Romans 15:4-13 — That we might have hope

Sometimes as we go through scripture, I think most of us wonder why God put all of the things he put in there.  For example, why did he put all the laws he gave the Jews in Exodus and Leviticus?  Or the stories of the awful things people did, stories of rape, murder, and so on.  Do we really need to read all this?

But Paul says something very interesting in verse 4.  He says,

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

In other words, God puts everything in his word for a purpose.  Through the law, for example, we see pictures of the God’s holiness, his justice, and his mercy.

Through the awful stories, we see the sinfulness of man, and just how bad things can get when people walk away from God and do things their own way.

But we also see the grace of God working through the worst of situations to bring out something good.

We see how through times of persecution, God delivered his people.  We see how even when God allowed his people to die in persecution, the peace he gave to them, even in facing death.

We see how through times of suffering, when God seemed far away, yet God was there all along and ultimately brought comfort to his people.

And because of all this, when we see evil in this world, when we go through suffering or persecution, we have hope to endure.  We find the encouragement to keep on going.  And as we do, we find the same God that was with his people thousands of years ago, working in their lives, is still alive today and working in us now.

So whatever you’re going through and where you are in life, let us immerse ourselves in the Scriptures.  Let us remember that God is not dead, but is alive and at work in us.  And as Paul prayed,

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (13)

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Romans 15:1-12 — Living as one

Paul sums up what he has been talking about in chapter 14 in this passage.  He starts by saying,

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good to build him up.  (1-2)

Basically, the “weak” here are those with tender consciences which don’t allow them to do things that are actually okay, or on the other hand require them to do certain things that they don’t have to do.  We saw this in Romans 14.

The strong are those who don’t have those limitations or feelings of obligation.

But Paul says those who are strong should not condemn those who are weak.  Rather, they should look out for the good of those who are weak to build them up.

He then points to the example of Jesus, who though he was strong, put up with us who were weak.  He put up with a squabbling group of disciples who were selfish, self-seeking, proud, and in general a mess.  And he served them, even going so far as to wash their dirty feet (John 13).

More, he put up with people that hated him for no reason, who insulted him, and ultimately crucified him, and he interceded for them, praying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And then he died in their place, taking the punishment they deserved.

Now all of us, both Jew and Gentile, have reason for hope, because 2000 years ago, Jesus laid his life down for us.

So Paul tells us,

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (7).

And he prayed,

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (5)

God calls us to live as one.  And the key to that is not to focus on each other and our respective failings, but to focus on Jesus Christ, keeping our eyes on him, and following after him.  To the degree that we do focus on each other, it should be not to tear each other down, but to build each other up.

How it must tear at the heart of the Father to see his children biting and devouring each other.  Let us not be that way.  Let us live as Christ did, putting up with each other, loving and accepting each other, and serving one another.

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Romans 14 — Breaking conscience

There is one last thing that I should mention before leaving this chapter, and that’s the motivation of our hearts.  Why do we do the things we do?

Paul makes it crystal clear here what our attitude should be.  He said,

Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.  (6-9)

Paul’s reminding us here that we are not living merely for ourselves but for the Lord.  So when we regard one day as “holy to the Lord,” we do it not merely because of tradition, but because of our love for the Lord.  Whenever we eat or drink something, we do it not just to indulge ourselves, but we do it with a heart of thankfulness for God.

In short, whatever we do, we do it to the Lord.  Paul wrote in another passage,

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  (I Corinthians 10:31)

But if you are not doing things out of that kind of heart, that is sin.  Paul wrote concerning eating meat offered to idols,

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:23)

Here, Paul is talking of a person who is bothered by the fact that the meat was offered to idols.  They can’t get out of their head that it was offered to something spiritually impure.  And because of that, if they were to eat it, it wouldn’t be out of a heart of thankfulness to God.  Rather it would be from a heart of, “I’m doing something wrong.  I’m doing something sinful.”  And if they were to eat from that kind of heart, it would become sinful to them.  Because it would come from a heart of, “I feel this is wrong but I will do it anyway.”  And God is never pleased with that kind of attitude.

My point is, we should never break conscience.  If our conscience tells us something is wrong, we should avoid it.  Even if we know other Christians think something like drinking is okay, if in our hearts it bothers us, don’t do it.  Even if we know other Christians sometimes watch R-rated movies, if it bothers us, don’t do it.

Everything we do should be done with a heart confident that we have God’s approval.

This is not to say that if we are confident that we definitely have God’s approval.  That’s why it’s important to read the Bible:  to be certain.  But where the Bible is silent or says the choice is up to us, let us live by our conscience, asking God to continually shape it and mold it so that we can live in a way that’s pleasing to him.

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Romans 14 — Dealing with each other in love.

In chapter 13, Paul said,

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (13:8)

And again,

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:10)

In this chapter, we see a very important application of this verse.  We saw before that there were people who were bothered by their fellow Christians eating meat offered to idols.  It also seems that there were those who were bothered by those who drank wine.

We don’t see the former problem so much if at all in our society today, but we do see a lot of the latter:  Christians judging others over drinking.  Now the Bible is clear cut in saying “Don’t get drunk.”  But it doesn’t teach that we must completely abstain from alcohol.

Yet many Christians who drink alcohol condemn as legalistic those who don’t, and those who don’t drink alcohol often condemn as sinful those who do.

But again, Paul says, “Don’t judge others about these kinds of things.  Leave judgment up to God.  These are God’s servants, not yours.  They are accountable to him, not to you.”

And yet, Paul does say this.

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.  (15).

So he said,

Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.  (13)

And again,

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.  (19-21)

In other words, as Christians, we shouldn’t just live for ourselves and think only of ourselves.  Rather, remember that you are accountable for God for your actions, and he calls you to love your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But if you do something that distresses them because they think it’s wrong, you’re not acting in love.  Worse, you could cause them to break conscience and fall into sin.  For as Paul wrote,

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (23)

We’ll talk more about that tomorrow, but the key point is that we should never cause someone to break their own conscience.

I heard a story once of some people at my church back in Hawaii.  Some of the guys were hanging out at someone’s house, and they all had a beer.  But unbeknownst to them, one of them was a recovering alcoholic.  And unfortunately, being with other brothers that were drinking, he started to drink too.  But unlike them, he didn’t stop until he got drunk.

Now it wasn’t their fault.  They didn’t know.  But it shows the problems that can happen if we abuse our freedom at the expense of our brothers and sisters.

So let us not be selfish in our thinking.  If our brother or sister is bothered by something that we do, then avoid doing that thing where they can see it.  Let us be sensitive to them and love them.  After all, Christ died for them too.

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Romans 14 — Judging your brothers and sisters

If there is one problem within the church, it’s brothers and sisters judging each other.

Now I want to be clear, this has nothing to do with black or white issues.  Paul had no problems with judging others when it came to issues that were clear cut right or wrong.  You only have to look at I Corinthians 5 to see that.

But we’re talking about issues that the Bible either says nothing about or says is up to each individual Christian.  And here we see two of the latter.

Among the Christians in Paul’s day, there were arguments about eating meat and vegetables.  People who ate vegetables were condemning those who ate meat, perhaps because the meat had been offered to idols before being served as food at the dinner table.

Others argued about religious holidays, most probably the Jewish ones and whether Christians should continue to observe them or not.  The Sabbath was probably a particular issue they faced.

The key thing here is that Paul did not consider them black and white issues.  And Paul says here not to get into arguments over “disputable matters.”  (1)

These were issues that were purely matters of conscience.  Some Jews felt that they should continue to observe the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.  And for them, to suddenly stop observing these special days seemed dishonoring to God.  The Gentiles, on the other hand, probably felt that it was a purely a Jewish tradition and had nothing to do with them.

Paul condemns neither.  He said,

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.  Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.  (5-6)

In other words, if you consider a day special because of your faith, then celebrate it.  God will honor that.  But if every day is alike to you, that’s fine too.

For those who felt bad about eating meat offered to idols, Paul said,

I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. (14)

Paul was telling the Romans, “I personally feel that even if food has been offered to idols, it’s okay to eat it.  But if you feel bad about doing that, then by all means, don’t eat it.”

But then he said,

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.  (3-4)

And again,

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.  (10-13)

I really don’t think there’s much that needs to be added to this.  It’s about as clear as you can make it.  The main point is that God is our master.  He is the one we have to answer to.  So we have no business judging one another on things that are a matter of conscience.  So let us leave judgment to God.

When I was a teenager, I was working with other teens teaching Bible clubs to kids.  For the first two weeks, we went through a training camp.  But in between our classes, sometimes people played cards.  Now we weren’t gambling or anything, but there was one person there that was bothered by it.  She had always been taught it was wrong.

Now when one of the other teens heard this, he said, “That’s so stupid!”  He didn’t say it, but if he had been an adult, he probably would have said, “That’s so legalistic.”

But another guy said, “Hey, it’s how she feels.  Respect that.”  So we never touched cards again for the rest of camp.

We refused to judge her for her beliefs.  And she, though she did say our playing bothered her, didn’t condemn us for thinking it was okay to play cards.  The end result was that we kept harmony, and we were able to do great things for God that summer.

That’s what Paul is saying here.  We will not always agree.  But on issues where God says it’s up to us, or on issues where God says nothing at all, let us accept one another.  And if we do, we will make a difference in this world for Christ.

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Romans 13:11-14 — Embracing the Day

When Jesus departed from this earth, and the disciples were left looking at the sky, an angel appeared to them saying,

Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

Luke tells us that hearing this they returned to Jerusalem with great joy worshiping continually in the temple (Luke 24:52-53), and they also waited for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2).  And when the Spirit came, they went out and turned this world upside down.

Now, years after this event, Paul brings all this back to mind, saying,

And do this (i.e., love each other), understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  (11-12)

In other words, knowing that the day of Jesus’ return is coming soon, we are to be awake, alert, and ready.  I love the ESV translation of verse 12.

The night is far gone; the day is at hand.

Paul’s saying, “The time when Satan ruled is long past.  The Day of Christ is at hand.”

He then takes the metaphors of night and day, and says,

So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  (12b)

In short, since the time of Satan’s rule has passed, and the time of Christ is at hand, let us put aside the deeds associated with that time of darkness, and instead put on the deeds associated with the light.  What are the deeds of darkness?  He tells us in verse 13,

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

Most people, when they do evil, do it in secret, in darkness.  But Paul says here to step out into the light.  Act as you would when you know the whole world is watching.  More, act knowing that God is watching and sees all you do.

Note also that though Satan’s time has passed, though he has already lost because of the cross, nevertheless, he continues to fight.  So we are to be prepared for battle wearing the armor of light.  We are to have on the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the sword of the Spirit, and our feet fitted and prepared to take out the gospel.  (Ephesians 6:14-17)

Paul then concludes by saying,

Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  (14)

We are to be people clothed Jesus Christ himself.  His power and his character should be resting upon us as we live each day.  And if we are clothed with him, then there is no room for feeding our sinful nature.

Again, I like the ESV which puts it,

Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  (14b)

So knowing that Christ is coming soon, let us be like the 12 disciples, living each day in joy, filled with the Spirit, and turning this world upside down for the sake of Christ.  Let us embrace the Day.

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Romans 13:8-10 — To fulfill the law

It has always seemed strange to me that Paul said,

For whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  (8b)

After all, isn’t loving God the other half of fulfilling the law?  Jesus did say after all that the two great commands are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37-40)

Why then focus only on the latter?

I’m not sure, but I think perhaps the reason is that we cannot separate the former from the latter.  That if we truly love God, we must love our neighbor.  And if we don’t love our neighbor, we’re not truly loving God.

John says as much in his epistles.

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  (I John 3:17)

And again,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.  (I John 4:20-21)

It’s very hard to argue with John.  How can we claim that we love a God whom we have never seen, while at the same time we hate the people around us that we can see?

How about you?  Do you claim to love God?  If so, how are you treating the people around you?  Are you loving them?  Or are you looking down on them?  Are you despising them?

If you’re doing the latter, it’s time to take a close look at how much you truly love God.

So as John wrote,

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  (I John 3:18)

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Romans 13:8-10 — A debt that can never be repaid

Paul’s use of words here are very interesting when you think about it.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.  (8)

What is a debt?  It’s something that you owe to someone else.  Paul is literally saying that we owe it to the people around us to love them.

Think about that a moment.  What would you say if someone were to say to you, “You have to love me.  You owe it to me.”

It’s hard to wrap your mind around it, at least it is for me.  Quite frankly, if someone were to say that to me, I’d probably say, “Forget that.  I’m out of here.  I don’t owe you anything.”

Yet Paul says we do.  Why?

First, no matter who they are, they are people created in the image of God.  And for that reason alone, they are worthy of our love.

Second, God loves them.  And if God loves them, then we need to see them the same way.  As people deserving of our love.

