Shout for Joy
There is no question but that Paul was the early church’s great theologian. God took all the native skill that he had given to this converted Jewish Rabbi and joined it with the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit to write the first “text book” on the Christian faith. So the posts on the first chapters of Romans are a bit heavy. But they are strategically important both for the churches to which the letters were addressed but for us in the 21st century as well. Being a Christian is not simply carrying out a set of rules, but a personal involvement with the One who “wrote” them. Theology is not knowing but experiencing. That’s why we need to listen to what Paul has to say about the basis for our Christian living. Stay with us; we’ll get to the how our faith expresses itself in daily life after we understand the why. Accepting Christ is crucial, but understanding what went on between Gethsemane and resurrection morning provides us with the answer to why.
In the section of Romans marked above we see an important sequence. We were “powerless” (v. 6), “Christ died for us” (v. 8), we were “saved from God’s wrath” (v. 9), “we were reconciled” (v. 10), “we rejoice” (v. 11). That story has been told and accepted from the first day in Jerusalem until today all over the world. Countless lives have been forever changed. Faith matures as we learn more and more of what God has done for us in Christ. Today I want to say a few things about reconciliation.
If one begins with the premise that we were created by God for fellowship with him and with one another, the separation is by definition an unnatural and undesirable state. Life teaches us that solitude was not God’s intention for his children and that good relationships with others are deeply satisfying. We were meant to share life together whether in the close ties of marriage or the wider associations such as one finds in a church. One writer notes that the church ”is not a theological classroom . . . but a reconciliation . . . center, where flawed people . . . gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed” (Paul David Trip). Alienation and separation is not a story of God’s failure in creating what he wanted, but the story of man rejecting God’s provision. We are the prodigal son who knew better than his father. The picture of the father longing for the return of his son mirrors God’s longing for our return to Eden. Over the entire account of the incarnation is the redemptive theme – Reconciliation! It is priceless, it is available. I encourage you to come home to love, authentic friendship, and a deep and lasting joy.
Everyone knows that in the days of Jesus the Jewish people lived by a very strict set of rules. Some people belonged to a sect called the Pharisees, which means “separated.” The idea was to be completely separated from sin by strict obedience to a massive collection of legal instructions designed to keep members from breaking any one of the cardinal laws of Scripture. The outcome of a repressive religious system like this was pride and hypocrisy. Since perfection is unattainable, the practice couldn’t help but lead to hypocrisy.
One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue when a woman, crippled for eighteen years by a demon, came in. Jesus called her over and touched her bent back. Instantly she stood erect and began to praise God. The synagogue leader was indignant and pontificated that it was improper for Jesus to have healed on the Sabbath – plenty of weekdays for things like that! Jesus denounced them as hypocrites, pointing out that, since they watered their animals on the Sabbath, surely he could set a daughter of Abraham free on that day. The Pharisees were embarrassed but the crowd was overjoyed.
So the question is, How are we to live like that? Granted, we are not in the business of expelling demons on Sunday (or on any other day for that matter) but what can we learn from the way Jesus conducted himself? One thing is that he called hypocrisy for what it is. Understanding the duplicity of human nature he pointed out the hypocrisy of those who abuse their power. I believe followers of Christ should not grow insensitive to social maladies. There are congressmen to write to and marches to join. Our home may be in heaven but it is this present world in which are living for now. Another thing is that Jesus argued quite convincingly to make his case. Can we not give thought to the inequities of today’s world and think how we can effectively enter the public discussion? And finally, he cared about a woman crippled for life and did something about it. Yes, I think we can follow his example.
Romans chapter 4 was given over entirely to the central truth that Abraham was saved by faith. Nothing more and nothing less. So chapter five begins, “It follows then, that since we have been justified by faith, we now have peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Before we start it may be well to review the three stages of salvation. Justification means to be set right with God, to stand before him perfectly acceptable. Most people would call this salvation. The second stage is sanctification, which means becoming increasing like him in holiness (living a holy life). Then comes glorification, which is our future sudden change into a perfect likeness to Him. For current believers, justification took place when we accepted Christ by faith, sanctification is taking place right now in the believer’s life, and glorification awaits us at the dawn of God’s eternal kingdom. One can properly say. “I was saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved” – past, present, and future.
Against this background consider with me the wonderful truth that since we were justified through faith we now have peace with God. The Greek preposition here has the basic meaning of toward. Our peace is the result of faith’s orientation toward God. As the center and focus of life he is the source of our peace as well as the sustainer. Disorientation leaves us without peace because we are no longer pros theon, toward God. In a sense it is all very simple: keep looking toward him and you’ll always have peace. Amy Grant gave us the beautiful song,
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace”
The other point in verse 1 that catches our attention is that our shalom (that state of well-being that reflects an authentic relationship with God) comes “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He was the one who took upon himself the penalty of our sin. In a moral world, sin carries a debt that must be paid. But because of Him we can sing, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe, sin has left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” The one great true story of all time is the story that begins with man’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, chronicles his wandering in the world of sin, then the coming of the Incarnate Jesus to die in our stead on Calvary, to rise victorious on Easter morn, to ascend to heaven with the promise of a return to gather those who love him for an eternal festival of perfect joy. It is the story of all time, The Grand Old Story.
