Friday, September 29, 2017

Romans, Day 45: Romans 16:17-27 - How is the Church Strengthened and Protected?

Today's Reading: Romans 16:17-27

How is the Church Strengthened and Protected?

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. - Romans 16:17-20

Endings are so vital. How so? Do you remember your reaction to the ending of Sixth Sense the first time you saw it? You were shocked, stunned and compelled to watch the movie again. Now, if you watched Lost, do you remember the ending of that series? You were probably shocked, confused, disappointed and perhaps a bit outraged. Far from wanting to watch it all over again, many fans felt they had wasted their time in ever watching the show in the first place.

Our final devotional in the Book of Romans brings us to Paul's closing concerns and a beautiful doxology. Paul issues a final appeal, gives a final promise and a final blessing, and then closes with a final doxology, an anthem of glory to God.

Paul's Final Appeal: Watch out! Paul has seen the church attacked and torn asunder by false teachers too many times to close this letter without a stern warning, False teachers create divisions and obstacles contrary to sound doctrine. Not all divisions and obstacles are bad; distinctions need to be made between those who teach the truth and those who teach error, those who uphold the true gospel and glorify Jesus Christ vs. those who undermine the gospel seeking their own glory. Those who make bad divisions are seeking followers for themselves, serving their own desires. Their speech is smooth and their flattery thick. Straight talk of sound doctrine drawn directly from Scripture and in line with the true gospel is vital to the health of the church.
Paul's Final Promise: The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. This promise stretches all the way back to Genesis 3:15. God cursed the serpent and promised that the seed of the woman would crush his head. Jesus is the woman's seed who crushes Satan's head, but we share in His victory. Just as surely as God raised Jesus from the dead and gave Him victory over sin and death, so He will give us a full share in this victory. Satan our tormentor, who strikes at our heels, will one day lie crushed beneath our feet!

Paul's Final Blessing: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. It's so easy to read this and see it as some throw-away expression, a mere formality. After all, Paul includes something like this near the end of all of his letters. Nothing could be further from the truth! Paul ends all of letters with this blessing because it is so vital to our lives. The church cannot ever hope to be faithful without the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. You and I have no hope for salvation apart from the continual grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need His blessing, His favor, His kindness, His protection, His strength. All of it comes through His grace and grace alone. We deserve none of it, can earn none of it and can't even fully understand our deep need for it. Jesus gives us His grace, and so we are saved!

Paul's Final Doxology: To the only wise God be glory forevermore! It's not surprising that Paul ends his magnificent masterpiece with glory to God! It's also not surprising that the glory God receives comes through the gospel and that our only hope of obedience comes by faith in Jesus, as revealed in the preaching of the gospel! Paul could end this letter no better way than with these marvelous words -

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. - Romans 16:25-27, ESV

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Romans, Day 44: Romans 16:1-16 - What Does It Take to Be Valuable to God's Work?

Today's Reading: Romans 16:1-16

What Does It Take to Be Valuable to God's Work?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. - Romans 16:1-2, ESV

Who are the really valuable people in God's kingdom? A new ESPN commercial features Rex Ryan interviewing a guy named Matt who was "the starting holder" for the Green Bay Packers. Rex Ryan says at one point, "I asked Brett Favre about you and he said he doesn't remember you." No one remembers who the holders in the NFL are, right? Washington Redskins long-snapper Ethan Albright (who some people think looks like me?) made headlines years ago because Madden rated him as the worst player in the NFL, and he responded by writing a nasty letter to John Madden complaining about his rating. The irony is that being dissed by Madden is the only reason why anyone remembers Ethan Albright today.

Are there holders and long-snappers in the church? Absolutely! The church is full of people who aren't celebrated or remembered by anyone, except the Lord! The reality is that football teams need faithful holders and long-snappers, players who know their role and who do it well, consistently.

The last chapter of Romans is full of people most of us could not name off the top of our heads. They are celebrated and remembered by Paul and by the Lord, though, because they were faithful:
  • Phoebe is called "our sister" and "a servant of the church" who "has been a patron of many." 
  • Prisca and Aquila, who are better know, are called "my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life." Paul says, "to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.
  • Epaenetus is known for being "the first convert to Christ in Asia."
  • Mary is commended because she "worked hard for you."
  • Ampliatus is called "my beloved in the Lord."
  • Urbanus is "our fellow worker in Christ"
  • Stachys is "beloved."
  • Apelles is "approved in Christ."
  • Persis "has worked hard in the Lord." 
  • Rufus is "chosen in the Lord" and his mother "has been a mother to me as well."
Every church is fueled by those who pray, serve, love, work hard, show up early, stay late, set up, clean up, help out, greet, welcome, encourage, bless, feed, host, teach, fix, sing, play, etc. These are all faithful members of the body of Christ, and all it takes to be valuable in the kingdom of God is to be faithful to the calling and gifting God has given you.

Together, God uses all of us to exalt the name of Jesus, build up His people and advance His kingdom on earth. We are all part of His team, and no one is unimportant.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Romans, Day 43: Romans 15:22-33 - Are God's Plans Always Better Than Ours?

Today's Reading: Romans 15:22-33

Are God's Plans Always Better Than Ours?

When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. - Romans 15:28-29, ESV

I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school, and I had great plans. I was going to become a nurse, then go to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and then be a medical missionary pastor. A few funny things happened along the way to the fulfillment of my plans: I wasn't any good at nursing. I became a Presbyterian, attended Reformed Theological Seminary and stayed in America. I'm now 43 years old, and when I think about my family, our community, my church and God's faithfulness to me despite my sin, I would not dream of trading His plans for mine.

Have you seen God change your plans radically from where you thought you were going in life? Maybe you're in a place where you can't yet see how His ways have been better than your ways. Maybe you're confused or even deeply hurt by His providence. If so, today's passage holds great hope and encouragement.

Paul is revealing his plans to the Romans. They seem very reasonable and God-honoring. He is taking a collection from the Greek-speaking churches to the saints in Jerusalem, who have been suffering under a famine. Once he has completed delivering this support of the famine-stricken churches, Paul then plans to make his way to Rome and spend some time with the Roman Christians. From Rome, he hopes to be helped by the Roman churches on a missionary endeavor to Spain.

