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Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Joy of Reconciliation

Romans 5:1-11
Preached Sunday morning, October 31, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

As we go through Romans, we moved last week into a description of the justification Christians have through faith in Christ. Here in chapter 5, we see the richness of the blessings that come with being justified by God. The section we’ll be looking at today encompasses nearly all the main themes we see in Romans: God, love, Jesus Christ, shame, righteousness, faith, justification, grace, reconciliation, peace, hope, joy, glory.

Most of those themes come up in the first five verses, where we see the overwhelming benefits that come through justification by faith. In a sense, justification is the working of God’s grace in the past—at the moment of our conversion. And from that point of past salvation flows a full measure of blessings in the present and future. We’ll look at five.

First of all, we have peace. In this context peace doesn’t necessarily mean some sort of inner feeling of calm. No, the peace Paul is talking about here is one we may not particularly feel as an emotional sensation, but it is the source of the greatest joy we can have. The peace in Rom. 5:1 is the peace that comes when persons are at peace with one another—in this case Christians and Almighty God. If we have been justified through Jesus Christ, we are at peace with God. That is a wonderful condition to be in, because it means we are at peace because of our faith in Jesus Christ, not because of our good deeds. When we are at peace with God we don’t have to continually “renegotiate” our salvation with God (1). Jesus paid it all.

Along with peace, through faith we have access to God’s grace. I don’t know about you, but the idea of access is one that has always appealed to me. When I first went to work at K-25, I came as a temporary, contract employee. Every day I had to go to the guard shack and get a temporary badge. I remember how excited I was to get my own badge with my picture on it, and even more excited later when I got a different colored badge that allowed me to go into more places at the plant. I like the access that comes with being a police chaplain—being where the action is. Some police officers in East Tennessee get the penultimate access this time of year—of getting in free to UT football games. As exciting as those kinds of access are, however, they are nothing compared to the access Christians already have with God. Paul told the Ephesians, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus...” (Eph. 2:4-6). Sitting down, resting in heavenly places—now that’s the ultimate access.

With that access comes its fruits—joy, hope, glory. Paul says “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” We naturally like all these things. But did you notice something about glory here? It’s not our glory; it’s God’s. Most of us are used to hoping for some kind of glory, however small it may be. But in our success-oriented society, what we mean by glory is usually the personal kind. One commentator has pointed out that “Personal glory is common currency in our society. Everybody seeks it” (2). The American Dream is built on the hope of personal glory, whatever form it takes—whether it’s money, power, fame, or even conspicuous service in the church. However ambitious or unambitious we may be, we’re at home with the idea of personal glory. But this idea of God’s glory is something new, something we’re not comfortable with (3). God’s glory is as far beyond personal glory as light is beyond darkness. And the promise we have is that we will, somehow, some day, share in that glory through God’s grace (1 John 3:2). If justification through Jesus is the working of salvation in our lives in the past, God’s glory is the working of salvation in the future (4). And if we remember that any glory worth having comes from God, there is no room in our lives for arrogance or pride.

In addition to the joy in what’s coming at the end of time, Christians are called to rejoice in what may be coming in this life—suffering. Why should we rejoice in suffering? As we see here, for Christians suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. And biblical hope is much more than we usually mean when we talk about hope. It’s not wishing; it’s assurance. Hope is like a bowl of chicken soup in a dark room. Human hope is coming up with a spoon full of broth and wishing that maybe we’ll find meat at the bottom of the bowl. Christian hope is feeling the spoon come up heavy with big chunks of meat. We shouldn’t be surprised that even with the many gifts of God to the justified, we will still suffer for Christ. Our peace is with God, not the world. The world hated Jesus, and if we live Christian lives the world will hate us. In suffering on earth, we share in the character of Christ. And we also share in his hope—eternal life, infinite glory, boundless joy in the presence of the Father.

That hope, you notice, does not put us to shame. Shame is the opposite of boasting, and boasting is a theme in Romans. When we are justified in Christ, we have no more shame for our past sins. That’s a wonderful place to be. As a young Christian I spent a lot of time remembering with shame my past sins. From time to time I still feel stabbings of shame for those sins. Yet in Christ we are called to hope, not shame. We are being sanctified, made holy—that’s the working of salvation in the present (5). We now have something to boast about, but nothing of ourselves, as Paul told the Corinthians: “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).

Paul mentions one more benefit of justification here, perhaps the most exciting of all: the love of God poured into our hearts. That pouring of God’s love directly into our hearts describes a vital relationship between God and us. "This is not a matter of following carefully defined oughts...but of being inwardly connected in such a way that we allow ourselves to be loved the more we are free to ride the flow" (6). As we’ve seen, God’s love for us is not based on our doing anything to earn it, but on God’s love. It’s hard to allow ourselves to be loved for no reason—we want to be loved because we’re smart or pretty or talented or friendly, because we think we deserve it. But that’s not how God loves us. He just pours the love on, pours the love in. Which takes us to the next section.

