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3. God's Judgment Is Near (Zephaniah 1:7-18)

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Zephaniah (part three)

The "Day of the Lord" theme is more prominent in Zephaniah than in any other prophet. This "Day" represents a season during which God punishes rebellious people who have persistently declined God's invitation to repent. The Bible portrays God "visiting" people for judgment with His outstretched hand of wrath. For Judah, this Day was near because it could commence at any time. We're living under the same conditions today, anticipating a final, climactic Day of Judgment when God will restore righteousness by turning this upside-down world right-side up. "Be silent before the Lord GOD, for the LORD's day of judgment is almost here."

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), Spiritual Life

La Revue Des Pasteurs

The Net Pastor's Journal

The quarterly Net Pastor's Journal is produced by Dr. Roger Pascoe and The Institute for Biblical Preaching.

This is also available in the following languages EnglishRussianRomanian, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese.

Related Topics: Pastors

Lesson 72: Stand in Awe (Romans 11:28-32)

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William Beebe was an explorer and a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Often when he visited the President, the two men would go outdoors at night to see who could first locate the Andromeda galaxy. Then as they gazed at the tiny smudge of distant starlight, one of them would recite, “That is the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” After that thought had sunk in, Roosevelt would flash his toothy grin and say, “Now I think we’re small enough! Let’s go to bed.” (Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations, by Paul Lee Tan [Assurance Publishers], # 2213.)

We now know that Andromeda is 2.6 million light years away and consists of one trillion stars, about twice the number of our galaxy. And while the numbers are only estimates and they keep getting larger, astronomers think that there are at least 100-200 billion galaxies, not 100 million. A German supercomputer simulation recently put that number at 500 billion (universetoday.com). Mr. Beebe and President Roosevelt would feel even smaller!

As the apostle Paul sums up Romans 11 in our text, he wants us to feel appropriately small in the presence of the Sovereign God who moves all of history according to His unfathomable ways for His own glory. Pastor John Piper (desiringGod.org, “God’s Design for History: The Glory of His Mercy,” italics his) sums up, “Romans 11:30-32 is the summary of the main point of this chapter, namely, that God has designed and guided history—both its disobedience and its obedience—so that in the end it will most fully display the reliability of his promises and the magnificence of his mercy—to prevent human pride and produce white-hot worship.

Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 729-730) points out that verses 28-32 “recapitulate and wrap up the argument of chaps. 9-11 as a whole. Paul’s assertion of Israel’s dual status in v. 28 succinctly summarizes the dilemma that drives the whole argument of these chapters: the Israel now at enmity with God because of the gospel is nevertheless the Israel to whom God has made irrevocable promises of blessing.” Paul’s point is:

We should stand in awe of God because He designs and controls all of history to display His faithfulness to His promises and the glory of His mercy to sinners.

Paul has been gazing through the telescope to get a glimpse of just how big God is, and he invites us to take a look for ourselves.

1. God designs and controls all of history.

Some might react to this statement by thinking that it denies our “free will.” They would object, “Are we just robots that God has programmed to do what He has determined they should do?” But the biblical view is much more profound than this. While God controls all of history and moves it according to His sovereign purpose, He does so through humans who are free to make choices for which they are held responsible. For example, before human history began God ordained the cross. The cross was necessary because of human sin and it could only be implemented through sinful behavior. And yet at the same time, God is not responsible for sin and He holds sinners accountable for their sin.

In my Bible reading this week, I came to a verse that is a favorite of many, Jeremiah 29:11: ‘“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” It’s a wonderful promise for God’s people, especially those who are suffering. In the verse just before, God tells Jeremiah that after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, He will restore Israel to their land. In the following verses (29:12-13) He says, “Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”

Did you notice the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in those verses? God has a plan for His people and He will carry out that plan right on schedule. He is not restricted from carrying out His plan by what sinful people do. God‘s plan required that Cyrus the pagan king had to decide to let the Jews return to their land. The Jews had to decide to give up living in Babylon, where they had been born and reared, and to make the difficult, dangerous, and uncertain journey back to Israel. To do that, they had to rely on God’s promise that their future in Israel would be for their and their children’s good. Furthermore, God declares that the Jews of that future generation will call upon Him, pray to Him, and seek Him with all their hearts.

So God had a plan and it was certain that He would accomplish His plan. The plan included the “free” decision of a sinful king and the “free” decision of the Jews to return to the land and seek the Lord. But when they freely chose these things, they were carrying out God’s foreordained plan. And it was not that God merely foresaw these events. Rather, He designs and controls how things turn out to accomplish His purposes. But at the same time, He accomplishes His purpose through people who make real choices for which they are responsible.

John Piper outlines four broad stages of history (11:30-32):

(1) The time of Gentile disobedience, when God permitted the nations to go their own way. God described some of this history in advance to Abraham in a mind-boggling statement (Gen. 15:13): “God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.’” Then God explains why Israel will spend four centuries in slavery in Egypt (Gen. 15:16), “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” That’s amazing! Israel would spend four long centuries in slavery because the iniquity of the Amorite (the Canaanites) was not yet complete! When their sin was full to the brim, God freed Israel from slavery to Egypt and commanded them to execute His judgment on the wicked Canaanites.

Paul referred to this time of Gentile disobedience in a passing phrase in a sermon at Lystra (Acts 14:16), “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways ….” I thought about that verse on Monday as we hiked to a remote spot below the North Rim of the Grand Canyon called “Shaman’s Gallery.” It is an extensive panel of rock art that some native shaman who did not know the living and true God put there perhaps 1,000 years ago. Why didn’t he know God? Because in His unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways, God permitted the Gentiles to go their own ways.

(2) The time of Jewish disobedience, when they rejected their Messiah and He gave them up to hardness. As we saw last time, Israel brazenly rejected and crucified their Savior as they cried out (Matt. 27:25), “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Although God had ordained the cross, He permitted the Jews to make that frightening choice and pronounce that curse on them and their children. That hardness has lasted for almost 2,000 years.

When Paul says (11:28), “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake,” he means that because God hardened the Jews, the gospel has now gone out to the Gentiles (see 11:11, 12, 15). “Enemies” probably means, “They are God’s enemies” because of their sin and unbelief in rejecting their Messiah. But the staggering thing about God’s judgment on the Jews is that if you had been born as a Jew in the past 2,000 years, unless you were a part of the remnant according to God’s gracious choice (11:5), you would have lived and died hardened toward the good news about the Savior!

(3) The time of mercy shown to the Gentiles through the spread of the gospel to all nations—the fullness of the Gentiles. We are the recipients of God’s mercy in this period as the gospel goes out to the nations. And yet, as I just mentioned in the case of the Native Americans who lived 1,000 years ago, they lived and died without hearing the gospel. Approximately 6,900 people groups are still in such spiritual darkness, waiting to hear the gospel (see my message “Good News for All,” 1/29/12).

(4) The time of mercy on Israel as God completes his re­demptive plan and takes away the hardening and saves the nation of Israel with a mass conversion to Christ. As I explained last week, this will probably happen either just prior to or at the time of the second coming of Jesus Christ. In 11:31, the second “now” is difficult, causing some manuscripts to omit it. But it is probably original. But how can the Jews now be shown mercy when it is still future? Probably Paul meant that now that the Gentiles have been shown mercy, the Jews were in position for this final phase of God’s program. It could take place “now,” at any time.

I need to emphasize that God’s shutting up all in disobedience does not mean that He is responsible for sin. It has the idea of God giving the Gentiles over to the consequences of their sin (as in Rom. 1:24, 26, & 28) and consigning the Jews to judicial hardening because of their sin (11:7-10). Just as He shut up these two groups to their sins, so He will show mercy to the two groups. But this does not mean that He will save everyone in those groups. Moo explains (ibid., pp. 736-737), “He is saying that God has imprisoned in disobedience first Gentiles and now Jews so that he might bestow mercy on each of these groups of humanity.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter III, 1.) puts the biblical balance like this: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” The point is that without violating the free agency of sinners, God designs and controls all history for His sovereign purpose of glorifying His name. And so we should stand in awe of the Sovereign God of history.

2. God designs and controls all of history to display His faithfulness to His promises.

Romans 11:28-29: “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” H. C. G. Moule (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Cambridge: University Press, 1903], p. 201, italics his) paraphrases,

With a view to the spread of the Gospel, which is the message of salvation for every believer, Jew or Gentile, (1:16) it pleased God in His sovereign plan to reject the great majority of the Jews—in order to open His kingdom wide to you. But with a view to the believing element, the elect Jews of every age, including the great multitude to be called to grace hereafter, the Jews are still dear to Him; for His Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is sovereign and unchangeable.

Douglas Moo (ibid., p. 729) says, “It is because God has chosen Israel to be his ‘beloved’ that he will bring salvation to the people in the last day.” He points out that “election” (in 11:28) refers not to salvation for every single Jew, but rather to God’s choosing Israel as a nation in line with His covenant with the patriarchs. This status as God’s chosen nation results in salvation only for those whom God individually chooses and calls in this age (the “remnant” of 11:5) and in the future (“all Israel” of 11:26).

When Paul says that Israel is “beloved for the sake of the fathers,” he does not mean that the godliness of the patriarchs somehow stored up merit for their descendants. Nor did God choose the patriarchs because of something worthy in them. The Bible records that they all had many sins. Rather, Paul means that God will fulfill His promises to the patriarchs.

God’s “gifts” (11:29) refers to the blessings enumerated in 9:4-5. His “calling” refers to God’s calling Abram and promising to bless him and his descendants. In other words, it refers to God’s choosing Israel as His special people. According to The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (F. Laubach, [Zondervan, 1975], ed. by Colin Brown, 1:357), “irrevocable” means, “In spite of the disobedience and hardening of men’s hearts God will accomplish his purpose of salvation also in his people Israel.” In other words, God will not go back on His covenant promises. He has designed history to display His faithfulness to His promises.

The practical benefit of this is that we can trust God’s promises, including His promise to work even the most difficult trials together for our ultimate good (Rom. 8:28). But keep in mind that you may die without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises. Abraham died owning only a burial cave that he had bought with his own money, without realizing God’s promise to give him the land of Canaan. But God’s timing is not our timing. With God, a thousand years is as a day (2 Pet. 3:8), and so it’s only been four days since Abraham’s time! But when the final account of human history stands finished, we will see that God designed and controlled it all to display the complete faithfulness of His promises. We can count on His Word as true!

3. God designs and controls all of history to display the glory of His mercy to sinners.

Romans 11:30-32: “For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”

By repetition Paul sets forth two themes: “Disobedient” (or, “disobedience”) occurs four times. “Mercy” also occurs four times. John Murray (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], 2:102, italics his) observes, “It is only in the context of disobedience that mercy has relevance and meaning.” Unless you realize the enormity of your own disobedience and sin, you will not appreciate the greatness of the gift of God’s mercy.

In this sweeping summary of history there is a similarity and a difference (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerd­mans], p. 425). Both the Jews and the Gentiles are alike in that both groups were disobedient to God. But the difference is that in God’s design for history, through the Jews’ disobedience, the Gentiles came to experience God’s mercy, but it will be through the Gentiles’ experience of God’s mercy that the Jews will finally come to know His mercy, too.

Morris (ibid., pp. 424-425) also points out that it is significant that Paul does not say, “You were disobedient, but you have become obedient,” but rather, “You have been shown mercy.” He adds, “It is no human achievement of which he speaks, but a divine gift.” God’s mercy is similar to His grace, in that both represent His unmerited favor toward those who deserve His judgment. But the nuance of difference is that grace emphasizes God’s favor in forgiving our sins because we are guilty, whereas mercy emphasizes His compassion on us because we are miserable (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 170).

To repeat so that you are clear, Paul is not saying (in 11:32) that God will save everyone. Rather, in the context Paul is looking at the broad sweep of history and God’s dealings with the Gentiles and the Jews as groups. He is saying that just as both groups were at various times cut off from God’s mercy because of their disobedience, so both groups will experience His mercy as history unfolds. This does not imply that every individual in each group will be saved, which would contradict what Paul says elsewhere, that some will come under eternal condemnation (2 Thess. 1:9; 2:12). So “mercy to all” means that just as God is now pouring out His mercy on the Gentiles as a group, so in the future He will pour out His mercy on the Jews as a group. He has designed and He controls all of history to display the glory of His mercy to sinners.

The bottom line for contemplating how God has designed and controls all of history to display His faithfulness and mercy is:

4. Stand in awe of the faithful, merciful God.

Thinking about these profound truths moved Paul to burst out in worship (Rom. 11:33-36): “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

We will look at those verses in more depth next time, but they teach us that this truth of God’s sovereignty over salvation history is not for debate, but for worship. It should cause us to stand in awe of God and to thank Him for His faithfulness to His promises and to worship Him for showing us mercy.

Conclusion

I conclude with seven practical applications. Some of these will apply more to some than to others, but as they say, “If the shoe fits, wear it!”

(1) Make sure that you have received God’s mercy by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. God has you hearing this message so that as you feel the weight of your sin and guilt, you can turn to Him and know His mercy.

(2) Grow in worship and humility before God as you meditate often on His sovereignty over history and on the mercy that He has shown you. These truths are not just for your brain, but for your heart before God. Humble yourself before the Almighty Sovereign of history.

(3) If you have received God’s mercy, be merciful to other sinners who are racially or morally different than you, especially when they have sinned against you. Paul knew that the gospel should result in redeemed Gentile sinners extending mercy to Jewish sinners, and vice versa. Apart from God’s mercy to you, you would be just as offensive to other sinners as they are toward you. They need mercy, not judgment.

(4) Rely on God’s faithfulness to His promises no matter how contrary to your current circumstances those promises may seem. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all died in faith, without receiving the promises (Heb. 11:13). Don’t stop trusting when you don’t see instant results.