But so often, we devalue people.  We see them as unlovable.  Why?

Sometimes it’s because they’re “different.”  Sometimes it’s because of the things they do.  And too often, it’s so hard to see beyond that.

But we need to remember that as people created and loved by God, they are worthy of our love.  To withhold that love from them is to tell God, “You made junk.  You are wrong to love that person.”

I think, though, there is another reason we owe love to others.  It’s because God loves us and gave his Son for us.  Jesus paid a terrible price on the cross to save us from our sin.  And it’s a debt we can never repay.  But since we have received a love and grace that we didn’t deserve, we owe it to God to pass on what we have received from him to the people around us, even if in our eyes, they don’t deserve it.  Jesus put it this way,

Freely you have received; freely give.  (Matthew 10:8)

How about you?  Are you passing the love you have received from God freely with those around you?

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Romans 13:1-7 — Doing what’s right…no matter who’s in charge

In this passage, Paul talks about the Christian’s relationship to government.  And the basic principle that Paul gives is that we are to submit to those in authority.

Why?  First and foremost, because ultimately, God is the one that put them there.  And so if you rebel against those God has put in authority, you are actually rebelling against God.

Second, God has instituted the idea of authority for the benefit of society.  Without authority, there would be total anarchy, and all of us would be living in fear.  So Paul says,

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. (4)

For the most part, because of authority figures in society, we have peace and stability.  And Paul tells us that as long as we do what’s right, we shouldn’t have any problems.

I think of Obadiah (not the prophet)  in I Kings 18.  He served in the palace of one of the most wicked kings in Israel’s history, King Ahab.  But he did such an exemplary job that Ahab put him in charge of running the day to day operations of the palace.  Yet, all the while, Obadiah feared God and did what was right.

Which brings up another point.  Sometimes what is right is contrary to what those in authority has ordered or wants.  What do we do in those situation?  Do what’s right.

So when Ahab’s wife Jezebel ordered that all the prophets of God be killed, Obadiah secretly sheltered 100 prophets from the king and queen, saving the prophets’ lives.

Daniel and his friends did the same, as seen in Daniel 1-3.  When they were ordered to do something contrary to the Word of God, they did what was right and followed God’s instructions instead.  So did Peter and the rest of the apostles when threatened by the Sanhedrin to be silent concerning Christ (Acts 4-5).

And in each case, God blessed and protected them.  Why?  Because they did what was right.  And in some cases, they even won the favor of those that initially were against them.

Paul says,

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  (3)

This is particularly true of the ultimate authority:  God.  If we do what’s right, we have nothing to fear from him.  Rather, we will be commended by him.  So if the desires of those in authority are against what God wishes, then we are to follow our ultimate Authority.

But even when we have to go against the wishes of those in authority here on earth, we are to respect them.

Paul says,

Give to everyone what you owe them…if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.  (7)

That was the example of Obadiah, of Daniel and his friends, and the apostles.  And that’s how we are to act too.

Peter sums this all up by saying,

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  (I Peter 3:13-16)

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Romans 12:14, 17-21 — When people hate us

One thing that the early Christians had to face, and Christians have to face to this day is hatred and persecution.

And Paul told the church how to handle it.  He said,

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  (14)

Those words echo what Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  (Matthew 5:44)

Jesus himself, lived out those words.  When he was on the cross, facing those who put him there, he prayed,

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

We are to do the same.  When we let bitterness consume us, it destroys us.  So Paul says, “Let go of bitterness and resentment to those who hurt you.  Instead, pray for them.”

He goes even further in verse 16, saying,

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.

Rather,

Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.

The wording is perhaps not the best here.  Paul is not saying, “Follow the moral standards of the people around you.”  He’s saying, “In the eyes of the people around you, whether they persecute you or not, do what is right.”

And that of course means not giving into bitterness or anger and taking revenge.

He then says,

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  (18)

Sometimes this means simply agreeing to disagree agreeably.  Sometimes this means we need to apologize to someone even if we feel they shouldn’t have been hurt by something we did.  Sometimes it means finding a middle ground in which you don’t have to compromise the Word of God.  I have friends here in Japan, for example, that refuse to go to any Buddhist funeral or memorial ceremony, but they will go out of their way to serve their family or friends after the ceremonies in any way they can.

Finally, Paul tells us,

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  (19-20)

In short, remember justice belongs to God, not you.  God will bring all people to account for what they’ve done.  So don’t give in the desire to “fight fire with fire.”  And again, don’t hold on to bitterness.  It will only eat you up.  Rather, follow the example of Jesus and show his love to them.

Who knows?  Through your actions, they may actually come to Christ.  I wonder how much Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:60) for those who were killing him ate at Paul before Paul himself finally came to Christ.

So as Paul concludes,

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (21)

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Romans 12:9-16 — Living as a Christian…with the rest of the body

It would be easy to look at this passage and just think that these are things we are to do as individual Christians.

But it’s important to note that Paul is saying all this within the context of the body of Christ.  He says first of all,

Love must be sincere. (9)

I love how the NLT puts it.

 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.

It can be so easy, for example, to pretend as if we’re listening to someone talking, when all the while, our brain is a million miles away.  But don’t just pretend to take an interest in others, really take an interest in them.

He then tells us as a church,

Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

As a church, we need to hate and fight against the evil that we see in this world, while clinging to what is good and right.  But that needs to start with what’s inside the church.

When we see bitterness and unforgiveness in the church, do we fight against that, instead embracing forgiveness?  When we see divisions and factions, do we fight to resolve them and instead embrace unity?  When we see pride and prejudices within the church, do we banish them from our midst, and embrace acceptance and love (verses 10 and 16)?  When we see blatant, willful sin, do we deal with it in godly discipline (I Corinthians 5)?  And when we see a person fall, do we gently work to restore them (Galatians 6:1)?

Paul goes on to say,

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  (12)

When we go through trials, are we supporting one another, giving each other hope, encouraging each other to stand throughout our trials, and praying for each other.  Do we,

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (15)

We talked about earlier how it’s important to minister to those within the church, not just without.  Paul brings this up as well, saying,

Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (13)

That’s what our Christian lives should look like.  Does yours?

 

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Romans 12:3-16 — But don’t we need to go out?

I suppose I should address an objection that people might make concerning my last blog:  I said that one reason Christian fellowship is necessary is that we need each other.  We all have a role to play in the body of Christ, and that we have a responsibility to use our gifts to minister to each other.

Some might object, “But shouldn’t we be using our gifts to bless the world, not just the church?”

Yes we should.  But remember that many of the gifts we are given are meant first and foremost for the church.  Paul in Ephesians, for example says,

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.  (Ephesians 4:11).  

Why did Christ do this?

To prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)

Think about evangelists for a moment.  If there is one gifting that is used to be outside of the church, it’s that one.  But Paul specifically tells us that one of the main purposes of the evangelist is to prepare God’s people for works of service.  As well as preaching the gospel, evangelists help encourage other believers to share their faith too.  They show other believers how it is possible to make a difference in the lives of their unbelieving friends.

And as each of these people Paul lists use their gifts, we all grow up in unity in the faith and become mature.

“Okay, Bruce,” you may say, “but my gifting is not from that list.”

It doesn’t matter.  Paul goes on to say,

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (4:15-16)

Again, we see that everyone in the church, every supporting ligament, every part, needs to do its work that we may all build each other up and become mature.

That’s why Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:10,

As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

So yes, using our gifts to touch the world is vital.  But we also need to use them within the church.

Remember what Jesus told his disciples:

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  (John 13:34-35)

Notice that the way that people will know we are Christ’s disciples is by the way we treat each other.  And if we are loving and serving one another, people will see a difference in the followers of Christ, and that’s what will attract them to Him.

But if we are fighting amongst ourselves, living selfishly, and with an attitude of pride, they’ll rightfully ask, “So what’s the difference?  Christians are just like us.”

How about you?  Are you loving God’s people?  Or are you avoiding them?  Are you serving God’s people?  Or are you withholding the gifts God has given you from them?

 

 

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Romans 12:3-16 — What destroys fellowship

It is so easy to think of the Christian life as an individual thing.  I suppose with the individualistic mindset of Western countries, this is particularly true.  But the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone.  We are meant to be in fellowship with other believers.

Yet there are many Christians who no longer attend church.  Why?  There are many reasons, but through Paul’s words, we can find one common reason.  Paul wrote,

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (3)

And again,

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (16)

If there is one thing that will destroy Christian fellowship, it’s pride.

It’s a pride that says, “I don’t need other Christians.  I’m fine by myself.”

It’s a pride that says, “These other Christians are at a much lower spiritual plane than I am.  What can I possibly get from hanging around them?”

It’s a pride that says, “I’m at a different social status than these others.  What do I have in common with them?”

It’s a pride that says, “This person has hurt me and that person has hurt me.  I’m not going to go back to church until they apologize.”

But Paul reminds us,

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (4-5)

Here we see an important truth:  All Christians are part of the body of Christ.  And we don’t merely belong to ourselves anymore.  We belong to Christ, first and foremost.  But we also belong to each other.

Why?

Because all of us bring something different to the body of Christ.  We all have different functions within his body.  And the whole body depends on us to fulfill that function.

So Paul says,

If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.  (6-8)

You may think that you don’t need others.  But even if that were true, others need you.  And God gave you the gifts you have to bless others.  Remember that in serving others, we serve God.  That’s why Paul admonishes us,

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. (11)

But if we out of our pride withhold what God has given us from the church, God will hold us accountable.

Always remember:  we belong to the others in the church.  And they belong to us.  We need each other.

So let us get rid of the pride that would separate us from our brothers and sisters.  Instead,

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  (10)

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Romans 12:2 — To know the mind of God

I like how some translations put the first part of Romans 12:2.

Do not be conformed to this age.  (HCSB)

So often we talk about “the age we live in,” and how things have changed.  And things have certainly changed.  When I first moved to Japan back in 1995, email was still a “new thing,” as was the internet.  So back in those days, I used air letters, and if I needed to make quicker contact, the telephone.  Land lines, that is.

Now, of course, we have cell phones, email and Skype, not to mention social media.

But as well as changes in technology, we have changes in the way people think, particularly about morals.  Things that were once considered “sinful,” are now considered normal.  I wonder how many people remember what a couple “living in sin,” means.

More, we are now living in the age of “tolerance.”  Now don’t get me wrong.  Tolerance in itself is a good thing.  Tolerance basically means that even if you don’t agree with someone, you can still deal with them on a day to day basis in a way that’s civil, and hopefully even friendly.

But in this age, tolerance means, “All beliefs are equally legitimate.  And if you disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong or you’re wrong.  You’re both right.  So don’t you dare even think that the other person could possibly be wrong.  If you do, you’re being ‘intolerant.'”

Of course, this all goes out the window when these same people consider what Christians believe.  At that point, “tolerance” becomes, “You’re wrong.  You have to change the way you think.”

But if we truly want to know the mind of God, we cannot conform ourselves to the way this age thinks.  Because while the way people think changes over time, God never changes.

There are multiple pressures to conform.  They can come from society; they can come from family; they can come from friends.  And these pressures are everywhere.

I can particularly see it in Japan, with its emphasis on “wa”, which means “group harmony.”  One of the true few “sins” in Japanese society is the breaking of this “wa,” and it can get you ostracized in a hurry.

This is not to say that group harmony is itself a bad thing.  Paul himself writes,

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  (Romans 12:18)

But there are times when the way you’re being pressed is contrary to the Word of God.  And we cannot let ourselves be conformed to this age.  Because ultimately, the patterns of this age will destroy us.  If we let ourselves go along with those patterns, we will end up hurting God, others, and ourselves.

So let us not be conformed to the patterns of this age.  Rather, as Paul puts it,

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2b)

How our minds transformed?  Through the Word of God.  By reading it, meditating on it, and by the power of the Spirit, living it.  And as we do so, we find life.  Because not only are our minds transformed, but our whole lives are transformed.  We find the way God meant for us to live from the beginning.  We find a marriage that works, relationships that work, peace in the midst of troubling circumstances, and joy within the darkest valleys.  In short, we find the will of God in our lives.  And we find that that will is good, pleasing, and perfect.

How about you?  Is your mind being conformed to the pattern of this age?  Or is your mind being transformed?

 

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Romans 12:1 — A living sacrifice

This is perhaps one of the more famous passages in scripture.  Paul writes,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.

It’s always good to look back at what was said previously whenever you see the word “therefore.”  And as we saw, Paul had just written,

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.  (Romans 11:36)

Think about that phrase “all things” for a minute.  Among those “things” are us.  We were created from his mind and by his plan.  We were created through his power.  And we were created for him, and ultimately we will return to him, held accountable for how we lived our lives.

So many people scream, “It’s my life.  It’s my right to live however I want to.”

