A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 17, 2021.
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Rom. 7:1–6).
In the second century, Rome, seemingly out of nowhere there were Christians across every social class, from slaves to the wealthy, living their lives, not separate, but in Roman culture yet differently. They were known as followers of “the way” (Acts 9:2, 22:4), forming a new community, following a resurrected Jesus, fellowshipping in a new way of life. One second century observer referred to Christianity as a “Third Way,” distinct from Rome’s religion, distinct from the Jew’s religion, a new way of life.
In contrast, the religion of Rome was pluralistic and syncretistic, yet uniquely connected to civic life. Temples and other places of worship were maintained by the civil authority, and religious feasts and festivals were encouraged for the sake of culture. Religious rituals were essentially transactional, encouraging the favor of the gods and goddesses, as prosperity was desired by all, including the emperor to whom allegiance was sworn as a god. Rome was the perfect picture of a civilization in which god and country were essentially the same thing. As one historian puts it, “Rome’s religion was Rome itself.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Judaism was respected by many of the Romans. After all, it was an ancient religion that had survived for over a thousand years. As a result, Jews for the most part received special treatment. They were not required to worship the Greco-Roman gods, and they were excused from military service. Though somewhat integrated into Roman society, they distinctly worshiped only one God, Yahweh, and followed a strict law and religious practices. Culturally they were removed, eating different foods, wearing different clothing, worshipping in their synagogues. Though accepted into Roman civilization, they stood out and apart from it.
Christians were very different. They looked just like other Romans: They followed the same customs, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, lived in the same neighborhoods as other Romans. One second century observer noted, “Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language of custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.”
Christians were just normal people—but different. The early Christians assimilated into culture, but they were not captive to it. They were citizens but aliens, neighbors but foreigners. They were not rioters, political police, or culture critics but instead were peaceful, law-abiding citizens, known for their ethics rather than outrage. Yet, they were ostracized, persecuted, and many martyred. They also thrived, going from approximately five thousand in AD 40 to five million by 300.
What was it that led to such explosive growth? How did the early church thrive against all odds? What did that early Roman church believe that differed so distinctly from Rome’s worldly way, but also from the Jewish old way? What was so extraordinary about the new way that changed the world and continues to do so today? Let’s start first with what it is not. Christianity is not the worldly way.
The Worldly Way
The third century intellectual Porphyry did not see Christianity as a threat to Roman culture. In fact, he admired the historical Jesus as a pious man and worthy of admiration. He even suggested that Jesus be included in the pantheon of Roman worship, because “the gods have proclaimed Christ to be most pious and immortal, and that they remember him in a laudatory way.” He did, however, adamantly reject the Christian teaching that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of all who trust in him. Porphyry considered it preposterous that anyone or any way could offer a “universal way for the liberation of the soul.” Entrapped by his Roman worldview, the value of Christianity was found only in its contribution to the nation’s prosperity and the promotion of cultural accommodation.
Porphyry’s perspective is not too different from the world’s view today. Jesus is acceptable in our culture if he is, as one commentator puts it, “capitalist Jesus, a positive-thinking Jesus, a liberationist Jesus, a mystical Jesus, a manly Jesus, an American nationalist Jesus.” A Jesus formed according to human whims and wishes was acceptable to Porphyry and many in our culture today, but a Jesus who demands that he is exclusively “the way, and the truth, and the life” and that no one comes to the one and only God except through him (John 14:6) is anathema to the world.
Why? Why is the world so opposed to the exclusive divinity, authority, and salvation of Jesus Christ? The answer is the distinction between the Spirit and the flesh. Paul explains this by reminding us that before our conversion “we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions [or desires]…were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now…we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (7:5-6). As Paul uses it here, “in the flesh” means according to our sinful nature. It is the state of every human being who has not been born again by the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. As Paul explained to the Corinthians, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14, NET).
Yet, for those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been brought to life through the Spirit of Christ. We have something the world does not have, a newness of life that impacts every part of our life. The worldly way leads to death, never to life. This is why we must remember that though we live in this world and engage in the ordinary life of the home, and the neighborhood, and the marketplace, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). This is why the early Christians believed that their lives did not center around the political and civic life of the nation but upon the redemptive power of the gospel revealed in God’s work in and through his people, an unfolding that continues to this day.
The Old Way
As Jesus encountered in his earthly ministry, by the first century Judaism had become a heavy-handed religion of rigorous religious practices. In the Roman world, the Jews intentionally segregated themselves. As a result, they were easily identifiable with no threat of assimilation. This however did not hinder Jewish influence upon the early and increasingly Gentile church.
As Paul’s letter to the Galatians makes clear, the allure to some of the early Christians came through a sense of religiosity. By emphasizing the keeping of customs, practices, and especially the commands of the law, such as circumcision, there was a tangible sense of religious accomplishment. The problem is, however, that the law can only demand and condemn. It cannot give life.
