To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Liberty and Love

Romans 14:1-4
Preached Sunday morning, January 23, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Yesterday a man I know told me about his grandfather, a Church of Christ minister in west Texas. His grandfather, he said, preached what my friend called “narrow-door Christianity.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Clearly my friend considered it much too narrow. But the phrase really interested me. In one sense, the entire Christian walk is “narrow-door.” In Mt. 7:13, for example, Jesus calls us to “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The way of righteousness is narrow only in comparison to the way of sin, which is so wide and diverse. It’s also narrow because at some level every one of us prefers to run around in the wide open fields of sin rather than walk the path of faith and obedience. With that said, it’s important that we don’t try to make God’s narrow way any narrower than it already is!

Here in the fourteenth chapter of Romans we see that Paul is dealing with narrow door issues among the Christians in Rome. The particular points at issue are whether or not Christians should celebrate special days, drink wine, or eat meat. Clearly there were those among the Roman Christians who believed in taking the stricter approach. Under certain circumstances, these restrictions might be helpful for Christians. But some in Rome apparently thought that following the rules on these matters was necessary for making it through the gates of heaven. Paul knew they were not, but what was the best way to settle the dispute?

Today’s passage is part of a larger section on love and liberty in Romans 14 and 15. The message of Rom. 14:1-12 is essentially, “No judging.” Rom. 14:13-23 can be summarized as “No tripping.” Rom. 15:1-3 implores us to bear with the weaker brother, and Rom. 15:4-13 encourages Christians to praise God and be filled with joy and peace [1]. We’ll touch on all four of these sections here but focus on the first part–no judging.

One interesting point at the outset: Notice what Paul calls the doctrinally hardline here? Weak. They’re weak because they don’t understand Christian liberty. All of these things—days, meat, wine—really are not essential one way or another to Christian discipleship, regardless of what the weak Christians believe. But notice what Paul does. He doesn’t try to change anyone’s minds or practice. Siding with either party in this case would add the weight of Paul’s evangelistic authority to mere matters of preference. That would be a victory for legalism and a loss for both sides [2]. Paul also doesn’t take the soft, squishy road and suggest that both sides simply agree to disagree and celebrate diversity. No, he does something much more powerful. He takes the opportunity of a church disagreement to teach the Romans what love really looks like in practice.

First of all, Paul gives the church a lesson against “watchdog Christianity.” By that I mean Christians whose main focus is finding fault with other Christians. Preserving the purity of the gospel is important, but it’s also important not spend time on things God doesn’t seem to spend much time on. Is it possible for a Christian to be wrong on matters of faith and practice and still be saved? I certainly hope so, because if our salvation depends on being correct on every possible point of doctrine, I don’t think any Christian who ever lived would be saved. So if watching is not the focus of discipleship, what should it be? We’ll see later in chapter 14.

We also see that “sameness” is not a Christian ideal [3]. As one writer has noted, “Christians are not clones” [4]. Paul has already explained that the church is made of members with a diversity of talents (Rom. 12:4). At the same time, the church has no place for an “them & us” mentality in which those who follow a more strict code of personal morality look down their noses at the more free—or vice-versa [5]. The same thing could be said, by the way, for the terms being thrown around among our congregations today. In light of Rom. 14, “liberal” and “conservative” are political terms with no place in the church.

Beyond simply co-existing in the church, Christians are called to welcome those with whom we disagree—and not just so we can make them think like we do (Rom. 14:1). In fact, neither the strict or the free, the weak or the strong, are to pass judgment on the other: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him” (v. 3). There are some pretty powerful implications for that idea when you think about it.

The essence of the issue is this: Don’t argue about debatable matters. Don’t make distinctions where God hasn’t. Look at verse 4: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” Notice that who’s right doesn’t even enter the picture here? The focus is on God, who will make us stand faithful in him whether or not our doctrine is correct on every point.

Of course in trying to put these ideas into practice, an age-old problem arises: what issues are debatable and which essential? Are kitchens in the building an expediency or matter of salvation? What about drinking wine? Worshiping with instruments? Practicing homosexuality? Don’t look at me to answer those for you. The answers are in the Scriptures; that’s one reason it helps to know them.

What about issues that are not debatable? Are there some doctrines where being on the right side of the issue really is necessary? Most of us in the church of Christ are probably familiar with Jude 3, where Christians are called to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Some brethren try to include everything imaginable within “the faith once for all delivered:” smoking, instruments of worship, one cup or many, etc. But Jude was only talking about two things: “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

Romans describes a few non-negotiables, too. To be Christian, it’s essential we understand that all human beings sin & fall short of glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and that we deserve death for that sin (Rom 6:23). We must repent of our old way of life (Rom. 2:4) to be saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:16). We are to be baptized into newness of life (Rom. 6:3), offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, and be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:1, 2). We are to love one another (Rom. 12:10; 14:15) and boldly proclaim the word of life (Rom. 10:14-17).

