With No Money, Come and Buy (Romans 4:1-15)

I think they call it “sticker shock.” It’s that feeling you get when you first lay eyes on the price listed on the tag, the sticker, or the menu. If it happens inside a store or a restaurant, you might find yourself feeling a bit out of place, like you’re about to be “found out.” The contents of your wallet—or the lack thereof—testify to one thing: you don’t belong there.

College students go through something similar at the start of every school semester. With every class their eyes glaze over at the shock of seeing the syllabus—the list of work they’d be expected to complete in order to receive credit for taking that course.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had those moments when it seemed that others’ expectations seemed impossibly high. We may have been angry with them for holding us to such standards; we may have felt dejected for failing to live up to them.

Throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes God’s righteousness. It is the standard by which each of us is measured; it is the standard by which each of us falls short (cf. Romans 3:23).

But, Paul says, in His infinite mercy God has chosen to declare us righteous, to “justify” us by pardoning sin and treating us as innocent.

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT ISN’T DUE

I suspect that Paul knew that his listeners would have trouble swallowing such an enormous message of grace. So he turns to the story of Abraham to help unpack just how it could be that God could look at a sinful human being and declare him anything other than unworthy.

4:1 – What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 

If you have a background in church, you may remember Abraham from a Sunday School lesson. Abraham was the Father of the Jewish nation. It was through Abraham that God promised His people the blessing of the Promised Land and the blessing of descendants.

Not much is written about Abraham’s life before God called Him, but Joshua tells us that his family “lived beyond the Euphrates River, and they worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Abraham didn’t have a “church background.”  Until God reached into Abraham’s life, it’s likely that all he knew was the wayward faith of his family.

So it’s significant, then, that God would reach into this man’s life and declare Abraham ”righteous.”  We can’t possibly attribute this to Abraham’s faithful service to God, because he worshiped someone completely different. No, instead, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Personally, I prefer the older translations that emphasize that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.

What does “credit” mean?  Think about gift cards for a moment. Someone recently was generous enough to give me a fifty dollar gift card to Café del Sol. And what that means is that even if I have no money in my wallet, the staff of Café del Sol will treat me like I do. Why?  Because that gift card gives me store credit—my spending power comes not from the money I bring, but the gift I’ve received.

That’s what Abraham experienced. To be “credited” with righteousness means that even though Abraham had no righteous deeds of his own, God treated him as though he had a perfect record of obedience. And the same can be true of you and me—that if we place our trust in Jesus, then we can “credited” with a perfect, righteous record of faithfulness and moral purity.

ALIEN RIGHTEOUSNESS

The reformer Martin Luther called this “alien righteousness,” by which he meant that this righteousness came from outside ourselves. He meant this to be a marked contrast to “active righteousness,” the righteousness we think we earn through moral effort.

Paul writes that only the righteousness of Christ has any real bearing on our lives:

4:4 – Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Even here Paul is continually emphasizing just how little Abraham deserved to be “credited” with righteousness. Sure, Abraham moved onward into obedience, but Paul makes clear that God declared him righteous before—not after, but before Abraham took any steps of obedience. The ritual of circumcision—which by Paul’s day was a symbol of a great religious heritage—was only an outward sign of God’s work of justification.

Paul goes on to say:

4:13 – For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Righteousness comes through faith. Our attempts to secure God’s approval through our own efforts will always cause us to come up short. We find a place at the King’s table not because we’re rich enough to pay the check, but because the King has already paid for our order. We are credited with the treasury of His merits even when our own treasure chest looks more like an ashtray.

“Sinners come inside; with no money, come and buy.” (Isaiah 55:1, paraphrase)

And so let us in the #ForOurCity movement remember the hordes of those around us who are seeking to earn what they cannot earn, while we possess the knowledge of the payment that secures all their ultimate hopes and dreams.

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Gloriously (In)Complete (Romans 3:21-31)

I know very few people who, deep down, don’t harbor a desire to be perfect. Flawlessness is the human heart’s holy grail, a myth perpetuated by street-corner salesmen who’ve convinced us that such perfection even exists. Models and celebrities stare at us from the glossy covers of magazines; trendy Instagram filters engender the fear that maybe we’re missing out on the kind of life we see our friends enjoying.