“Abraham’s confidence in the promise of God did not waver, rather his faith became stronger as he gave glory to God.” (Rom. 4:20)
God had promised Abraham that he would become “the father of many nations.” The fact that his body, as well as Sarah’s, was as good as dead (he was about 100) didn’t weaken his faith. In fact, his faith grew even stronger “as he gave glory to God.” What is especially interesting is that it was the giving of glory to God strengthened his faith. (The Greek dous is an instrumental participle showing how something is accomplished.) There is a significant lesson here: while praising God is honorable in itself, it serves yet another purpose – it strengthens one’s faith. Lift your voice in praise and you will find that your faith in God and his works on your behave will become even stronger.
Faith, by definition, is a relationship built on confidence on the other. You know that the train will arrive at 8:40 because the engineer’s reputation is intricately involved with making it happen that way. When God says, “You will be the father of many nations,” you can count on it. In fact, you can praise God that it has . . . how can we put it . . . it has “already happened” because God said it would. Not only does your praise honor God but it strengthens your
faith as well. Abraham didn’t worry about God’s promise because after all, he was about 100, and perhaps God didn’t think of that right then. And even if he were strong and able, Sarah was way past the age of childbearing. “No problem” said Abraham with a smile on his face (that’s the way I see it. “God said it and that’s that. Hey, I am even more sure now that I’ve thanked him for what he will . . . no, has done.”
So, what’s the lesson here for us? What has God promised you in Scripture or in personal prayer? Praying for a yet unsaved friend or family member? What would Abraham, the father of the confident prayer, do? If our example in Romans 4 serves as a guide, you will quietly . . . well, “quietly” at first . . . but soon it will lift your heart and voice and all will hear your praise for that which for all purposes is already done. Did Abraham go out on a limb, take a chance? I don’t think so. What God promises, God does. Is what you are praying for greater than becoming a father of many nations? I didn’t think so, so let’s lift our voices in praise of the One who always says what he means and means what he says. Then when God answers your prayer give me a call and we will talk about what it did for your faith.
The question I keep asking myself is whether Jesus was as reserved and soft-spoken as we customarily think of him. The common view has Jesus mingling with the crowds, healing the sick and telling simple stories about how we are to live. And he did that. Wherever he went the crowds gathered to hear what he had to say, bringing their loved ones for healing. But is that all? Lets think about that for a moment. Perhaps the text will provide a clearer picture of his life among us? I’d like you to consider his encounter with the religious leaders as recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. (Quotes are from my Jesus in His Own Words).
One day some Pharisees and other religious authorities came to where Jesus was teaching. They noticed that his disciples had not washed their hands in the accepted ceremonially manner. One might expect that Jesus would quietly explain to them that people are not defiled from the outside, but from that which lies within. And he did, but not exactly in that reserved manner. He said, and I think he spoke with emphasis, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites . . . you honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me” (Matt 15:7). Does this not expand the customary view of how Jesus related to others? It’s safe to say that it certainly raised the ire of the Jewish fundamentalists who were the targets of his criticism. The gentleness and humility that marked the life of Jesus (cf. Matt 11:12-29) did not rule out the use of stronger language when appropriate.
Immediately following this the disciples went to him and asked for an explanation of what he meant by being defiled from within. I have to think that the encounter with those he called hypocrites was still very much with him. In answer to the disciples’ query he retorted, “Are you as dull as the others?” (Matt. 15:17). The words he chose reveal how he felt, do they not?
So what does his reaction in both of these settings infer about how we should live a Christ-like life? One thing, it encourages us to think of Jesus as more “human,” than we normally do. Someday I really do want to hear Jesus laugh. I’m sure he did every time Peter came up with a new fish story. Why does goodness always have to be so saintly? We know that Jesus was fully God but he was also fully human; he was “tempted in every way just as we are — yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). I believe that regarding Jesus as one of us does not diminish his divinity in any way but encourages us to embrace how completely human he was. I believe Jesus wants us to celebrate what it means to be a redeemed human being. Plaster of Paris Christianity has attracted very few to the faith.
