Monday, March 18, 2019

Paul’s Commitment to the Saints at Rome – Romans 1:8-15

We are often reminded that Christians have a commitment to the world.  And we do.  Paul himself tells us that he was utterly committed to bringing the gospel to all men: “I am under obligation [a debtor] both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14).  We should not interpret this sense of obligation in merely psychological terms, for Paul’s obligation had its source in our Lord’s commission.  The same is true of all Christians, and though we are not apostles like Paul, yet we are still committed by our Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations (Mt. 28:18-20).  We are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:12-14).

However, the church cannot adequately do this unless it is the church.  That is to say, Christians need Christians to fulfill our great calling.  We are not supposed to do this on our own.  So our commitment to the world is grounded in our commitment to each other.  It is as Christians love each other that they are built up and enabled to love the world.  We live in an age in which because of the prevalence of sin the love of many has grown cold (Mt. 24:12).  Like the penguins of the South Pole, we live in a morally icy and frozen environment and if we wander off we are likely to become spiritual ice-cycles.  We need the warmth of the spiritual gifts of other believers in order to thrive and live productive lives.

We see this dynamic here in Paul’s opening words to the Roman Christians.  Apparently, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the seeming tension between the apostle’s words here in the first chapter, where he expresses his desire to minister to an established church, and his words in chapter 15, where he claims that he makes “it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20).  However, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s intention in coming to Rome is not to camp out there and put his face on everything.  Rather, his intention was to bring the Christians there alongside as partners in his missionary efforts to go to places where the gospel was not yet named, specifically, Spain.  He needed them to help him reach the lost.  

Paul is seeking to recruit them for the sake of the gospel among all the nations for God’s name and glory because Paul is sure that they share the same desire for the spread of the gospel as he did.  We see this in verse 8, when Paul reminds them that their faith is spoken of throughout the Roman empire.  He senses in them a kindred spirit.  And this draws out Paul’s heart to them.

Therefore in these verses we see an expression of Paul’s commitment to the believers at Rome.  And we see how this commitment was fleshed out in terms of the apostle’s intentions.  It is a beautiful picture of what our commitment to other believers in the world-wide church and to each other in our own local church is supposed to look like.  And that is what I want to focus on as we look at this text together.  We see it in four ways.  Like the apostle Paul, our commitment to each other is expressed through mutual praise, faithful prayer, personal presence, and gospel proclamation.

Now I could not think about the apostle Paul’s longing to visit Rome and not think of Martin Luther’s experience at Rome almost 1500 years later.  When Luther went to Rome, the church has grown worldly and corrupt.  Though it was ostensibly the center of the Christian world, it had also become a sinkhole of iniquity.  Luther wrote:

“Where God build a church, the Devil puts up a chapel next door. … It is almost incredible. What infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed. … Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon. I took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”[1]

It is a reminder that to be that kind of church that can further the kingdom of God in the world, we need to continually resist becoming like the world.  The same church that Paul visited in the second half of the first century had lost all semblance of its past by the sixteenth century.  I’m saying this to remind us of the fact that our commitment to fellow believers in terms of fellowship and community cannot be divorced from a mutual commitment to God’s unchanging truth.  The commitment that we have to other Christians must not supersede the priority of our commitment to Christ and his gospel.  But as we hold to the common faith, as Jude puts it, we then must reach out to each other in terms of these four things: praise, prayer, presence, and proclamation.

Mutual Praise

The apostle begins, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (8).  Here we have an expression of praise.  It is cast, of course, in terms of Paul’s thanksgiving to God for them.  But in letting them know about his heart of gratitude to God, the apostle is essentially praising them for the proclamation of their faith.  He is letting them know how much he appreciates their work for the Lord.  Like Paul, we too ought to let others know how much we appreciate who they are and what they have done for the Lord and for us.

Now it is true that we should not put too much stock in what people think of us.  This is true also of other Christians.  The fact of the matter is that other believers can praise you when you don’t deserve it; they can also blame you when you don’t deserve it. The fact is, ultimately our allegiance is to Christ, and his opinion of us (which is always 100 percent accurate!) is what we should aim at more than anything else.  A word of affirmation from our Lord ought to be worth more than all the praises that all the world could heap on us.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should go around withholding praise from others, especially when praise is due.  We don’t want to become slaves to human opinion, true; but the fact of the matter is that we all need a word of affirmation from time to time, a hand on the shoulder, a slap on the back.  If all you hear from someone is blame when you go wrong but never praise when you do right, you are probably going to develop a sense of distrust and suspicion towards that person.  This is true of the relationship of parent and child; it is also true of the relationship of believer to believer.  Notice what Paul will say much later in this epistle: “Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10).  This is especially true if a brother or sister is “fainthearted.”  Such people really need to be encouraged (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14), and often the best way to do this is to show them honor through praise.

The failure to be this way is probably a signal that we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (cf. 12:3).  People who give too little praise with their mouths almost certainly harbor too much pride in their hearts.  We shouldn’t want to be first; we shouldn’t be waiting until we feel like we have been shown the appropriate honor before we show honor to others.  It is important that other believers know that we value them; it draws us closer to each other and makes the kind of fellowship that builds up more likely and possible. 

It’s important for us to be able to praise others because if we don’t we will inevitably focus on the wrong things.  We will tend to blow out of proportion their bad qualities while we ignore their good qualities.  We might even forget they have any!

It is also important to learn to praise others because in doing so we are not only showing love to them, but we are also imitating our heavenly Father.  If our Lord is willing to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we should not hesitate to praise them as well.  Remember that Christ receives us freely and completely by grace.  He receives us, not because of our moral worth, but despite all our moral warts.   And yet, despite all our past titanic failures and shortcomings, he is willing to forget it all and give us praise when we are faithful in our little ways.  Let us do the same with each other.  In the final analysis, this is the outworking of the relationship as members of God’s family.  As such, we are committed to each other, and we partly show that commitment by mutual praise and encouragement.

Faithful Prayer

Next, Paul writes, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (9-10).  Paul had expressed his praise as thanksgiving to God.  This implies that he prayed for them.  Thus he writes, “For . . . without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers.”  Paul’s commitment to the Roman Christians meant that he prayed for them.  But not only did he pray for them, but did so “without ceasing” and “always.” Such was his commitment to them that when he prayed, the Roman Christians were never far from his thoughts.

Paul’s witness to this is God himself: “for God is my witness.”  When Paul prayed, he was confident that God listened.  This is the key to persevering prayer.  And I think the reason why the apostle was so confident God listened was because he served him “with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.”  Paul’s life, and his prayer life, was lived in the service of God and the gospel.  His prayers therefore weren’t selfish laundry lists of wants and wishes.  They were messengers sent to the heavenly Capitol City for the advance of the God’s kingdom and will upon the earth.  And that meant that his prayers included praise and supplication for the saints.

Now we don’t pray for the saints because God needs the information we give him in our prayers.  Nor is God somehow dependent upon our prayers as if they were some kind of magic potion that gives God the power to fulfill his will upon the earth.  No, rather, God allows us in prayer the privilege of cooperating with him in advancing his kingdom.  When God does this, it is not because he needs us, but because he loves us – there is nothing more exciting and invigorating than getting in on the one thing that will last into eternity.  And so the Lord allows us to help each other through prayer: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).