It sounds like a great plan, and everything goes according to plan for Paul - except that nothing really goes quite according to plan. Paul does go to Jerusalem. He delivers the gift. After that, he ends up on Rome - in chains, as a Roman prisoner. Paul asks the Romans to pray for him to be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea. God answers these prayers, by having Paul arrested and imprisoned by the Roman authorities in Judea.

Paul would spend years in jail in Caesarea and then in Rome, unjustly accused of disloyalty to Rome. He could easily have whined and complained that God had not blessed his wonderful plans. God would never again have a missionary as faithful, persistent and fruitful as the Apostle Paul. So, why did God let him sit in prison and only end up in Rome in chains? Because this was the best way for God to be glorified in Paul's life.

From prison, Paul wrote Philippians, the epistle of joy. It had special power, bring written from prison, especially when Paul said, "Rejoice in the Lord always!" and "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." He also wrote Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon from prison. Perhaps God needed to sideline him from active church-planting work to draw forth wonderful theology and encouragement from him.

In the end, Paul did end up in Rome. Even in chains, he was still an encouragement to the Roman Christians. He would end up being released from his chains, and he would be helped to Spain by the Roman church. In Spain, he would retire to the Spanish Riviera and live out his advanced years playing bocce - not! He would end up back in prison in Rome and would be beheaded for his testimony of faith in the Lord Jesus. Yet God would be glorified through it all!

What matters in life, that we get what we want or that God gets glory? In the end, your answer to that question will determine whether you will think God's plans are always better than yours or not.

Here's a video that will help us think about His plans vs. our plans -

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Romans, Day 42: Romans 15:14-21 - What Ambition Drove Paul? What Ambition Drives Us?

Today's Reading: Romans 15:14-21

What Ambition Drove Paul? What Ambition Drives Us?

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
    and those who have never heard will understand.” - Romans 15:20-21, ESV

What drives you? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? Last night, I watched a special about a famous stand-up comedian, and he said all he wanted was for people to like his sense of humor, to laugh at his jokes. He said that was all the approval he ever needed. During his boxing career, Muhammed Ali was obviously driven by the desire to have people consider him the greatest of all time. More recently, Floyd Mayweather wanted to be able to retire 50-0 and very wealthy, even if he had to box a famous non-boxer to achieve those goals.

So, what drives you? In today's passage, we see what drove the Apostle Paul. He said, "I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named." He was driven by a consuming desire to take the name of Jesus Christ to those who had not heard of Him, so they could become worshipers of Jesus, too. He wanted to see Jesus praised and glorified by more and more peoples in the world.

Paul's driving ambition had already led him to take the gospel all around the Eastern Mediterranean. He was able to say, "from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ" This was a massive amount of territory covered by Paul in his relentless gospel-preaching and church-planting missionary work. Now, he was writing to Rome because he wanted them to be the new Antioch, to use them as a new base of operations to take the Gospel to Spain. (We'll see more on that desire tomorrow.)

So, what drives you? Are you trying to climb the ladder in your company, to become an executive or a key leader? Are you seeking to become well known and have many followers on social media? Do you just want people to like you or to think you're funny?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously says that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. How does your ambition fit into God's chief purpose for your life, His eternal glory and your eternal joy? Are you aiming high enough in your ambitions, seeking that which will bring maximum glory to God and true satisfaction to your soul in Him?

I pray that my life's ambition is to hear Jesus say to me, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master." (Matt. 25:23) It is required in a steward that he be found faithful. I want that to be my life's ambition, to be faithful to Him who has never failed to be faithful to me. In the end, if He is glorified, I know I will be satisfied in Him!  

Monday, September 25, 2017

Romans, Day 41: Romans 15:8-13 - How Can We Abound in Hope?

This Week on Walking with Jesus in Acts and Romans

Our Final Week . . .

Mon., Sept. 25: Rom. 15:8-13
Tue., Sept. 26: Rom. 15:14-21
Wed., Sept. 27: Rom. 15:22-33
Thurs., Sept. 28: Rom. 16:1-16
Fri., Sept. 29: Rom. 16:17-27

Today's Reading: Romans 15:8-13

How Can We Abound in Hope?

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. - Romans 15:4 & 13, ESV

I have become much more familiar with the usefulness of antibiotics since I have had children. In a family, it is easy to see the spread of bacterial infections and the wonderful power of antibiotics to bring healing. I remember a time when I was preaching in South Carolina, and everyone in my family was getting strep throat. Once we knew it was strep and not just a cold virus, the antibiotics could be prescribed and start doing their work. After a day or two, we were all feeling much better. Sometimes antibiotics take longer to work, and sometimes stronger ones are needed, but it's always wonderful once they start working well.

Sin brings death and despair into our world and our lives more powerfully and thoroughly than the worst bacteria can bring sickness. Sin has many effects, just as a bacterial infection can have many effects: It brings guilt, pollution, shame, condemnation, death and despair. It doesn't affect everyone in exactly the same ways, of course, just as a bacterial infection will affect different people differently.

Jesus' saving for work us conquers sin and its curse. His obedience fulfills all righteousness and thus secures for us a perfect human righteousness given to us. His atoning death pays for and covers our sin and shame. His resurrection gives us eternal life and justifies us before God because our perfect righteousness is alive forever before the throne of God. His continual intercession for us ensures our perseverance in the faith. His coming again secures our resurrection and glorification. The work of salvation is complete and perfect in Him alone!

So, why do we still doubt and why do we sometimes despair? How can we draw hope, and even abound in hope? Paul tells us we can gain hope from the encouragement of the Scriptures in Romans 15:4. He then prays that God would fill us with all joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. From these verses, it seems that hope comes when we study the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith so that we can have joy and peace in believing what the Scriptures reveal about God.

The Scriptures provide the material for our faith, the information about Jesus, who He is and what He has done for us. They reveal the character of God and the story of redemption. Yet the Scriptures remain closed and dead for us apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in making them clear, understandable and alive with the power of God. As we believe the Scriptures through the power of the Spirit, then we begin to have joy and peace as we believe God.

This takes time. In fact, it takes a lifetime, doesn't it? We continue to go back to the Scripture and prayer, and God continues to teach us, grow us, encourage us and give us real joy, peace and hope. Sometimes it comes quickly and unexpectedly. At other times, we're pounding on the door for a long time before God gives a breakthrough of faith, joy, peace and hope. Yet He is wise and loving, and He never ultimately fails to keep His promises. In Him, we have true and living hope!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Romans, Day 40: Romans 15:1-7 - What is the Ongoing Purpose of the Old Testament?