What’s to be done? We laugh at those who are “perfectionists.” You know the type. Those who spend hours cleaning. The straight-A students locked away in the library. The “grammar Nazi” who insists on correcting others’ mistakes. But all of us, really, are guilty of this.

Have you ever bought a product—whether jeans or an SUV—not because of its usefulness but because you were drawn to the brand?

Have you ever felt left out because your cell phone isn’t the latest model?

Have ever felt anxious (or bitter) that your friends seem to be more successful than you?

Perfectionism comes in many forms. What others say about us seems to be of great value in shaping our sense of self-worth. There’s just one problem with this kind of pursuit: you never really reach your goals.

Some years ago, New York Times columnist Guy Trebay covered a New York fashion show. What was most revealing was the hidden lives that went on off the runway. Though we tend to idolize the rich and beautiful, Trebay observes that this lifestyle obsession leaves us hollow:

“Models do not think they are too skinny. Actors do not find themselves handsome. Stars claim not to know what all the fuss is about. Our crazy cultural obsession with the perfected surface has become so absolute that everybody ends up having to work off some obscure psychic debt.” (Guy Trebay, “Look at Me, Look at Me, Please Look at Me,” The New York Times, September 17, 2006)

Mick Jagger was onto something when he wailed that he “can’t get no satisfaction.” I hear ya, Mick. Today’s greatest battles are fought not on the landscape of the “perfected surface;” they are fought in the inner longings of the human soul.

THE RELIEF OF JUSTIFICATION

The gospel starts by pointing out our own inadequacy; our own brokenness. This has been the core subject of Paul’s letter to Rome up to this point. We are deeply flawed creatures, every last one of us; not just because we fall short of our standards, but because we persist in our own ways in defiance of God’s eternally beautiful and righteous plan. The Bible has a variety of ways of understanding “sin,” but every image points to the same condition—that no human being can possibly claim to be righteous before God. So, what’s to be done?

3:21 – But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Some of what Paul shares here is entwined with what he had written before—namely, that “all have sinned” and continually “fall short” of God’s eternally significant character. No one can match His perfection.

But that’s when Paul makes an abrupt turn, focusing now on the finished work of Christ. If you have time later, you may want to underline the terms that Paul uses here for salvation, words like…

Redemption: This refers to the blood of Christ “buying” us out of our slavery to sin

Propitiation: This term means “to render favorable,” meaning that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s intense anger at human wickedness and sin.

Justification: This term means “to declare righteous,” and if you look at Paul’s other words regarding “righteousness” and “justifier,” we see that this is prominent in this section—not to mention Paul’s other writing.

What does it mean to be “justified?”  Paul is using a legal term to refer to the great reversal of human fate. Commenting on this, John Stott writes:

“‘Justification’ is a legal term borrowed from the law courts. It is the exact opposite of ‘condemnation’ (cf. Deut.25:1; Prov.17:15; Rom.8:33,34). ‘To condemn’ is to declare somebody guilty; ‘to justify’ is to declare him… righteous. In the Bible it refers to God’s act of unmerited favor by which He puts a sinner right with himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him, but accepting and treating him as righteous.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p.60)

To be “justified” means that though I am far from perfect, God has graciously chosen to declare us perfect and “righteous” because of what Christ has achieved for us. You want to be perfect? God declares you righteous—though not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ has done for you.

SOLA FIDE—“FAITH ALONE”

This is why Paul moves on to emphasize that justification brings an end to our feelings of perfectionism—to all feelings of superiority or inferiority. Why? Because our righteousness comes through faith, not works.

3:27 – Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

How do we “uphold the law?” Does this mean that we are still required to obey the law of the Old Testament?  Yes; emphatically, yes. But not through our effort, but through Christ. See, Jesus fulfilled every letter of the law through His righteous obedience (cf. Matthew 5:17). Therefore if we follow Jesus, we, too, can claim to “uphold the law” by being united with Him. This is why Paul emphasizes that now even non-Jews (Gentiles) can be brought near to God, because the Jewish laws have been fulfilled through Jesus.