That’s only half true.  God has indeed given us free will.  So in that sense, we have the right to live as we please.  But it is not really our life.  We were created by God, by his power, and for him.

And it is with that in mind, Paul says that we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to him.  He also calls it our spiritual service of worship to God.  The King James version puts it, “your reasonable service.”

In other words, it only makes sense that since we were created by God and for him, that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

What does that mean though?  Does that mean we are to die for him?  While some may be called to become martyrs for Christ, Paul doesn’t mean this.  He says we are to be “living” sacrifices.

I like to use the analogy of marriage when thinking of a living sacrifice.

In a marriage, the husband and wife offer themselves to each other.  And while I’m sure, for example, my wife would be happy to know that I am willing to die for her, she would much prefer that I live for her.  That I would set apart myself for her, and give myself to no other woman.  More, she would like to know that I love her so much that I want to please her, and find joy in pleasing her.  I, of course, desire the same thing from my wife.  And when husbands and wives live as living sacrifices toward each other, marriage works well.

In the same way, while God is happy to know that we’re willing to die for him, he would much rather that we live for him.  That each day, we would set apart ourselves (be holy) for him.  And he wants us to love him so much, that we delight in pleasing him.

Why would we do these things?  Because of his mercies toward us.  He himself became a man and laid down his life for us as a sacrifice.   While we were yet sinners, our backs set against him, and going our own way, Christ loved us enough to die for us that we might be reconciled to him.

And now that we know the love of God in our lives, it’s only natural that we respond with that same kind of love and offer ourselves to him, living lives that are pleasing to him.

That’s a living sacrifice.  How about you?  Are you a living sacrifice?

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Romans 11:33-36 — A God who is beyond us

One of the things that amazes me is the people who think that if they were to argue with God, they could win.

More than a few atheists, when posed with the question, “If God exists, what would you say when you stood before him in heaven,” respond by saying they could argue why they didn’t believe in God while they were on earth.  And they seem to think they could reasonable argue their position before God.

But in this passage, Paul shows the utter foolishness and futility of that way of thinking.  In chapters 10 and 11, he talks about how God used the disobedience of the Jews to bring the Gentiles to salvation, and how the result of the Gentiles coming to Christ will be the salvation of the Jews.  In short,

Just as you (Gentiles) who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their (the Jews’) disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.  (30-32)

It’s here that you see a glimpse of how God’s foreknowledge works with predestination.  He knew how the Jews would react to Jesus, and he thus made plans to bring Gentiles into his kingdom.  But he also knew that if he did that, the Jews would then feel a longing for God, and thus turn to Jesus and be saved as well.

In short, God knows what his endgame is on the chessboard of the universe, and he knows how to achieve it.  Taking into account our free will and all our possible choices, he knows how to respond to each of our choices so that his will can be ultimately done.  People thus retain their free will and he maintains his.

As he contemplated this, Paul was simply overwhelmed, singing,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”  (34)

In other words, no one can match the wisdom and knowledge of God. It’s hard to match all wisdom and all knowledge, after all.  And because he knows all things and we don’t, it’s impossible for us to understand all his decisions unless he reveals it to us.  And even if he does reveal it, we’re still limited as to how much we can truly understand.

So when people argue, for example, about how a good God could allow evil in the world, they do so from ignorance.  They don’t have all the information that God has, and so all their arguments against him essentially amount to nothing.

Yet people argue as if they do know everything.  As if their arguments are unanswerable.  And so they boast that they could debate against God and win.  But when they stand before him, he will lay out on the table all the motivations of their heart, all that they knew or should have known had they taken the time to find out, he will lay out all the facts as they are, not as we perceived them in our pride, and ultimately, every mouth will be silenced and every person held accountable.  (Romans 3:19).

There is nothing that we can bring to the table that will stun God and make him say, “I never knew that.”

Nor will there be anything that we can point to in our lives to say, “Look at what I did.  I deserve heaven.”

For as Paul concludes,

“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”  For from him and through him and to him are all things.

Everything we have is from him.  All things came through him.  And all things will return to him.  That includes us.   

So we have two choices.  We can give glory to him, as Paul did, saying,

To him be the glory forever! Amen. (36b)

Or we can continue to rebel against him until the day come when we are silent before him.

How about you?  What will you choose?

 

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Romans 11:1-32 — No room for pride

I have never understood the anti-Semitic sentiment held by some Christians, particularly in view of Romans 11.

I think at the root of the anti-Semitic sentiment is a feeling of pride, and that is something Paul completely squashes in this chapter.

It is this feeling of pride, in fact, that Elijah had when complaining to God about the rest of the Israelites,  He said to God,

I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.  (1 Kings 19:10)

In other words, “Look at me God.  I’m zealous for you.  Look at all I’ve done.  But these other Israelites:  they’re hopeless.”

But God told him, “Hey, there are many others who belong to me who have never bowed knee to Baal.”

Paul then says that just as there was a remnant in Elijah’s time, there is a remnant of Jews now faithful to God, who have accepted Jesus as their Messiah.  And they, like us, are chosen by God’s grace.

Paul goes on to remind us,

And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.

Many Christians today are like Elijah.  They think they were saved because of their works.  That they were somehow better than others, and so God saved them.  But Paul tells us that’s not true.  Grace is a gift given to the undeserving.

Elijah was undeserving of God’s grace, and yet he received it.  Elijah became bitter, angry, and depressed when his life was threatened.  And yet God reached down to him and strengthened and encouraged him.  We too are undeserving; yet God reached down to save us.  How then can we look down on the Jews as if we are somehow better than they are?  We are all saved by grace.

Paul then compares the Jews to olive branches that were broken off and us to wild shoots that were grafted in.

But he tells us,

Do not boast over those branches.  If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.  You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted.  But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith.  Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.  Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.  (18-22)

The point again here, is that we are saved by grace.  That it is not because of what we have done that saved us, but because of what Christ did on the cross.  The only thing we did was believe.  So there’s no room for arrogance on our part.

Rather, those who criticize the Jews should pay more attention to their own selves.  And they need to ask themselves, “Am I standing by faith and the grace of God?  Or am I standing by my works?  If I’m standing by my works, I’m headed for destruction just as those unbelieving Jews are.  But if I’m standing by grace, what right do I have to be arrogant?”

Even if you don’t criticize the Jews, do you look down on others?  Are you convinced that you are saved because you’re somehow better than others.  You’re not.  If you were, grace wouldn’t be grace.  Rather your salvation would simply be what you deserved.

So be humble.  And grateful.  There is no room for pride in the kingdom of God.

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Romans 10:16-11-10 — Refusing to believe

A couple of days ago, I talked about the paradox of salvation.  That though the path to salvation is so easy, yet it is difficult.  All we have to do is put our faith in God and Jesus’ work on the cross and we’ll be saved.  And yet so many people don’t.  We see this problem with the Jews.  Paul writes,

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”  (10:16)

That’s not just the problem with the Jews; it’s the problem with most people today.  To this very day, these words ring true.  “Lord, who has believed our message?”

Paul then says,

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.  (10:17)

In other words, two things are necessary to be saved.  To hear the message of the gospel and to believe it.

What is the problem?  Why don’t so many Jews and others believe.  Is it that Christ has not spoken?  Or is it that they have not heard?  Not at all.  Paul writes,

Did they not hear?  Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”  (10:18)

The quote here, from Psalm 19:4, talks about how the heavens declare the glory of God.  Paul then applies this to the gospel, that Jesus’ words had gone into all the known earth.

Paul then asks,

Again I ask: Did Israel not understand?

Rhetorical question here, the answer being, “No, they didn’t understand.”

And Paul goes on to talk about the irony of the work of God.  That those God revealed himself to first (the Jews) rejected him, but when God went on to others, those others did believe.  Paul says,

I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.  (10:20)

God is specifically talking about the Gentiles here.  That though the Gentiles were going their own way and were not even seeking God, God revealed himself to them and they accepted him.

The truth is, though, verse 20 can equally be applied to the Jews.  They weren’t really seeking God.  They had started worshiping other gods in Egypt.  (Joshua 24:14)  Yet God revealed himself to them.  But what was their response when God revealed himself to them?

God said of them,

All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.  (Romans 10:21)

Why didn’t they believe?  They saw all the miracles.  The ten plagues in Egypt.  The parting of the Red Sea.  The manna in the desert.  And so much more.  They had every reason to believe.

Then Jesus came.  He performed miracles.  He cast out demons.  He preached words of wisdom such as they had never heard before.  And yet they rejected him.  Why?

The others (Jews) were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.”  (11:7-8)

This is a quote from Isaiah 29.  I talk more about this here, but the idea from this passage is that the Jews first blinded themselves.  And so God said, “You don’t want to see?  Fine.  Be blind.”

That’s what happened with the Jews.  For hundreds of years, despite all God did and said, they refused to believe.  So God gave them over to their unbelief.

That’s the danger for all who hear the gospel.  If we harden ourselves to it, sooner or later, God will say, “Fine.  Dwell in your unbelief,” and he gives us over to the results of that unbelief:  death.

So don’t harden your hearts to God’s message of salvation.  Don’t listen to it with a heart that is skeptical and hardened from the beginning.  If you do, you will only blind yourself and you will die, separated from God for all eternity.

Instead, open your heart.  For only in Christ and his message of salvation will you find life.

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Romans 10:19-11:32 — The irrevocable call of God

One of the most amazing things about salvation is that it comes about through the call of God, and that call is irrevocable.

Paul clearly illustrates this through Israel.  He talked about how Israel had hardened their hearts to God despite all he had said and done.  He then asks,

Did God reject his people?  (11:1a)

His answer?

By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.  (11:1b)

In other words, how can you say God has rejected the Jews when I myself, a Jew, have been saved?

He then says something interesting.

God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.  (11:2)

Paul’s saying here, “There’s no way you can say God has rejected his people because he chose them knowing full well that many would harden their hearts against him.  That many would reject him.  And that many would crucify his Son.”

It’s not as if God said, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.  I guess I have to reject them now.”

Rather, he knew beforehand that though many would reject him, nevertheless, there would always be those who were his.  How could he know this?  Because he had chosen them before creation to be saved.  As God told Elijah when Elijah complained he was the only one following God,

I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.  (11:4)

And Paul says of the Jews of his day too,

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.  (5)

Paul then reveals the plan of salvation God had made from the very beginning.  That the Jews would reject their Messiah, and so the gospel would be taken to the whole world, and many would receive it and become God’s children.  Then the Jews would see this and be filled with longing for that kind of relationship.  They would remember that God had initially chosen them for that kind of relationship.  They would then become angry at themselves for throwing away what had been theirs and would turn to God, and they too would be saved.  In fact, it seems the day will come when all Jews will come to recognize Jesus as Messiah and be saved (11:26-27).

Paul then reminds us,

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.  (11:28)

In other words, the Jews were persecuting the Christians for following Christ.  But God still loved the Jews and was planning to save them.  Why?  Because of what they had done?  No.  Because he had set his love upon them for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  More, God made his promises to them, and he will never break them.

That’s why Paul could say,

For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.  (11:29)

The good news for us?  His gifts and his call on us are irrevocable too.  He knew us before we were born.  He knew what doubts we’d have.  He knew what failures we’d have.  And he chose us anyway.

So let us never fear that God will reject us because of our doubts and failures.  As with Israel, his call on us is irrevocable.  And as Paul said in another letter, what God has started, he will complete.  (Philippians 1:6)

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Romans 10:14-15 — The need for us to go

We’ve talked about this not to long ago, so this should be short and sweet.  I’ve mentioned before that we were chosen before the beginning of the world to be God’s children.

There have been, however, Christians who have taken this concept too far and said, “Well, if God has already chosen those who will be saved, there’s no need for us to go out and evangelize them.”

That kind of thinking overlooks one key thing.  God commands us to go.  The reason: though he doesn’t need us to evangelize, nevertheless, he chooses to spread his gospel through us.  He has given us the keys to his kingdom.  But if we don’t use them, people will not be saved.

That’s why Paul says,

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  (14)

These are all rhetorical questions, and the answer is crystal clear to all of them.  People can’t.  They can’t call on the one they haven’t believed in.  They can’t believe in the one they have not heard.  And they cannot hear without someone preaching to them.

Paul then says,

And how can they preach unless they are sent?

Again, the answer is that they can’t.  But here’s the thing to note:  God has called all of us who are believers to go.  All of us have been commissioned by him to go and share his gospel.

Jesus told his disciples and us,

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.  (John 20:21)

And again,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  (Matthew 28:19)

We don’t need to wait for him to send us.  He already has.

So Paul says of those who take the gospel out,

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!  (Romans 10:15b)

How about you?  You’ve been given the keys to the kingdom.  What are you doing with them?


 

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Romans 10:6-13 — All that’s left for us to do

The way to salvation is, in a sense, contradictory.  That is to say, it is so easy, and yet so hard.

