Nowhere in scripture do we have a clearer of more concise definition of the gospel than in Rom. 1:16. The gospel, as Paul puts it, is “the power of God at work bringing salvation to all who believe.” What this says is that the gospel is not a religious statement but an existential reality. Not a lifeless message but a vibrant encounter. You read it or hear it, Yes, but primarily you experience it. It speaks to the heart. Hear the apostle once again, the gospel is “the power of God at work bringing salvation to all who believe.” The gospel is not so much about God as it is God himself at work. It is this dynamic quality that makes the gospel unlike any other message. The famous Dwight Moody, evangelist of the 19th century said the gospel is like a lion; all the preacher has to do is open the door and get out of the way.
That the gospel has a power of its own is so often forgotten. Apologists develop logical plans to prove the truth of the gospel and preachers raise their voices, but all they have to do to convince the unbeliever is to “let it loose.” Paul was struck blind on the Road to Damascus, not simply because of the bright light but because Christ was, as it were, the light. The gospel is not a story about something but the experience itself. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed God is there telling his own story. Narrative becomes reality.
The purpose of the gospel is not to inform but to transform. It is a gospel that ”brings salvation.” The words of the gospel may be discussed but the purpose of those words is to bring salvation. At its core the gospel is not something to learn, but to accept and experience. It is the power that can move us from darkness into light. Man’s traditional approach to salvation was to work hard and earn it. Righteousness, we once thought, was the result of all the good things we had done. As a result we would earn our way into heaven. Not so! insists Paul. The answer is faith all the way – “from first to last.” As scripture teaches: “The righteous will live by faith.”
This basic teaching on salvation is so important and so different from competing ideas because it is securely based in an historical event. Events are not ideas but truth. We now know that what God wants is not our labors but our hearts. It takes humility to acknowledge our weakness and turn with empty hands to One who wants to give us the righteousness that we could never have earned. Free gifts are hard to accept if one is determined to earn them. And freedom asks you to relinquish your proud accomplishments as a ticket to heaven.
I know that theology tends to leave the mind a bit confused but we are not responsible to master it. When we stop for a moment and remind ourselves that God dwells in another and higher realm than ours we see why our understanding is less than we might want. Because a third grader can’t understand the quantum theory doesn’t make the theory wrong. Because the human mind can’t fully understand such things as eternal life – that’s never ending, No, not a long time but NEVER – doesn’t mean that it is wrong, Like the third grader we are not equipped. The good news is that God asks us simply to accept.
After giving thanks that the faith of the believers in Rome had spread throughout the country and assuring them of his prayers, Paul reveals his longing for them and his desire to come for a visit. Commitment to a common cause draws people together and that is displayed in the apostle’s deep desire to come to Rome and share with them some truths that will serve to strengthen them in the faith. The “spiritual gift” of which he speaks is not the kind mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, but insights received from the Spirit intended for the benefit of the church. Then, very quickly lest he be misunderstood, he adds that when they are together he is encouraged by their faith in the same way that they are by his. His concern shows a tender regard for the other person. He may be the apostle with a mission to take the Christian faith throughout the world (a sort of first century Billy Graham), but he is still simply one of them, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A person’s true character is more often than not revealed in the unplanned and spontaneous moments of life. When we have time to plan how we expect to communicate the person we believe we are, it doesn’t ring true. Of course, it could be dangerous to be too transparent, but isn’t it a sign of genuine maturity to arrive spiritually at the point where we feel free to be ourselves. I may be repeating myself but I would like to say again that who we are is who we have become through the myriad of decisions we have made along the way. We are not what we have or what we have done. All that stands alone and hopefully it has been helpful. We are the man who gave up a tennis match to spend time with a hopeful son, the woman who refused to pass on a bit of gossip she had heard.
Life is essentially qualitative. Character is not what or how or why, but simply is. We build it by a life of decisions in matters that have ethical significance. The decisions, especially the small ones, that you have made throughout today are now part of you. Our character is as strong as we have made it through the years. It doesn’t get us to heaven – only an active faith in the shed blood of Christ can do that – but it does display for the believer the stature and beauty of life where concern for the other is dominant.