(5) Since in the inscrutable ways of God the destiny of your children and grandchildren is somehow linked to your faith, make sure that for their sakes you walk with God. The disobedience of the Jews in the time of Christ has affected 2,000 years of Jewish history! How frightening! And as Paul has said (11:22), if we Gentiles do not continue in God’s kindness, we (and our descendants) could be cut off. Your walk with God matters to more than just you!

(6) Tell others about God’s great mercy and faithfulness toward sinners who will call upon Him. His purpose in shutting us all up in disobedience is that He might show mercy to all. He is “abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:12b-13).

(7) If you reject Christ, you are an enemy of God. The Jews were God’s enemies because they had rejected the Savior that He had graciously sent. Right now, you’re either the object of God’s mercy through faith in Christ or you’re His enemy, headed toward judgment, because you have rejected Christ. There is no neutral ground. The most loving thing I can say to you is, “Trust in Christ today!”

Application Questions

  1. Someone argues, “If God designed and controls history, then He is the author of sin.” How would you refute this biblically?
  2. Some argue that verse 32 means that God will save everyone. How would you rebut this error (from Scripture)?
  3. How can you know whether you’re maintaining the biblical balance between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility?
  4. How can we have a deeper experience of God’s mercy?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Glory, History, Predestination, Worship

Lesson 73: God is Great; You are not Great, Part 1 (Romans 11:33-36)

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Pastor John Piper tells of a time when he felt impressed to preach on God’s greatness as revealed in Isaiah 6, the passage where Isaiah saw the Lord on His throne. Normally Piper says that he would have tried to apply the text, but on this Sunday, he simply tried to lift up and display the majesty and glory of God, without a word of application. He did not realize that one of the young families in his church had just discovered that their child was being sexually abused by a close relative. They were there that Sunday and heard his message.

Piper says that many advisors to us pastors would have said, “Pastor Piper, can’t you see that your people are hurting? Can’t you come down out of the heavens and get practical? Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?” Some weeks later he learned the story. The husband took him aside after a service and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. Do you know what has gotten me through? The vision of the greatness of God’s holiness that you gave me the first week in January. It has been the rock we could stand on.”

Piper concludes (The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Baker], pp. 10-11), “The greatness and glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.”

Paul has been outlining for us how God has sovereignly designed and controlled salvation history. There was a long period of time (from Abraham to Christ) when He permitted the Gentile nations to go their own way, while He revealed Himself to the Jews. But then the Jews rejected their Messiah and God brought a partial hardening on them. In many ways, this hardening even went back to the time of Moses (Deut. 32:5-35), but it was intensified when the nation crucified the sinless Son of God. At that point, while preserving a remnant of saved Jews, God opened the door of His mercy to the Gentiles, who are now coming to salvation in unprecedented numbers. But in the future, God will keep His covenant promises to the fathers by showing mercy again to the Jews, “so all Israel will be saved.”

Paul concludes this discussion (11:32) by marveling, “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” “All” in the context does not refer to every individual, but to all groups of people. He has shut up all the Gentiles and the Jews to disobedience, so that He can show mercy to both groups.

Verse 32 sums up Paul’s line of thought in Romans thus far. All the Gentiles (Romans 1) and the Jews (Romans 2) have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3). That means that the only way of salvation is not through human works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy (Romans 4 & 5). Verse 32 also sums up Romans 9-11, which focuses on the problem of why the Jews were rejecting Christ. Paul shows that because of our sin, salvation is only possible if God through His sovereign grace chose to have mercy on us (Romans 9). If we are lost, it is because we have refused to call upon the Lord (Romans 10). Because of His gracious promises to the patriarchs, God is not finished with the Jews (Romans 11). While they are now disobedient to God, they will yet again be shown mercy. This thought leads Paul to break out in this concluding doxology that wraps up the entire discussion from Romans 1 through 11.

The main idea that comes through in our text is the immensity of God and the relative puniness of man. Charles Hodge puts it (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 377), “Few passages, even in the Scriptures, are to be compared with this, in the force with which it presents the idea that God is all, and man is nothing.” Isaiah 40, from which Paul cites (v. 34), may compare. In that great chapter, Isaiah says (40:15, 17), “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales, … All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.”

Paul also cites from Job (41:11), where for four chapters God grills Job on where he was when God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it. God relentlessly hammers home the truth that He alone is great and no man, not even the most righteous man on the face of the earth, is great. At the end, Job answers (42:2), “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” He goes on to admit that he had declared things beyond his knowledge and understanding, and so he repents in dust and ashes. It is that same exalting of God and humbling of us that Paul sets forth here. His message is:

Since God is far greater than you can comprehend and you are not great, humble yourself before God and worship Him.

You may react to that statement by thinking, “That puts me down and damages my self-esteem! I thought that I needed to believe in myself and build my self-esteem.” But that idea came into Christian circles through atheistic psychologists like Carl Rogers, not through the Word of God. Besides, that approach puts you on a path that does not lead to personal and emotional wholeness, because it leaves you as the center of your life. It’s interesting that Isaiah 40, which extols God’s greatness, begins with God saying (40:1), “Comfort, O comfort My people,” and ends with the prophet explaining how God gives strength to the weary who wait upon the Lord (40:29-31).

And to poor Job, who was already beaten to a pulp with all his afflictions and his insensitive counselors, God didn’t say, “Job, think about what a great man you are! You’re really the most righteous man on earth.” God didn’t play the psychologist to build Job’s self-esteem. Rather, He directed Job to think about how great God is, which humbled Job, led him to worship God, and be restored. Since God humbles the proud, but lifts the needy from the ash heap (1 Sam. 2:6-8), being humbled in the presence of the God who alone is great brings great comfort and restoration to your soul. It’s intensely practical to magnify the Lord and to minimize your view of yourself. So let’s consider this transforming truth:

1. God is far greater than you can ever comprehend.

Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

One of the most important lessons that we all need to learn is, “God is God; I am not God.” That sounds obvious, but we challenge it every time we think that God owes us something or that He is not treating us as well as we think we deserve. We act against it every time we sin. We violate the truth of it every time we grumble about our circumstances. We fly in the face of it every time we get puffed up with pride or look down on others.

We undermine it every time we question God’s right to act as the Bible tells us He acted: “It’s not fair that He loved Jacob and hated Esau! It’s not right that He slaughtered all the firstborn children in Egypt! God didn’t even warn the Egyptian parents to put the blood on their doorposts and lintels. It’s not right that He commanded Israel to slaughter the Canaanites, including women and children! It’s not merciful for Him to strike Uzzah dead for touching the ark! He was only trying to help!” All of those arrogant challenges to God’s right to be God imply that the challenger knows more than God knows. And so a very basic lesson is, “God is God; I am not God.” If you don’t learn that before you stand before Him at the judgment, you will learn it then, but too late!

Paul first exclaims his wonder at the depth of certain qualities or attributes of God and then lays out either four or five of those attributes. I say “four or five” because the Greek text can legitimately be translated in either of two ways and scholars are divided, as the difference between the NASB and the ESV (11:33) reflects. The NASB reads, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” The ESV reads, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” It’s difficult to decide between the two. In favor of the NASB, Paul does not normally use “riches” without a qualifying genitive (“of His kindness” [2:4]; “of His glory” [9:23]; “of His grace” [Eph. 1:7]; etc.). It seems unlikely that Paul would put “riches” in parallel with “wisdom and knowledge” if he did not mean “the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 632-633, argues for this view.)

On the other hand, Paul may be reflecting back on the riches of God’s grace and love in Christ as he has expounded on them thus far in Romans. It has been pointed out that the citations from the Old Testament (in 11:34 & 35) relate to these three qualities in reverse order: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” relates to His knowledge; “Who became His counselor?” relates to His wisdom; and, “Who has first given to Him?” relates to His riches. I’m not dogmatic, but I’m going to look at these verses under five headings, each of which show that God is greater than we can ever comprehend.

God’s incomprehensibility is reflected in the word depth. It’s not that we cannot know God at all, but rather that we can never get to the bottom of who He is in His greatness. Maybe you’ve stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and peered into the bottom and exclaimed, “Oh, the depth!” I just read that some explorers, including James Cameron, the director of “Titanic,” are going to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on earth. It goes down to almost 36,000 feet (almost 7 miles) below sea level. More people have been to the moon than have gone down to the bottom of this trench, which is described as “the most hostile, most remote environment on the face of the planet” (Arizona Daily Sun, 3/19/12). If Cameron’s vessel were to leak, the pressure would crush him so fast that he couldn’t even cry out.

“Oh, the depth!” Let’s try to explore some of the depths of God:

A. God’s riches are beyond comprehension.

As I recently pointed out, Paul loved the thought of God’s riches: He is (Rom. 10:12b-13) “abounding in riches for all who call on Him, for whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In Ephesians 1:7-8 Paul says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.” In Ephesians 2:7, he says “that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” We will never get to the bottom of the depths of the riches of His grace! In Ephesians 3:8 he says, “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” He uses the same word as in Romans 11:33, how “unfathomable are His ways.” It means that they are not capable of being tracked.

Are you enjoying the depth of the riches of God’s grace toward you in Christ? Do you revel in the fact that God has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3)? Do you marvel that He chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world and that in love He predestined you to adoption as his child through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, freely bestowing His grace on you in the Beloved (Eph. 1:4-6)? Like Scrooge McDuck in the old Donald Duck cartoon strip, you are swimming in piles and piles of God’s riches, lavished on you in Christ. Use those riches daily!

B. God’s wisdom is beyond comprehension.

God’s wisdom somewhat overlaps with His knowledge. The difference is that knowledge is information and wisdom is the application of that knowledge. So God’s wisdom concerns how He does what He does. The Hebrew word for wisdom has the nuance of skill. To acquire wisdom is to obtain the skill to live a beautiful life before God. Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” God’s wisdom is revealed to us in His written Word.

In our text, Paul is especially referring to the wisdom that informs God’s purposes and His accomplishment of them (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark International], 2:589). As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, God’s wisdom is especially revealed in the cross of Christ, which is foolishness to the so-called “wise” men of this world. He says (1 Cor. 1:24), “But to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” If you want to go deeper in God’s wisdom, meditate often on the glory of Christ crucified for your sins.

C. God’s knowledge is beyond comprehension.

God’s knowledge is His omniscience, the comprehensive information that is the basis for His wisdom. God knows all things in the universe exhaustively. He knows what is going on in the chemical reactions of the stars in billions of distant galaxies. He knows what is going on in the cells of your body. He knows your thoughts before you have them and your words before you speak them (Ps. 139:1-4). He knew you when you were being formed in your mother’s womb and He knows the exact number of your days (Ps. 139:16). He not only knows all things that will happen, but He also knows all things that would have happened had other contingencies prevailed, and He judges people on that basis (Matt. 11:21-24)! Hebrews 4:13 puts it, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

God’s exhaustive knowledge of us is both frightening and comforting. It’s frightening in that you can’t hide anything from God. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)! When the Lord told Abraham that Sarah would conceive in her old age, Sarah, who was in the tent, laughed in unbelief. The Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? … Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” But Sarah was afraid and denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord said, “No, but you did laugh” (Gen. 18:13-15). The comforting thing about God’s exhaustive knowledge is that even though He knows our weaknesses and sins, He doesn’t cast us off, but blesses us with His gracious promises in spite of our weaknesses. But we would live far differently if we always remembered that His knowledge is beyond our comprehension.

D. God’s judgments are beyond comprehension.

“How unsearchable are His judgments!” God’s judgments are how He executes His righteousness and justice. David reflects the same thought as Paul when he writes (Ps. 36:5-6), “Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like a great deep.”

God’s judgments in times gone by included wiping out everyone on the face of the earth, except for Noah and his family. Later, at the Tower of Babel, God’s judgment confused the languages of the proud men there and scattered them over the face of the earth. From that time until the time of Paul, the Lord judged the Gentiles by permitting the nations to go their own ways (Acts 14:16). In the context of Romans, God’s judgments on the Gentiles included giving them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, degrading passions, and a depraved mind (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). His judgments on the Jews meant hardening most of them, giving them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not (Rom. 11:7-8). In the future, God’s judgment on this evil world will be to “send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:11-12).

E. God’s ways are beyond comprehension.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 God says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”

Watchman Nee has a wonderful sermon, “Worshiping the Ways of God” (12 Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 3 vol.). He defines God’s ways (2:99): “His ways are the manner in which He Himself for His own good pleasure accomplishes what He has willed to do.” This includes God’s choosing Isaac, the son of the promise, but rejecting Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn through Hagar. His way was to choose Jacob the deceiver, but reject Esau, a much nicer man. He chose Judah, who thought that he was having sex with a prostitute, but actually it was his daughter-in-law, to be the ancestor of the Messiah.

As Paul says (1 Cor. 1:27-28), “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” These are the incomprehensible ways of the Sovereign God!

In light of the greatness of God, Paul goes on to cite Scripture that both supports God’s greatness and puts us in our proper place:

2. You are not great.

I’m out of time and so I’m just going to give these points in outline form in this message and then expand on them next time. Paul asks three rhetorical questions that all expect the answer, “No one.” These questions show that in comparison to God, we are not even close to being great.

A. You are not great in knowledge.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (11:34a). We have just seen that the Lord knows everything about everyone in all times and in every place. We aren’t even on the curve in His class!

B. You are not great in wisdom.

“Or who became His counselor?” (11:34b). God didn’t ask our advice before He formed His plan for the ages. Paul has already said that the mystery of God’s hardening the Jews until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in is “so that you will not be wise in your own estimation” (11:25).

