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 reputation, although 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.