I can think of few expressions of love more powerful than faithful and persevering prayer for one another.  When you care for someone and want to help them with some problem, you will want to recommend them to someone who can help them, if you can’t yourself.  Perhaps they have some medical problem and you know a doctor that will help them.  Maybe you even ask the doctor yourself on behalf of your friend.  In some ways that is what prayer is like.  There are so many ways in which we cannot help others.  But God is able when we cannot.  He is strong when we are weak, wise when we are foolish, and all-seeing when we are blind.  And so we bring our friends in prayer to the throne of grace.  Let us therefore pray for each other.  It is an enduring expression of our love and commitment to each other.

Personal Presence

One of the things the apostle had been praying is that he could be with them in person: “that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.  For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (10-13).  

I suppose that Paul could have accomplished his purpose in soliciting the help of the Roman believers for the work of missions in the West by correspondence only.  But he is not content with that.  He desperately wants to come to them and be with them in person.  The apostle recognized what we all know intuitively: that personal presence is really important if we want to establish and maintain community and friendship.  There are ways that we can only build each other up by being present.  The apostle John also recognized this: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink.  I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (2 Jn. 13-14).  Face to face is always better than pen and ink.  It is also better than Twitter, Facebook, or a text message.

In particular, Paul wants to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (12).  This can only happen, according to the apostle, by being personally present.  I think it is important to notice that the apostle saw his own personal need of this.  He began verse 11 by saying, “For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” – and then he says that they are not the only ones who will be strengthened; he too will be encouraged and strengthened as well.  Now if the apostle, with all his giftedness, saw the need to be encouraged by other saints, and believed that this could only happen by being with them, then we should see the folly of thinking that we can do just fine without the church.  We need each other.  We need community.  We simply cannot be committed to each other in real, meaningful ways unless we are willing to be with each other.

There is a greater temptation in our day, I think, to get along without being with other believers and just “do church” by watching a service on the internet.  Now I do not want to discount the blessing of being able to do just that.  But beware of replacing the church with the internet.  God did not ordain the internet to do the work of the church; he ordained the church to do the work of the church.  Beware of acting as if you are wiser than God.  You cannot replace the church with technology, as good as the technology might be.  

However, I am afraid that a lot of people go to church without ever doing church.  In other words, they go to a place to watch an event without ever becoming part of a community.  Here’s the deal: if you are not ministering to others and being ministered to, then you are not really personally present in the way the apostle is thinking of here.  And think about it: if the apostle thought he needed this, how much more do we?

 Gospel Proclamation

Paul saw it as his obligation to come to Rome, not to advance his cause but his blessed Lord’s.  Thus he wanted to come to preach the gospel: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.  So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (14-15).  I love the way the KJV expresses verse 15: “as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel.”  The apostle strained every nerve in his body and soul to faithfully preach the gospel to all men.

Now, the interesting thing in this context is that Paul is saying this because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome to other believers.  I assume he wanted to reach the lost in Rome as well, but his main mission in Rome is to bless those who had already embraced the gospel with the gospel.  He wants to have a “harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (13).  That is very important.

It is important to notice this because we sometimes think the gospel is only for the lost.  However, it is for believers of all stripes, at every level of spiritual maturity.  We never outgrow the gospel; we never reach a place where we do not need to hear it anymore.  It is crucial for our spiritual growth and sanctification to keep constantly in our mind who we are in Christ and what resources we have in him.  The gospel is not just for the initial embrace of Christ by faith; it is for every step along the way.  We must never forget that Romans was not written for unbelievers, but for believers.  The “Roman Road” may be a good evangelistic tool, but the initial intention behind it was to bless the saints.  The apostle Peter implies that it is a loss of this vision that is responsible for spiritual declension: “For whoever lacks these qualities [faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brother affection, and love] is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9).  I take this to mean that when we forget what we have been saved from, we inevitably forget what we are saved to.  A failure to keep embracing the gospel is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

I don’t think the apostle only thought of himself as communicating the gospel to the Romans.  It is implied, I think, in being mutually encouraged by each other’s faith – a faith that is in the gospel – that this preaching of the gospel is in some sense mutual.  Thought it is true that not all are called to preach the gospel in an official capacity, yet we should all strive to remind each other of gospel realities.  In doing so we are encouraged (12) and strengthened (11).

Let me give you an example of how Paul does this in this epistle.  In Romans 6, after reminding us that in Christ we have died to sin and risen to righteousness (which is at the heart of what the gospel is all about), then he says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (6:11-12).  In other words, Paul is telling them to let the logic of the gospel move them to mortify sin.  If you believe the gospel, you are going to kill the sin in your life.  If you do not believe the gospel, if you forget its truths, you are going to be more vulnerable to sin.  We need to be reminding each other of these truths.

I am so thankful that the Lord has put us in each other’s lives.  We all need each other.  I do not have all the spiritual gifts; I need yours and you need mine.  However, the way we help each other and express our mutual commitment is by doing what that apostle indicates in this text: by encouraging each other through praise, by holding each other up through prayer, by building each other up by personal presence, and by reminding each other of gospel realities by proclaiming its truths. 


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Loved by God, Called to God – Romans 1:6-7

What is a Christian?  What does it mean to be a Christian?  And what benefit is there to being a Christian?  These are all questions that are addressed, in one way or another, in our text.  I am so thankful for this because more than ever, it is really important that we understand exactly what being a Christian entails.  It is important in this present cultural moment because Christianity no longer holds the cultural weight it once had.  In fact, it is becoming more and more disadvantageous to identify yourself as a Christian.  There is a lot of political inertia behind secularism and atheism in our society today.  It is scary to me to see how holding basic Christian convictions about sex and marriage that just a few years ago were totally innocuous is now a reason to call such a person a hater, a bigot, and to feel morally justified to attack that person and to shame and disenfranchise them in any way possible.  As a result, there is going to be more and more pressure on professing Christians to sell out their faith for a mess of postmodern pottage.  So many have done so already.  So unless you really believe that following Christ is worth it, you are not going to make it through the next few years.  But you are not going to know that it is worth it, unless you understand what a Christian really is.

So let me renew the question: What is a Christian?  

Let me begin with what a Christian is not.   You cannot Biblically identify Christianity with niceness, with certain political factions, or with social activism.  Now that doesn’t mean a Christian is not nice, or does not get involved with politics, or does not do social activism (though I would argue that certain kinds of social activism are incompatible with a Christian identity).  It just means that those things are not what fundamentally distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian.  After all, none of these things adequately describe what our Lord himself did during his own earthly ministry.

And there is the key.  Following Christ is what it means to be a Christian.  That is essentially what the name “Christian” means.  But even before that, Christianity was known as “the Way,” denoting a way of life that was demarcated by our Lord himself.  If you want to be a Christian, you must understand that does not mean you belong to a certain denomination.  It doesn’t mean that you have gone through some religious initiation ceremony.  It means that you are following Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

But why would anyone want to follow Christ?  After all, his life led to an ignominious death.  His followers were harried out of the land.  For several hundred years they were persecuted, killed, shamed, and disenfranchised.  To be a Christian was to be despised.  So why would they follow Jesus as Lord?  