C. You are not great in riches.

“Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” (11:35). We owe God everything He owes us nothing. This verse alone kills all attempts to earn salvation by good works. You can’t put God in your favor so that He owes you anything. It’s all of grace. Therefore,

3. Humble yourself before God and worship Him.

Romans 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” A big view of God and a little view of ourselves leads to genuine humility and to heartfelt worship.

Conclusion

In 1715, Louis XIV of France died. He called himself, “Louis the Great.” His court was the most magnificent in all of Europe. He even planned his funeral to be spectacular. To dramatize his greatness, his body was put in a golden coffin. He had given orders that the cathedral be dimly lit, with only a special candle set above the coffin. Thousands waited in hushed silence. Then Bishop Massilon began to speak. Slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle, saying, “Only God is great!”

That’s what Paul is saying here: God is great; you are not great. So humble yourself before Him and worship Him alone!

Application Questions

  1. If self-esteem is not biblical, are we supposed to go around dumping on ourselves? Where is the biblical balance?
  2. Discuss some practical applications that flow from getting a bigger view of God’s greatness.
  3. How does it work on a daily basis to lay hold of God’s deep riches? What does this look like when facing temptation?
  4. God’s total knowledge of you is both frightening and comforting. Which aspect is truer for you? Why? Which should be?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Worship

Lesson 74: God is Great; You are not Great, Part 2 (Romans 11:33-36)

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Marc Bolan, the late rock star of T Rex, once said, “If God came into my room, I’d obviously be awed, but I don’t think I’d feel humble. I might cry, but I know he’d dig me like mad” (No Matter How Thin You Slice it, It’s Still Baloney, ed. by Jean Arbeiter [Quill], p. 16).

We may dismiss such an outrageous statement because it came from a pagan rock star. But the mindset that pulls God down to our level and lifts us up so that we are almost on a par with the Almighty is not lacking in the evangelical church. I heard Pastor John MacArthur tell about a charismatic pastor friend of his who told John that Jesus often appeared to him in the morning while he was shaving. MacArthur was rightly taken aback, so he asked some questions to make sure that he understood this pastor correctly. The pastor assured MacArthur that Jesus Christ actually appeared to him often as he was shaving. MacArthur’s final incredulous question was, “And you keep shaving?

When the apostle John, who had known Jesus intimately during His earthly ministry, was on the Isle of Patmos, he had a vision of the risen Christ. His response was (Rev. 1:17), “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.” That is the common response of all in the Bible who had an encounter with the living God. They didn’t say, “Hey, good to see you, God! How’s it going?” Isaiah (6:5) cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Ezekiel (1:28) fell on his face. Samson’s parents fell on their faces and the father, Manoah, thought that they would die because they had seen the Lord (Judges 13:20, 22). And when Paul was caught up into heaven and heard things that he was not permitted to speak, the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to keep him from exalting himself (2 Cor. 12:2-7).

As the apostle Paul contemplated how God designed and carried out His plan for salvation history, he was moved to this great exclamation of praise that ends Romans 11. These verses serve as a conclusion and climax to the entire book so far, but especially to chapters 9-11. Specifically, Paul is responding to the thought of 11:32, “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” By “all,” Paul means “all groups of people,” Gentiles and Jews alike. This leads him to be caught up in wonder and praise over God’s riches, wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and ways. The lesson for us is:

Since God is far greater than you can comprehend and you are not great, humble yourself before God and worship Him.

The point of all the deep doctrinal truths of Romans 1-11 is to bring us to humble worship before our great God, who planned our salvation so that we would be to the praise of His glory and grace. If your study of theology doesn’t lead you to deeper worship, you are not studying it correctly. Seeing more clearly who God is, who we are, and what He has graciously done for us in Christ should cause us to bow before Him in humble worship. Last time we saw:

1. God is far greater than you can ever comprehend.

A. God’s riches are beyond comprehension.

B. God’s wisdom is beyond comprehension.

C. God’s knowledge is beyond comprehension.

D. God’s judgments are beyond comprehension.

E. God’s ways are beyond comprehension.

Today we are focusing on the truth that stems from the realization that God is far greater than you can ever comprehend:

2. You are not great.

The truth is, we all need to grow in humility. We need to realize that in comparison with God, we are nothing. Muhammad Ali, the former boxing champion, used to proclaim, “I’m the greatest.” I recently saw him on the news, stumbling along a hospital corridor as he suffers the effects of Parkinson’s disease. I thought, “How quickly any supposed human greatness fades!” I was also reminded of the story I read about when Ali was on a commercial flight. Just before takeoff the stewardess came by and told Ali to fasten his seat belt. “Superman don’t need no seat belt,” replied Ali. The stewardess retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.” Ali fastened his belt (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. by Clifton Fadiman [Little, Brown], p. 14).

In Romans 11:33 (ESV), Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Then, as he has done consistently in Romans, Paul supports his statements with Scripture. Verse 34 cites Isaiah 40:13, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” Verse 35 cites Job 41:11, “Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” Both verses are rhetorical questions that expect the answer, “No one.” While these verses support verse 33, which marvel at how great God is, they also challenge proud man by asking, “Would any of you dare to compare yourself with God?” They say, “You are not great in comparison with the Almighty!”

In the larger contexts of both Isaiah 40 and Job 41, God asserts His greatness by asking rhetorical questions that put man in his proper place. Note the contrasts between God’s greatness and man’s puniness in Isaiah 40:12-17:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and marked off the heavens by the span, and calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, and weighed the mountains in a balance and the hills in a pair of scales? Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge and informed Him of the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust. Even Lebanon is not enough to burn, nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.

In Job, God begins by asking Job (38:2), “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” He proceeds to hammer Job with question after rhetorical question, such as (38:4-5), “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it?” In the verses just before Job 41:11 (cited in Rom. 11:35), God continues pounding Job by asking whether he can draw out Leviathan (in these verses, a crocodile) with a fishhook. God taunts (41:8), “Lay your hand on him; remember the battle; you will not do it again!” If neither Job nor anyone else cares to tangle with a crocodile, God concludes (Job 41:10b), “Who then is he that can stand before Me?” He then asks (41:11), “Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.”

I cite the contexts of these Old Testament verses to show that while Paul is still extolling the greatness of God, he also is saying by way of comparison, “You’re not great!” Some scholars deny it, but it seems more than coincidental to me that the three rhetorical questions relate in reverse order to God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” relates to God’s knowledge. “Who became His counselor?” relates to His wisdom. And, “Who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” relates to His riches.

A. While God is great in knowledge, you’re not great.

Rom. 11:34a: “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” As we saw last time, God’s knowledge is exhaustive. He knows all that there is to know about every molecule and every thought in the universe. Jesus told us that God has the hairs on all our heads numbered. He knows every sparrow that falls to the ground (Luke 12:6-7). And, as we saw last time, He know only knows everything that has happened and will happen, but He also knows what would have happened if other factors had come into play (Matt. 11:21-24)! With David we can exclaim (Ps. 139:6), “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.”

Paul also cites Isaiah 40:13 in 1 Corinthians 2:16: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.” At first glance, the statement that we have the mind of Christ would seem to contradict our text, where Paul’s point is that we can’t know the mind of the Lord. But the two notions are compatible. As Thomas Schreiner explains (Romans [Baker], p. 636), in the context of 1 Corinthians 2, the main thesis “is that no one can know the mind and thoughts of God’s Spirit apart from God’s free and gracious revelation…. The theme in Rom. 11 is remarkably similar. No human being has the wisdom or knowledge to discern (much less to advise) God on the course that human history should take…. Human beings cannot discern God’s wise plan for history on their own, nor would they ever devise a scheme like God’s.” And yet (as Schreiner points out) in Romans 9-11, Paul has given us the main flow of God’s plan for history, so that we can discern God’s wisdom as we understand these truths.

So Paul’s point is that while God has graciously revealed the broad flow of His plan for salvation history, none of us could have figured it out on our own if He had not revealed it. And so none of us can compare with God in our knowledge.

B. While God is great in wisdom, you’re not great.

Rom. 11:34b: “Or who became His counselor?” The question is really kind of humorous. Can you imagine the Almighty God dropping in on you and saying, “I’ve been struggling with this problem and I wondered if you’ve got a few minutes that we could chat?” Can you imagine the Sovereign God meeting with some top advisors to lay out His plan for the ages? It’s laughable! God does not need our counsel on anything!

And yet how often we give God advice about how He should run our lives or run the world! “God, if You would just do things my way, my life would be much smoother! If You would just change my wife or my kids, our home would be much more peaceful!” We often turn our prayers into complaints that imply that we have some advice that God needs to listen to! I often get emails telling me to pray for some important legislative issue. If the issue is clearly spelled out in Scripture, then I can pray that our government will act in line with God’s moral standards. But I need to be careful not to presume to tell God how to run our country or the world. He has been doing that quite capably for centuries without my advice! So be careful when you pray!

C. While God is great in riches, you’re not great.

Rom. 11:35: “Who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” As God adds (Job 41:11), “Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.” He owns the entire universe. He spoke it into existence for His own glory. If you could speak the word and a trillion dollars would legitimately appear in your bank account, you wouldn’t need to get a minimum wage job at McDonald’s. You’d be infinitely rich. The point is, we cannot give God anything that He lacks. We cannot meet some need of God’s that He can’t fulfill. He is totally sufficient in Himself alone. God is the supreme treasure in the universe.

This question, “Who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” shows that we cannot do anything for God or give anything to God that places Him in our debt. We can’t pile up good works and then think that God owes us salvation. We can’t give a pile of money to the church or to charity and think that somehow it will go well with us at the judgment, because we’ve earned God’s favor. Any thought that God owes us something eradicates the biblical doctrine of grace that is at the heart of a relationship with God.

Even as Bible-believing Christians, it’s easy to fall into this error. The popular early-20th century Bible teacher, Dr. R. A. Torrey, told of a time when he was at a meeting for businessmen in Australia when a note was handed to him. It said,

Dear Dr. Torrey, I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something that I am confident is according to God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all that time. I have been Superintendent in the Sunday School for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years; and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?

Torrey read the note from the pulpit and replied, “It is very easy to explain it. This man thinks that because he has been a consistent church member for thirty years, a faithful Sunday School Superintendent for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God is under obligation to answer his prayer. He is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach him in that way.” Later a man came up to Torrey and admitted that he had written that note. He said, “You have hit the nail square on the head. I see my mistake” (R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power [Zondervan], pp. 138, 139, cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 3:1462-1463).

The good news is that the way to receive from God is not to come to Him as if He owes you something, but rather to come as poor and needy. As Mary exclaims (Luke 1:53), “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” Come to God as rich and you get sent away empty; come as poor and you go away rich. (See, also, Rev. 3:17-18.)

Paul’s thoughts that God is far greater than you can ever comprehend and that you are not great leads him to worship:

3. Therefore, humble yourself before God and worship Him.

Romans 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” This verse has profound implications that I encourage you to meditate on. I can only scratch the surface here. John MacArthur sums it up (The MacArthur Study Bible, NASB Updated Edition [Thomas Nelson], p. 1683), “God is the source, the sustainer, and the rightful end of everything that exists.” John Witmer puts it (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:487), “God is the first Cause, the effective Cause, and the final Cause of everything.” Leon Morris says (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 429), “Paul is speaking of God as the Originator, the Sustainer, and the Goal of all creation.”

Everett Harrison (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:126) points out that while this verse has in view God’s plans and operation in the history of salvation, it also applies to individual saints: “For that life has its source in God, lives by his resources, and returns to him when its course has been run.” Paul asserts four things:

A. All things are from God.

God created everything out of nothing by speaking the word (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, etc.; Ps. 33:6, 9; John 1:3). Immediately you may wonder, “Did God then create evil?” The biblical answer does not fit neatly into human logic, but we must maintain the tension. The Bible clearly affirms (1 John 1:5), “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). “For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness” (Ps. 11:6).

On the other hand, God’s eternal decree permitted evil in order to further His own glory. He ordained the cross, which was only necessary because of evil and only accomplished through evil (Acts 4:27-28). God says (Isa. 45:6b-7), “I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” The Hebrew word translated “calamity” is the word for “evil.” Jeremiah states (Lam. 3:37-38), “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?” Amos (3:6b) asks rhetorically, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?”

If you deny that evil was a part of God’s decree, then you fall into the Zoroastrian heresy of dualism, that there are two equal powers, one good and one evil. But if you say that God is responsible for evil, you go against the biblical teaching that He is holy. It is a great comfort to hold to the biblical balance, that God is holy and He is sovereign over all things, including evil.

B. All things are through God.

He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). He works all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28). This includes our trials, which are from God’s loving hand for our discipline and for His glory. As Job said (1:21), “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Or as Job (2:10) asks his wife, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”

C. All things are to God.

This means that all things exist because of God’s purpose and for His glory. Nothing exists that will not result in ultimate glory for Him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Thus,

D. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Do you want a happy marriage? Of course! But why? “So that I’ll be happy!” That is secondary. Your primary desire for a happy marriage should be so that God is glorified. The same applies to rearing godly children or succeeding in your career or to any other goal. Your main aim should be that Christ would be exalted through you, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20).

Charles Hodge nicely sums up Paul’s teaching here (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 381): “It is the tendency of all truth to exalt God, and to humble the creature; and it is characteristic of true piety to feel that all good comes from God, and to desire that all glory should be given to God.”

Conclusion

Don’t forget the “Amen.” Paul wants you to say “amen” to all that he has written thus far in Romans. “I am helplessly, hopelessly lost in my sin and I deserve God’s holy wrath.” Amen! “My only hope for eternal life is that Jesus Christ shed His blood for me while I was yet a sinner.” Amen! “If He had not first chosen me, I never would have chosen Him.” Amen! “I am justified by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone.” Amen! “I now do not need to yield to sin, because I am identified with Christ in His death and resurrection.” Amen! “He is now working all things, including my trials, together for my good because I now love Him and He has called me according to His glorious purpose.” Amen! “He is now conforming me to the image of His Son, so that one day I will be glorified with Him forever.” Amen!