Today's Reading: Romans 15:1-7

What is the Ongoing Purpose of the Old Testament?

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
- Romans 15:4-6, ESV

Some Christians have no use for the Old Testament. I even heard of a pastor being fired by his church because he preached from the Old Testament. That kind of aversion to the Old Testament is thankfully quite rare, but what isn't rare is for a Christian to honestly wonder what is the purpose of reading and studying about life before Jesus now that Jesus has come. After all, who needs the promise once the promise had already been fulfilled?

When I asked my wife to marry me, I gave her an engagement ring. She wore that engagement ring by itself until the day we stood together before the Lord and were united in the covenant of marriage. When that moment happened, I slipped a wedding band on her finger, next to her engagement ring. She did not take off and throw away her engagement ring! She continues to wear both, and both continue to have significance for her.

The early church struggled with what to do with the Torah. The church was often divided along Jewish-Gentile lines. The Jewish believers read and studied Torah and some even continued to keep the ceremonial laws by eating kosher, wearing traditional Jewish clothing, observing Sabbath days, etc. For them, the Torah remained a guide for holy living, and they could easily look down on their Gentile-background brothers who weren't even circumcised and who ate pork and shellfish.

On the other side of the divide, the Gentile-background believers could easily feel slighted by their Jewish brothers. They could come to resent Torah and too see no point in a bunch of rules they weren't required to keep, much less a bunch of stories about a people they did not consider to be their own.

Paul corrects both Jewish and Gentile Christians throughout Romans, but especially here in Romans 15, where he commands them to accept each other and love each other. Then, in the context of this division and the need for unity, he states concisely the purpose of the Old Testament for Christians: "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."

All of God's word is valuable. All of it can instruct all believers and give us hope. Several years ago, I wrote a short booklet about the Law of Moses in the Life of the Christian, and there I explained how the Law helps us see Jesus more clearly and know God's will, even as the ceremonial and civil aspects of it are not binding on believers anymore. Overall, though, we get great benefit from the Old Testament:

1. The Psalms give us language for prayer and praise and help us see the heart of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Psalms.
2. The history shows us God's faithfulness to His covenant promises despite His people's continual sin.
3. The anointed offices of Israel help us understand how Jesus our Messiah functions as our Great Prophet, our Eternal High Priest and the King of kings.
4. The moral law shows us God's righteousness, Jesus' perfect character and God's will for our life.
5. The prophets show the need for Jesus and foretell His coming in a way that continues to expose our need for Him to save us from our ongoing idolatry and injustice.

Far from being the old story of a long-gone people, the Old Testament is the living story of the living God and His relationship with His people, my people. From it, we draw encouragement, correction and Gospel hope!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Romans, Day 39: Romans 14:13-23 - How Do We Make Each Other Stumble and How Can We Avoid It?

Today's Reading: Romans 14:13-23

How Do We Make Each Other Stumble and How Can We Avoid It?

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. . . . For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.  . . . Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. - Romans 14:13-18, ESV

Manners are a way of loving others. Our culture doesn't think much of manners these days, thinking they are just a matter of formality, and we generally despise formality. People used to dress formally whenever they went out into public, even to a ball game. Then, they started dressing up only for work and church. Then workplaces and churches went casual, and people only dressed up for weddings and funerals. Now, even those are becoming casual events.

What in the world do manners and formal dress have to do with today's passage? Nothing, really, I just wanted to vent.

Actually, there's more of a connection than we might guess. Thinking about manners and the way we dress forces us to think about other people: What are their expectations? What would make them feel respected or feel comfortable around me?

A consideration for the perspectives, expectations and comfort of others is actually vital to living as a Gospel community in the church. In the church, different people have different convictions and scruples about certain issues, as we discussed yesterday. I don't have to live according to someone else's convictions about secondary issues, but I cannot judge them for having different convictions and I also cannot trample on their convictions due to a selfish, thoughtless rudeness.

What are the consequences of my trampling on someone else's conviction? I might lead them to violate their conscience, act out of rebellion and not out of faith, and so disturb their peace and upset their walk with the Lord.

Here's a good example: Let's say I have a brother who cannot drink alcohol, for whatever reason. Maybe he's convinced it would be a sin or maybe he's a recovering alcoholic. I don't have to quit drinking alcohol because of his conviction, but I need to avoid putting him in a situation where he might be forced to drink alcohol by social pressure or by my direct urging. If he's convinced drinking alcohol is a sin, I can gently instruct him from the Scripture to help him see that it isn't. But until he sincerely comes to see that for himself, drinking alcohol would be a sin for him, because it would not be an act of faith and obedience but an act of rebellion.

We need to live more considerate lives. This includes being careful what we share on social media and what we encourage other people to do. Doing so shows love to our brothers and sisters in Christ and help builds up the body in unity and peace.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Romans, Day 38: Romans 14:1-12 - Why Do We Love to Judge Each Other and How Can We Stop?

Today's Reading: Romans 14:1-12

Why Do We Love to Judge Each Other and How Can We Stop?

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. - 1 Corinthians 14:4, ESV

Back when the Jerry Springer Show was at its peak of ratings and raunchiness, I knew a Christian woman who watched it fairly regularly. When I found out that she did, I asked her why. After all, the show was full of grossly immoral people boasting of being grossly immoral. She said it made her feel better to know there were such people in the world, because it made her life seem very normal, tame and righteous by comparison.

We all get caught in the comparison trap in many ways. Sometimes we are envying and coveting, and at other times we are looking down our noses in contempt. It seems almost inevitable. Even as I type this, I can look out the window in front of me and see a new Cadillac contrasted with my old Saturn. I can covet and compare, and I can even begin to judge someone I have never met. Why do we do this? Ultimately, I think the core issue is a lack of faith and humility.

We aren't satisfied with what God has given us, and we think we deserve more. We like to think we deserve it because we think (or hope) that we're better than a bunch of other people who seem to have so much more than we do. I'm convinced this is what drives the voyeuristic magazine sales at the grocery store check-out lines.