In verses 6-11 we see something about the nature of God’s love for us. Christ died for the weak, the ungodly. The first three chapters of Romans demolish any idea that anyone is qualified through merit to receive God’s love and blessings (7). No, we are justified through faith by grace, an unmerited gift of the love of God. Here we see a bit of the depths of what that love involves.

Most importantly, Christians are reconciled to God by the death of his son. There is no other way to heaven than through faith in Jesus Christ. “Christ died for us.” Those words say so much. Jesus is the way. I read recently that some members of a mainline denomination have introduced pagan goddess worship under the guise of women’s ministries (8). As we think happy thoughts about joy and hope, and love, let’s be absolutely clear about something. There is no other name by which we may be saved than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). The blood of Jesus somehow justifies us and, amazingly, his bloody sacrifice is an expression of God’s love. As someone once said, "God's love is soaked in Jesus' blood" (9).

But let’s remember that while we are justified through Jesus’ death, we are saved through his life. We seem to forget this at times when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a death-oriented solemnity. Yes, the gospel is about death. But let’s remember that the Gospel is even more about life—of a righteous savior who triumphed over the grave so that we might have life with him. Our faith is centered around not only a blood cross, but an empty tomb. In our worship, let’s not try to leave Jesus on the cross. He has ascended to heaven and goes to prepare a place for us with him (John 14:3).

To go a little beyond our study passage, Romans 5 closes with the reign of God’s grace (5:21ff). That reign is all about life, as opposed to sin and death. In the idea of “reign” we have a good picture of the kingdom of heaven—not a place as much as a rule, a sphere in which we are under the protection and care of God. It also implies a new citizenship, a new way of seeing ourselves in terms of God and the world. Paul will develop that idea further in chapter 12.

Notice also the use of the word “gift” or “free gift” in this chapter. Paul uses that word four times here. Justification and righteousness before God are free gifts, something we have not and cannot earn. That idea is threatening to some part of us. We would prefer to earn our salvation—that’s much better for our egos. But it’s absolutely deadly to our souls. The free gift of God’s grace is the only path to eternal life.

So we see in chapter 5 that God’s grace is expressed in relationship with Christians. In the past his grace was manifested when we were justified with God through Jesus Christ. In the present, we are sanctified through the Holy Spirit. In the future, we will be gloried to share in the joy of heaven (10). The most basic elements of the Christian faith, it seems, come down to relationship: love, wrath, reptenance, compassion, forgiveness, grace, hope (11). Through the grace of the God who wants us to be in relation with him, we have peace, access, and God’s love poured directly into our hearts.

We live in a relationship-poor culture. For decades the forces of the marketplace have been relentlessly persuading us to value having things more than building relationships. This attitude has invaded every aspect of our lives. In the Presidential campaign, many Americans seem to view the election as little more than a choice of which candidate will put the most money in their pockets. Even in the church, some Christians seem to view the local congregation as a commodity to be sought—which one will give me the best music, the best recreational facilities, the prettiest building. I know I’m guilty of this “having” mindset, and I suspect I’m not the only one. So what do we do? How do we move from a having to a relating heart?

The answer is found in the grace of God, which can purify the most corrupted heart. When God’s love is poured into our hearts, he is showing us the real meaning of peace, love, joy. His love shows us what it really means to be alive, to be loved.


1. William Loader. "First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary." Online exposition at
2. James Squire. "Glory, Revised." Online textual analysis at
3. Ibid
4. Thomas Constable. Dr. Constable's Notes on Romans. Online commentary at p. 53.
5. Constable, 51-53
6. Loader
7. Ibid
8. Ted Olsen. “Episcopal Church Officially Promotes Idol Worship.” Christianity Today online, 25 Oct. 2004 at
9. Ronald Goetz. "Jesus Loves Everybody." Christian Century, 11 Mar 1992, pp. 274-77. Online copy at
10. Constable, 53-54
11. John Douglas Hall, Douglas John. "Faith: Response in Relationship." Online sermon text at

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Justified Through Faith

Romans 4:1-8
Preached Sunday morning, October 24, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul pounds the idea home that every one of us, every man and woman, is guilty before God. Whether we are Jews convicted by the Law of Moses or Gentiles convicted by God’s imprint on our consciences, we have sinned. And sinning means being in darkness. In Chapter 3 we began to see the way out of that darkness. Now, in Chapter 4, that way comes clear. This chapter focuses on the patriarch Abraham, who was counted as righteous before God around 2000 years before the letter to the Romans was written. And as we learn here, the way Abraham was counted righteous in 2004 B.C. is the same way we may be counted righteous in A.D. 2004—through faith.

