Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:12-13)
The movie Gladiator opens with a division of the Roman army about to go into battle against the Germanic barbarians of Northern Europe. The commander Maximus (played by Russell Crowe), mustering his troops, declares to them, “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
It is an inspiring scene that sets the stage for the rest of the movie, one in which we find in the person of Maximus an uncommon resolve to remain true to those words, and one who ultimately gives his own life to confront the evil of his time.
Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.
I have often considered the Christian life to be like this. Granted, on the surface Christianity often does not seem like much. But just underneath the surface lies a revolutionary quality reflective of its Founder. Like Maximus, believers in Jesus Christ throughout history, though often marginalized and misunderstood, have fearlessly fought for what is true, right, pure, and even what is lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. To be a Christian is to be a revolutionary.
The problem is, the reality of the life of a Christian can often fall far short of this ideal. Personally, I have found myself in possession of far less courage — and even virtue — than what we find in the person of Maximus. Most if not all of my attempts to live fearlessly have ended poorly. My time seems to be spent on church attendance than in confronting the evil of our day. Try as I may, I am afraid I have not managed to change the world; I have barely managed to change myself.
I am afraid I have not managed to change the world; I have barely managed to change myself.
But as I reflect upon the passage of Scripture that introduces this essay, I wonder if the real battle for the child of God is not to be fought in the theater of this world but in the world of the unseen.
The apostle Paul claims our true obligation — the thing to which we are to apply our main focus and effort — is to the Spirit. He admonishes us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” by the Spirit. I used to think this was just a fancy way of saying, “stop doing bad stuff,” but this passage carries a much deeper meaning.
Up to this point, Paul has spent the better part of two chapters explaining that as far as our ability to stop doing bad stuff is concerned, we are pretty much incapable. The same holds true for living for what is right, true and just. This is why many of our efforts, through sheer effort alone, fall far short of our own aspirations, and even God’s.
But Paul then explains that the Spirit of God has made it possible for us to “fulfill the righteous requirements of God.” The story, however, does not end there, for the Spirit of God has not come without resistance. In many ways the Spirit’s entrance into the Christian soul represents a declaration of war upon the soul. Much like a Roman division that has invaded barbarian territory, the Spirit now seeks to establish dominion. Where it does so, peace and eternal life flourish. Where it has not, according to Scripture, death still has the potential to reign.
In many ways, the Spirit’s entrance into the Christian soul represents a declaration of war upon the soul.
Our obligation to God, therefore, is not outward but inward. It is not about stopping doing bad things and doing good things. Rather, it is about allowing the Spirit of God within us to conquer the things which not only cause us to do bad things but also bring about destruction to our lives. These are the “misdeeds of the body” Paul is referring to.
Doing good and refraining from evil should still be our goal, but yielding to the Spirit of God is our means. We are revolutionaries in the world, but we are revolutionaries first and foremost within our own hearts, where the real battle for justice and virtue is won or lost.
And the banner which flies above the invading army of the Spirit of God within us is not just righteousness but also mercy. God’s holy war in the Christian soul is the only war in which our own sufficiency cause us not only to lose the battle but to find ourselves fighting on the wrong side.
Brothers and sisters, what we do in life echoes throughout eternity. Even more so, what we allow God to do in our hearts echoes throughout the world around us. As we yield to the deep work of God’s Spirit, kingdoms are conquered. Structures topple and the Kingdom of God is established, in the seen and unseen, both far and wide.