood these things in such a way that he knew that his life finished with Christ, and that, at the same time, it began with Him without any effort of his own.

Beloved ones, this cannot be understood once and for all with a single message. Our understanding capacity of the deepest things of God should be constantly increasing. This is already stated, so that you go deeper in it. This matter is in your hands now. If you are pleased with the salvation experience of Romans 3, you are equally a son of God and you won't go into judgment. But I am afraid that your reward won't be the same if you take the next step of this stairway, and try to make alive in you this truth that we die and rise again with Christ.

Some get complicated with Romans 7, but what is really happening there is that the spiritual man, the man who wants to live the life of the Spirit, is finding himself. His problem is not just a matter of certain “acts” that make it difficult for his Christian career. He is rather discovering that he only has those “good intentions”: “for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find ... For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice”(7: 18-19). Then the fight of good and evil begins. This thing of “good and evil” takes us back to Genesis (the famous tree from which Adam ate).

Then, our problem comes from long ago, from Adam. But our present reality is not that of Adam, because we are in Christ, and in Christ we die; so that now we need another person living in us: “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

The glory of Romans 8

How are we going to please God’s demands? Jesus’ powerful life is now inside of me. This is the life of resurrection. With this we get to Romans 8:2,”For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death“.

Blessed is the believer that comes to this point. He has discovered that there are two laws, and that both are present in his life. Just as in Paul or Peter, we have both laws operating in all of us. Even in people that we can consider most refined, the law of sin and death is operating in them. However, that law was conquered by the other law, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. (It is very difficult at times that good, moral people, with sound customs, understand the gospel. Often, they seem not to have anything to repent about).

I request you my brother or sister, or young believer, not to rest until this letter moves from the book to your heart and it becomes life in you, in your daily experience. Because the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one, sin so easily ensnares us, and temptations will increase as the world goes on. Today we have sin at a click away (computer language). Therefore, it is necessary that the believers of this generation are found established in Christ, being approved and progressing in each one of these steps until being approved in Christ.

Because I am attached to Christ, because I died with Christ, because the Spirit of Christ is inside of me, then, believing this, I can live in the abundance of this grace. No temptation will take me down; no word spoken against me will drag me away because there is a law inside of me. Not because we are better than the rest, but because we received the abundance of grace and made it our own.

Entering in Romans 8, we find the Holy Spirit bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God (8:16). And once we are doing the things that are of the Spirit, we do not war according to the poor resources of the flesh. This lifestyle is wonderful because we are no longer alone trying to please God with our own strength.

Now, the Spirit of the living God that was poured out on the Day of Pentecost lives in the believer’s heart by the accomplished work of Jesus. He bears witness to our spirit that we are not from below, but fellow citizens of the saints and members of God’s family. That we do not belong to the darkness, but to the light; that we are not simple individuals anymore, but members of Christ's body, and we keep a living communion with the living God!

Finally, Romans 8 will teach us that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Can we think of Apelles progressing in Christ? Overcoming stage after stage? After having been a man full of sins, he filled himself with the Word, and he valued Christ's blood, valued justification and valued his being transferred from Adam to Christ. He saw himself dead in Christ, he saw himself raised in Christ, he began to live by the law of the Spirit of life, and he ended up being more than conqueror before the hardships of life...

Members of one body

But the end of it is not in Romans 8. Even though you are more than conqueror, you are still an individual. It is in Romans 12 that a new concept is introduced. And when saying a new concept, I say it on purpose, so that you make a list in your heart of all the concepts already introduced.

Another concept appears in Romans 12—we are members of a body. You will never be approved just as an individual. Never! You need the body. We need the other members of the body. To live the reality of Christ's body, a profound renovation of our understanding is essential. Every high concept of ourselves and our individualism should be demolished. How aware are we that we are members of one another? (Rom. 12: 3-5). Whatever you do, whether good or bad, will affect the whole church for good or for bad.

Romans 12:11 says: “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord”. We like this so much! But, on the other hand, sadness comes to our lives when we find Christians that are lifeless, that just pray monotonous prayers. But, how different it is when somebody is fervent in spirit and he pours himself out in love! “...rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer”.

In this way we come to Romans 14:1: “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things”. Ah, Apelles is already quite mature! In Romans, chapter 3 or 4, he would surely say: “I think this, I think that». Not now. Apelles already died. He no longer argues about doctrinal aspects. If a brother thinks differently, he loves him, he receives him. He doesn't contend on opinions. On the other hand, he will say: “Brother, if you keep the day, for the Lord you keep it; if you don't eat meat, for the Lord you don't eat. Let us rather love the Lord. What you are talking about is not the essence. Let us bless the King”. If by means of God’s grace we have arrived to this step in our experience in Christ, the Lord will have gained much with us.

There is even more. Romans 15:1: “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves”. I want to be in a church like that, brothers and sisters, where there are strong and weak. They live together, they put up with one another and they love one another! Verse 5: “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Can you realize that God gives everything? That He does not sell life?

We are concluding. Romans 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”. Let us be full of hope. It is possible to mature in Christ. Let us be full of joy and peace in believing. Let us believe that it is possible that to experience this is to die and to be raised up in Christ. Let us believe that it is possible to come to be approved in Christ. And let us believe that we can also live in our days the glorious reality of chapter 16 of the book of Romans.

Brother, if you have not gone through death and resurrection, how are you going to live the life of the body? If the life of resurrection is not a reality in you, how will you get along with the brothers and sisters? For the reason that we are so different from one another, we all need to die and to be raised up. As we all have been raised up, we congregate as one person and we end up having one mind, Christ's mind; one life, Christ's life.

God is continuously working. He will get what He wants – a body. Not just fantastic individuals. A body where all the members work harmoniously without stifling hierarchies. A body where indeed Jesus Christ, its Head, presides over by means of the glorious Holy Spirit that fills powerfully each of its members. Amen.

Summary of a message preached in Colombia, July 2006.

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