Loving one another—that’s an important part of our call as Christians. We aren’t called to call others down, but to live purely ourselves, in the freedom of God’s grace. Through the centuries, legalism in a variety of forms has all too often dominated Christian teaching. As one preacher has said,“This is why many people will not touch the church with a 25-foot pole, even though they are fantastically interested in the gospel” [6].

The lesson on Christian responsibility in Rom. 14 is very clear. We are not responsible to each other, but to God. God gives us liberty. If we think we shouldn’t do something—smoke, eat fatty foods, drink wine, watch R-rated movies—then we are sinning if we do. If we think it’s OK to do all these things. . . well, then things are a little more complicated.

That’s because, in our freedom, our standard of obedience to God is actually higher, not lower, than that put forth by legalistic codes. We are bound, you see, by the standard of love. Look at what Paul says in verses 14-16:

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.

Sure it’s OK to eat meat. It’s even OK to drink wine. But it might not be a good idea to do either one. Paul sums up this line of thought in verse 21 when he says that “it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” That’s because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23).

Do you see what Paul has done here? He tells those who understand Christian liberty not to take advantage of that liberty if it causes the weaker brother or sister to stumble; Jesus had already warned that drowning in the ocean would be better than to let that happen (Mk. 9:42). And Paul tells both weak and strong not to argue but to leave judgement to God. That’s the way not to uniformity, but to unity.

In the idea of unity we are coming very close to the underlying theme behind this section of Romans. Paul brings that theme out into the open in Rom. 15:5-7:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Harmony among Christians is more than just a way of getting along with each other. It is intimately connected with glorifying the one God who saves every member of his church.

Paul concludes this section with these words: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). God’s first concern is not with our behavior, but with our hearts. And what does he want for our hearts? Hope. Joy. Peace. Power.

That’s what the Kingdom of God is really about: “not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). In other words, focusing our attention on rules about food and drink and days is a waste of time. It distracts us from the real heart of our relationship with God and each other. Yes we, like Paul, have to go back to these issues from time to time, especially when we start thinking they’re more important than they really are. But we should stay there only long enough to move into the heart of the discipleship: righteousness, peace, joy.

So what can we take away from this discussion? What do Paul’s ideas look like in practice today? First, we need to remember that some matters really are essential for a healthy Christian discipleship. Most, I think, are not. The fact that we have no equivalent in the New Testament to the book of Leviticus supports this idea. Christians are saved to freedom—not license, but freedom. Our obligation in our daily lives is actually higher than the most stringent, legalistic codes of morality. We are obligated to put love into practice.

When we do put it into practice, that love will do two things. Those of us who think we know the higher standard of Christian behavior—in personal morality, worship, whatever—will back off and let God be the judge of those who disagree. Those of us who understand our freedom in Christ will back off from our insistence on exercising that freedom at the expense of our fellow Christians’ faith. And none of us should be arrogant or look down our noses at the ones on the other side.

“The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness, peace and joy—those are intangible conditions of the heart. How do we find those things? Following the rules on eating and drinking is something we know how to do. But how do we change our hearts?

We don’t. Changing our hearts is God’s job. Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness, our peace, our joy (1 Cor. 1:30). Our job is to seek him—in Scripture, in prayer and meditation, in worship, in service. If we do, we know we’ll find him (Mt. 7:7-8). And when we have Jesus Christ, we have it all.

1. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Love and Liberty: Liberties Love Won’t Take (Romans 14:1-23),” online study at
2. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia (Fortress): 1972, p. 444.
3. Nygren, 443.
4. Morris in Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2. College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO (College Press): 1998, p. 389.
5. Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, IL (Victor Books): 1987, p. 836.
6. Ray Stedman, “On Trying to Change Others,” online sermon text at

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, January 14, 2005

Love = Fulfillment

Romans 13:8-10
Preached Sunday morning, January 16, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

After laying a foundation of man’s sin and God’s grace, Paul begins Romans chapter 12 with an exhortation to give ourselves to God and let him transform us. In practice this transformation, we saw last time, is manifests itself in not being conceited. Every human being is truly equal before God in one important way. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Acknowledging that equality has certain consequences: we don’t think too highly of ourselves and we treat others well. Chapter 12 closes with exhortations to manifest this communion with our fellow human beings by not seeking revenge. We are supposed to bless our enemies, not curse them. We are only being arrogant when we try to play judge, jury, and executioner. God will take care of judgement.

Chapter 13 begins with a description of one arm of God’s judgement: civil government. Civil authority is “God’s servant for your good” (13:7). Therefore Christians are obligated to follow the directions of government—to obey the law and pay taxes. That’s the first seven verses of chapter 13. Then, in verses 8-10, Paul puts our obligations into a larger context. Christians are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Now, let’s be clear what Paul means here. First, he’s not talking about financial debt. He isn’t talking about ordinary, everyday obligations at all. We know this, because he just got through telling us we have an obligation to obey the government. Paul is essentially cutting through all the particulars here to the rock-bottom obligation that motivates all our lesser obligations. That obligation, apparently a very simple one, is to love one another.