We see at the outset that Abraham had no grounds to boast of his righteousness, either before either man or God. If the letter to the Romans were a work of music, the idea of boasting would be the "melody line" of this section (1). Bear in mind that Abraham was one of the most respected figures of the ancient world. All through the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of Abraham. God had promised to bless Israel and the whole world through Abraham and his descendants. Indeed, during the first century tales of Abraham were told throughout the known world. By being a well know figure of the ancient past, Abraham was one of the Jews' biggest "claims to fame" in the first century. He was so well known, in fact, that even the Spartans in Greece claimed to be his descendants (2). If Paul, then, could show from the Old Testament that Abraham himself had no grounds to boast about his righteousness, then no one else would have any grounds to boast, either (3).

First-century Jewish rabbis taught that Abraham was saved by his obedience (4). Even the idea of faith in Abraham's life was interpreted as faithfulness, and thus was considered a good work. The common perception among Jews of the day was that justification before God was the result of good works, and thus justification was grounds for boasting. That idea, however, is mistaken. In reality, faith in God brings us justification, which bears fruit in our obedience (5). The Jews, being fallen humans, preferred to think they had something to boast about—namely being direct descendants of Abraham. They had already boasted to Jesus about their relationship to the patriarch (Mt. 3:9, Jn. 8:33ff), and they kept detailed genealogies showing their descent from Abraham. In effect, they tried to rest on the laurels of their multi-great grandfather.

Should this kind of behavior surprise us? Many of us today, even if we aren't Jews, take pride in our genealogies. And it seems like everyone who traces the family tree back far enough sooner or later finds a king or prince or some such big shot in the family line. My mother's side of the family takes pride in our Italian ancestors—the Medici, princes of Florence. Several years ago while gathering family records I came across a family history written by my great-great-great-grandfather, who came to the United States from Scotland in the late 1700s. As I was copying his hand-written account, one of my aunts, from the Medici line, asked me to leave out the parts about my ancestors being buried in the potter's field, the poor folks cemetery, of Philadelphia. That little detail just didn't do much for our family reputation. We preferred the princes of Florence to the paupers of Philadelphia.

What's more, even as I was preparing this lesson, I felt a twinge of envy that, like today's Jews, I couldn't claim ancestry from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Much more snob appeal there than in Lorenzo de Medici. I'll admit that I sometimes feel the pull of snobbery in my own life, and I don't think I'm alone. Isn't it funny how a man will act the snob over something he has no control over—like who his great-grandpappy was? Snobbery is usually like that. Ironically, though, Christians can boast about something over which we have no control, you might say. We'll look further at that idea next week.

Yet even the illustrious Abraham was justified not through his good works, but through faith. Faith was the source of his righteousness. In verse 3, Paul uses the Jews' own scriptures to make this point when he quotes Gen. 15:6 — "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." That word for "reckoned" can be translated different ways: imputed, counted, put to his account. All of these choices depict the idea that Abraham's righteousness was something not earned, but given to him by God. If we have any doubts about verse 3, the next two verses reinforce the idea of unearned favor through faith. Faith was the source of Abraham's righteousness before the Law of Moses was instituted. We see also that faith was the source of righteousness in David under the Law of Moses. The implication, then, is that before, during, and after the Law, faith is the means by which a person becomes right with God.

I recently heard it put this way: "Faith itself is not righteousness....It is only the vehicle by which God's righteousness reaches us. However, it is the only vehicle by which it reaches us"(6). This is the central message of Romans, and in fact of the whole Gospel—that salvation is a gift from God that we access through faith. This knowledge also sheds light on the Old Testament. If Abraham and David—the two most prominent and blessed men of the Old Testament—were justified by faith and not works, then why should we think we can be (7)?

Probably because we're geared toward performance. We prefer to earn what we have, not have it given to us. Some people may not have this problem—praise God if you don't. If you're like me, though, your natural response is something like, "Wait a minute. Are you telling me you're blessing me not because I'm good but because I'm bad? Are you saying I haven't done anything to deserve this justification, this condition of righteousness and eternal life?" We want a right standing with God, but it's painful to think we don't deserve it. We'd rather earn it. Isn't it a little insulting to be given something we don't deserve?

But that's grace. It's a gift, a blessing, willingly given by God to people who don't deserve it.