We are not just grudgingly to submit to these truths, but to rejoice and glory in them. Do you? Can you say in all of your circumstances, “To Him be the glory forever. Amen”?

Application Questions

  1. Is it wrong to take pride in our own or our children’s accomplishments? What does biblical humility mean practically?
  2. Where is the biblical balance between drawing near to God as our loving Father and yet fearing Him as the Holy One?
  3. Since God uses trials to conform us to Christ, should we pray to get out of our trials? How should we pray about trials?
  4. Some accuse those who affirm God’s sovereignty over all of making Him the author of evil. How would you respond biblically to this charge?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Worship

Lesson 75: Why You Must Believe in the Risen Lord, Easter Sunday (Romans 1:4; 4:24-25; 5:10; 6:4-10; 7:4; 8:11, 33b-34; 10:9-10; 14:9)

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If I were to ask, “What is the most crucial question for which you would like a definitive answer?” we would probably get many different answers. Some might say, “Whom should I marry?” Others may say, “What career path should I pursue?” Or, “Where can I find a decent-paying job?” Some might want to know, “How can my spouse and I live in peace and harmony?” Or, “How can we rear our children in the Lord?”

These are all important questions, of course. But as I’ve often said, the most crucial question that we all must answer is Jesus’ question to His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Your answer to that question not only determines how you will live the rest of your life, but also where you will spend eternity.

And the correct answer to that question largely rests on the historic fact that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. If that is really true, then He is who He claimed to be, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, the Lord of all creation, who is coming to judge the living and the dead. That means that you must trust in Him as your Savior and bring all of your thoughts, words, and deeds under His lordship. If you trust in Him as your risen Lord and Savior, He promised that you will spend eternity with Him.

But if it is not true that Jesus is risen bodily from the dead, then you are still in your sins and your faith in Christ is worthless. (1 Cor. 15:17). Paul said that the entire Christian faith stands or falls on this one fact: Jesus is risen!

I’ve spent other Easter messages setting forth the proofs for truth of Christ’s resurrection. You can read or listen to those on the church web site. In this message I want to look at all of the references to Christ’s resurrection in Romans to show why you must believe in the risen Lord Jesus Christ. We have come to the end of Romans 11, so this might also serve as a review of many of the wonderful truths that Paul has set forth in these important chapters. There is only one further explicit reference to the resurrection in Romans, which we will briefly look at (14:9). Of course, the truth of the resurrection implicitly permeates everything that Paul wrote. But his explicit references to it in Romans shows us why you must believe this crucial truth:

You must believe in the person and work of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to be saved and to walk daily with Him.

If you are not saved (to be saved means that Jesus has rescued you from the penalty of your sins), then you are lost. If you should die without being saved, God would justly condemn you to hell for all eternity. Trust me: there is no thought more horrific than that! So you must not rest until you know that Jesus has saved you.

1. You must believe in the person and work of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.

You must understand who Jesus is (His person) and what He did (His work) before you can properly put your trust in Him as your Savior and Lord.

A. You must understand who Jesus is before you can believe in Him.

The Christian faith is not a blind leap in the dark. The entire message of the Bible reveals who Jesus is and what He came to do for us. Paul begins Romans by focusing on who Jesus is (1:1-4):

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, …

“The gospel of God” is the theme of Romans. “Gospel” means “good news,” and it is the best news in the world. This good news comes to us from God and it is all about God. It tells us how we can be rightly related to Him through His eternal Son, whom He sent. God promised this good news beforehand through His prophets in the Old Testament. After Adam and Eve sinned, plunging the entire human race into sin, God promised that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. God’s way of salvation was pictured when He slaughtered an animal, probably a sheep, and clothed Adam and Eve with its skin. It also was pictured when God strangely commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac, but then at the last minute provided the ram as a substitute. But unlike that story, God actually slaughtered His own beloved Son for us. The Old Testament sacrificial system pointed ahead to and was fulfilled in Jesus, the supreme and final Lamb of God, who bore our sins in His own body on the cross.

In that opening sentence of Romans Paul shows that Jesus is “God’s Son, who was born a descendant of David according to the flesh.” He is God’s eternal Son. There was never a time when He was not the Son of God. It was through Jesus, God’s Son, that everything was created (John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2). But at God’s appointed time, Jesus took on human flesh through the virgin birth, so that He could provide salvation for the fallen human race. Thus the Jesus in whom you must believe is unique in all history, in that He is eternal God in human flesh. To deny either Jesus’ full deity or His perfect humanity is to believe in a false Jesus.

Paul also says that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). As we saw when we studied these verses, “declared” should properly be translated “appointed” or “distinguished.” This does not mean that He became the Son of God through the resurrection, but rather that the resurrection distinguished Jesus to be who He is, the eternal Son of God. By virtue of His resurrection, Jesus was appointed to be seated at God’s right hand of power. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11).

The “Spirit of holiness” refers to the fact that by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation, He inaugurated the new age of the Spirit by sending the Spirit upon the church. Paul refers to Jesus as “our Lord,” which means both Master and God. The crucial question that you must answer is, “Is Jesus your Lord?”

B. You must understand what Jesus did through His death and resurrection in order to be saved.

Paul spends chapters 3-5 of Romans showing that God justifies sinners through faith in Christ as the one who appeased God’s wrath, not by their keeping the law. He says (3:22b-26),

… for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In chapter 4, Paul uses the Jews’ greatest ancestor, Abraham the father of their faith, to show that he was justified by faith alone, not through his works. He concludes with the second reference in Romans to the resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 4:23-25): “Now not for his [Abraham’s] sake only was it written that it [faith] was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.”

Paul’s reference to “Jesus our Lord” emphasizes again both His deity and His humanity. Jesus took on human flesh so that He could bear our sins, but He did not give up His deity. He is the Lord. When Paul says that Jesus “was delivered over because of our transgressions,” he means that Jesus died to pay the just penalty for our sins. When he says that Jesus “was raised because of our justification,” he means that when God raised Jesus, He put His seal of approval on Christ’s death as obtaining our justification. Because Jesus was raised, we can know that God accepted His substitutionary death on the cross, so that if we believe in Jesus our sins are upon Him. That leads to the next essential for salvation:

C. You must personally trust in who Jesus is and in what He did on the cross for you into order to be saved.

Here I’m jumping ahead to Paul’s description of the message of faith that he preaches (Rom. 10:9-10): “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Paul’s point in these verses is that to be saved (delivered from God’s wrath), you must truly believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord and Savior.

As he has emphasized from the beginning of Romans, our faith is not just faith in general, or faith in God, however we conceive Him to be. Rather, our faith must be in the specific truths that underlie the gospel. Faith rests on the person and work of Jesus Christ: He is God in human flesh. He died for our sins; He was raised bodily and is exalted on high.

Also, saving faith is a matter of the heart, not of intellectual assent only. It includes committing your eternal destiny totally to Christ’s death on your behalf. You abandon trusting in any good works for your salvation. It also includes turning from your sin (repentance) and submitting to Jesus as Lord of your life. The evidence of such repentance, faith, and submission is that you openly confess Jesus as Lord, beginning with baptism and continuing in a life of obedience to Him.

Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking that because you’re a good person, you don’t need salvation. We all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Thus we all need to be saved from God’s judgment. To be saved, you must believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ, including His substitutionary death and His bodily resurrection from the dead.

But other references to Christ’s resurrection in Romans teach us that…

2. You must believe in the person and work of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to walk daily with Him.

In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not only essential for salvation, but also for sanctification, or growth in holiness. We can group these references under five headings:

A. Faith in the risen Lord frees us from condemnation and guilt and gives us assurance of salvation.

Romans 5:10: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” Charles Hodge (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 138) explains the main idea of this verse, “If Christ has died for his enemies, he will surely save his friends.” Although we were His enemies, Christ’s death reconciled us to God the instant we believed. But if Jesus died but was not raised from the dead, then He can’t save us from God’s coming wrath on the day of judgment. But He lives now to keep us until that day when He returns bodily to complete our salvation (Phil. 1:6; Col. 3:4).

Becoming a Christian does not mean that you become sinless. It should mean that you sin less and less as you walk with Christ. But when you sin, you feel guilty. The basis for being free from guilt and condemnation is not only that Jesus died for your sins in the past, but also that He now lives to keep you and bring you to the fullness of salvation.

The fact that the risen Christ will save you on the day of judgment also gives assurance of salvation. In Romans 8:33b-34, Paul says: “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” Paul is saying that if God has declared us to be righteous on the basis of our faith in the death of Christ on our behalf and if the risen Christ is now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf, then we can be assured that we will be saved at the judgment. To put it another way, our salvation from start to finish rests on what the crucified and risen Savior has done and is doing for us, not on any merit or good works on our part.

While we are not saved by our good works, we are saved for good works and the basis for good works must be a holy life. Thus,

B. Faith in the risen Lord empowers us to live victoriously over sin.

Romans 6:4-10:

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.

Paul means that when we understand and act on the truth that we are identified with Jesus in His death and resurrection, it frees us from the dominion of sin in our daily lives. Living in light of our union with the living Lord is the key to overcoming sin. John Piper (“Justified to Break the Power of Sin,” on desiringgod.org) explains the practical benefit of Romans Sin can’t enslave a person who is utterly confident and sure and hope-filled in the infinite happiness of life with Christ in the future.”

C. Faith in the risen Lord enables us to bear fruit for God.

Romans 7:4: “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Paul is arguing that our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection frees us from being bound by the Law and enables us to bear fruit for God. If you have not trusted in Christ as your Savior, you’re under the condemnation of the Law. But if you are identified with Christ through faith in Him, then you have died to the Law’s condemnation (your old “husband”) and are alive in Christ (your new “husband”), freed up to bear fruit for Him.

Being free from the Law does not mean that we are free to live as we please or as we think best. The New Testament has many specific commands about how we should live. But now our motivation for keeping God’s commands is that Christ has loved us and bought us with His blood to be His bride. In other words, we obey out of love, not out of fear of condemnation.

Thus we’ve seen that faith in the risen Lord gives us freedom from condemnation and guilt and assurance of our salvation. It empowers us to live victoriously over sin. It enables us to bear fruit for God.

D. Faith in the risen Lord enables us to live under His lordship so that we do not judge one another.

Here we jump ahead to the only verse on the resurrection in Romans that we have not yet studied, Romans 14:9: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” In this chapter Paul is dealing with a problem that existed in the Roman church and that has often cropped up in churches down through the ages. Some of the believers were sitting in judgment on other believers over secondary or peripheral matters that are not specifically commanded in Scripture.

Some believed that they could eat all types of foods, but others thought that they could only eat vegetables (14:2). Some observed certain days as holy, but others regarded every day as the same (14:5). Paul argues that we are not our brother’s judge on these matters. Each one lives as unto the Lord, before whom we all will stand for judgment. Therefore, since the risen Savior is the Lord of all, let Him be Lord over your brother on matters where the Bible does not give specific commands. Live your life before the risen Jesus as Lord and encourage your brother to do the same. Again, this does not refer to areas where the Bible gives specific commands, but rather to secondary issues where Scripture is silent.

E. Faith in the risen Lord gives us hope for time and eternity.

Romans 8:11: “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Two verses earlier (8:9), Paul said, “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” In verse 11 he is saying that if the Spirit does dwell in you through faith, then you have assurance that in the future, He will raise up your mortal body. Jesus is the prototype. Just as He is risen in a glorified body, not subject to death, so we too one day will be raised from the dead and receive new, immortal bodies. In other words, our hope for eternal life in new resurrection bodies rests on the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Conclusion

I love the story of John Paton (1824-1907), a Scottish man who felt called by God to take the gospel to the cannibals of what was then called The New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu). The first missionaries to land there in 1839 were clubbed to death and eaten minutes after stepping ashore. Paton and his new bride courageously followed them in 1858.

Before he left, many tried to dissuade Paton from going. They offered him a nice salary and a manse if he would stay in Glasgow. One old man in his church would often say to Paton, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” Finally, Paton replied (modernized slightly from John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], ed. by his brother James Paton, p. 56),

“Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms. I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the great day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”

It was Paton’s faith in the risen Savior and his hope in his own resurrection that moved him to risk his life to take the good news to these savage cannibals. Today Vanuatu is over 50 percent evangelical Christians. There are no cannibals.

Why is it imperative to believe in the resurrection? Because you must believe in the person and work of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. And you must believe in the risen Lord to walk daily in victory and hope.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it essential to have biblical content at the heart of our faith? See 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6-9.
  2. Discuss: Can a person who denies the substitutionary atonement of Christ or who says that we must add our works to what Christ did on the cross be truly saved?
  3. What are some of the strongest proofs for the resurrection as historical fact? How would you answer those who point out differences between the various biblical accounts?
  4. Why is the physical resurrection of Jesus essential to the Christian faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 76: Why Give Yourself Totally to God? (Romans 12:1)

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A cartoon (by Ed Fisher, source unknown) pictured a huge altar, with many steps leading to the top, such as you see in the ruins of the ancient Mayan culture in Central America. At the top a priest holds a sword, ready to slaughter the next victim. Two guards are dragging a very resistant young man up the stairs to be the next sacrifice. Watching the young man resist, a man who looks like the chief comments to the man standing next to him, “The young people don’t seem to believe in anything these days!”

Perhaps that is the image that comes to mind when you think about giving your body as a living sacrifice to God. You think, “Why in the world would anyone want to do that? I can see giving God an hour or two on Sundays, at least if there’s nothing better to do. Maybe, if you have some extra time, like when you’re retired, you can volunteer to serve in the church. I can maybe see giving God ten percent of your income, if you have anything left over after taxes and the bills are paid. I can see where some of the super-dedicated types may want to be missionaries, at least for a while. It’s probably fulfilling, kind of like serving in the Peace Corps. But offering my body to God as a living sacrifice sounds pretty radical! Why would anyone want to do such a thing?”

