Saturday, March 6, 2021

Plans and the Providence of God – Rom. 15:23-33


It is right to make plans.  Isn’t this what the Proverbs point us to when they call us to consider the ant (Prov. 6:6-11).  In some sense, a lack of planning can be a manifestation of laziness as well as a lack of wisdom, and that in itself is sin.  We have no right to use God’s sovereignty as an excuse not to prepare or make plans or to exercise careful forethought about our future.  The Bible commends planning for the future, although it condemns anxiety about the future (the KJV translation in Mat. 6, “take no thought for your life…” should be translated, “take no anxious thought…”).  In other words, we are again confronted with the necessity of balancing both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Now I believe the Bible.  And that means that I believe that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.  However, some will take the necessity of careful preparation as an evidence against the fact that God has foreordained all that comes to pass.  But those who do so have assumed that I can’t make meaningful decisions if my decisions are foreordained by God.  But this is exactly what the Scriptures teach.  For example, God foreordained that Cyrus would make a decision to allow the Israelites to return to their own land (cf. Isa. 45-46), and that did not make Cyrus any the less free or make his decision any the less meaningful.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and at the same time Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  Those are compatible statements, even if we cannot understand them.  (And, by the way, it is a false solution to say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart in response.  Nowhere is that taught in the Exodus account, and in fact the very opposite can be demonstrated from the text.)  God takes the hearts of kings, the most free and sovereign people in the ancient world, and turns them as rivers of waters, wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1). 

On the other hand, the fact that God’s plan is all-encompassing does not mean that I can sit on my haunches and wait for life to happen.  It does not mean that when bad things happen to me because of mismanagement on my part or because of sin or because of laziness that God is to blame (cf. Jam. 1:13-15).  My bad choices can lead me into bad health, financial ruin, broken relationships, and spiritual barrenness, and this is not God’s fault, it’s mine.  What then are we to do?  One way to avoid this is to plan carefully in accordance with Biblical principles.  For example, if you aren’t reading your Bible, you should have a Bible-reading plan.  If you don’t, you are probably not going to read your Bible consistently.

This last point should be emphasized.  There are all sorts of books out there that counsel people to plan.  We are told how to plan for our future in a multitude of ways.  We are told how to plan for a spouse, how to plan for a family, how to plan for financial security, and so on.  But most of these books say little or nothing about God and the gospel.  The reality is that you can plan in all the wrong ways.  Planning is good, but if you plan wrongly, it can lead to real spiritual catastrophe.

Here’s a Biblical example of what I’m talking about.  In Luke 12:13-21 our Lord tells the Parable of the Rich Fool.  But here’s the deal: this was a man who knew how to plan. When his crops did well and he had an overabundance, he planned to store it up so he would have plenty for the future.  But our Lord was not holding this man up as an example to emulate!  For there was a serious problem with his decision-making: it did not include God.  This was because this man was all about this life and did not take care about the next.  He was the perfect example of the secular man.  He is also the perfect example of a man whose plans are ultimately meaningless and eternally ruinous. 

Now what does this all have to do with our text?  In these verses, it’s clear that the apostle is discussing his travel plans with the Roman Christians.  But in making these plans, he again gives us an example of what it means to do this as a Christian, as someone who is consciously under the authority and sovereignty of God.  Paul believes that God is sovereign.  He believes in trusting him for the future.  And he believes in taking careful preparation about the future and making decisions about the future even as he trusts in God who holds the future in his hands.

And what plans!  There are three destinations that the apostle mentions here: Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain.  He is writing from Corinth, and talks about traveling from there to Jerusalem to bring a monetary contribution from the Christians in that part of the world to help alleviate the ills that had resulted from a long and serious famine in Judea (25-27).  This in itself was a trip of around 800 miles.  A lot of planning had to go into it, not just in terms of the traveling but also in terms of how to transport the gifts in a way that protected Paul’s integrity.  He also talks about traveling from Jerusalem to Rome (24, 28-29), a trip of about 1500 miles.  Finally, there is the trip from Rome to Spain (24, 28), which was about 700 miles.  Altogether, the apostle is planning on traveling a total of 3000 miles or so, a very ambitious road trip, especially in the ancient world when people would often plan their wills before leaving on extended travel!

A question that is sometimes asked is whether or not the apostle ever made it to Spain.  We will never know with certainty.  We do know that the apostle did make it to Jerusalem and then to Rome – though not in exactly the manner he intended.  He went to Rome, not as a free man but as a prisoner.  And when the book of Acts ends, it ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome.  According to Eusebius, Paul was released from this first imprisonment, after which he continued to minister for a time until he was re-arrested, whereupon he was executed.  It is possible, therefore, that between his first and second arrests, he was able to fulfill this ambition to preach the gospel in Spain.  There is a further testimony in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthians, in which he testifies that Paul was able to go to the limits of the West.[1]  Was this a cryptic reference to Spain?  Again, we will never know for sure.

Here then, we have the example of Paul’s plans.  But again, they are instructive.  They show us how we should look at our future and how we should make our plans.  In particular, they show us that we should make plans that prioritize the kingdom of God, that submit to the will of God, and that include the people of God.

