Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Vengeance belongs to God – Rom. 12:17-21


In our day, we find people who are either all about justice or all about mercy, but it’s very difficult to find people who are about both, and who are pursuing both in a balanced way.  If this passage tells us anything, it is that we are to be about mercy and justice.  For we are to show mercy while longing for God’s justice.  But how do we become people who long for justice and yet are able to forgive and to overcome evil by good, who do not repay evil for evil but who seek to live peaceably with all?  In some sense, what the Christian is asked to do is more difficult than at first appears.  For we are never asked to give up on justice even as we are commanded to not pursue revenge.  We are committed to both justice and mercy – but again, how do you show both?  For it would seem that justice would undercut mercy, and that showing mercy would prevent the achievement of justice. 

This text shows us how to be committed to both mercy and justice.  We need people committed to both.  For if you are exclusively about justice and not mercy, you are never going to give people the chance to change.  But if you are only about mercy and not justice, you will never work for the change that needs to happen.  Because the Christian is committed to both grace and righteousness, he or she gives people the chance to change as well as patiently working for the change that needs to happen.  This is part of the beautiful balance of godliness, and the Christian ethic shows us how to become this kind of person and the reasons why we should be this kind of person.

And we need to hear this.  Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it is so easy to be vindictive.  Even as Christians, we often lapse into anger and want our pound of flesh.  We are certainly prone to sin in this way. 

Paul knew his readers needed to hear this because they were being persecuted.  It was not easy to live the Christian life in first century Rome, or in any other part of the Roman Empire at the time.  The apostle himself spent days and years in prison, and many believers shared his fate or worse.  Followers of Christ were routinely discriminated against, disenfranchised, mocked, mistreated, or even killed.  In the midst of all this injustice, one can understand the tendency to strike back and take one’s revenge on their enemies.

We are not persecuted in all the same ways as they were, but if you’re faithful to the Lord, you are going to be persecuted in some way.  And when that happens, how will you respond?  The question is, will we respond in a way that is worthy of Christ?  The verses we are considering this morning help us to respond in a Biblical, God-honoring way.  In fact, we are given five reasons we are not to seek personal revenge.

Because it is evil (17a).

The apostle begins, “Repay no one evil for evil.”  In other words, when we seek revenge on those who wrong us – on those whose acts toward us are nothing less than evil – we are told that the act of striking back and giving them what they have given to us is also nothing less than evil.  When we seek revenge, we are not righting a wrong, we are only continuing a wrong.  We are fanning the flames of evil, not putting them out.  It is always reprehensible and against the express rule of Scripture as individuals to do evil and to harm others.

If our Lord tells us that the second to the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:39), then to render evil for evil is not only to sin against our fellow man; it is also to sin against God.  We cannot whitewash what we are doing; it is straight-up wicked.  This does not mean that wanting to see justice is wrong.  God is a God of justice.  But as the apostle will point out, that is just the point.  It is not our purview, it is God’s.  When we pursue revenge we are not only harming our fellow man, but we are also playing God.  And that is at heart of almost every sin.  It is evil.

Because it ruins our witness among men (17b)

He goes on: “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”  The translation in the KJV, “provide things honest in the sight of all men” is not right.  The word here is not “honest” but “good” or “honorable” (Greek word is kala).  In other words, we are to be concerned and to take thought for our actions as they appear before men.  We are to make sure that our lives reflect the good to which we say we are committed. 

This was a particular concern of the apostle’s.  He always sought to “take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).  As he would put it to the Corinthians, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.  We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).  It is the reason behind the standard of ministry the apostle introduces in 1 Tim. 3:7 – “Moreover, he [the overseer] must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” 

Now Paul is not saying that we are supposed to kowtow to the culture.  He is not saying that we must always act in such a way that the world admires us.  Of course a world which is under the power of the wicked one cannot be pleased without displeasing Christ.  However, that does not mean that unsaved people can’t recognize what is honorable or dishonorable.  The point that the apostle is making in all these passages is that we are not to put stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers and give them a reason to write off the claims of Christ upon their lives.  We are not to be governed by the norms of the culture, but we must acknowledge that even unbelievers have God’s law written upon their hearts and can recognize inconsistency in the believer.  And when we seek to exact revenge on those who wrong us – this is such a contradiction to all that we claim to believe that the unbeliever can’t help but notice the contradiction and be turned off by the hypocrisy. 

Because we are to seek peace with all men (18)

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  We are to pursue peace, not payback.  Peace is a state of being that is contrary to the seeking of revenge.  I cannot seek peace with men and at the same time be looking for ways to get back at them. 

Peace is supposed to be a definitive mark of the Christian.  We are, after all, disciples of the Prince of Peace.  Our Lord blessed the peacemakers (Mt. 5:9).  In James 3, we read, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jam. 3:17-18).  In Hebrews we are told to “Strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).  As a result of these spiritual realities that define the Christian, we are to be characterized by reconciliation, not revenge, by forgiveness, not fury, and by amity, not animosity.

This ought to be the case because God has made peace with us (cf. Eph. 2:11-22).  We are fundamentally people who were at enmity with God but who have been made by sheer grace and mercy at peace with God.  As recipients of this mercy, it is only fitting that we show mercy to others – and this means striving for peace.  The command to live peaceably with all men is meant to be a reflection of the peace that we have with God through Christ.  Which means that this is a gospel issue.  When we fail to be concerned for peace, we are demonstrating that our grasp of the gospel is not that great. 

It may not be possible of course, and the apostle is being wise here when he adds that condition.  However, the impossibility ought not to lie in the Christian and in some inability to restrain himself or herself.  Rather, it is an objective impossibility arising from the hostility in those who have no faith.  This arises from the fact that it is always our duty to resist wickedness and error.  The call to be at peace with others is not a call to be wishy-washy in matters of righteousness.  It does not mean that we back down from a commitment to truth or stop holding it up before men because it is offensive.  The gospel will always be offensive to the lost.  We cannot help that.  And sometimes, because of that fact, we cannot help it that some people are going to hate us because we love Jesus Christ.

A biblical example of how not to do this is the friendship that existed between the kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab.  The former was a godly king; the latter was a despicably wicked man.  But because Jehoshaphat was apparently so eager for peace between Judah and Israel, he went too far in his relationship with him.  As a result, he was almost killed in battle and later lost some of his men in a failed seagoing expedition with the northern kingdom.  Also, his son was married to the daughter of Jezebel and this had devastating consequences for the southern kingdom.  So yes, we are to be at peace with men, but never at peace with evil.  And if that costs us some relationships, so be it.  As Thomas Watson put it, the balance comes in like this: “We are to be civil to the worst but not twist into a cord of friendship.”

Because vengeance is the right of God, not the individual (19)

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

In other words, as an individual I don’t get to decide how judgment is meted out or on whom judgment is meted out.  That is God’s business.  I am to leave it to him.  Another way to put this is that God’s word does not leave room for vigilante justice.  When I become judge and jury, I am taking upon myself what belongs to God.  I am robbing God.  And that is surely a mistake. 