Paul writes,

But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  (6-7)

In other words, we don’t need to drag Jesus down from heaven to effect our salvation.  Nor do we have to drag his dead body from the grave in order for us to be saved.  Jesus has already come.  He has already paid for our sins on the cross.  And he has already been raised from the dead.

So what is there left for us to do then?

But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.  (8-10)

In short, all we need to do is acknowledge in our hearts who Jesus is and what he has already done for us.

Who is he?  He is Lord.

What does that mean exactly.  Paul makes it crystal clear in the next few verses.

As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (11-13)

The last quotation he brings out is Joel 2:32, and the word translated “Lord” is not simply “Adonai” which can be used of mere men as well as of God.  Joel uses the divine name, “Yahweh.”  In short, “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.”  So Jesus is not merely “a lord,” but he is God himself.

Paul says as much in Philippians 2 where he quotes Isaiah 45:23 in which Yahweh says,

Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.

He then applies it to Jesus, saying,

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11)

So if we are to be saved we need to confess Jesus for who he really is, Lord and God.

More we are to believe in what he has done.  That he died for our sins and was raised from the dead.  And then beyond that, we are to call on him.

It’s not enough just to know Jesus is Lord.  It is not enough to know that he died for us and was raised again.  The demons know all this.

We must call on him and ask him to save us.  And if we do, he will.

It is so easy.  Yet it is so difficult.  Why?  Because people simply do not want to believe.  Many people claim they can’t believe.  But God has given enough evidence for all of us to believe.  It’s not that people can’t believe.  They choose not to.

They choose not to because of pride.  “It’s too simple.  I must be able to do something to save myself.”  Or, “I don’t need God in my life.  I’m fine as it is.  I don’t need a crutch in my life.”  Or, “I’m too intelligent to believe in God.”

Others are simply too in love with their sin.  They know that if they acknowledge Jesus in their lives, they can’t keep living as they are.  And they don’t want to give it up even though it is destroying them.

How about you?  What will you do with Jesus in your life?

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Romans 10:1-5 — Why can’t there be another way to God? (part 2)

I seem to be doing a lot of these multi-part posts.  In case you’re wondering why I don’t just put it all in one post, I translate all these posts into Japanese, and it’s intimidating enough to translate a 500-600 word post.  Trying to do a 1000-2000 word post is more than I want to tackle.  Plus I figure shorter posts are easier for people to read.

Anyway, Paul gives two other reasons here why Christ is the only way to God.  Again, he’s talking about the Jews in this passage, but what he says can be applied to just about any religious person in the world.

He says,

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.  For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.  (1-2)

Here Paul makes a very important point.  Many Jews and other religious people are very zealous for God.  That’s a good thing.  But zeal without knowledge is not.  And again, these people are pursuing God in total ignorance of what he really wants.  Faith.

More, Paul says,

Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.  (3)  

That’s the second problem with many religious people.  Because they didn’t know true righteousness, they established their own.  They made their own definitions of what is right and wrong.  They made their own definitions of what is acceptable to God and not.

And because they are following their own definition of righteousness, when they encounter true righteousness, the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, they fail to submit to it.  Rather they keep going along the path they themselves (or those who came before them) have established.

But you cannot expect to go your own way, establishing your own standards in direct contradiction to God’s, and expect him to be pleased with you, no matter how zealous you are.

The truth of the matter is, even if God were to allow you to live by the standards you yourself have established, you would fail even by those standards.  For as Paul said,

Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.”  (5)

How many people keep their own rules perfectly?  None.  And yet people still try to reach God through their own rules.

So when people set up their own rules, their own religion, they fail on two counts.  One, their standards are not God’s.  Second, they can’t keep their own rules.

And yet they expect God to accept them?  Particularly when the thing God asks for most is that they trust him, and they refuse to do even that?

Forget it.

So Paul says,

Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.  (4)

In short, let’s put aside our standards of righteousness and our religion.  They’ll get us nowhere with God.  Instead let us to turn to Christ, “our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”  (I Corinthians 1:30).

More on this next time.

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Romans 9:30-33 — Why can’t there be another way to God?

One of the things that bothers people about Christianity is that Christ claims he is the only way to God.  That there is no other way.  And they say, “Why can’t there be another way?”

There are many ways to answer that question, but Paul gives one answer here, as he talks about the Jews.  As I look at this passage, it strikes me that everything Paul says about the Jews, he could be saying about every other religious person in the world.

He says,

What then shall we say?  That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.  (9:30-31)

Let’s rephrase that into the modern world.

What then shall we say?  That the Christians, who did not pursue righteousness through religious rules, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the rest of the world, who pursued righteousness through the laws of their own religion, has not attained it.

How can we say that?  How can we just dismiss the efforts of all the religious people of the world?

Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. (32)

In other words, their whole idea of how to be made righteous before God is wrong.  It’s not by works.  It’s by faith.

Let’s put it this way.   There’s a famous book called the “Five Love Languages.”    And in it, the author makes clear that people feel love in different ways.  Some people feel love by receiving gifts, others feel love by being served, others feel love by the words they hear, and so on.  And there can be conflict in a marriage when a person doesn’t know their partner’s love language.

For example, a husband tries very hard to please his wife by giving her gifts.  But though he tries very hard to give her the perfect gift, though he spends tons of money on it, he gets frustrated because she’s not responding as he expects.  After all, he feels most loved when he receives gifts.

What he doesn’t know is that she doesn’t want gifts; she wants his time.  And so though he tries very hard to please his wife, because he’s going about it in the wrong way, he can never achieve his aim.

In the same way, most people approach God by thinking they have to do a lot of good works to be accepted by him.  But what they don’t realize is that while the good works are nice, that’s not what he really wants.  What he really wants is for people to trust him.  To have faith in him.

You see that from the very beginning in the garden of Eden.  He told Adam and Eve, “Trust me.  Don’t eat from that tree.  It’ll lead to your destruction.”  But they didn’t trust him, and the result was a broken relationship with God.  You see this all the way through the Bible, God telling his people, “Trust me,” and them refusing to do so.

To this day, the pattern continues.  God tells people, “Trust me.  Put your faith in Jesus.  He did all the work necessary for you to be saved.”  But instead, they try to pursue righteousness through their own efforts.

And so, Paul says,

They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (That is, Jesus).  As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”  (32-33)

How about you?  Are you trying to pursue God through your own efforts?  It won’t work.  God isn’t looking at your efforts.  He’s looking at one thing:  Do you trust him?  Are you putting your faith in Jesus?  If you don’t you will fall before him.  But if you do, he will accept you and you will never be put to shame.

 

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Romans 1:9-27 — The problem and wonder of election (part 5)

I’d like to address one last question concerning predestination.  Assuming that what I have said is true, that none will ever come to God apart from his choosing to intervene in their lives, why is it that he doesn’t simply intervene in everyone’s lives so that everyone will be saved?

I don’t know the answer to that.  There are probably many factors to that question that are beyond what my brain can comprehend.

But here are two things to consider.  One is that God prizes faith above all other things.  But faith that is seen is not faith at all.

For some people though, the only thing that will convince them is a direct appearance from God.  They say, “I have all these other reasons to believe God exists, but I choose not to believe unless God appears to me.”  But quite frankly, that is a statement of defiance rather than faith, and because of that, God will not honor that request.

The other thing to consider is this:  Most of his intervention in people’s lives comes through Christians.  God has given us Christians the responsibility to preach the gospel and to tell the whole world about him.  He has given us the keys to the kingdom and ultimately he will hold us responsible if we don’t use them (Ezekiel 33:7-9).  But he will not force us to use those keys.

So then there are two main ways God can intervene.  One is directly as in a personal appearance.  And one is indirectly through other people.  But God chooses most often not to do the former because he desires faith.  And the latter often doesn’t happen because he will not force his people to share the gospel.

Is he right in his ways?  Considering he is God and we are not, it’s hard to say he’s wrong.  Ultimately, as we consider the problem of predestination, we have to ask ourselves the question Abraham did.

Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?  (Genesis 18:25)

I choose to believe he does and he will.

 

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Romans 9:1-29 — The problem and wonder of election (part 4)

A question that often pops up when we talk about predestination is, “You say that God predestines who will go to heaven.  So that must mean that God must predestine people to hell as well.”

I answered this to some degree on my last blog.  In a sense, I suppose you could say that he predestines people to hell.  That is, he says, “My plan is to give you justice for your sins.”  But as I said, he then waits to see if you will do anything to change his mind.  That if on your own, without his intervention, you will start to seek him.  And the thing is no one ever does.

So ultimately, what I believe is this:  People go to hell by their own choice, and to heaven by God’s.

God has given us free will.  We can choose to follow him or to not follow him.  Yet left to our own devices, without any intervention on God’s part, all of us rebel against God, and all of us go our own way.  There is no exception.  It is, ultimately, the story of humanity.

So God had to make a choice.  He could do nothing and let all perish, or do something and save some.  God chose to do the latter.  That’s why Paul says,

It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”  (29)

Sodom and Gomorrah through their own free will chose to rebel against God.  And God chose not to show mercy to them, but rather to give them what they deserved: judgment leading to death.

Israel also chose through their free will to rebel against God.  But God chose to show mercy to them and gave them what they didn’t deserve:  grace leading to life.

What was the difference between the two (I suppose, technically three)?  Nothing.  Except for one thing.  God’s election.

And again, that’s the wonder of it all.  We were no better than anyone else.  Yet God chose to save us.

So yes, we are saved because God chose to intervene in our lives.  But if we go to hell, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

 

 

 

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Romans 9:1-29 — The problem and wonder of election (part 3)

In the last blog, we talked about how God basically tells people, “I have determined to judge you.  Now prove me wrong.  Prove that you’re not worthy of destruction.”

And he waits patiently for their response.

We see this kind of thinking in Ezekiel as well.  God told Ezekiel,

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  (33:11)

And again,

And if I say to the wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right… he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. (33:14-16)

The problem again though, is that no one does turn.  They just go from bad to worse.  We see this with Pharaoh.  God first brought warning and then judgment to Pharaoh.  But Pharaoh didn’t soften his heart.  He didn’t repent.  He deliberately hardened his heart.

One thing to note here, to harden something, there has to be some softness there to harden.  If something is completely hard, you cannot harden it further.  I think what happened with Pharaoh is that God softened Pharaoh’s heart with the thought that he could be wrong.  That there is a God in heaven, and that Pharaoh should follow him.  How did he do that?  With the different miracles.  But each time that God worked to soften Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened it.  He refused to believe.  You see this in Exodus 7:13 and 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, and 9:7.

Then in chapter 9 verse 12, you see for the first time, the words “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharoah.”

It was at that point, after countless hardenings by Pharaoh himself that the Lord said,

I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.  (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17)

But after that declaration and one more brief softening in which Pharaoh said he’d let the Israelites go, we see in 9:34 that once again, Pharaoh himself hardened his own heart.

And from that time on, you see it is the Lord himself who hardens the heart of Pharaoh.

God, in effect said, “That’s what you want to do?  You want to harden your heart against me?  Fine, I’ll help you along with that process.”

Could God have done more to change Pharaoh’s mind?  Could he have shown mercy to the point that Pharaoh changed?  Probably.  But to say that God was under any obligation to do so would be completely off.  The only thing that God was obligated to do was to punish Pharaoh for his sins.  And that’s what he did.

The wonder of grace is this:  That we were exactly like Pharaoh.  We continually hardened our hearts toward God and yet he did not choose to leave us to our own depravity.  And he most certainly did not give us what we deserved.  Rather, he kept showing us mercy and grace to the point that we “broke” and responded in faith and love towards him.

So stories like Pharaoh’s are not meant to make us look on judgment upon the people who were judged and condemned.  Rather, as Paul said,

God did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory. (23)

In other words, we are to look at these people and their stories and marvel that though we were just like them, yet God chose to save us.

That though we were not his people, God called us his own and made us his children.  That though we were not his beloved, yet he chose to shower his love upon us.   (9:24-27)

That’s the wonder of grace.

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Romans 9:1-29 — The problem and wonder of election (part 2)

We ended the last blog with the question, “If our salvation is based on God’s election alone, isn’t he then choosing capriciously who to save and who to damn to hell?”

The short answer to this is no.  It’s not capricious.  God has a determined purpose and plan that stands behind every decision he makes.  The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t completely revealed the details of his plan, nor the reasons for each decision he makes, namely, why he chooses to save some and not others.

That’s why I said in the last blog, no matter how much we look at this issue, we can never fully understand it.  We can never fully understand it because God has not fully revealed everything yet.

Because of this, many people cry out that this choosing is unjust.

And when God says,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” (15)

and Paul writes,

God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.  (18)

they say, “It’s not fair!  How can God choose to have mercy on some and not on others.  How can he simply send people to hell because he chose to harden them, instead of showing them mercy.  You can hardly blame them.”

