To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, December 27, 2004

The Kindness and Severity of God

Romans 11:17-24
Preached Sunday morning, December 26, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Chapters nine through eleven of Romans deal with the question of God’s Old Testament promises to Israel. Specifically, if the church is the new people of God, what about the promises God made to Israel through Abraham and the patriarchs (Gen. 17:4-)? Are the Jews still God’s people, or have God’s promises to Israel somehow been taken away? The answer is, quite simply, that the ethnic nation of Israel is still God’s people (Rom. 11:1). But while God has not rejected them, they have for the most part rejected him [1]. Drawing on imagery from the time of Elijah, Paul points out that even after the majority of Jews had rejected Jesus the Messiah, there is still a remnant of faithful Jews (11:5). To make sense of the teaching here on God’s people, it helps to keep in mind that there are, in a sense, two Israels—one ethnic, the other spiritual (9:8). Gentiles have no part in the first, but do indeed enjoy the benefits and promises made to the second [2].

God’s promises are still in place for the “tree” of Israel, but new branches have been grafted in. Those branches are the Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. Notice that there is only one tree, not two. God did not cut down the old tree of the Jews and plant a new tree for Christians. Both Jews and Gentiles are part of the same tree. In fact, it is only through the failure of the Jews that salvation is offered to the Gentiles (11:15). What’s more, eventually all Israel will be saved (11:26). That does not necessarily mean that Christians must support Israel as a political or geographic entity. In context it is clear that Israel will be one day reconciled to God in the same way Gentiles are reconciled today—through faith in the Messiah, Jesus.

In the meantime, God is delaying the full inclusion of the Jews so that the “full number” of Gentiles may be reconciled to God (11:25). Till that time, these words of Romans 11 offer both encouragement and warning to all who look to Jesus Christ for our salvation. These words are a reminder of God’s grace in bringing us into a saving relationship with him, of our obligation to continue in the faith, and—most importantly—of God’s character as loving and holy.

Paul uses two metaphors to describe the chosen nation of Israel. In verse 14, we see Israel described as a lump of dough. This image recalls the language of Numbers 15 describing the heave offering Israel would make to God in thanksgiving. The image developed more completely, however, is of the olive tree, an image also found in the Old Testament [3].

That olive tree is Israel, the chosen people of God. Biblically, the Jews would be familiar with this image from Jer. 11:16 and Hosea 14:6. On a more practical level, every Christian in Rome would be familiar with the olive, the most cultivated fruit tree in the empire. In this imagery, the root of the tree is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while the trunk is ethnic Israel [4]. Some branches of the Jews have been cut off for their unbelief, while other branches of Gentiles have been in-grafted based on their faith in Jesus (Rom. 11:17).

Notice that Paul does not say that the Gentiles of the church are now Israel, although he does makes it clear that we have been grafted onto the same tree [5]. Although in one sense there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in the “spiritual” Israel (Rom. 10:12), Paul is still holding out a special hope for his own kinsmen, the ethnic people of Israel. We Gentiles worship the God of Israel and enjoy the benefits of the Old Testament promises to ethnic Israel [6]. At the same time, the wild olive branches of the Gentiles maintain a distinct identity [7]. Yet all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are God’s people through faith in Jesus Christ. Did any of us, Jew or Gentile, earn that wonderful status? Of course not. Salvation depends not on our effort, but on God’s mercy (9:16). The Gentiles are included only because of a special act of mercy from God. Like the banquet of Matthew 22, the invited guests (the Jews) were found to be unworthy of their invitation, so the call went out to everyone (Gentiles) to come to the feast.

For that reason, Paul warns us, we should not be arrogant. The warning is worth remembering, because Christians seem to find it so easy to forget. Historically, Christians have often been savage to the Jews. At times Christian abuse of the Jews has moved from hatred and bigotry to large-scale murder. How terrible, and how darkly ironic. At the time of Christ, the Jews considered themselves God’s own favorites because of the patriarchs and thus despised the Gentiles. In the centuries that followed, Christians have considered themselves God’s favorites because of faith and thus despised the Jews [8].

The Jews were blinded by pride in their physical ancestry. Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by our spiritual ancestry? Paul saw the danger of Christians becoming puffed up regarding their faith. If we allow ourselves to fall into that trap, where our faith becomes a work of our own righteousness, we are the same as the Jews who allowed themselves to be cut off from God’s promises. Both cases involve taking pride in one’s position. Biblically, of course, the only legitimate pride is in the goodness of God [9]. Christians who pride ourselves in obedience to God’s Word must be especially careful to avoid the sin of arrogance. Our position of righteousness before God is not a reward of faith—it is a gift from God (Rom. 5:17).