I do want to point out that this does not mean that the state cannot yield the sword of justice, as the apostle will go on to point out in the very next chapter.  Some people have arrived at the wrong conclusion by not regarding what the Bible says about spheres of responsibility.  Public justice, for example, does not lie within my sphere of responsibility as an individual.  And the reason it does not is because God has not put it there.  But he has given that responsibility to the state, to the governing authorities.  Paul is not saying that justice is always to await the Final Judgment.  What he is saying is that vengeance belongs to God, and as such we can only pursue justice against others in ways that God allows.  And again, he does not allow vigilante justice.

Note the way Paul puts this: “never avenge yourselves.”  There is just not a situation when it would be okay.  Revenge is never okay.  There isn’t a wrong committed against us that makes is right to exact vengeance. 

However, that does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves or our families.  The call not to exact revenge is different from the call not to protect yourself.  Those are two different things.  If someone breaks into your home at night and you shoot them, you are not violating this text.  But suppose that someone has murdered a friend and you go after them and shoot them.  That is different; that would be seeking revenge.  You cannot help the fact that your friend has been killed.  At that point, you let the authorities do what they are supposed to do and leave the results to God.  You forgive the murderer and seek to live at peace with them.  But Paul is not saying that you can’t prevent the murder of your friend if you are able.  Again, that is a very different situation, and it is important that we see the distinction.

Because God will surely right all wrongs (19-20)

This gets to heart of how we are to obey this command.  The call to not seek revenge can be very hard to obey, especially if the degree of wrongness committed against us is especially evil.  How do you become the kind of person who doesn’t seek revenge?  We can be that kind of person when we realize that justice will always be done. 

On the other hand, when we go for revenge, we will almost always make things worse.  Our seeking justice will not end in justice but in more wrong and evil.  If you don’t believe what the apostle Paul is saying, you are only going to perpetuate endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.  In fact, I think we are beginning to see this very attitude starting to percolate through our own society.  The Biblical witness is so important because this perspective is really the only way to ensure a just society.  And that perspective is a perspective of a holy God who will infallibly make all things right.

So Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’”  Now in the KJV, verse 19 reads, “rather give place unto wrath.”  This might sound like Paul is saying that we are to put away our own wrath.  But that is not what Paul means.  The ESV is correct when it translates it is “leave it to the wrath of God,” for at least three reasons.

First, “give place to” does not mean “put away” but “make room for.”  That being the case, he cannot mean for us to make room for our wrath, because that would play into the hands of those who seek revenge.

Second, “wrath” in Paul almost always means God’s wrath – pervasively so (cf. Rom. 2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 9:2; Eph. 2:3; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9).  So even though the apostle doesn’t explicitly refer to God’s wrath, there is a presumption in favor of God’s wrath in terms of the usage of the term in Paul’s writings.

Third, the Scriptures quoted in support of the apostle’s argument point definitively in this direction (Deut. 32:25; Prov. 25:21-22).  This is especially true of the Deuteronomy passage which is all about God’s wrath upon those who forsake his law.  The vengeance spoken of here is not our vengeance and wrath but God’s vengeance and wrath.  We are not told here to make room for our wrath but to let God’s wrath have its place in the punishment of the wicked.

The phrase “heap burning coals on his head”(20) points in this direction as well.  Paul is not saying that we will shame our enemies when we do good to them instead of returning evil to them.  The phrase “coals of fire” in the Bible is very often a metaphorical allusion to the wrath of God, as in the following passages (2 Sam. 22:9, 13; Ps. 140:10).  In other words, our deeds of kindness only further serve the judgment of those who sin against us.

So we are to let God make all things right.  And we can do this because he will.  He has promised to do so.  This is as much a promise for the comfort of God’s people as it is a threat against those who are opposed to God’s people.  Again we are pointed up to the fact that for the Christian, we are to rest upon our hope in the character and promises of God, not upon our present circumstances and situation.

Now some may push back and argue that it is hard for them to do this because it doesn’t seem that God repays the wicked at all.  So much wrong seems to go unpunished (cf. Ps. 73 and Job 21).

The answer of the Bible is that God’s promises of wrath are as certain as his promises of blessing.  But just as the fullness of the blessing that comes to the righteous is laid up in the future, so the doom of the wicked is reserved for the future.  This is the way the NT authors argue (cf. Jude 14-15; 2 Thess. 1:6-10).  It is the “essence of piety” (John Murray) to put our trust in God and to commit our cause to his hands, especially when we suffer wrong, even as did our Lord (1 Pet. 2:23; 4:17-19).

What kind of effect should this truth have upon us?  (20-21)

It should free us to do good, even to our enemies.  When our enemies hunger, we feed them; when they thirst, we give them drink.  There is no need to take judgment into our own hands, because we know God will do it.  And so we are free to show them mercy.  We are free to overcome evil with good instead of being overcome by evil by giving into the impulse for revenge. 

Now this does not mean that we can outwardly be kind to our enemies yet harbor vindictive desire against them (cf. ver. 14).  Rather, the fact that God will plead our cause should free us to love them, as in verse 19.  As Thomas Schreiner puts it, “Believers are also to pray, of course, that God would bless those who persecute them (Rom. 12:14).  This means that we pray for the salvation of our oppressors, hoping that they will turn from their evil and be rescued from the wrath to come.  Nonetheless, we need to know . . . that those who do not repent will experience judgment.”  As counterintuitive as it might seem, a firm belief in God’s wrath makes unconditional love to our enemies possible.

This ought to help us see also how to read the imprecatory Psalms.  They are not meant to be expressions of our designs upon those who hate us now, but to be expressions of our hope that God’s justice will ultimately prevail upon all men and women who refuse to repent of their hostility against God and his people.

So Paul’s exhortations are founded upon God’s promises of future grace to those who trust in him.  We are not called to be nice for the sake of being nice.  Rather, we are to do good and not retaliate because we believe in a God who is the Judge of all the earth, and who will always do what is right (Gen. 18:25).

Friday, October 30, 2020

Marks of the People of God: The Manifestation of Love in the Christian Community (Rom. 12:9-16)

What does a Christian look like?  How should every-day, normal Christianity appear in this world?  To answer these questions, we need look no further than our passage.  For a Christian is not just someone who holds to a certain set of beliefs but also someone who lives a certain way.  And though we must and should affirm that good works do not make us part of God’s people and do not merit salvation and eternal life, yet at the same time good works are the necessary evidence of grace in the heart of God’s people.  In that sense, yes, good works are necessary for eternal life – not as the ground but as the evidence of it.  When God plants good trees they bear good fruit.  And if you lack good fruit you show that you are not a good tree planted in the soil of God’s grace in Christ.

However, it is not enough to affirm the necessity of “good works” in the abstract, but we must make concrete what we mean by good works.  Our culture has an idea about what good is and what bad is, and yet this is often exactly backwards from what the Bible says.  Too often people call evil good and good evil, put light for darkness and bitter for sweet.  We have to be precise as to what we mean by good works and what holiness looks like in the life of the Christian.  And that is exactly what the apostle Paul does here. This is why passages like this are so important.  They keep us from hiding behind generic claims to goodness and love and force us to look at ourselves in light of these very specific patterns of conduct and behavior.

