[Autumn Sunrise, Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth: Venue of Romans Weekend, Pic by Justin]
Brian Zahnd, a pentecostal preacher who doesn’t sound like a pentecostal when it comes to content, has a favourite phrase for Christian folk who really don’t get the gospel: ‘easy cheezy cotton candy Christianity!’
In stark contrast, let me share a little of our recent ‘Romans Weekend’ with an organic church brother from the Free State, Tobie van der Westhuizen. He and his lovely wife Revien taught so accurately, graphically and powerfully ‘the big picture’ view of Paul’s Letter to the Roman church. For a few years now I have appreciated Tobie’s blogs under naturalchurch. Then in August 2015 some of us were invited to a game farm retreat facilitated by our brother (see my blog, ‘A Baptism of Love’) which was a little taste of heaven. Indicating his willingness to share his ‘big picture’ take on Romans, we were privileged to host this seminar toward the end of March this year.
After the weekend I invited a few folk to reflect on it:
Siphokazi, heading up our little youth centre in Motherwell township, said “Oh! Wow, what a superb weekend… my screws are tightened to God. I see no reason to turn back, dead the ‘me’ and living is ‘Christ in me.’ I really appreciated the weekend.”
My wife Melanie wrote, “The thought that struck me was this: we are made for God, not God for us… God’s plan was always to have a people he could indwell, and thereby glorify his Son.
To know and love God should be our life’s desire: our all-consuming desire. This is a daily and present experience. God has intended us to be one with him through Christ. We are indwelt by the same Spirit who indwells Christ, so we are able to have a daily, intimate relationship with the Lord of lords, calling him ‘Daddy.’ I love this about my Father!”
Monde, ex-Marxist turned radical for Christ, wrote “To me Romans chapter one has been broadened in the sense that, after the introduction of who God is, and what we are as his creation, I am first of all a ‘son,’ and therefore a representation of my Father here on earth. My Father is the source of the overflowing ‘life’ revealed in his Son, which is to be shared with others. This source of ‘life’ is so satisfying, that once having tasted it, you will lack no more and thirst no more. Three further things I learned from brother Tobie are:
- ‘Desire,’ by its nature, seeks it own and always takes. On the other hand, ‘life’ from God our Father seeks the benefit of others and always gives!
- The only image we should always grope for or look intently to, is Christ our Saviour. No other thing should take his place in our lives forever.
- God’s wrath does not come from an angry God – it is from a decision we have taken against him, and as a result God has given us over to our own ‘desires.’
Fundile, who co-ordinates organic groups with social outreaches in the sprawling townships of Cape Town, attended with his wife Nozuko. Unfortunately they missed the last morning having to travel back to Cape Town, but expressed much gratitude for the weekend. Fundile appreciated Tobie’s thorough treatment of Romans 1 as an essential ‘foundation’ for understanding ‘the big picture.’
Justin, an educator, wrote ‘I was really blessed, inspired and encouraged by Tobie’s teaching. I love how honest he was, how he shared his own struggles and then how he shared his triumphs too. I could really connect with him.
His insights into the image of God and the false images we create, as well as his explanation of how ‘desire’ works in particular, were profound and life-changing!’
Speaking for myself, I knew I would learn much from the weekend – I didn’t realise just how much, having studied Romans for a life-time from the original and with the help of great biblical scholars. Herewith a brief survey of truths I found ‘different,’ refreshing and revealing in new ways…
- I appreciated the way Romans was put into the context of the whole Bible, e.g. starting with the ‘two trees of Genesis 1-2,’ i.e. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He pointed out that it is the latter that is the key to any true relationship with God. Ultimately Jesus is the fulfilment and expression of the very life of God. Paul thoroughly knew his OT Bible, which in turn influenced his understanding of God’s message of ‘life’ as sketched in Romans.
- Romans 1 is ‘foundational’ – it addresses the core problem of man’s sin and self-centredness, his innate idolatry. Man focusses on self-effort in relating to God rather than trusting in Christ’s free gift of life (cf. Rom. 10 and the impossibility of mankind ‘ascending into heaven’). “Faith is simply total dependence on the ‘Tree of life.'”
- Rom. 5 reveals the ‘perfection of Christ’s blood’ shed for sinners. It is by the cross that God delivers the sinner from himself – see Rom. 6.
- Rom. 7 reflects the pre-conversion struggle of Paul the Pharisee. Cf. Phil. 3:7ff.
- Romans and the NT letters highlight the core-problem of mankind, viz. that of ‘desire.’ Tobie really gave me new insight into this key-word in the OT and NT – e.g., now I fully understood Jesus’ dealings with the rich ruler in Lk. 18:18ff – he had kept all God’s commandments since boyhood except the 10th, which deals with (you’ve guessed it!) selfish ‘desire.’ Any law-keeping in order to reach God is torpedoed by our heart’s ‘desire’ or ‘covetousness.’
- Rom. 8 conveys the magnificent message of freedom in Christ: v. 2, ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit set me free from the law of sin and death! (something the law of Moses was absolutely powerless to do) It is by this same Spirit that we are able to cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (v. 15). It’s about relationship!
- The key to Rom. 9-11? ‘Jesus is Lord!’ Rom. 10:13, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,’ i.e. Jew or Gentile. ‘All Israel’ = ‘the seed of Abraham’ by faith.
- The cure for ‘desire’ is ‘love,’ i.e. the love of Christ, who is the fulfilment of the law: see Rom. 12-16. These chapters are essentially about Christ-transformed relationships lived out in this world.
- In summary, believers are to aspire to what they already are in Christ, i.e. to ‘be what we are!‘ Therefore we do not live in the past or in the future, which lead to a false self-image and idolatry. We live in Christ’s present! [Brennan Manning writes of living in the ‘present risenness of Christ’ – my ref. This has helped me so much in recent days]
Marthinus and Heidi who hosted Tobie and family had the benefit of long conversations about Jesus, even deep into the night. A little bird told me that at 10 on Wednesday morning, the day of their leaving, Marthinus and Tobie were still so busy chatting about these things that the latter was still in his pyjamas while Revien and Oliver patiently (?) waited in the packed car!
At the end of it all the focus fell not on a dear family from the Free State, but on the sheer magnificence of CHRIST himself, the very essence of the gospel of life! All praise be to his name!
[Some of the approx. 25 adults attending the weekend: Pics by Marthinus & Heidi Hattingh]
PS. I’m hoping that Marthinus will give some of his impressions under comments!