"But wait a minute!" the Pharisee in us exclaims. "Doesn't this idea of being counted righteous when we aren't fly in face of God's own teaching? After all, Proverbs 17:15 says, 'He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.' So why would God do such a thing?"

The answer is that God loves us. He loves us better than we love ourselves, and he treats us better than we treat ourselves or each other. He gives us unearned righteousness because it is the only way we can be righteous once we've sinned, polluted ourselves, disqualified ourselves forever from holy fellowship with God. Only a perfect sacrifice could save us from the hell we chose by our own sin. That's why Jesus died to pay our sin debt. Now it's paid. And if we have faith in God, then "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:13, 14).

That's a wonderful place to be. If we have redemption, forgiveness, righteousness, then we don't have to keep trying to justify ourselves or to impress God. Sad to say, some Christians still try to do just that, to win God's approval by working hard. But it won't work. "You cannot earn the gift of love, but it is yours to take in faith in Christ, fresh every morning"(8) . God loves us and counts us as righteous. Although God does want Christians to grow in righteous deeds, no amount of good work on our part will make us any more righteous or make God love us more. That's worth spending some time thinking about in quiet contemplation.

It's worth thinking about because it's hard for many of us to accept, if we're honest with ourselves. How about you? Do you have trouble accepting the wonderful, gracious gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ? Are you too proud to accept the it? I hope not, because it's absolutely essential for justification with God to accept that our righteousness comes only from God, by grace through faith. As someone once described the Christian life, "The Spirit of God makes us clean and whole and delivers us from drowning before we can swim a stroke" (9).

This passage in Romans 4 ends with some happy thoughts:
Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.
Another translation for "blessed" is "happy." I like those words, because nothing could be more blessed or happy than having our sins forgiven by God and being in fellowship with him. Next week, we'll look at Romans 5 and "unwrap the package" of those blessings (10).

In the mean time, the point of this week's passage is what God credits us with. "What do you want credited to your account? Do you want God to credit you with what you are owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith" (11). The choice is yours.

1. Deffinbaugh, "Basis and Benefits"
2. 1 Maccabees 12:21
3. Keathley; Deffinbaugh, "Abraham"
4. Constable, 42
5. Sweeney
6. Constable, 43
7. Wesley
8. Stedman
9. Lischer
10. Deffinbaugh, "Basis and Benefits"
11. Keathley, 3

  • Constable, Thomas. Notes on Romans. On-line commentary at
  • Deffinbaugh, Bob. “Abraham: The Faith of Our Father (Romans 3:27-4:25).” On-line study at
  • Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Basis and Benefits of Justification (Romans 3:27-5:1-21).”On-line study at
  • Keathley, Hampton IV. “Justification by Faith: The Case of Abraham and David (Romans 4:1-8).” On-line study at
  • Lischer, Richard. "Pick It Up, Read It." Christian Century, 17 Feb 1999, p. 179. On-line copy at
  • Stedman, Ray C. “The Father of Faith.” On-line sermon text at
  • Sweeney, James P. Review of Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5. Review of Biblical Literature 4 (2004). On-line copy at
  • Wesley, John. Wesley’s Notes on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. On-line copy at

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

One thing that sets our faith apart from so many others in the world is that Christians are called to look at the world as it really is, both good and bad. On the one hand, the world is good, created by God. On the other hand the world is fallen, broken, polluted with sin.

Not all religions and philosophies take this view. Some religions say all people are really good down inside, and that there’s no such thing as evil—only an absence of good. At the other extreme some philosophies hold out no hope for real goodness in the world—only animal instincts and self-preservation.

As Christians we, like our Savior, have a responsibility to look at the world with clear eyes. There is a lot of evil in the world. Not everyone we meet is honest or friendly. Not every parent loves his or her child. Some human beings commit unspeakable evils against their fellow human beings. So many things are wrong with this world. But as Christians we are able to face these unpleasant facts, because we know the bad isn’t all there is. The bad news is that we world is fallen, but the good news—the absolutely, stunningly, beautifully good news—is that God loves us.

God reaches out in love to bring us back into relationship with him. He offers us new life in Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit to help us live that new life. In newness of life we have victory over sin—not just forgiveness, but the power to put away our sins and walk in the light. It’s a wonderful, exciting prospect: to live in the power of God’s Spirit and to draw nearer to him every day.

We have more power than we can imagine in Christ: the power to resist the devil, to mend broken relationships, to overcome addiction, to shine the light of Jesus Christ to the world, to know God. That’s the beauty, the joy of discipleship—not only that we have an alternative to this world, but that we have freedom and power as citizens of God’s holy kingdom. Amen!