After all,

Who resists [God’s] will?  (19)

Paul gives two answers.  First,

Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'”  Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?  (20-21)

In other words, God is the creator.  He has every right to do what he pleases with what he’s created.  He has every right to use what he’s created for whatever purpose he chooses.

But then Paul says something interesting.  He says,

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?  (22)

What is he saying here?  I think what he’s saying is God made his plans, and then essentially told those he prepared for destruction, “Prove me wrong.  Prove to me that I made the wrong decision, and that you deserve salvation.”  And he waited.  And waited.  And waited.  But the more he waited, the worse things got.

You see this in the land of Canaan, the land God gave to the Israelites.  After Abraham initially arrived there, God told him,

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

In other words, though God had determined to judge the Amorites for their sin, he was not bringing immediate judgment.  He gave them every opportunity to prove they were not worthy of destruction.  But all they did was prove day by day that they deserved to be destroyed.  And when God brought the Israelites back out from Egypt, he used them as the instrument of his judgment on these people.

God did the same with the world before the flood.  Noah warned the people for 120 years that destruction was determined for them.  And they had all that time to prove God wrong.  That they weren’t that bad.  But all they did was prove that they deserved destruction.

In short, it’s not as though people go to hell even though they have every desire to seek God and follow him.  It’s not as though they’re saying to God, “I repent of my sin.  Please forgive me,” and God says, “No.  I haven’t chosen you.  You’re not part of my plan so you’re going to hell.”

But people from their own volition choose to reject God, and no matter how much time God gives them, they only prove their worthiness of destruction.

That’s why Paul can say,

It (our election) does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.  (16)

If election depended on our desire or effort, we’d all be dead because none of us would ever on our own choose to follow God.  Therefore, his election is based purely on his mercy and grace.  More on this next time.

 

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Romans 9:1-29 — The problem and wonder of election (part 1)

One of the toughest concepts the Bible teaches is that of God’s election of the saints.  It seemingly flies in the face of our free will.  It seemingly flies in the face of God’s love for all.  The best I can say say before I say anything on this topic is that we only have partial answers.  No matter how much we look at it, we cannot fully comprehend everything.

Paul talks first about how he mourned for Israel because it was to them that God had originally revealed himself to.  Paul himself was a Jew.  Yet his people had chosen to turn their backs on Jesus, and murder their own Messiah.

But Paul says this does not mean that God’s promises to Abraham’s decendants have failed.  He gives two reasons for this.  One is found in chapter 11 which we’ll look at later, and one is found here in chapter 9.

The first answer Paul gives here is that the true Jew is not the person who is merely of Jewish lineage.  Paul then gives a slightly different slant on his illustration of Isaac and Ishmael given in Galatians 4.  There he focused on the difference of trying to be made right before God through human effort to keep the law rather than through His promise.

But in this chapter, he contrasts children born because of a promise with those born by natural means.  “Natural means” in this case meaning children born through the joining of a man and a fertile woman (Hagar), in contrast to Sarah’s pregnancy which could hardly be called completely “natural” because she was well beyond her child-bearing years.  She was only able to give birth because of the promise that God made.

In the same way, people do not become Abraham’s descendants simply through “natural” means, that is, through being born into Jewish lineage.  Rather we’re become his spiritual descendants solely because of God’s promise and his grace.

Yet he makes a key point here:  the promises of God are not based upon anything we do.

Paul then illustrates this in the election of Jacob over Esau.

Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  (11-12)

The whole point here is that God didn’t choose Jacob or Esau because he was better than Esau.  Jacob didn’t earn his election by his good works.  Rather, God in his grace chose and made promises to Jacob for his own purposes.

Some people say that God chose people to elect through his foreknowledge.  That because he knew they would be good or bad, or put another way, because he knew they would choose him, he in turn chose them.  But to hold that view completely blows up Paul’s entire point over verse 11.  You would be in effect saying, “God chose them not because of what they had done, but because of what God knew they would do.”

But Paul doesn’t even come remotely close to saying this.  He says, “Not by him who works (and by extension, “by him who God knows will work”) but by him who calls.”  That’s the whole sense of the passage.

He then quotes Malachi where God told Israel,

“Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” (13)

I’ve explained this further here, but the main point again is that God did not choose Jacob because of his works, but because of his grace and his purposes alone.

But isn’t this unfair?  Isn’t then God choosing capriciously who to save and who to damn to hell?  We’ll address that question in the next blog.

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Romans 8:35-39 — Though we suffer

I’d never thought of it this way before, but this passage is basically tying up Paul’s thoughts in verses 15-18.  In verses 15-16, Paul reminds us of the kind of relationship we have with God, not one of fear, but one in which we can call God, “Abba, Father.”  Then in verses 17-18, he talks about how sometimes we have to suffer in this world.  Sometimes we suffer for Christ; other times we suffer because we live in a broken world.

But now in verse 35, he reminds of something that we would do well to remember during times of trouble.  He says,

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  (35-36)

The implied answer to all these questions is of course, “Nothing.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Not the troubles and hardships we face in life, not persecution, not natural disasters, nor times of poverty, and not even death.”

He goes even further in verses 38-39.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So not even spiritual powers, the things we worry about now, the things we fret about in the future, nor any powers here on earth can separate you from his love.  It doesn’t matter where you are either, whether in the depths of the sea or in outer space itself, his love can reach you.  To sum up, nothing at all can keep God’s love from reaching and touching us.

And so Paul says,

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  (37)

In other words, ultimately, we will have victory in life because Jesus won the victory at Calvary.  He defeated Satan and crushed his plans on the cross.  And so though Satan would accuse us and tempt us and try us, we have hope because God loves us.  And nothing can separate us from that love.

So let us rest in that love when times are hard.  Let us take comfort in it.  For his is a love that will not let us go.  And no matter what we’re going through, he will bring us through.

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Romans 8:29-34 — If God is for us

So often, even as Christians, we fight feelings of guilt and condemnation.  We make a mess of things by the decisions we make, and we think, “Why do I keep messing up like this?”

Or we struggle with temptation, and we wonder, “Shouldn’t  I be over this by now?  Why do I still struggle with this?”

Or we look at things like the fruit of the Spirit, then look at ourselves, and say, “Love, nope.  Patience.  Nope.  Gentleness, nope.”

And then we ask, “Why don’t I have these things in my life?   What am I doing wrong?”

But as  I mentioned in the last blog, it’s important to remember that before the creation of the world, God knew you.  He knew what you would be like.  He knew what sins you would struggle with.  He knew what fruit would take a long time to bear.  And he knew exactly how long the process would take to make you like his Son.  And he chose you anyway.  Then he called you.  He justified you.  And the day will come when he will glorify you.  We will be like Jesus for we shall see him as he is.  (I John 3:2).

And Paul says,

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? (31)

God is for you.  He loved you enough to choose you.  Who then can be against you?  He then expands on this idea.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  (32)

In other words, if God met our greatest need, the forgiveness of our sin, will he not meet our other needs?  As Jesus said,

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.   But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  (Matthew 6:31-33)

Paul then goes further, taking us into the courtroom of God, saying,

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  It is God who justifies.  (33)

Put another way, God is not bringing any charges against you in his court.  He’s the one justifying you.

Paul then asks,

Who is he that condemns?  Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  (34)

So Christ is not condemning us.  For one thing, he died for us so that we wouldn’t have to be condemned.  More, he is right now at the right hand of the Judge, and is the one interceding for us.

Talk about a “fixed” case.  The judge and the prosecutor are both on our side.  And if that’s the case, why do we beat ourselves up?  They’re not.  Why should we?

So whenever you’re feeling guilty and condemned, unworthy of the grace God has given you, remember these verses.  God is on your side.  He was on your side before you were even born.  And he will be on your side for all eternity.

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Romans 8:29-30 — A reason for hope (part 2)

As I look at this passage, I see another reason for hope through the struggles that we go through:  that from eternity past, God had a plan for us.

Paul writes,

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  (29-30)

A lot of people struggle with the problem of predestination versus free will.  I’ve talked about in past blogs and will hit it again head-on in chapter 9.  But for now, I want you to consider the implications of Paul’s words as a Christian.

God knew you before you were even born.  In Ephesians 1, Paul says before the creation of the world, he knew you.  He knew all your good points; he knew all your bad points.  He knew all your strengths; he knew all your weaknesses.  He knew what good things you would do; he knew what evil you would do.

And yet, he chose you.  He specifically tailored a plan for you and your good.  A plan to transform you so that one day you would be like his Son.  Though he knew you would be sinful, weak, and rebellious toward him, nevertheless, God chose to show grace to you, and made plans to transform your weak, sinful, rebellious self into something glorious.

To put that plan in effect he called you.  Though you were not even seeking him, he called out to you.  And when you turned to him, and responded to him in faith, he justified you.  He declared you “not guilty” because of the price Jesus paid for you on the cross.  And the day will come when he will glorify you.  He will give you a body like the one he gave his Son.  Incorruptible, sinless, and imperishable.  Glorious.

That’s what God has in store for you.  And it is certain.  How could it not be?  Can anything really change God’s plans?  With him knowing everything from the very beginning, can we  really believe he looks down on us now and is saying, “Whoops.  That was a mistake choosing him.  He’s a total mess.  He’s hopeless.  He’s beyond even me to save.”

No!  He knew you from the first, and despite knowing everything about you, he chose you.  And as Paul would later say,

God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.  (Romans 11:29)

Are you looking at yourself depressed at who you are?  Are you discouraged by how little progress you’ve made as a Christian?  God isn’t.  He knew you from the first.  He chose you knowing exactly how much time it would take to transform your life into the likeness of his Son.  So he will never, ever give up on you.

And no matter what trial you’re going through, those trials cannot derail his plans for you either.  Nothing catches God by surprise.  God already has in mind how he will bring you through.  So hold on to hope though you go through the fire.  And remember what Paul said earlier.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (8:28)

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Romans 8:26-28 — A reason for hope

This is one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Actually, from here all the way on down to the end of the chapter is one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Why?  Because it’s a passage of hope.

Many people quote verse 28,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

But many people miss just why it is that God can work for the good of those who love him.  In verses 26-27, Paul writes,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.  (26-27)

So many times, when we pray, we don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray.  Sometimes as we pray, we’re at an absolute loss for words, unable to even formulate a prayer.  Other times, we pray, but we pray for the wrong things.  As Jesus would put it, we think we’re praying for bread, but in reality we’re praying for a stone.

The good news is that God is not limited by our helplessness or our faulty prayers.  The main thing he’s concerned with is that we’re connecting with him.  And when we do, the Spirit intercedes for us.  He takes our wordless groans and mistaken prayers and turns them into prayers that match God’s will for our lives.  It is with that in mind, that Paul then says,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (28)

I don’t know about you, but that’s encouraging to me.

When my daughter was a baby, it could get frustrating sometimes because she would cry and we couldn’t figure out why.  Her cries and babbles couldn’t communicate to us what her true needs were and so we were left with no option but to guess what she needed.  Sometimes we were right, but other times, our attempts to help were seriously lacking.

But the Spirit does know our needs despite our babbling and incoherent cries, and because of that, he can pray for us perfectly, providing the help we need.

Are you going through struggles and trials right now?  Are you frustrated in your prayers, and feeling like they’re bouncing off the walls?  Know that there is hope.  Even now the Spirit is interceding for you, and he is praying for you according to God’s will.  So take heart.  He will work for your good.

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Romans 8:16-25 — Why do we have to go through suffering?

As I look at Romans 8:16-17, it starts out very encouraging.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…

Who doesn’t like to hear that?  We are God’s beloved children and we are now his heirs!

But then Paul continues,

…if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Suffering?  I don’t want to suffer.  What kind of suffering are we talking about?  Paul gives us some examples in verse 35:  trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.

All of us go through suffering in one way or another in this life.  It’s absolutely unavoidable, especially if you are a Christian, because if you follow Christ, there will always be people that hate you for it.

But why do we have to go through suffering?  Can’t God just take it away?  Why does God allow suffering in the first place?  It’s a difficult question.  Paul give us a partial answer in verses 20-22.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (20-22)

Why do we see earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters?  Why do we see birth defects, diseases, and death?  Couldn’t God just take them out of the world?  Yes, he could.  But he allows his creation to be subject to these things.  Why?

Imagine a life without these things, where people sin as they wish, and there is nothing to shake them out of the complacency of their sin.  They would never see just how awful that sin is.  And things would be even worse than they are today.  But what these things do is make people face their own mortality.  It makes them face the fact that sin is in fact a horrible thing.  And it wakes up some to the point that they actually seek God and are saved.

So God subjects creation to these things with that hope in mind.  That people will turn to him once again, and find the true joy that only he can bring.  And when that full number has been reached, Jesus will come back and make all things new.