And what a gift it is! We are made righteous before God, able to enter his presence with the confidence that our sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus the Messiah (Heb. 10:19). We have vital communion with him, may draw nourishment from him (Jn. 15:5). It is an unspeakably great gift—an unearned, but not unqualified gift.

How do we know it is not unqualified? Look at verses 20b-21, “So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” These are harsh words that remind us of Jesus’ own teaching in John 15:6—“Unless a person abides in me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. People gather such branches and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” We need to remember these rather harsh teachings of God’s Word. If earlier generations of Christians stressed God’s wrath at the expense of his love, we need to make sure today that we don’t do the opposite. Both the wrath and mercy of God are equally a part of his dealings with mankind. Paul explains these two qualities of relationship as the “kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). Both of these sides of God’s relationship to man reveal an essential part of his nature: God’s love and holiness. His love manifests itself to us as mercy, while God’s holiness is manifested as his severity against arrogance in all its forms [10].

Here, in the face of that mercy and severity, is where the necessity of Christian discipleship comes into play. Severity is in store for those who have fallen, while God’s kindness is reserved for those who “continue in his kindness.” It’s pretty clear from Romans that while God’s salvation is not won by our goodness, it can be lost by our arrogance and rebellion. We must “continue in his kindness” unless we want to be cut off from the people of God.

And how do we continue in that kindness? What does God require of his people that they not be cut off from the tree of salvation? First, we need to remember that God’s love does not do away with his holiness. We have to join him in his holiness to enjoy the blessings of his love. This is fundamental to Christian discipleship. As we saw in chapter 10, faith in Jesus as Lord is basic and essential to salvation and discipleship. That belief, by its nature, includes repentance and results in obedience. In our baptism we are cleansed and made holy through the grace of Jesus Christ; we take on the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness we do not deserve but which is imputed to us by grace. Our response to that grace should be one of gratitude and joy. If, then, we try to make our faith a work that earns us salvation, we are rejecting God’s grace. Faith is a way of accessing God’s gift of salvation, not a way of earning it.

That’s what continuing in his kindness means—remembering his gift of grace and expressing that remembrance in mind, heart, and action. Our obedience and worship is not a way to gain his kindness, but to continue accessing the kindness he has shown us through faith in Jesus the Messiah. It is then natural to ask, How much obedience does God require? How good do we have to be to continue in his kindness?

Those are reasonable questions, but not ones we really need to worry about. God does not play “Gotcha!” When it comes to severity and kindness, God has made it clear through every page of Scripture which one he prefers to express toward mankind. God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Ti. 2:4). God is “merciful & gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God desires so much for us to remember this fact that he tells us not once, not twice, but five times in the pages of the Old Testament (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:16, 103:9, 145:9; Joel 2:13). God wants us to continue in his kindness, and he will help us to do so (Rom. 8:28).

In being on the tree of the chosen, we are called to share in God’s own character. We are called to show mercy to one another (Lk. 10:37) and live at peace with all men (Rom. 12:18). We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). We are to do good to all persons, especially our fellow Christians (Gal. 6:10). Why? Because in doing so we reflect the character of our Lord, and we continue in his kindness. And what a kindness it is! Let’s rejoice—and continue—in the wonderful gift of that kindness and love.

1. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2, College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1998, p. 204.
2. Cottrell, 205.
3. Cottrell, 249.
4. Ibid.
5. Thomas Constable, Dr. Constable’s Notes on Romans. Online commentary at, p. 122.
6. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972, p. 396.
7. Constable, 122
8. John Phillips, Exploring Romans: The Gospel According to Paul. Chicago: Moody Press, 1969, p. 170.
9. Nygren, 401.
10. Cottrell, 259-60.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

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

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Righteousness Through Faith

Rom. 9:30-33
Preached Sunday morning, December 12, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Do we really care about righteousness? Most of us care about salvation—about going to heaven instead of hell—but do we really care, deep down, about righteousness? On Wednesday evenings we’ve been studying how pagans in New Testament times thought that blessings came not to those who pursued righteousness, but to those who simply performed the correct rituals. Do we ever fall into the same boat? Or do we hunger and thirst for righteousness?