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, October 11, 2004

God is Righteous and True

Romans 3:1-8
Preached Sunday morning, October 10, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

In our study of Romans we now move into Chapter 3. In the first two chapters, Paul showed how both Jew and Gentile have no excuse for disobeying God. We also saw in Chapter 2 that God is more concerned with character than with ceremony (1). Here at the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul begins an imaginary dialogue with a Jew, as if to answer objections that his fellow Israelites in Rome might have (2). This section is a pivotal point in the letter, because here Paul begins moving from his teaching on God’s condemnation to God’s grace.

And isn’t it about time? This is the third week we’ve looked at God’s wrath on unrighteousness—isn’t it time to move on to a happier subject? Well, I think it’s worthwhile from time to time to really look deeply into our own sin and God’s wrath, because most of the world, most of the time has existed under that wrath. A thorough knowledge of the sinfulness of each one of us—of all humanity—is necessary for a full appreciation of the Christian message. A recognition of our own sin, unrighteousness, fallenness (the bad news, in other words) is necessary for a full appreciation of the good news. Once we know the depths of what God wants to save us from, we can begin to appreciate how wonderfully gracious God is in offering salvation in the church through his Son Jesus Christ.

Still, normal people don’t really want to hear bad news. What’s more, we simply don’t like someone telling us how bad we are. That’s part of the reason we need to hear it—over and over. Left to our own “druthers” we prefer to ignore or deny our own sinfulness, despite those pangs of conscience that God gives to bring us back around.

The lost, those who have not embraced the grace of God, have a special, urgent need to hear about the condemnation of God upon unrighteousness. If they don’t, they have no hope of salvation. It’s up to Christians to raise our voices in truth to tell them, because certain elements in the world are shouting loudly for people not to face up to our sinfulness. In America right now we have a whole culture of psychological excuses for not taking responsibility for our sin. I don’t need to give you a lot of examples; listen to the radio or watch television. Did I do something wrong? Well, it’s my parents’ fault, or my spouse’s fault, or my friend’s fault, or society’s fault. In the past few decades there’s been an epidemic of apparently mature men and women refusing to take responsibility for their own actions. The number of divorces and lawsuits have exploded. We would rather not admit we are wrong, and it’s not hard to listen to the people telling us we’re not. There’s only one problem. If we don’t admit we’re wrong, we simply cannot take the step of repentance that begins to put us right with God.

Christians need to remember the judgement of God, too. If we’re not careful we can forget why we’re really here. When we gather on Sunday morning we’re in our best clothes and on our best behavior. We’re clean and polite, we smile at one another. We’re friendly people and we probably really do have fewer problems than those outside Christ. Like the Jews, we have the benefit of God’s oracles—the Scriptures. And we have the blessing of the New Covenant, the full revelation of God’s love and nature. Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, we’re also tempted to coast. We’re tempted to think that simply belonging to a holy congregation of God’s people makes us godly in our hearts. We’re tempted to believe that we’re good people because we’re nice, not because God’s son died to make us holy.

Christians need to make sure we don’t live up to the world’s unfair, cartoon picture of what Christians are all about. Christianity Today ran an article a few years ago about what the world thinks about us. According to a survey, most non-Christians think they know exactly what Christianity is all about—but most of them really don’t. Many people outside the church think our faith is simply a set of rules we’re supposed to follow to be good people. When I worked at the K-25 plant, one of my co-workers, a non-Christian, challenged me at lunch one day: “You think that because you’re a Christian that makes you better than the rest of us?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just as bad as anyone else. It’s not what I do that makes me good; it’s what Jesus does that makes me good in God’s eyes.” I don’t know that my friend understood what the gospel is at that point, but I believe he was coming to understand what the gospel isn’t. Christians should never forget what we are without the grace, the free gift, of Jesus Christ: evil, lost sinners.

Even when we own up to our own sin, however, we face another challenge to our faith: Do we really believe God is just in condemning us for our sin? So far in Romans, Paul has talked about all of us being without excuse if we sin. In a few verses he will tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The obvious question is, how can God hold us accountable for something everybody does? If everybody sins, then how can we help it if we sin? Would a loving God really condemn us for something we can’t help but do? And there’s another problem. Even if we acknowledge that God is just in condemning sinners, why does he give some of us a second chance in hearing the Gospel, while thousands never have the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation? As Paul anticipated with the Jews of his day, we are tempted to call God unrighteous.

But no. God is righteous and holy. That’s the central message of the entire Old Testament: that God is holy and loving. We must never let our limited understanding of the infinite God make us think his actions are ever unrighteous. If we have faith in God we must accept his holiness and truth. Once we have accepted these qualities of his nature, we see what a great gift he has given us in the Gospel, and how urgent our calling is to tell the good news to every human being on earth.