Love is our debt to one another. Is it really that simple? Why this emphasis on love? Another apostle, John, answered that question for us: “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). What’s more, God is love (1 Jn. 4:7). In loving one another, then, we have communion with God himself. “Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4:7). To love God, we have to love one another. In loving one another, we really love God (1 Jn. 4:21). Humanity sinned and fell forever away from God. Yet God’s love for us is the greatest there can be. He spared no expense in his efforts to bring all creation back into relationship with him. We can never completely repay that debt to God [1].

It’s good, then, that love is its own fulfillment. As Paul tells us here, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Jesus said the same thing in slightly different words. When asked to name the most important law, Jesus told us to love God with all we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. “On these two commandments,” Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:40). Notice Jesus’ choice of words here—the whole law of Moses and words of the prophets are supported by these two principles of love. Bear in mind that Jesus’ exhortations to love are not additional laws on top of the others. I once met a man who thought they were. He insisted that there were really twelve commandments: the ten in the Old Testament and these two of Jesus. But love is much more than additional commandments—it is the essence of the law, the underlying principle. What does every command of God ever given to man have in common with all the others? Love, for God and for each other.

For Paul, law essentially has to do with keeping sin in check. In a sense, law really is a collection of “Thou shalt nots” [2]. In our lives the law brings wrath (Rom. 4:15) and is powerless to overcome sin (Rom. 8:3). Love is something else. It is the power to obey the law, as well as the positive force behind all of God’s laws, the underlying reason for each particular law.

Focusing on the underlying truth of love, rather than the particular details of laws, is the sign of a mature relationship with God. Immature relationships require a long list of dos and don’ts, but a mature faith goes right to the heart of the matter: love. We can see this kind of relationship on an earthly level in dealing with children. Very small children need a long list of particular instructions to stay out of trouble: Don’t touch the hot stove. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t cross the street alone. As we mature, we learn principles of safety and no longer rely upon long lists of instructions. The same is true with love. It is the underlying force behind not only law, but obedience to law. In that sense love fulfills the law. If all Christians really lived as those who love one another, we would obey all God’s ordinances for us. And how much different the church would be! No dysfunctional families, no divorce. No alcoholism or substance abuse. No dissension and discord. No laziness in telling the good news to our neighbors. If we really put love into practice, the church would do powerful work in bringing souls to Christ, in equiping disciples, in being a shining light in a dark world.

One point of clarification might help here. In Rom. 10:4, we see that Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. So which is it that overcomes the law—Christ or love? The answer is—yes, both. Christ frees us from the necessity of obeying the law of Moses to attain salvation, and he embodies the love that fulfills the law’s requirements. That doesn’t mean we are saved by obeying the law perfectly through love. We are still saved only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sin. Jesus did obey every jot and tittle of the law. He is the only man who ever lived who did not deserve punishment. Yet he suffered beating, flogging, humiliation, and execution, because he loves us.

Jesus’ death on the cross—beaten, torn, bleeding, suffering—illustrates something very important about love: It’s not always pretty, and it doesn’t always feel good. Being loving is not the same as being nice. These days it’s hard to stress this fact too much. Have you ever had to discipline a child because you loved the boy or girl? Parents who love their children have to punish their children from time to time for their own good. But have you ever known a child who was happy about it at the time? Love is not always comforting or comfortable, at least in the short term. Jesus’ crucifixion was certainly not pretty or nice. And his words and actions weren’t always nice. I doubt Peter enjoyed being called Satan (Mt. 16:23), and you would have had a hard time convincing the moneychangers that Jesus loved them as he was kicking over their tables and chasing them with a whip (Jn. 2:14, 15). But he did.

Frequently, in fact, the most loving action we can take will deeply offend the person we’re trying to help [3]. Sometimes we must speak the truth to those we love, even if it hurts both us and them to do so. How many times has someone tried to justify a terribly bad decision—adultery, debt, you name it—with these words: “Don’t I deserve to be happy?” But if we really love someone, they deserve to hear the truth of God’s Word, even if it makes them unhappy. We sometimes call that “tough love.”

Several years ago Ron, a good friend of mine, taught me something about how Christians can practice tough love. For years he has worked to help alcoholics and addicts come clean. As a recovering alcoholic himself, clean for many years, Ron knows what he’s talking about. One of the best ways to show love to an addict, Ron says, is to let him live with the consequences of his actions. Take for example, an alcoholic who has lost his license for drunk driving. A Christian, in an effort to show “nice” love, might say, “If there’s anything you need, just let me know.” And before long, the Christian has become that man’s personal taxi service. He’s lost his license for drunk driving, but he still gets to go anywhere he wants pretty much whenever he wants. That kind of “nice” love isn’t helping anyone. It’s better to let the man suffer the consequences for his actions—let him walk or ride a bike to the store. Maybe then he’ll face up to what got him there in the first plce and he’ll change his life. It may seem harsh not to help someone. I’m sure the alcoholic in this scenario wouldn’t appreciate being refused a ride. He might even rail at the Christian for such “un-Christian” actions. But in some cases not helping someone—particularly when they need to learn to help themselves—is simply the most loving thing we can do.