This passage in Romans 9 is simply full of the idea of righteousness; Paul mentions righteousness three times in the first two verses. As we’ve seen, the idea of righteousness is central to the book of Romans—and to the Christian life. Righteousness can have two meanings in Romans. It can mean either righteous behavior or righteous standing before God [1]. We probably think more often of the first, but the second is really more important and is in mind here. It’s hard to imagine anything more important for us, because right standing with God is basically the same as salvation. Yet as central as righteousness is to our salvation, it is still a very misunderstood concept, among both Christians and the lost.

We can see here part of the reason why it’s hard to understand. It doesn’t make sense. Verse 30 says that Gentiles, who weren’t even trying, attained righteousness by faith. That statement must have been a huge shock to the Jewish Christians in Rome. They lived day-by-day among the excesses of paganism—the futile worship of false gods, the officially sanctioned immorality of pagan cults, the total disregard for righteous living or pleasing God. Things are upside down here—the Jews, who refused to take part in worldly abominations, are lost. And the Gentiles, the pagans who had no compunction about sinning, are saved. How unfair is that? Things are totally upside down.

But God works like that sometimes, doesn’t he? In the Old Testament, God had a habit of choosing the younger brother over the older to receive an inheritance. In the New Testament we hear a story of laborers working one hour being paid the same amount as men who worked at the same job all day. Jesus said that the poor in spirit would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. How could God approve of all those things and still be fair?

Well, for one thing, God’s not “fair.” The Bible never calls God “fair,” and there’s a reason for that. He’s much more than fair, actually. He’s just, and loving, and good. He wants more than “fairness” for us. He wants the best for his people, and sometimes that doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least at first, to our minds. But remember what Paul said to the Corinthians? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). The truths of God look upside down to worldly minds and hearts because God they are contrary to the way the world works.

Let’s remember another central idea in Romans: that righteousness is a gift from God to his people. Maybe one of the reasons God isn’t fair is to remind us of this gift. The Gentiles weren’t even trying for righteousness, but some of them attained it. What did they do to deserve it? Nothing, of course. It was a gift. But they did have something they had to do, you might say— Have faith! Believe! Trust!

And what kind of sense does that make? How can simply believing some fact save us? Well, of course it can’t. The faith in this passage must be more than simply believing something mentally. Even the demons do that, and it certainly doesn’t help them (Jas. 2:19). It must be something more—faith that takes feet. Jesus often healed sick persons and told them their faith made them well. But their faith had to lead them, first, to come to Jesus and, second, ask him for help. For our faith to be saving and sanctifying it must be a faith that brings us to Jesus. It must bring us to repentance (faith in commitment) and baptism (faith in action). Yet despite all these things we ourselves must do, our sanctification is still a gift from God and not wages for our good behavior.

Even Christians struggle at times with that idea. Have you ever heard a Christian say, “If I’m good enough to get to heaven . . .”? Have you ever spoken that way yourself? Part of growing up in an earthly sense is coming to know that you have to work for what you get. That’s a lesson that many people still need to learn. But when it comes to salvation, we need to get rid of the idea that we can earn it. We mustn’t even come to think that faith is a work for salvation. See verse 16: “Therefore, God's choice does not depend on a person's will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy.” Our works are not our salvation. Our faith is not even our salvation. Christ is our salvation.

The Jews failed to attain righteousness because they pursued it as if they could earn it. Again, that is the natural way to go about it. If you want something, you’ve got to work for it. That’s usually true, but not always. It’s fascinating, for example, to compare the baseball careers of Carl Yastrzemski and Babe Ruth. Yaz played 23 seasons for the Red Sox. He had more than 3400 hits and 450 home runs. A big part of his success came from how hard he worked at baseball. He ate well, kept himself in top physical condition, and practiced and practiced even after he became a major league all-star. Yet his best accomplishments simply can’t compare to Babe Ruth’s. And the Babe was the opposite kind of player. He ate and drank too much, kept himself overweight, ran around into the wee hours of the morning, and still stepped up to the plate and delivered like no other player before or since. Yaz attained baseball greatness by works, but the Babe’s achievements were a gift, by grace, you might say. Some things in life do indeed come to us only by grace. Righteousness is the most important one of all.

This passage in Romans 9 is specifically about the Jews’ inability to understand righteousness through grace. The misunderstanding is not limited to Jews, as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. In Gal. 3:1-3, for example, Paul chides Christians: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you. . . . Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” That is where our thoughts and actions naturally gravitate to—the flesh. The antidote to that tendency, Paul showed the Colossians, is to “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). Notice that Christians are to put on these qualities not as those striving to be chosen by God, but as those already chosen. We are to do good works as an act of love and gratitude, not as a means of earning righteousness. Paul went on to tell the Colossians, “And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:15b-16).

