The order of things matters.
As definitive evidence, I submit to you one of my favorite expressions: “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” As in:
If you want a date night with your husband, don’t make big, elaborate plans and then see if you can get a sitter. That’s like putting the cart before the horse.
Since the 16th century people have been using this expression to playfully point out when things are in the wrong order. Because the order of things matters.
Here’s more definitive evidence: the book of Romans.
We’ve been working our way through this wonderful but complicated book during Lent. We’ve touched on just a few highlights thus far:
Sin is a problem we cannot solve on our own (Romans 3:9-20).
Jesus solves the problem of sin – he justifies us, he atones us (Romans 3:21-26).
We are set free from sin so that we can be obedient to God (Romans 6:15-23).
This is the horse in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s his understanding of why and how we need Jesus, and what happens when we do. It’s what comes first… literally.
The last few chapters of Romans address what we might call “works” – the way we’re supposed to live as Christians. Stuff like:
Be subject to political authorities (13:1-7).
Don’t judge each other (14:1-12).
Don’t be bad influences on each other (14:13-23).
Be motivated by the interests of others, not your own selfishness (15:1-6).
These instructions are important. They’re how the rubber hits the road (another favorite expression of mine). But it’s also important that they come after Paul explains the gospel. He has put the horse – Jesus’ saving grace, given freely – in front of the cart – the way we live in response to that grace.
What if Paul changed the order? What if he started Romans with all the instructions and then got into the gift of faith in Christ? Does it really matter if the cart comes in front of the horse?
Well, I have a confession: as much as I like this expression, I really don’t know much about horses. It dawned on me this week that I didn’t have any idea what would take place if you actually did put a cart in front of the horse. What, would the horse explode? Who knows?
People who own horses know, that’s who. We’ve got a few in our congregation. So I asked them to tell me, literally, what would happen if you put the cart in front of the horse. Here’s what I got:
The horse would shy away from it. They’re creatures of habit. You even have to approach a horse on the same side each time to saddle it up. So the horse would rebel against the cart.
It’d just stand there. It’d be a standstill.
Horses aren’t built to push. They’re engineered for pulling.
In short: Nothing. It’s not like the horse might push the cart a little bit… nothing would happen. Your cart would go nowhere.
This teaches us something about the relationship between Jesus’s saving action and our works.
That’s not to say that our works can never come before faith in Jesus. Think of John Wesley: After a failed missionary trip to the then-colony of Georgia, the founder of our Methodist movement considered quitting the preaching gig. His faith was dry and lifeless; he felt like a fraud.. Thankfully he was famously advised by his friend, Peter Boehler, “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Sometimes, it does help to go through the motions – do what you think you ought to do – and your faith is boosted in the process.
What is essential to remember is this: those “works” we do – whether it’s preaching or reading the Bible or feeding the hungry – never earn our way into God’s grace. Always God’s grace comes first. Always Jesus died for us first. Always Romans 5:8 is true: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Always that horse is in front of the cart. Otherwise it wouldn’t go anywhere at all.
Perhaps with that in mind Paul wrote the book of Romans to start with an explanation of how Jesus reconciles us with God and finish with what we’re to do in response. We start with God’s love for us… and we finish with living rightly in accordance with God’s will. We start with God’s free gift of salvation for us… and we finish with our participation in working for God’s kingdom.
Let’s follow that same pattern today. May you know – right now – that out of pure love God has solved the problem of sin for you. And may that knowledge lead you to act in love for God and neighbor in the world.
Paul J. Achteimier’s commentary on Romans in the Interpretation series
Craddock and Boring’s The People’s New Testament Commentary
Adam Hamilton’s Revival