On the one hand (this is deeply humbling), we are forced to realize that we did nothing to earn our justification before God. But on the other hand (this is extraordinarily freeing), it brings an end to the self-centered pursuit of perfectionism. Our lives are not defined by what others say about us, because we have the blessing of having God declaring us “righteous” and acceptable on the basis of our faith in Jesus.

So take heart, perfectionists of the world.

You are not defined by the number of “likes” you receive on social media.

You are not defined by what your friends say about you—to your face or behind your back.

You are not defined by your credit score, or how much money you have in the bank.

You are not defined by what the numbers on your scale say, or the number on the waistband of your pants.

You are defined solely—and completely—by a God who declares you “righteous” by the work of the cross. The work of perfectionism has no end; on the cross Jesus declared this work to be “finished.”

Lay your deadly doing down, down at Jesus’ feet. Stand in Him, and Him alone, gloriously complete.

(James Proctor, “It is Finished”)

The Gavel Drop Moment (Romans 3:9-20)

I have always felt a bit sorry for defense lawyers. Some folks actually despise these characters as those who attempt to get criminals off the hook. Rightly understood of course, the role of the lawyer is not to get an unjustly generous outcome, but rather within our legal system’s presumption of innocence point of beginning to provide the best defense possible to appropriately put the weight of proof upon the prosecution to prove the charges.

Some criminals are difficult to defend and put into any positive light whatsoever. It is a sort of pig and lipstick kind of situation. And actually, that would be the case of trying to defend the innocence and goodness of the human race against God’s perfect standard of righteousness. It is entirely impossible, or as Paul says it at the beginning of today’s section that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.

Even if a defense lawyer is able to present a client in the best light possible, if the prosecuting attorney concludes with a laundry list of undeniable charges backed by evidence, the client is in trouble. And that is what we have in our reading today. Paul quotes from a variety of Old Testament passages (mostly from Psalms) that prove beyond any doubt that mankind is 100% guilty before God as a condemned sinner.

3:9 – What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”   “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” [most of these quotes are from passages in the Psalms]

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Boom! The gavel drops. All are guilty! Everyone fails to live up to God’s law. And we see in the final verse the purpose of the law: it was not to provide a pathway for people to become just in God’s sight, but rather it was to make a person aware of their sinful condition. And then, feeling the weight of their impossible situation, they would turn to trusting, following and obeying God’s provision

Theologically speaking, we are talking about the doctrine of original sin. The problem started with the original sin of the original parents. The curse and debt have been passed down; we were born bad. We weren’t born good, sinned one day and then became bad. We were never good, or righteous. We didn’t become sinners when we first sinned. We proved we were sinners when we first sinned.

All of this would be terribly depressing if the story ended right here. And if God had chosen to allow that to happen, He would not have been unjust.

So ends Part #1 of the five parts of Romans we spoke about last week (Sin / Salvation / Sanctification / Sovereignty / Service). We’re lost. We’re dead. But good news – the best GOOD NEWS – is just over the horizon.

Failing to Take Advantage of Advantage (Romans 3:1-8)

Winning a huge lottery payout is a good thing, right? It makes for a wonderful opportunity for a person to do and enjoy pretty much everything imaginable, correct?

Apparently not! A simple search of articles telling the stories of large lottery prize winners reveals that a sizeable majority end up with lives that are more miserable, if not completely ruined. An amazing number end up losing everything. Poor choices abound. Most are completely unequipped to manage their new situation in a positive way.

At the same time, a minority of winners report of the great blessing that it was for them. They speak of hiring professional accountants and investment advisors, being disciplined to use their newfound wealth in wise and productive ways.

From this we can say that it was not the mere fact of wealth that ruined peoples’ lives, it was the lack of faithful and disciplined execution of attention to the details that made for a mess.

We have read in recent paragraphs in Romans chapters 1 and 2 of the Jewish people who were condemned by God for their sinful lives. If being given the “blessings” of status as God’s Chosen People resulted in so many of them ending up in judgment, what good therefore was such a “blessing?”  And Paul says that there indeed was great blessing and advantage. It was not a matter that God’s goodness set them up for failure; they simply failed to be faithful with the riches to which they were entrusted, particularly having the very words of God given to them.