But until that day, Paul says the earth will continue to suffer birth pangs.  Not death pangs, mind you, but birth pangs.  And through the suffering we see in this world, we’ll see many children born into God’s kingdom as they turn to him.  Nevertheless the birth pains are still very real.

So are the sufferings we as Christians experience.  Paul says,

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (23)

We groan because of the sufferings we go through in this life.  We groan because of the sin that we struggle with in our lives day to day.  We long for the day that we can be free from all these things.

But the thing to remember through it all there is hope.  Hope that we will share in Christ’s glory someday just as we share in his sufferings now.  Hope that that future glory will far outstrip whatever pain we go through now (18).  Hope that all things will be made new.

It’s a hope unseen.  As Paul writes, hope that is seen is no hope at all.   (8:24)

But as Paul also said,

Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  (Romans 5:5)

So what do we do in the meantime?

Wait patiently.  Because we can know with certainty that our hope will be rewarded.

How about you?  As you go through the different trials in your life, is that what you’re doing?  Are you waiting in hope?

 

 

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Romans 8:12-17 — Led into a whole new relationship

I think that as Paul wrote this, he probably looked back at his words on Romans 6, and felt he needed to make some clarification.  In Romans 6, he talked about how we used to be slaves to sin, but now we are slaves to God.  It seems a strange concept to be a slave to God.  While on one hand, it does carry the idea that we serve God and are wholly his, which I think was Paul’s point, it nevertheless also carries the idea of no freedom and fear of punishment.

And so I think Paul seeks to clear up those possible misconceptions in these verses.  He says,

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “”Abba,” Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (15-17)

In other words, as the Spirit leads you, he’s not a cruel taskmaster that brutalizes you for your failures and mistakes.  He’s not someone that insists that we are no good, and totally unacceptable to God.  Instead, when we are discouraged because of our failures, and feel, like the prodigal son did, that there’s no way we can still call God “Father,” the Spirit whispers, “Hey!  Listen to me!  You are still God’s child and he still loves you.  It’s okay for you to call him, ‘Father.’  It warms his heart to hear you call him that.”

And as we go through suffering, the Spirit reminds us that there is hope for the future.  That we are God’s heirs, and that our suffering will not last forever.

In short, we are much more than mere slaves of God.  We are his beloved children.  May we never forget that.

 

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Romans 8:5-16 — When we belong to Christ

images

Sinful nature, rest in pea….on second thought, just rot there, okay?

Looking at this passage at first glance, I wondered if verses 5 to 8 is referring to the non-Christian or a carnal Christian.  Is it referring to the person who doesn’t know God at all and follows after his sinful nature, or is it referring to the person who who is a Christian, but is still following after the patterns his sinful nature had laid down in his life before he was saved.

Looking at verse 9, though, I think it’s pretty clear that he is talking about the non-Christian.  Because he tells us,

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (ESV)

Paul tells us in verses 5-8 that a person controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God, he is in fact hostile to God, and his path leads to death.

But in verse 9, he makes a very clear distinction between us and the kind of people he was talking about.  He says, by definition, you don’t belong to Christ if the Spirit of God is not in you.  In other words, you are not a Christian if you the Holy Spirit isn’t living inside of you.

But if the Spirit is indeed living inside of you, that is, if you are a Christian, then you are living in the Spirit now, and he is working in your life and is transforming you day by day into the image of Christ.  You are no longer in slavery to the sinful nature like the people he talked about in verses 5-8.

He then says in verse 10,

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Paul is saying here we’re all doomed to die physically because of our sin.  But because Christ is in us, our spirit is alive because of his righteousness imparted to us.  It’s important to remember, though, that God not only proclaims us “Not Guilty,” but through the Holy Spirit, he is making us righteous in fact.

Paul goes on to say in verse 11,

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

I think there’s two points of hope here.  First, through his Spirit, though our body dies, we will be raised again in new bodies that will never die.  But also, in our mortal bodies that we’re living in now, he gives us life.  He transforms us day by day to become more like Christ, and because of this, we find the kind of life God intended us to have when he created Adam and Eve in the Garden.

So what does this mean for us practically?  Paul tells us in verses 12-14,

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation–but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

In short, we have no obligation to something that’s dead.  We don’t need to set a shrine up to our sinful nature in our lives and work to “keep its memory alive” in us.  The destiny it had been leading us to before it died was our death.  Why remember and celebrate that?
But now, if by the Spirit’s power and leading we put to death the residual effects of sin in our minds and bodies, we find life.  And according to Paul, that’s what all sons (and daughters) of God do.

How are you living? Are you living as though you have some obligation to your old sinful nature?  Or are you living as a child of God, led by his Spirit day by day?

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Romans 8:1-16 — Not one sentence of condemnation

One of my favorite films is A Few Good Men.  imagesAnd one of the most striking scenes to me is the one where sentence is handed down to the defendants.  Just prior to this, a colonel had just incriminated himself as the one who had given an order to two marines who, because of the order, had unintentionally caused another marine’s death.

Now the two marines stood before the judge who read the jury’s verdict concerning their actions.

On the charge of murder, the members find the defendants, “Not guilty.”

On the charge of conspiracy to commit murder, the members find the defendants, “Not guilty.”

At this point everyone is expecting the defendants to be cleared of all charges.

But then the judge said,

On the charge of conduct unbecoming a United States Marine, the members find the defendants, “Guilty as charged.”

And their sentence was handed down.

But unlike these marines, Paul says of us,

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  (1)

I like how John Gill translates it.  “There is not one condemnation” or “There is not one sentence of condemnation” toward us.

It’s not that God looks down the list of our sins, and says, “Not guilty,” “Not guilty,” “Not guilty,”….”Guilty as charged.”  Rather he looks at us, and says “Not guilty…on all charges.”

Why?

Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  (2)

What is the law of sin and death?  It’s the simple principal that if you sin, you will die.  If you break the commands of God, you will be judged for it.  And because of all of us have sinned, all of us stand condemned.

But the law of the Spirit of life sets us free from the law of sin and death.  What is the law of the Spirit?  It’s that through God’s grace, we are made righteous before God.  That through his Spirit living in us, we now have a new life.

Paul explains further.

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.  (3-4)

What was the law powerless to do?  It was powerless to make us righteous in God’s eyes.  Why?  Because all it could do was show us what righteousness is.  It did not have the power to make us righteous, because all of us had a nature that rebelled against God.

So what did God do?  He sent his Son to deal with our sin.  Jesus led a perfect life, and when he went to the cross, God put all our sins upon him.  And he put all of the condemnation we deserved on Jesus.  The law said sin must be punished.  And all the sins we committed were punished when Jesus died on the cross.  So in that sense, the righteous requirements of the law were met in us.

But it doesn’t stop there.  God sent his Spirit into our hearts when we became Christians.  And like I said before, through his leading, we actually start to become righteous.  Though our bodies and minds still feel the residual effects our sinful nature left on us before it died, the Holy Spirit helps us fight through through them so that we can live the kind of life God originally intended us to live.

And during those times when we feel condemned, and unworthy of God’s love and grace, the Spirit whispers to our souls, “But you are God’s children.  You do belong to him now.  There is no condemnation.”

How about you?  Do you feel like God’s just stringing you along, making you feel like you’re okay just to lay down the hammer at the last minute?  He’s not.  If you belong to him, not one charge will be laid against you.

So Paul says,

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “‘Abba,’ Father.”  (15)

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Romans 7:14-25 — Hope

As I mentioned before in my last blog, I do believe there is room for hope in our fight against sin.

The main problem Christians fight in their struggle against sin is despair.  And the question that most people ask is, “Am I really a Christian?  How can a Christian possibly do the things that I do?  I want to do what’s right, and I keep failing time and again.”

But here is something important that Paul brings up.

For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good…For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does.  (15-16, 19-20).

What is the key thing to notice here?  One word:  struggle.

The non-Christian, at least one not yet touched by the grace of God, does not struggle against sin.  They don’t even notice there is a problem.  A Christian does.

Now if a Christian were making a practice of sin despite knowing what God has said (and this is a key point because young Christians don’t always know), and telling me, “What do you mean I’m doing something wrong?  I’m not doing anything wrong,” that would be a warning sign to me that something is wrong.  Either they are not really a Christian, or they have so hardened their hearts to God that they can’t hear him anymore.

But a Christian that is struggling is a Christian that I have confidence God is working in.  And if God is working in you, he will complete his work.

Paul put it this way,

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 1:4,6)

Rest assured, if God is bringing into your life conviction of sin, he will not leave you there in the pig sty.  He will bring you victory.  That’s the hope that we have.

That’s why one minute Paul could cry out,

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (24)

And the next minute cry out even more loudly,

Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

We cannot make ourselves better.  We cannot change ourselves.  But God can.  That’s the hope that we have.  How does he do it?  How do we change?  Through the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.  But that’s another blog.  Stay tuned.

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Romans 7:14-25 — Why we struggle with sin

Having given my prologue, let’s look at the text.  Like I said, I can see why some people say Paul is speaking as a Christian and others say that he isn’t.  Let’s start with the latter.

If you look at verse 14, it says,

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

And again, in verse 25, he says,

In the sinful nature [I’m] a slave to the law of sin.

The question is very obvious.  Weren’t we redeemed from sin?  Weren’t we set free?  How then, can Paul as a Christian say that he is sold as a slave to sin.

Again in verse 18,

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Yet isn’t the point of living by the Spirit that we can carry out our desire to do good?

All good points and must be answered.  However, I think other verses are even more problematic if you hold that Paul is speaking as a non-Christian.

The most problematic verse is in verse 17 where he says,

As it is, it is no longer I myself who [sins], but it is sin living in me.

And again in verse 20 where he repeats himself saying,

Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who [sin], but it is sin living in me that does it.

How can the unbeliever possibly claim that “It is no longer I myself who is sinning?” when he is still in rebellion against God, which is the ultimate sin?

There can be no separation between yourself and your sinful nature when you’re an unbeliever.  You are your sinful nature.  You are so intertwined, that you can’t tell where one ends and the other starts.  Further, because you are married to your sinful nature, the only fruit you can possibly bear is sin leading to death.  How then can you, as an unbeliever, say “It’s not really me?”

The believer, on the other hand, can say all these things.  And I believe it is what Paul is saying as a believer.

To review, our sinful nature is dead in that the part of us that was rebellious to God has been crucified.  Our old husband is dead.  He no longer can actively influence us.

But though that part of us is dead, we are still bonded to a heart, body, and mind that has been influenced by sin from the time we were born.  The scars left by it, namely all the behavioral patterns of sin, and all the emotional ties to it, all still remain and they affect the way we live.  The old man is dead, but his influence in our hearts, bodies, and minds is still very much alive.  And as long as we are tied to our physical bodies, we are very much  still slaves to sin as long as those scars remain.

Now these other passages make sense.  It’s not me anymore that desires sin.  That part of me that was in rebellion to God died.  Now I want to do what is right.  I want to please God.  But there are still those residual scars of sin in me.  There are still those behavioral patterns and emotional ties to sin within me.  The old man is dead, but even dead, he influences me.  And right here, right now, influenced by the old man as I am, I find it impossible to carry out the good that I wish to.  I want to forgive, but I can’t.  I want to be patient with my kids, but I can’t.

So what am I saying?  That there is no hope for the here and now?  That there’s only despair for me in my fight against sin as long as I live?  Not at all, and we’ll see that in tomorrow’s blog.

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Romans 7:14-25 — Is our sinful nature really dead?

There have been many questions I have struggled with as I’ve been going through the past several chapters.  One is the question I’ve put as the title of this post.  “Is our sinful nature really dead?”

However you answer that question colors your whole view of Romans 7, particularly verses 14-25.  Is Paul talking there about himself as a non-Christian, coming into contact with the law, and facing the reality that he can’t keep it?  Or is Paul talking about himself as a Christian who struggles with sin even after he is saved?

So before I actually look at the text, I’d like to address this question of the relationship between our sinful nature and ourselves.

It’s admittedly a hard question.  I can see both points of view, and like I said, I’m still struggling with it.  Come ten years from now, I may see things differently.  But here’s my take on it for now.

As I mentioned before, the “sinful nature” is the part of us, a deeply-ingrained attitude, that was in utter rebellion against God.  From the time we were born, this attitude was there, and it started to permeate every aspect of our being.  Our body, our thoughts, and our actions.  And it so permeated these things, that it became “us.”  In other words, the sinful nature came to define who we were.  So to me, the “sinful nature” or the “flesh” is really two things.  It is the cause, and it is the result.  To go back to our “bad infection” illustration, it’s very much like how a “zombie virus” ultimately defines the person it infects.

What happened at salvation?  That part that lived in utter rebellion against God was taken away.  It was crucified and it died.  Now we are married and joined to Christ instead.  But the problem is, we still see the residual effects of what has already died in our lives.