In our plans we should seek first the kingdom of God

Paul did this and the text illustrates it.  His whole being is bent on putting the interests of God’s kingdom first.  He has been striving to preach the gospel, as he has been speaking in the previous verses, and the point he is making in these is that he wants to continue this.  His purpose in coming to Rome was at least partly to enlist their support for his Spanish mission.  All of Paul’s plans were about extending the kingdom of God.  It was about advancing it through sending aid to the churches in Judea.  It was about bringing the gospel to new places, like Spain.  Paul’s plans were a practical illustration of what Jesus exhorted his disciples to do: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).

But what does it mean for you and me to seek first the kingdom of God?  Must we be, like the apostle, engaged in full-time ministry?  Who are able to say they are seeking first God’s kingdom?  What does this look like when I’m not a preacher or a missionary?

Well, consider the context of the statement of our Lord in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a bookend of sorts.  At the beginning of the section of which verse 33 concludes, our Lord reminds his followers that they cannot serve God and mammon, and that they are not to be laying up treasures upon earth but in heaven.  We cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:19-24).  Then in verse 33 we are exhorted to seek first God’s kingdom.  What is in between?  In verses 25-32, we have an extended exhortation to not worry about the things of this life, like food and clothing.  He sums it all up in verses 31-32: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

What does this imply?  It means that we are to live in such a way as to show to others that our trust is in God, that we have a heavenly Father who will take care of us.  We are not anxious because we trust in a God who can and will provide for our needs.  That is the mindset we are to have.  You don’t have to be a preacher or a missionary to live that kind of lifestyle.  It is the kind of lifestyle that invites questions, like, “Why do you live like that?”  And then you can tell them about the hope that lies within you.  That is at least partly what it means to seek first the kingdom of God.

Or consider what our Lord said in an earlier part of that sermon.  He talks about us being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Why?  “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17).  But you’re not going to live that way if what is important to you are the things of the world.  You cannot be light or salt if you look and live like those who have no faith in Christ.  Be different.  Don’t prioritize making money; prioritize holiness and faith and God’s word in your life.  Don’t spend your life on this world, but spend it on the next.  We are to live what we profess to believe: that there is a heaven and that this is where we will spend eternity – in the presence of God Almighty and holy.  Do you live like that? 

And surely this works its way out in the plans that we make.  We are all constantly making plans, plans about what to wear for the day, about the next meal, about what we are going to do in our daily tasks, where we might go on vacation, what we are going to do with our money, and on and on.  When we are making our plans, whether short term or long term, where does the kingdom of God figure in?  Our Lord said that we are to seek first God’s kingdom.  It’s not second or third, but first.  Does that describe you and me?  Well, look at your plans, and see.

We are not throwing our lives away when we prioritize the concerns of God’s kingdom above short term pleasures and earthly security.  We are throwing our lives away when we do the opposite.  Luther’s hymn puts it exactly right when it says: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”  Live for something that is forever and your life is not in vain.  But put your effort into something that will evaporate in a few years, and what have you done?  Let me remind you of Jim Elliot’s famous dictum: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”  Don’t be a fool!  Gain what you cannot lose!

In our plans we should be guided by the revealed will of God

There is an important distinction we should make with reference to God’s will.  There is God’s revealed will and there is God’s secret will (also called the decretive will of God, or God’s will of purpose).  This is not a distinction made up by theologians with too much time on their hands: it finds expression in Scripture.  For example, in Deut. 29:29, we read, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  In other words, we don’t plan by trying to discern God’s secret will, his eternal purpose.  Rather, we plan by looking to see what the Bible has to say.  For the Israelites that meant the words of the Law.  For us, it means everything from Genesis to Revelation.

What does this have to do with Paul?  For Paul, the revealed will of God came to him directly from Christ who appeared to him to make him an apostle.  And what was this will?  The apostle spells it out for us.  He tells us how Jesus told him, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you 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 26:16-18).  Now isn’t this what the apostle had been doing?  And is this not what determined his plans for the future?  He was obeying the explicit and revealed will of God for him.

Again, for us that means looking into Scripture.  Here we have God’s will for us.  Here we have something that will make us mature, that will make us complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  So many people make plans based on what feels good.  But that is not the baseline for the Christian.  The baseline for us is: what saith the Lord?  What does the Bible say?  It doesn’t matter in the end how I feel about it – what matters is what God’s word has to say about it, and I simply need to obey it.  We will never go wrong if we are seeking to obey the Bible.

In our plans we are to be submissive to eternal purpose of God

Now I said a minute ago that we are not to seek to guide our decisions by God’s eternal decree, which we do not know.  True.  I am not to expend energy trying to discern that – it’s none of my business.  If God wanted me to know it, he would have revealed it!  However, this does not mean that God’s secret will has nothing to do with our plans.  On the contrary, our plans cannot be properly made without a due consideration of God’s decretive will.

How do we relate our plans to God’s eternal and unchangeable plan?  In this way: by understanding that God is sovereign over all, we recognize that our plans are not ultimate, no matter how well-intentioned or Bible-based.  God’s plans are ultimate.  And it is a matter of faith and humility to recognize that.  We are not sovereign; God is.  It means that we submit all our plans to God and be willing for him to make them or break them.  It means that we follow our Lord’s own example when he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt. 26:39).  It means that we pray how our Lord taught his disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as in heaven so in earth” (Mt. 6:10).  It means we hold with open hand all our dreams and plans, knowing that our Father knows what is best for us.  As it has been put, God is too wise to err and too good to be unkind.  And we submit our plans to him.