We will fail as Christians if we put anything, even faith, restoration, godliness, or good works, in place of the Lord’s grace. That may be hard for us as Americans to accept. We pride ourselves as a nation on our hard work and self-reliance. But if we, like the Jews of Paul’s day, try to pursue righteousness by any kind of worthiness, we’re just running in place. Remember verse 16: “Therefore, God's choice does not depend on a person's will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy.”

Trusting in Jesus Christ as our righteousness is so hard, the Bible calls Jesus a stumbling stone. Here Paul is talking specifically about the Jews, who stumbled over Jesus as the only means to righteousness. There are probably a couple of different reasons the Jews missed the point. For one thing, they had been looking at the law so intently, they missed the message of grace that’s found in the Old Testament. Secondly, they took great pride in their ethnic heritage—in being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Someone has suggested that the Jews made the mistake of thinking God “liked” them [2]. Well, the Bible seems to say that God didn’t necessarily always like the Jews, but he always loved them! It’s the same with Christians today. I’m not sure God always likes us, but he always loves us. Christ is still the stumbling stone for unbelievers today, whether Jew or Gentile. I know that the stumbling stone tripped me up as a teenager making my own bumbling way to God. I could accept Jesus as a helper to assist me in doing better, but it took some time to accept him as the savior who gives me a righteousness and salvation I don’t deserve. I’ve know others who struggled in the same way.

One young man I knew came forward for prayer after a Bible study. He kept saying “I want to be better,” but he simply couldn’t accept his need for total repentance and regeneration through baptism. I’m afraid he was looking for righteousness and salvation on his own terms. There are thousands of ways to do that in the world. Whole industries are devoted to keeping our mind away from the only One who can possibly save us. The world still looks in the wrong place, and pride still blinds the eyes of those who refuse to surrender all they have and are to Jesus Christ. Jesus is still the stumbling stone for the lost.

But for Christians, for those who have already allowed ourselves to be broken on that stone, Jesus is our righteousness, and the rock of our salvation. If we believe in him we will not be put to shame (v. 33). Do those words about shame carry any weight in our shameless society? On Wednesday evenings we’ve been studying how much honor and shame mattered in the first century. Today many of us still know shame, particularly persons who have experienced abuse or molestation as children, or failure at any time in our lives. Of course, all of us deserve shame for our sin. We’ve all sinned, and are subject to shame. Those living outside of Christ ought to pay attention to that shame and repent and be baptized before it’s too late. But shame is not what God wants for those who have begun a new life in Christ. God is not looking down and wagging a finger at Christians saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” No. God wants to share his righteousness with us.

That’s God’s nature, to love us and want us to be like him—righteous and pure. He is the only one who can make us that way. True righteousness is a gift. I urge you to take it up and live the glorious life God wants for us.

1. Gerald R. Cragg, "The Epistle to the Romans," exposition, The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon, 1954, p. 551.
2. Ray C. Stedman, "Let God Be God." Online sermon text at

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Glory of Our Weakness

Romans 8:26-30
Preached Sunday Morning, December 5, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

May I see a show of hands—how many of us here are proud of our weakness? How many like to talk about our shortcomings?

If we really face up to the tasks before us, particularly as Christians, we can easily be overwhelmed by a sense of our own weakness: more sick brothers and sisters than we can visit and pray for, more needy people than we have time to help, too many lost souls to reach in one lifetime, more worthy causes than dollars to fund them. In fact, many Christians find that the harder we try to live godly, Christian lives, the more weak and ineffectual we find ourselves to be.

That’s where we begin today in our lesson text—with our weakness as Christians. It’s not always easy to face our frailty, but when we do we can receive a blessing from God. After beginning with weakness, this passage ends on a much more powerful note. As we’ll see, there is joy, power, and glory arising from our frailty, because in our weakness comes the very strength of God.

We see here, first, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. That weakness can take a couple of different forms, as we’ve already seen in Romans. For non-Christians it manifests itself in slavery to sin in all its forms (Rom. 1-6). For Christians, our weakness shows itself in a failure in the flesh to live up to our calling as righteous children of God (Rom. 7). We’ve all heard people, usually outside or on the fringes of church, criticize men and women in the church for their failures to live godly lives. Well, it certainly is a serious and sad event when Christians sin, but it also happens to be why we need the church—to build one another up, to encourage one another and help one another be conformed to the image of Christ. Let’s praise God that the church accepts us—and more importantly, that God accepts us—as weak and sinful as we are.