Before we begin to look at each of the following moral imperatives, I want to make a few general observations.  First, I think it is important for us to realize that what Paul is describing here is normal Christianity, not some sort of “super Christianity” for only the exalted few.  This was one of the problems of medieval Christianity, which sorted Christians into classes in such a way that there were different levels of expectation, spiritually, from each class.  If you really wanted to be holy, you became a monk.  And there was, I think, this sort of idea that unless you belonged to one of the holy orders, you could leave being devoted to God to the inhabitants of the monasteries.  But what Paul is saying in these verses is that if you are a Christian, if you claim the name of Christ, then the things he is describing here ought to describe you, or at least describe the trajectory of your life.  If these things don’t describe what you are right now, they at least ought to describe what you are becoming.

The second general observation I would make is that what is commanded in these verses involves and requires not merely outward behavior and conduct, but rather inward change.  In the passage, you have commands like these: “let love be genuine” – “abhor what is evil” – “be fervent in spirit” – and so on.  You see, God is not just the Lord and master of our bodies (though he is that, and let’s not forget it), but also of our hearts and spirits.  One of the reasons for this is that the heart ultimately determines the conduct.  Our Lord said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  And Solomon wrote that we are to “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).  Great sins that are manifest to all always begin as a seed in the affections.  It grows in the evil soil of our heart till it becomes too big to be contained in the realm of thought and bursts out into overt acts of wickedness.  Like a volcano that appears dormant, sin is boiling within the heart until what seemed dormant suddenly becomes destructively active.  The apostle James put it this way: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jam. 1:13-15).  Where does sin begin?  It begins in the realm of desire.  In other words, it begins in the heart.  And that is why what the apostle commands in these verses must begin in the context of our hearts and desires.  And this is why we should constantly watch for those things that turn our hearts away from God – that take our affections off eternal things (Col. 3:1-3).  We need to guard our hearts, and to do that we must guard the inlets to our hearts: the eyes and ears (cf. Job 31:1).

And that leads to a third observation.  It is this: what is commanded in these verses cannot be done apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.  The reason of this is precisely because what is commanded in these verses involves the heart and the affections and desires, and not just our actions.  It is the easiest thing in the world to get people to change what they do; but it is outside of our power to completely change our affections.  Another reason for this stems from the radical nature of the things commanded.  It goes against our nature and the bent of our hearts to do these things, like blessing those who persecute us.

So what is required before any of these virtues can be truly realized in our lives is the new birth, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our life.  This is why, in other places, the apostle calls this the fruit of the Spirit and walking in the Spirit and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; Rom. 8:14).  The law is weak in the flesh (Rom. 8:3-4), meaning that God’s holy and good commands on their own will never penetrate into our hearts to bring about active obedience in the strength of depraved flesh alone.  It take the grace of God to bring about lasting change.  Now that doesn’t mean that we should be negligent or that we should be lethargic with respect to the pursuit of holiness.  God does command that we make ourselves new hearts and new spirits (Ezek. 18:31) while at the same time recognizing that only God can make this a reality (Ezek. 36:26-27).  What this means is that we should constantly be looking to the Lord Jesus for help.  It is befitting, then, that in the midst of these commands is the command to “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).

With these general observations in mind, let us now consider each of the following imperatives in order.  In the list that Paul gives, I see 10 distinct patterns of conduct and attitudes that we are exhorted to follow.

1.  CHARITY.  Let love be genuine (9a).  The word for “genuine” literally means “without hypocrisy” (KJV has “without dissimulation”).  It is not enough to pretend to be loving, we must be actually loving.  It is easy to put on a fa├žade and to deceive ourselves that we are what we are not.  Putting on a smile and saying nice things does not make you a loving person.  You can do that while having hate in your heart.  It is so easy to deceive ourselves.  We know we are truly loving when being inconvenienced or upset by someone does not destroy our commitment to labor for their good.   It is what the apostle John is getting at when he wrote, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:16-18).  What does it mean to have hypocritical love?  It means to love only in word and talk.  What does it mean to have genuine love?  It means to love in deed and in truth, and that means selfless service to those whom we love.

It is often noted that Paul begins with love.  It is no mistake that Paul does so, because love is the preeminent virtue, the grace that brings all the other virtues into operation (cf. 1 Cor. 13; Col. 3:14).  Without love, none of the other virtues inculcated would be possible.  Everything flows from love to God and love to man.  It is the great commandment (Mt. 22:34-40).  Evil is fundamentally the failure to love both God and man, and on the other hand, where evil is abundant, the love of many will grow cold (Mt. 24:12). 

2. PURITY.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good (9b).  Note the contrast – love of the brethren and hatred of evil.  Love is not real if it is not accompanied by an abhorrence of sin.  We are told to abhor sin; this is important.  Paul does not merely tell us to abstain from evil but to abhor it.  We must love the good and hate the evil.  I think one of the reasons why we so often have a hard time in expunging bad habits is that we focus only on the habit itself without seeking the heart change without which the habit will not go away.  It’s like pulling a sticker plant without getting at the root.  If you don’t turn your heart against the sin in your life, you are never going to fight it successfully.  Men who are mired in pornography stay that way if they never learn to detest it and hate it.  As long as it appears attractive to you, you are going to keep going back to it.

But how to you learn to hate what you once loved?  You do so by loving its opposite.  This is what Thomas Chalmers meant when he talked about “the expulsive power of new affections.”  And this is why Paul doesn’t only say, “Abhor what is evil,” but follows it up with “hold fast to what is good.”  This is very similar to a word that Paul uses in Eph. 5:31 with reference to the marriage relation.  Just as a husband is to cleave to his wife, the saint is to cleave to and love and delight in holiness and good.  And of course what ought to make holiness so attractive to the believer is the fact that holiness is one of the key attributes of the Lord who saves us.  We love him, and loving him we love what characterizes him, and that means loving holiness.

This is an especially necessary exhortation in our time and culture.  We live in a time and place that embraces evil (cf. 12:2), and it is easy to end up adopting our culture’s stance towards evil without even realizing it.  If there has ever been a time when the church needs to hear the call to holiness, it is now!

3. COMMUNITY.  Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor (10).  One of the ways the love commanded in verse 9 is manifested is in a family spirit among believers.  Out of this love for one another as family members springs all the care that believers ought to have for one another.  Believers should not be strangers but in each other’s lives!

Another way this is manifested is in showing honor to each other.  And if there is any competition, it is a competition in putting others before one’s self.  This is not a community of people who spend their time moping and complaining that they weren’t treated like they would wish.  They aren’t focused on themselves at all; they are focused on blessing others.  Paul’s exhortation echoes others he gives in various letters.  For example, in Phil. 2:3-4, he writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (note the example of Christ which follows).  Or consider what he says in 1 Cor. 13:5 – Love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”  Again, if we really consider ourselves the recipients of the mercies of God, we have everything we need – and so we are freed by grace to spend the rest of our time blessing others and showing mercy to them.

4.  FERVENCY.  Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (11).  These three things go together.  The first two tell us how we are to serve the Lord.  Negatively, we are to be to “weary in well-doing” (Gal. 6:9).  Positively, we are to be fervent in the service of Christ – the word suggests boiling over in our spirit. 

There is some debate whether or not “spirit” here refers to the Holy Spirit or to the human spirit.  I think the latter, because as the zeal in the previous phrase is located in the human spirit, so by parity of reasoning is the fervency.  But that does not mean that we can do this apart from the Holy Spirit.  If we are fervent in our spirit as we serve the Lord, it is only because – as some translate the phrase – we are “aglow with the Spirit.” 