This is what the apostle Paul means when he asks them to “strive together in your prayers to God on my behalf . . . so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (30, 32).  This is what the apostle James was getting at in his epistle: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil” (Jam. 4:13-16).  Paul was doing what James was commanding.  It’s not a matter of knowing God’s decree, but it is a matter of submitting to it.

But this leads to an important point.  Why make plans which may never come to pass?  We know that part of Paul’s plans didn’t happen the way he envisioned them, and perhaps he never made it to Spain.  Why go to all the effort of making something that can fall apart?  If my plans must submit to God’s plans, why make plans at all?

There are several reasons planning is still important, even when they don’t come to pass the way we imagined they would.  One is that God commands us to plan in faith.  Second, God can use our broken plans as a way to fulfill his purposes through us.  Calvin is a tremendous example of this.  His plan was initially to go to Basel to spend his life in quiet, contemplative study.  But on the way, he had to pass through Geneva, and the rest is history.  But here’s the point: if Calvin had not made his plans to go to Basel, he would never have made it to Geneva – which is apparently where God wanted him to be! 

In our plans we should include the people of God

The final thing I want to say is this: our plans should always include God’s people.  I think it is instructive that when Paul thought about going to Spain, we wanted to go through Rome first to enlist the help of the believers there.  He didn’t want to go it alone.  And I don’t think he was simply looking for a handout.  It is very possible that he was looking for folks to go with him on his trip.  And he was also looking forward to the fellowship and the personal strengthening that he would receive as a result of being with them (cf. 15:24, 33; 1:12).  He includes them in his plans so that they can pray with him (30-33). 

But it’s not just the Roman Christians who were important to Paul.  So important was the unity of the church that he was willing to postpone Rome to travel in the opposite direction to Jerusalem!

We are not apostles.  None of us have the gifts that the apostle.  So if Paul felt this kind of need for the fellowship of the saints, how much more should we!  We need each other in our lives.  We need other believers to show us our blind spots, to keep us balanced, to encourage us when we get discouraged.  And they can keep us from making really bad choices.  We need the gifts of other Christians.  It should, in fact, be normal for us to gravitate towards other believers, and to include them in our lives (“by the love inspired by the Spirit,” ver. 30).

Now this is true for us individually.  But these principles are also true for us collectively.  It is true for us as a church.  How do we plan for the future of this church?  Well, we should plan in these ways.  We should plan so that Shiloh is a part of the advance of God’s kingdom in this world.  We should plan so that God’s word is honored.  We should plan so that the people of God are encouraged, convicted, and are growing together.  And we should plan in reverent faith and humility, submitting all to God’s will and purpose.

Let our plans reflect our faith and hope in God.  Let them reflect the priorities of the gospel.  Let them show others the goodness and faithfulness and trustworthiness of our gracious Father.  Let them point others to Jesus Christ, our only hope in life and death.

[1] See William Hendriksen, Romans (Baker: 1980), p. 492.

Paul’s Resume – Romans 15:15-21

In these verses, we have what you might call “Paul’s resume.”  He is arguing why it has been appropriate for him to write to them in the way he has, even though he was not a founding apostle for the church.  His credentials are such that he is justified to have written “very boldly” to them, even if it was “by way of reminder” (15).  But in doing so, the apostle has done us a great service.  In a day when charlatans are on every side, when fakers abound in the ministry, when false prophets and false teachers are vying for our attention, it is as necessary as ever to have before us Biblical portraits of godly and faithful pastors. 

It is also very important to have the examples of men like Paul – men who were able to say at the end of their lives, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” – when there are examples abounding of men who have not finished well.  Such men give great occasion to the enemies of the Lord and his people to mock the truth.  They have discredited the cause they were supposed to have upheld.  Men like Ravi Zacharias, who spent a life supposedly “defending” the faith but in a moment of tragic revelation tore everything down in a single blow.  Not that the Christian faith is any the less true or good because of what Zacharias did.  But he has undoubtedly made it harder for the rest of us to defend and commend it now.

I contrast that with men like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  Recently while watching the documentary on his life, “Logic on Fire,” I was encouraged anew at his example of faithfulness, godliness, and God-centeredness.  You cannot look at his life and say that it is all fake.  Here was a man who gave up a lucrative career in medicine to be a physician of souls.  And how God used him!  And his ministry continues to bless and encourage the people of God.  That is the kind of person I want to be. 

But then we have the example of the apostle Paul.  Here was a man who could tell others, “Follow me” (cf. Phil. 3:17).  He was not a man who was involved in arm-chair ministry, but a man who led from the front.  His life was marked by consistent faithfulness.  He was a man who was described by others as a man who had risked his life for the name of Christ (Acts 15:26).  He was martyred for the faith (cf. 2 Tim. 4).  And when his life had ended, there were no revelations of a secret double life. 

So we need to learn from the example of men like Paul.  We need to look at them and see what kinds of things marked their ministry and model our own lives after them.  With the apostle Paul, however, we have another reason to consider his life and example.  It is the fact that he was not just chosen by the church, but chosen directly by Christ. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Tim. 1:12).  To the Galatians, he wrote, “I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.  For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  The Lord Jesus, he tells us, “set me apart before I was born, and . . . called me by his grace . . . in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:12, 15, 16).  For this reason, the apostle has the right to speak to us and to set his life before us for us to imitate.