But that is exactly what Paul calls us to do (Rom. 12:1), “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” That verse confronts us with the question, “Why give yourself totally to God?”

This verse begins a major new section of Romans. Chapters 1-11 emphasize doctrine, whereas chapters 12-16 focus on practical matters, although there are practical things in the first section and doctrinal issues in the second. Some may feel a sense of relief to be through with all of that difficult doctrinal stuff. They may think, “Finally we can get into things that apply to my life!” Or a few may feel sad that we’re leaving the doctrinal section. They enjoy using their minds to trace Paul’s flow of thought, much like trying to solve some logical brain teaser. They aren’t really interested in the practical section of Romans.

But both views are out of balance. To leap into the practical section without the doctrine would be like building a house without a foundation. A solid foundation may not be exciting to look at, but without it your house will not stand for long. On the other hand, to spend all of your time on the foundation and never to build the house would be useless. The whole point of laying the foundation is to build an attractive house to live in.

In other words, sound doctrine must always be the basis for godly living. The Mormons are reputed for emphasizing family life, which is a worthy emphasis. But they deny the biblical truth about the person and work of Christ (as Paul lays it out in Romans 1-11), and so they are not rightly related to God. They have a religion based on works, and they will be condemned at the judgment if they do not repent and trust in Christ alone for right standing before God. Their house has no foundation.

On the other hand, I have known men who are theologically articulate regarding the great truths of Romans 1-11, but who are mean and unloving towards their wife and children. What good is the foundation of sound doctrine if you do not build on it love for God and others as He commands? The world will mock the truth if we do not show it by our godly lives.

Thus in Romans 12-16, Paul builds on the solid doctrine of 1-11, showing us practically how to live as Christians. In 12:1-2, he sets forth our need to commit ourselves totally to God. In 12:3, he tells us how to think of ourselves in relation to God and others. Then in 12:4-21, he spells out how we are to relate in love to others. Thus the entire chapter is an exposition of the two great commandments: to love God with our total being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In Romans 12:1, Paul explains why you should give yourself totally to God as a living sacrifice:

Because you have experienced God’s mercy, give yourself totally to Him.

There are two things: First, the motive and then a description of the commitment that follows.

1. The motive for all Christian living is that you have experienced God’s mercy in Christ.

Romans 12:1a, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God ….” Each word in this phrase is important.

Therefore links this new section to the previous 11 chapters. In one sense, therefore follows directly from Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” If all things are from God and through God and to God, then it follows that our lives belong completely to God. If all things are going to culminate in God’s glory, then we should give our lives totally for His glory.

But there is another sense in which therefore relates back to everything that Paul has said in Romans 1-11. He began by showing that we all are hopelessly, helplessly lost in sin. He sums it up (Rom. 3:10-12), “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”

If that is our true condition outside of Christ, then we all need one thing above all else: God’s mercy. Paul probably uses the plural, mercies, because the Hebrew word is a plural with a singular meaning. God’s primary display of mercy to us is at the cross, where Christ died for us as sinners. But we also experience God’s manifold mercies each day in many ways (Lam. 3:22-23).

Thankfully, mercy is what God is all about. As Paul said (Rom. 11:32), “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” None of us can claim that God owes us salvation because of our good works or for any other reason. We’ve all disobeyed God thousands of times. We deserve His judgment. All that we can do is cry out to Him for mercy. And as we have seen, the riches of God’s abundant mercy are yours for the taking (10:13), “for ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

Paul assumes that his readers have taken hold of God’s great mercies in Christ, because he calls them brethren. All that have experienced the new birth through God’s Spirit have been born into God’s family. Here Paul wasn’t asserting his apostolic authority, but he put himself on the same level as them. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, where we all find God’s abundant mercy.

In the same vein, he says, “I urge you.” The Greek word comes from two words meaning, “to call alongside.” The noun form is used of the Holy Spirit, who comes alongside to give us help. It can mean exhort, but here it seems to have the gentler sense of urge or appeal, as it is translated when Paul writes to Philemon (8-9a), “Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you….” As our loving older brother, Paul is urging us to respond to the great truth of God’s mercy even as he has done, by giving our bodies totally to God as living sacrifices.

Motive is crucial in everything we do. Have you ever had someone act nicely towards you and then you found out later that he was doing it to manipulate you into doing something for him? His ulterior motive canceled everything nice that he had done. Your motive for giving yourself totally to God is crucial.

Some may dedicate themselves to God to try to work off their guilt. I once conducted a wedding with another pastor whom I had never met. As we were chatting in his office before the ceremony, I noticed his seminary degree framed on the wall. He had graduated about three years before and he was in mid-life, so I asked, “Is the ministry a second career for you?” He replied, “Yes.” I followed with, “Why did you go into the ministry at this point in life?” He grimly answered, “Because I had to live with myself!” I didn’t feel comfortable pursuing the subject, but the implication was that he was working off his guilt. That’s a crummy reason to be a pastor!

The proper response to receiving God’s mercy is to give yourself totally to Him out of gratitude. Years ago, Captain Shaw, a medical missionary with the Salvation Army in India, visited a leper colony that his mission was taking over. He saw three men with shackles on their hands and feet, cutting into their diseased flesh. Captain Shaw’s eyes brimmed with tears as he told the guard, “Please unfasten the chains.”

“It isn’t safe,” replied the guard. “These men are dangerous criminals as well as lepers!”

“I’ll be responsible,” said Shaw. “They’re suffering enough.” After the shackles were removed, he tenderly treated the men’s bleeding wrists and ankles.

About two weeks later, Captain Shaw had his first misgivings about freeing these criminals. He had to make an overnight trip and he hesitated to leave his wife and child alone. His wife insisted that she wasn’t afraid; God was there. The next morning she went to the front door and was startled to see the three former criminals lying on her steps. One explained, “We know the doctor go. We stay here all night so no harm come to you.” These men had experienced the doctor’s mercy. They responded out of love and gratitude by serving him.

Everett Harrison puts it this way (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:127), “Whereas the heathen are prone to sacrifice in order to obtain mercy, biblical faith teaches that the divine mercy provides the basis for sacrifice as the fitting response.” The great motive for giving yourself totally to God is that you have experienced His great mercy in Christ. Have you experienced His mercy by calling on Him to save you? Without that, all service to God is just moralism, based on wrong motives. The only right motive is God’s mercy through the gospel.

2. The basic commitment for Christian living is to give your body totally to God as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice, which is your reasonable service of worship.

Let’s read our text again (Rom. 12:1), “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”

Paul was using a picture that was instantly recognized by everyone in that day, but is probably foreign to us. The Jews were all familiar with the ritual of taking a lamb to the temple and watching the priest slit its throat and collect the blood in a basin. After the life had ebbed out of the lamb, it was placed on the altar and burned as an offering. The Gentiles also often had witnessed animal sacrifice to the gods at pagan temples. Perhaps some of the Roman Christians had done that before they were saved.

But most of us have never watched an animal being slaughtered, even if it’s for a meal. We buy our meat shrink-wrapped in the grocery store, without thinking about the animal being killed. Once in a while we read of Satan-worshipers who sacrifice an animal in a secret ceremony and it gives us the heebie-jeebies. But this picture of animal sacrifice was behind Paul’s appeal here to offer ourselves, not as dead sacrifices, but as living sacrifices to the Lord. It means offering everything that you are and have to the Lord as an act of worship. Consider five aspects of this commitment:

A. This commitment is an act of the will.

It isn’t automatic. It’s a decision that you must think about rationally and then make. No one else can do it for you. You may have grown up in a Christian home. Perhaps you trusted Christ as a child. But as you get older and begin making your own decisions, you have to decide to give your body, your possessions, and your entire life completely to God.

I remember wrestling with this commitment as a teenager. At first I thought of it kind of like that cartoon. It wasn’t my idea of a good time to give myself as a sacrifice to God. What if He wanted me to be a missionary, live in a jungle, eat grub worms, and live without indoor plumbing? I can camp for a few days, but I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time! But then I thought, “If God is good and if He loves me and if He knows what is best for me, He will only ask me to do what is best for me. I’d be stupid not to entrust my entire life to that sort of God.” And so I yielded all of myself and my life to the Lord.

D. This commitment is both initial and ongoing.

“Present” is in the aorist tense, which leads some to emphasize that this is a once and for all decision. But that is a simplistic understanding of the Greek aorist tense, which focuses on an action as a whole, not necessarily as a point in time. Besides, as some wag has pointed out, living sacrifices have a way of crawling off the altar. So you’ve got to keep renewing this commitment. You present all of yourself that you’re aware of to all of God that you know. But as you grow in the Christian life, you become aware of areas in your life that are not yielded to God. So you put those things on the altar. You become aware of more about the lordship of Christ than you knew. So you yield again and again to Him. So there is a first time when you present your entire life to the Lord to do whatever He wants you to do. But it’s also progressive as you grow to understand more about yourself and God.

C. This commitment involves your body.

Paul also uses the word present in connection with our bodies in Romans 6:13, “And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” (See, also 6:16, 19.) In our text, Paul may be using bodies to refer to the total person, but he probably wants us to think specifically about our physical bodies. In verse 2, he zeroes in on the mind, and so his emphasis on the body in verse 1 is probably deliberate.

The Greek philosophers commonly thought of the body as something evil or degrading from which an enlightened person sought to free himself. But the Christian is to view the body as a living and holy sacrifice to be offered to God for His service. The verb present is also used of a father giving his virgin daughter in marriage (2 Cor. 11:2). She presents her body exclusively to her husband in the marriage relationship. Even so, the Lord has bought us with His blood out of the slave market of sin, so that we are His bride. Therefore, we are to present our bodies to glorify God. At the very minimum, this applies to sexual purity (1 Cor. 6:18-20).

Our bodies also encompass our minds, which Paul focuses on in verse 2. It includes our eyes and ears, what we expose ourselves to through the media. Do we look at pornography? Do we look lustfully at attractive women? Do we listen to off-color jokes? The body includes our tongues, which we should use to praise God (Heb. 13:15) and to build up, not tear down, others (Eph. 4:29). We should use them to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Our bodies include our hands and feet. We should labor with our hands to provide for ourselves and our families (Eph. 4:28). We should use our feet to take the good news to others (Rom. 10:15) and to take us quickly away from evil (Rom. 3:15).

D. This commitment is a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice.

There is a paradox here, in that presenting our bodies to God is a positive thing, as a bride joyfully gives herself to her husband. But it’s also costly, requiring all that we are and have. Jesus put it this way (Mark 8:34-35), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (See, also, John 12:24-25.) David Livingstone, who endured years of hardship taking the gospel to Africa, said (David Livingstone, [Harper & Brothers], by George Seaver p. 632), “I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.”

This sacrifice is living. Animal sacrifices were killed and consumed once and for all. The sacrifice of our bodies is ongoing and repeated. God has given us new life through the new birth. We now gladly offer it back to Him.

This sacrifice is holy. It is set apart to God. We dare not offer God a defiled sacrifice. If we have sinned, we must come to God for cleansing and then walk in obedience so that we do not disgrace the name of our Savior.

This sacrifice is acceptable to God. Just as the animal sacrifices were a pleasing aroma to God, so we should live so as to please Him in all that we think, say, and do. Again, the motivation to offer our bodies to God in this way is that He gave His Son for us.

E. This commitment is your reasonable service of worship.

Many translations (NASB, ESV) say, spiritual service, but there is another word that Paul could have used for that (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 645). He only uses this word here (the only other NT use is in 1 Pet. 2:2). It’s the word from which we get our word “logical” and means “rational” or “reasonable.” In light of what God mercifully has done for us, it’s only reasonable that we should give ourselves totally to Him.

Service of worship (NASB) translates a single word in Greek that refers to the service of priests in the temple (Rom. 9:4; Heb. 9:1, 6). Paul is applying this word for religious worship to our everyday lives. He means that everything that we do should be offered up to God as an act of worship. Hebrews 12:28 exhorts, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe….” Hebrews 13:15-16 uses the language of sacrifice to say, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (See, also, Phil. 4:18; 1 Pet. 2:5.)

Conclusion

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Ed. by John McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles [Westminster], 3.7.1), John Calvin has a wonderfully helpful chapter, “The Sum of the Christian Life: the Denial of Ourselves.” He writes:

We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.

Have you experienced God’s great mercy in Christ? Then give yourself totally to Him. To cite David Livingstone again (ibid.), “Forbid it that we should ever consider the holding of a commission from the King of Kings a sacrifice, so long as men esteem the service of an earthly sovereign an honor.”

Application Questions

  1. Why is our motive for serving God crucial? What can happen when our motives are wrong?
  2. Discuss: Is a person who claims to be saved but who won’t give himself totally to God truly saved?
  3. Are certain jobs off limits to one who has given himself totally to God? What guidelines apply?
  4. Is it more “spiritual” to serve God as a pastor or missionary than as a mechanic or plumber? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 77: How to Change for Good (Romans 12:2)

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Every New Year’s Day, millions of Americans make resolutions to change. Every year by April, those same millions have given up their resolutions as unattainable. As Christians, all of us would say that we want to change so that we will be more like Christ. And yet, when it comes right down to it, change is hard. It’s like climbing up an icy slope—just when we think we’ve made some progress, we slip back to the bottom. So how can we change for good? By for good, I mean both permanently and for good in terms of our character and behavior. How can we change to become more like Jesus Christ?