The answer is that when one becomes a Christian, when one comes to be “in Christ” as Paul will put it in Rom. 16:7, we no longer relate to God as enemies but as members of his family, since we are united to the Son of God by faith.  Our sins are forgiven, we are given the righteousness of God, and an inheritance that is eternal and unfading.  These are marvelous realities.  But the point is, we no longer find our identity in what we have done or who we are or what other people think of us.  Rather, we find our identity in Christ, in the Son of God.  And this identity is worth more than all the world could give us or take from us.  And that is what puts iron in the blood of a Christian when faced with a hostile world.

This identity comes with great and wonderful privileges and blessings.  Paul mentions two of them in our text, the love of God and the call of God, and I want to consider them with you this morning.  Each of these things describe all Christians.  Remember, Paul had never been to Rome.  This was not his church.  His only connection to many of these people is that, like him, they followed Christ.  This is all he knew about them.  So when he describes them, the descriptions he gives are things that belong to all believers in Christ, not just to some.  Note how he writes: “To all those in Rome.”  Of course, the “all” here is limited by the context to those who belonged to the church, to those whose faith was proclaimed in all the world (8).  Nevertheless, this was an “all-without-exception” to those who belonged to Christ in Rome.  And if you are a Christian, then these things describe you too.

“To those … who are loved by God” (7).

This is perhaps the most wonderful thing Paul mentions here.  And we must not miss the implications of this grand statement.  Every believer is loved by God.

Now, I want to push back here at a notion of the love of God that waters down the force of these words.  It comes from a failure to distinguish between the love that God has for all people as their creator and the special, saving love that God has for his people, his elect, as Paul will call them in chapters 8 and 9.  God does not love all men the same way.  He does not love those who reject his Son and refuse to repent with the kind of love Paul is talking about here.  If that were not the case, then there would be nothing special about what Paul says here.  There would be nothing to be amazed at.  There would be nothing to comfort and encourage the saints.  But the reality is that if you belong to Christ, then God loves you in the same way he loves his Son.  There is no higher love than that.

So when we think about this love of God, we have to note first of all that it is a special love.  It is what the apostle John was amazed at when he exclaimed, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).  As John points out, this is the love that the most perfect Father has for his children.  The Psalm puts it this way: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:12).  It is a love that causes God to rejoice over us when we repent.  It is a love that embraces us in grace and peace.  It is a love that embraces us in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity: “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn. 17:23).  There is surely no love in the universe more special than that.  

Think about the implications of this.  If my child is in mortal peril, I would move heaven and earth if necessary to come to their aid.  They are a part of me; it would tear my heart out to see them hurting or in danger.  But if God loves you with the love Paul is talking about here, he loves you like that, but even better.  I think about what our Lord says at the end of the parable of the unjust judge: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?  I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Lk. 18:7-8).  In other words, God is not a disinterested party when it comes to his elect.  He is not aloof.  He comes to their aid as a father comes to the aid of his son or daughter when they cry to him.  Or think about what our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” (Mt. 7:11).  There is an infinite “how much more” in the love that God has for his children and the love that a mom or a dad has for their children.

The fact that God loves some people with a special love is a corollary of the fact that God is not the Father of all men.  We do not believe in the universal fatherhood of God.  The Bible teaches that to be a part of God’s family, we have to be adopted into it, and this only happens when we belong to Christ.  For those people, and for none other, does God love them as a father loves his children.  

Not only is God’s love special, it is also saving.  By this I mean that this love begets our salvation, effects our salvation, and completes our salvation.  It is the love of God that is the spring of all his saving action.  It is God’s love also that keeps us and brings us to glory.  This is Paul’s point later in chapter 8: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Salvation does not mean deliverance from all the thorns and thistles of this life.  But it does mean that suffering will eventually be replaced with incomparable glory that lasts forever.  And this glory is the effect of being adopted into God’s family, of being forgiven and justified, sanctified by the Spirit and word, and finally glorified.  All this is the fruit of God’s love for us.  You can always judge a person’s love by what they are willing to give.  God has given his elect something better than all the world.  It is so good that it is worth it to give up the world for it, to lose one’s life in this world in order to gain the life that God’s love gives in the next.

God’s love is also particular.  That is to say, the love Paul is thinking about here is not some general good-will and compassion that God has for the world.  It is a special, saving, particular love.  God’s love is intimately personal.  You are on his mind and heart.  Do you remember what Paul said in Gal. 2:20?  “And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”  No one else in the world may care who you are.  No one else may know who you are.  But God knows who you are, and he loves you in particular.

Knowing God loves us ought to transform the way we look at this world.  It ought especially to transform the way we look at trials.  If God loves us, and God is sovereign over the world (which he is), then that means that there is no trial that comes to me that God has not sent from good and wise and loving purposes.  I may not be able to see what those purposes are.  But if God loves me I can be sure that the trial is good for me.  Nothing comes to me that has not first come through the hands of a loving Father.  I can endure the trial not knowing the reasons for it as long as I am sure that I am loved by God.  I can leave it in his hands knowing that I am in his hands.

It ought also to transform the way we look at his laws.  God loves us: this same God has given us commandments.  They are therefore not there to punish us, but to free us from things that are ultimately enslaving.  As the apostle John put it, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3).  They may feel that way to us at times, but that is the result of the indwelling sin that remains in our hearts.  God’s law is not restrictive but freeing.  His laws allow us to live in harmony with him, and that is the way we really live out what it means to be fully human, as created in the image of God.  Or as our Lord put it, “If you know these things [his commandments], blessed [happy] are you if you do them” (Jn. 13:17).

It should also free us from craving the approval of man.  If God loves us, let that suffice.  It does not matter ultimately what another worm of the dust thinks of you.  Paul knew that people looked at him and thought he was off his rocker.  And if Paul cared one whit about the opinion of others, he would have prematurely ended his ministry.  But he kept laboring.  Why?  He tells us: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.  For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:13-14).  It was God’s love for him that kept him faithful to the very end, not looking to the right or left for the approval of men.

We should therefore not be content with merely knowing about this love, but experiencing it.  There is no replacement for the assurance of God’s love for us.  There is nothing more bracing or more strengthening than to know that the God of the universe knows us and loves us with a special, saving, particular love.  This is essentially what it means to have the assurance of salvation; to know with utter certainly that God loves you.  Of course, if you are a believer, it is true whether you feel it or not.  But oh how we ought to want to know God’s love that passes knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God!

“Called to be saints.”

The next thing Paul says in verse 7 in addressing his audience is to describe them in terms of the word “calling.”  In verse 6, he had already pointed to this reality in the words, “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”  

Now it is very important that we understand exactly what the apostle is talking about here.  In the NT, there are two different types of calling.  There is the general call of the gospel, which is the call that goes out to all men to repent and believe the gospel.  This is what is being referred to, for example, in Matthew 22:14, when our Lord says that “many are called, but few are chosen.”

However, there is also what theologians have called the effectual call, because, unlike the general call, this call leads inevitably to repentance and faith.  This is the way Paul is using the term here in this text.  Note the comparison to Paul’s description of himself in verse 1: a “called apostle.”  Though this is not the same thing, in that this calling is a divine summons to a particular vocation, yet we all understand that the summons of Christ to Paul to be his apostle to the Gentiles was effectual.  In fact, in some sense, Paul’s call to faith in Christ and his call to be an apostle was one and the same event, so that there is a connection between the two.  