Christians are sometimes accused of being unloving when we proclaim the need for repentance from sin. But there is no way to enjoy the joy of God’s eternal kingdom without turning away from the life of sin and reaching out for new life in Jesus Christ. Christians, therefore, have to call sin sin. We have to proclaim the need for the lost to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. It’s the only way anyone can be saved. But do you think most people like to be told they need to change their entire orientation toward life? I don’t think so. But those outside Christ are sleeping in a burning building. They may not see the flames yet or smell the smoke. They may not even feel the heat. But if nobody wakes them and helps them come out of there, they’ll burn to death. And if Christians allow that to happen because we don’t want to offend anyone, then we really don’t have any idea of what love is about.

Christians may have faulty understanding of love for a variety of reasons. Maybe we don’t know the Scriptures well enough [4]. Maybe we know what they say but haven’t meditated enough on what they mean. Perhaps we’re still too conceited to care very much. In any case, we need to allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and that comes from sacrificing our own comfort and smugness to be changed by God (Rom. 12:1,2). If we’re willing to be changed, we can be sure God will change us—but we shouldn’t expect the process to be very nice.

As Christians, we have to learn not only to give, but to receive love. One of my personal sins is that I want to do everything myself; I’m one of those folks who find it hard to receive help. Many of us do. And practically all of us find it hard to receive correction. We may have no trouble admitting in a general sense that we’re sinners, but when someone brings a particular sin to our attention, we bow up. A friend of mine once asked for advice on some troubles he was having in his life. After he talked a few minutes, I decided his main problem was that he was spending way too much time and energy feeling sorry for himself. At one point, while he was going on with his list of problems, I simply said to him, “Come on, you just need to get over it.” Suddenly he was silent. After a moment, my friend said, “Thank you. I needed to hear that.” Now, it’s possible that my words were spoken as much from impatience as love, but in any case that brother certainly knew how to receive loving help—even when it wasn’t nice or pretty.

So love isn’t always nice. It can be tough. Still, the word “love” is thrown around so loosely these days that it’s easy to think of love as simply soft and sentimental emotion. Many, many people have leaned on the idea that “all you need is love” as an excuse to do anything they want—all kinds of sin—as long as it’s done in the name of some vague conception of love. Here in Rom. 13:8-10, Paul warns against that kind of sloppy thinking. Even while he proclaims the supremacy of love as underlying law, Paul reminds us that the details of God’s law are still important: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t be greedy [5]. In the book of Romans Paul shows us both sides of the coin. In chapters 1-5 he made it clear that sinners are justified apart from the law. Beginning in chapter 6 he makes it clear that obedience to God is still important [6]. For Paul, love is an outpouring of our new nature, a reflection of our new life in Christ. By allowing our lives to be governed by God’s love, we will be obedient even in matters not specifically covered by the law [7].

Jesus had something similar to say. Even while proclaiming the superiority of Love in our hearts, Jesus makes it clear that our lives must be obedient in the details of our actions as well. In Lk. 11:42, for example, he told the Jewish religious leaders, “woe to you Pharisees! You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Let’s be clear. Our salvation doesn’t depend on getting every detail of our lives correct. Salvation comes to us by faith, through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. We don’t earn our new life; it’s given to us by God. But once we are new creations, God wants us to live that new life obediently.

God doesn’t want for his people to be hounded by a long list of commands [8]. He wants us to be guided in all things by love. But let’s not misunderstand. If we’re not following the particulars of Christian behavior—if we’re greedy, gossiping, slandering others, haughty, or ruthless, for example (Rom. 1:29-31)—then we’re not really being loving [9]. Love in our heart manifests itself in obedient action.

The reverse is not always true. External obedience to God’s instructions is not necessarily a sign of love [10]. There are a thousand reasons to behave ourselves that have nothing to do with love—fear; a desire to be popular, respected, to fit in, etc. But God wants more than just obedience in our actions. He wants us to have not only changed behavior, but changed hearts. He has given us new life and wants us to live like the new creations we are (Rom. 6:1-4).

In the sense that God wants to change our hearts, the Bible is not an “instruction manual.” God’s Word is not primarily intended to be a set of procedures or instructions, like a cookbook. No, it’s much more than that— not an instruction manual, but a Word of transformation.

Most of my adult life I’ve thought of Christian discipleship as two main things: knowing the facts of the Bible and behaving myself. Now I’m trying something different. I’m trying to learn what it means to be transformed, to be a new creation. I’m praying to do more than simply follow the instructions. I want to commune with God in a relationship of love, deep down in my heart. In everything I preach and teach I’m inviting you to build a loving relationship with Christ, too. And I pray that you’ll help me, that we’ll help each other, to press on toward that goal.

I’ve got a feeling there’s more to this love business than any of us can imagine. I commit my life to following wherever it leads me. Will you the same? Do we dare?


1. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2. College Press Commentary. Joplin, MO (College Press): 1998, p. 371.
2. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia (Fortress): 1972, p. 434.
3. David Lipscomb & J. W. Shepherd, Commentary on Romans, 2nd ed. Nashville (Gospel Advocate): 1940, p. 238.
4. John Piper, "Loving One Another Fulfills the Law," online sermon text at
5. Ibid.
6. Cottrell, 2:370.
7. Raymond T. Stamm, Exegesis of Galatians. Interpreter's Bible, vol. 10. Nashville (Abingdon): 1953, p. 557.
8. Piper.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, January 10, 2005

Never Be Conceited

Romans 12:14-21
Preached Sunday morning, January 9, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Chapter 12 is the beginning of the exhortation section of Romans. Paul opens this section not by commanding the Romans on his authority as an apostle, but by urging them “by the mercies of God.” Paul is still exhorting in verses 14-21—not ordering Christians to behave in certain ways, but urging them toward a Christian lifestyle, “not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The section we’re looking at today may appear to be dealing with all kinds of different issues, in no particular order. What, for example, does rejoicing have to do with vengeance?

But there is a unifying theme here, and we see it summarized in a couple of places. Back in Rom. 12:9 Paul urges the Romans to “Let love be genuine.” Then, in verse 16, he exhorts them, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” These two exhortations, along with everything else in chapter 12, say something important about a believer’s life. In short, we see what transformation looks like in the mind and actions of a Christian. Christians, first of all, should not think too highly of ourselves (12:3), nor be conceited (12:16). I’m afraid that’s easier said than done. Let’s look, first of all, at a few of the many forms conceit can take, and then move on to a picture of real Christian love and discipleship.

First, the negative side—the many faces of conceit. Conceit is an exaggerated opinion of one’s self. Its most basic form is selfishness, the feeling that I’m all that really matters. Selfishness is the way of the world—the way that every one of the thousands of advertisements we see and hear every day are pulling us, telling us each to consider himself the center of the universe. Let’s say we move a little bit beyond selfishness and find a group to identify with. Well then, we can still be conceited in our clique, our little thing. Both of these, selfishness and cliquishness, lead to cold-heartedness, the sense that others outside our group simply don’t matter. Conceit can also take the form of judgmentalism, particularly in the church. All these forms of conceit are simply contrary to Christian discipleship, because all involve thinking higher of ourselves than we ought.

That’s a theme in all these exhortations in chapter 12: don’t think too highly of yourself. Don’t be conceited—not among members of the church (12:3-8), and not among those outside (12:9-21). When we think about how radical this teaching really is, we can see why Paul begins this section with exhortations to sacrifice and non-conformity to the world. So much of life, after all, is about exalting the self—with the encouragement of the world around us. As voters we are part of a system in which candidates spend months trying to exalt themselves at the expense of their opponents. In sports we watch athletes celebrate their victories. In hunting for a job we try to exalt ourselves, to look like the best candidate for a position. Exalting the self is deeply ingrained in our culture and our souls, and as long as we keep our ambition within certain bounds, society encourages and rewards us for it. That’s why the idea of Christians not exalting ourselves is so unnatural.

By trying to show ourselves better than those around us, we deny a fundamental truth that underlies the whole gospel message. That truth is that every one of us, from the welfare mother on crack to the elder in the church, are really, truly equal before God. How are we equal? Not in talents or gifts; we saw that in Rom. 12:3-8. We’re not equal in strength or in good works or even in opportunities for any of these things. Quite simply, we are all equal in sin, in falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). That’s significant to remember because acknowledging our sin is a foundation of Christian discipleship. Recognizing our sinfulness is not only the first step in salvation before God, it is the first step in godly relations with each other—even with our enemies.

When it comes to enemies, those who have done us wrong, Paul tells us not to avenge ourselves. Personal vengeance is not the job of any Christian. By making ourselves judge, jury and prosecutor, we’re putting ourselves over others. Back in Lev.19:18 God told the people of Israel not to take personal vengeance against one of their own, but rather the “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirmed this teaching (Mt. 22:39.

As hard as it is to put love of enemies into practice, it’s a huge relief to us as much as we can. Have you ever tried plotting vengeance on anyone? I have, and it wore me out. I’m not talking about waiting for someone with a knife or anything so obviously evil. I’m talking about a subtler kind of vengeance: the idea of “setting the record straight” by telling someone who has hurt us how the situation really stands. This kind of vengeance is easy to rationalize because we’re getting our revenge not with fists or guns but with the truth. One problem is that, like all kinds of revenge, it usually doesn’t work. Taking revenge with words usually results in more harsh words, more hurt feelings, and the cycle starts all over again.

No, revenge is God’s work, and he’s doing a much better job at it than we ever could. Our job is much simpler. Our role is, first, to simply trust God that he is taking care of justice. Second, we are called to bless our enemies and not curse them (Rom. 12:14). And here’s something worth noting: This is not some theoretical, from-a-distance blessing (“I hope that so-and-so is blessed!”). No, we are called to feed our enemies if they’re hungry, to give them something to drink if they’re thirsty (12:20). Now, if you’re like me, you’re inclined to do this sort of thing like Sonny Corleone did in The Godfather: be hospitable to our enemy while we’re waiting for just the right time to let him have it. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. Christians are exhorted—really and truly, in action—to bless our enemies. That’s not complicated. Of course, it’s not easy, either.