This is illustrated by Apollos, who was said to be “fervent in spirit” as “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25).  As a result, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (ver. 27).  Like Apollos, we are to be highly motivated people, not for the things of this world, but for the kingdom of God and its advancement.  We must be, for the nature of the truths we believe and the glory of the God we serve demand not a half-hearted, lethargic response, but the full measure of our lives.  As John Murray so well put it in his commentary on this verse: “When discouragement overtakes the Christian and fainting of spirit as its sequel, it is because the claims of the Lord’s service have ceased to be uppermost in our thought.”

5. CONSTANCY.  I think the next three things go together as well.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (12).  We cannot be patient in tribulation if we are not rejoicing in hope and being constant in prayer.  On other hand, those who are rejoicing in the hope they have in Christ will pull through those times when they are pressed down by the world and will not stop praying and trusting in the Lord.  These three exhortations are all in some way or another exhortations to remain steadfast in trial and are the equipment the Christian needs to do so.

“Serving the Lord” in the previous verse reminds us of the kingdom of God and the fact that the kingdom has yet to come in its fullness.  For the believer, the full measure of the blessing of God is yet to be experienced, and it is this which is the Christian’s hope.  And this begets, where it is truly believed, joy in the present.  And this in turn gives the believer perseverance in trial.  The word “tribulation” here carries the connotation of being pressed down by something.  But when we are rejoicing in hope, this hope begets endurance.  (And on the other hand, endurance also begets hope, Rom. 5:3-5.)  Perseverance is the mark of the saint.

Suffusing everything is the spirit of prayer.  Those who have this hope pray.  Why do we not pray?  Perhaps it is because we are so self-confident.  But the nature of these commands should convince us of the utter folly of such an attitude.  Or is it not almost always because we just do not believe that our prayers make any real difference?  But do the Scriptures not emphasize just the opposite? (cf. Lk. 18:1-8).  In fact, we are told over and over in the Bible that God hears the prayers of his people (e.g. Exod. 8:13).  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

6. HOSPITALTIY.  Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (13).  Another way that love manifests itself is in providing for the needs of believers, and is also a mark of genuine faith (1 Jn. 3:17-19; Jam. 2:14-17).  The KJV translates the second part of verse 13 by “given to hospitality” which I think carries the sense a bit better.  The word translates dioko, which means to pursue (and even to persecute).  Helping the saints and showing hospitality is not something we do just when we get around to it, it is something we are to pursue.

Though I think this is something given first to other believers, hospitality does not stop short with the house of God.  John Stott notes that “Philadelphia (love of sisters and brothers) has to be balanced by philoxenia (love of strangers).”  As the author of Hebrews put it, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2).  Especially in our day, we will often only be able to win the trust of our unbelieving friends when we are willing to welcome them into our lives.  And in the context of trust won through hospitality the gospel becomes a more believable message.

7. DOCILITY.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (14).  Though I know the word “docility” can have negative connotations to it, and indicate a sort of cringing servility, clearly that’s not what I intend here.  Docility originally referred to those who were teachable, and that certainly is a very positive trait.  What I mean here is the character quality of the Christian which makes them meek and loving towards their persecutors.  They are to be “harmless as doves” (Mt. 10:16).  We are required not only to love those who love us (which is easy) but also to love those who hate us (which is impossible apart from the grace of God).  It is what our Lord was getting at when he said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:45). 

This sheds some light on how we should look at the imprecatory Psalms.  When our Lord came to earth on his redemptive mission, he said that he had not come to condemn but to save (Jn. 3:17).  But there is coming a time when the impenitent will be condemned at the Final Judgment by the Savior.  If you will not have him as Savior now, you must have him as your condemning Judge later.  As Matthew Henry put it, those who will not come to Christ to be saved must depart from him to be damned.  In the same way, we are not now to curse those who persecute us (imprecation is a spoken curse).  But there is coming a day when we will judge the world (cf. 1 Cor. 6:2) and in that day the imprecatory Psalms will be justly on the lips of all of God’s people.  But at the present time, we are not only not to curse our enemies, but we are also to bless them.  Our words are to be words of gospel hope for today is the day of salvation. 

This is important because this is often the very time when our witness is most effective.  It is no coincidence that “martyr” comes from the Greek word for witness.  Our Lord said that it is precisely when “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you” and deliver “you up to the synagogues and prisons” that “this will be your opportunity for witness” (Lk. 21:12-13).  Church history bears witness to this fact.  It is our blessing for their curse that often precedes their reception of the gospel.

8. SYMPATHY.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep (15).  This is another aspect of loving our brothers and sisters.  When we can be glad with them in their triumphs and when we can grieve with them in their tragedies, then we are showing love to them.  Commentators have noted that rejoicing with those who rejoice is put first because this is often the hardest for us – the opposite of our desire to be first.  It is incompatible with a spirit of jealousy and envy.  Oh that all believers were more like this!

9. HARMONY.  Live in harmony with one another (16a).  Christians who have a renewed mind (12:2) should also have a common mind (Stott).  Note Jesus’ prayer in John 17.  There is a real unity in that we are all part of the same body, and we should show it (cf. Eph. 4:1-3).  This, again, is the outworking of the fruit of love in our hearts and lives, as it is worked out in Christian community.

10. HUMILITY.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight (16).  Finally, we come to humility which is the final fruit of love which the apostle mentions here.  The KJV here has “condescend to men of low estate.”  This is an unfortunate translation because condescending carries with it today the idea of patronizing others.  But word Paul uses here means to be “at home with humble people” (John Murray) and imitates him who said, “I am meek and lowly in heart.”  A corollary to this attitude is that the people of God are, or ought to be at any rate, approachable people.  Unapproachable people have no place in the kingdom of God and the church of Christ.

As those who have received the mercies of God, let us meditate on these things, let us pray them into our lives, and let these be the goals which we set for ourselves.  And if you have not received Christ, by whom we are partakers of God’s saving mercies, may you seek him and find him by faith today.

Marks of Christian Community: Exercise of Spiritual Gifts, Romans 12:3-8


In his book on the Holy Spirit, theologian Sinclair Ferguson points out that the doctrine of spiritual gifts today divides the church in a way that the doctrine of the sacraments did in the Reformation period in the sixteenth century.  That might make us want to avoid the topic.  Or it may cause us only to look at it from a purely dogmatic and confrontational point of view.  But the verses before us argue for a different approach.  Nothing is more necessary for the health and the spiritual prosperity of the church than the proper exercise of spiritual gifts.  It is not necessary, in fact, to get bogged down over a few of the more miraculous gifts (like tongues, miracle-working, or prophesy) because what we see here is that many if not most of the spiritual gifts are a bit more “boring” – things like giving and serving and leadership and so on.  Whatever our stance on these issues, our text compels us to find a Biblical understanding of the spiritual gifts. In our text, the apostles does three things.  He argues for their necessity, for the prerequisites of the gifts, and then for the exercise of the gifts.  Let us look at each of these in turn.

The Necessity of the Spiritual Gifts

The apostle begins the next section in this chapter with the word for: “For by the grace given to me I say . . .” (3).  This points us back to the first two verses.  There Paul had called us, on the basis of the mercies of God, to devote ourselves wholly to him, not conforming ourselves to the world but by being transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Now the question is, how does that call to devotedness to God lead into the discussion of verses 3 and following?  Verses 3-8 deal with spiritual gifts.  Therefore the question is, how is our consecration to God connected to our giftedness for the church?  In other words, he seems to be grounding our holiness in some sense in the exercise of the spiritual gifts.  Why is this so?

