To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Riches to All Who Call

Romans 10:5-13
Preached Sunday morning, December 19, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

The first four chapters of Romans tell about the wrath of God on unrighteousness. We spent weeks going over that topic—and for good reason. We all deserve God's wrath, because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We saw the futility of trying to be redeemed by the law. Then, in chapter 5, we began to see the glory of being made right with God through his grace, through faith. Last week we heard the glorious secret that God chose us to be saved. Originally God chose the physical nation of Israel to be his people. Now, through the grace of Jesus Christ, God has opened the door of the kingdom to people of every race. Everyone now has an opportunity to be among God’s people.

Here in chapter 10 we’re seeing a fuller treatment of God’s blessings to his people—the riches of God to all who call upon him. The words of today’s text are not a formula for salvation. They are powerful, exciting words of encouragement, hope, and power.

This section of chapter 10 begins with a brief illustration showing us that we don’t need to try and do God’s work. That’s what verses 6 and 7 are about. Why would Paul mention trying to ascend into heaven and descend into the depths? Because that’s precisely the work Christ has already done for our salvation. We can’t possibly do that on our own, but by implication that is what we try to do. We try to do God’s work. Those efforts are useless for two reasons: we can’t do it, and Jesus already has.

It’s the nature of sin to prefer our striving to God’s grace. We'd rather earn what we have than be the recipients of “charity.” In fact, the more “mature” we are in worldly terms, the harder time we have at this. No small part of growing up is learning that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Nothing’s free. You have to work for what you get. That’s the way the world works, and the better we learn to accept that hard little fact, the better we’ll get by in the world.

The problem is that grace doesn’t work that way. Grace is all about getting what we don’t deserve, getting that which we haven’t worked to earn. It’s a gift. See how different grace is from works? We don’t work for it; we just accept it. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Truly I tell you, whoever doesn't receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never get into it at all” (Mk. 10:15). Have you ever noticed the difference in trying to give a gift to an adult and a child? Adults sometimes have a hard time accepting gifts (or at least we pretend to). What do we say when someone tries to give us a gift, especially a lavish one we weren’t expecting? “Oh, you shouldn’t have.” “I can’t accept this.” “Let me pay you something for that.” Not so with children. No matter how undeserved, how unexpected, how extravagant the gift may be, little children usually don’t have much trouble accepting it. That’s the attitude we have to have with Christ.

To a great degree, developing that childlike attitude is a matter of unlearning. One authentic mark of maturity is the ability to take responsibility for all areas of our lives, to work for what we get. The better we learn to do that, the more mature we are and the better we get by in the world. Learning to trust God instead of ourselves, then, is a matter of unlearning otherwise good, helpful habits of mind.

A graduate student in physics once told me that at very advanced levels of physics you have to learn a new kind of math to solve certain physics problems. After spending twenty years learning arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, and the like, there comes a point where you have to lay all that aside and work problems in a totally new way. The highest levels of physics, in other words, require coming at certain problems in new ways, like little children. When it comes to life in the spirit, trusting God is the “graduate school” of real maturity.

Trust, not striving. Salvation is not about striving, at least on our part. Salvation is a gift that we don’t deserve and yet have the opportunity to receive anyway, through faith. What does striving get us? High blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, ulcers, damaged relationships. That striving to prove ourselves worth of God’s salvation is really rebellion—and a childish kind at that. Our struggles to be right with God based on our actions, rather than God’s grace, are the spiritual equivalent of a two-year-old child refusing mama’s help while shouting, “No! I do!”

So what do we do if don’t strive to act righteously before God?

We relax and let God be God. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, has done the work of salvation. He came down from heaven. He lived and died to take our punishment. He descended into the grave. He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, our living savior. We don't have to try to repeat that or any other work of salvation. That work has already been done by Jesus. Our work is believing, accepting, confessing that good news. We do have work to do, yes, but it is a work arising out of our salvation, not a requirement to receive that salvation.

Salvation, according to this passage, is a very simple process: believe and confess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. That's it—believe and confess.