In Romans, chapter 4, Paul refers to God as the one who (1) “gives life to the dead” and, (2) “calls into being things that were not.” If miracles are out of the ordinary in normal life, what can be said about creation ex nihilo, out of nothing? Although miracles served to encourage belief (Mark 16:20), that was not their major role. Jesus healed the lame and restored the sight of the blind because . . . well, because they were lame and they were blind. It was his compassion for their handicap that moved him to act. However, they could not help but move a listener toward confidence in the one who performed them. A widow had just lost her only son and family and mourners were on their way to the burial (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus, moved by compassion, touched the bier, told the young man who has died to get up, and he did. Other accounts can be found throughout the gospels. As Paul said, “God . . . gives life to the dead.” Of course the supreme example of God giving life to the dead” was the resurrection of Jesus. On resurrection morning it was not some inner force that brought Jesus back to life but a action by God himself. Jesus was raised (passive), he didn’t raise Active) himself.
It is the second descriptive clause of God that is especially intriguing; as the NLT has it, God “creates new things out of nothing.” One gets the image of a magician waving his wand and, “abra cadabra,” something appears – but we all know it was a trick. Well, serious people don’t get that image, but God does create stuff out of non-stuff, not a different kind of stuff but no stuff at all. In the beginning there was God, and I believe nothing but God, dwelling independent in a realm unknown to us. It was when he said, “Let there be light” that light appeared . . . out of nothing. Who but God could be thought of in that way!
I believe it important that we who have always lived in a tangible world operating within the rules that we have derived from observation do need to be careful not to limit God to our understanding of reality. He exists infinitely beyond what we tend to think of as all there is. We honor him for raising the dead to life with the next step being creation from nothing, but he is infinitely beyond that. And he is our God. He loves us, came in the person of Jesus to live and die for us. Absolutely beyond all comprehension. So, the next time we think of God, let’s think of him in this larger dimension. See him as only a Spirit-guided imagination can get a glimpse of him. He is God, infinite and beyond all description.
Faith is a verb
In the first several chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, the one truth that keeps surfacing is that a good standing before God is not the result of a life well lived, but a person’s willingness to confess that he had nothing to do with it except to believe it. So let’s examine this central truth as seen in verse 13. Abraham becomes the prime example of how a person becomes righteous in the eyes of God. The text says it was not “through the law . . . but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” As we have said before, righteousness is not a philosophical concept – something rather unrelated to life as we experience it – but a relationship to God based on our accepting it by faith. It is not a reward for what we have done, but a gift based on our believing it. One cannot earn God’s favor, only receive it. Theologians call it “Justification by Faith,” God’s children say, “Thank you, Father.”
This brings up the meaning of “faith” as Paul uses the term. Some think of faith as a somewhat passive attitude about something you hope is true. But like so many Christian virtues, faith is not something you have but something you do. When we say, “He is kind” what we mean to communicate is that he does kind things. Kindness is a way of describing a person whose life is characterized by doing kind things. In the same way, when we say a person is righteous we mean that they are known for all the right things they have done. They do not deviate from doing what is right rather than wrong, whenever there is a choice. Now the astounding thing is that the believer is seen by God as always doing the right thing because God sees us in our relationship to Christ who lived a perfect life and died on our behalf. We are righteous in him on the basis of our faith in him. But isn’t that a cheap way of being considered a sort of saint? The answer is No, because that is the way God sees us, not others. Christ is our “federal head” (as theologians put it) therefore God sees us as he “sees” his perfect Son. How others see us is quite a different story.
Our goal in life is to become in fact as we are in Him. The process (called sanctification) is life-long and only approaches the goal but begins to show it. Paul’s purpose in insisting on faith as the only way to be accepted by God was a corrective to his Jewish counterparts who viewed it as something they earned. The same error is seen today in people’s attempt to earn their salvation. That energy could have been spent more wisely on doing all those “good things” as an act of appreciation for what God has already done. The sequence is important. We believe, God declares us righteous, then we do the right thing in every moral situation and in the process move toward becoming what we are. The last step in the process is glorification when at the end of time we are caught up to be with Him and forever set free from sin.
Having established the basic theological truth that man secures a right standing with God through faith, Paul turns to Abraham as the prime example. The patriarch “believed God,” and God wrote “righteous” after his name on the official membership list in heaven. Another name on the list was king David who, although he was “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), had committed adultery with Bathsheba and put her soldier husband, Uriah, on the front lines in battle so he would be killed (2 Sam. 11). David was writing out of his own experience when he penned, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will ‘never ever, by no means’ (an emphatic negative) count against them” (Rom. 4:8). But after his remorse (recorded in Psalm 51) and God’s forgiveness he could write of the blessedness that was his because of the amazing willingness of God to forgive.
Our God is a forgiving God. Obviously that doesn’t mean that he has a less than severe opinion of sin. To forgive, a ransom must be paid. Sin cannot be minimalized. So God allowed his Son to be nailed on a cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the human race. Now he can extend the gift of forgiveness to all who will accept. Never has the world seen such forgiveness. Such strength of character belongs to God alone. Gandhi observed that forgiveness is not an attribute of the weak, but of the strong.