So there is no way that God should be blamed for their bad situation and God’s necessary judgment. He was good; they messed up all by themselves.

The argumentative objections (of which there were many) raised by Paul’s adversaries (of which there were many) as seen in verses 5-8 are admittedly a bit crazy. But arguments against God’s goodness are exactly that. Illogical is another word. Let’s add senseless to the mix.

God is good. People fail. All have sinned, Chosen People or not. That God thereby is required by His holy character to necessarily judge them is not a mark against Him.

But talk about people with great advantage! Has there ever been those with a better advantage to be people of faith than we are in our day? I suppose it could be argued that to be a first century follower who happened to be among the hundreds who saw the post-resurrection Jesus would make faith easier. Even so, I’m not sure I’d trade for that. For one thing, we possess the completed record of Scripture. Think of all the resources we have in our day to stand on the shoulders of two millennia of Christians who have gone before us. Consider the resources literally at our fingertips electronically. By any standard, we are uniquely blessed. We are people of advantage.

So let us as #ForOurCity members of the body of Christ be known for taking advantage of our advantages as we together serve to reach a lost world.

3:1 – What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

3 What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

“So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.”

5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6 Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7 Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” 8 Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

The View from the Steeple (Romans 2:17-29)

One summer in my college years I worked for an industrial painter, mostly spray painting large structures like barns, farm buildings, warehouses, churches, etc.  Not only was it a hot job in the sun (I got burns on my shoulders that summer that I still believe could become something nasty in my life), it was rather physically demanding. We mostly used bucket trucks with powerful compressors, and between three of us could spray in excess of 100 gallons of paint a day.

One day our job was to paint a centuries-old church in the Pennsylvania countryside. It was a rather large building with a steep-pitched roof about 40+ feet above the ground. Beyond that was a 20-foot wooden steeple that needed to be painted. Being the light-weight of the group (you’ll have to take that by faith), I drew the assignment. The boss sent me to the roofline in the bucket truck, along with an extension ladder. We put the ladder legs on either side of the peak, extended it fully, while also tying a rope from the ladder to the steeple for “safety.”

I still can’t believe I did this. The view from the top was amazing, but the foundation of it was so precarious in the extreme that it should rightly be catalogued in the “foolish” classification.

And such was the category of self-evaluation possessed the “allegedly righteous” Jew to whom Paul speaks here in Romans chapter 2. From where they looked down upon the rest of the world, they saw themselves as in really good shape, just because of who they were. They knew that they had the truth of the one true God. But for too many, this did not really make a total difference in their lives. Many were guilty of the same sins as the riff-raff of the rest of the world.

Paul quotes from the Old Testament, from Ezekiel 36:20-22 … talking about how instead of Israel being a great witness for the one true God, they were an embarrassment due to His necessary, repeated judgments upon them because of their rampant sinfulness…

And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’  I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.”

And it is not just that these self-righteous Jews saw themselves as OK simply because of who they were, it was also because of certain rituals they observed – circumcision particularly.

Paul’s admonition is that a real “Jew” (in the sense of one rightly connected to God) is one who is so because of a heart obedience and trust in God. Such a person understands that the real game is not about outscoring most people in terms of identification and deeds, but rather one who understands that they cannot score points at all without divine help – assistance to be identified ultimately in this letter as coming from Christ’s righteousness.

In our midst of our congregations that include all those even on the fringes of church fellowship, we probably don’t have any who fit this categorization of self-righteous Jewishness. But I realize that we do have those who wrongly think they are really pretty much OK with God, believing this as they see themselves outscoring most folks in deeds and general beliefs. I would call these people “generic Christians” – believing in God and making it a part of life when nothing more interesting or pressing is in the way. Rather, our faith should be the first and most defining truth of everything else. Priorities flow from this foundation of faith in the understanding of one’s totally hopeless condition apart from Christ – both for eternal salvation and the daily walk with God in this temporal world.