We bring this very human tendency into the church and we theologize it. We pick our personal convictions and scruples and we cast a comparing eye at others:
  • Does he really drink alcohol?
  • Why does she have a tattoo?
  • How can he justify driving that car? Wearing those clothes?
  • Does he do that on a Sunday? How dare he?
  • Their church is so entertainment-driven.
  • Their church is so boring and dull and lifeless.
  • They just don't take the Bible as seriously as we do.
  • They take their religion far too seriously.
In Paul's cultural context, the issues often swirled around the ceremonial law (certain Jewish holy days and dietary laws) and the idolatrous culture (meat sacrificed to idols). Then, as now, the church had some folks who were convinced that a proper diet makes for true godliness.

I am not trying to minimize the importance of living according to our Biblical convictions. I am not trying to deny that some of the distinctions we make have merit to them. However, we need to recognize our human tendency to judge, compare, condemn, covet and somehow exalt ourselves, even if we have to use the Gospel or theology as our platform to do so.

We need to remember that we have nothing but what God has given us. Even the understanding of His truth and His word is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not a source of pride. Our salvation is His work from beginning to end, and He has more children than just those who belong to our particular denomination or theological tradition. We need to humbly confess that we deserve nothing and that He has been very, very good to us!

From the foundation of faith and humility, we can live lives of gratitude and joy. We can stop comparing and judging and start loving people. May God give us the grace to do so.

Here's a blast from the past, but a wonderful worship song -

Monday, September 18, 2017

Romans, Day 37: Romans 13:8-14 - Are Believers in Debt and Under Obligation?

Today's Reading: Romans 13:8-14

Are Believers in Debt and Under Obligation?  

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 
- Romans 13:8-10, ESV

Some debts can never be repaid. For most of us, the amount of time, effort, love and sacrifice our parents invested in us when they were raising us is something we could never repay them. In a sense, we "pay it forward" when we have children. But having children also shows us so much about what it means to truly love that very few think of it as a "paying forward" or as any kind of debt at all. 

The love God has poured out into our lives through the saving work of Jesus Christ is a debt that can never be re-paid. It is the supreme gift of love, and it sets us free from sin, death, curse, guilt, shame, rejection and condemnation. Having been set free by God's love and the perfect sacrifice, life and righteousness of Jesus, what remains for believers?

We have already seen that we are to live as a living sacrifice to God's glory, which is our reasonable worship. We have also seen that living this out in practice involves true and life-changing love and requires abiding in God through constant prayer.

The focus of Romans 12 was on our response to God, on the vertical relationship plane, if you will. The focus in Romans 13 seems to be more horizontal, looking at our relationships with other people in the world. Beginning with our relationship to government, this section of Paul's letter is fleshing out how we relate to other people as redeemed children of God, as living sacrifices.

So, as Christians, do we owe other people anything? We need to pay our taxes and respect those in authority, but do we stand in debt to people in some way? Yes, and no. Our salvation does not depend on other people, but wholly on God's grace and love. Yet we are obligated. We remain indebted to love others always. Love remains an outstanding debt that can never be fully repaid because we have received such an abundance from God.

Paul says that love is the fulfillment of the Law. In saying this, he is focused on the second table of the law, the commands regarding how we treat others, commandments 6-10. In other words, loving others fulfills the horizontal obligation of the Law.

So, if our only obligation toward others is to love them, does this mean we're free to indulge in sexual immorality and drunkenness and other immoral behaviors. After all, as long as I'm not hurting anyone, what's the big deal? Aren't we free from the Law and free to live as we please? No!

Such self-indulgent, immoral thinking belongs to the darkness and not to God's light. We have been rescued from the darkness. God has brought us into His light. For us now, our freedom is a freedom to love others and to live as children of light. So, Paul concludes, "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."

Romans, Day 36: Romans 13:1-7 - How Should Christians Think About and Relate to the Government?

Today's reading: Romans 13:1-7

How Should Christians Think About and Relate to the Government?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. - Romans 13:1-2, ESV

Sometimes a bit of perspective really helps. We can feel agitated by the inconveniences of our lives and the inefficiencies of our government, but at least we don't live in North Korea, right? We may be disappointed in our political leaders and feel like we can't respect our government officials, but Paul wrote Romans 13 to the church in Rome while Nero was the emperor and the Coliseum was in full gladiatorial glory. Nero would later behead Paul, have Peter and Andrew crucified (on an upside-down cross and on a X-shaped cross respectively), and make some Christians into human torches to light his garden parties. 

Surely, Nero's antics put the worst of American politicians into perspective, but we might scratch our heads and wonder how Paul could have written today's passage under the rule of such a cruel tyrant. One excellent explanation, offered by John Piper and others, is that Paul is describing the good purpose God has for government. Just as God has good and right purposes for marriage, which not all marriages embody and fulfill, so God also has good and right purposes for governments, which not all governments embody and fulfill.   

So, in the light of Romans 13, how should we think about government? Well, it seems clear that governments are appointed by God to protect those who do good and to punish those who do evil. Police officers and armies have weapons, which God has given them, so they can arrest and imprison criminals, defend and protect innocent people, and wage just wars against those who harm innocent people. This doesn't change the sad fact that many police officers abuse their power, many armies commit atrocious war crimes and many governments persecute those who do good. At those times, those governing authorities are not acting according to God's purpose for them.

How should we relate to government? We should respect and honor those in authority and we should obey their lawful commands. We should pray for them and seek to help them in their God-given calling. We should pay our taxes and support our government to the best of our ability.

However, all submission to human authority has limits. We should not obey unlawful commands of those in authority. If someone in authority asks me to harm an innocent person, I must refuse to do so, even if doing so costs me severely. (Like some nurses who have been fired for refusing to participate in abortions.) I must also speak the truth to those in power, encouraging them toward justice and righteousness. 

The limits on human authority do not give me the right to ridicule, mock, insult or seek to undermine the lawful authority of those in power because I disagree with their political position or their policy decisions. Too many Christians are too quick to insult and disparage those in power, if we disagree with their politics. We can also be too slow to speak the truth to those in power, if we happen to agree with their politics, thinking that the ends justify the means.

Ultimately, our loyalty to earthly governments is one expression of our greater loyalty to God. Ultimately, King Jesus is our king, and we bow the knee in absolute obedience and reverence to Him alone! 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Romans, Day 35: Romans 12:9-21 - What Does a Faithful Christian Life Look Like?

Today's Reading: Romans 12:9-21

What Does a Faithful Christian Life Look Like?