Here in Chapter 3, Paul anticipates a more subtle challenge to the faith. If our sinning makes God look good, then isn’t our sinning a good thing? If our sins show God’s justice, the argument goes, then God would be wrong to punish us for sinning. Doesn’t that make sense? To paraphrase Paul: Absolutely not! If God is not righteous, then he could not judge the world. As Paul told the Galatians, “God is not mocked.” He is holy and loving, and we if we expect to be in communion with him, we must be holy, too. God may overlook circumcision, but he will not overlook sin (Rom 2:26-29). God is faithful and good and true, and a realization of his nature is the foundation of a redeeming, transforming faith.

Here is the beginning of the good news—the God who is faithful and true. God is faithful to the promises he has made to his people. Two thousand years before Christ, God told Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Gen. 12:1-3). Although God’s people have not been faithful to him through the centuries, God has been faithful to his people. And now, through Jesus Christ, the blessings of Abraham have come not only to Israel, but to us Gentiles as well (Gal. 3:14). God’s promises for his people have expanded in Christ to include eternal life, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God itself, and communion with the Father.

Why would God do such a thing? Why would he continue to offer us these great gifts when humanity has abused and neglected God’s gifts through the centuries? Why did God choose Abraham and his spiritual descendants to bless? Because Abraham and his children deserved it? No. God reached out because of his love. He seeks us out, and he wants to give us blessings—salvation, fellowship, peace, joy. Those are gifts and not wages because we don’t deserve them, we haven’t earned them. And how do we know that God loves us? Because he sent his son to earth to redeem us!

So God loves and blesses us. But let’s not forget that he may also condemn. Simply because we enjoy God’s blessings at the moment is not proof that we will escape punishment. In the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all ate manna and enjoyed all the other blessings from God to his people (Num. 16). But because they rebelled, they fell under God’s wrath. God wants to bless us, but he gives us the freedom to either accept or reject those blessings. Accepting God’s grace is eternal life; rejecting it is wrath and destruction.

God calls us to righteous living. To live righteously we must repent, turn away from our sin and accept righteousness through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul writes on and on about sin. In the first century the Romans, like Americans in our day, lived in an amoral society in which the culture did not acknowledge an absolute standard of right and wrong. God, though, has offered us a standard, both in the law of Moses and the law of conscience. None of us have held perfectly to it—which is why we need God’s grace. The standard of God’s righteousness is nevertheless good, because it forces us to choose where we will align ourselves: with his righteousness or with our own sinfulness? With rebellion or grace? With death or life?

The good news is that the bad news is not the last news. God wants to impute righteousness upon us—that means to give us credit for righteousness even though we haven’t earned it ourselves. We can’t redeem ourselves from sin, because we can’t pay a high enough price. But Jesus can. He is the only one to live without sin, and so he did not owe his life to pay for his own sin. Instead he gave up his life willingly to pay for our sin. He died with our sins upon him, and he rose from death with our life upon him. It’s not up to us—it’s up to Jesus to save us. There’s a wonderful freedom in knowing that truth: that I don’t have to keep trying to make myself good, but that God has made me good through the blood of Jesus Christ. I have new life as a gift from God.

If we have joined ourselves with Christ in faith and baptism, then we have a new life, a new Spirit, a new Kingdom. God has been so good to us. How are we responding to his goodness?

(1) Constable, p. 29
(2) Stedman, p. 56

  • Constable, Thomas L. Notes on Romans, 2004 ed. On-line commentary at
  • Goetz, Ronald. “God is Not Mocked.” Christian Century, February 1-8, 1978, pp. 95-96.
  • “Promise.” Revell Bible Dictionary. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1990.
  • Stedman, Ray C. From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1 (Rom. 1-8). Waco: Word, 1978.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Plumbing the Depths

Our Sunday evening series this fall is on difficult or challenging passages in the Bible. I personally like this series because, if I look at the passages that challenge my own thinking, it gives me plenty to preach about! If you have a passage you would like to study in depth on Sunday evenings, please let me know.

On Wednesday evenings we’ve been exploring some of the depths of Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel. Often Jesus’ words seem to suggest more than one meaning, as when he told Nicodemus that he must be born “again”— a word that in the language of the New Testament could mean either again or from above (John 3:3). In John’s Gospel, whenever Jesus’ words could be interpreted in more than one way, those around him invariably interpreted them in the inferior, less spiritual way. At times Jesus spoke in metaphors, as when he said we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have life (John 6:53). Again, whenever Jesus spoke symbolically like this, more often than not the people around him missed the point.