Let’s put it this way.  A husband abuses his wife, and scars her physically and emotionally.  The husband then dies.  He no longer has an active effect on his wife.  But the influence he wielded on his wife while he was alive is still very much active in her.  The physical scars still remain as do the emotional ones.

And in many ways, the husband has defined who the wife has become.  In her future relationship with men, her former husband’s influence often leads her into behavior that is harmful to her.  She may date men that are abusive as her husband was, for example.  Or even if she finds a good husband, she may find that she is unable to sexually respond to him because of the abuse she had received from her former husband.  Only through time and the touch of a healer can she be freed from those effects that now define her.

The same is true with us and our sinful nature.  Our sinful nature was distrustful of God and lived in rebellion against him.  And it trained our mind, soul, and body to live that way.  It came to define who we were as people.  But when the sinful nature died, though that part of us no longer has an active effect on our lives, its residual effects remained.  And as long as we live, we’ll be battling those residual effects.

So in the sense that the rebellious part of us that we were born with is dead, we can say our sinful nature is dead and crucified.  But in the sense that our mind, soul, and body is still feeling the residual effects of that which is now dead, we can say the sinful nature is still very much alive.

The good news?  The sinful nature, the part that was in utter rebellion against God, is in fact dead, and can no longer actively affect us.  More importantly, the doctor is in.  And that’s what we’ll see in the next few blogs.

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Romans 7:7-13 — Just how bad is sin?

Paul says in verse 5, that while we were married to the sinful nature, the law aroused sinful passions within us.

The natural question then becomes, “Is then the law bad?  Is it in fact equal to sin?  After all, it’s causing me to have all these sinful desires right?  It’s making me sin, right?”

But Paul answers,

Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”  (7)

In other words, “The law is a good thing.  It’s not sin.  Rather it simply makes sure we understand what sin is so that we can avoid what would destroy us.”

What then is the problem?

But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.  (8)

Put another way, sin saw the law, and said, “Oh yeah?  God doesn’t like this, does he?”  And it immediately extends an invitation to our sinful nature which is more than happy to oblige, because our sinful nature itself is in rebellion against God.

Paul then says,

For apart from law, sin is dead.  (8b)

Here we see an important truth:  you can’t break a law that doesn’t exist.  You may be doing something God says is wrong, but because there is no law, he can’t hold us accountable for it.  The only thing God really held people accountable for before the law came was choosing to turn their backs on him and going their own way, which of course, is the true root of all sin.

But then God laid out the laws through Moses.  And they were meant to show people the way to true life.  To show them what God was like, and how God had designed them to be.

When God gave the law, though, what happened?  Did people happily say, “Oh, this is the way to life?  Great!  Let’s follow it!”

No.  Rather,

When the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  (9-10)

Why?

For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.  (11)

As we said before, when the commandment came, sin in the sense of breaking a commandment became possible.  “Sin” sprung to life and deceived me into thinking breaking the commandment was a good thing, thus bringing me under the law’s judgment.

All of this, of course, is figurative.  There is no actual person named “Sin” out there.  Nor do I think “Sin” is a reference to Satan, although he can tempt us to sin.  The main point is that the opportunity to break the law came when God gave it, and because our sinful nature is in rebellion to God, we did.  The result?  Death.

Paul concludes,

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.  (12)

In short, “The law isn’t the problem.  The law is good.  The problem is you.  You brought death upon yourself by breaking the law.”

He then asks,

Did that which is good, then, become death to me?  (13)

Here he pictures the person who says, “Great!  The law is good.  But it means my death.  How is that good?”

But Paul answers,

By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.  (13)

What is Paul saying here?  He’s saying, “Now you’re realizing what makes sin so bad.  It takes something that is good and twists it so that evil results.  The law shows the way to life, but sin used it to bring death to people.”

When you look at all sin, this is true.  It takes something good and twists it.  Even something like sadism is twisted good.  Sadism is pleasure derived from another’s pain.  But pleasure itself is a good thing.  What’s bad is how you derive that pleasure.

And so one of the main purposes of the law is to help us realize just how bad sin really is.

One of the main problems with sin is people don’t realize just how bad it is.  And until they do, they will never see their need for a Savior.  That’s why we need the law.

How about you?  Do you truly understand just how bad sin is?

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Romans 7:1-6 — Married to Christ

One of the problems of interpreting Romans 7:1-6 is trying to determine who’s the husband in Paul’s illustration and who’s the wife.  I think it’s pretty clear from the illustration that we are the wife.  The question is, “Who were we married to?”

I mentioned earlier that it can’t be the law, because we never see any passage referring to the law dying.

I’ve never heard this analogy made, so I could be wrong, but I think our sinful nature was the husband we were married to.

What do I mean by our “sinful nature?”

It’s a part of us that is in total rebellion against God and insistent on going its own way.  And from the time we were born, we were married to it.  Put another way, we were joined to it, heart, soul, and mind.  And the fruit of this joining, the “children we bear” so to speak, is sin leading to death (5).

More, as long as we were married to our sinful nature, it was impossible to be married to Christ.

Here, the analogy breaks down a bit, but bear with me.  When we divorce our first spouse and marry someone else, we are considered adulterous to our first spouse.  The opposite is true in our relationship to our sinful nature and Christ.  Though our sin nature was “our original spouse,” nevertheless, we are considered adulterous to Christ if we try to marry him while continuing to being married to our sinful nature.

But when God saves us, we die to sin in that God cuts off the chains that held us in slavery to it.  It no longer has power to control us.  More, he crucifies the sinful nature that put us into bondage to sin in the first place and it too dies.

What happens, though, when the sinful nature we were married to dies?  Two things.

First, the law no longer has authority over us, just as when a husband dies, the law of marriage no longer has authority over a woman.  She died to the law of marriage when her husband died, and we died to the law of Moses and all its requirements when our sinful nature was crucified with Christ on the cross.

Second, with our sinful nature dead, we now are free to marry Christ, free from any adulterous relationship with that sinful nature.

And as I said yesterday, through this joining with Christ, we no longer give birth to sin that leads to death.  Rather, we give birth to the fruit of righteousness that leads to life.

It is ultimately the reason that only through Christ we can be saved.  As long as we are married to a nature that is rebellious towards God, we can  never bear fruit towards eternal life.  The “seed” it plants within us causes us to give birth to sin.  But when we are joined with Christ, through his seed planted in us, we give birth to true righteousness in our lives, and the result is eternal life.

Who are you married to?

 

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Romans 7:1-6 — The jurisdiction of grace

I must admit (for the second day in a row), I had a blog all written out to post, but as I looked at this passage again, I started to wrestle with it all over again about what it meant.  As a result, there will be some disconnect with what I wrote yesterday.

In verse 1, Paul writes,

Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to men who know the law–that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?

Looking at it now, I think the best way to see this passage is to look at it this way:  “The law has authority over a man (or woman) as long as they live under its jurisdiction.”

I know it’s dangerous to “add words” to the Word of God, and I don’t do it lightly.  And I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.  But bear with me for a bit, and see if you don’t agree.

Why do I add “under its jurisdiction?”  Because it makes the most sense of the illustration of marriage he uses.

Most certainly, the law of marriage loses its authority over a couple when the husband dies.  But practically speaking, who does this loss of authority affect?  The person who is literally dead, that is, the husband?  No.  It affects the wife who is still living.  Prior to her husband’s death, she was under the jurisdiction of the law of marriage, and she was bound by that law to her husband.  And that’s Paul’s whole point in verses 2 and 3.

But when her husband dies, she no longer lives under the jurisdiction of the law of marriage.  She is a non-entity to the law because it no longer applies to her.  In effect, she is “dead” to that law now, and is now free to marry another person.

How does this apply to us?

Before we came to Christ, we were under the jurisdiction of God’s law.  What did that law say?  It said, “You must do everything God has commanded or you will die.”

But there was a problem.  None of us could keep the commandments perfectly, and so all of us were condemned to die.

So God sent his Son into the world, and Christ did what none of us could do.  He kept the law perfectly.  He did everything the law required.  Then having kept the law perfectly, he paid the price for all our violations of the law.  He paid it in full by dying on the cross and taking the punishment we deserved.

Now God accepts us not because we keep the law, but because we put our faith in Christ and his work on the cross.   That’s the jurisdiction of grace in which we stand.

But because we stand in the jurisdiction of grace, we no longer stand in the jurisdiction of law.  We are a non-entity to the law.  In effect, we died to it (and I now think that’s what it primarily means in verse 6).

So we no longer live our lives trying to keep its commandments.  Rather, now we are married to Christ, led by his Spirit day by day.  The result of this joining to Christ?  We give birth to the fruits of righteousness leading to eternal life, something we could not do under the law.

How about you?  Are you living under this jurisdiction of grace?  Or are you still trying to live under the jurisdiction of law?

 

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Romans 7:1-6 — Dead to sin? Dead to the law? Dead to both?

I must admit that I’ve wrestled with this passage more than almost any other I have come across.  The reason?  The illustrations and the words that Paul uses are almost impossible at first glance (and second, and third, and fourth) to reconcile.

The first part he says is pretty clear.  He says,

Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to men who know the law–that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?  (1)

That’s common sense.  I have to pay taxes as long as I live under Japan law.  But the day I die, it no longer has authority over me.  Now, the Japan government will still want my money, but they can’t walk up to my dead body and say, “Pay up!”  They’ll have to bother my wife.  The law has authority over her at that point, not me.

And so Paul says later,

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.  (6)

What does it mean, “by dying to what once bound us?”  Is this in reference to the law?  Or our dying to sin?  I kind of guess both.  In chapter 6 verse 2, Paul specifically tells us, “We died to sin.”

What does that mean?

When the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, the Egyptians had no power to control the Israelites any more, separated as they were by the Red Sea.  The Israelites were effectively dead to the Egyptians and their old lives as slaves were over.  In a sense, their old selves that had been slaves were left in that sea and they came out entirely new people, free to serve God and walk in relationship with him.

In the same way, when we become Christians, and pass through the water of baptism into Christ (I mean this spiritually, although we act it out in the physical rite of baptism), sin lost its power to control us.  We are effectively dead to sin, and our lives as its slaves is over.  Our old selves are left in that water of baptism, and we come out totally new people, free to serve God and walk in relationship with him.

But when that happens, the law no longer serves any use to us.  It was our “tutor,” as Galatians puts it, that was meant to lead us to faith in Christ.  (Galatians 3:24)  But when we came to believe in Christ, its work was done and so we “died” to it as well.  So we no longer live our lives focusing on keeping God’s law.  Rather we walk each day, focused on on our relationship with God, and letting him lead us each day through the Holy Spirit.  More on that when we hit Romans 8.

At any rate, I think this dual idea of us dying to sin and our dying to the law as a result is where a lot of this confusion in Romans chapter 7 comes from.  Because Paul talks about dying to the law and people naturally connect that to verses 2-3.  But that totally messes up the picture when you try to see it that way.  Here were my thoughts (literally) as I sorted through this.

“So, we died to the law.  That means we are the husband and the law is the wife, right?  No, that can’t be right.  Because Paul says with the husband gone, the wife is free to marry Christ.  The Law marries Christ?  No, Paul says we marry Christ.”

“So is the law the husband, and we are the wife?  No, because the law doesn’t die, we die.”

And so on and so forth.

In short, we have an inveritable mess.   So how do we interpret this?

More on this next time.

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Romans 6 — True freedom

Why do so many people flee from following God?  I suppose it comes from a desire to be free.  What does freedom mean to most people?  It means being able to live however they want to.  But if they follow God, they feel they can’t do that.  Instead, they have to follow a series of dos and don’ts that will put a crimp on their happiness.

I think that a lot of what Paul faced, these questions of “Shall we sin so that grace may abound even more,” and “Shall we sin because we no longer under law but under grace” came because of this kind of thinking.  These people simply wanted to live however they wanted to.

But is true freedom simply the freedom to live however you wish?  Or is there something more to it?

I think there is something more.

Let’s put it this way. One problem I face in Japan is whenever I’m dealing with Japanese electronic goods, the instructions are always in Japanese.  Now my Japanese level is okay on a speaking level, but reading and writing is another thing altogether.  I can do it to an extent, but whenever I do my Japanese blogs, I make sure my wife edits it to get rid of any embarrassing mistakes.

At any rate, I bought a  new Blu-Ray recorder recently, and was trying to connect it with my TV and our cable box, but because the instructions were in Japanese and I couldn’t understand them.  As a result, I was left trying to figure things out on my own, and was in utter frustration for hours.

At least, though, I had an excuse for not following the instructions.

So many other people who can read Japanese try installing their Blu-ray recorders, or computers, or other electronic goods, and just think, “Who needs the instructions?  I’ll just do what I think looks right.”  And they end up, like me, in total frustration.  Is that freedom?