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another . . . Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless . . Rejoice . . . Live in harmony . . . Do not be haughty . . . Never be wise in your own sight. . . . give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all . . . live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
- Romans 12:12-21, ESV

What does it look like to live a faithful Christian life? Paul told us in the beginning of Romans 12 that being a living sacrifice is our reasonable worship in response to the mercy of God in the Gospel. He then told us of the importance of humility, not thinking of ourselves more highly than we should. So, if we're to be humble living sacrifices, what does that look like?

Too often we over-spiritualize the Christian life. We think that living as a faithful Christian involves memorizing lots of the Bible, praying aloud eloquently, maybe being involved in full-time Christian ministry. Paul mentions none of these things as he unpacks our living application of the Gospel in today's passage. Instead, he is intensely practical and focused on love.

The late Rich Mullins, who went home to the Lord 20 year ago this month, once said this to a group of fellow Christian musicians -

I would like to encourage you to stop thinking of what you're doing as ministry. Start realizing that your ministry is how much of a tip you leave when you eat in a restaurant; when you leave a hotel room whether you leave it all messed up or not; whether you flush your own toilet or not. Your ministry is the way that you love people. And you love people when you write something that is encouraging to them, something challenging. You love people when you call your wife and say, 'I'm going to be late for dinner,' instead of letting her burn the meal. You love people when maybe you cook a meal for your wife sometime, because you know she's really tired. Loving people - being respectful toward them - is much more important than writing or doing music.” - Rich Mullins

Love is a more important ministry than writing or singing songs, writing or preaching sermons, writing or publishing books or devotional blog posts. Love must be genuine. To be genuine in our love, we must hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Otherwise, love might just be people-pleasing passivity or feel-good platitudes.

As we seek to live a life of love, we must always do so with zeal, serving the Lord, and we must be constantly in prayer. This is because our life of love is to be lived to the glory of God and will only be possibly by the power of the grace of God.

Love, according to God's definition, is intensely practical and extremely challenging. To love, we must outdo one another in showing honor, we must serve each other, show hospitality, forgive each other, contribute to the needs of the saints, live in harmony and live peaceably with all. If this weren't enough, we are called to bless those who persecute us, to be patient in tribulation, and never seek to avenge ourselves. Never. Talk about tough love!

How can we live this life of love? We need to remember how much we have been loved and forgiven. A constant attitude of repentance and humble gratitude for God's mercy fuels us as we seek to love others. We love as we have been loved, and so we must receive the love of God in order to extend it to others. We must know deeply how often we have offended the Lord and been forgiven, what it cost to save us and how it pleased Him to pay the price. The deep and earnest application of the love of God to our hearts and lives by the Holy Spirit is the source and fuel of all of our true love for others.

God's love is not easy or simplistic. It never compromises His holiness. It is never cheesy or superficial or merely "nice." It is powerful, deep, persevering, forgiving, life-changing. His love and His love alone changes us deeply enough to change the way we love others. May He do so for His glory in each of our hearts!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Romans, Day 34: Romans 12:3-8 - What is the Most Vital, Misunderstood and Undervalued Virtue?

Today's Reading: Romans 12:3-8

What is the Most Vital, Misunderstood and Undervalued Virtue? 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. - Romans 12:3, ESV

In all humility, I think I can honestly say that I am not a very humble person. I am always wondering what other people think of me, whether they like me or not. I am too easily irritated when I don't get my way or something gets in the way of my accomplishing some goal. I tend to see everything that needs to get done or fixed as my responsibility and everything that goes wrong as my fault. Now you might call these things insecurity or control issues or false guilt, but I know that at the heart of these issues is excessive pride and a lack of humility.

I just spent the whole first paragraph of a post about humility talking about myself!

Few things are more misunderstood or undervalued as humility. When most people think of humility, they probably picture Eeyore, the gloomy pessimist. Or perhaps they think of someone who is always beating themselves up for their shortcomings. Yet these things are often rooted in pride, because I think the world is out to get me or I think that I should be better than I am.

Tim Keller has gotten nearer to the definition of humility with the title of his book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. Humility isn't thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. That's something many people think C.S. Lewis said, but he didn't. Here's what he actually said, which is very helpful and insightful:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. - from Mere Christianity  

Why is humility so valuable? Because it frees us to truly love others and to enjoy the life God has given us. Humility is a key to unlocking love and joy. It also bears fruit in all of our relationships.

Within the body of Christ, humility is a vital virtue for the right exercise of spiritual gifts. Instead of wondering whether someone else's gift is better or worse than mine, or trying hard to get people to recognize me for my gift, humility frees me to simply use my gift to serve others. When everyone in the body of Christ uses his or her giftedness to serve others, the church grows and thrives to the glory of God!

Humility is much misunderstood, almost always undervalued, and yet vital to living the life God has given us with gratitude, joy and love. How do we get humility? Not by wanting to be more humble or by beating ourselves up for our lack of it, but by focusing more on Jesus. Fixing our eyes on Him and seeing His greatness in our lives and the lives of others is the way the Holy Spirit cultivates humility in our lives.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Romans, Day 33: Romans 12:1-2 - How Should We Respond to the Good News of God's Grace?

Today's Reading: Romans 12:1-2

How Should We Respond to the Good News of God's Grace?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. - Romans 12:1, ESV

So, now what? We went on our first short-term mission trip as a church this past summer, going to Haiti for a week to serve Reformation Hope. We spent months planning, praying, organizing, applying for passports, getting immunizations, learning about missions, praying some more, getting airline tickets, etc. Finally, it was time to go, and we flew down and eventually arrived on site. I'm not sure how everyone else felt, but as the team leader, when we arrived in the compound and unpacked, I sat down and thought, "Okay, now what?"

In every area of life, there comes the time when theory is translated to practice, when lessons learned become life lived. In Paul's writings, he usually turns the corner from Gospel proclaimed and explained (Ephesians 1-3; Colossians 1-2) to Gospel lived (Ephesians 4-6; Colossians 3-4). In Romans, we turn the corner from proclamation and explanation to application with the beginning of chapter 12.

Of course, Paul has already been applying the Gospel to our lives in powerful ways, especially in chapters 6-8. Yet even those chapters were primarily still an unfolding of the Gospel, in the phase of sanctification. After Paul explores the doctrine of election as it related to Jews and Gentiles in chapters 9-11, he comes back to the implications and application of the Gospel.