So don’t be generic. The view might be great, but the foundation is perilous. Be specific. And may it be that the human “steeples” of our “ForOurCity” churches are witnesses to the work of God, and not merely some high spot upon which we look down at a lost world around us.

2:17 – Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Final Justice (Romans 2:1-16)

It grinds our souls inwardly when we hear of a terrible injustice that goes unresolved without a solution and the apprehension and punishment of the perpetrator. That is just so wrong!

I remember during the summer after my high school graduation that in my rather sedate small town environment there was a terrible murder. A woman was shopping at the local mall, driving a camper and getting groceries for a family vacation with her husband and three children. When she returned to her camper, there were reportedly two men inside. They drove it a short distance, beating the woman to death and dumping her body on the roadside … ultimately returning the camper to the mall parking lot.

Though several years later an individual was charged with the crime, the evidence was very scant and he was dismissed. To my knowledge now almost 45 years later, this case has never been solved. A reason it remains in my mind is that the woman’s body was discarded at the driveway entrance to the church where I would a decade later begin to serve for 11 years as a pastor.

So, did this murderer(s) get away with the crime? It looks like it. But if we know the larger truth about TRUTH and justice, we know that there will be a day of judgment. And that is the primary idea of our passage today – the certainty of God’s righteous judgment.

This section begins an argument that Paul is having with an imaginary disputer – one who might see himself in a rather positive light. This would be the perspective of the Jewish person in particular during the time of Paul’s writing. Indeed, the Gentile world was filled with horrid things related to idolatry and moral debauchery. The typical Jew at the time could rightly say that he was were very, very far from being as bad as so many people in the ancient world.

The problem of course is that no person possesses any sort of definitive moral high ground. As we’ll see later, this is because no one is perfect (righteous). But it is natural for a person who lives an above average life in terms of morality and human goodness to have some measure of a sense of moral security.

Let me seek to illustrate it this way: Say that you have a much nicer home in every way than your immediate neighbor. You have a mortgage balance of $25,000, whereas the neighbor owes over $400,000 and never makes his payments. Could you justly say to your lender, “My neighbor owes 16 times more than me on his house, so I don’t see any reason why I should be responsible for my smaller debt, and I’m not going to pay it!”  How would that work out?

Yet that is how many people see their standing before God. They know they aren’t entirely perfect, but they think (if they allow themselves to think about it at all) that they are probably OK with God since most people are far worse.

In the third paragraph of the passage today, the imaginary disputants felt good about themselves because they had the Law and sought as best they could to obey it. But Paul says it is more than just hearing the Law that makes a person righteous, it is obeying it fully (which no person could truthfully claim they did in every detail for all of life). And the Gentile, not having the Law, did have the residual element of being created in God’s image – a conscience. And this was therefore a law for them that condemned them for their lack of perfection.

So whether you have the Law of Moses as a guide for life, or have the human conscience, you will be judged in accordance with it. This is a certainty, and you will be found guilty. This is grim, but there is better news ahead; but not until Paul knocks down a few more straw men in the upcoming paragraphs.

And as we in the participating #ForOurCity churches revel in the grace of the gospel salvation we possess, this lost condition we read about today is the current condition of the spiritually lost in our community. Should this not goad us into action?  How might we best do this together?

2:1 – You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”  7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

You Are in Heap Big Trouble! (Romans 1:18-32)

As we work our way verse by verse through the book of Romans over a five-week period, let me throw at you a very simple outline – not of my creation, but one that has been used effectively over the years to quickly summarize this Pauline letter. It involves five words that begin with the letter “S” …

Sin 1:18-3:20 – A description of the lost condition of all mankind, regardless of their background or alleged morality.

Salvation 3:21-5:21 – Having proven like a courtroom lawyer that all mankind stands condemned before God, Paul gives the remedy in Christ. This is the truly great stuff in the book of Romans.

Sanctification 6:1-8:39 – Paul talks about the challenges of the new life in Christ, with the ongoing battle of the flesh and the spirit.

Sovereignty 9-11 – Paul answers here the question that would naturally arise about the Chosen People of God, now that Christ has come. And Paul shows that the Jews have a past, a present, and a glorious future.