In addressing this question, let’s be honest: the playing field is not level. Some of you have a much more difficult battle than others do. If you grew up in a home where there was frequent conflict, or where your parents split up, or where you were verbally, physically, or sexually abused, you’ve got a lot more issues to deal with than those of us who grew up in loving Christian homes. Or if you’ve fallen into certain sins, such as drug or alcohol abuse or certain sexual sins, you have a tough battle to change for good. But while the battle may be more difficult, the good news is that the Bible promises change to all who have trusted in Christ.

That’s the next thing that we must address in dealing with change: Romans 12:2 follows Romans 12:1. In verse 1, Paul addresses his readers as brethren, which assumes that they have experienced the new birth. God has changed their hearts from being hostile towards Him to loving Him. They have believed in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, so that they are no longer living according to their own selfish desires. They have presented their bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord. You must have experienced that change of salvation and total commitment of your life to God (Rom. 12:1) before you can experience the change of sanctification, or growth in godliness (Rom. 12:2).

Also, as we saw last time, your motive for why you want to change is crucial. Often people want to change because they’re unhappy with life and they want to be happy. That’s understandable, of course. God gets our attention when we disobey Him by allowing the negative consequences of sin to make life miserable. But the danger is that you just want out of the misery, but you don’t want to surrender to the lordship of Christ. You don’t want to present your life as a living sacrifice to glorify God. You just want to use God to get out of your problems, and then you put Him back in the closet until the next time you’re in a jam. This is often called a “foxhole” conversion. But it doesn’t result in lasting change because your motive is wrong.

As we saw in verse 1, the right motive for wanting to change is that you have experienced God’s abundant mercy in Christ. You were a sinner deserving His judgment when He graciously opened your eyes to see that Christ died for your sins (Rom. 5:8). You heard that He is “abounding in riches for all who call on Him” (10:12). And so you cried out to Him and He saved you. Now, out of gratitude for His mercy and out of a heartfelt desire to please the God who rescued you from judgment, you want your life to bring glory to Him. That’s the right motive for wanting to change.

Romans 12:2 shows how to develop the response to God’s mercy that 12:1 calls us to make: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” I think that J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase captures the meaning of this verse (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 332), “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” Paul is saying,

Rather than being conformed to this evil age, be transformed by renewing your mind so that you prove in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will.

Paul gives a negative command and then a positive one:

1. Don’t be conformed to this evil age.

World is literally, age, referring to the present evil age, which is passing away, in contrast to the coming eternal age in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). In Galatians 1:4-5, Paul says that the Lord Jesus Christ “gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.” Christ did not die to leave us to be conformed to this present evil age, but to rescue us from it, so that our lives would glorify God.

God has permitted this present age to be under Satan’s dominion. Paul says (2 Cor. 4:3-4), “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world [lit., age] has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (See, also, Eph. 2:2, NASB margin.) So the change that we need to make is to live in distinct contrast to this evil age.

But what does that mean? If you grew up in a fundamentalist environment, “worldliness” was identified by certain external behaviors. The “big 5” were no smoking, drinking, movies, dancing, or playing cards. I wasn’t allowed to dance or go to movies until I was 16, when my parents gave me the freedom to decide for myself, but warned me of the dangers. The first movie I saw at a theater was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which almost cured me of watching any more movies!

One of my classmates in seminary told me that when he first met me, he thought that I must not be a Christian. When I asked him why, he said, “Because you have a mustache and you go to movies.” I would have had a beard, but the seminary didn’t allow beards back then. And, we had to wear a coat and tie to class, because all ministers must wear suits. Why? So that we don’t look worldly! I never could figure that out, because the guys on Wall Street are about as worldly as you can get, and they all wear suits. But having grown up in Southern California, the notion of wearing a suit every day almost kept me out of the ministry!

I’m not suggesting that not being conformed to this age has no relation to outward matters. We should look respectable and not draw undue attention to ourselves by outlandish appearance or dress. We should not wear seductive clothing. Even some of the “big 5” have some validity: We should take care of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, which means not smoking or getting drunk. (Of course, it also means watching our weight, which I never heard about in fundamentalist circles!) We should not go to movies that defile us with profanity, violence, or sexual scenes (which eliminates most movies these days). We could add to the “big 5” not using illegal drugs. So not being conformed to the world includes many outward matters.

But at its core, not being conformed to this evil age is a matter of how we think. John Murray (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], 2:113) explains, “Conformity to this age is to be wrapped up in the things that are temporal, to have all our thought oriented to that which is seen and temporal…. If all our calculations, plans, ambitions are determined by what falls within life here, then we are children of this age.”

Harry Blamires, in his insightful book, The Christian Mind [Vine Books], p.44), wrote, “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth: it is to keep one’s calculations rooted in this-worldly criteria. To think christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.” In his also excellent follow up, Recovering the Christian Mind [IVP], p. 117), Blamires explained, “The characteristic of ‘secularist values and judgments’ is that they give pre-eminence to man-centered and world-centered (as opposed to God-centered) criteria, to limitedly temporal (as opposed to eternal) standpoints.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Christian Conduct [Banner of Truth], p. 73) says, “by ‘world,’ the New Testament means life as it is thought of, organized, and lived apart from God, without reckoning on God, without being governed and controlled by Him.”

So Paul tells us, negatively, do not be conformed to the kind of godless thinking that characterizes people who have no knowledge of the eternal God. Always live in light of eternity.

2. Be transformed by renewing your mind so that you prove in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will.

Note three things:

A. The process of transformation is a lifelong work of God for which you are responsible.

I base this point on the tense, voice, and mood of the verb. It is present tense, indicating an ongoing process. We’re not talking about a quick fix or a dramatic, instantaneous change, but steady, lifelong progress toward godliness. The verb is in the passive voice, indicating that this is a work of God in us. But it is also in the imperative mood, indicating that we are not totally passive in the process. We are responsible to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). The balance is (Phil. 2:12-13), “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We have to obey and work out the salvation that God has given to us, but He is also willing and working in us at the same time.

I grant that sometimes God works instant, permanent change. I’ve known alcoholics who got saved and never had an urge to take another drink. I’ve heard of drug addicts who got saved and never used drugs again. On rare occasions, a man with a fierce temper gets saved and he never explodes in anger again. But those are exceptions, not the general rule. Generally, the process of change is a lifelong battle where the saved person has to learn to depend on the Lord daily. At first there are usually many setbacks. We learn through failure, as Peter painfully did. But as we learn to walk by means of the Holy Spirit, we should see progress in transformation as His fruit is produced in us (Gal. 5:16-23).

Also, God does not change our basic personality type; rather He changes the sinful manifestations of our personality. Before he was converted, Paul was a hard-driving, everything-for-the-cause man. After he was saved, he was all out for the Lord. But he mellowed and became more gracious as he grew in the Lord. When Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, Paul wouldn’t consider giving him a second try. He and Bar­nabas had a fierce conflict and parted ways over the matter. But later in life, Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 4:11), “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” God will use your personality, but He will sandpaper off your rough edges. Study the weaknesses that you are prone to, so that you can be on guard against them and work to overcome them.

B. The means of transformation is the renewing of our minds.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” We act as we think. All sin and all obedience begin in the mind. So the key to overcoming sin and to growing in godliness is to change your thinking. How you think about God is immensely important. For example, if you think daily about the fact that God is with you and that He knows your every thought, word, and deed, it would have a profound effect on your behavior. Before you stretched the truth or lashed out in anger, you’d stop and think, “I can’t act like that because God is here with me.” So the process of change is directly linked to changed thinking, which stems from two main sources:

(1). The primary source for changing your thinking is God’s Word.

I cannot emphasize enough that if you are not saturating your mind with God’s Word, you will not change for the better. You must come to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Satan is always trying to distort our view of God. He got Eve to sin by slandering the goodness of God and by casting doubt that He would follow through with His threatened punishment (Gen. 3:1-5). Also, you must come to know your own propensity toward sin as revealed in God’s Word. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, after he had written many of the psalms, was capable of adultery, deception, and murder. Do you think that your heart is immune toward sin? “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

The Bible speaks to virtually every area of life. How should we think about trials or success? How should we think about our relationships, especially when we’ve been disappointed or wronged? How should we think about money and possessions? What priorities and goals should we adopt in life? What moral standards should we hold to? What entertainment is wholesome and renewing? How do we process world news of terrorism and threats to our freedom? What political position should we adopt? Should we be concerned about the environment? What is good art? Should Christians be involved in the media? How should we educate our children? The Bible speaks to these and many more issues.

This means that you should have a regular habit of reading through the Bible over and over again, to get the balance of the totality of Scripture (Ps. 119:160). God is love, but He is also a God of wrath. You are prone to sin, but you’re also a saint in Christ Jesus. You need the balance. Meditate on God’s Word and how it applies to your life. Memorize the Word so that you can evaluate any situation or decision in light of Scripture. Without a steady diet of God’s Word, you will not change for the good.

(2). Secondary sources for changing your thinking are gifted teachers and examples of God’s Word.

I have heard some sanctimonious saints say, “I only read the Bible; I don’t read the writings of other men.” That sounds really pious, but it’s a denial of Scripture, which says that God has given gifted teachers to the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-12). I am blessed to have a library full of commentaries written by men who are far more gifted in biblical languages and theology than I am. Listen to the sermons of godly preachers. Read good books on the spiritual life.

Also, God has given us godly examples of men and women, both in history and people we know who can mentor us. The Bible has many godly examples, but also we have biographies of saints who have walked with God. I have gained more help by reading Christian biographies than from any other source outside of the Bible. The stories of George Muller, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, C. H. Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others have deeply impacted me. The best biographies show you the warts and all of these dear people, so that you can learn from both their strengths and weaknesses. (See my article on the church web site, “Mining for Gold.”) I also have two bibliographies on the church web site. One is for books in general; the other is exclusively on Christian biographies and church history. I encourage you to become a reader of good Christian books.

If you protest that you don’t have time to read, consider this: I just listened to an interview that Mark Dever conducted with Greg Beale, who was in my class in seminary. He is now a renowned New Testament scholar and seminary professor, author of many books and commentaries. At one point Dever mentioned a scholarly book and Beale said that he read that book while he was brushing his teeth! Dever was surprised and asked him about this. Beale said that he read a page in the morning and another page at night while brushing his teeth, and got through the book in that manner! So you can find time to read if you want to grow!

C. The result of transformation is that you will prove in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will.

Scholars debate whether “so that” introduces a purpose or a result. It seems to me that Paul is describing the result of being renewed in your mind: “so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

(1). You are to prove in practice what God’s will is.

“The will of God” here does not refer to issues like whether you should go to college or not, or what career you pursue. Paul is talking about the moral will of God as revealed in the Bible. This would include that you marry only a committed Christian, but it does not include whether you marry Christian Bob or Christian Bill. That is another (difficult) subject!

“Prove” means to discern and approve by testing. The NIV translates, “to test and approve.” Phillips has, “prove in practice.” Douglas Moo comments (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 757), “‘Approving’ the will of God means to understand and agree with what God wants of us with a view to putting it into practice.” H. C. G. Moule (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Cambridge University Press, 1903], p. 207), “Here the meaning is that the Christian’s intelligence has been so ‘renewed’ by grace that he now, by a holy instinct, can discern, in conflicting cases, the will of God from the will of self or of the world.”

(2). God’s will is good, acceptable, and perfect.

Good refers to moral goodness or holiness. It is also good for you, because sin always damages you, whereas holiness always restores and blesses you.

Acceptable primarily means, “acceptable or pleasing to God.” Some authors object and say that this would be a tautology. But I don’t see their point. In Ephesians 5:8-10, Paul says, “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” “Trying to learn” is the same verb that is translated “prove” in Romans 12:2. We are to prove in practice what pleases God. Of course, this is also pleasing to us in the long run. Often obedience to God’s moral standards is difficult at the moment. You don’t cheat on the test and those who do get the better grades. You refuse to compromise your moral purity and your boyfriend leaves you for a girl who will sleep with him. But in the long run, God’s will is always more pleasing for you than disobedience is.

Perfect refers to God’s absolute moral perfection, which we will never attain to perfectly in this life. But the word also means “mature” or “complete.” As Phillips paraphrases, proving God’s will in practice “moves [you] towards the goal of true maturity.”

Conclusion

Columnist Sydney Harris (source unknown) said, “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we want is for things to remain the same but get better.” For things to get better in your life, you must change. To change, you must be involved in the process of renewing your mind by God’s Word, so that you are proving in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. I encourage you to set a reasonable goal to begin growing in the process. Begin a daily time in the Word. Aim at reading five good Christian books this year. Link up with a mature mentor who can help you grow. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Application Questions

  1. If you could change just one thing about your walk with God, what would it be? How can you begin to change it?
  2. How can a believer know whether an outward matter is conformity with the world or just culturally and spiritually neutral?
  3. Must growing Christians be reading Christians? Practically, how can a non-reader become a reader?
  4. What criteria can we apply to determine whether a matter not specified in the Bible is worldly or godly? (See 1 Cor. 6:12-20.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 78: True Humility (Romans 12:3)

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In 1985, the great baseball pitcher Tom Seaver was on the verge of winning his 300th game, which few pitchers have done. He went over to his 9-year-old daughter in the box seats and said excitedly, “Three more outs to go!” She responded, “Good, then we can go home and go swimming.” (Newsweek, 1/20/1992, p. 47)

Our kids have a way of keeping us humble, don’t they! And humility is a virtue that we all need to grow in. Three times in Romans 11 (11:18, 20, 25) Paul warned against pride. He brings it up again here (12:3). He will mention it again indirectly in 12:10 (“give preference to one another in honor”) and directly in 12:16 (“do not be haughty in mind”). Pride is the underlying sin in his rebuke in 14:4 & 10, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? … But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt?” Paul was concerned that his readers grow in humility.