In many ways, the best way to understand the opening of chapter 12 is to place it right after the end of chapter 8. Take a few minutes to read chapter 8 again, and then pick up with chapter 12 right after the end.

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus . . .

. . . nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice. . . "

Do you see it?

God has removed all condemnation. God is for us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Now what? Now, in light of this precious and abundant mercy, we should present ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Paul says that, in light of God's mercies, living wholeheartedly for the glory of God is our spiritual worship. Actually, what he says is that it is our "reasonable" or "logical" worship.

For those who have received God's mercy in Jesus Christ, life itself becomes an act of worship. How? As we live for the glory of God! How can we do that? As he so often does, Paul unpacks living for God's glory with both a negative and a positive - "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

We must stop conforming to the world's patterns - get more, have more, be more, do it your way, etc. Instead, we must be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may know and live God's will. The rest of Romans will be an unfolding of the will of God for believers in contrast to the patterns of the world. For believers who know God's mercy, this is not a road map of how to behave so you can get to God; it's how we're freed to live by God's grace because of all He has done to save us!  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Romans, Day 32: Romans 11:25-36 - What Does Paul Mean When He Says "All Israel Will Be Saved"?

Today's Reading: Romans 11:25-36

What Does Paul Mean When He Says "All Israel Will Be Saved"?

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
    he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
    when I take away their sins.” - Romans 11:25-27, ESV

Taking an isolated phrase out of context is one of the most common ways of distorting something someone says. For example, if I were to say, "I used to think that tattoos are immoral, but even if I don't personally like them, it's pretty tough to build a biblical or moral case against them." Someone intent on distorting my words could say, "Pastor Jason said, 'Tattoos are immoral' and 'I don't personally like them.'" Technically, they would be correct, but that would be a gross distortion of what I actually said.

Some Bible teachers have done something similar with Paul's words in today's passage from Romans 11. They say, "All Israel will be saved," and by that they mean that every ethnic Jewish person will go to heaven because they're part of God's chosen people, regardless of their personal faith or lack of faith in Jesus Christ. But such a position clearly contradicts just about everything else Paul says in Romans.

Others say that "All Israel will be saved" means that 100% of the Jewish nation will definitely turn to faith in Christ in the final years before Jesus returns. While Paul does seem describe a future turning of Jewish people to Jesus, he is not saying it will be all Jewish people. Further, this is not really what he means by "All Israel will be saved." So, what do these words mean?

To pick up the full context of Paul's meaning, we need to go back to Romans 9:6-8:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (ESV)

So, according to Paul's definitions, Who is Israel? Who are the children of Abraham? It is the children of promise, not the children of flesh. Or, as Paul himself put it in Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."

"All Israel" means all the chosen children of the promise. We know this is what Paul means because the bringing in of the Gentile believers, along with the Jewish remnant and the future Jewish converts are all immediately in view when Paul says, "In this way, all Israel will be saved."

In the end, God will save 100% of those who have been chosen by grace and who are internally, effectually called by His Holy Spirit. Not one will be lost. The way God does this in the midst of a world of rebellion and unbelief is a testimony to His great wisdom and power, which is why Paul ends this whole section with a stirring doxology of praise to God -

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. 
- Romans 11:33-36, ESV

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Romans, Day 31: Romans 11: 11-24 - What is God's Purpose in the Jewish Rejection of Jesus?

Today's Reading: Romans 11:11-24

What is God's Purpose in the Jewish Rejection of Jesus? 

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean - Romans 11:11-12, ESV

All of a sudden, my daughter was excited about Sunday school! She had just been promoted from the little kid class to the big kid class at our church, and she was nervous. She wasn't sure she could keep up with the big kids. She wasn't sure she would be able to read all of the materials. Then, in the blink of an eye, she went from nervous to excited for one reason: candy! Her Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Lori, had a clear purpose for the candy, to help motivate attendance and participation. Kathryn had a different and simple perspective: This was awesome!

Whenever we look at human actions in the world, we always need to ask two questions and keep them clearly distinct: Why did this person do this thing? and What is God's purpose in this? Of course, we can't know the answer to either of these questions for sure, but keeping them distinct helps us to realize that human responsibility and divine sovereignty are always both at work. Joseph is a great example for us in this, because when he forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, he said, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Gen, 50:20)

We can keep these two questions clear in our mind when we consider the fact that the vast majority of Jewish people have rejected Jesus as Messiah. Jesus came to His own, and His own did not receive Him (John 1:11). Why? Well, on a human level, we can talk about the corrupt religious leaders who were jealous of Jesus. We can look at the false expectations the Jewish people had of the Messiah. These are helpful to examine, and the Gospels help us consider the human responsibility involved. But what was God's purpose?

Paul explores this perspective in Romans 11. God hardened the hearts of Jewish people so they rejected their Messiah. Why? It was to open the door to the Gospel for the Gentiles. The early church was centered in Jerusalem under Peter, James, John and the other apostles. Yet once the religious leaders who had killed Jesus began violently persecuting the apostles, the church was scattered and the Gospel spread. Out of this rejection, persecution and spread of the church, God opened the doors for many non-Jewish people (Gentiles) to hear the Gospel and come to believe in Jesus.

Why would God do this? Part of His purpose was to provoke Israel to jealousy. If Jewish people saw Gentiles embracing their Messiah and finding salvation and forgiveness in Him, this would stir up inside them a longing for the Messiah and for salvation. Ultimately, in the end, God will bring many Jews back into the fold. The natural olive branches will be grafted back in, alongside the wild, alien ones.  

We need to know that God is always at work in His world. His world is not spinning out of control. People make their choices for their own reasons, but they are never outside of God's overarching plan. This gives us great peace! 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Romans, Day 30: Romans 11:1-10 - Are Believers Always a Remnant?

Today's Reading: Romans 11:1-10

Are Believers Always a Remnant?

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. - Romans 11:1-2, ESV

Do you ever feel like you're the only one? Do you ever look around you and think, "Am I the only one who gets it? Why does everyone else seem to be so lost?" Of course, sometimes we can just be thinking this out of arrogance and sometimes we're wrong and everyone else around us is right. When it comes to Jesus, though, Martin Luther was right when he said, "Christians are always a minority in the midst of non-Christians." Interestingly, he said this in the 1520's, when most people in Europe would have identified themselves as Christians. But they weren't!