We may have to force ourselves to do it. I remember the evening of September 11, 2001. The members of the Highland View congregation gathered to pray about the highjackings and mass murders of that morning. We all took turns praying for our country, for the victims, for their families, for relief workers. One brother made a point of praying for the terrorists who had done the awful, evil deeds that day. There was no doubt as he spoke the prayer that his heart was not overflowing with love for those men—he, along with most of us there, I suspect, was praying out of obedience, not affection. Blessing our enemies takes work. We have to force ourselves to do it and, through prayer, hope that the words of our minds and mouths some day take seat in our hearts.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that we aren’t called to renounce vengeance completely. Paul goes on to say that God has ordained human government to administer justice (Rom. 13). The exhortation in chapter 12 is talking about personal vengeance, not justice. We can still look forward to justice being done, but we have to trust God to bring it about, either through human government or in other ways God chooses.

When we bless our enemy, we “reap burning coals” on his head. Let’s be clear about this. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to make the fires of damnation hotter for that person. It means that by giving up our claim to vengeance we’re showing the love of Christ that may brings the enemy to repentance. We’re trying to overcome evil with good, not finding a backhand way to do the person evil (12:21). Jesus clarified what we’re about here in Lk. 6:35 when he told us to “Love your enemies.” Again, it’s simply a matter of giving up our claim to vengeance and trusting God to take care of it.

That idea of giving up our claim to vengeance has another name: forgiveness. Like blessing our enemies, forgiveness often begins as intention, not emotion. Only through prayer and perseverance can that intention seep down into our hearts so that we forgive in spirit and in truth. Blessing, forgiving our enemies is hard to do. As someone has once said, we may think of forgiveness as something sweet and soft that makes things better, like “spraying perfume” [1] How untrue. Forgiveness is hard, particularly in the world we live in. It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world, not “dog-forgive-dog” [2]. Yet we are exhorted to, somehow, forgive and bless those who hurt us.

Being able to do that depends on not being conceited. In his exhortations, Paul shows us what that lack of conceit looks like. For one thing, we are to live sympathetically with those around us: to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (12:15). That is, of course, good advice for getting along with other people. What makes it really unusual here (and uniquely Christian) is that Paul makes this appeal right in the middle of the section on dealing with enemies. Weeping with our enemies? That’s a challenge.

Here’s another challenge: associating with the lowly (12:16). Now right up front, let’s be honest with ourselves. Few, if any, of us here are lowly. We may feel low, and socially we may be low on the totem pole, but we’re not really lowly in a biblical sense. Relatively few Americans are, in fact. Who comes closest? The poorest among us, the homeless, the dirty and bad smelling. Now if we take God’s Word seriously, we may in fact associate with these people on occasion—give them money or even spend time helping them. We may even do this without bragging to everyone about it; we may simply mention it to one or two friends and pat ourselves on the back. But if we’re doing that—reaching down to “rescue” someone in their poverty, do you know what we’re really doing? Thinking more highly of ourselves. After all, we’re the ones reaching down from on high to help the lowly. When we do that, no matter how good our actions themselves are, our attitude makes us conceited.

We’re not called to associate with the poor and lowly as their rescuers or benefactors. We’re called to associate with the poorest as equals: equally sinful, equally in need of a savior, equally loved by God. When we can approach every human being in that way, there’s no room in our lives for conceit.

We’re called to live peaceably with one another (12:16). This kind of peace is a whole lot more than simply smiling and saying hello as we pass. It’s learning to see others as basically the same as we are—even when they dress differently, speak differently, smell different. Can we really do that—live peaceably with everyone, without hedging? It’s very easy not to be at peace with someone and justify our own part by saying, “Well, as far as it depends on me, we’re at peace. It’s his fault we’re not!” Like forgiveness and blessing, peace is not always something that just happens. It sometimes takes hard, painful work. It sometimes means forgiving others for sins we find particularly distasteful ourselves. For others in the church, it means working arm-in-arm with them toward both of us being transformed into the image of Christ.

When you consider what all it involves, this transformation business isn’t so easy, is it? Bless our enemies, forgive them, laugh and weep with them. Associate with poor, uneducated, bad smelling folk. Live in harmony even if it means giving up our conceit to do it. Hard, all of it hard. That’s why Paul began this chapter of Romans, I think, with exhortations to sacrifice and non-conformity to the world. None of these qualities of Christian discipleship are the way the world goes about things. Discipleship is a whole lot more than being a good citizen or even a good person.

Bless our enemies? What about the insurgents in Iraq? What about al-Qaeda terrorists? Associate with the lowly? How can we do that when they ask for money every time we see them? It’s not easy. It’s not easy.

But there are blessings in it. If God asks much from us, he promises much more. Being transformed into Christ’s image is the way we grow into God’s mind with the assurance of doing his will (Rom. 12:2). Loving our enemies without expecting to be loved in return will bring us a great reward from God, and we will be called children of the Most High (Lk. 6:35). That’s a load of blessings.