Service 12-16 – The Christian life is more than fire insurance. Rather, it is about serving God by serving others.

So the book of Romans will unfold how these five movements unfold and how righteousness in the gospel prevails. And the first item is to make the case that, indeed, all mankind is totally lost and justly in line for God’s judgment. Paul will prove that whoever you are — Jew, Gentile, a really fine person compared to everyone else — you are a condemned sinner in a heap of trouble.

So today we begin with the issue of the sinful condition of mankind. This shouldn’t be difficult to do, right?  Everyone knows they’re a sinner. But obviously, since the vast majority of people are not worried about this by being keen to see the issue of their pending sentence of judgment, we have to spend time talking about the underestimated gravity of the sin situation.

Malcom Muggeridge, the British journalist and author, is famous for noting that “sin is the one thing that man tries to deny, but the one doctrine most easily proven.”  Indeed, if you can’t see the problem in the world around you, just look into the mirror.

Before one can be “found,” one must understand that they are “lost.”  Reflecting back to even my high school years and in times of sharing the gospel with people, I recall early on how it surprisingly seemed to me that the majority of people with whom I spoke had no sense of being lost or flirting with eternal danger.

I am unlikely to go to the doctor and pharmacy to get a prescription for something unless I am convinced that I have a medical condition that needs medicinal treatment.

Martin Luther famously wrote that … “The [manifold corruption of nature] should be emphasized, I say, for the reason that unless the severity of the disease is correctly recognized, the cure is also not known or desired.  The more you minimize sin, the more grace will decline in value.”

So just how bad is the problem of sin?  It’s bad … very bad. Paul writes …

Romans 2:18 – The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Paul says that God’s wrath — his anger at sin — is justly focused upon human sin, godlessness and wickedness. This is because people have suppressed the truth that is plainly evident to them, having been put there for them to clearly see by the creator God.

We are talking here about what we call “general revelation” or “natural revelation.”

John Calvin wrote best in speaking of this. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he taught that man was to look at himself, and also to look at the majesty of creation, and to sense that he was a creature in a created world. This should cause him to desire and seek to know the creator. But over time, this truth was lost, the natural condition of sin prevailed and truth has been set upside-down.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

This is a history of the natural decline of the human condition after the fall of man. Truth was forgotten, foolishness and futility prevailed, and rather than the creature worshipping God, man fashioned his own stupid gods out of the materials of creation.

The remaining verses we look at today contain a statement repeated three times: “God gave them over…”

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

So, what does this mean that God gave them over? Does it mean that he gave up? Well, yes, in a sense. It is a Greek word (paradidomi) that means to give over, to hand over, to allow something — in the sense of giving up the resistance against an action.

So in this context it has the idea of God withdrawing his restraining and protective hand, thus allowing the consequences of sin to have their inevitable and destructive outcome.

That’s cold, that’s hard.

But wait, there’s more …

This is not the only time that “paradidomi” is used of God giving up. It is the verb in this sentence as well, later in Romans (8:32) “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?”

But wait, there’s more …

It is used of what Christ did … “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But wait, there’s more …

Again, of what Christ did as a model for us … “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

But wait, there’s more …

Again, of the model of Christ’s sacrifice … “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”

So aren’t you glad that God didn’t give up on us, but that he gave up for us?  That’s how you can get out of the heap big trouble you are in by being the descendent of Adam!  And indeed, #ForOurCity people of every church participating, this is what we have in common that we can share with the world around us!

The One Thing (Romans 1:8-17)

Laugh at me if you will, but I actually enjoyed the 1991 movie City Slickers starring Billy Crystal as Mitch. Probably the most famous line comes from the rugged old cowboy “Curly,” the tough old cowboy character played by Jack Palance.

Here’s the scene from the movie where Curly espouses his life philosophy to Mitch, Billy Crystal’s character …

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? … This. (holds up one finger)

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean “poop.”

Mitch: But what is the “one thing?”

Curly: (smiling) That’s what you have to find out.

So today I’m going to tell you what the one thing is!