What sorts of things characterized the man and the ministry of the apostle Paul?  When we look at the impromptu resume he gives us of his ministry in these verses, we see a number of important things.  There are of course things that are unique to the apostle.  For one thing, the apostleship itself was unique.  And yet the apostles laid a foundation upon which others were to build.  And surely there needs to be continuity between the foundation and the structure upon which it is built.  That is what we want to look at.  What things?  Well, I see at least three things.  Paul’s ministry was a ministry which was exercised in the sight of God, proclaiming the gospel of God, and empowered by the Spirit of God.  And to some extent the life of every Christian ought to be characterized by these things.  And especially the ministries of all those who are in the pastorate or are evangelists – who are the public face of the Church in the world. 

A ministry in the sight of God

What do I mean by a ministry in the sight of God?  I mean that the apostle was a man who was conscious of the holiness, power, and authority of God in every aspect of his ministry.  He wasn’t a man who simply had a form of godliness but denying the power of it (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5).  The reality of God was always present with him.  For the apostle, God was not something or someone at a distance but a living reality.   In other words, he was a true servant of Christ (Rom. 15:16).  He wasn’t working for himself but for God (17). 

A clear evidence of this aspect of Paul’s ministry can be seen in the priestly language that he uses to describe it.  Of course, Paul did not see himself as a priest in the sense that Roman Catholic priests see themselves, for the apostle makes it very clear that there is only one mediator between God and man, and that is not the apparatus of the Roman Catholic priesthood, but the Lord Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:5).  Rather, he saw himself as a priest in the sense that the priests were men who were consecrated exclusively to the Lord and ministered before the Lord.  Everything about the priest was determined by God.  They were men who served in the very presence of God.  They did not have an inheritance among like the other tribes of Israel, for God was their inheritance.  I think this is the way the apostle saw himself.  He was a man whose life was given for the service of God.

Again, you see this in the language the apostle uses to describe himself.  The word for “minister” (leitourgos, 16) in the New Testament is applied (in its verbal form) to the Jewish priesthood in Heb. 10:11, and to Jesus as our great high priest in Heb. 8:2.  You see it explicitly in the phrase “the priestly service of the gospel of God” (15).  You see it in the “offering” of the Gentiles, in the word “acceptable” in verse 16, which is God’s response to a pleasing sacrifice.  Finally, you see it in the word “sanctified” in verse 16, a term used to describe things that were consecrated in sacrifice.

This view of himself as a priest worked itself out in very practical ways.  It inevitably leads to a very God-ward and God-centered focus in ministry.  In particular, the apostle offered up his converts as living sacrifices to God.  He was not like preachers who are out for themselves, who use the ministry as a way to feed their greed, lust, or pride.  When Paul gained a convert, it was not to himself, but to Christ.  The Gentiles who became believers through the ministry of the apostle, were then offered by him to God (16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:12-17; 3:5-9, 21).  He hated it when believers became followers of men.  As he saw it, the apostles were not there to be served but to serve (1 Cor. 4:1). You can tell a God-centered person versus a man-centered person based at least partly upon who they are trying to please and who they are looking to for affirmation.  A man-centered person fears man and looks to him for affirmation and fulfillment.  They are also the most likely to be abusive in the ministry, since in this way people become pawns and the means of achieving their own fulfillment.  On the other hand, a God-centered person fears God and looks to him for both identity and security.  Because they find these things in God and not in men, they are freed to truly become the servants of others.  This was the kind of man that Paul was. 

And again, you see it in the fact that the apostle saw himself as a priest ministering in the presence of God.  As he puts it to the Corinthians, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17).  Note the difference between those who are peddlers of God’s word (using it only as a means to enrich themselves and therefore lying in their claim to serve the Lord) and those who are ministering the gospel in sincerity: it is that those who are the real deal are those who speak the gospel as conscious of being in the presence of God.  Of course every Christian should seek to maintain a walk before God (cf. Gen. 17:1).  We should strive to live coram Deo.  But this is especially important for those, like Paul, who are in vocational ministry.  No one can truly call themselves a servant of God without this God-centeredness.

We need pastors and teachers in the Church who live in a continual awareness of the presence of God.  It is a primary qualification.  Those who lack it should not be in the ministry.  And those who have it should strive to constantly maintain it.  These are men who consequently have a high view of God.  They are men who are holy.  They are men who are happy without being flippant and who are serious without being dour.  They are men of faith and prayer and the word.  They are all these things because they are first and foremost men of God.  We need men like this in our pulpits.  We need pastors and teachers and evangelists and missionaries like this.

A ministry proclaiming the gospel of God

Paul’s priestly service was a service in the gospel of God (16).  All that Paul did, he did so that the gospel of Christ would be preached in every corner of the world (19).  As he puts it in verse 20, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.”  Paul’s ministry, therefore, was fundamentally a ministry of the gospel.

What is the gospel?  Let me remind you.  The gospel is fundamentally the news of what God has done in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.  It is the good news that Christ has come into this world to die for our sins, and to rise again triumphant over sin.  It is not a story of human achievement, but of what God has done through the God-man.  The gospel is not a self-help manual.  It is not something we do to save ourselves but the announcement of the salvation that God achieved.