It is this way for a number of reasons.  One reason is that we cannot be wholly committed to God without being committed to God’s people.  To be committed to God is to be committed to his people.  Those who want nothing to do with the church have put a question mark upon their commitment to God.  We cannot love God without loving his people, and loving people means serving them.  This is what the apostle John said: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 Jn. 5:1).  Note that important word whoever.  It doesn’t say that we love those who are just like us.  It doesn’t say that we love those whose personalities mesh with our own.  It says, “whoever”: in other words, even those who can be abrasive and hard to get along with.  If they are born of God, we ought to love them, and loving them, we ought to serve them.  True love is not a warm, gooey feeling in the stomach but a willingness to deny yourself for the good of others, after the example of Christ: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  And of course serving others means using our spiritual gifts for their good.

This is in fact the way the apostle Paul talks about spiritual gifts in his first letter to the Corinthians: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:7).  In other words, your spiritual gift is not given to you so that you can show off and advance your own interests: it is given to you for the benefit of others, in particular the church.  Wayne Grudem defines a spiritual gift, therefore, in this way: it is “any ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in any ministry of the church.”  Don’t interpret “ministry” there in a formal sense.  Ministry means serving others.  So spiritual gifts are those abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, by which we serve others.  They are not platforms for show-offs; rather, they provide opportunities for helping and serving the interests of others.  To use your spiritual gifts correctly, you must have the attitude of people like Timothy: “For I have no one like him,” Paul writes the Philippians, “who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.”  In contrast to others, who “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20-21).

Paul Tripp, in his book Lead, says over and over again that ministry is a call to suffering.  He is writing to those who are in leadership in the church, but the reality is that all ministry is in some sense a call to suffering.   Ministering our spiritual gifts for the good of others is a call to suffering, because serving others means denying yourself.  If you never have to deny yourself in serving others, then you have probably never actually served or used your spiritual gifts the way they ought to be used.

But getting back to the main point: loving God means loving his people, and loving his people means serving them.  One of the ways we serve them is by using the gifts he has given us for their good.  And that is part of being wholly devoted to God – being wholly devoted to his people.  I love the way the household of Stephanas is described by Paul to the Corinthians.  May we all be like this: “Now I urge you, brothers – you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints – be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer” (1 Cor. 16:15-16).  Is that like us?  Are we devoted to the ministry of the saints?

Another reason why using our spiritual gifts is a ground for devotedness to God is that we cannot grow spiritually without them.  And here we need to make the point that the exercise of spiritual gifts is something than can only be done in the context of community, where we are not only using our gifts but are also being blessed by the gifts of others.  You will perhaps note the emphasis upon the unity of the church in verses 4 and 5.  We need that unity for precisely the reason the apostle gives in verse 4: “and the members do not all have the same function.”  God has not given one person in the church all the gifts.  You and I need the gifts of others.

When you look at the parallel passages, those passages in the NT that also deal with spiritual gifts, you will notice this recurring theme (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:8-12; 1 Pet. 4:10-11).  It is by the exercise of the spiritual gifts that the church grows.  For example, Paul says this in Ephesians 4: “And [Christ] gave [the spiritual gifts which are listed in verse 11] to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:11-12).  To be built up means to grow spiritually and to become more Christlike, as the context makes clear.  God has given the gifts in the church so that we might grow in grace.  But he has not located all the gifts in one person.  This goes for the pastor or pastors.  This is a case for a multiplicity of elders, but it is also a case for a multiplicity of avenues of service in the church so that all, men and women, have an opportunity to use them for the mutual edification of the body of Christ.

But the point is this: if you want to obey verses 1-2 of this chapter, you also have to obey verses 3-8.  And that means living in community with the church, having fellowship with the people of God, so that we can exercise our gifts on their behalf and they can exercise their gifts on my behalf, so that we are building one another up in love.  The use of spiritual gifts is not supplementary to the church, they are a necessity, they are essential.

However, this leads naturally to the question: if they are necessary, what are the prerequisites for their use?  What must be true of us if we are to use them properly and in a way that is going to build up the church.  This is an important question, as the case of the Corinthians demonstrates.  They were a very gifted church, and yet they used their gifts in ways that actually undermined the spiritual health of the church.  Corinth was in many ways the very kind of church you would have wanted to avoid, and yet they had all these gifts.  So it’s not enough that we are gifted; there must be a certain mindset for their proper use.  And that leads us to the next point.

The Prerequisites for Spiritual Gifts


The very first thing the apostles does is to give an exhortation to humility: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).  In chapter 11 (ver. 18, 25), the apostle had warned against pride in spiritual status; now he warns against pride in spiritual giftedness.  When you look at Corinth and all the problems they had, you can see pretty easily that one of their main problems was spiritual pride.  They were puffed up (1 Cor. 5:2), boastful of their spiritual giftedness, and treating them as if they had developed them on their own (1 Cor. 4:7).

The remedy for this is to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, which shows me that our tendency is to do exactly the opposite.  This is not a problem that some people have; it is a problem we all have, which is why the apostle directs his exhortation “to everyone among you.”  We tend to think we are better than we really are, more gifted than we really are, and to think more of our ability to serve than our giftedness warrants. 

Now this goes even for people who belong to the spiritual Eeyore camp: people who don’t want to exercise their giftedness in the church because they don’t think they will be of any use to anyone.  But if you look more carefully at this attitude, it really is often an attitude of pride.  Unfortunately I say this from experience.  It is a refusal to serve others because we are afraid they aren’t going to appreciate our gifts as we want them to.  It reminds me of the cook Mark Twain described somewhere in one of his writings, who was always putting down her cooking in order to fish for compliments.  There are people who won’t exercise their gifts unless they are constantly being complimented and supported by affirmations.  They don’t want to do anything unless they have this praise.  But that is not humility; it is pride in a beggar’s outfit.  Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t affirm and encourage each other.  Certainly we should!  But if we have to constantly be affirmed, could it not be because we are not satisfied with God’s approval and need the approval of men instead?  Again, that is not humility, it is idolatry and pride.

How do we defeat the attitude of arrogance, the pitfall of pride?  We do so by paying attention to the last part of verse 3: “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  Measure here implies that there are varying levels of faith – some have more than others, and this of course shows itself in the manifestation of their spiritual giftedness.  But all the faith we have ultimately is a gift from God, and not just the faith we have at the new birth but also the faith by which we receive and exercise our spiritual gifts.  Just a note here: the faith Paul is referring to in verse 3 is not the spiritual gift of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 12:9), but the faith that is exercised in our spiritual gift.  What this means is that our spiritual gifts do not come from ourselves.  They are not something that we produce on our own.  We cannot claim to have created them.  They are gifts from God.  Though Paul doesn’t use that word in this context, he does so in others (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-11), and he makes it clear from this language that these abilities are something we originate outside of ourselves.  They are given to us by the Spirit of the risen Christ (Eph. 4:7-11).  In fact, in this latter text, they are called by the name of “grace.”  And the fact that Paul in Romans 12 links the spiritual gifts with faith shows that they are to be received by God’s grace, not created by our ingenuity.