In Paul's day, Jewish Christians felt like they were in an extreme minority. Among the church, Gentile Christians quickly came to outnumber Jewish Christians, even though the first 5,000 - 10,000 or more believers were all Jewish. Then, among their own nationality, the majority of Jewish people rejected Jesus as Messiah, even though He had come to the House of Israel as the fulfillment of their Scriptures and hopes. For Paul himself, the burden he felt for his fellow Jewish people was overwhelmingly painful.

I'm sure Paul identified with the prophet Elijah, when he stood on the slope of Mount Sinai, the holy mountain, and complained to the Lord, "I am the only one!!" But Elijah was wrong. God had 7,000 Israelites who had not bowed the knee to Baal. This is a significant number, as 7 is the number of divine completion. I wonder, too, if it was close to the number of Jewish believers in the early church.

Some critics had used the small number of Jewish Christians as evidence that either Jesus was not the Messiah or else that God had rejected the Jewish people. Nothing else seemed reasonable. If God was truly sovereign over salvation, then either Jesus was the Messiah and God had rejected Israel from being His people or else Jesus wasn't the Messiah, and the Jews were right in rejecting Him. But this kind of logic is not God's way of thinking or working.

God has always been faithful to keep His promises and to save His own, but His own have always been a remnant. The word remnant is powerful, because it speaks not only of a minority, but also of an easily overlooked and discarded minority, the left-overs, the set-asides. That's us, in the eyes of the world. Thankfully, the world's discarded remnant is God's beloved bride, God's treasured possession! The remnant rejected by the world is chosen and saved by God's grace.

Those whom God chooses by His grace, He also keeps by that same grace!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Romans, Day 29: Romans 10:14-21 - If God's Already Chosen His Own, Why Do Missions and Evangelism?

Today's Reading - Romans 10:14-21

If God's Already Chosen His Own, Why Do Missions and Evangelism?

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” - Romans 10:14-15, ESV

One of the things we foolish and sinful human beings like to do is manipulate the truth. We have many ways of doing this, but one common way is to take one truth and try to use it as a weapon to attack some other truth. When we do this, we set brother and sister truths against each other in a vain effort to manipulate things according to our own preferences.

In his classic Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer says that all true Christians know in their hearts that God is sovereign in salvation, otherwise we would never pray for someone's salvation. The very fact that we ask God to save lost loved ones shows that we know God is the One who saves. He also says that we must embrace the truth of God's sovereignty and of human responsibility as both being true, even if we cannot reconcile them perfectly in our logical thinking. We pray for God to save people, but we also know they must repent and believe. God must save them and they must respond to the Gospel. Both are true.

Holding both of these truths together is vital to doing missions and evangelism well. Some people who have objected to "Calvinism" have said that believing in election and predestination undermines evangelism and missions. I think they should tell that to the Apostle Paul, the hardest working and most successful missionary evangelist in history, who taught election and predestination very clearly in Romans and Ephesians.

Sadly, on the other side of the debate, some professed Calvinists have used predestination as an excuse to be lazy and apathetic about missions and evangelism. When William Carey was interested in taking the Gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus, he was told by one so-called Calvinistic minister, "When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your help or mine!" Carey could have easily retorted simply by quoting Romans: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?"

People must believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved. They cannot believe unless they hear the Gospel. But they also cannot believe unless their hearts are changed by the Holy Spirit and are given the gift of saving faith. The means of preaching the Gospel is necessary and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit is also necessary. The Spirit alone works faith in the heart of a dead sinner, but He does so through the word of Christ!

If we are going to honor God, we need to hold all of His truth together. We need to know that He is sovereign and we are responsible. His sovereignty makes our responsibility possible and fruitful, for His eternal glory! So let's never stop praying for people's salvation, and let's never stop proclaiming the Gospel God uses to bring them to faith in Jesus.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Romans, Day 28: Romans 10:5-13 - Who Will Be Saved? How?

Today's Reading:  Romans 10:5-13

Who Will Be Saved? How?

. . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” - Romans 10:9-13

I've been teaching in classrooms for 20 years now, having begun in China in the summer of 1997 and then at a Christian school in Maryland in the fall of 1997. In 20 years of teaching, I have learned a few things, among which are these two important keys:

1. Good questions show that a student is paying attention to what is being presented.
2. Good teachers will anticipate the good questions that their lessons will stimulate and are prepared to answer them well.

Paul's writing in Romans shows that he is a good, experienced teacher. For a lengthy letter, Romans is filled with the kind of interactivity characteristic of good teaching. Paul anticipates the kinds of questions his Gospel teaching will prompt in the minds of the readers and then he answers them. Sometimes, he explicitly states the anticipated questions or objections, but at other times they are more hidden.

From Romans 8:29 through chapter 9, Paul has been addressing the issues of predestination and election. He is explicit in pointing us to the freely sovereign grace of God as the source and support of our salvation. Whenever anyone begins to teach on election and predestination, very common objections and questions arise:

Objection: That's not fair! Paul deals with this in 9:14-33.
Question: What kind of people does God pick? Here Paul makes clear that God is not discriminatory, as we would understand that. He speaks of "everyone . . . no distinction between Jew and Greek . . . everyone."
Question: Well, how do I know if I'm elect? How can I know if I'm predestined?

Paul answers this last question by reviewing some Gospel basics and emphasizing the truth of justification by faith. He has already taught justification by faith, in chapter 4 especially. Here he doesn't use that term, but He speaks of being saved by believing, confessing and calling on the name of the Lord.

How can you know if you are elect? Well, are you saved? How can you know if you are saved? Well, have you believed in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? Have you confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord? Have you called on the name of the Lord? Have you put your trust in Him?

Without exception and without distinction, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The Gospel is as simple and as wonderful as that! Believe in Him and you'll not be put to shame. Call of Him and you'll be saved!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Romans, Day 27: Romans 9:30-10:4 - How Can We Attain True Righteousness?

Today's Reading: Romans 9:30-10:4

How Can We Attain True Righteousness?

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.  - Romans 9:30-32, ESV

The word righteous can call to mind different images and definitions. You might think of the Righteous Brothers, and their hit song, "Unchained Melody," might pop into your mind. What made those brothers righteous? In the 60's, righteous was a slang term that meant really cool or impressive. But more likely when you think of the term righteous, you think of someone who is really moral and religious, a good person of upstanding character. Or perhaps you think of someone who is self-righteous, an uptight and obnoxious person.