The first thing that Paul has to say when he picks up his pen to write to believers in Rome is that he is a servant of Christ, called to be an apostle. He knows who he is and what he is to do – his identity and his charge. He is “under orders” to take God’s message to the Gentile world. What interest me this time through Romans is that in three subsequent verses he points out that believers are also called – called to obedience (5), called to belong (6), and called to be holy (7). It is clear that Paul sees the followers of Christ as seriously involved in carrying out God’s plan in this world.
The “obedience of faith” (subjective genitive) is the obedience that comes from faith. To genuinely believe in God is to obey him. Faith and obedience are inseparable. Faith discloses itself by conforming to the desires of the one you believe in. It is not an emotional feeling or an intellectual acceptance of something, but an active response to a person. To believe in Christ is to conform to his desires and expectations. Obedience is not a harsh word at all; it is the willing and active adjustment to what God has revealed as the best for us. The old hymn, Trust and Obey, has it right: “When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, what a glory he sheds on our way! While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.”
We are also “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” The truth is that believers are no longer free to do what they want to do for themselves. They now belong to another, to the One who died in their place and has now granted to them a place in God’s great kingdom. It is important for a person to belong, whether to a church, a local organization, or some important social movement. Scripture repeatedly says that the believer is “in Christ” (Paul alone uses the word, 84 times), that is, they sustain a close relationship with Christ. The need to belong is an extremely strong desire in the life of a person. It provides the longing to share with others the important issues in life. Once broken, the relationship is hard to repair. The hermit or recluse is an exception. So one of the crucial elements in life is to belong – to God and to others.
Then in v. 9 we find that believers are “called to be holy.” The reason for this is obvious: God is holy and when we join his family by faith we are to become like him. By separating ourselves from all in this world that is morally reprehensible we move in that direction. And remember, holiness is not some sort of static perfection, but a way of living in which the pernicious influence of sin is minimized and we are enabled to experience God’s continuing presence.
Today we begin a series of devotional insights from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. The choice of verses and specific subjects will be somewhat arbitrary because I will be choosing on the basis of what strikes me when I read the famous letter once again. My background in Romans includes a commentary on the book written for The New American Commentary, written and published by Broadman & Holman (1995)
The first 6 verses of Romans contain enough theology for a full college course on the person of Christ. It summarizes what God did in and through his Son for the redemption of man and what we need to do to make it a reality in our life. My desire is to resist exegetical analysis and center on those truths most applicable to life. I trust I will be able to serve the interests of both groups.
The theme statement is that the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ declared the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. This gospel is promised from of old, established by a resurrection from the dead, and received by a faith that expresses itself in obedience. To hear and accept this great redemptive story results in a new birth that transforms life here below and prepares a person for an eternity of joyful fellowship with the Creator. No wonder Paul’s impressive tome has held the attention of believers since the beginning of the Christian era.
I believe it will be helpful for you to read the first 5 verses of Romans. The translation is from my Dear Friends, This is Paul (Wipf & Stock, 2016, p. 58).
This is Paul the apostle writing to fellow believers in the city of Rome. You’ll remember me as that Jewish zealot who, on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, was struck blind by the risen Christ. Of all people, God chose me to announce the Good News of his coming reign. Years ago this was predicted by Jewish prophets in their sacred manuscripts and is now being fulfilled through the work of God’s son, Jesus Christ. The Son existed from eternity as God but became man by being born into the human race as a descendant of King David. That he was in fact the Son of God was clearly established some thirty years later when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he emerged triumphant from the tomb. God has given us the privilege of proclaiming this message everywhere. When people hear it and believe, they bring honor to his name.
Next post on Romans we will begin our experience, reflecting on this remarkable letter that shaped the Christian faith as it moved in a westward direction to Rome and beyond.
“And my God will take care of your every need from his glorious resources in Christ Jesus.”