These various texts also point to the fact that spiritual gifts are not natural gifts; they are not abilities you are born with.  Now that does not mean that the Spirit can’t use our natural gifts and make them into spiritual gifts, but the reality is that nothing is a spiritual gift that is not empowered by the Holy Spirit.  So these are not abilities we can take credit for – they are gifts of the grace of God.  And that being so, how could we be prideful?  How can we take credit for something only God can do?

Moreover, the fact that not only the gift itself but the measure of the gift is determined by God ought to lead to a sober and humble judgment of our gifts.  Some have said that having a greater measure of a particular gift than others would naturally lead to pride.  If it were your talent, maybe so.  But if we take this to heart, we cannot be proud, for even the measure of our gift is not owing to our own resourcefulness but to the sovereign grace of God.  One believer may be a more effective encourager than another, but that does not give that person bragging rights.  It only means they should use this gift in gratitude and humility to the God who gave it to them.

This is not only a preventative against pride, but also against discouragement.  For our gifts are not something we have to go looking for, like some kind of spiritual Easter egg hunt.  They are sovereignly dispensed to his people by God.  This not only means that if I am in the body of Christ that I am gifted, but it also means that those whom God gifts, he uses.  Those whom he calls to service he uses.  It may not be in the great way that we might have envisioned, but to be used as an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands is far, far more important than being recognized by the greatest of men.  And surely that should deliver us from a discouraging outlook.

Unity in Diversity

However, not only is humility important; unity is also indispensable in the exercise and practice of spiritual gifts.  Coming back to the case of Corinth, Paul immediately spends the first four chapters rebuking them for division in the church.  They had all these gifts, but they ruined them by disunity.  Now the source of their disunity was their pride.  The corollary to this is that humility ought to lead to unity, which is why Paul would write this to the Ephesians: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  Pride leads to disunity because it carries with a false perception of self-sufficiency.  On the other hand, a humble and honest heart recognizes that I need others to achieve the fullness of what God wants me to do in this world.

Therefore Paul grounds his exhortation against pride in the unity and diversity of the church: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4-5).  As in other places where the apostle speaks to spiritual gifts, Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ.  One member cannot function on its own, each member of the body can only function in conjunction with every other member.  To imagine that we can grow in grace and exercise our gifts on our own is like imagining that an eye can lift weights, or that a hand can digest food, or that a toe can think thoughts. 

The body is a great analogy because it shows that we need both unity and diversity.  Without unity, the diversity of gifts can never be deployed for the benefit of the whole.  Without diversity, the unity becomes crippled by the lack and want of gifts.  So we need to work for both.  We need to create an environment in which the gifts can be exercised.  We strive for unity through forbearance and humility and patience and love.  And we strive for diversity by not insisting that every gift has to look like what we possess and by being willing to look to other believers for help in running the race.

We cannot of course do this if we cut ourselves off from the church!  If every believing family becomes their own island, we will inevitably undermine the vision the apostle is setting out in these verses for the people of God.  Let us remember what it says in the epistle of Hebrews: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

The Exercise of Spiritual Gifts

We now come to the specific gifts which the apostle lists here.  This list is clearly not meant to be exhaustive; this becomes clear when we compare this list with the others in the NT.  I think Tom Schreiner is correct when he writes, “The gifts itemized are representative, showing the diversity of the unified body of Christ.”  So I don’t think the purpose of this list is to communicate the idea that these are the particular gifts that are needed for a healthy church, and that you have to have all of them to function correctly as a church.  Rather, when we read the list more closely, what we see is that we are being encouraged to (1) devote ourselves to our particular gift (whatever that is), and (2) to use it properly (in accordance with the nature of the gift).

Devote yourself to the gift God has given you.

Note how the apostle puts it in verses 7-8a.  He says that we are to use our gifts (ver. 6) in the sphere of our particular giftedness.  Those of us who are particularly gifted to serve, are to use our giftedness “in our serving;” those who teach, “in our teaching,” and those who exhort, “in our exhortation.”  Now he isn’t saying that if you are gifted to teach, you are off the hook in other areas.  He isn’t saying that a teacher doesn’t have to serve!  But he is saying that if you are gifted in a particular area, you are to be devoted to the development and exercise of that gift. 

I think this means at least a couple of things.  First, it means that I am not constantly looking over my shoulder at other believers whose gifts are different from mine and trying to make my gift just like their gift.  I am to be content with the gift or gifts that God has given me.  I am not to be envious of others, nor am I to be jealous because my gift is not as good as someone else’s.  I am not trying to copy others.  God has given you and me particular gifts and we are to recognize that and to use what God has given us. 

Let me illustrate this with a movie illustration and a Biblical example.  In the movie Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams loses a race to Eric Liddell because he looks over his shoulder to see where Liddell is on the track.  That look cost him the race.  If he had just concentrated on his own race he might very well have won.  That is what I mean by looking over our shoulders at the gifts of others.  God may have given you the gift of service and someone else the gift of exhortation.  You don’t try to act as if you have their gift, but use your gift as extensively as you can.  The more time you spend wishing you were like someone else, the more time you waste not using your gift.  And when we do this, God is dishonored and the church is not ministered to as it should be.

Here’s the Biblical illustration.  Paul says in Gal. 1:7-8 that everyone recognized that Peter was given the responsibility of bringing the gospel to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles (which Paul calls a grace in verse 9), and so Paul went to Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.  Now that doesn’t mean that Paul stopped ministering to Jews; the book of Acts shows that he didn’t.  But it also shows that he devoted most of his efforts towards the Gentiles.  Why?  Because that is how God had gifted him.  In the same way, we don’t have to try to be what others are or do what others do.  We are to do what we can with the gifts which God has given to us.

Second, it means that we try to use and refine and grow in the gifts God has given.  Let’s say that I am gifted in leadership.  Then I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift.  If I am gifted in serving others, I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift.  If I am gifted in teaching, I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift.  Again, what that means is that I am to be wise about the resources of my time and abilities – I need to leverage them for the use of the gift God has given to me.  As a teacher of the Word, my time needs to be primarily devoted to studying God’s word and teaching it to others.  It’s what Paul was getting at in his exhortation to Timothy who served as a pastor in the church (1 Tim. 4:13-16) and to widows who served in the church (1 Tim. 5:9-10).

Use them properly

This comes across in the gifts Paul mentions in verses 6 and 8: “if prophesy, [use it] in proportion to our faith . . . the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”  In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to use our gifts.  We are to use them wisely.  To those whom God had given the gift of prophesy, they were to exercise it in a way that was consonant with the faith God had given them: they were not to prophesy any further than they had permission to do so.  If God has given you a heart for giving (and it doesn’t have to be only the giving of money), then the proper way to use that gift is by giving generously.  If God has given you the gift of leadership, and you are at the top of the food chain so to speak, then you may be tempted to squander away your time through lack of accountability.  Don’t do that, the apostle says, don’t be slack but be zealous in the exercise of your gift.  If God has given you the gift of mercy, don’t show mercy as if it were a burden and give people the impression that they’re a pain in the neck.  No! show mercy with cheerfulness.

In other words, we are to use our gifts in a way that brings the most glory to God and good to his people.  Gifts are not given to us for our own advancement.  They are not pedestals for personal achievement.  Rather, they are instruments God has given us to bless others.  We are to use in a way that accomplishes such a purpose and end.  If we do, we will use them properly and rightly and in so doing we will please God, bless others, and find joy in the service of the Lord.