In the same way, people look at their lives, and God tells them, “This is how I designed your life.  This is how it works best.  Just trust me, and you’ll find blessing.”

But people say, “Forget that, God.  I’ll do things how I think is best.  I’ll do things my way.”

In doing so, however, they destroy their relationships with their wives and children and the people around them, they make decisions that destroy their health or even their very lives, and ultimately, they end up in utter frustration.  The happiness they sought by doing things their way ends up utterly eluding them.  Is that freedom?

And that’s what Paul says in verses 20-21,

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.  What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of ? Those things result in death!

In other words, “Yes, you were ‘free’ from God.  But what did your ‘freedom’ get you?  It brought you shame?  It was destroying you.

But when we put ourselves in God’s hands, and we follow his leading, what happens?

The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.

Like I said yesterday, the idea here is that we become whole.  And eternal life doesn’t start with heaven.  It starts here on earth, living a life that is full and complete.  Why?  Because we are living as we were designed to live.  That’s true freedom.

The key to freedom?  Trusting God.  Trusting that he knows best.  Trusting that he loves you and actually wants your best.  And because of that trust we have in him, offering our lives to him every day.  As we do, that’s when we find true freedom.

How about you?  Have you found true freedom?

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Romans 6 — Going back to misery

I wonder when Paul wrote this if he thought back to the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  He certainly makes the parallel in I Corinthians 10, when he compares the Israelites going through the Red Sea to baptism in Christ.

But in so many ways, the things that he talks about here reflects what happened to the Israelites at that time.  They were dying in Egypt.  They were living miserable lives as slaves, and it says in Exodus 2:23,

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.

So as we know, God delivered them.  But as they were going through the desert and went through many trials, they started complaining and saying,

If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.  (Exodus 16:3)

Then later, just as they were about to enter the land God promised to give them, their faith faltered, and they said,  “Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?  We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  (Number 14:3-4)

Here, Paul faces a similar situation.  He had just written that where sin abounded, grace abounded even more.  So he posed the question, which undoubtedly had been brought up to him before,

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  (1)

To that he gave a resounding, “No!”

Later after talking about how we are under grace, not law, he again asks,

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  (15)

Again, his answer is crystal clear:  No!

Why not?  He tells us,

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

In other words, we died to that old way of life of living in sin.  We died to that kind of life so that we might live a new life, a better life.  A life in relationship with God.  (Romans 6:10)

So how can we go back to our old way of life?

But so many Christians are like the Israelites.  The Israelites had passed through the Red Sea and “died” to their life of slavery.  They came out of the Red Sea new people.  Free to live a new life.  Free to live a life of victory.

But instead, they started thinking about “the good old days.”  They thought about the delicious food they ate there.  And they started to think, “Let’s offer ourselves back to the Egyptians to live as their slaves again,” all the while forgetting just how miserable their lives had been there.

That’s what’s so deceptive about sin.  It reminds you of its pleasures while causing you to forget the misery it brings.

And so Paul says,

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.  What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?  Those things result in death!  (20-21)

In other words, “Those of you who are saying, ‘Let’s go back to sin and give ourselves as slaves to it once again,’ don’t you remember just how miserable that life was?  That not only did it cause you shame, it was killing you?  Do you really want to go back to that?”

So he says,

Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.  (13)

Why?

The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  (22)

When we offer ourselves to God, our lives become holy.  Put another way, we become all that God meant us to be.  We become whole as people.  And the result is life.  True life.

And the best part is that it’s all free.  If only we could see the true worth of this gift of life God has given us instead of selling ourselves back to that which leads only to death.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (23)

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Romans 5:20-21 — A grace that reigns

These two verses show two things:  The weakness of the law, and the power of grace.  It says in verse 20,

The law was added so that the trespass might increase.

That sounds a little weird.  God gave us the law so that people might sin more?  But if we look back at verse 13, we see what Paul means.

For before the law was given, sin was in the world.  But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 

So even before the law, people were doing sinful acts.  But people cannot be held accountable for what they don’t know is wrong.  What they were held responsible for was for rejecting God and for breaking their own consciences and laws whenever they matched with God’s standards.  (Romans 2:14-15)

But those consciences and standards were imperfect.  They were dirty mirrors so to speak.  So God gave the law so that people might see the true standard of right and wrong.  And as people became aware of it, sin increased because now they were deliberately crossing the lines God had set.  That’s the weakness of the law.  It can’t make us good.  Rather, it simply makes us more responsible for the sin we commit.  More, our sinful nature sees those laws and because it’s in rebellion against God, it leads us to cross those lines even more.

The result?  Death.

The good news?

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (20b-21)

One might think God was cruel in giving us the law.  That he purposely did so in order to pour out his wrath upon us even more.  But Paul shows us that this isn’t the case at all.  Because no matter how much sin might increase, grace increases all the more to those who will receive it.  No one can ever sin so much that God’s grace cannot cover it.

More, no one can be so bad, that his grace cannot change them.  Paul tells us here that his grace will reign through righteousness.  This doesn’t merely mean that we are made righteous in legal terms before God, that is, we are declared “not guilty” before him.  But as we mentioned last time, through God’s grace we receive a new nature, and through that new nature, we start to do the things that are right.  We actually become righteous in the things that we think, say, and do.  And the end result of the work that God does in us through his grace is eternal life.

That’s what’s so amazing about grace.  No matter how bad you are or have been, his grace has the power to change you.  All you have to do is receive it.

How about you?  Do you know the grace of God in your life?

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Romans 5:15-21 — Good infection (aka, the Walking Living)

I’d love to take the credit for the phrase “good infection,” but I must give credit to C.S. Lewis.  I can’t even remember how he used it, but I did read Mere Christianity, and somehow, that term must have floated back up to my head as I was writing yesterday’s blog.

Yesterday, we talked about “bad infection.”  That through Adam, we all have been infected with sin.  We’re not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.

Fortunately, there is also a “good infection” that comes through Jesus Christ.  Paul writes,

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.  (15-19)

In other words, so many died have died because of the bad infection of sin they received from Adam.  But through the good infection of grace and righteousness we have received from Jesus, we receive life.

And just as we were condemned through this bad infection we received from Adam, we have now been justified through the good infection we received from Jesus.

More, through this good infection, we become something totally different.  And thankfully, we don’t become zombies.   Rather, we become someone with a totally new nature, a righteous nature.  And we become righteous not because we do righteous acts.  Rather we start to do righteous things because we actually are already made righteous in Christ

We’ll see this later in II Corinthians 5:17 where Paul writes,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Maybe I should have named this post, “The Walking Living.” Because that’s what we become in Christ.  People who are truly alive.

(In fact, I think I’ll rename this post right now.  Hold on a bit…Great!  Done!)  :)

So let us pass on this “good infection” we have received in Christ, that they might become the “Walking Living” too.

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Romans 5:12-14 — Bad infection

This is admittedly a tough passage to completely fathom, though I get the general gist.  The most difficult part, I suppose, is our relationship to sin.  The big questions we need to ask is, “Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners?  Are we condemned to death because we do acts of sin, or are we condemned to death because of the sin that is in us by nature?”

From what Paul says, it seems to be the latter for both questions.  He says in verse 12,

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.

Part of this is clear cut.  According to Paul, sin entered the world through Adam when he sinned in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  And through his sin, death came into the world.  He died.  Eve died.  And everyone that followed after him died.  The ratio of death to humans is still one to one.

The latter part is not so clear.  It says death came to all because all sinned.  On the face of it, it seems that this is saying that people die because of the sins that they have committed.  I think this is in part true, but not fully true.  We who have lived for some time will be held accountable for any sin that we have committed, and by right, we should be punished for it.  We should die.

But what about the child, for example, who dies in infancy, or for that matter is stillborn.  Which of God’s laws have they broken?  They don’t even have consciences or any concept of good or evil.  Did they die because of their sin?  Paul addresses this somewhat in verse 2.

For before the law was given, sin was in the world.  But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.  Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.  (13-14)

Paul’s saying here that between the time of Adam and Moses, there were no laws sent from God telling people what was good and evil.  There was not even a command, as God had given to Adam.  As a result, sin, in terms of committing a sinful act, was not taken into account by God.  Yet people still died during that time.  Why?

Because Adam’s sin is in us all.  What was Adam’s sin?  An attitude of rebellion toward God.  An attitude of “my way.”  And this attitude is ingrained in each person from the time that they are born.  It is the inborn trait of every human.

So in verse 12, when it says “death came to all because all have sinned,” it’s referring to the fact that because Adam sinned, we all became sinners.  Not because we have committed a sinful act, but because through the nature we have received from Adam (and we are all his offspring), we have all been born sinners.  It is as if his sin has infected us all, as a virus infects a body.

How can this be?  I really don’t know.  Nevertheless, history tells us this is true.  There is not one person in the history of the world who you can say was utterly good except for Jesus.  Everyone else has sinned.  They didn’t become sinners because they sinned.  They sinned because they are sinners.  That’s what sinners by nature do.  And because we’re all sinners, we are condemned to death.

Well, that’s pretty depressing.  I hate to stop here, but this is getting long.  But needless to say, there is good news, and we’ll see it in tomorrow’s blog.

 

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Romans 5:1-11 — But isn’t God punishing me?

I talked about verses 6-8 in yesterday’s blog, but I think it would be good to place them back in their context, so that we can get the full picture of all that Paul is saying.

Paul was talking about how we can rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that sufferings produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

But for many Christians, they don’t rejoice in their sufferings; they become bitter.  They don’t persevere; they give up.  They don’t find hope; they despair.

Why?

Because they start to get the feeling that the reason they’re suffering is because God is punishing them.  That because they messed up, God’s really angry and so he’s taking it out on them.

What’s even worse, though, is if they feel this way and they’re not even sure what they did wrong.   Or they feel like God is punishing them unjustly.

But what is Paul saying here?

He’s telling them, “Get out of your heads the idea that God is punishing you.”

“Think about it,” he says.  “Before you became a Christian, at a time when you had turned your back on God, and were utterly lost in your sin, Christ died for you.  He didn’t wait for you to turn back to him.  He didn’t wait for you to clean yourself up.  Before you ever reached out to him, he reached out to you.

“Very rarely, will anyone will die for the ‘morally correct person,’ though some may die for the ‘good guy.’ But you were neither and yet God showed his love for you.  He gave up everything for you.

“With that in mind, how can you possibly think that God has it out for you?”

Paul puts it this way,

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  (9-10)

In other words, he’s already justified us.  How can you then think he’s now pouring his wrath on you?  We’ve been saved from that.  And if God reached out to us when we were his enemies, won’t he reach out to us in our trials when we are his friends?

It is for these reasons that we can rejoice in our sufferings.  God isn’t punishing us.  Nor is he turning a blind eye to our circumstances.  Rather, in the same way he saved us from our sins, he will deliver us from our trials.  And so Paul can say,

Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Are you going through hardships?  Are you wondering if God is punishing you?  He’s not.  If you have put your trust in him, he will bring you through the fire you’re passing through, and it will not consume you.  Rather, it will purify you and make you stronger.  So hang in there.  Don’t lose hope.  Keep putting your trust in God, and as Paul says,

Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  (5)

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Romans 5:6-8 — What grace is all about

I have memorized many Bible verses in my lifetime.  But one of the first passages I memorized was this one, and though I haven’t really tried to recite it in some time, I’m pretty sure I can still get it word for word (although maybe not the punctuation).

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man, someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

A few punctuation mistakes, and a missed capitalization, but other than  that, pretty good if I do so say so myself.  :)

So many things struck me about that passage way back when and still do now.

It wasn’t as though God did for us something that we could do ourselves.  We could not save ourselves.  We were drowning in our sin, with no escape, no life preserver, no boat in sight.  We were powerless.  In spite of all that, we weren’t even searching for help, no less searching for God.  Yet though our backs were set firmly against him, God sent Jesus to die for our sins that reconciliation between us might be made possible.

Very rarely will a person die for a “morally correct person,” such as a Pharisee.  One who keeps the rules and looks down on anyone who doesn’t.  Some people, though, might die for a “good guy.”  A person that is kind and caring.

But we were neither “morally correct” nor “good guys.”  We had rebelled against God, turning our backs on him, and living our own way.  And by doing things our own way, we hurt God, we hurt others, and we even hurt ourselves.  Yet God didn’t simply turn his back on us and say (literally), “To hell with you.”

Instead, he came down as a man and died in our place.

That’s what grace is all about.  That though we deserved nothing good from God, indeed, though all we deserved was punishment, nevertheless, he loved us and reached out in love to save us.

And it’s the grace that God grants to us who believe in him.  We who are guilty.  We who are unworthy of his love.  We who have been utterly stained by sin.  We who were wretches before him.  It truly is, as the song says, amazing grace.

Amazing grace,
How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost,
But now I’m found.
Was blind but now I see.

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