This particular verse has brought great comfort to countless people who have found themselves in need. No matter what they lack, God would take care. You can almost hear the sigh of relief that comes from a needy believer that they suddenly realize that they are not alone but God is there and is both willing and able to do what is necessary for your troubled situation.
However, note the “and” that begins the sentence (Greek de). Apparently God’s promise is somehow connected with something Paul has recently said. In the same paragraph (vv. 15-20) the apostle speaks of the gift the church at Philippi had sent through Epaphroditus their envoy. The he adds, “and my God will take care of your every need.” The assurance of divine help rests on a person’s record of providing help. They help him and now he . . . no, not Paul, but God . . . will help them. Someone referred to this as triangulation. They met his need so now God will meet theirs. The implication is that God never allows help to go unrewarded.
It is probably worth noting that God meets our needs, not our wishes. And we are so blessed that he doesn’t provide everything we want because so many of them could work against what in the long run is best. But one thing is for sure and that is if we are watching out for those whose need we can supply, he will do the same for us. In act, he sometimes provides what we didn’t know we needed and hadn’t prayed for. Specific example: With very short notices I had to return from my role on the mission field. There was no time to pray about it but God realized that and had moved supporters back home to put to my account over three times their normal support dollars. I still can see him up there leaning back in his chair, smiling and saying, “Bob’s going to have to have more than the usual $100 per month to met the expenses of a quick trip and preparation for enrolment in seminary.”
It is worth noting that God meets our needs by tapping into his “glorious resources in Christ.” We are one with Christ and have access to all that lies in his domain. Incidentally, if our help comes through him it will be exactly the right kind because it is His. Life can take a deep breath because in Christ we are in the safety zone.
“I have learned how to be content no matter what the circumstance.” Philippians 4:11
Paul had received a monetary gift from the believers in Philippi and in expressing his appreciation he writes, “At last you renewed your concern for me.” That sounds a little harsh so he explains that he understands they they were concerned but didn’t have the opportunity do to anything about it (perhaps no one had gone to Rome where he was in prison.) Against this background Paul explains that he is never really in need because “he’s learned how to be content no matter what the circumstance.”
I believe we’ll all agree that contentment is a very satisfying condition. We work our hardest at a task and once completed it gives us a sense of satisfaction. But the desire to have more doesn’t diminish so contentment seems to vanish the more it is fulfilled. It is hard to remain in a state of contentment because it gives way so quickly to the next challenge. It is a goal that keeps moving ahead like the plastic bunny that stays ahead of the dogs in a race no matter how fast the run. Socrates wisely noted, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
Contentment is a state of composure in which the desire to have or be are for the moment fulfilled. It is important to realize that contentment is not a goal but a condition resulting from achieving the goal. It’s a “by-product of a life well lived” says Eleanor Roosevelt. For the believer that means a life lived out successfully in fulfilling God’s intention for each. For the gifted author, contentment may well be the satisfaction of having been the conduit through whom the wisdom of the ancients and his own personal insights were channeled. For the average person, contentment is experienced by watching ones children successfully grow, marry and give birth to the next generation. It is diminished only by the desire to have or do more than God intended. People indwelt by God’s Spirit rejoice in what is, not in what they thought ought to have been.
Paul’s expression, “learned to be content,” suggests that contentment is not a normal human quality. It requires full acceptance of God’s plan for one’s life. Contentment requires that we let go of personal visions of achievement that bring recognition to ourselves. It is what floods our inner being when without hesitation we say, “Lord, I’m delighted to be exactly where I am today – physically, emotionally, and spiritually, If perfection is our goal we will never be content because that is unreachable.
So, thank you Lord for this day in which, regardless of life’s difficulties or rewards our relationship is clear. Thank you for contentment, the glad recognition that leads me to sing, “Nothing between my soul and my Savior.”
“In conclusion, dear friends, let your minds dwell on those things that are wholesome and worthy of praise: things that are true, noble, upright, pure, lovely, and honorable.” Philippians 4:8-9
In this concluding remark Paul identifies a way of living that will permanently alter the future of all who take it seriously. It sounds just a bit like the school of positive thinking whose representatives say such things as, “You are the master of your destiny. You can make your life what you want it to be” (Napoleon Hill) or, “You are essentially who you create yourself to be” (Stephen Richards). The idea is that since you become what you decide to be, why not choose the positive.