For centuries the Christian church has listed pride as one of the seven deadly sins, which also include wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy, and gluttony. But since psychology flooded into the American evangelical church in the 1970’s, we’ve been inundated with books that tell us that we need to grow in self-esteem, which seems at odds with humility. One of the most prominent promoters of this supposed “virtue” is Robert Schuller. In Self-Esteem: The New Reformation [Word, 1982], which was mailed unsolicited and without charge to almost every pastor in America, he wrote (p. 57),

In my lectures to thousands of ordained clergy of the widest cross section of historic Christianity, I have found it necessary to tell my colleagues, “Dare to be a possibility thinker! Do not fear pride; the easiest job God has is to humble us. God’s almost impossible task is to keep us believing every hour of every day how great we are as his sons and daughters on planet earth.”

If we should not fear pride, why does James 4:6 warn, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble”? Why does God promise (Isa. 66:2b), “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word”? If we shouldn’t fear pride, why does Proverbs 16:18 warn, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling”? Why does Paul warn (1 Cor. 10:12), “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall”? Since Satan’s original sin was that his heart was lifted up (Ezek. 28:17), seeking to make himself like the Most High (Isa. 14:14), and since pride is at the root of every sin that we commit, it would seem that we should fear pride and seek to grow in true humility.

Let’s try to define humility. Vernon Grounds wrote (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney [Zondervan], 3:222), “It is the spontaneous recognition of the creature’s absolute dependence on his Creator ….” He adds (3:223), “Humility is the logical corollary of sin-consciousness.”

In one of the few books written on humility (Humility: The Beauty of Holiness [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 12), Andrew Murray calls it “the place of entire dependence on God.” He adds (p. 13, italics his), “Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God, and allows Him as God to do all…. It is simply the sense of entire nothingness, which comes when we see how truly God is all, and in which we make way for God to be all.

In his excellent little booklet, From Pride to Humility (rev. ed., excerpted from The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publications], p. 17), Stuart Scott says,

When someone is humble they are focused on God and others, not self. Even their focus on others is out of a desire to love and glorify God…. A humble person’s goal is to elevate God and encourage others. In short, they “no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15).

Then he offers this definition (p. 18): “The mindset of Christ (a servant’s mindset): a focus on God and others, a pursuit of the recognition and the exaltation of God, and a desire to glorify and please God in all things and by all things He has given.”

Here’s another helpful definition, from C. J. Mahaney (Humility: True Greatness [Multnomah], p. 22, italics his): “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” He adds (ibid.), “Without an honest awareness of both these realities … all self-evaluation will be skewed and we’ll fail to either understand or practice true humility.”

So we could sum up that true humility means seeing God as the giver and sustainer of everything and seeing ourselves as sinful and needy in His presence, so that we trust totally in Him and not in ourselves, so that He gets all the glory.

Paul ends Romans 11 with the great doxology (11:36), “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” God is the source and sustainer of all, and thus all glory is due to Him. Thus, in light of God’s mercy to us as sinners (11:32), Paul urges us (12:1-2) to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. We are not to be conformed to this evil age, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we prove in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will.

It is significant that the first aspect of a renewed mind that Paul mentions is humility. Paul is describing for us how the renewed mind thinks. In the Greek text, Paul uses the verb “to think” or a compound of it four times. This shows us that humility (or pride) is a matter of how we think before God. Often we can see the attitudes and behavior of pride in others. But the point is, even if we can hide our pride from others, we cannot hide it from God. This is a mindset that we have to develop before Him, where we constantly judge our dependence on ourselves and affirm our gratitude toward Him and dependence on Him. As James 4:10 exhorts, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”

Also, Paul’s emphasis in the following context is on loving relationships and he introduces that subject by confronting our pride and exhorting us to humility. Pride is at the root of all relational conflicts. Humility is the foundation for godly, loving relationships. We can see it in toddlers, who selfishly grab a toy, claiming, “That’s mine!” The other toddler fights back, trying to get what he thinks he has a right to play with. While we may grow more sophisticated in how we do it, all of our adult conflicts are rooted in this same self-centered pride. So when Paul says, “I say to everyone among you,” he is emphasizing that this is not something that only a few of us need to work on. Pride is endemic to the fallen human heart. So in verse 3 Paul is telling us,

It is vital for each of us to develop true humility in light of God’s gracious gifts to us.

Paul outlines four steps to develop true humility:

1. To develop true humility, always keep God’s grace in view.

Paul begins, “For through the grace given to me ….” He is probably referring specifically to the grace that gave him the gift of apostleship (Rom. 1:5; 15:15-16; 1 Cor. 3:10; 15:9-10; Eph. 3:8). This means that what follows are not helpful hints for happy living, but rather apostolic commands. If we don’t grow in humility, we are disobeying God. And, if anyone would be susceptible to pride, it would be those holding the office of apostle. But Paul was always keenly aware that he held this position by grace alone. (These two points are from Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 651.) Although the gift of apostle is no longer given, the principle still holds: the more prominent your gifts, the more you will be prone to pride, unless you remember that everything you are and have are from God’s grace.

But I believe that Paul is also cognizant of the grace of salvation that he shares in common with all believers, which he has expounded on in Romans 1-11. As he has just said (11:32), “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” If we are saved, it is because God was gracious to us. It was not a reward for our good behavior! If it had not been for God’s grace, we would still be in our sins, headed for hell. And now that we are saved, whatever natural or spiritual gifts that we have are due to God’s grace. As Paul chides the arrogant Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

And so the foundation for true humility is always to keep God’s grace in view. Keep coming back to the cross. Jesus didn’t die for you because you were worthy and He knew that He was getting a real prize. John Newton put it rightly, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” By the way, years ago when the Biola choir sang “Amazing Grace” on Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” TV show, he required that they take out the word “wretch” and sing, “That saved my soul for me”! You can’t have high self-esteem if you call yourself a wretch!

2. To develop true humility, work on going lower, not higher.

The danger is not that we would think too lowly of ourselves, but too highly. Paul doesn’t tell us that we need to build our self-esteem or our self-confidence in order to succeed. I’ve heard Christians say that the reason for their success is that they believe in themselves. But the Bible says that those who believe in themselves are cursed (Jer. 17:5). Our trust must always be in the Lord through us, not in ourselves (2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 4:13). I’ve not been able to find a single instance in the Bible where the Lord tells someone who is bemoaning his weakness or inadequacy that he needs to start believing in himself.

Let’s look at a few examples. In Genesis 18:27, Abraham is trying to get God to spare Sodom. He states, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.” The Lord doesn’t respond by saying, “Come on, Abraham, you need to see how great you are as My chosen child!” He lets Abraham’s self-deprecation stand.

Job had lost his possessions, his ten children, and his health. Then his so-called friends berate him for over 30 chapters. When God finally speaks, He spends two chapters (38 & 39) showing Job how little he knows and how powerless he is compared to God. Job responds (40:3-5), “Then Job answered the LORD and said, ‘Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; Even twice, and I will add nothing more.’” But the Lord doesn’t comfort him or say, “Come on, Job, you’re the most righteous man on the earth! Don’t talk like that! Look at how great you are!” Rather, the Lord goes on putting Job in his place for two more chapters! Then Job concludes (42:6), “Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” That’s where Job, the most righteous man on earth, needed to be. And it was only after that that the Lord restored him.

Note, also, Peter’s response to the first miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Jesus didn’t correct him by saying, “Come on, Rock! You need to think better things about yourself! Let’s get rid of this worm theology stuff!” Rather, Jesus graciously focused on how He would change Peter (Luke 5:10), “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” (Also, see Isa. 6:5; Dan. 9:4-19.)

If you can find any verses that tell us that we need to build our self-esteem or love ourselves more or think of ourselves more highly, I’d be glad to consider them. The second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), is not commanding us to love ourselves more. Rather, it assumes that our innate self-love is the standard by which we should strive to love others. And while we should see ourselves as God’s beloved children, identified with Jesus Christ and possessing His gracious gifts for service, these blessings are all due to His grace, not to something inherent in us. To develop true humility, we need to work on going lower, not higher (Rom. 12:16).

3. To develop true humility, remember that all that you have, including your faith, comes from God.

Paul says that we are “to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” Some argue that this refers to the faith necessary for justification, which God has given to all who are saved (Eph. 2:8-9). While it is true that saving faith comes from God, this doesn’t fit with “allotted” or “measure,” which indicate varying amounts.

In verse 4, Paul says that we all have different functions in the body. In verse 6, he says that “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” and that we are to exercise these gifts “according to the proportion of [our] faith.” Thus it seems to me that in verse 3 Paul is talking about varying amounts of faith that God has given to different believers for the exercise of various spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 Paul says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” The point is, whether we have the gifts and faith to launch and sustain a worldwide ministry, or whether we exercise our gifts and faith on a small, local scale, keep in mind that everything you are and have comes from God, according to His sovereign purpose (1 Cor. 12:11).

This attitude eliminates pride. How can I boast when I am only doing what God has graciously enabled me to do? Although I’ve never read that he is a Christian, the billionaire Warren Buffet, who is reputed to be the second richest man in the world, refuses to take credit for his company, Berkshire’s, success. He explains (Reader’s Digest, 11/94, p. 175):

Much of our businesses’ prosperity has been created by our managers. My role may best be illustrated by an incident at my granddaughter Emily’s fourth-birthday party. Attending were other children, adoring relatives and a local entertainer named Beemer the Clown.

As Beemer began to perform magic tricks, he asked Emily to help him by waving a “magic wand” over “the box of wonders.” Green handkerchiefs went into the box, Emily waved the wand, and Beemer removed blue ones. Loose handkerchiefs went in and, upon a magisterial wave by Emily, emerged knotted. Soon Emily was unable to contain herself. “Gee, I’m really good at this,” she exulted.

And that sums up my contribution to the performance of Berkshire’s businesses.

That should be our attitude as Christians when God grants blessing on our labors. We weren’t ultimately responsible for the results. We were only using the gifts and faith that God gave us.

This attitude also checks us from comparing ourselves with others who may be more “successful” than we are. This is a common stumbling block for us pastors. We see another pastor with a bigger church or who is in demand around the world as a speaker or who has publishers asking for his books and we get jealous. Instead, if the man is preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word without compromise, we should rejoice. We’re on the same team; we’re members of the same body. If he is seeing fruit, it’s for the cause of Christ and for His glory. We should make sure that we are properly using the gifts that God has given to us. Then we can rejoice in someone else’s greater gifts.

Thus to develop true humility, keep God’s grace always in view. Work on going lower, not higher, in your estimate of yourself. Remember that all that you have, including your faith, comes from God and must be exercised as unto Him. Finally,

4. To develop true humility, determine what God has given you to do and seek to use it for His glory, trusting Him for the results.

Paul tells us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, “but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” He does not say that God has only allotted to some a measure of faith, but rather, to each one. Every text that mentions spiritual gifts emphasizes that we all have at least one gift (1 Cor. 12:7, 11; Eph. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:10). The analogy of the church being the body of Christ underscores the point. Each part of the body is essential for the proper functioning of the whole. There are no parts of my body that I care to part with! I know that I can get along with one leg or arm or with one eye or one kidney. But I can only function at full capacity when all of the parts are there and doing what they’re supposed to do.

People who go around dumping on themselves are not thinking with sound judgment, because they’re denying that God has given them a gift to be used for His glory. In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), it wasn’t the slave who received five talents or the one with two talents who buried them and didn’t use them for his master’s benefit. It was the slave who received one talent who buried it and received a scathing rebuke when the master returned. If you think that because you’re not gifted as a public speaker or effective as an evangelist, your gift doesn’t matter, you’re in danger of imitating that one-talent slave. You’re not thinking with “sound judgment,” as God has allotted to you a measure of faith. If you don’t evaluate yourself correctly, you may not use what God has given you for His purpose and glory, and you will face His displeasure when you stand before Him. You want to hear the Lord say (Matt. 25:21), “Well done, good and faithful slave. … Enter into the joy of your master.”

So try to figure out, perhaps with the help of trusted friends, what you can do for the Lord and get involved in doing it. There may be a learning curve, where you fail at first. You will probably catch criticism from other believers. It goes with the turf! Keep learning and growing and serving. Maybe the Lord will re-direct you into another type of service. However you serve, ask Him to use you in a way that is greater than you can ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). Ask Him for results that are disproportionately greater than human explanation can provide. Keep in mind Paul’s words (2 Cor. 3:5), “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”

Conclusion

As a pastor, I’m concerned because I see many Christians who do not think about these things with sound judgment. They do not evaluate what God has given them to do and then get on with doing it in faith with a view to giving an account someday to God. They know that the pastor will give an account someday for how he uses his gifts, but it never occurs to them that they will also give an account for the ministry that God has given them to do. And so we always seem to have a lot of ministry needs that go unmet.

In his classic, The Training of the Twelve ([Kregel], p. 180), A. B. Bruce observed, “The whole aim of Satanic policy is to get self-interest recognized as the chief end of man.” As you know, God’s glory should be our chief end. We glorify Him by serving Him with true humility in light of His gracious gifts to us.

Application Questions

  1. Some argue: “Jesus valued me enough to die for me, so I should value myself.” Why is this convoluted thinking?
  2. How should a humble person respond when someone pays him a compliment for something he did well? Is it biblical humility to dump on ourselves?
  3. How can we properly evaluate whether we are using our gifts to the full capacity that God intended? What criteria apply?
  4. Think of a recent relational conflict that you were a part of. How would humility on your part have affected the outcome?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Marriage, Spiritual Life

Lesson 79: Humility in the Functioning Body (Romans 12:4-5)

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Unless you’re an airplane buff, you probably don’t recognize the name, Charles Lawrence. He is credited with developing the engine for “The Spirit of St. Louis,” the aircraft that Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from Long Island to Paris in 1927.