“But wait a minute,” we might be tempted to ask, “what about repentance? What about baptism?” Good question. If we're looking for a full doctrinal treatment of salvation, this passage looks incomplete. We stress the importance of baptism for good reason, and this is one of those passages that some people use to devalue baptism, or even repentance. Why does Paul talk here about belief and confession without repentance and baptism? Probably because he's trying to address an issue in the Roman church, not write a comprehensive treatise on Christian doctrine. There's something very beautiful here if we don’t force into our doctrinal boxes. This passage is not about technique (hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized). It's about relationship—one that fundamentally involves acknowledging Jesus' lordship over our lives. I know you may hear that idea of relationship a lot lately, but it's really nothing new. Ever since the days of Adam and Eve it has always been God's desire to have communion with us, the creatures he made in his own image.

There is nothing better in heaven or on earth than a loving relationship with Jesus as our Lord. Yet the bulk of humanity chooses the poverty of independence from God over the riches of communion with God. The first and most important step of that relationship (at least on our parts) is a belief that Jesus really deserves to be our Lord.

We're at the rock bottom ground of the Christian walk here. Belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the conduit from which every good thing arises in the life of a Christian. Without it, all our actions—including confession and baptism—are useless to save us. But with real belief, real faith, real trust, then repentance and obedience must follow.

That belief is a pretty high standard, though, because, as we're told in v. 9, we’re called to believe in our hearts. In this case, the heart is not a physical bodily organ, and it's not the soft, squishy, indefinite part of us we. It's the very center of our beings, the place from which all our thought and actions radiate. The belief that saves is not a vague feeling or an intellectual idea. It is central to who we are. A saving belief in Jesus Christ is not like breakfast cereal, "one part of this nutritious breakfast." Faith is not one more trophy we put on the shelf of a responsible, respectable life in society. No. For Christians our faith in Jesus Christ is the door to the shining light at the center of our beings—the light which shines in the darkness, and which the darkness cannot overcome.

Well, if saving faith is such a high standard, how can we attain it? How can we be sure we have it? First, let's remember where faith in our hearts comes from. It, like our righteousness, is imputed by God (Eph. 2:8). God has given Christians faith in him, and it's there despite our feelings at any given moment. Even if we doubt our own faith, our concern with having faith is evidence that we do indeed have it.

Our faith can be weak, however. Remember the man who cried to Jesus, “‘I believe; help my unbelief’” (Mk. 9:24)? If we're troubled that our faith is weak, we don't need to despair. We can grow even in our faith and salvation, as Peter pointed out: “Like newborn babies, thirst for the pure milk of the word so that by it you may grow in your salvation” (1 Pe. 2:2). We should also cultivate the ground so that the seed God planted in our hearts through the Word might grow and bear fruit (Mt. 13:22). That’s where righteous action comes in. Righteous action can't help you gain salvation, but ungodly action can lead us away from God. As Peter also said, "Therefore, rid yourselves of every kind of evil and deception, hypocrisy, jealousy, and every kind of slander” ( 1 Pe. 2:1).

One other point to consider: Why the importance of confession? How does it relate to belief? Why these two actions and not repentance and baptism? Well, for one thing, confession by natural consequence includes repentance. In confessing that Jesus is our Lord we are repenting of the fundamental sin of denying his lordship, of trying to live our lives without him. Confession and repentance, then, are belief as intention. Baptism is belief in action.

This confession is an ongoing one that continues throughout the life of the Christian, not simply some baptismal formula at the beginning of the walk. It’s the confession Jesus told us about in Mt. 10:32,33: “Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before people I, too, will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before people I, too, will deny before my Father in heaven.” That passage, by the way, should frighten anyone who refuses to confess Jesus. On the other hand, it’s not intended to frighten Christians. Those words of Jesus are given in the context of helping his people not be afraid, and remember that we matter to the Lord of all creation. He’s taking care of us and wants to bless us.

