Beginning Romans

March 28, 2015

We begin this Sunday a new series of sermons on the book of Romans, The Power of God Unto Salvation to Everyone Who Believes.

Throughout church history, God has used this letter time and again to bring many to faith and to restore His church to Gospel truths. Read the biographies or the writings of Augustine, of Luther, of Bunyan, of Wesley, and you will see the great influence of the book of Romans.

The title of our series is taken from Romans 1:16, which reads in part, “the gospel . . .  is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Note three key truths in this brief sentence:

  1. The Gospel is not only Good News. It is not only an offer or invitation. It is a power. It is a power granted to people. And it is a power that is effective, that produces a result: salvation.
  2. And what can we say about this salvation? The Gospel not only saves us from God’s just wrath – His righteous punishment, from hell itself – which all men deserve (Romans 1:18, 3:23). Nor does the Gospel save us only from our self-destructive passions and desires (Romans 1:24-27). That is, the Gospel is not simply a get-out-of-hell-free card. Rather, the Gospel saves us unto being Christlike (Romans 8:29). The Gospel transforms us from the inside out (12:2). It is indeed the power of God unto salvation, unto becoming what God created us to be.
  3. This Gospel, this power unto salvation, is to everyone who believes. It is not to all Jews because they are descended from Abraham; it is not to those who have the Scriptures because they have the Scriptures; it is not to those who prove themselves worthy or who look righteous in the eyes of others. Rather, this power unto salvation is for all who look away from themselves and look to the power of God unto salvation, who look away from their own efforts and look to Jesus who has already made the effort.

So this Gospel, this power – this Spirit-wrought ability to be conformed to Christlikeness – is yours now as a gift, if you believe, if you trust, if you depend on Christ alone. As the Apostle says to those who have received this power, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).

And that present, in-this-world salvation from slavery to sin culminates in the eternal, joyful state – when we, as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” are glorified with Him (Romans 8:17) and revealed as the sons of God (Romans 8:19).

That’s the glorious theme of the letter to the Romans.

So I encourage you: Read the book in its entirety, noting the way Paul weaves this theme throughout. Let this letter begin to dwell in you richly – and pray with me that God would use this great epistle for His glory in the life of DGCC as He has used it so often in His people over the centuries.

But how are we to approach this letter? How should we go about interpreting it?

Consider these three guidelines:

  1. Look at the context. Many of you have heard me quote D.A. Carson: “A text without a context is just a pretext for a proof text.” We must look at the context, then look at the context, then keep looking at the context. How we interpret any one verse must make sense in the flow of thought in the surrounding paragraph, in the chapter, in the letter, in the New Testament as a whole, in the story of the Bible as a whole. While this exhortation holds for the interpretation of all Scripture, the near context is especially important when interpreting Romans. Paul is always a logical thinker who advances his argument systematically, but in Romans – unlike, say, his second longest letter, 1 Corinthians, where he addresses a series of somewhat separate issues in the Corinthian church – he sustains his argument over most all of the book.
  2. Ask the right question. If you don’t ask the right question you cannot get the right answer. And if the question you ask seems to have no good answer, perhaps you are asking the wrong question. As a possible example, consider Paul’s account of his struggle with sin: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Many interpreters ask the question: Is Paul talking about his pre-Christian life, or his life as a believer? The question itself presupposes that he is talking about one or the other. And in the history of interpretation of Romans 7, scholars have marshaled strong arguments for one answer to that question or the other. But what if both non-Christians and Christians can experience such a struggle – and yet neither all non-Christians nor all Christians have that struggle? In that case, we would have asked the wrong question, and the question itself would have diverted us from properly understanding the passage. We have to ask the right questions.
  3. Know the Old Testament. We cannot understand the book of Romans without an understanding of the Old Testament. Paul quotes the Old Testament about fifty times in this letter – an average of almost four times a page in my Bible. He draws time and again on Old Testament stories: Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Pharaoh and Moses, David. He speaks of Old Testament ideas and uses Old Testament categories: Law, circumcision, remnant, sacrifice. We must dig into the Old Testament if we are to dig into and profit from Romans.

So join me in eagerly anticipating what God will do through our time in this great book. May these truths dwell in us richly, so that we may become what God intends us to be individually and corporately, and therefore we might play our role in bringing about “the obedience of faith for the sake of His Name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5).