We see that this is the way Paul uses this term elsewhere in this epistle.  Consider, for example, Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  It is important not to miss the fact that the apostle does not say, “some of those . . . he also.”  This is an unbreakable chain from the first link down to the last.  Let’s start with the last one: “those whom he justified he also glorified.”  It is misreading the text to say that only some of those who are justified are also glorified.  Note the word “also.”  It means that you can’t have one thing without the other.  This means that those who are justified – all of them – are exactly those who are glorified.  If it were true that a person could be justified but not glorified, Paul’s words would be wrong.  He does not say that if you are justified you might be glorified, but that you will also be glorified.  Justification leads inevitably to glorification.

But back up.  The apostle had previously said that those who are called are also justified.  This just means that everyone who is called is justified.  But how are we justified?  The answer of the book of Romans, indeed of the entire Bible, is that it is by faith.  In other words, in between the calling and the justification faith must come in.  The calling Paul is speaking of here is effectual in the sense that it always leads to faith and justification.

You see this in other places as well.  Consider 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.  Here Paul is explaining why “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (18).  He goes on to say, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God though the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  Paul’s argument is this: the gospel is foolishness to unbelievers.  It is folly to Jews who can’t understand the concept of a crucified Messiah and it is folly to Gentiles who can’t understand the concept of resurrection from the dead.  What then makes the difference?  If the gospel is seen as foolish by those who need it most, how is anyone going to believe?  Paul’s answer is, “but to those who are called . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  In other words, what makes the difference is this powerful and effectual call of God.  Clearly this is not a reference to the general call of the gospel since that is rejected by some.  But for those who receive this call, they no longer see Christ as impotent (as the Jews did) or foolish (as the Gentiles did), but as the very power and wisdom of God.

You see this also in our Lord’s words in John 6.  This chapter is very interesting, because in his interaction with the multitude that will eventually walk away from him, our Lord explains why they refuse to follow him.  He says in verse 36, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”  Why?  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (37).  The implication here is that they do not believe and will not come to Christ in faith (cf. ver. 35) because they are not among those given by the Father to the Son, since all such people will come to Christ.  

But how do we know someone is given by the Father to the Son?  Our Lord explains: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (44).  If the Father has given someone to the Son, he will draw him to his Son.  This drawing is what I understand Paul to mean by calling.  It is the divine and effectual summons to faith in Christ and salvation.  It is what makes the difference between staying lost and becoming saved.  This drawing, this calling, is necessary, because without it no one can come to Christ (not because there is any lack of faculties required to exercised faith and repentance but because there is no moral will and desire to come to Christ – it is a settled will not that leads to a cannot).  However, this drawing is also effectual because our Lord goes on to say, “And I will raise him up at the last day” (44).  In other words, our Lord says that those who are drawn are resurrected, very much like what Paul says in Romans 8.  

Just to make things as clear as possible, our Lord goes on to explain, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (45). Our Lord is equating being drawn by the Father with hearing from and learning from the Father – in other words, being called by the Father.  Our Lord says that everyone who is thus drawn comes to the Son in faith and repentance.  It is effectual.

Now we must distinguish between the general call and the effectual call of God.  But we most not separate them.  No, God’s normal way of operating is to call his people through the gospel call: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brother beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14).  In other words, we shouldn’t take away from this is that evangelism is not necessary.  It is, because it is through evangelism that this call takes place.  If we want to see people called by God, we must see people called by the gospel.

Now how is it that God calls us to him?  It is by opening our eyes to the beauty of the gospel, to see our need for Christ, and his sufficiency to save.  It is a giving of spiritual eyes to see and spiritual taste buds to taste.  Jonathan Edwards put it this way: he said that this is “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel.  There is a divine and superlative glory in these things, an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature, than in other things . . . He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it. Or has a sense of it.  He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”

God loves you and he has called you.  Let the magnitude of what Paul is describing to sink in.  Paul is not saying that God loves us from afar, but that God has invaded our hearts to take away the blindness and the hardness so that we will come to Christ in faith and receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in his name.  He is not only at work for you but at work in you.  The work of salvation in your heart began with a work of God and is sustained by the power of God.  You are not on your own.  God is with you and in you empowering you so that despite all your weakness and failures you will persevere to the end and be saved.

Also, consider what an honor it is if God has summoned you to himself.  The King of the universe has called you!  What greater honor or privilege is there in this age or the age to come?  If the President called you to the White House, you would probably consider this one of the greatest honors of your life.  But our President is nothing compared to God.  

You can see this in what God has called us to.  He has called us to belong to his Son, Jesus Christ (6).  He has called us to be saints, to be set apart for himself, for his glory.  We are like the blind man who received his sight and then followed Jesus in the way.

Finally, consider what grace it is that God has bestowed on those whom he loves and calls.  When we look back on our past and consider how we came to Christ, we must ascribe all our salvation, from first to last, to the sovereign grace of our Lord.  He loved us and he called us (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31).  He is the one who made us to differ.  We should love him for it and give him all the praise.  We should give our lives to him.  He has called you to belong to him, to be set apart for him.  Don’t let the word cause you to be conformed to its ways.  Don’t allow the hostile environment of this world to turn your hearts away from God’s Son.  Be like that spider who builds nests of air-bubbles in the water; even so, learn how to live in a hostile world with the resources of God’s grace that come to us from his love and through his call.

Now if you have not come to Christ, then you are confronted this morning with the gospel call – that Christ is your Lord and he calls us to come freely to himself, to embrace him as your Lord and Savior and thus to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Your responsibility is not to wait for some mystical experience but to obey the summons of the gospel.  If you refuse to come, the fault is not in God but in yourself.  God will not stop anyone from coming to his Son.  All who come to him will be saved.  If you are not saved, it will only be for the hardness of your heart for which you will be justly held responsible.  However, knowing the fact that it is God who makes the difference ought to affect the way you approach him.  You don’t approach God as if he owes you salvation.  He doesn’t.  The only thing he owes us is damnation.  So we shouldn’t approach his throne with pride but with great humility.  We should come like the tax-collection of Luke 16, beating on our chest, bowing our heads, and beseeching God to have mercy on us sinners.  This is the only way to receive mercy.  But the wonderful news of the Bible is that when we approach God this way, through Jesus, that he gives salvation freely to all who come.  Today, this moment, come to him!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Relevance of Romans – Rom. 1:1-5

The book of Romans is famous for many reasons.  The clarity with which Paul presents the gospel, the fullness with which he deals with the doctrine of justification, and the exalted vision of God’s sovereignty over all things are all features of this letter that rightfully call out our interest and attention.  It has been used by God over and over again to bring about great things for his church.  It was by this book that God captured the heart of Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, in the fourth century.  It was by this book that God radically refocused Martin Luther’s perspective on God’s righteousness and faith in the sixteenth century.

Most of you have probably already heard of the influence of Romans upon Luther and Augustine.  But let me tell you a story you have probably not heard, which underlines again just how powerful this book is.  In 1816, a preacher and evangelist by the name of Robert Haldane, from Scotland, traveled to Switzerland.  Apparently by chance he came there upon a group of young men who were studying for the ministry, but none of whom were actually saved or knew anything of real, personal religion.  Nevertheless, he gained their friendship and at their request held a Bible study with them.  They would come to Haldane’s room there in Geneva twice a week, and he would expound to them Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  As a result, apparently every single one of these young men were saved, and a revival of true religion began from there that influenced not only Switzerland but also France.  Several of these young men later became prominent leaders in the church.  And it all began with Haldane teaching them the book of Romans.