Let me end on that note.  How do you know you have a spiritual gift?  If the exercise of it blesses and builds up others and I find special joy in the performance of it, then I would say that is good evidence that you have that particular gift.  If you find this to be the case, then don’t sit on it!  Don’t bury your talent, but go use it for the glory of God and the good of his church.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Romans 12:1-2. Marks of Christian Community: Devotion to God.

The reason for the exhortation: the mercies of God.

The Apostle Paul begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore brothers” (12:1).  The word therefore is significant because it grounds the appeal in the content of the previous chapters.  In other words, Paul’s appeal only makes sense in light of chapters 1 through 11.  The appeal is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God.  What the apostle Paul is calling for is that we should be wholly devoted to God.  But what specifically does the therefore point to?  In other words, what motivates believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice?  Why would you want to sacrifice your body anyway?  What are the reasons?

The point is that unless you are willing to believe the message of the previous chapters, this isn’t going to make much sense.  But if you do believe the message of the previous chapters, this is in some sense inevitable.  How so?

Take what the apostle says about sin.  Sin isn’t just something you’re not supposed to do.  It isn’t that forbidden pleasure.  Rather, sin is first and foremost “ungodliness” (1:18).  In other words, sin is that which puts us in direct opposition to God.  Whatever else sin might do for you, it fundamentally puts you at odds with your Creator.  And that can never be good.  As a result, it is that which causes us to lose sight of wisdom, to make us do foolish and hurtful things and to make an exchange which makes no sense, to replace the Creator with the creature (1:21-22).  It causes us to do that which is unnatural and unreasonable.  It leads to “a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28).  It is coming short of the glory of God (3:23).  It brings on us the wrath of God (1:18).  It is that which causes shame (6:21) and whose wages is eternal death (6:23).  In other words, if you take God at his word, then sin is nothing to be trifled with.  Sin is not something desirable which God keeps from us; rather, sin is something which is awful and which God in his infinite grace and mercy keeps us from, by saving us from its consequences, from its power and penalty and one day from its very presence.

Then take what the apostle says about righteousness.  Righteousness is the one thing that we humans, of all things, need, and the one thing which we lack.  The righteous God cannot have fellowship with unrighteous people.  We are ungodly and therefore unrighteous and as a result God’s wrath is poised to be unleashed upon us, and rightly so.  But righteousness in Romans is not just an attribute that defines God and which we lack; righteousness is a gift that God gives freely to sinners (3:21-31).  We lost righteousness in Adam and cannot gain it back on our own; but Christ came to redeem us by his death by becoming a propitiation for us, by taking the guilt of our sin upon himself and absorbing God’s wrath in our place.  As a result, he is able to justify the ungodly (4:5).  We are saved, not by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God, mediated to us through Christ.  Through this saving righteousness, we are able to now have acquittal and acceptance before God.  And that is the best of news.  Whereas sin leads to death, the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Or take what Paul tells us about the life which we have in Christ though his Spirit.  This is one of the great themes of chapter 8.  Sin brings with it spiritual death.  It brings with it bondage to sin.  Sin is slavery to the world, to the devil, and to our own passions and lusts.  It is a miserable condition.  Well does the Shorter Catechism say that the fall of man brought mankind into a condition of sin and misery.  But because Christ has given those who are united to him by faith this gift of righteousness, he also gives to them a new life, and new affections to live life in a new direction.  The chains with which sin shackled us have been broken.  We now walk not in the flesh but in the Spirit.  We are able through the Spirit to put to death the sin in our life.  What the law could not do – what we could not do in the strength of depraved flesh, we are now able to do by the gracious intervention of God in the life.  It’s not merely that God gives us new directions and information so that we can do the right thing.  Nor is it that God becomes a new life coach and inspires us to do what we should so that we can have our best life now.  Rather, it is that God has given new life to those who were spiritually dead; he has enabled by sheer grace and mercy those who had no strength in themselves.  And the life that they now live is not a life lived in their own power but because Christ lives in them through the Spirit.  And because of this sin no longer has the dominion over them because they are not under law but under grace (6:14).

All this comes about through the grace and mercy of God.  Sin is rebellion against God.  We have forfeited any claim upon God’s good gifts.  We not only do not deserve his pleasure, but we also justly deserve his wrath.  More than this, in our sin we will never on our own reach out for the grace of God.  We will willingly sit in the muck and mire that is our sin.  “So then it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy” (9:18).  God, in sovereign grace, has reached down to save sinful men and women.  It is a wonderful and surprising act of grace and kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

That is the content that stands behind that word, therefore.  What this means is that the exhortation here in this verse is not something which we do in order to gain God’s grace and favor.  It is an appeal on the basis of God’s grace and favor, which the apostle points to in that delightful phrase, mercies of God.  We are not told to clean up our life in order to gain forgiveness or freedom.  Rather, the gospel – the good news of what God has done (not us!) for us in Jesus Christ – is the basis for the appeal here.  We are not working toward God’s favor; we are meant to work from it. 

Christianity is not a moralistic system.  That is, the essence of the Christian message is not that we are to be nice people and good neighbors.  The Christian message is not that we need to be better, it is that we need to be made alive, and this is not something we can do for ourselves.  People don’t need to clean up their lives; they need to be rescued from themselves by the sovereign and gracious intervention of God in their lives. 

A lot of people, even in the church, want to downplay the doctrinal aspects of the Christian message and to unite around its ethical aspects.  Now of course there is an ethical aspect to our message – this chapter and the ones which follow bear this out – but what the structure and message of Romans tells us is that the ethics is impossible apart from the gospel.  We are not saved by good works, we are saved to good works (Eph. 2:8-10).  God does not meet sinners as they try to be better; he meets the ungodly as they embrace by faith Jesus Christ presented to them in the gospel.  We don’t primarily need a life coach or a self-help manual – our fundamental and primary need is that of a Savior, and this is what the gospel is all about.

It is only from a position of faith in Christ and having been united to him by the Spirit of God that we are enabled to live a life of godliness.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit. 2:11-12).  And this is what the “therefore” implies; that having been saved, we are now in a position in which we can pursue good works and holiness and to start working on those aspects of our lives which are out of sync with God’s will for us.

But there is another thing behind that word “therefore”: it is not only that the gospel enables obedience, but that it also motivates obedience.  It gives us reasons to be holy.  You see this in the word “reasonable” which unfortunately is translated “spiritual” in verse 1 in the ESV.  “Reasonable” is, I think, the best rendering here (cf. KJV).  To devote ourselves to God and to his service is the most reasonable thing to do, and the greatest reasons for this are rooted in this amazing mercies of God.  Given what sin is and what it does, given the remedy for it in the gospel, and given the grace that stands behind this amazing gift, how can we not want to live for God?  How could we do anything but to offer him our lives which belong to him anyway?  To claim to have believed in the gospel and then to go on in sin is to give the lie to our profession of faith.