Fearing the One Who is Fearsome: God and Truth

March 20, 2015

Those of you following the Bible Unity Reading Plan are nearing the end of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, sometimes called the books of Moses. God has brought His people to the edge of the Promised Land. Here Moses reviews the more than forty years since God brought His people out of Egypt. The people have seen God work; they have heard His voice; they have sometimes responded with joyful obedience, but so often instead have rebelled against Him. God has brought them to Himself (Exodus 19:4); He has made them His people and so they are to love Him above all and obey Him (Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 27:9-10, 6:5-9). He has given them all these commandments for their good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

As Moses looks forward past his death, knowing their bent toward rebellion, he warns them:

If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions (Deuteronomy 28:58-59 ESV).

Bear with me here for a bit as we look in more detail at this text.

What is the purpose of the central clause? Why does Moses include, “that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God”?

First of all, remember that the word “Lord” in all capitals is used when the Hebrew text contains the Name of God, “I Am That I Am, ” most often these days transliterated “Yahweh.” With this understanding, it is clear that “this glorious and awesome name” and “the LORD your God” are in parallel to each other.

Second, remember that for the ancient Israelites, names were often used to describe character. A name is a window into who the person is. So to say that God’s Name is glorious and awesome is to say HE is glorious and awesome.

Third, note that the Hebrew verb translated “fear” is repeated in a different conjugation and translated “awesome” by the ESV.

At this point, perhaps a different translation will be helpful. Let’s take the New American Standard, replace “LORD” with “Yahweh,” and replace “fear” with “hold in awe”:

If you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book, to hold in awe this honored and awesome name, Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 28:58)

In this rendering, the point of the central clause is clearer: Moses is restating in other words what it means to be “careful to observe all the words of this law.” We cannot do that in a legalistic sense: “OK, here’s a command, I’ll keep it and show God how good I am.” For to be careful to observe all the words of this law is indeed to love Yahweh with all our heart, soul, and strength!

Rather, Moses is saying that to be careful to observe all the words of this law is indeed logical, true, right, and pure; it is to fear the One who is fearsome, to hold in awe the One who is awesome, to honor the One who alone deserves honor, to delight in the One who is Joy itself.

And all of that depends on Yahweh being the true God, the God of truth, who speaks words of truth to His people. If He is not, then none of Moses’ words make any sense. There is no reason to fear Him if He is not fearsome; there is no reason to hold Him in awe if He is not awesome.

Thus, hundreds of times Scripture emphasizes that God is true, that His words are true, that Scripture itself is our only hope of knowing the truth. Allow me to give a quick summary of the way God speaks of truth in His Word:

  • God’s ways, judgments, rules, law, commandments, and words are all said to be true (2 Samuel 7:28, Psalm 18:30, 19:9, 119:142, 119:151, Proverbs 30:15, Revelation 15:3, 16:7, 19:2, and many more).
  • In contrast, those who oppose God are liars. Satan is the prototypical liar (John 8:44), the antichrist is defined as the liar (1 John 2:22), and those today who are unrighteous “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).
  • Jesus, on the other hand, emphasizes time and again that His words are true. More than 60 times, Jesus introduces His words with “Truly” or even “Truly, truly.” He came to bear witness to the truth, and everyone “of the truth” listens to Him (John 18:37). He alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
  • This risen Jesus is “the true one,” “the true witness” (Revelation 3:7, 14).
  • God is seeking true worshipers who must worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
  • It is through abiding/remaining in Jesus’ word that we will know the truth – and that truth will set us free (John 8:31-32).
  • We must receive the Spirit of Truth, who guides us into all truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13, 1 John 5:6). We can then both know and be in Him who is true, the true God. And this is eternal life (1 John 5:20).
  • Paul calls the gospel “the word of truth” (Ephesians 1:13, Colossians 1:5), and he calls the church “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
  • In contrast, those who oppose God are under a “strong delusion” having “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
  • So we in the church must preach the Word, even when it is unpopular and derided, because many, having “itching ears,” will “turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).  And as we use the Scriptures for teaching and correction, God may “grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25; see also 3:16).

Thus, Scripture claims that it is the source of ultimate truth. We, like the ancient Israelites, have a bent towards rebellion, towards suppressing this truth, and are therefore under a delusion. The Word by the Spirit must dwell in us richly if we are to know the truth, and in turn be set free. So we must submit ourselves to God and His Word – and so find the glorious freedom of the children of God.

So be careful to do all the words of God’s instruction – that is, hold in awe the One who is awesome, glory in the One who is glorious, hold to the true words of the One who is Truth – to your great joy and fulfillment.

[For further reflection on Scripture and truth, read and meditate on this compilation of more than 200 verses on this theme. For more on the process of coming to submit to Scripture, see these three blog posts from 2013: first, second, and third. The Bible Unity Reading Plan is available as an android app here.]