Of course, every generation needs to hear Romans afresh.  But that doesn’t mean that we get to hear it however we want.  Yes, Romans is a timeless book, but it is timeless, not because its contents can be reshaped according to the desires of our fallen culture, but because its unchanging truths are timeless.  The church armed with the truths of Romans is a church ready to meet the world.  But we need to truly hear Romans.  We need to understand what the apostle meant to say.  We need to hear it as its original audience was meant to hear it, and then take the application from there.  This is one of the things we hope to accomplish as we go through this letter together.

However, the first and more basic question is, why should you and I listen to the message of this epistle in the first place?  Why is it still important?  What does a letter written by a first century man to a first century church in a world that no longer exists have to say to the Christian living in the twenty-first century facing radically different challenges and needs?

This is why Paul’s introduction to his epistle in the first seven verses is so important.  It tells us why you ought to listen to what he has to say.  Paul is very expansive in these first few verses, unlike many of his other letters, because Romans was different.  It was different because Paul had never visited this church.  The church at Rome, unlike the churches in Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Corinth, and others, was not founded by Paul.  Though he obviously knew several Christians in Rome (as chapter 16 shows), he was coming to this church, not as their spiritual father but as a relative stranger.  Therefore, as he begins his letter, he gives them at least three reasons why they should hear him out.  And what we will see is that those reasons are also reasons for me and you to hear him out as well.

These reasons are presented in terms of Paul’s mandate (1), Paul’s message (2-4), and Paul’s mission (5-7).  These things tell us something about the authority of his message, the glory of his message, and the aim of his message.  As we shall see, there is truly no higher mandate, no more glorious message, and no more noble mission.

So first of all, let’s consider Paul’s mandate.  It is given to us right here in verse 1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”  There are three things here that underline Paul’s authority to speak, not only to the Roman Christians of the first century, but also to every succeeding generation of Christians, no matter where they are in the world.

First of all, Paul describes himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus.”  Now this word “servant” is the Greek word doulos, which is sometimes translated “slave.”  Paul thought of himself as a slave of Jesus Christ.  That is, he was completely and wholly under the authority of Jesus Christ.  Just as a slave doesn’t make plans for himself, Paul didn’t make plans for himself – his life was under the obedience of Christ.  Everything in every area of life was submitted to him.  

It is important that we see that this is how Paul fundamentally saw himself.  This was his identity.  Paul thought of himself as a slave of Jesus Christ.  This was no put down, either.  It was his glory to serve Christ.  Before his conversion, he had served himself.  Now he served Christ.  Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul would distinguish other so-called ministers from Timothy, by saying that “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.  For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20-21).  Of course, as Paul’s son in the ministry, Timothy was duplicating Paul’s own heart.  Paul did not seek his own interests, but the interests of Jesus Christ. 

That is why it is so important that we listen to him.  Paul was not writing about Paul.  He was not writing to advance his own name and career or pad his pockets with other people’s money.  He was writing as someone whose every effort was an effort to serve Jesus Christ.  Of course, we would do well to imitate Paul.  We too are called to be servants of Christ.  We too are called to put on the easy yoke of our Lord (cf. Mt. 11:28-30).  But the point here is that we are hearing from a man who has no interest in self-promotion.  There are no hidden motives here.  And that is the kind of man you want to listen to.  

Next, Paul describes himself as a “called apostle.”  Paul was an apostle.  He was a messenger of Christ, sent not to proclaim his own religion, but to faithfully relay the words of Christ to others. 

And he was called to do this. Now when we hear the word “called,” we often think of someone who is called to the ministry.  Unfortunately, the origin of that kind of “call” is more often than not located in the gut of the would-be preacher rather than in heaven.  But Paul was not called that way.  His call was something very objective.  It was not an office or ministry that Paul gave to himself, it was not something he just felt like he had to do; rather, it was something God gave him of his own sovereign prerogative. 

Nor was it even something the churches gave him.  It is true that there were men who were called apostles in the sense that they were messengers of the churches.  However, this was not the case with Paul.  As an apostle, he received his commission directly from Jesus Christ himself, after his experience on the road to Damascus.  As Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians, he was “an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1).  Moreover, the message he was given to relay was not received “from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12).  

The bottom line here is that Paul was not speaking his own message.  He was speaking the message of Jesus Christ, and therefore his words are inherently clothed with the authority of Christ.  To reject his words is to reject the words of Christ.  What this means is that you cannot be a Christian and reject the words of Paul, as some people try to do.  Christianity is spelled out in Romans just as authoritatively as it is in the gospels.

Paul adds an important expression at this point, “separated unto the gospel of God.”  This spells out what he was sent to speak.  It tells us his message – it was the gospel, which he is about to spell out in the next few verses.  Again, this is not “the gospel of Paul,” it is the “gospel of God,” meaning that God is both the subject of this message and the origin of it.  The fact that he was “separated” to it underlines again the objective nature of Paul’s call.  Paul was an apostle of God to speak the gospel of God.  He uses similar language to describe his calling in Galatians.  There he describes God as the one “who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,” and who “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16).  It was not accident that Paul was called to be an apostle.  It was God’s plan for him, even before he was born.  One must not miss here the obvious analogy of Paul’s experience to that of the prophets (cf. Jer. 1:5).

God set Paul apart.  God gave him a message.  As a faithful servant of Christ, Paul gave his life to live and preach that message.  What we have before us, therefore, is the word of God, nothing less.  It is our life to receive it and our death to reject it.  Here we have the mandate of Paul.  It doesn’t come from Paul himself.  It didn’t come from a denomination.  It came directly from God.  It behooves us therefore to listen to what he has to say!

Now, I imagine someone saying at this point, “Okay, so what if Paul claimed to have a message from heaven.  So did Mohammed and Joseph Smith and host of others.  How is Paul’s claim to authority any different from theirs?”  In answer I would point you to the message of Paul itself.  Be willing to hear it honestly!  Compare it with the message of Mormonism or Islam or any of its competitors, and I claim that there is no real comparison.  The gospel is the only message that points you away from yourself to the grace of God, and therefore is the only message that contains any real promise of hope.  Instead of telling you to build a ladder to heaven, it brings heaven to you in the form of the Son of God.  The cross is our way to heaven, not our own good works, which if we are honest with ourselves, we know will never be enough.  The gospel tells you that you don’t go to heaven by being good enough but because Christ has been good for you.  That is truly good news.

Or compare the fruits of Paul’s message to the fruit of their messages, and I claim that there is no real comparison.  Yes, I know there have been people who claimed to be Christians (falsely, in my judgment) who have done really bad things in the name of Christ.  But you must be willing to distinguish between what Christ actually said and what some of his followers claim in his name.  The religion of Christ, followed consistently, as history shows, does not lead his followers to be persecutors or hateful.  It leads them to love their enemies and lay down their lives for others.  It calls them to a kingdom which is not of this world; and it does not mistake the kingdom of Christ with political power.  It gives its followers a wisdom that is from above, which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Jam. 3:17).