All this assumes that something is so wrong with man that only God can rescue us from it.  That cause is sin.  Sin has separated us from a holy God, and brought us under his just wrath.  It has exposed us to the fires of hell.  But it has done more than that.  It has deformed us and turned us in on ourselves so that, left to ourselves, we won’t even recognize our need or seek God for salvation from sin.  Instead of humbling ourselves before God, we justify ourselves and blame God.  We are dead in our sins.

It is this situation from which Christ came to rescue us by his death – by taking the punishment that we deserve and purchasing for those who believe all the blessings of eternal life.  Now this is truly good news.  And such news deserves a fitting response.  And that response is the response of faith and repentance.  The gospel not only announces what God has done, but calls us to embrace Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel by turning from our sins and turning to God in Christ by trusting in him for our salvation.  It is this gospel the proclamation of which the apostle devoted himself.

How was the cause of the gospel advanced by Paul?  He mentions “word and deed” and “signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (18-19).  The goal was “to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (18).  This is another way of the apostle’s description of conversion, of seeing the Gentiles brought to faith in Christ (cf. 1:6; 16:26).  Note, in particular, the conjunction of “word and deed.”  Paul not only preached the gospel; he also commended it with his life.  We must have both.  We must preach the gospel with our words and works.  Not one or the other but both!  In addition, it was important especially in the first century, for the gospel to be additionally confirmed by miracles, or “signs and wonders.”  Though we need not expect miracles (though neither should we write them off, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever), yet we must not remember that “the poor have the gospel preached to them” is a miracle in and of itself (cf. Mt. 11:5).  And it is a miracle every time a sinner is converted to Christ.  It is truly only by the power of the Spirit of God that this can happen.

Though we must not discount the importance of what is sometimes called “mercy ministries,” such as feeding the poor, etc., we must also remember that the issue of primary importance for the church is to always proclaim the gospel with our lives and lips, with our words and works.  It is not enough to put food in the belly if the soul is left bereft of Christ.  Even our Lord and his apostles only saw ministry to the body as a pointer to our greater need and the platform for gospel preaching.  People need forgiveness of sin infinitely more than they need healing of the body or a job.  Gospel living and gospel preaching is what the apostle was all about, and it is what any faithful ministry will be about.  Does it describe us?  Does it describe our lives and our churches?

In conjunction with this, the apostle mentions the extent to which he had fulfilled this ministry and his desire to continue it.  He writes, “so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (19).  In other words, he had preached and founded churches in this region which stretched from Judea to what is modern day Albania.  But he wanted to go on: “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (20-21). 

Though God does not call everyone to be a church-planter like the apostle, yet even if we are not personally doing this, we ought as part of the church to support those who do.  It was for this task, after all, that the apostle was seeking the help of the Christians in Rome.  Not every Roman Christian was called to be a church planter, but they could support Paul who was.  In the same way, we ought to have a special care for those who have never heard.  The church is healthy when is it filled with men and women of like spirit with William Carey, who would point at his globe and weep over those who were without any access to the witness of the gospel.

With the apostle, we are to be about preaching the gospel of Christ.  Let us seize every opportunity of doing so.  It is only in this way that we exercise a faithful ministry that honors Christ.

A ministry empowered by the Spirit of God

Paul’s ministry was a powerful ministry.  It was powerful especially in bringing men and women, especially Gentiles, to Christ (17-18).  But it was not powerful because Paul had such a great personality.  We know from other things the apostle has written that he was not an especially impressive speaker.  “Even if I am unskilled in speaking” (2 Cor. 11:6), meaning he was not a gifted speaker.  How then could he exercise an effective ministry?  To what do we attribute his success?  He tells us: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5).  It was not Paul himself, but the Spirit of God, that explains the success of his ministry.

Though we don’t necessarily need to look for miracles of extraordinary healing (again, though I am not saying God can’t or doesn’t do this!), yet at the same time we should be constantly looking for the power of the Spirit to enable our ministries.  If the success of our ministries and ministers can be fully explained by their own natural gifts or by human planning, etc., I worry if they are doing anything that will have any real eternal significance.  God didn’t leave anyone without doubt that he was behind Paul’s ministry.  Note the words he uses to talk about it: “power” – God’s might displayed (19); “signs” – miracles as pointers to the significance of the gospel; “wonders” – the inevitable response evoked upon those who saw and experienced the miracles.  In the same way, we should be looking to the power of the Spirit to enable and bring success to the gospel preached: “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).  This is what we want to want and pray for.

As a result, Paul ascribes all his successes to God.  For it is “in Christ Jesus” that he has a reason to be proud of his work for God (17).  It is only “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (18) that Paul will speak.  It is “by the power of the Spirit of God” (19; cf. ver. 13, 16) that any of this is done.

If we believe (and we should) that conversion is a work of God, and if we believe (and, again, we should) that God is the only one who can carry on and finish the work that he has begun, then the only way faithful ministry can be done is in total reliance upon the Spirit and grace of God.  Now that does not mean that we sit back and wait for God to do all the work.  We are not to let this make us fatalistic.  That is certainly not the effect it had on Paul (1 Cor. 15:9-10).  We are fellow-workers with God – and yet even this is in such a way that only God gets the credit for spiritual increase (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-9).  But the point is that we are to be working in reliance upon God.  I sometimes cringe when I hear well-meaning people say, “Work as if it is entirely up to you but pray as if it is entirely up to God.”  No.  This makes it sound like there are certain aspects that we do and certain aspects that God does.  But the Biblical picture is that in everything that we do God is also working.  In other words, we do all and God does all.  We can’t do anything for God unless God is simultaneously working in and through (Phil. 2:12-13).  So the Biblical balance is this: we work with all our might while trusting completely upon God for the success and the blessing (Col. 1:29).