From Atheism to Truth

March 13, 2015

Holly Ordway was an English professor, a competitive fencer – and an atheist. She writes:

Life inside the fortress of atheism was good. I thought I could make sense of the world just as well as, or much better than, the people who claimed to have faith. I didn’t believe in God, but I had a worldview that felt perfectly satisfactory. It wasn’t a particularly cheery view, but I preferred truth over comfort any day. . . .

Some fools couldn’t face the darkness, but as for me, I could savor the idea of standing on my lonely precipice, able to recognize my identity as a meaningless speck in an uncaring universe and go on living without the artificial comforts of religion.

Over time, her atheism “gradually hardened into strident hostility.” Christians were fools, satisfying their longings with a made-up God. She dismissed any arguments for Christianity; “I had locked myself into my fortress and flung away the key.”

Yet, even in her fortress, Holly occasionally recognized that the world – and she herself – was stained:

All I had to do was look at myself and the people around me to recognize that anger, jealousy, insecurity, envy, contempt, selfishness, fear, and greed were deeply rooted in the soil of being human.

But she saw no solution to these problems with humanity in what she experienced of Christianity:

The bumper-sticker expressions of Christian affirmation—“I’m not perfect, just forgiven!” “God is my co-pilot!”—and the kitsch art that I saw—a blue-eyed Jesus in drapey robes (polyester?) comforting some repentant hipster, or cuddling impossibly adorable children (none crying or distracted), presented faith as a kind of pious flag-waving. “Look, I’m Christian! I know Jesus!” Well, thanks, but no thanks; this Jesus doesn’t look like he could handle anything worse than a skinned knee. I didn’t know then how to say it, but I was looking for the cosmic Christ, the one by whom all things were made, the risen and glorified Jesus at the right hand of the Father.

From high school, Holly was moved by poetry and loved fantasy literature. Indeed, an analysis of The Lord of the Rings figured prominently in her doctoral dissertation. When she began to teach poetry in her classes, she found herself moved by the faith-filled lines of John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 inspired a deep longing in her:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Then Hopkins. He “blazed with intensity, illuminating a dimension to the world that I had not believed existed. I had so carefully honed my defenses of denial, individualism, and rebellion, and here was Hopkins slipping past my guard.” These lines from his poem “Carrion Comfort” hit her hard:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can:
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

She writes:

Hadn’t I been feasting on Despair for years? And I was starving. I read and reread “Carrion Comfort”. Hopkins spoke what I had never shared with anyone, what I had scarcely dared to admit. He had been where I was—and had not stayed there. Hope, wish day come. . . . Was there such a thing as day for me to hope for?

Holly was surprised to find that her fencing coach of almost a year, Josh, was a Christian. He fit none of her stereotypes.

He was a caring and gentle person—though not a pushover—and there was something different about him, something I had never seen before: a kind of peace. His wife, Heidi, . . . had that same underlying joyfulness. . . . [Josh] cared about me, not as a potential convert, but as me, a unique individual, and he always, always treated me with respect.

One night after a disastrous fencing competition, Holly and Josh talk late into the night. She asks question after question. Her last question was key: “When I die, what do you think is going to happen to me?” Josh initially demurs: “I’d rather not answer that question.” But when Holly explains that she genuinely wants to know his thoughts, he replies:

“I believe that we will come before God in judgment, and he will give each person either perfect justice or perfect mercy.”

I sat in silence thinking about this for a moment. Slowly, I said, “And you believe that it would be better for me to know enough, beforehand, to ask for perfect mercy?”

“Yes, I do.”

And that was all he said. Perfect justice or perfect mercy. At that dim morning hour, and again as I thought about it later, I recognized something important: I didn’t want justice. I considered myself a ‘good person’, but in my heart I was afraid to be judged on the real self behind my outward image. Perfect justice was terrifying.

Following Josh’s suggestions, Holly then begins reading on apologetics. She comes to believe that arguments for the existence of God are more powerful than those against. But eventually she recognizes that, if God is Who Scriptures claims He is, He cannot be analyzed as an object. He is a Person. One day, “without my asking, I encountered the Other, God the Holy Spirit, in a way profoundly different from evaluating him as an idea.”

But she has still not reckoned with Jesus:

Was Jesus who he said he was? There were many miracles that I could think about, but they all paled into insignificance next to the singular miracle of the Resurrection. Had it really happened? Because if it had, then Christianity was true.

Two books were especially helpful to Holly at this point: Gary Habermas’ The Risen Jesus and Future Hope and N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Eventually convinced that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead physically, in a glorified body, she had a choice:

I could choose to turn my back, to reject Jesus, and in so doing reject utterly God himself. Pride urged me to do it. This was the voice that whispered: “If you surrender, you lose. Be your own self, no one else’s. Be a rebel.” Or I could accept defeat, lay down my arms and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. . . whatever that entailed.