Or compare the origins of their messages with the origin of Paul’s message and there is no comparison.  Smith and Mohammed’s claim to authority rests upon a revelation for which there is no real evidence.  But Paul’s gospel did not rest upon his own testimony but upon real, historical events that could be verified in Paul’s own day and for which there were many witnesses.  Even today, two thousand years later, the best explanation for the empty tomb is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the basis of Paul’s message and ministry.  I don’t think any other religion even comes close to this kind of evidence for its claims.

However, Paul’s mandate not only gives us a reason to hear him out, but also his message.  It is the gospel, which the apostle goes on to elucidate in verses 2-4: “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  This is rightly called the gospel – good news – because it is good news, the best of news.  It is just the thing you should want to hear, because it is the news of what God has done to bring sinful men and women who deserve his judgment back into fellowship with himself.

It is interesting, then, to note that the gospel is not primarily about something we do.  It is not an algorithm for salvation.  It is not a self-help program.  It is “concerning his Son” – it is about God’s Son, which Paul identifies at the end of verse 4 as “Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Any “gospel” which does not point you to Jesus Christ is a false gospel.  And any gospel which replaces Jesus with something else, whether it be health, wealth, and prosperity, or anything else, is not the true gospel.  The gospel is about Christ and what he has done for us.  The gospel does not call us to look at ourselves so much as it calls us to look to him.

It is important to see how Paul describes Jesus.  He is fundamentally the Son of God (3).  Christ did not become the Son of God when he was born into the world.  No, God the Father sent the one who was already his Son into the world (Rom. 8:3).  This points up to Christ’s exalted status as God the Father’s eternal Son.  He has always existed, and from eternity he has enjoyed the fellowship of the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus is not just another prophet.  He is not another wise man.  You cannot have Christianity with a merely human Christ.

However, that does not mean he is not truly man, for Paul goes on to say the he “was descended from David according the flesh.”  He was truly man; otherwise, it would be false to call him a descendent from David.  Jesus was the son of David, for he was truly human, and in his human nature he was descended from David.  This is important because the Messiah, the Christ, was promised in the OT to come from David.  In Isaiah 9, for example, the Christ is the one who will sit on the throne of David (Isa. 9:6-7).

But that is not all, for Paul goes on to say that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”  His tenure upon the earth was one of humiliation.  He was the Son of God all along, but in some sense his deity was hidden.  As the hymn puts it, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”  His glory was veiled and his life up to the cross was a life of weakness.  But all that changed at his resurrection.  Now he became the “Son-of-God-in-power.”  In other words, I think the words “in power” are meant to go with “the Son of God” as explaining the difference between the Son in his state of weakness and his state post-resurrection, which is an exalted state of power and glory.  The incarnate Christ rose never to die again: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).

The second thing that we need to point out in terms of Paul’s description of the gospel, is that it is connected to the OT.  This is underlined in Paul’s words “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.”  The “holy Scriptures” here are a reference to the OT.  You also see it in the words “descended from David,” which we noted points also to OT prophesy.  It is important for us to hold to the fact that the religion of Jesus Christ is not something that originated in the first century A.D.  It goes all the way back to Abraham; indeed, it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  The protoevangelium, as it is sometimes called, the first promise of the gospel, of Christ, is given in the third chapter of Genesis in the record of the fall of man into sin.  It is the promise that the seed of the woman (Christ) would crush the head of the serpent (Satan).  Interestingly, Paul alludes to this in the 16th chapter: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20).  He will do this because of what Christ has done for us on the cross.  For Paul, Christianity is not some upstart religion, but the continuation of God’s promises to the prophets.  What Jesus did in his life and death fulfilled multiple OT prophesies.  We think most notably of Isaiah 53, probably the clearest OT exposition of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Now this is especially important in our day, because you have some so-called evangelical pastors who are literally trying to unhinge the NT from the OT.  You simply can’t do that.  The fact of the matter is that the NT doesn’t make any sense apart from the OT.  You can try to start with the resurrection of Christ, but the only way to interpret what happened in his death and resurrection is to read the NT through OT lens.  Who is Christ?  He is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) – and that conjures up the massive amount of imagery coming from the OT sacrificial system.  It makes no sense any other way!  If you want to understand Christianity, you don’t just read the NT, you must also read the OT.

Paul’s gospel is about Christ, the Son of God, who is our Savior (Jesus) and Lord.  The gospel is effective and powerful (1:16) because it is about Christ and who he is and what he has done.  This is what Paul is going to tell us about.  This is not only a word from God, it is a word about God and what he has done for us through his Son.  Surely there is nothing more important to hear and understand.  To know the mysteries of the universe is nothing compared to the self-revelation of God to us.  That is exactly what Paul claims to be doing here. There really are only two appropriate responses to this.  Either he is wrong, and this is totally useless and should be discarded and ignored, or he is right and there is nothing more interesting or important in any corner of the universe than this.  I believe he is right.  I hope you do, too.  Let us therefore give our entire attention to what he has to say.

Finally, we should hear what the apostle has to say because of his mission, which he tells us about in verse 5: “through him [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

The immediate end or purpose of Paul’s mission was the conversion of people to faith in Christ, the “obedience of faith.”  The gospel requires a response, and the appropriate response is the response of faith.  This is what Paul spent his whole life and every waking moment striving for: to bring men and women to bow the knee to Jesus Christ, to embrace him as Lord and Savior, so that they might have eternal life.  As Paul explains his commission to Agrippa, the purpose of his ministry to the Gentiles was “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). 

I also want to point out in passing how Paul puts faith and obedience together, in such a way that obedience springs from faith.  You cannot have true faith in Christ and not want to follow him in obedience.  If you have no desire to follow him, you really have never believed in him.  For if you truly see him for who he is – Lord and Savior – who will inevitably give your heart to him to rule over.  As our Lord himself puts it, how can you call him Lord and not do the things which he commands?

However, the immediate end (conversion) is not the only end.  The ultimate end of Paul’s ministry and mission was the glory of God: “for the sake of his name.”  It is Paul’s ultimate end because it is God’s ultimate end.  It is why Paul ends this epistle with the words, “To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 16:27).  Paul knows that God is the ground not only of our existence, but also of every blessing that we can have or will have.  He is the only all-sufficient fountain of peace and joy.  Neither I nor any other human being or created thing can rightly hold ourselves up to anyone as an object of glory and admiration and praise because no one and nothing can give anyone life in the fullest sense if the word either in this age or the next.  We are finite and people who look to other people or things for their life and happiness will soon find their fountain dry.  Only God can be that for us.  And therefore only he is ultimately worthy of praise and worship and admiration and love.  Anything else is a distraction from the true source of life and peace.  And that is why Paul wants others to see the glory of God as well, as they come to believe in the Son and obey him.  It is only as we see God’s glory – see him for who he truly is – that we will move towards him in true faith and love.  Therefore, God is not only glorified in the fact of our conversion, but in the very act of conversion itself, as we move from people blinded to the glory of God to people who truly see it and really love it for the very first time.

Paul wanted that for people “among all the nations,” and so should we.  Here we see the main reason Paul is writing to the Romans.  He is planning a mission trip to Spain (Rom. 15:24), and he desires their support.  He wants them to join him in this great mission, this great purpose.  That is why he is going to spend so much time opening up the gospel to them.  He is telling them the message that he will be carrying with him into Spain.  Paul understands that it is not just about getting people into the church.  It is about getting them to see the gospel and to believe it and to love it and obey it.  And if the Romans are going to get on board, they are going to want to know what Paul is going to be preaching, what he is calling men and women to embrace.  And thus we have the letter to the Romans.