So is there anything wrong with positive thinking that is at home in the secular world as well as the believer’s world? I believe the answer is No. In fact, some scholars think that in this verse Paul is quoting a list of virtues gathered by some Greek moralist. The difference in how they are heard is that the secular mind would hold that practicing these virtues would earn you the appropriate reward, while for the believer they would be the result of God at work in the human heart. A related point is that the people understand a word in terms of their own life context and this determines its specific meaning for them. For the believer, the word “true” is understood in a setting that includes God. For the secular mind, the word “true” would not be limited by any absolute but would represent the general understanding of the majority. However, the overlap is sufficient to allow both to be understood when someone says, for instance, that a statement is true.
The basic point underling Paul’s statement is that we are being molded by whatever dominates our thought life. This has significant importance for believers because they correctly understand that the old nature consistently does its best to influence how we think and what we do. It has its own detrimental leverage on life. The answer, of course, is to allow God’s Spirit to maintain complete control of our life. The Spirit always wins when he is allowed to. And that is why it is so important that we fill our minds with such virtues as listed by Paul. We will choose and do that which is honorable if in fact our minds are filled with honorable thoughts. We will reject impurity if we regularly fill our minds with that which is pure. But if angry thoughts fill our minds, then when the occasion arises there will be little opposition to an angry outburst.
We live in a day when culture exhibits its dark side without restriction. On the TV screen are episodes that 20 years ago would have been banned. Media and entertainment would have us think about what they have chosen to promote. And that is why, especially in today’s world, we need to take control of what we think about. Let us honor God by allowing what is noble, right and pure to determine the inner world in which we live.
Philippians 4.6-7 is one of the best known and “oft used” passages in the New Testament. It begins with a problem – anxiety, is followed by a fail-proof remedy – pray; and concludes with what the troubled heart requires – peace. In the previous column we identified the problem, anxiety, so now we will move to the cure, which is prayer with a glad heart.
That prayer is the cure for anxiety sounds so simple. Just pray. But prayer is a mysterious thing. It takes so many forms all the way from a priestly incantation to a simple, Help me Lord. Sometimes it is answered immediately but usually not. My mother prayed a certain prayer all the way through the second half of her life, but it wasn’t answered until years after she left for heaven. At times we think that if we just prayed with more urgency, God would answer. That seems to be implied by the double emphasis in v. 6, “prayer and supplication.” Most believers have experienced on at least one occasion, an immediate and dramatic answer to prayer. Mine was a quick clearing of rainclouds for a special youth rally. You could actually see the clouds just go away (and they returned about 30 minutes after the rally). However at many other times we’ve prayed only to feel that heaven must be closed for the day.
My sense is that God uses prayer as much for the one praying as for the one being prayed for. How could it be possible that time spent with God would not deepen our fellowship with him? That’s what happens in our daily life. To share life’s experiences with another is to strengthen that relationship. Time with God can’t help but leave us a bit more like him. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of the Great Stone Face and how it transformed the young man who spent hours gazing at the rocky resemblance of their traditional dignitary until in time the townspeople realized that this young man had become the one they had expected for ages.
It is interesting that our prayers are to be made with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for prayers answered? Yes. But also thanksgiving for the prayer we are now making. But what if God doesn’t answer? He always does, it’s just that the answer may be “Not quite yet” or “Not in the way you expected.” Every prayer is answered and aren’t we glad that a number of them were answered in a way that differed from what we expected! What the Father says is that the result of our prayer is an unimaginable peace that acts like a sentinel guarding the palace of our heart. No enemy can breach the defense. Note that the “answer” to prayer is not the answer we may have been expecting, but the “peace that comes from having asked.” My favorite singer is Johnny Ray Watson, and the song he sings that thrills my heart is, “He’s got it all in control.” He’s a six foot five African American with a deep voice rising from a caring heart – what a gift, what a rich experience. When I pray, God has Johnny remind me that “He’s got it all in control.”