Here in Rom. 10 we see that Jesus is “bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (v. 12). That’s an interesting word choice, “riches.” Jesus repeatedly warned against concern with the world’s riches. We’re repeatedly called to give those riches up. Paul seems to have enjoyed writing about the heavenly riches we will then have through God’s bounty. Elsewhere in his letters Paul wrote about the riches of God’s goodness & patience (Rom. 2:4), of His glory (Rom. 9.23), of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom. 11.33), of his grace (Eph. 1.7), and of his inheritance (Eph. 1.18). What form do those riches take in a life of a believer? What are the rubies of grace, the emeralds of goodness, the diamonds of glory?

Well, arising from faith in Jesus Christ the Christian can expect at least five fundamental blessings. We can remember each by their first letter.
Purity. We know that the blood of Jesus washes away our sin so that we can stand before God without condemnation (Rom. 5:9, 8:1).
Protection. We know that we’re saved from destruction and that God cares for us day-by-day (Rom. 8:28).
Purpose. We know that our lives have value and meaning, and that we have a reason and goal for living (Rom. 6:13-19).
Power. We have God’s Holy Spirit with us, bringing the power that comes from being in fellowship with God, the power to move mountains (Rom. 8:2-4).
Pledge. We know that God is preparing to give us an even more glorious inheritance—the very kingdom of God (Rom. 8:14-17).
In chapter 9 we saw the sovereignty of God expressed in his calling of sinners to salvation. Here we see that the riches of God’s kingdom are available to everyone who calls on the name of Jesus Christ.

These heavenly riches are better than anything the world has to offer—better than money, status, respect, fun, pleasure, financial security. That’s why in the New Testament we see a picture of the streets paved with gold (Rev. 21:21)—the most precious things on earth are like dirt and rock in heaven. In the Bible we see the call over and over again for us to give up earthly riches to receive the better, heavenly ones.

When I was a boy I studied karate. Every few months our instructor’s instructor would come to the karate school to hand out new belts. Those belts were hard to come by, and moving up to the next color belt was always exciting. During the promotion ceremony, everyone to be promoted would line up, and the head teacher would call each person’s name in turn. That person would step forward, and the instructor would tell him to take off his belt and throw it aside, into a pile of old belts. For a moment the student stood there, without any belt, without any visible sign of the hard work he had done. But in an instant the new belt was around his waist—a newer, higher, more coveted rank. It was easy to give up the old belt because the student knew a better one was on the way. In one sense, that’s what God calls us to do in giving up earthly riches to pursue righteousness. And for those who believe firmly in the lordship of Jesus Christ, the casting away is as easy as dropping an old belt into a pile.

Riches—God wants for us riches, not rules. The fact that he wants to bless us with the riches of his kingdom shows us something about God’s character. He doesn’t want to give us a long to-do list; he wants us to be with him in fellowship. We slander God when we pretend by our childish striving that he wants rules for us. Belief and confession aren’t hoops to dive through, bars to jump over. God wants riches for us, and every act of obedience, from belief and confession through taking up our crosses and following Christ, is preparing ourselves more fully to receive them when the time comes.

One more point. This emphasis on the condition of our hearts is dangerous doctrine. Works may not save us, but at least you can see them and keep count of them. It’s so much easier to focus on baptism, attendance, right doctrine than on the true condition of our hearts. It’s easy, too, to fool people into thinking our hearts are right with God based solely on our works. Yes, we can fool others, we can even fool ourselves, but we can’t fool God. He searches our hearts, and he knows the faith that is or is not there (Rom. 8:27).

The emphasis on our hearts may be dangerous, but it’s also liberating and life-giving. When we trust in God’s grace through Jesus Christ we come to see that our relationship with God is fundamentally based not on our effort, but on God’s. Jesus Christ has done the work of salvation. It’s our work to accept that salvation, to believe in Jesus Christ, and to grow in all the riches and good works that arise from confessing that faith.

I urge you to accept that salvation. Let your heart be changed. Step into the riches of God’s grace.

David Lipscomb and J. W. Shepherd, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, vol. 1., Romans, 2nd ed. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950, pp. 190-91.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


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