In looking at Jesus’ words today we have many benefits those in the first century did not: a written New Testament, the wisdom and insight of other believers, and the Spirit of God to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Nevertheless, if we approach God’s word with faith and humility, we’ll find there is still much about God we don’t yet understand. When we study the Scriptures, we find many answers—and many questions, too! The well of the Word, it seems, never runs dry.

I’m convinced God wants more for us to be in communion with him than to simply know a lot of facts about him. Without a relationship with God, our knowledge of his Word becomes simply “rule upon rule, rule upon rule, line upon line, line upon line” (Isaiah 28:13). Still, any good relationship is built upon knowledge. That’s why we need to commit ourselves to daily, careful study of God’s Word in the Scriptures. When we turn our minds to knowing about God—who loves us, seeks us out, and wants to give us his own kingdom—how can we help but want to be in a close relationship with him?

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, October 04, 2004

Got to Hear, Got to Be, Got to Do

Romans 2:12-16
Preached Sunday morning, October 3, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

This week we’re continuing through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Last time, in chapter 1, we saw a picture of how disobedience produces every form of unrighteousness and how sin leads to darkness of mind. Paul had been writing of the shortcomings among Gentiles. Now, in Chapter 2, he begins looking at the shortcomings of the Jews as well. They seem to have felt that simply having the Law of the Lord somehow made them righteous, whether they followed it or not. Paul tells them differently. And in the process here of addressing both Jews and Gentiles, the apostle begins to deliver one of the most sobering and critically important messages in all the Bible.

First, we see that, while the Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses, they nevertheless have another image of God’s law—the law of conscience. In mature human beings, our consciences are those inner voices telling each of us what is right and wrong. Thus our own thoughts “accuse or even excuse” us (Rom 2:15). Because they did not have the benefit of the Old Testament law, the consciences of Gentiles could not be as developed as those of the Jews. Yet every adult human being has some inkling of right and wrong down inside us. As the Christian writer C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book Mere Christianity, not every society agrees on the particular definitions and limits of marriage. But because all human beings have an inner sense of right and wrong, every society has agreed that the commitment inherent in marriage is necessary for a stable society. This passage in Romans simply reminds us that God holds each human being responsible for behaving righteously according to our own consciences—our best understanding of right and wrong. Paul will say more on this later.

In a sense, conscience is both a curse and a gift. The very fact that we know the difference between good and evil is a direct result of humanity’s first disobedience (Gen. 2:15-3:7). Yet now that we have the knowledge of good and evil, God uses our consciences to help bring us back to communion with him. Conscience is the voice of right and wrong, and that can be a good thing if we follow it. Human conscience is far from infallible, but if we really listen to it and follow its guide, we can come to righteous obedience to God. That’s good news.

There’s also very bad news here, though. Although God gives each one of us the ability, through our consciences, to know the good, and to do it, in fact none of us follows it all the time (Rm. 3:23). God’s standard of righteousness is perfection. If we don’t live absolutely sinless lives, we have absolutely no place in the absolutely sinless Kingdom of God. So then, the bad news is that all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death (Rm. 3:23, 6:23). Conscience, then, can show us that we’re doing wrong, but once we’ve done wrong, it’s powerless to save us. That brings us back to the same, troubling message of Chapter 1—that we have no excuse for unrighteousness.

Yet in the knowledge of sin there is hope. In Christians, for example, our consciences guide us on the path of discipleship. Have you ever felt the tingling of conscience say you were going the wrong direction, and as a result you changed? Have you ever lain in bed at night unable to sleep because you knew you were sinning? We’d better listen to that voice of conscience, Christians and sinners both. For Christians, our consciences can be an especially reliable guide, trained and shaped by the Word and Spirit of God.

In the lost person, conscience is part of the first step of conversion. Our internal sense of right and wrong allows us to see our need for God’s grace. When we sin, we ought to feel bad about it. When we feel bad enough, we begin to see the need for repentance. That’s why I don’t consider it my job as an evangelist to stand up and try to make people feel good. Sinning should make us feel bad—especially if you’re choosing sin and death over grace and life in Jesus Christ. As long as we haven’t repented of sin, we should be troubled at the deepest levels of our heart. We should never feel good when we sin. That’s why, I believe, the apostle James urged the recipients of his letter to “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (Jas. 4:9).

If we stop being dejected by our own unrighteousness, we’re in a very bad place. The more we resist the voice of right and wrong, the easier it becomes to sin. If we do it long enough, we eventually get to the point where we don’t recognize right and wrong anymore. That’s what Paul was saying about those who “became foolish in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). God have mercy on us if we ever get to that point.