She did indeed lay down her arms. She ended her rebellion. She submitted to her rightful king.

Holly’s journey to faith in Christ is her own. Her fencing coach Josh showed great discernment and wisdom in the way he gently led her to faith; but that way is not a model for all. Some will follow similar paths; many follow completely different paths.

And her book describes her continuing journey, to Anglicanism and then Roman Catholicism. (With her penchant for considering serious arguments, it would have been helpful had her coach Josh suggested she read Book 4 of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion).

But praise God for His grace and mercy exhibited in the new life of Holly Ordway. Praise God that she is a recipient of perfect mercy. Praise God that He did batter the heart of this rebel against Him, that He did indeed bend His force to break, blow, burn, and make her new. May He work similarly in our friends, our families – and in our own hearts.

Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, (Ignatius Press, 2014).

 

Two Kingdoms: Rebellion

March 10, 2015

Consider this Gospel presentation, “Two Kingdoms:”

Here is a truth I have come to know.  God created the world as His Kingdom, and all was very good. But Satan rebelled, desiring worship that only God deserved. He set up his own kingdom, at war with God’s kingdom of light. The first man and woman, deceived by Satan, chose to rebel also. Since then, all of us have joined that rebellion against our rightful king.

Satan’s kingdom is the kingdom of darkness. He deceives people, saying, “You don’t have to serve me, just serve yourself!” Yet as we serve ourselves, we end up destroying all that is good, even all true pleasure. That is Satan’s goal.

God’s kingdom of light has overcome the kingdom of darkness. For God sent Jesus to earth to live as man should live. Jesus then died on a cross, suffering to pay the penalty we deserve for our rebellion. But God raised Him from the dead, showing that Jesus has authority even over death and the kingdom of darkness. Jesus will reign forever and ever.

God commands all men to turn from their rebellion against Him. He invites all of us to leave the kingdom of darkness and to become citizens of the Kingdom of light. We must turn from our selfish ways and acknowledge that Jesus is our rightful King. We must let Him tell us what to do. By God’s mercy on account of the cross, we can receive His forgiveness and escape from the kingdom of darkness, gaining love, joy, and peace in the Kingdom of light forever.

We live in this little bubble called life for 70 to 80 years. When it pops, we join whichever king we served for all eternity. Which king are you serving?

In a series of blog posts, we’ll look at different key points in this presentation. Today: Rebellion.

Often we think of sin as breaking a rule – rather like driving 75 in a 65mph zone. Yes, there is a rule. Yes, if I get caught there might be consequences. But the main point of the rule is highway safety. Those making the traffic laws can’t adjust them for differing weather conditions, or for the amount of traffic congestion; they must set one speed limit. Yet in the absence of snow, ice, or heavy rain, and particularly when few if any other cars are on the road, I can safely drive 75 in a 65mph zone. In that case, the only problem with breaking the rule is getting caught.

But sin is not like that. Sin is rebellion against our rightful King. When I sin, I despise God. I dishonor Him.

Why?

Unlike those setting traffic laws, God knows all things. He is “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27). He knows exactly what will be for your good and mine. He has our best interests at heart. He gives us commandments for our good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

Furthermore, He is “the great king over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2).  He “rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). And He reigns not because of the consent of the governed, but because He created us. We are contingent, dependent creatures. Apart from His act, we do not exist. As a potter has authority over the vessels he makes, so God has authority over mankind (Isaiah 29:15-16, Jeremiah 18:3-6).

So it is possible for me to rightly question traffic regulations. I may also have reservations about the wisdom of more important laws passed by state and federal legislatures. I can advocate for changes in those laws. Indeed, in the course of human events, there may even be times to rise in rebellion against a human government. In such cases, we are saying, “I know better than the present government what is in my interest, and what is in the interests of the people of this country.” And we may be right.

But we can never make that claim against God! We never know better than He what is in our own best interest. We never could set up an alternative government for the universe that would order it more efficiently! Yet that is what we effectively claim whenever we disobey God. We are despising His wisdom. We are rebelling against His rule. We are claiming that He does not have our genuine interests at heart. We want to overthrow our King.

Consider this truth when you are tempted to sin. It may seem small. It may seem trivial. God’s Law may seem inconsequential. It may seem that no one will be hurt. A thousand arguments may well up inside you, arguing for why breaking God’s Law is no big thing.

But every sin  is rebellion. You despise God whenever you sin.

Don’t rebel against your rightful King.

(If you would like to meditate more on rebellion against God, this file contains many biblical references to our rebellion against God and our despising His word).