As Paul explained to the church in Rome, while God’s law is good and right, because of our sin nature, alone it only yields death. In fact, Paul says that the law actually arouses our sinful desires, resulting in unregenerate rebellion rather than repentance, bearing fruit of death not life. It is only the grace of God that frees us from slavery to sin to “the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way” of the law.
Yet the old way is alive and well today, thriving in less obvious ways. In our culture this is often seen in the realm of achievement. There is a righteous sense of accomplishment in the relentless pursuit of excellence. The weight of performance is a heavy one to bear, often leading to a weariness and emptiness, relieved only in recommitment and pursuit of more.
Similarly, the old way can be seen in better-than comparisons and criticism of others. It is often heard in lamentations for a lost golden age, a pining for the past and a whining over the present. A false sense of moral superiority is gained by criticizing and castigating, often camouflaging a sense of loss and failure.
Ultimately, the old way leads to discouragement. The very standards we impose on others serve as unscalable walls of futility for us. Legislating morality continues to produce a rebellious society yielding the sin that the law arouses. Onward the old way charges, assuming moral reform and cultural revival will come through political and legal victories. Yet the fruit the old way yields is never victory—only death.
The New Way
If Christianity is not the worldly way and distinct from the old way, what does Paul mean by the “new way”? To explain, Paul provides the example of marriage. When a man and woman enter into the covenant of marriage, it is a lifelong commitment. Whether a blessing or a burden (or sometimes both), the covenant of marriage is until death. Before death the wayward spouse commits adultery, but after death the living spouse is free to remarry.
Drawing from this analogy, Paul explains that like the deceased spouse, we have “died through the body of Christ” (7:4). Through our union with him we died to the demands and condemnation of the law. We have been liberated from the law and to a life of grace. As a result, like the living spouse, we are freed through death to be united with another, namely the resurrected and reigning Jesus Christ, analogously our bridegroom and ever our Lord. It is in this happy union with Christ that we realize that unlike the yoke of the law, Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:30). It is in him, who is the way, the truth, and the life, that we find the way to peace with God through the truth of his Word for a life lived out by grace today and forever.
Despite the temptation that calls from the worldly way and the demand of duty from the old way, Christ gives us his Spirit to live a new way, to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). This new way then is the way of the Spirit of Christ who fills us with his presence, enabling us to live for Christ, and producing in us Christ-exalting fruit. Such fruit does not carry the power or prestige expected in the worldly way nor does it carry the condemnation of the old way. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 6:22-23). Through such fruits the gospel advances and the church flourishes.
Have we forgotten today what was apparently so clear to the early church? Have we deceived ourselves into believing that Christianity can be lived out in the worldly way or according to the old way? Brothers and sisters, we are not critics of culture, judges of the law, or even salesmen of salvation. We are just normal people, neighbors and friends, who have been chosen by God to receive his free gift of salvation through faith and to share it with others. As a result, like the early Roman Christians, we live out the new way amidst those ensnared by the worldly way and shackled to the old way.
What does this newness of life look like? By God’s grace we love our neighbor tangibly, reaching out in love rather than reacting in hate. We are joyful in the reality of God’s presence and providence rather than dismayed over worldly circumstances. We are people of peace, living with our neighbors humbly rather than fighting over trivial entrapments of the worldly way. We are patient with others as God is patient with us, knowing that we were far more offensive to God than those who have offended us. We are kind to the unkind and even to those who kindly disagree with us, knowing that just as God’s kindness led us to repentance, so God may use our kindness to lead our neighbor to the Lord. We are a people of goodness, never evil, because our personal ethics and morality give testimony to the holiness of our God. We are a people of faithfulness never characterized by the whims of the worldly but the steadfast love of the Lord. We are gentle among the harsh, silent among the scoffers, humble among the haters, knowing that angry rants, riots, and rallies never invoke repentance and faith in our gentle and lowly Savior. And we exercise self-control, knowing that long is the list that will ruin our witness but great is the testimony of a life fully submitted to Christ.
Perhaps at the pinnacle of persecution in the early church, the bishop Polycarp was executed at the age of 86 years old. Among other things, he was accused of being a “destroyer” of the Roman gods and teaching Christians not to sacrifice or worship in pagan temples. In reality, his martyrdom probably had more to do with Christianity’s impact on the Roman economy and a perceived threat to their way of life. Far from a leader of a subversive threat to the state, when Polycarp was arrested, he was found praying and quickly offered food to the police and prayed for them. At his trial he was ordered to deny Christ and swear allegiance to Caesar. But he who knew the newness of the Spirit through the grace of God in Christ responded serenely, “If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar’s fortune…pretending not to know who I am, I will tell you plainly, I am a Christian.” It was no sacrifice to confess; he did not fear the death that awaited him, because he knew what you and I know too—the new way, the only way, to life is in Christ alone.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 See Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 1-10.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 22.