Specifically here in Rom. 8:26, Paul is talking about our weakness in not knowing how we ought to pray. There are two possible meanings here: either we don’t know how to go about praying, or we don’t know what to ask for when we do pray. Both are probably true for all of us. For one thing, God wants us to come to him in prayer with faith and not doubt (Mk 11:24). He also wants us to pray according to his will (1 Jn 5:14). In both of those areas Christians often fall short—at least I know I do. I suspect that’s why we don’t see a lot of mountains splashing into the ocean (Mk. 11:23). It’s too easy, even for Christians, to pray in feeble hope rather than rock-solid faith. It’s also easy to pray simply for what we want rather than what God wants for us; we know that even Paul and Jesus himself didn’t receive what they asked for when they prayed that way.

So Christians are weak in our prayers. Yet here we see the source of our strength: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Interceding—that means serving as our go-between to reconcile us with the Father. Have you ever had a serious situation—an illness, an injury, perhaps someone in your family was near death—and you asked every Christian you knew to pray for your loved one? We do that all the time with our prayer list, and that’s a very good, very powerful force when God’s people join their souls in bringing common prayers to the Father. But think of this: for Christians, the Holy Spirit sees the “prayer lists” of our hearts, and takes our petitions directly to the Father in language too deep and holy for us to understand.

Now that’s power! That’s the kind of prayer partner for me. Because we are loved and gifted by God with the Holy Spirit, our prayers become prayers not of weakness but of power.

Notice that the Spirit intercedes in groanings too deep for words. There’s a lot of power in words. God has spoken to us through the words of the prophets and the writers of the Scriptures. It’s no coincidence that both God’s oracles to us and God’s own Son are called the Word. But some truths are too deep for words, some messages too profound for language. Have you ever been sick or troubled and someone you loved just stayed there with you, without saying a word? There are times when the help we need is so great that it goes beyond anything language can do for us. That’s precisely the kind of help we get from God through the Holy Spirit’s intercession.

That’s also a clue to the secret of a right relationship with God. We benefit from the Spirit’s power, not our own. In other words, we don’t come to God the Father alone. We come with the help of the Spirit through the grace of Jesus Christ. All through this section of Romans we see the theme of intimate dependence on God. God wants a relationship beyond words—a relationship deep down in the heart. The Father searches our hearts—and Christians can rejoice that he sees the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to make us right with God.

In verse 28 we see another manifestation of God’s loving relationship with Christians: in everything God works for good for his people. There are a couple of different ways to translate this verse. The King James version has “all things” as the subject: “all things work together for good to them that love God.” The New International Version has God as the subject: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Both are correct, but I think the second is better, because it makes it very clear where the credit goes. The point here is the sovereignty of God, and his loving care for his people. God is in control, and he’s taking good care of us. That’s important to remember, because most of the time when we look around us we simply don’t see it. The world around us is full of sin and chaos, and judging by our own best efforts, things often look very bad.

Still, it’s of utmost importance for Christians to trust God on this one. The Scriptures tell us, over and over again, that God is in control, whatever our eyes and our minds say. If we believe only what our own experience tells us, we will miss out on the sanctifying blessings God has in store for us. Christians are called to be conformed to the image of Christ, and we simply can’t do that if we don’t trust God to do what he has promised. We have to make up our minds that, whatever our own perception tells us, God is somehow in control to bring about good in our lives.

And here’s an important clarification. Just because we believe God is in control doesn’t mean we shut up asking questions. Every one of us has wondered—may be wondering now—why God allowed some particularly bad thing to happen. No matter how much we believe in God’s love for us, some things just don’t make sense. Some experiences are so hurtful, so damaging, leave us so scarred, that we wonder: How could God let that happen? How could any good possibly come out of that situation? Those are the very questions we ought to keep asking God, in faith. We know that he will eventually answer us (Lk 11:9), and in that answer we will find a blessing.

The rock bottom truth, then, is that God is working things out for his people. It doesn’t mean everything that happens is good. We live in a fallen world. Some things really are bad, and God does not want them to happen. God is not the author of evil (Jas. 1:13), but he can use even the evil of this fallen world to bring about good results. God is capable of turning any bad event into something good, from a godless Babylonian army, to the murder of an innocent man, through our own sins and falling away. God sometimes brings good into our lives through suffering. That doesn’t mean God wanted us to suffer. God may or may not want us to suffer in a particular situation. Sometimes we suffer not because God wants us to, but because there is evil and sin in the world. But God does turn even bad events into something good, and we can be blessed if we remember that.