So godly and faithful ministry is characterized by these three things.  These are not the only things, of course, they are not sufficient, but they are necessary.  We especially need pastors and teachers who are men that live in a conscious sense of the presence of God, who faithfully preach (and live) the gospel, and whose ministries are empowered by God’s Spirit. 

Now, I have spoken primarily in terms of men because I believe that God has ordained male spiritual leadership in the church.  Elders and pastors are to be men.  But that does not mean that the only ministry in the church is to be done by men.  Older women are to teach the younger women.  Priscilla along with her husband Aquilla helped to disciple Apollos.  So no matter what ministry we have in the church, men or women, they really all should be characterized by these things.  As believers, we all have spiritual gifts, and they are to be exercised in these ways.  We all need to walk before God.  We all need to be living and preaching the gospel.  And we all need to be living lives dependent upon the Spirit of God as we look and labor for spiritual fruit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Marks of a Mature Church – Romans 15:14


This verse begins the concluding section of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  In writing this verse, the apostle wants to assure his readers that the exhortations of the preceding chapters were no reflection upon their ministry as a church.  He is convinced of their ability to do ministry; he is persuaded and satisfied of it.  He calls them his “brothers.”  It isn’t that he is trying to flatter his audience, which would have been anathema to the apostle, but he is being diplomatic: after all, he didn’t establish the church and yet he has written to them very strongly (“the more boldly,” ver. 15) at points, exhorting and even rebuking them.  He doesn’t want to risk what he has written falling to the ground by offending the Roman Christians (cf. Rom. 1:11-12).  This was an instance of the apostle’s practice to live without causing offense to God or man (Acts 24:16) – not that the apostle was a man-pleaser, but that he didn’t want to be the reason someone rejected the truth.  It is the same thing here.  Being faithful doesn’t mean that you are careless in the way you speak to people.  God reasons with us, and we are to reason with our fellow man.  God is patient with us, and we are to be patient with our brothers and sisters. 


It is, however, instructive to see in what areas the apostle praises the believers at Rome.  Paul’s diplomacy didn’t mean that he was lying.  He meant what he said about them.  So these things were true of the church in general, regardless of how some individuals in it might not live up to these descriptions.  In these verses we find the general categories that describe a mature church.  What are they?  Well, look at the verse: they are character (goodness), knowledge, and the ability to instruct one another.  This reminds me of another verse and another man, the man Ezra.  In the book that bears his name, we read this description of the man: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).  He studied the Law – that’s knowledge.  Then he applied those laws to his life – that’s goodness.  And then he taught them – that instruction.  The same things.  Then note also the word “for” at the beginning of the verse.  In other words, the character of Ezra was a reason for something that had just been mentioned.  What was that?  Well, the immediately preceding words are “the good hand of his God was on him (ver. 9).  That is, I think what the author is communicating here is that the reason why God’s hand was upon Ezra is to be found in his character as a man who devoted himself to studying and applying and teaching God’s word. 


The application is obvious: if we want to be the kind of person that God will use in ministry, and if we want God’s hand to be upon us, we want to be this kind of person.  And if we want to be the kind of church that God will use in ministry, we want to be this kind of church.  Now I know that people and churches that are wholly lacking in one or more of these things can do things that look good.  The church at Sardis had a good reputationalthough in reality it was spiritually dead (Rev. 3:1).  But this kind of ministry isn’t lasting.  I have been heartbroken recently over the news of a popular Christian apologist and evangelist who lived a deviant lifestyle all the while doing ministry.  And he was able to live this double lifestyle and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes (including my own) until the very end.  It wasn’t until after his death that the truth came out.  And now what of his ministry?  I don’t think it’s worth very much now.  It is so incredibly sad.  It’s like a ravaging forest fire that tears through a beautiful and lush forest and leaves nothing after it but charred and burning remains.  That’s what sin does to ministry.  It will kill it eventually.  Your sin will find you out.   


In other words, don’t mistake busyness with holiness.  I’ve known a lot of people over the years who have been busy doing things “for the Lord” and judging others for not doing it with them and yet end up a spiritual wreck with little to show for all their busyness.  If you want to be a person who experiences the hand of God upon them, you need to first cultivate personal holiness.  That’s what Ezra did.  Notice the progression: he studied God’s word and then he applied it to himself before he taught others.  A lot of people want to go from studying God’s word to teaching it to others, skipping the personal application.  You just can’t do that and expect God’s hand to be upon you for good.  You want to be a fisher of men?  The first step is to follow Christ. 


As members of the local church, we need to strive for excellence in all these categories – not just one or two of them but all of them.  And this is not an address to those in formal “ministry” – this is an address to you.  If you are a believer, this is to you.  Paul was not addressing a subset of the church at Rome; he was talking to all of them.  I want our church to be characterized by these things.  So let’s look at each of these things carefully. 