So let’s pray with glad hearts so God can remind us once again with an awareness of his wonderful peace that the answer’s on its way.
Anxiety is a common problem. Few there are who seem free from its debilitating presence. Against that background Paul tells the believers in Philippi “not to be anxious about anything” (4:6). Not only did the Christians of that day have the normal reasons for anxiety but their unwillingness to follows the religious customs of the day brought additional pressure. To break with the god associated with one’s occupation and follow the teaching of an itinerant Galilean preacher supplied a number of reasons for anxiety. Nevertheless Paul encourages them saying, “Don’t worry about anything” (TEV).
For a moment let’s take a good look at anxiety in the life of a believer. It would be hard to argue that anxiety is not a form of disbelief. You might call it “Christian atheism” because it excludes God from the situation. To worry about such things as food and shelter is to deny Jesus’ teaching about God’s provision for the birds who neither sow nor reap (Matt. 6:26). Anxiety is so disabling because it removes from life the pleasure of relaxing in the goodness of a God who genuinely cares for each of us on an individual basis. It is interesting, is it not, that it is those things over which we have no control that we are anxious about. We become anxious about the plane landing on time, about the possibility of rain on Saturday when we have a golf match, about whether we made a good impression last evening at the social. We can’t make the plane go faster, make the weather change or redo something that has already happened. We don’t become anxious about whether we left the house unlocked when we went on vacation because in that case we can do something about it. Things we can fix may cause a little worry but never anxiety.
I ask you, “Is a loving God in charge of your life today? Does he know whatever the day may bring? Is he able to do whatever is necessary? Does He love you his child?” The answer is Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. To walk through the day aware of his loving presence is to rule out anxiety. The problem most face is that it is all too good to be true. Right! But with God nothing is too good to be true. You may know that the bible was first punctuated in the 13th century. The four words before Paul’s counsel on anxiety are, “The Lord is near.” In most bibles they are included in v. 5. I believe they should be read with the following verse (v. 6) and we should understand it this way: “The Lord is near so there is no reason for you to be anxious.” It is the presence of God that rules out all necessity for anxiety. Could you ever dream of a better reason?
“Rejoice in the Lord at all times. Let me say it again, Rejoice. May everyone understand that you are always ready to listen. The Lord is close at hand.”
Joy is a central motif in the Christian faith. Since faith is an active reality it needs to express itself clearly so people will understand what it involves. In this section of his letter (4:4-6) Paul describes a lifestyle that pleases and honors God. New converts to the faith need to grasp the fact that they have taken a major step out of darkness into the glorious light of God. The joyless rituals of yesterday are replaced with new and fresh experiences of a God of love. Paul wants his readers to understand that rejoicing, regardless of the situation in which they find themselves, is what God expects of them. In case they hadn’t fully grasped what he said, Paul tells his readers once again, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
The absolute centrality of joy in the Christian needs to be understood and put into practice throughout the believing world. While not denying the difficulties of living in a way at odds with the current culture, the believer is to rejoice wherever he is and whatever the situation might be. We could cite a score of reasons why rejoicing could be out of place at the moment, but Paul would tell us that such reluctance is unacceptable. Pantote, “always, at all times,” leaves no wiggle room. Even in a time of despair, rejoicing need not cease because God is involved in everything in our life. He will not allow his plans for a jubilant life-style to be thwarted by such trivialities as misery or discouragement?
In addition to rejoicing, believers are to let their “graciousness” (NIV) be widely known. My translation, “ready to listen,” attempts to express from context the idea that Paul wanted to convey. Other translations read, “show a gentle attitude” (TĚ̌V), “let your good sense be obvious” (NJB). The expression pictures a thoughtful and kind response to some concern within the church – a gentle openness that listens to all sides of a difficulty.
Problems, by definition, involve varying views. The answer does not lie in a noisy presentation by one whose mind is closed to a workable solution. A much better approach would be to discover common ground and work toward an acceptable conclusion. I would call it Christian bipartisanship.