What we are called to do: present our bodies a living sacrifice

As we’ve already noted, the main thing the apostle calls us to do here is to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your [reasonable service]” (12:1).  “Bodies” here stands for the whole person; note the word “mind” in the next verse.  A sacrifice was something, whether an animal or grain or money or whatever that, under the OT ritual, you gave to God.  But Paul tells us that we are not simply to give something to God; we are to give ourselves to God.  You can also see this in the word “holy.”  We are to be set apart for him.  And we are to give ourselves wholly to him.  Our Lord said something very similar to this when he called upon people to take up their crosses to follow him (cf. Lk 14:27).  If we claim to belong to Christ, we must admit that he has a claim on every part of our lives.  He has redeemed us, body and soul, and we belong to him.  Our lives should reflect that.   

He calls them living sacrifices as opposed to the dead sacrifices of the Levitical sacrifices.  This points to the spiritual condition of the believer: they are those who are alive in Christ (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13).  But I think it also points to the fact that this is an ongoing condition which defines us.  A dead sacrifice could only be offered once.  But a living sacrifice is an ongoing reality which determines who we are and what we are to do.  It means that our identity is to be found throughout the entirety of our lives in who we belong to, namely, God.

There is no other way for the Christian.  The only acceptable service to God is that which is rendered in the way of a living sacrifice.  God will accept no other.  If we want to please God, if we want to live a life that pleases him and carries with it his blessing, we must die to ourselves and live for him.  “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:17-18).  Could it be that I am not experiencing the joy and conscious enjoyment of the blessing of God in my life because I am holding back, because I am giving myself to be satisfied by this present age? 

How we do this (negatively): don’t be conformed to the world.

“Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2).  The authors of Scripture often use this word “world” to refer to the world under sin and in rebellion against God.  So, for example, the apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).  Here the world is characterized by sinful and selfish desires, desires which are in opposition to the things God wants us to love.  At the end of his epistle, he will write, “And we know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19).  So when Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” he is referring to the desires and habits and attitudes which characterize those who are enslaved to the devil, whether consciously or unconsciously (cf. Mt. 4:8-9; Eph. 6:12).  And as James will put it, those who are friends with the world are the enemies of God (Jam. 4:4).  If you want to be devoted to God, you cannot be like the world.  You must be different.  Your tastes and ambitions and goals must and ought to be different from those who do not know Christ.

Another way to put it is that the world is still in the condition of Romans 1.  Those who are “in the world” are under the wrath of God, unthankful and unholy, futile in their thinking and darkened in their hearts, claiming to be wise but in reality are fools.  They have made a frightful and irrational exchange – worshipping the creature over the Creator and this is often reflected in the kinds of behaviors which they engage in, behaviors in which they exchange natural relationships for unnatural ones like homosexual and lesbian ones.  Then Paul goes on to list the kinds of things which characterize a world in sin: “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29-31).  So when Paul says that you should not be conformed to the world, he means that your life should not be characterized by these sorts of things.

Now there are two things to be said here.  First, given the power of God in the conversion of the believer, given the new life that is ours in Christ, it is impossible to think that one could be truly born again and yet go on living in conformity to the world.  After all, our Lord died to save us from our sin, and that not only means from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin.  Someone who gives themselves habitually and continuously to the world cannot be saved.  As the apostle John puts it, those who are born of God cannot go on sinning (1 Jn. 3:9).  The grace of God does not leave a person in the condition in which it found them.

But that requires a second thing to be said.  Though it is true that God’s grace is powerfully operative in the life of a believer, empowering them to put sin to death and giving them new affections, that does not mean that the believer is never tempted to be conformed to the world.  In fact, this is a constant temptation.  The clearest proof of this is this very text.  It is an exhortation, an appeal, to not be conformed to the world.  That appeal would be meaningless if this were not a possibility in the life of a Christian.  The reality is that sanctification – the process of becoming more and more Christ-like in our character – is not automatic.  We have to work on it.  We have to present our bodies as a living a sacrifice.  We have to resist the pressure to conform to the world.  We have to, as the hymn puts it, take time to be holy.  In fact, it is not only not automatic, but also often not easy.  That being said, the glory of grace is that it is not impossible and we are empowered by the Spirit to live in increasing conformity to our Lord and his will.

The apostle writes this because he knows that in Christ we can resist the pressure to conform to the world.  But he also writes it because he knows that there is this constant pressure to conform to the world, to adopt its attitudes and values and desires and goals and ambitions.  The world is not a neutral entity, but an entire culture that is trying to make holiness look more weird and less desirable. 

How do we resist such pressure?  By remembering the mercies of God and by appropriating the truths of the gospel to every aspect of our lives.  We do it by refusing to believe the lie that what the world promises is better than what God promises.  We do it by looking to Christ by faith, by living by the Spirit, and by considering ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:11).

How we do this (positively): be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

“But be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2).  You don’t devote yourself to God by simply doing this negative thing.  You must not only put off, but you must also put on.  Paul describes how we devote ourselves to God in this positive sense by the transformation of the mind.  It is not just a change in how we behave that is aimed at here; it is a change in how we think and feel.  It is a change in our thoughts and affections, in our determinations and desire, in our wills as well as our ways. 

The word “transformed” is interesting.  It is the same word that is used to describe the transfiguration of our Lord.  It was a brief glimpse in which our Lord was transformed into the glory that he had with the Father before the world began.  It is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.”  We are being changed, says the apostle in another place, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). 

How does this happen?  How does this change take place?  It happens as we are renewed in the mind.  It happens as we behold the face of the Lord in his word.  It happens as the truth of God’s word finds its way into our minds and hearts and takes root so that our habits of thinking and feeling are molded into forms which are pleasing to God.

I think it was R. C. Sproul who said that this transformation takes place through education.  In other words, as we believe and appropriate and apply the truths of the Bible to our lives.  It is so important.  You must not think that because you are born again, that holy ways of thinking are going to always prevail.  We have to be constantly in the word and let it have its transforming effect upon us.  We are not yet without sin, and as a result if we aren’t being transformed by the word of God, we will be conformed to the world.  If we don’t let God’s truth change us, the world will.  Either God’s word will be in us or the world will be in us.

God does not sanctify us apart from his word (Jn 17:17).  Don’t ever think that you can navigate this world on your own.  You need to let God speak into your life continually, and the only way to let this happen is though Scripture.  Don’t be satisfied by cheap substitutes. 

As a result of this, we will be able “by testing” to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).  Again, the rubric by which we test things is the word of God in which we find the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect.  We are drowning in information; but the problem is that so much of that information is just false.  Even the so-called experts have conflicting opinions.  There is news and then there is fake news.  But thank God, his word is perfect.  It will equip us for every good work.  It will help us to discern God’s will for our lives.

But it all starts with the mercies of God.  My friend, do you know something of the mercies of God in your life?  I don’t mean whether or not you’ve been educated, or have a good job, or are married to your best friend.  I’m talking about the mercies of God which bring us into fellowship with him.  Do you have a saving relationship with God?  The Bible tells us that the only way this can happen, the only way we can experience the mercies of God by which we are saved, is through Jesus Christ.  It is only through his sacrifice for us on the cross that we can meaningfully give ourselves as a living sacrifice to God.  His sacrifice for you must precede your sacrifice for God.  Has it?  If not, come to him, for he calls us to himself, and promises that he will never cast out anyone who comes to him by faith.  May God make it so!


Vengeance belongs to God – Rom. 12:17-21

  In our day, we find people who are either all about justice or all about mercy, but it’s very difficult to find people who are about both,...