But first, Paul shares some warm words of affirmation for those in the church at Rome…

1:8 – First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

It can certainly be said of the Apostle Paul that he was a team player. His passion was “team church” wherever it was found. The Roman church was not the result of his ministry or preaching, as were many others we read about in the New Testament. And Rome, being the center of the world (where all roads lead to), would have held great interest for Paul as to the nature of the local church ministry there. Clearly they were doing well, as Paul mentions the reputation their faith had throughout the Roman world. Travelers would have be in and out of the imperial city with news of the Christian community there being relayed to other churches.

Some of my fondest memories of my 40 years in ministry have been of Christians I have met and worshipped with in various corners of the earth: Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan, Scotland, England, Turkey, France, Uzbekistan, etc.  Sometimes the verbal communication was scant, but the “feeling” of being with true brothers and sisters in the faith was almost palpable. Paul was energized by this fellowship, rejoicing in the expanse of the gospel. And together, working through this #ForOurCity series, we too should be energized by the expanse of the cause of Christ in our city and region.

Paul wanted to see the Romans personally because he knew that by God’s empowerment of his gifts, he could be a blessing to them to enable them to go forward in the work there. Yet note again how he looked as well to the blessing he would receive from being with them.

Paul wanted the readers to understand that it was not a lack of interest in the church at Rome that was the cause for his absence. Rather, it was the extensive press of ministry that God continually put before him that always filled his schedule with obligations. These opportunities involved all sorts of people from all types of backgrounds, and this “all peoples” aspect was the exciting part of the gospel message for which Paul was especially called.

Here comes “the one thing” …

1:16 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

This is a favorite question I have asked people in Bible studies and sermons over the decades: What is the one most important thing that you need to be saved?

I ask that, and then receive the answers. What invariably comes back is first something like “faith.”  And I’ll say that yes, we need faith for sure, but there is a better answer. And the next person will say “grace.”  After all, it says in the Bible that we are saved by grace through faith … but I’ll again say there is a better single answer. A few other suggestions will be offered, but seldom does someone give the very, very best answer. And that is “righteousness.”

God is perfect; that is what righteousness is — perfection. God’s justice demands judgment on anything in his presence that is not perfect and pure. So, if we are to be saved and to be with God and not face his judgment, we have to be perfect; we have to have righteousness. And there is the great problem. We do not have it, we cannot earn it, it has to come from somewhere else, only one person has ever had it, and we therefore need to get it from him.

This is therefore the theme of the book of Romans: The righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel and received by faith … and by faith we also live. This is the gospel message, which we may describe as: We are more sinful and flawed than we could imagine, yet more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.

We’re just getting started to unpack that.

Included, Yes, You Are! (Romans 1:1-7)

When it comes to naming favorite books of the Bible, Romans is always on the short list of God’s people; and it might be that only the Gospel of John would outrank it. Surely some would favor Psalms. Personally, I rank Hebrews as my all-time favorite. But we would be lost without the incredible letter of Paul to the early church in Rome.

Ancient letters customarily began with the name of the writer, the identity of the recipient(s), and a statement of greeting. And so we have in verse 1:1 the writer Paul … and then we skip to verse 7 to see the recipients and greeting … 7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.  The intervening material is rich with parenthetical thoughts about Paul and his ministry, as well as the gospel message and those to whom it would reach.

1:1 – Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul begins by calling himself a servant of Christ, a word that pictures being essentially a slave. His view was one of doing what Christ sent him to do, irrespective of his own interests or even any cautious concern or consideration of personal safety in carrying out his mission. That really is commitment, and it is good for us to remember that in God’s will and leading we are safer in the most dangerous place on earth than we are in the seemingly securest location imaginable, though outside of God’s leading.

Paul knew he was set apart for the work of the gospel. His entire background, though convoluted by Jewish and Greek instruction mingled with Roman citizenship in a secular world, all worked together toward the perfect skill set to accomplish his appointed apostolic mission.