After Lindbergh’s record-setting flight, friends of Lawrence held a dinner in honor of his achievement. At the dinner, in response to all the attention being lavished on him, he made this humble comment: “This is nice, and I appreciate it very much, but who ever heard of Paul Revere’s horse?” (Source unknown)

Lawrence’s comment reflects the humility with which the church, the body of Christ, should function. Some members, like Lindbergh, are more prominent and get the attention. But without the behind the scenes work of a man like Charles Lawrence, Lindbergh never could have gotten off the ground. And for the proper functioning of the body of Christ, there have to be dozens of faithful servants humbly working behind the scenes, who don’t care about getting the glory. Their desire is to make the church be all that God wants it to be.

The apostle Paul is showing us how the life of sacrificial service (12:1) plays out in ministry to others. At the heart of the properly functioning body of Christ the members must not be conformed to this evil age, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds (12:2). The renewed mind will not think more highly of itself than it ought to think, but will think with sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith (12:3). In other words, each member will not arrogantly think that he is better or more important than others. But also, he will not despise the gifts that God has given to him, however insignificant they may seem. He will humbly exercise them for the good of the body and the glory of God. So Paul now (12:4-8) shows how humility operates in the functioning body of Christ. He is saying that humility requires that we recognize the concept of the body of Christ (12:4-5); and that we function in the area of our own gifts (12:6-8).

In 12:4-5 Paul briefly sets forth the concept of the church as the body of Christ, which is one of several New Testament analogies used to describe the church. (Paul develops this in much more detail in 1 Cor. 12:12-27; also, Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; Col. 2:19). Then in 12:6-8, he mentions, by way of example, seven spiritual gifts that function in the body, making the point that those who possess these gifts must exercise them faithfully in order for the body to function properly. No one member possesses all the gifts, and thus we’re all interdependent. To the extent that the members of a local church do not recognize the concept of the body and faithfully function as humble members of the body, that church will be dysfunctional. But when the members of a church faithfully exercise their gifts with humility, that church will be healthy. Today we can only look at 12:4-5, where Paul makes the point that…

Humility requires that we recognize and function within the concept of the body of Christ.

Romans 12:4-5: “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

“For” shows that Paul is explaining further the implications of 12:3. We think with sound judgment and proper humility when we recognize that we’re only a part of the one body of Christ and that we’re members of one another. Just as the human body doesn’t function well when only a few members work, so neither does the body of Christ. All the members must work together in humility. The analogy of the church as the body of Christ implies five truths:

1. The body of Christ is an organic unity, made up of diverse members.

The church is the community of all who believe in Jesus Christ during the New Testament era. Covenant theologians extend the church to include all believers of all time, including those who believed under the old covenant. While the Greek word for church or assembly, ekklesia, is used once in the New Testament of the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), I believe that there are some important distinctions between Israel and the New Testament church.

Israel was a national, ethnic group made up of both believers and unbelievers. The church, in its truest sense, is a spiritual group made up of believers from many ethnic nations. In Israel, even those who believed are never described as belonging to the body of Christ. The church in this sense came into being on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit baptized all who believe in Christ into the one body of Christ (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12:13). Membership in Israel was due to one’s physical birth. But as I’ll mention in the next point, membership in the church is due to one’s spiritual birth.

I agree there is only one true people of God, consisting of all who believe in Christ whether in the Old or New Testament eras. But I would contend that there is a difference, even between believers in both eras. Old Testament saints were not a part of the living, organic body of Christ, baptized by the Spirit into this one body, with Jesus Christ as Head. And if you compare the entire nation of Israel with the church, the differences are even greater. The nation of Israel was a physical, ethnic entity, containing both unbelievers and believers. The church is a spiritual organic entity, containing only believers.

I’ll say more about the unity of the church in a moment, but for now I will point out that at its essence, the church is not an organization, but rather an organism. Organisms are highly organized, but in addition, they have life. Connected vitally to Jesus Christ as our head, the church shares His life in us. This means:

2. We become members of the body through the new birth, which unites us to all other regenerated people.

To use another analogy for the church, when a person is born again, he is born into God’s family. All other believers become his brothers or sisters. While I think that there is a legitimate place for having a defined membership in a local church, at its most basic level you do not become a member of the church by going to a new members’ class, filling out a membership application, being interviewed by an elder, and being formally welcomed into the church. You become a member of the church by believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The membership process is to help the elders to ensure that all who join the church have a credible profession of faith in Christ. But the point is, you don’t become a member of the church as the body of Christ by natural birth, but by the new birth.

In my judgment, those that view the church as an extension of or replacement for Israel and view baptism as the replacement for circumcision inevitably get into trouble because they have many in membership who have not been born again. These people were born in the church, baptized as infants, confirmed by going through a catechism class, and welcomed into the membership of the church as adults without a credible profession of faith in Christ.

Eventually, the church becomes like Israel, a mixed multitude with many who have never trusted in Christ as Savior. Thus many of these denominations now accept practicing homosexuals as clergy and deny many cardinal doctrines of the faith. At its root this is because they have not recognized that the fundamental basis of membership in a local church is the new birth through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not physical birth into the covenant community.

I grant that even local churches such as ours that insist on the new birth as the basis for membership have some who slip through the cracks. They have become official members, but they have never truly been born again. We try to prevent this through the membership process, but we cannot know a person’s heart. But our aim is to limit the membership of the church to those who have been born again. That is how we become members of the church universal. We try to apply that to the local level.

3. The church as the body of Christ means that God has not called us to be Christians in isolation, but in relationship with one another.

In other words, the church is not just a place where you come, as you would to a theater, to watch a show and then leave without much if any interaction with other attenders. Or, a church is not like a college classroom, where you may know a few of the students, but you only come to hear the lecture, chat with a couple of friends in the hallway after class, and then go your own ways. The church is a body, which implies a deeper level of contact and interaction than the theater or classroom comparisons provide.

A body does not do well when its members are not connected with one another. My fingers only work when connected with my hands and my hands with my arms and my arms to my body. The whole thing has to be vitally connected with my head. While in a church that is much larger than 100 people it’s impossible to know everyone well, you should have a network of some with whom you go deeper than just saying “hello” on Sunday morning and then not seeing them again for another week. The early church in Jerusalem is our model. It consisted of many thousands of members (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:7). They met at the temple to hear the apostles’ teaching, but they also met house to house for interaction on a deeper level (Acts 2:42, 46). The principle of the body means that we need to be developing relationships with some other members of the body for the purpose of mutual growth in Christ.

As you know, we Americans tend to be individualistic. We admire the strong, independent guy who can make it on his own. To depend on others for help is a sign of weakness. But as Christians, we need to fight this tendency. There is a sense in which each believer must bear his own load or be responsible for his own spiritual growth (Gal. 6:5). But there is another sense in which we must bear one another’s burdens, because we are members of one another (Gal. 6:2). The principle of the body means that we need each other to grow and stand strong against the enemy. But to admit that and practice it requires humility.

Years ago, Gene Getz wrote a helpful book, Building Up One Another [Victor Books, 1976], in which he examined many of the “one another’s” in the New Testament. He said (p. 4) that outside of the gospels, there are 58 uses of the Greek word that is usually translated “one another.” His 12 chapter headings were:

  1. “Members of One Another” (Rom. 12:5)
  2. “Devoted to One Another” (Rom. 12:10)
  3. “Honor One Another” (Rom. 12:10)
  4. “Be of the Same Mind with One Another” (Rom. 15:5)
  5. “Accept One Another” (Rom. 15:7)
  6. “Admonish One Another” (Rom. 15:14)
  7. “Greet One Another” (Rom. 16:3-6, 16)
  8. “Serve One Another” (Gal. 5:13)
  9. “Bear One Another’s Burdens” (Gal. 6:2)
  10. “Bearing with One Another” (Eph. 4:2)
  11. “Submit to One Another” (Eph. 5:21)
  12. “Encourage One Another” (1 Thess. 5:11)

Note that many of these references come from Romans. All of them are specific ways to show love for one another (John 13:34-35). Getz’ point is that the New Testament has a strong emphasis on the fact that we are not to be Christians in isolation, but in relationship with one another.

But that’s often the rub, isn’t it? Relationships often result in misunderstanding, conflict, and hurt feelings, even in the body of Christ. I often meet Christians who have been deeply hurt by fellow believers. Sometimes they drop out of the church altogether because of their bad experience. Or they may attend church, but they refuse to get involved because they don’t want to get hurt again. Perhaps some of you hold back from serving in the church because of past bad experiences.

But in this fallen world, even in the body of Christ, relationships always expose you to the risk of getting hurt. I only half-jokingly say to those joining this church that we promise to offend you or hurt your feelings at some point. I hope that it’s not intentional, but it’s almost inevitable because of our differences and because we’re all still prone to sin. When you get men and women (there’s serious potential for misunderstanding right there!), of different ages, different cultural and racial backgrounds, and sometimes even different linguistic backgrounds, together and throw in the world, the flesh, and the devil, you’ve got the potential for conflict and division! But the benefits of loving relationships outweigh the risks of getting hurt.

Someone once described the church as Noah’s Ark: You couldn’t stand the stench inside if it weren’t for the storm outside! Well, it’s not that bad! But we do need to keep working at our relationships and growing in love for one another. Separating from one another should only be a last resort and only for serious reasons.

But in light of the thousands of different denominations, you might wonder how Paul can say that we are “one body” (12:5).

4. The unity of the one body of Christ is invisible and spiritual, not outward and organizational.

Paul says (12:5), “We who are many, are one body in Christ.” We need to think carefully about what this means. As a pastor, I frequently feel pressure to join with some attempt to bring all the churches in Flagstaff together in an outward show of unity. It may be a prayer breakfast or a community worship service. I received an invitation to attend the multi-faith prayer service this past week at one of the churches in town. At the bottom of the invitation was the logo for the familiar bumper sticker that has symbols for the world’s major faiths, along with the word “Co-exist!” I did not accept that invitation!

The ecumenical movement has tried to bring about outward, organizational unity between various denominations through organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. Although the statements of faith of these organizations sound okay on the surface, in practice they welcome denominations that are liberal and in some cases, heretical. The National Association of Evangelicals attempts to bring more evangelical churches together in some sort of visible, organizational unity.

While there may be some benefits in belonging to an association of like-minded churches for the accomplishment of larger goals (FCF belongs to the Southwest Conservative Baptist Association), we must remember that at its heart, the unity of the body of Christ is invisible and spiritual, not outward and organizational. As I said, it consists of the fact that all who have trusted in Christ have received new life in Him and were baptized by the Spirit into this one body (1 Cor. 12:13). This is a unity that God creates, not one that we create.

In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of two aspects of this spiritual unity. In verse 3 he exhorts us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This is the unity that the Spirit creates. We do not cause it, but we must be diligent to preserve it through humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance in love (Eph. 4:2). But in verse 12 Paul states that the various gifted leaders are to equip the saints for the work of the ministry and the building up of the body of Christ. Then he adds (4:13), “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” This is a unity that we must labor to attain, not (as with the unity of the Spirit) to preserve. It is not based on our common faith in Christ alone, but also on our growing knowledge of Christ through God’s Word.

So the operative phrase in Romans 12:5 is, “in Christ.” We are only unified with those who are truly in Christ through the new birth, which is an inner, spiritual unity. We should strive to show this unity outwardly through love and cooperation when possible. Frankly, it is not always easy to know how and when to display outward unity, because some who are truly born again at the same time hold to some strange doctrines and practices that I would rather not be identified with publicly. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, I wrote a paper, “Separation vs. Cooperation” (on the church web site).

Thus humility requires that we think carefully about this concept of the body of Christ. This means that the church is an organic unity, made up of diverse members. We become members of the body through the new birth, which unites us to all other born again people. The church as the body of Christ also implies that God has not called us to be Christians in isolation, but in relationship with one another. And the unity of the one body of Christ is invisible and spiritual, not outward and organizational. Finally,

5. This one body is made up of diverse members, each having different interdependent functions for the well-being of the whole body.

We are “individually members one of another.” As Paul elaborates on this (1 Cor. 12:14-21):

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

In other words, we are interdependent and we need one another for the body to function well. But it takes humility to recognize this and make it work, because our pride makes us want to be independent and not let anyone know that we need him or her.

Years ago, I read a touching story that illustrates this truth. During Vacation Bible School, a woman teaching a primary class was interrupted about an hour before dismissal when a new boy was brought in. He only had one arm and the teacher did not know any details about why he was missing his arm or how he may have adjusted to this handicap. She was nervous and afraid that one of the other kids would comment on it and embarrass him. But she had no opportunity to coach them on how to respond.

As the class came to a close without incident, she began to relax. She asked the class to join her in their usual closing ceremony. “Let’s make our churches,” she said. “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the ….” Then the awful truth of her own actions hit her. The very thing she had feared the children would do, she had done.

But as she paused, speechless, the little girl sitting next to the new boy reached over with her left hand and placed it up to his right hand and said, “Davey, let’s make the church together.”

Conclusion

Without knowing it, that little girl gave us a beautiful picture of how the body of Christ is supposed to function. We shouldn’t arrogantly let the person with one hand know that we’ve got two and that he can’t do what we can do. Rather, recognizing our unity as members of the same body and our interdependence as different members of that body, we come alongside one another and say, “Let’s make the church together.”

Application Questions

  1. How do we draw the proper boundaries between bearing one another’s burdens and bearing our own load, between interdependence and independence (Gal. 6:2, 5)?
  2. Is there a difference between loving other members of the body and liking them? How does this play out in practice?
  3. To what extent and how should we work on visible unity with those who hold to doctrines or practices that we disagree with?
  4. Why is church membership important? Or if you think it is not important, why not? Cite biblical reasons.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Spiritual Gifts

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