Character“full of goodness” 


A person who claims to be a Christian and yet who is without goodness is like the person described in Jude 12-13: “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late summer, twice dead, uprooted.”  They have all the appearances of being made of the right stuff – but they are clouds that give no rain, and trees that give no fruit.  They are useless and dead.  In the same way, a professing Christian who is not cultivating character is worthless and useless.  In fact, it’s worse than that – they are dangerous, like hidden reefs that will sink ships and lead to the loss of life and cargo. 


Now it is true that the church is a hospital, and it is worth-while reflecting on that reality by those who want the church and those in it to be perfect.  Thank God that grace brings in not the well but the sick, not the righteous but the ungodly.  Hence, the church is full of people who begin their spiritual journey at great disadvantages, especially those who were brought up in environments that were wicked and pagan.  Christians can and do have faults and still be saved – this is the glory of grace.  But wherever we begin, and some may begin way behind others, the fact of the matter is that grace changes us, and we should be making spiritual progress in our growth in grace and maturity and in goodness.  The trajectory is what is important.  The overall trajectory should be one of growth and progress.  Yes, there will be times when we go backwards, but that is not what ought to characterize us.  What should characterize the Christian is a movement towards greater goodness. 


In other words, growth in goodness is normal for the Christian, and something is wrong if we are not at least wanting to become more Christ-like.  The apostle Peter likens the believer to a newborn baby who wants nothing more than to receive the milk of the word (1 Pet. 2:2-3).  Christians are to be always growing (2 Pet. 3:15).   


To use another metaphor, we are like runners in a race, and as runners we are to be always advancing.  This is a metaphor the apostle Paul uses again and again (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:7).  In a passage which is especially relevant for our purposes, the apostle writes, “Not that I have already obtained this [resurrection from the dead] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.  But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).  This is to be our attitude: constantly striving forward to reach more and more spiritual maturity and Christlikeness.  Certainly, if the apostle saw his need to do this, how much more ourselves?  For there will never be a time this side of heaven that we do not need more growth and more sanctification in our lives and hearts and attitudes.  We all have sins that we need to crucify, and it is the goal of growth in goodness that we continue to work on putting to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). 

Beware of thinking that you are okay where you are at.  This is a very dangerous attitude to have.  For we are always going uphill, and the moment we stop pushing forward is the moment we begin to slide.  One of my brothers was in the Marine Corps, and he told me that one of the last things he had to do in boot camp was to climb up this very steep hill with all his gear.  It was difficult, and at one point he lost his footing and basically rolled down the hill to the bottom.  He had to go up it again.  In many ways, this is an apt description of what it is like in the pursuit of holiness.  Paul puts it this way: he says that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).  In other words, this is something that takes effort.  If you don’t put in the effort, don’t expect to make progress. 


What are we to aim at?  Notice how the apostle puts it: “full of goodness.”  It does not, of course, imply perfection, but spiritual maturity.  This is what we are aiming at.  Maturity is so important, and it is to our great disadvantage when we fail to reach for it.  I mean, look at all the problems that go along with immaturity, with people who remain like spiritual babies, by looking at the problems in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1).  I know there were a lot of reasons behind the problems of that church but the fact that they were still like “infants in Christ” was surely a big part of the problem.  Even with all their gifts and knowledge, they failed to improve upon it – and look at the results! 

Spiritual maturity means that we will be growing in all the graces, not just one or two.  It means balance and you don’t get that by majoring in one or two spiritual disciplines.  It means that we will be striving to grow in humility, faith, love, patience, and so on.  There will be both breadth and depth.  We need both if we are going to be mature. 


Mature Christians are the best witnesses for Christ.  There is an attractiveness to mature Christianity, like the flower in full bloom.  On the other hand, there is a great unattractiveness in immature Christians.  It is like the man in a movie I saw once who only exercised one of his arms – one looked like it belonged to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other looked like, well, one of my arms!  It was, frankly, hard for me to look at.  And it was the imbalance that made it look so awful.  In the same way, when you have a believer who has a lot of Biblical knowledge and yet who is impatient with folks – this is unbecoming and will inevitably turn people away from the Lord and his truth.  Or when someone is devoted to a consistent devotional life and yet does not pursue humility – it will lead to an arrogant and Pharisaical attitude that will inevitably turn people off of the truth. 


But the effect upon ourselves is a good reason in itself to become this kind of person.  For the mature Christian is the Christian who is full of the fruits of the Spirit, things like joy and peace and long-suffering and gentleness and goodness and faithfulness and meekness.  And it will lead to a fruitful and satisfied life in the service of the Lord. 


It should be said that the Lord Jesus is the goal of goodness.  We want to be like the Lord, not in order to gain his favor, but because out of sheer grace and mercy he has made us his own.  We love him because he first loved us and it makes us want to be like him.  It is what it means to be a Christian – to be like Christ.  It is God’s plan for us (Rom. 8:29).   


Knowledge – “filled with all knowledge” 


My friends, we want to be people who are filled with all knowledge.  But the “all knowledge” here doesn’t just mean any knowledge.  It means Biblical knowledge; it means knowledge about the God who has revealed himself and his ways in the pages of Scripture.  So the only way we are going to be filled with all knowledge in the sense in which the apostle is speaking is by being people of the Word.  And it is the only way we will ever attain to the breadth and the depth of the character of which the apostle has just spoken.  Do you want to be man or a woman who is full of all goodness?  Then you need to be a man or a woman who is filled with the Bible.  It is why the apostle wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Do you want to be mature?  Do you want to be complete, equipped for every good work?  Then you must immerse yourself, like Ezra, in the study of the Scriptures.  You must set your heart upon it. 