And this gospel message was not something of his own construction or imagination (as accused by traditional Jewish hearers). No, it was the fulfillment of a multitude of writings of God’s prophets over vast centuries of time. It all pointed to the Son. And Paul here affirms central teaching about Jesus Christ – that he was fully man as a descendant of David, yet fully also the Son of God as proven by the resurrection.

1:5 – Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

Paul never ceased to marvel at God’s grace, featuring his divine salvation that was literally out of the blue!  Paul was not looking for it at all. Rather, he was persecuting the church and Christians with great zeal, only to have God break in and marvelously turn around his entire life.

A lot of us who have lived a while in this life would have never imagined we would do or serve in places that we have either worked or given copious amounts of our time. And Paul could have never imagined as a young man that he would be called by God to follow and promote an entirely “new” message and revelation (a mystery from a Jewish perspective). And it was one thing to do this under the Jewish umbrella of Christ as the fulfillment of Messianic promise, but it was quite another thing to grow to understand that this was a message for the whole world … for Gentiles as well as Jews. And now, Paul comes to see that he has been made the primary spokesman for this message and work.

He tells the Romans, a host of Gentile believers in the gospel message of Christ, that they are the gracious recipients of this calling of God. These Gentiles, who were most likely following a pantheon of false gods in the Greek and Roman traditions, had heard the gospel message through some divine circumstance. Like Paul, they would not have been looking for it; and like Paul they were exposed through a work of the Spirit that opened their eyes to life-changing truth.

Paul’s story … the Romans’ story … it is our story as well. As we have come to hear the gospel message and responded to it in faith, we have come to understand that our eyes were opened to it in grace and through providential circumstances sourced in God. It is all of grace. But we are included. And we may also like Paul rightly marvel at this grace … at this inclusion!  And the #ForOurCity initiative reminds that we are in it together with many others of God’s people who meet and serve together all around this region.

Loneliness is Real

One of my best friends from high school youth group named Dan Allen, who graduated the same year as I did, also became a pastor and ministry leader. (This is the big guy with the deep voice who visited at Tri-State Fellowship a few years ago.)  He now directs a discipleship ministry and is on an annual missions trip he takes to India.

Here is an update he shared today. And since I know you all are terribly lonely this week without the daily devotionals (that begin again this coming Monday), I thought I’d share this wonderful article with you….

From Southeast Asia – #3 – All Alone Among 1.35 Billion People

Oh, I’m not talking about me. Sure, as I write this I am sitting alone while outside my window are approximately 25 million Delhitians. But I read about an 87–year–old village widow who at night painstakingly takes a sheet of blank paper, folds it and puts in the window of her crumbling house. At dawn she removes the paper indicating to her neighbors that she made it through the night. The newspaper noted—she might be the loneliest old woman in this second–most–populated country in the world.

I was heartbroken when I read that. Is it too much for neighbors to drop in once in a while? Is there not anyone there who cares for her?

Flip the page from a woman of rags to one of riches, a wealthy movie star, Anne Hathaway says: “the thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone which will care for me.” I don’t know anything about her, but she must be surrounded by all sorts of friends and colleagues, as well as paparazzi and leeches. People would be lining up to be her friend. Yet, there’s an emptiness, monophobia.

The UK has a supposed answer to loneliness, or at least they are trying to address the problem. In January the Theresa May government appointed a Minister of Loneliness to start looking into how they can help the estimated 9–million people in her country who often or always feel lonely. In fact, government research has found that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. What? Are you serious?

The Facebook post with a picture of an idyllic cabin in the woods read something like “Could you live here for 365 days without any contact with the outside world to receive $365,000?” I commented: “Could my family get the money if I killed myself after two weeks?”

We are not an island. We are created to be in fellowship with others. Loneliness leads to depression, and depression often leads to suicide. Could this be one of the reasons the suicide rate in the US rose 28 percent between 1999 and 2016? Surrounded by people, but no one to talk to.

Listen friend, there is no reason for loneliness in the church. We’re a family and need to look out for each other. So how about the next time you see someone sitting by themselves in church, you join them? Why not get a list of shut–ins from your pastor and visit one at least once–a–month? It’s the least you can do. And this might keep them from using a piece of paper in their window as a signal if they are dead or alive.