Simply hearing the voice telling us what we ought to do isn’t enough, as Paul points out in Rm. 2:13. God expects us to demonstrate righteousness in our actions. The Jews in Paul’s day evidently believed that having the law did the trick—that being in the right church, so to speak, was all it took to be righteous. Of course, that’s not true. But do we Christians believe that simply attending the right church makes us righteous? Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the church makes us righteous by some kind of spiritual osmosis. It doesn’t. While we are redeemed only as members of the church, God expects each one of us to be righteous in our own hearts through faith and obedience in Christ Jesus.

The Jews had been proclaiming the law but not living it. There aren’t many things more ugly that those who know the truth but don’t choose to live it. We can excuse the innocent, but not the hypocrite. As Paul told the Romans, being a Jew on the outside is not enough (Rm 2:25ff). Righteous actions are more important than rituals. God doesn’t want circumcision of the flesh, but of the soul (Rm. 2:28,29). Could we say the same thing for Christians? Immersion in water is not enough. God wants us also to be immersed in his will and his righteousness. We need to have not just the name of Christ but also his heart and his Spirit.

Paul reminds us here in verse 13 that our actions confirm our faith. Paul sounds a whole lot like the Apostle James who said, “What use is it, my brothers, for a man to say that he has faith if he does nothing? . . . Even so faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:14, 17). People who read the letters of Paul and James superficially sometimes say that disagree on the roles of faith and obedience in the lives of Christians. No, they don’t. Each apostle, in his own way, explains an important truth. Living our new life in Christ changes us—our souls, our minds, our actions. Our souls are made clean in an instant at baptism. Change in our behavior may move slowly, and it’s always incomplete while we are in these fleshly bodies. But God expects Christians to reflect the image of Christ in our actions. That’s because our actions are images of our hearts.

That’s where our consciences come back into the picture. That voice of right and wrong allows us to look at our actions as reflecting our hearts. How are we doing as Christians? Are my actions demonstrating a changed heart and a new life in Christ?

More seriously, for those outside Christ, are you listening to your own voice of conscience—the voice that says you are being disobedient to God? If so, you’d better heed its message. Eternal life and death lie in the decisions you make.

There is one more absolutely awe-inspiring idea in this passage from Romans. In 2:15 Paul writes that the thoughts of the Gentiles sometimes excuse them. God, it seems, makes allowances for innocent lack of knowledge about his law. But notice what Paul doesn’t say: that these Gentiles have thereby earned a ticket to heaven. On the contrary, “they are without excuse” (Rm 1:21). All of us have sinned (Rm. 3:23), meaning we have violated God’s law even as we understand it. Therefore all stand under condemnation, apart from salvation, who do not call upon the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12, Rm. 10:13). That makes these verses in Romans Chapter 2 some of the most haunting in the Bible.

Every human being without the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lost. And it’s absolutely awful to think that some of our fellow human beings are dying without ever hearing that good news. How could that be? How could God allow anyone to die without hearing the gospel? We’ll look into that question a little more tonight. The answer we see here is that everyone has a chance to live righteously—and everyone blows it. Some of us, for some reason, receive a second chance through hearing the gospel. And God has entrusted the spread of that gospel to us—to fallen human beings. Humans got us into sin and death, it seems, and God is leaving it up to human beings to get us out. That’s why Jesus Christ came to earth as a man.

So spreading the good news of salvation depends on us. As Paul tells the Romans, “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher” (10:14). Eternal salvation depends on Christians spreading the word. Nothing is more important than the gospel. That’s why proclaiming it is of utmost importance. And that doesn’t simply mean proclaiming it from the pulpit. Telling the good news of Jesus Christ is the duty of every Christian everywhere—on the mission field, at the plant, at school, on the golf course—everywhere. The gospel is the best we have to offer to the world, for it “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rm 1:16).

We need to commit to telling the good news. That means bringing the lost here to our worship services to hear the word preached. Better yet, it means telling them ourselves, each Christian here. If you are in Christ, please pray to have the courage, wisdom, and strength to proclaim the good news of Christ to the best of your ability. If you are outside of Christ, come to him to receive the greatest life—and the greatest life’s work—that ever was.

  • Cragg, Gerald R. Romans: Exposition. Interpreter’s Bible.
  • Geisler, Norman. “Who Will be Saved, According to the Word of God?” From When Cultists Ask. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997. On-line copy at Accessed 28 September 2004.
  • Knox, John. Romans: Exegesis. Interpreter’s Bible.
  • McGarvey, J. W. and Phillip Y. Pendleton. Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. Standard Bible Commentary. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1916.
  • Zuck, Roy B. “What About Those Who Haven’t Heard.” Kindred Spirit 18:4 (1994). On-line copy at Accessed 28 September 2004.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