And let’s remember one other thing. We’re not commanded to do these things—we’re urged, by the mercies of God. In other words, God encourages us to choose the right way ourselves. Well? What will it be?

1. Philip Yancey, “Forgiveness: It Just Ain’t Fair,” online broadcast transcript at
2. Ibid.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, January 03, 2005

Transformation and Renewal

Romans 12:1-2
Preached Sunday morning, January 2, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Paul’s letter to the Romans takes a significant turn here at the beginning of chapter 12. Up to this point, we’ve been dealing with the foundations of Christian righteousness. God’s part is grace, a free gift of righteousness that we don’t deserve. Our part is faith, in the Lordship of God and in his loving mercy to save us and count us righteous through Jesus Christ. Now, after eleven chapters of teaching on how we do not deserve our righteous condition, we begin to see what a godly response to God’s mercy looks like [1]. The tone of the letter here turns to exhortation, urging and encouraging Christians to live holy lives. It’s significant that Paul, with all his authority as an apostle, does not command the Roman Christians to live lives of true discipleship—he implores them, “by the mercies of God” [2].

The mercies of God. That’s still the true foundation of Christian behavior. All the right actions called for in chapters 12-15 are not intended to earn God’s favor. They are responses to God’s mercy. As one writer has said, Christian behavior is not, “Do these things and you will live,” but rather, “Live and you will do these things” [3].

One thing is worth noting here at the beginning of our study. This passage about presenting our bodies to God is addressed to Christians, as is the whole letter to the Romans. The first eleven chapters of Romans have dealt with God’s mercy toward believers. Christians have been saved by grace. That’s an impossibly good situation (although with God, all things are possible) [4]. How can we possibly respond to such a gift? For the rest of the letter Paul tells us. There’s something here that non-Christians would do well hearing also. Lest there be any confusion, here is what the Christian life looks like in practice: love, patience, peace, sacrifice, transformation. Jesus told those who would follow him to count the cost (Lk. 14:28). Here we begin to see what that cost involves.

In Rom. 12:1 Christians are implored to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. This is another way of saying we must deny ourselves daily, take up our cross, and follow Jesus (Lk. 9:23). A living sacrifice. As Christians we aren’t expected to be a dying sacrifice; Jesus already did that. Our spiritual service of worship as the church is to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. In doing this—sacrificing our time and money and energy and pleasure to the service of God—we are giving ourselves as a thank offering to the Lord [5]. When we offer our bodies to God, we put into action our confession of Christ by acknowledging God’s lordship [6].

Isn’t it interesting that Paul begins his exhortation with a call to sacrifice? As human beings we don’t generally like sacrifice. Oh sure, mature adults don’t mind sacrificing a little bit here and there. We’ll sacrifice a little change in the Salvation Army kettle, maybe a couple of hours to help a neighbor. We may sacrifice a whole year of Sunday dinners so we can afford a cruise next summer. But offering our bodies as living sacrifices? That’s asking a lot. But we’ll see here, as elsewhere in the Bible, that God asks for much only when he offers much more. To find that “much more” we need only look as far as the next verse, where we have a very powerful promise.

In Rom. 12:2 we are implored not to be conformed to this world—literally, to this “age.” This is probably the single biggest challenge to the Christian, in this and every age. As others have pointed out, if we know Scripture we can point out false doctrine relatively easily. But worldliness creeps into the church almost imperceptibly. Questions of worldliness are not always easy to answer in everyday life: When does watching TV become wasted time? How much money is too much to spend on entertainment? How much do we value what the world values? Do we have a Christian view toward justice and life? Do we put God first in our lives, or do our comfort and pleasure really take the lead?

Resisting conformity to the world is not a matter of making a “spiritual checklist” and checking off acts of obedience—no cussing, no smoking, no gambling, attend church, give money, etc. If you’re like I’ve been most of my Christian walk, you probably like a checklist. Checklists give us clear instructions on what to do, and they have the added pleasure of giving us a false sense of our own righteousness. As one preacher has wisely noted, however, “Transformation is not switching from the to-do list of the flesh to the to-do list of the law” [7]. Discipleship is really a much deeper matter—a matter of the heart and mind. We can give up a long list of bad behaviors, take up a whole mess of good ones, and still be “saturated by the spirit of the age” [8].

Not being conformed to the world begins with clearly seeing the world, this present age, for what it really is. Having that clarity of vision is extremely difficult, because nearly everything and everyone around us—television, radio, co-workers, neighbors, maybe even family members—are working at some level in trying to conform us to the world. That’s the nature of the world—it’s all around us—and almost everything is working to conform us to that world, the realm of Satan (Jn. 12:31, 14:30).

Now, we’re in dangerous territory when a preacher more or less tells you not to trust anybody or anything. The world doesn’t want us to question things too much. The world has a word for what religious groups do when they urge you to question everything you’ve held dear all your life—it’s called brainwashing. And yes, it’s dangerous to believe any human beings who tell you to be suspicious of everything you hear, except for what they tell you. That’s why you shouldn’t take my word for it. It’s not about what I say, or anyone else. It’s about what God says. That’s why we need to know and understand his Word. Let’s keep looking at the Word.