In contemporary affairs, as in Biblical times, forgiveness is a crucial aspect for life to move ahead successfully. Whether in a family or in a church, grievances both small and large bring everything to a stop. The unwillingness to forgive or to ask for forgiveness is one of the major reasons why a family quarrel will continue year after year. If I have to ask for your forgiveness I am acknowledging that I am at fault in an issue and I place myself at your mercy. Pretend that a brother of yours has created a scenario that when the will is read he has inherited the majority of the assets and you, for all purposes, have been left out. He has somehow convinced himself of both the legality and the morality of what has happened. Some variety of this has happened multiple times in every social group. Then as time goes on – year after year in many cases – separation increases and the solution is less likely. In any and all of these situations forgiveness asked and given will solve the problem. It is God’s way of providing the necessary remedy for personal separation. It is mandatory for the Christian to take whatever steps will need to be taken in order to experience reconciliation and the rich satisfaction of having the issue behind you.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus would go about teaching were he placed in our contemporary culture? At first the idea of a first century itinerant preacher in an Ivy League classroom boggles the mind. Yet at age 12 he did go to the sacred halls of academia of his day where he engaged the religious leaders in serious discussion. Luke 2:47 reports that “all who heard me were astonished at my understanding and the skill with which I answered their questions.” I suspect that he could handle a Harvard or Yale exposure as well.
However Jesus’ teaching ministry was not with the intelligentsia of his day, but with the common people, those who would leave their workbench and go out with the crowd to some deserted location where they could hear his words of instruction. To teach these people Jesus used parables, short allegorical stories that illustrated a religious or moral lesson. And that is exactly how we learn similar truth today. We come to understand what we don’t know as it is illustrated by something we do know. We tell a growing child that the world is like a big rubber ball, that is, it is round. Jesus taught the kingdom of God by comparing it to seed planted in various kinds of soil: the richer the soil the more bountiful the growth. He described his teaching method so simply in Mark 4:2, “I taught them spiritual truths using simple stories from everyday life.”
Most people tend to think that the great truths of life are necessarily complex. The scientific world operates in a world of extreme complexity. And it does, but that complexity is essentially connected with what we don’t as yet know or what we are in the process of learning, not with the outcome of the scientific activity. Gravity is a very easy scientific axiom to understand in its practical application, but whether it is best described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity or by Newton’s law of universal gravitation is still a question.
The truths that Jesus taught were those that genuinely matter, not only for today, but for eternity. I don’t mean at all to downgrade the advances that are being made in areas such as pharmacological research, medicine, robotics, etc., but I am reminded as a believing Christian that there is an eternity. Truths that deal with matters of the spirit are more significant than those limited to time. You might say that’s a pie-in-the-sky perspective and I would have to agree that so it seems, but for the believer it is accepted as true. To be consistent we must direct our life by our most basic assumptions and beliefs. So I am glad that Jesus taught “spiritual truths using simple stories from everyday life” – that way I can understand.
Thus far in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul has been absorbed in examining the subject of sin. He concludes that it is universal, powerful, and destructive. In today’s passage we are given the important insight that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (v. 28). Earlier in the chapter Paul wrote that
“No one is righteous” (v. 10),
“No one understands” (v. 11), and
“No one seeks God” (v. 11)
Sin has overpowered man in his natural state. As summarized in the three statements above: There is not even a single person who has lived a life so upright that heaven’s doors will opened for them. There is not even one person wise enough to discover how works could get them into heaven. And no one seeks God passionately enough to gain an audience with God. No matter how strenuously body, mind, and heart attempt to gain a right standing with God they fail. And that is because a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (v. 28).
So, faith is the key – and the only key – that opens heaven for the lost sinner. It is by accepting the fact that faith alone provides access to the kingdom of God, that salvation takes place. And why is that so difficult to accept? Why is it so natural for us to do something to earn our spot above? The answer is simple – it is pride. The old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe; sin has left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” Since Jesus “paid it all” there is nothing we can do and that means nothing to be proud of in our self.
On what might be called the bright side of faith we realize that faith alone exalts God as savior. Although the believer is a member of the family of God, the distance between the one who exercising faith and the One who providing the salvation is absolutely measureless. He is God and we are his creation. As creator he formed us, as sage there is nothing he does not understand, as ultimate love he desires that we seek him. How incredible that this most holy, omniscient and omnipresent Creator should want us to seek him! The courtyards of heaven will be forever filled with sinners transformed by grace worshipping God and singing his praise. If never ending worship sounds just a bit tedious, that may because you have never taken time to think about it and prepare for it. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Robert H Mounce