But what is righteousness, really? Why is it so important that we attain righteousness? How can we? Well, righteousness is a core characteristic of God that He implanted in humanity when He made us in His image. Righteousness is uprightness or moral integrity. It forms the backbone of God's moral character and is the underpinning of true justice. When God created Adam and Eve in His image, He endowed them with righteousness, holiness and knowledge.

Sin and the fall into corruption has taken us from being inherently righteous to being inherently unrighteous. Much of human religion and morality is an endeavor to re-attain the righteousness we lost in our fall into sin. The problem with all human religious attempts to be righteous is that they all depend on our own efforts and we are the problem, because we are corrupt. So, if we are the problem, how can we be the solution?

The opposite of trying to be righteous by works is to seek God by faith and to receive His gift of righteousness instead of trying to establish our own. The law of God was never designed to lay out a pathway for a campaign of self-righteousness by works. Rather, it was designed to show God's people their sin, so they world turn from themselves and seek Him by faith. They responded to God's Law with works and not with faith, and so they failed.

Meanwhile, Gentiles who did not even have the law and who were not seeking to be righteous by their works received the Gospel and were made righteous by grace through faith. How is this possible? Because God decided to have mercy on them. We receive righteousness by grace through faith solely because God decides to have mercy on us. That's why we believe, and faith is how we receive God's gift of perfect righteousness in Christ.

The worst thing we could do after receiving the righteousness of Christ by faith is to then seek to somehow establish our own by works. Whatever our good works may be, they cannot be an attempt to establish ourselves as righteous. If they are, they undermine the whole Gospel and become toxic to our spiritual growth. Instead, we need to marvel at the grace of God and continue to submit to His righteousness, rather than trying to establish our own.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Romans, Day 26: Romans 9:14-29 - Upon What Does Our Salvation Depend?

This week on Walking with Jesus in Acts and Romans:
  • Mon., Sept. 4: Rom 9:14-29
  • Tue., Sept. 5: Rom. 9:30-10:4
  • Wed., Sept. 6: Rom. 10:5-13
  • Thurs., Sept. 7: Rom. 10:14-21
  • Fri., Sept. 8: Rom 11:1-10
Today's Reading: Romans 9:14-29

Upon What Does Our Salvation Depend?

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. - Romans 9:14-16, ESV

Have you ever ridden a roller coaster? The ride attendants have an important job, but very often they don't seem to take it too seriously. Sometimes, as I've looked at these college students (or high school dropouts?), I've thought, "Is it wise to put my life in their hands?" The truth is, that while ride attendants do have important jobs, the safety of the riders on roller coasters is not dependent on these kids. Engineers, construction crews, safety inspectors, maintenance technicians and others with highly specialized skill sets have designed, built, tested, maintained and inspected these rides. 

Our eternal salvation is more important that the proper operation of a roller coaster. And the truth is that when it comes to our eternal salvation, we are less competent and capable than the worst ride operators at amusement parks. We are selfish, foolish, unreliable, unfaithful, morally corrupt and spiritually bankrupt. Many people cling to an ideology of a salvation based on free will because they want to preserve the law of fairness. But making our salvation ultimately dependent on our free will is about as comforting as riding a 1000-foot-tall roller coaster designed, engineered and built by kindergarten students.

God is not unjust, and we don't need to protect Him from charges of injustice. He has the right to do whatever He pleases, and He is always pleased to do what is right. And it is His just and righteous will to have mercy on some, saving them in His compassion, but not to save all. As Romans 9:18 says, "he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills."

This truth, as hard as it may be to accept at first, brings incredible comfort to those of us who are trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. We know that we have our part to play in God's design of salvation: Someone preached or shared the Gospel with us. Someone else probably prayed for us. We came to believe by the grace of God and we received and rested upon Christ alone for our salvation.

The good news of sovereign grace is that none of these secondary causes is ultimately responsible for our salvation. From beginning to end, our salvation "depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." That is very good news indeed! 

If I am not the ultimate cause of my salvation, then I don't have to live in fear, worrying that I might mess up so badly that I could destroy it. No, God is working out His greater purposes, in our salvation as well as in everything else, and we can rest in His powerful hands! 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Romans, Day 25 - Romans 9:6-13 - What's the Difference Between Being Part of the Chosen and Being Chosen?

Today's Reading: Romans 9:6-13

What's the Difference Between Being Part of the Chosen and Being Chosen?

"But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." - Romans 9:6-8, ESV

Yesterday, we wrestled with how to answer the question, "Are Jewish people the chosen people?" One of the reasons why that's a tricky question is that election can have different meanings in the Bible. In the context of this passage, Paul doesn't the words "chosen," "elect" or "election" about the Jewish people as a whole. In all of the things Paul says about his "kinsmen according to the flesh" in verses 4-5, he never says they are chosen or elect.

Why does Paul so carefully avoid using that word? Because in the context of Romans 8-9, Paul uses election to refer to individual salvation and not to refer to national privilege. He will later use the term election in a national covenant sense (Rom. 11:28). In today's passage, he clarifies personal election this very sharply. He must do so because of an implied accusation against God that he is answering in this chapter: Has God's word, specifically God's covenant promises and purposes for Israel, failed?

Paul says the word of God has not failed, even though most Jewish people have rejected Jesus. Why? Because God's covenant purpose for the nation is not the same as His individual and saving election. Another way to express this is that there's a difference between national Israel and spiritual Israel, between the political and ethnic nation and the truly chosen people of God.

To support and illustrate his point, Paul uses the example of Isaac and Jacob, two of the patriarchs, who were chosen by God above their older brothers, Ishmael and Esau. In the ancient world. inheritance always passed to the oldest brother. Ismael was a son of Abraham according to the flesh, but not according to the promise. Esau was a son of Isaac, but he was not chosen.

In the end, God's promise and God's purpose in election are what will never fail. God's promise was given to Isaac, not Ishmael. God's choice in election was Jacob, not Esau. The choice of Jacob over Esau is an especially clear one, because God made that choice "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad." Paul's point is strong and clear: God's purpose in election always stands, not on the basis of works but on the basis of the One who calls.

If you have embraced God's promise in Jesus Christ, know that your faith in His promise is not an accident. You were chosen by God. You were given true and saving faith. You are a child of promise by God's purpose in election. Let that truth fill you with both great confidence and profound humility.