So why should we pay attention to Paul?  We should because of his mandate, by which he gives us a message from God.  We should because of his message, which is a message about God's Son.  And we should because of his mission, which ultimately is for the glory of God among all the nations.

And how should we respond? To Paul’s mandate as an apostle of Christ, we should respond in a humble and attentive spirit.  To Paul’s message which is centered on Christ, we should respond with an eagerness to know our Lord Jesus Christ more, to love him more, to believe him more, and to love him more.  To Paul’s mission, which was to bring the lost to Christ, we should respond with a desire to join him in this endeavor and mission.  Of course Paul’s mission to Spain (if it happened at all) is something in the far past.  But we should still have his missionary spirit, both in a desire to support those who bring the gospel to the unreached, as well as a desire to be gospel witnesses in the places where God has in his providence placed each one of us.

We thank God for the gospel.  We thank him that this gospel is not limited to one particular place or people, to a particular socio-economic strata of the population, but that it is for “all the nations,” and for all who will believe in the Son of God and to receive him as their Lord and Savior.  Have you done so?  He is your Lord, whether you embrace him or not.  If you fail to do so, there is nothing for you but a fearful looking for of judgment which will devour his adversaries.  But if you embrace him as Lord and Savior, there is life eternal and never-ending, ever-increasing joy for you through him – freely given to you as a gift of grace.  May the Lord call all who hear this to himself for the sake of his name!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Bringing the Gospel Home – Ephesians 6:21-24

The book of Ephesians is one of the most important letters in the entire New Testament.  It contains in relatively brief form the Apostle Paul’s major theological ideas as well as his understanding of their application in the life of the first century church.  Of course, we believe that since this book is written by an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is therefore not just the apostle’s own personal understanding of these things, but an authoritative message from our Lord himself.  These are good words.  They are true words.  Some people have tried to separate Christianity from Paul’s understanding of Christianity.  But the fact of the matter is that you simply cannot do that.  You are not a Christian in any authentic sense of the word if you are not Pauline in your orthodoxy.  And that makes books like Ephesians simply foundational for the identity of the church today and the way it lives out the gospel.

So as we come to a close in our series of expositions on this great book, let’s remind ourselves of some of the major themes that the apostle has set before us in his letter.  In fact, we have them right before us in the closing words of the apostle: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.  Amen.”

There are several words here that really summarize the message of this epistle.  They are peace, grace, love, and faith.  These words tell us what God has done for us in Christ, how this came to us in Christ, and why this came to us in Christ.

Peace.  This is what God has done for us in Christ.  It is a central element to the gospel.  Essentially, the gospel is about reconciliation, above all between God and man.  In 2 Cor. 5:18, Paul calls his ministry “the ministry of reconciliation.”  According to God’s word, sin has created a chasm between God and man and the gospel tells us that this chasm is bridged by Christ.  In the gospel, we have the announcement of peace from heaven: “For he [Christ] is our peace, who hath made both [Jew and Gentile] one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh” (Eph. 2:14-17).  This idea is also present at the very beginning of the letter, when Paul tells us that the purpose of God’s predestination of his people is that we should be adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5).  Those who were once enemies are now part of his family!

Now this is a two-fold peace.  There is a horizontal and vertical dimension to it.  Horizontally, we are reconciled to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.  Though this is a very diverse group of people, with very different backgrounds – as illustrated in the bringing together Jew and Gentile into one church – yet we have far more in common than we are different from one another.  For we are members in a family, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We share a family likeness as the result of the new birth and a family name as a result of adoption into the family of God.  We share a family inheritance as well, one that is not dependent upon the rising and falling fortunes of the stock market, but one which is kept for us, reserved in heaven.

But this peace is primarily vertical, and it is this peace that makes the peace with our fellow Christian possible.  Through Christ’s atonement, we have been reconciled to God.  Our sins have been purged and done away with.  With have obtained forgiveness and justification.  Moreover, our hearts have been changed.  So we are no longer hostile toward God and God is no longer hostile toward us.  If you are in Christ, God is on your side.  He is with you, and no longer against you. 

Again, this should lead to us being at peace with each other.  Paul put it this way to the Romans: “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).  Peace with God leads to peace with the brethren.  It should lead to peace in the church.  The Spirit of God, who unites us to Christ, is a Spirit of unity and therefore of peace: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).  Peace is not some theological abstract that we are supposed to hold independently of our day-to-day lives.  It ought to manifest itself in longsuffering toward one another, forgiving one another, submitting to one another. 

Now depending on how important this is to you will determine how you will read this book and respond to it.  If you are more concerned with your financial portfolio than you are about your relationship with God, then this epistle isn’t going to mean much to you.  If politics is more important to you than whether or not you have a relationship with God and his people, then this epistle isn’t going to mean much to you.  If your personal comfort and security in this life is more important to you than the forgiveness of sins, then you might just yawn through this book.  But how in the world does it make sense to put politics, personal comfort, or money before a relationship with the God of the universe?  How does it make sense to prioritize those things above the gospel?  When we see things the way we ought to see them, this announcement of peace in the gospel is the most amazing thing in the world.  Indeed, “how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10:15).

Grace.  In the final benediction, Paul prays for grace.  It is a fitting thing, too, because this epistle has begun with grace and grace has weaved its magic throughout its pages.  Grace tells us how God brings peace to us.  For the fact confronting every human being is that we are not what we are supposed to be.  We are massive failures.  We have failed at the most important thing: loving God with all our minds and hearts.  Instead, we have alienated ourselves from God.  We have ignored God.  We have sinned against him over and over again.  We deserve judgment.  We deserve hell.  We need to be saved.

But how can we be saved?  That is the question.  And the answer is grace.  “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).  Grace is God’s unmerited favor.  He does not save us because we were good enough; he saves us because it is his gracious will to do so.  Our salvation does not originate in our goodness, for we have none, but in God’s generosity.

But how can grace and justice coincide?  For God is holy.  God can have no fellowship with sin.  He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13).  How can a just and holy God embrace sinful men?  How can grace come to us?  The answer is that grace comes to us through Jesus Christ.  That is why you read this phrase “in Christ” or something like it over and over again throughout this epistle.  It begins that way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).  God can be just because Jesus Christ came as the perfect sacrifice to purge our guilt by taking the punishment of our sin upon himself.  He became a propitiation for sin, to take it away, so that God “might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26).  Through Christ, grace comes to the guilty and justifies those who are ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

But grace runs deeper than most people think.  Grace did not begin when I made a decision to follow Christ.  Grace went before and gave me life when I was in a state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-10).  I would never have made one step toward Christ, had not God opened my eyes to my need for the gospel, and that was a work of pure grace. 

But grace goes back even further: it began in eternity past when God, apart from any consideration of works on our part, chose us in Christ (Eph. 1:4-5).  My salvation did not originate in my will but in God’s gracious and loving will.  God did not choose me because he foresaw that I would choose his Son, but I chose his Son because God the Father chose me.  Just like it has always been: “and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).  In other words, I owe all my salvation, from beginning to end, to the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  There is no ground of boasting.  All crowns belong at the feet of Jesus in the age to come.