I know a lot of people think that knowledge is inimical to godliness.  And it is true that knowledge by itself does not guarantee godliness.  Knowledge by itself puffs up.  There are those who are “ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Yet, the converse is not truth.  The Bible makes it very clear that you cannot be godly without having your heart and mind gripped by God’s word. 


For one thing, Biblical knowledge channels grace in the right direction: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).  Notice how the apostle puts knowledge and discernment together.  Together, they help us to approve what is excellent.  It is impossible for us to improve upon our graces without this knowledge.  But with it, we are able to take what we have, improve upon it, grow in it, and develop it further.  Suppose you have two people.  You give them the same seeds and put them in similar environments with the same kind of soil and precipitation.  But one has a knowledge of gardening and the other doesn’t.  Who do you think will improve the soil the best?  Who will get a better harvest in the end?  The question answers itself.  So if you want to be fruitful in the Lord, you need first to be fruitful in the knowledge of the Lord, and that comes mainly through the knowledge of the Word of the Lord. 


My friends, a lack of knowledge of the truth prevents further understanding and growth.  Like the calculus student who cannot do algebra, they will find that maturity is almost impossible because they have not yet matured in the elementary principles of the knowledge of Christ.  It will make us spiritually weak and vulnerable to the deceit of the Enemy (cf. Eph. 4:14). 


Like goodness, we should beware of an attitude that thinks we have “arrived.”  I remember a pastor warning me not to be like preachers that he had known, who had studied well for the first five or so years of their ministry, and then rested upon that knowledge for the rest of their ministry and didn’t continue to learn and grow.  And it reflected in their preaching and in their ministry.  They wilted.  But this is not just warning to preachers: it is a warning for all of us.  It is especially easy in these times of such great ignorance to compare myself with others and to think that because I know more than them, therefore I don’t need to grow in the knowledge of the truth.  But listen, there will never be a time when you know it all.  And even if it were possible to know it all on an intellectual level, we would still never get to the place where we didn’t at least need to be reminded of the truth (cf. 2 Pet. 1:12-15).  The apostle could write Romans to a church full of knowledge because once we have read the Bible, it does not mean it shouldn’t be studied again and again.  Old truths revisited often produce new insights.  And old sin rising up again often needs nothing more than old truths reappropriated. 


We need, like Ezra, to set our hearts upon God’s word.  We need to love it, like the psalmist and the prophet (Ps. 119:97; Jer. 15:16).  Those who love the word will benefit from it the best.  God’s word is not meant to be to us like a homework assignment that we do just to get a grade.  It is not simply a means to an end.  Rather, it is like healthy food that nourishes our souls.  Yes, healthful food is good for us quite apart from its taste but when we learn to love the taste of it, we will sooner eat it rather than junk.  How is God’s word to us?   


But knowledge always needs to be tied back to character.  Truth is not only to be learned; it is to be applied (Jn. 17:17; Ps. 119:59-60).  In fact, truth cannot be truly appreciated until and unless it is applied!  In the Bible, knowledge is often more than just an intellectual apprehension of certain doctrines and statements and propositions.  It means an experiential understanding of those things which can only come by way of applying their truths to our lives. 


Intervention – “able to instruct one another” 


The word “intervention” may not appear to fit the description of this phrase.  However, when we look at the Greek word behind “instruct,” we see that it is one of those rich words that carries more meaning for a single English word to do it justice.  The KJV translates it “admonish.”  That’s a good translation.  But it can also mean to counsel, to teach, or to warn.  It is the word noutheteo, which some of you will recognize as the Greek word behind “nouthetic” as in nouthetic counseling.  It was the word that Jay Adams chose at the term that most closely described what he believed the church wasn’t doing but needed to be doing.  It is the word behind the modern Christian counseling movement.   


For that reason, I think “intervention” is a good word that describes what that apostle is wanting us to do.  By intervention, I mean getting in each other’s lives to help each other along the way – like Christian and Faithful in Pilgrims Progress.  It is part of being a community (Heb. 10:24).  The Christian life is begun and carried on in community (1 Pet. 2:22), just as the natural life begins in the context of a family.  We intervene in this sense in each other’s lives, not by being busybodies or putting our noses into business that is not our own, but by encouraging and exhorting and instructing each other.   


In other words, the goodness we grow in and the knowledge we gain is not just for ourselves.  We are to leverage these gifts of grace for the wider Christian church.  We are not to keep goodness or knowledge for ourselves but to pass them along to others, not to show off but for the purpose of helping others.  Our lives are to be lights so that others see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Mt. 5:16).  Our words are to be filled with grace that edify others (Eph. 4:29).  The church is growing and healthy when we are working together to grow up into Christ (Eph. 4:16).  If we want to, then there has to be this kind of intervention in our lives. 


As a church, we should be actively seeking these things both individually and collectively.  Don’t let the cares of the world keep you from making this a priority. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt. 6:33), and part of that seeking is pursing goodness and knowledge and admonishing each other.  May the Lord make it so for his glory and our good. 

Plans and the Providence of God – Rom. 15:23-33

  It is right to make plans.   Isn’t this what the Proverbs point us to when they call us to consider the ant (Prov. 6:6-11).   In some sens...