Notice something else. Paul doesn’t say that God is working everything for good for every human being. God’s blessed work is for those “who love him, who are called according to his purposes.” I much prefer preaching joy and love to wrath and judgement. But if we look at this passage, the encouragement is one hundred percent to Christians and Christians only. There are no promises here for those who insist on resisting God. God may well be working things for the good of the lost, but if they’re running from God, they certainly shouldn’t expect to see it as something good. Tonight we’ll address this issue of calling and predestination—why some are saved and not others.

The picture here is of the wonderful blessings of God to Christians. We see the whole cycle of God’s love for us—the ones he foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. That covers God’s love for us from before the beginning of time till after time itself has passed away. God “chose us in him before the foundation of the earth to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph. 1:4). It boggles the mind when we try to think about the hugeness of God’s eternal love for us. Our minds fall short of grasping the size of eternity.

And that’s a good thing, because it’s one more reminder of how much greater God is than we are. I take pride (maybe not all of it godly!) in being a member of the Church of Christ, because for generations members of the church have committed themselves to a deep, logical study of God’s Word. We take pride in our rational approach to Scripture and simply doing what it tells us. Yet we can’t understand the greatness of God’s eternal love with our minds. Here again we must depend on God, trust him that he has been working for our good from before the foundation of the world. And once again, that trust comes down to choosing to believe.

God chose us. What did he choose us for? For salvation, yes. For sanctification, yes. For joy, yes. Those are great gifts. But he chose us for something even greater: to be conformed to the image of his Son. In short, he chose us to be like Jesus. He wants us to be faithful, obedient, holy, powerful, glorified. In practice, of course, we fall short of our calling. We may struggle, we may pray, we may fully intend to live Christ-like lives, but we often don’t. But if we believe God’s Word, we know that one day we will be like Jesus. One day we will share in his glory. It’s such a sure thing that Paul describes it here like it’s already happened. That’s why God is working good in our lives right now, to prepare us for our new lives with him.

God has so much in store for his children. Earthly parents want good things for our own children. We feed our children well and give them safe places to live. We buy them clothes and give them opportunities to grow physically and mentally. We plan for their future and lay a little money aside if we can for college. Now sure, little children can drive their parents crazy at times. But have you ever just looked at a little child, especially your own, and been filled with warmth and love? Parents usually do this when their children are asleep, I think, because sleepy children aren’t as likely to be acting in ways that tempt their parents to want to strangle them. But it’s that warmth at our better moments, when we look at a little child and feel nothing but love and a desire to do anything to protect and nurture that little boy or little girl, that we come closest to God’s love for us. God wants good things for us, and if God is for us, who can be against us?

Knowing that God loves us—better than any mother or father on earth has ever loved their own child—has the power to transform us. I know that for me, most of my trouble comes from not believing, moment by moment, that God loves me and is working things out for my own good. We’re trained to believe what we see—all the chaos and hurry and worry around us. But in the midst of all the billions of troubles that surround and intersect our lives, Christians have a promise. We have the assurance that God is in control and working things out for us in ways we cannot possibly understand. When we live day-by-day, moment-by-moment in the knowledge of God’s love, we will be blessed.

Finding that blessed condition comes down to a choice. Will we decide to believe that God really is looking after us, or will we continue to blunder along on our own as if God didn’t even exist? Do we acknowledge our weakness and God’s loving strength, or do we try to pretend that on our own we have all the strength it takes to navigate the churning waves of a fallen world? It depends on what we choose.

From the weakness at the beginning of this passage, we end up here, with a choice. Do we choose to believe that God really is smarter than we are? Better than we are? That God loves us and wants us to be with him? If you’re not a Christian, the blessed choice is to believe and be saved. If we are Christians, the blessing comes when we stop trying to be smart enough, good enough, holy and devout enough on our own. We are called to stand before God in recognition of our weakness!

When we do, a wonderful thing happens. We move from weakness to glory. We are blessed with God’s own glory and power. With that power we can overcome the world and its temptations, the Devil and his powers, the frustration and despair and hopelessness that come from trying to make it through life without God’s power. When in our weakness we lean upon God and trust in him for our strength, we find that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:38).

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