Love.  But the question then is, why did God do any of this?  If there is no reason to be found in me, what motivated God to save me?  The answer of the apostle, and of the entire Bible, is that God loved us before the foundation of the world.  It was his “great love, wherewith he loved us” that caused him to give us life from the dead (Eph. 2:4).  It was not a love that responded to loveliness in us.  If you want a picture of what we were like before God saved us, look at Ezek. 16.  No, we were not lovely, we were loathsome.  God’s love was not responding to anything in us; God’s love originated in himself, from the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  We love him because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). 

Now we are confronted with a mystery here.  No wonder the apostle talks about “the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:19).  But it is a glorious and wonderful mystery, because it means that God’s love for me does not depend upon my fickle love for him.  It means that God’s faithfulness to his people is rock-solid and eternal.  Our confidence and reliance upon God’s commitment to us can never be misplaced.  Thank God for the reality of Jer. 31:3, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.”

Of course, if we have really been embraced in God’s love, we ought also to love one another.  And this is the practical dimension to this epistle.  Knowing the love of Christ, we are to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2), we are to speak the truth in love (4:15) and grow up into Christ in love (4:16).  We are to walk in love as Christ loved us (5:2).  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25).  What Paul said to the Colossians applies here: “And above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14).  You cannot know the love of God expressed in the doctrines of the first three chapters of Ephesians and not go on to live them out in a life of love to others in ways expressed in the exhortations of the last three chapters of Ephesians.

In particular, we will love Christ (Eph. 6:24).  In the KJV, the prayer is for those who love our Lord “in sincerity.”  Probably a better translation is that of the ESV, “with love incorruptible.”  (See 1 Cor. 15:42; Rom. 2:7 for example uses of the word).  Those who truly know Christ will love him with an undying love.  Those who abandon him for the things of the world, like Demas, never really knew him or his love.  The love of Christ is not something you can ever recover from, thank God. 

There is one more word here at the end.  It is “faith” which Paul puts together with “love.”  Why is that?  “Love with faith.”  Well, clearly the love here is a love centered on the gospel.  And that is impossible apart from faith.  You cannot exercise the love commanded and commended in the pages of the NT unless you believe the gospel.  It also points us to the nature of saving faith.  True faith is a faith which works by love (Gal. 5:6).  If you have this faith, then you will love Christ with an undying love.  This faith is a faith which sees the beauty of holiness and the ways in which Christ is uniquely and perfected fitted to be our perfect Lord and Savior.  It will have no other rule over it.  Its allegiance is to Christ above all.

Faith is also important because faith is the way by which, in God’s perfect plan, we become personally connected to all the saving benefits of Christ’s redemption.  We are saved by grace through faith.  Do you feel your need for peace with God?  Do you want to experience his saving grace?  Do you want to know God’s love for you?  Then believe on Christ, and you shall be saved. 

These are the great themes of Ephesians.  However, before we end our time in this epistle, back up a couple of verses to verses 21-22.  Here Paul mentions a man by the name of Tychicus.  I think it’s important for us to consider what Paul says here because it illustrates a very important point, one which we dare not forget when reading these epistles.  The principle is this: we can never separate the truths of God from the people of God. 

This is true for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is usually people who bring us the word in the first place.  We get the word of God from the people of God.  As children, perhaps we got it from our parents or a close friend.  As we grew up, we have been influenced by the godly people God put into our lives, whether it be at church or in the workplace or in our circle of friends.  We ought to thank God for this.  For the Ephesians, it was Paul who brought them the gospel in the first place.  But we don’t just need to be converted, we need to grow in our faith.  And so he writes them this epistle.  But Paul cannot go, he is in prison, and so he sends this man Tychicus in his place.

Who was Tychicus?  Well, he is mentioned in four passages in the Bible, excluding this one: Acts 20:4; Col. 4:7-9; Tit. 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:12.  When you put these verses together, what emerges is a picture of a man who was obviously a trustworthy servant of God.  Paul probably sent him to relieve both Timothy at Ephesus and Titus in Crete.  So he was someone Paul could trust to carry on the work of guys like Timothy and Titus in their absence.  Like them, he could act at times as an apostolic representative.  It is also possible that he was a native of Ephesus, since he is said to be from the Roman province of Asia (where Ephesus was), and is linked to Trophimus who is explicitly called an Ephesian in Acts 21:29.  Tychicus also probably served as Paul’s postal service in carrying no fewer than five different epistles of Paul to various locations (Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus). 

If Tychicus was from Ephesus, then you could say he was bringing the gospel home.  There, he would not only share the news of Paul’s health and goings on, but also minister to them himself with words of encouragement (ver. 22).  But the point here is that all this happens through the ministry of people like Tychicus.  Paul wrote the epistle, but it would have never made it to the Ephesians without the service of Tychicus.

But there is another reason why we can never separate the truths of God from the people of God.  It is because those who bring the word commend the word only so far as they are willing to live by the word.  The word of God does not simply live on pages in a Bible.  It lives in the lives of the followers of Christ.  And that is why the description of Tychicus is so important here.  He is called “a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (21). 

He is first of all “a beloved brother.”  Paul loved him.  And it’s obvious that he must have loved Paul.  But by describing him this way to the Ephesians, Paul is saying that this man is someone any Christian could love.  He is not the kind of Christian that you want to avoid being around.  He was not one of those difficult people who are always creating problems for others to fix.  He was someone who invested in others, who thought about others, who served others.

Which leads to the second way Paul describes him: “a faithful minister.”  Now the word here is not a term designating a person who is in “the ministry” as we use the term today.  It’s the more general word for service – in fact, the word here is diakonos, though it doesn’t refer to the office of a deacon either.  A diakonos was a person who served others.  And that is what Tychicus did.  Sometimes he did it by carrying Paul’s letters to various churches.  Sometimes he did it by serving as a temporary pastor in a place.  Sometimes he did it by simply encouraging others with the word of God.  But the point is that this was not a man who lived for himself – like his Lord, he did not come to be served, but to serve.  It was the life of a man like this, one who characterized the truths of Ephesians, that made its message more plausible. 

And so we too need to be like Tychicus.  We need to be people who bring the word to others.  Sometimes this means bringing the word to a non-believer by sharing the gospel.  Sometimes this means bringing the word to fellow believers by teaching truth and reminding and exhorting and encouraging them to live out its truths.  And above all we need to be people who live out the word.  Knowing the doctrines and exhortations of this letter will do us absolutely no good unless we put it into practice.  Ephesians was not written to be merely understood and studied.  It was written to help God’s people live out the kind of life that is appropriate for those who are saved by grace through faith.  Knowing the doctrines of this epistle and doing nothing with them is like a billionaire sitting on his wealth and doing nothing with it.

The book of Ephesians offers to us a perspective on life that the world will not and cannot give.  It gives the perspective of God.  It gives an eternal perspective, one that reaches back into the mists before time into God’s eternal plan in Christ, and one that reaches forward into an unending future of glory for those who are embraced in the family of God.  Its message of peace with God who loves us and gives us grace through faith is one that ought to inspire us to a living hope and deep joy.  It remains for us to take that message, and, like Tychicus, bring it others by our word and works, by our lips and our lives.

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