Jesus calls his disciples to be in the world but not of it (Jn. 15; 1 Jn. 2:16). God made the world good (Gen. 1), but Satan is now the illegitimate ruler of the world (Jn. 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; Eph. 2:2). Because Satan is, during the present age, exercising influence over the world order, it is impossible without the Word of God to see the world for what it really is. Paul went so far as to tell the Corinthians, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

So where is the hope of not being conformed? By being transformed by the renewal of our minds. That means, fundamentally, that we must be willing to change [9]. Those are our only choices—conformity or transformation. Remember, this passage is to Christians. When we first begin our walk of discipleship, we haven’t been transformed very much from our worldliness. When we’ve been walking for years, we still have a lot of transformation to do. All Christians are called to grow, to be transformed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). As Paul told the Ephesians, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17-18).

Christian discipleship is not about adding salvation to our “good life list”— put in a good day’s work, put a little money in savings, buy a nice house, help other people, go to church, smile. That’s worldly thinking. Christian discipleship is about a whole new way of life—a life of the Spirit. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:5-6). Christians aren’t better people. They are new creations in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

New creations. That’s really quite wonderful. On the one hand, we won’t enjoy many of the benefits of being Christians until the end of time, at the resurrection. On the other hand, one of most wonderful gifts from God right now is being transformed by the renewing of our minds—learning to think and act in new ways that the world cannot teach us. Can you look back over your life and praise God for the change he’s made in you since becoming a Christian? If so, please take a moment and thank him right now, and pray that your friends and family members who don’t know the transforming power of Jesus Christ will come to a knowledge of the truth.

As we’ve said, Christian discipleship is not a matter of a to-do list; it’s a matter of changing our hearts. Yet the next four chapters of Romans give the details of what that transformation looks like [10]. Why, if it’s really a matter of the heart, do we need a list of virtues? Because the Word of God transforms, and we need to know what good discipleship looks like. Note that we don’t transform ourselves. The two verbs in Rom. 12:2 (be conformed, be transformed) are passive. God does the transforming. We either resist or cooperate. Over the next few weeks we’ll see in Romans 12-15 what that cooperation looks like. Right here, though, we are promised a wonderful gift if we choose to cooperate with God’s transformation of our minds: we may test and approve the will of God.

Have you ever had an important decision to make and wanted to know the will of God? Have you ever wondered how to find out what God’s will was in a particular situation? Here’s how—through being transformed by the renewing of our minds. It’s not a matter of looking for signs or hearing a voice of revelation. It’s much better, really. It’s a matter of having God’s will down inside, something that grows in us and we take with us everywhere we go. God can certainly give us a sign or speak in an audible voice to us if he wants to. But he does better than that. He gives us wisdom. He gives us not only his will, but his mind, so to speak. “God’s aim is a new mind, a new way of thinking and judging, not just new information. His aim is that we be transformed, sanctified, freed by the truth of his revealed Word” [11].

This idea of “testing and approving” the will of God is more than simply intellectually knowing it, by the way [12]. Proving the will of God has a component of action. Knowing God’s will without doing it is useless. If we’re transformed by God, however, we not only know the will of God, we put it into action. Although we are not saved by doing good, God will be pleased with us at the resurrection for having lived out his will (Phil. 1:9-11).

Knowing and doing God’s will is also part of a joyful existence right here, right now. As Christians, the more we’re transformed, the more we can deal effectively with troubles in the world: mistreatment, injustice, sickness, declining health, death. Being transformed in the renewal of our mind is another way of describing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 3:22-23). As much as we have those qualities rooted in our lives, the world can’t really do much to shake us.

So by giving ourselves, body and mind, to God, we’re transformed. God does the transforming, but we cooperate by immersing ourselves in the Word of God, by lifting up prayer continually in the name of Jesus, by being willing to change our thoughts and actions. When we do, we begin to see the world as it really is, and to find “the depth of the riches and wisdom of the knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33). Then we begin to know and do the will of God, and to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

God urges us to give ourselves to him. Not as a sacrifice that kills, but as one that gives life—new life as the men and women, boys and girls he created us to be.

1. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2, College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press, p. 307. See also Bob Deffinbaugh, “The Road to Renewal,” online study at
2. Deffinbaugh.
3. Leon Morris in Cottrell, 307.
4. Mt. 19:26, Mk. 10:27.
5. Deffinbaugh.
6. Thomas Constable,
Dr. Constable’s Notes on Romans, 2004 edition. Online commentary at, p. 130.
7. John Piper, “The Renewed Mind and How to Have It,” online sermon text at
8. Ray C. Stedman, “Living Day By Day,” online sermon text at
9. Deffinbaugh.
10. Cottrell, 317.
11. John Piper, “What is the Will of God and How Do We Know It?” online sermon text at
12. Deffinbaugh.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley