I do but I don't

 Sermon on 11 September 2016 - Romans 7:1-6; 7-25

Pastor Don Pieper



    In our sermon series, going through Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, Christopher explored with us last week Paul's themes of freedom and slavery as covered in Romans 6.  He began with a few comments from our friends, Calvin & Hobbes, who actually have more to say on the subject... 
Calvin:         I can't believe summer is almost over.  Soon school will start.  No more freedom.  
            No more long days outside.  No more fun.  
Hobbes:   Well, let's go make the most of the time we have left! 
Calvin:        Nah, I've reserved the rest of the month for moping.  

    Calvin's thoughts regarding the end of summer and returning to school relates to the common perception about obeying God's word – that it inhibits our fun and robs us of our freedom.  But as Christopher shared last week obeying God's word actually expands our freedom not unlike obeying the rules of any given sport increases the fun of playing and limits the risk of injury... 

    Christopher pointed out that one cannot understand a chapter in the book of Romans without familiarizing oneself with the chapters that precede and follow it.  The book has a flow to it and the themes that Paul writes about are revisited and enhanced as one precedes...  Chapter 7, for example, is the midsection of a subsection that began in chapter five and concludes at the end of chapter 8.  

    Perhaps a quick overview might help.   Romans is Paul's most comprehensive presentation of the gospel and the most systematic theological discourse found anywhere in Scripture.  Where other letters present the milk for new believers here he provides us the meat.  

    Here Paul clarifies the significance of Christ's death and resurrection and the core concepts of the Christian faith: sin and grace, faith and spiritual fruit, justification and sanctification.  

    The letter begins with a kind of prologue, 17 verses long, that include his greeting, thanksgiving and reason for writing – to prepare them for his upcoming visit to them.  He goes on to provide 1) a detailed description of the sinfulness of man (1:18-3:20); 2) an extensive discussion of justification by faith (3:21-5:11); 3) an elaborate exploration of sanctification (5:12-8:39), 4) an inspired correlation between the history of Israel and the calling of Christ's church (9:1-11:36); and 5) instruction on how believers are to live out their faith in relationship to society, the government and other believers (12:1-15:13); before concluding with his personal plans, greetings to specific individuals and blessings                                             (Romans 15:14-16:27).
    Because Paul writes to a mixed membership of those from Jewish and non-Jewish background he repeatedly clarifies such issues as salvation through faith, the power of the cross and the significance of the law, which he takes up again, for the third time, here in chapter seven. This is not only crucial for his ancient audience in Rome but for Christians down through the ages as our tendency is to slip in to thinking and believing that that our hope of salvation is based somehow on what we do or don't do.

    Chapter seven, then, begins by returning to the rhetorical question he asked in the previous chapter: “Shall we continue to sin because we are free of the law under grace?”  (Romans 6:15)  And our survey says...?  NO! Of course not.  And to illustrate that truth he makes a comparison to marriage:
    “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.”  (Romans 7:2)

    That is, if one partner dies, the other is no longer bound by the law and is free to marry someone else.  The implication of this illustration would be that the law died as a way to get right, so the believer is free to “marry” grace.”   Who is 'Grace' you may ask?  The single men are wondering is she is cute...  

    No, not that grace – the grace of God.  Paul's point is that in Christ the power of the law has died and as such those who place their trust in him, who are in a relationship with Jesus, are now free to marry God and bear fruit for him, for out of a marriage relationship comes children. Out of our intimate relationship with Christ comes the fruit of obedience and acts of loving kindness to others.  

    “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, this is the point: you died to the power of the law when you gave your life to Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God, a harvest of good deeds that glorify God!”   (Romans 7:4) 

    That's sanctification – a word that means how we work out our salvation, how we become more and more like the one we follow, or in a word, how we become holy, which is what the word means.  
    We become holy by bearing fruit and do this as we learn to serve God not out of compliance but out of thankfulness.  Or as Paul so beautifully puts it: “Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new of living in the Spirit.”  (Romans 7:6) 
    So ends chapter seven, section one.  Section two, begins with yet another rhetorical question – Paul's favorite teaching tool: “Well, then, am I suggesting the law of God is sinful?”  And our survey says...., (bing, bing, bing): “No!  Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed my sin!”  
                                            (Romans 7:7) 
    Is the law of God a bad thing, he asks?  Is the law, because some use it to hammer others they deem less godly over the head with it, bad in and of itself?   No, because God gave us the law to reveal to our blind eyes and rationalizing minds, how far off from God we really are.  

    From the metaphors of freedom and slavery in chapter six, which Christopher so skillfully took us through, Paul now utilizes the metaphors of death and defeat as opposed to life and victory.  And as he does so he personalizes it.  For the first time in this letter he shifts to the personal pronoun, “I”...  
    “At one time I lived without understanding the law.  But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died.  So I discovered that the law's commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead.”  (Romans 7:9-10)

    Paul asserts here that the law reveals our desperate state – that we are far off from God, and the scriptures are clear that pernament separation from God is the definition of death.  So even though “sin used the law to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me” (7:8) Paul still emphatically asserts that the law itself remains “holy and right and good”.  (Romans 7:12)

    How can that be?  Ready for another biting rhetorical?  “Did the law, which is good, cause my death?”  And the survey says, (bing, bing, bing): “No, of course not!  Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death! So we can see how terrible sin really is...!”  (Romans 7:13)

    There ends section 2!  The law is inherently good because it reveals the truth!  It reminds me of the classic story of Dorian Gray, a man puffed up with pride, who makes a deal with the devil for eternal youth and vitality, as long as he never looks at his painting....that reveals the truth about his soul
    [DVD clip from the film, Extraordinary Gentlemen;             ]  

    Section three continues Paul's self-disclosure and self-discovery: “So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good.  The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, I am a slave to sin.” 
                                            (Romans 7:14)
    There's that old slavery/freedom motif again.  What I find particularly amazing about that verse is that Paul speaks in the present tense rather than in the past tense.  As a believer and follower of Jesus shouldn't he have said that he was a slave to sin?  But instead, he humbly declares, I am a slave to sin. 

    No words that Paul writes do I relate to more than those and the ones that follow.  I am so very thankful that Paul wrote them.   In them I see myself and the plight that so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ struggle with, at least those that are honest with themselves.  Some Christians seem to have it all figured out.  They talk about their struggles with sin in the past tense.  That's not me...! 

    You see..., “I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it.  Instead, I do what I hate.”  (Romans 7:15)  I want to do God's good, but I don't.  
    In the world of Star Wars, I'm no Jedi.  When told how to do what is right and good, I tend to respond, “Okay, I'll try”, to which the gerus in my life respond,'No, either do or do not, there is no try'.

    But I keep trying..., and it's two steps forward and three steps back.  Or in the words of Paul: “I want to do what is right, but I can't.  I want to do what is good, but I don't.  I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway...  I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.  I love God's law with all my heart, but there is another power within me that is at war with my mind.  This power makes me a slave to the sin that is within me.” 
                                            (Romans 7:18-9,21-3)
    Does this strike a chord with anyone else?  Why is it that we who believe in Jesus, trust that he has conquered death and sin on our behalf on the cross, still so struggle with the old Adam within?  If we are free to live new lives..., why do I, why do we, struggle so to do so?  I do but I don't!  

    Maybe because there is something within us that fights to be in control, that refuses at all costs to submit to such moral scrutiny, as the law demands and provides?  Maybe I'm more like a willful kid, a specific willful kid, one we know by the name of Calvin, then I'd like to admit...!  
Calvin:     Dear Santa, before I submit my life to your moral scrutiny, I demand to know who made you         the master of my fate? Who are you to question my behavior, huh? What gives you the right?!  
Hobbes:   Santa makes the toys, so he gets to decide who to give them to.  
Calvin:        Oh.....   Time to prepare my appellate case. 

    In other words, Calvin concludes, with a little help from a friend, his only hope is to make an appeal to the judge – or to use a familiar phrase, to throw himself on the mercy of the court!  So it is for me...and for you!  Romans 7 points clearly to the terminal state of our all-too-human condition.  We will never be able to overcome our sinfulness merely by trying harder.  Our only hope is to throw our-selves at the mercy of the court and thank goodness we have an advocate willing to take our case, who has in fact, already taken our case.  And if we ask he will replace our taste for one more pringle, one more forbidden fruit, with the flavor of grace, and the fruit of righteousness that he alone can provide. 

    As Paul puts it: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!  Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is Jesus Christ our Lord who brings victory... by showing us a new way of living by walking in the Spirit!”  (Romans 7:24-25)  
    How so?  Stay tuned...!  That is the focus of Romans 8!  In the mean time, let's pray...

Spending these past weeks in Romans has hopefully helped reveal just how well structured Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is. After spending a couple of weeks on Paul’s introductory words, we moved onto the apostle’s examination of sin. When he has pointed out our sin, Paul emphasizes our immense need for someone to save us. We are in a hole, totally bankrupt, and as a result we can newly appreciate God’s grace through Jesus Christ. We begin to recognize our value and identity as being a tremendous gift, which we cannot possibly earn through our own strength. As my dad explained last week, this gives us reason for joy in all circumstances. Who we are is not determined by our hardships, our failures, our comforts, or our triumphs. Who we are is decided totally and irrevocably by Jesus Christ.

The couple of times that I have been able to preach on Romans this summer, I have tried to unpack with my dad the gravity of this message to the Roman church. It is good news, but it is also wholly new and different news. There is no other religion in the world that tells you, “There is nothing you can do to establish yourself. All of that has been done for you already.” We are, so to speak, given gold medals before we even enter the pool (cf. 21 August’s sermon, “Gold Medals Before We Swim”). However, Paul is also keenly aware of the ethical problem this abundant grace seems to raise: “What will keep Christians in the pool? If they have received everything, what makes Jesus’ grace anything other than a cheap Get Out of Jail Free card?” In the words of some early converts, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” (Rom 6.1 NLT). In chapters five and six, Paul responds to these concerns by tying together three key concepts or themes.

Paul’s three themes are friendship, slavery, and freedom.    

Paul begins with friendship, certainly aware that the idea of friendship is something that his Roman peers value. We still assign some value to friendship today, so Paul’s starting with friendship makes some sense to us, too, but Paul’s contemporaries gave friendship much more priority than we do today. In the modern-day West, we rarely consider it possible that friendship could be something as beautiful as or even more beautiful than our romantic relationships. The ancients thought that friendship possessed a superior beauty. C.S. Lewis once wrote, whereas “very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all … to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue” (“Friendship,” Lewis). Why? Lewis adds that the reason friendship is second priority to us and was first priority to the ancients is because it is the least natural love. It is a non-sexual, non-necessary relationship, and is therefore selfless in a way that all romantic and business connections are not.

Pastor Timothy Keller provides a helpful explanation, “If it weren’t for erotic [romantic] love, you wouldn’t exist; if it weren’t for family love, you wouldn’t have been reared; if it weren’t for neighbor [civic] love, you couldn’t even survive (crime, oppression, that sort of thing, [would wipe you out]). Therefore, in a busy culture like ours, where we’re working long hours or traveling, all the other loves, all the other relationships, will push themselves on you. … You still have to deal with your family; you still need civic relationships; you need vocational networking to get a job; you still want to have romance. But friendship, which takes incredibly deliberate amounts of intentionally spent time, over time, will always get squeezed out. And yet the book of Proverbs says you won’t make it without friends. Friendship love is unique” (“Friendship,” Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living, Timothy Keller). Keller is talking about friendship by delving into the context of the Proverbs, but I think that his description of the remarkable non-necessity of friendship will be helpful to us as we look at what Paul writes, too. Remember this: Keller and Lewis are saying that friendship is “chosen” in a unique sense, which no other love quite replicates. True friendship has the beauty of being fully chosen, without prior need of the other person.

Let’s return to Romans, where Paul brings up friendship himself. We saw it last week, when we read through Romans 5, so we are going to review some of that. Paul writes, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Rom 5.6-11 emphasis added).

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15.13). I have always stumbled over that passage a bit. I have thought, “What? That makes no sense. It would make way more sense to say that someone who laid down his or her life for their enemies showed the greatest love.” Right? [Because that’s what Jesus did.] If you are asking that question, you are so close. Paul explains it here. Jesus lay down his life for us “while we were still his enemies” and thereby restored our friendship with God (Rom 5.10). Jesus proved and restored friendship with us when he died for us. The man or woman who lays down his or her life for an enemy proves that they are no longer their enemy but a friend. Jesus did that for you. That is the gift—God’s friendship—that Jesus freely gives you.

But that is not the end of the story, for if we were satisfied with reception of the gift—his friendliness—being the end of the story, we would not have understood. Who is really a friend, if he or she feels that the friendship should conclude where it began? Nobody. The joy and the gift of friendship is in the journey that the two of you participate in together. This is where I think Keller’s words about friendship are most helpful to us. Jesus has chosen us for friendship first. That is the bottom line. Still, friendship is meant to be two-sided. It is chosen by both members of the friendship, even if one person is the initiate. That is why Jesus, immediately after saying, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” adds, “If you are my friends, you will obey my commands” (Jn 15.14). There is no one without the other. If we accept the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, then we accept his friendship. No one in their right mind receives a priceless gift and never makes use of it. If we accept Jesus’ friendship (his gift), we will walk with him, live with him, follow him.

Friends are not, according to Jesus and Paul, independent or free from one another. Friends are connected. You might say, they are chained together. This is how Paul’s second and third themes come to the fore: slavery and freedom. Paul will not allow you to get through this chapter without being provoked by his metaphor of slavery. “Because of the weakness of your human nature,” he writes, “I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy” (Rom 6.19). Be challenged by those words. Do not miss their implication. Paul moves from the concept of friendship with Christ into slavery under Christ seamlessly, and that challenges the foundational principals of most Americans.

[Images evoking the idea of freedom, ending with the Statue of Liberty]        

Don’t “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence). We want freedom, not slavery. Paul knows that, and he therefore has to be as blunt about this truth—another mind-blowing paradox—as he can be: there is no freedom [in the biblical salvific sense] without slavery. We are so fixated on the idea of absolute or “total” liberty in America that this is one of the hardest lessons Paul has for us, but it is wholly biblical. Paul tells us that our freedom from sin comes through friendship with Christ: “For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. … So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.7, 11 emphasis added). He then reminds us that friendship to Christ is a life of obedience: “give yourself completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (v 12 emphasis added). And, finally, he tells us that obedience is slavery: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living” (v 16 emphasis added). In summary: freedom from sin is friendship with Christ; friendship with Christ is obedience to Christ; obedience to Christ is slavery to Christ/righteousness.      

I know it sounds complicated, and I will try to make it clearer. [If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Freedom = Friendship = Obedience = Slavery.]

We are so obsessed with the idea of having our rights and having “total” freedom—that is, the ability to do whatever we like. But Paul wants you take very seriously the danger of sin. The following is what “total” freedom leads to according to Paul: “total” freedom (to sin, too) is friendship with all that the world offers; friendship or intimacy with all the world offers is obedience to sin (because we then engage in sin, too); obedience to sin is slavery to death (we will die if we sin). Paul points out our slavery to or friendship with sin and reveals where that relationship leads (“You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom” [v 21]), so that we can recognize the friendship with and slavery to Christ in all its goodness: “But now you are free [freedom] from the power of sin and have become slaves [slavery] of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life [obedience]. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord [friendship]” (vv 22-23).

Paul is concluding that there is a certain form of boundedness, instead of boundlessness, that is the real, human expression of freedom. Many of us know this from our own experience. We have expressed our “total” freedom through parties, alcohol, sexual looseness, drugs. In the end, we are attached to, we are friends with, we are slaves to those activities instead of the life God calls us to. Romans 5 and 6 remind us, God is infinite. We are finite. Rejecting that truth is the first human mistake recorded in the Bible. Adam and Eve were convinced that they could be like God, but closeness to God and likeness to God had already been given to them. All they had to do was walk with him in the Garden. All they had to do was respond to God’s friendship. Today, through the cross on which Jesus died and the new life he has prepared for you, you are given the opportunity to walk with your Father again. You are allowed to recognize your need for him, and you ought not to be ashamed at that need. You were made for him. You were made for dependence. You were made for friendship with God, and he is offering that to you through his son, Jesus. You were made for obedience, not because obedience makes you less, rather because obedience makes you more: more free, more alive, more of who you really are and were created to be.

To close, I want to read part of Psalm 27, in which David rejoices in God’s provision. He realizes it is everything he needs. We get to sense that David cannot stay away from the Temple of God. Why? God means everything to him! Coming to the Temple is a sign of friendship, just as it is a sign of obedience. In the same way, the Christian life is one of friendship, as well as obedience. David rejoices in everything that God is. God is both friend and king. I pray for you that you may rejoice in everything that God is for you, too. He is so much more than you previously imagined. And his love is reaching from heaven to you through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gracious gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.

[Psalm 27.4-14]

Our Source of Joy

Sermon on 28 August 2016 - Romans 5

Pastor Don Pieper

Having established that it is by faith in the saving work Christ...that we are made right with God in chapter 4..., Paul goes on to do a compare & contrast between Adam and Jesus: “If by the sin of this one man, Adam, death reigned and was passed on thru that one man,how much more will those who receive grace and righteousness reign in life thru this one man, Jesus Christ?” (Romans 5:17)

To understand Paul's point one needs to understand what went wrong in the Garden of Eden. One comedian I loved growing up, put it like this...: “One day Adam and Eve were running around, all natural, in the Garden together...: 'Dee-dee-dee-dee...” Now Adam is the man; he remains constant. He's into instant gratification. He's always.... See, that's the man. Now the woman, Eve, she's always: 'Come here, come here, come here; get away, get away, get away!' 'Eat these mudpies', she says. 'Oh, yes! I love them; bla-la-la...!' 'Here, eat this tree!' 'Oh, yes – bla-bla-la....!' She was messin' with Adam. I know! I married a women! I know what was going on! But then she ran out of things for him to be eatin', see? So she pulled an apple off the forbidden tree, knowing that she was out of line. Bit it – knew there was going to be trouble and handed it to Adam and said, 'here, eat this.' So he did, knowing full well that he wasn't supposed to, but he did it anyway! Crunch! Now they're both out of line! Next thing you know, there's the Lord: “Okay! (blow whistle) Everybody – out of the pool! Out! Out! Everybody!” And that's how the first, “No Swimming” sign came to be!

People today get all caught up in who was to blame – the man or the woman, but they miss the point. They're both to blame. Both got kicked out of God's perfect swimming hole. Paul's reference to the impact of that first sin in the Garden is not a male/female question but a life or death question. If you know the story you know that the result of their sin is death. Not only will they now both age and die, but animals begin to attack and eat each other, Adam & Eve's own offspring result to murder.

Paul summarizes this truth when he writes: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through his sin, in this way, death came to all men, for all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

From generation to generation this legacy has been passed down. Our sin separates us from God and such separation brings death for God is the source of all life. “Adam's one sins brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ's one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.” (Romans 5:18)

Paul's contrasting the legacy of Adam with that of Christ reflects back to his opening words in chapter five: “Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.” (Romans 5:1)

Having established how we come to be at peace with God, the one whom we have avoided, ignored, disobeyed, discounted and often outright rejected by our selfish, wayward ways, Paul goes on to talk about how our faith in Jesus, is the source of an otherworldly joy.

Paul identifies the source of this joy in three ways: 1) “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (5:2); 2) “We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (5:3) 3) “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (5:11)

Let's look at those in reverse order. The third, our joy in being reconciled to God, echoes Paul's opening words about having peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.

Paul is saying if we keep our focus on what Christ has done for us, our hearts and lives should exhibit great joy. Mean-spirited, unfriendly, grumpy Christians is kind of an oxymoron, then isn't it? If we really believe Jesus died for us, that God loves you & me that much, seems to me it should show!

Paul echoes that sentiment a few verses later when he writes: “God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8) God was chasing after you long before you ever acknowledged your need for him! He doesn't love you because you have made such a positive impression on Him. He loves you because He loves you... (H.T.B.!)

I read a book recently about Ronald Reagan. Reagan once asked one of his bodyguards, Tim McCarthy, how he felt he was doing as president to which the man, without hesitation, answered, “Mr. President, I would take a bullet for you.” And that's exactly what he did the day a mentally unbalanced man by the name of John Hinckley took aim and fired muliple times.

His bodyguard did that out of loyalty... Jesus did that not because of the good job you've been doing but because of his undying love and compassion for you. He took a bullet/3 nails for you!

It's like the foolhardy captain who needlessly put himself and those on board his small yacht in peril who embraced the coastguard that pulled him to safety, sobbing tears of joy and gratitude.

If no one intervened, your life and mine, would be a sinking ship, so God sent his only beloved son, Jesus, on a rescue mission, to leap into your stormy waters to rescue you...! By doing so God has demonstrated his love for you! Embracing him who is your lifeline....brings great joy...!

Not only that, Paul declares, “We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3) This comes to us from a guy who was mocked, beaten, shipwrecked, shackled and cursed by his “religious” peers.

Okay – really? We can rejoice in our sufferings? Has Paul gone off the deep end a bit here? Isn't that a bit sadistic, if not unrealistic? Who actually rejoices because of their pain or loss?

Note, however, that Paul doesn't say we are to rejoice because of our suffering but in our suffering. He's not advocating some kind of morbid view of life but a joyous and triumphant one. He wants to save us from a defeatist attitude. After all hardships will come, sooner or later. Everyone dies. Storms are a fact of life. The question is, how will you respond when they assail you?

Paul points to God's redemptive plan. He wants to bring meaning to our loss and grief. God looks to turn the table on the enemy and mold the character of Christ in you. Only thru hardship do we grow. I loved Melanie's testimony a couple of weeks ago. She sat up here and courageously shared how God had used the adversity and pain she was experiencing...to bring to her attention God's desire to mold her character. She came home humbled, yet incredibly joyful, her potential for loving stronger – particularly those who claimed to be Christian but didn't exactly look or act very much like Christ!

Nick Taylor is another prime example... Nick has lost the clarity of his speech due to his battle with illness. If that weren't enough, a few months ago his face and hands were seriously burned in a work-related accident. But in the midst of these things Nick has continued to grow. His attitude has been amazing. His love of the Lord unflinching. He is one of my heroes as his character, it seems to me, more and more resembles that of the one he seeks to follow...

“We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and per-severance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us!” (Romans 5:3-5)

Corrie ten Boom writes of such an experience while she and her sister, Betsie, were suffering in a German concentration camp, in her bestseller, The Hiding Place. She tells, for instance, of her lament

and sorrow of their winding up in packed, flea-ridden barracks with other inmates. Her sister coaches her to rejoice in the goodness of God even in such circumstances and later to not to give in to hate. To their amazement the guards never break up their prayer and worship tho these actions are strictly for-bidden under penalty of death. It is only later that they learn the reason why – the fleas... Thru their witness many women come to cling to the hope of seeing God's glory!

Just before dying Betsy tells her sister that God has given them a message not only for the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck, but to the world after the war. Tell them, Betsy whispers, “...must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit as deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.” (The Hiding Place)

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us!” (Romans 5:3-5)

The hope Paul speaks of here reflects back to the third source of our joy: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) We anticipate, Paul writes, a time in which we will see with our own eyes the glory of God! That is, all that God has done and is still doing, even his allowing the pain we endure, is all working to draw us to Himself. God blesses in hundreds of ways but the ultimate prize is God himself. Our hope is experiencing his presence. That's the significance of his filling us with the Holy Spirit – that we might experience His loving presence.

I don't know how many times we've seen folks at the Alpha retreat, overwhelmed to the point of tears with experiencing that. “God is here!” Nicola said that's exactly what she and Melanie witnessed when the Korean kids prayed and worshipped together – tears of joy flowed!

When Betsie died, Corrie was brought to her bedside. She was stunned by what she saw. “Her face was full and young. The care lines, the grief lines, the deep hollows of hunger and disease were simply gone. In front of me was the Betsie of our youth, happy and at peace. Stronger. Freer! This was the Betsie of heaven, bursting with joy and health. 'O Lord, what are you saying,....giving me?!'”

(from Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place)

She was given hope... “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God... We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character hope. We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (5:2-3,11) I pray, you and me, we may be people overflowing God's great joy...! 

Gold Medals Before We Swim

Sermon on 21 August 2016 - Romans 4

Christopher Pieper

Begin with prayer.

            As usual, I would like to begin with a little context [display map of the Roman Empire, with Rome highlighted]. Many of us have heard the age-old mantra, “All roads lead to Rome.” Of course, those words were far more true when Paul was dictating his Epistle to the Romans than they are today [include picture of the Via Egnatia, explaining a little bit about what I saw in Philippi and Thessaloniki]. The Romans knew the words were true, too. Roman society was proud of its privileged status among the cultures of the globe. My professor of Christian history, Jerry Sittser, has often reminded students like myself, “For Rome, the primary god was not so much Zeus, Hera or any of the mystery cults’ gods and goddesses. Rome’s god was Rome itself.” In other words, the Roman people worshipped the culture they had formed and were a part of. The ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, claimed that Emperor Augustus even boasted, “I found [Rome] of brick, but left it of marble.” It is to members of this majestic city, where Caesar Augustus was still a recent memory, that Paul sends his letter.

            If we are to appreciate the exclusivity and the boldness of Paul’s claims in Romans, we must imagine the society that he is addressing. In the past few weeks, we have already discovered that Paul challenges the pride of the Jewish people. However, Paul’s letter also confronts the culture of the Roman people, for it is to Roman and to Roman-Jewish Christians that he writes. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes it clear that both the Gentiles and the Jews fall short of God’s requirements. Both groups of people are wholly reliant on Jesus for a right relationship with God: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is” (3.27-29 NLT). In chapter four, our selection for today, Paul begins to unfold that belief in Jesus therefore consists in a radical, unworldly paradigm shift.

            The common understanding between both Jews and Gentiles is that “When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned” (4.4). The rule seems so obvious, it is almost redundant to state the fact. It is a our worldly, human assumption; we see it all the time. Turn on the television these days: Olympians stand on podiums and receive their medals. Men and women are collapsing at the finish line after multi-mile races. Swimmers gasp for breath while interviewers tease them for answers. The medals are hardly a gift. The medals are earned. The way we respond to corruption, like white-collar crime, is further evidence of how deep within us this rule is. Few things get under our skin more than when one person or group sabotages or profits by another person or group’s hard work. The justice of getting what you deserve is one of our highest principles. We crave it and build our legal systems around it.

            Then Paul writes to us as much as he writes to the Christians in Rome, “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners” (4.5). The focal point of this passage is this verse. We need to take it in. We need to soak in it. The Christian life begins with the realization of the truth that this verse is witnessing to. “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.” [pause] I think that Paul wanted the Roman Christians to be stunned by these words. I think Paul wants the same of us. They are radical words. Here the Romans are, Gentiles and Jews alike, surrounded by either the incredible culture they have meticulously constructed on the one hand (Romans) or by the pious religiosity they have formed on the other (Jews). Here we are, surrounded by our American culture—which we so often proclaim the greatest—or surrounded by our dedication to Christian spirituality, worship practices, and culture. Paul says it again elsewhere, “It all doesn’t matter. …  I once thought these things [circumcision, heritage, level of obedience to the law] were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. … I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Phil 3.7-8a, 9). Paul’s conviction is clear: faith in the provision and work of God is the crux of the matter. Paul reminds the Roman-Jewish Christians that “circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised” (Rom 4.11a). The Roman-Jewish Christians were not to think they had any advantage over other Christians. They were not to think that they had any claim on God for right standing before him. Our relationship with God “is given as a free gift” (Rom 4.16).

            Circumcision is no longer a major issue for the global church, but the basic problem that we make signs of the relationship with God into idols is no less prevalent today than it was in the early church. I have done this often in my life, and we are all in danger of doing so. When you find yourself assuming that due to the lack of presence of a certain “sign of relationship” with God, someone is less Christian than you, you are supplanting the gift of Jesus’ mercy with self-righteousness—the idea that anything you do in your strength is fundamental to your relationship with God. Two of the most common examples for Christians are our passion for social justice and our passion for evangelism. Constantly, I see these two signs of faithfulness being idolized – even to the point of being pitted against the other. The social activist feels that the evangelist who spends less time in protests is not really following in the footsteps of Jesus. The evangelist grows frustrated with the social activist, supposing he or she has placed his or her social work above sharing the Word of God. The social activist thinks that activism makes him or her a Christian. The evangelist thinks that evangelism makes him or her a Christian. They are both wrong. Jesus makes them Christians. There is no following Jesus, there is no speaking the good news of Jesus, unless Jesus has done so first. “For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort” (Phil 3.3-4 emphasis added). Paul writes these words in the same letter in which he again and again encourages the recipients to live according to the example of Christ! He knew that the lives of true Christians would be transformed, but that transformation was not the prize. The prize had already been given. The gold medal is given to us the moment we step into the pool, and we haven’t even begun swimming!

            In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ is radically different than everything we are always being taught in the world. We compete, compete, compete. Jesus gives, gives, gives. We say, “Give us our rights.” Jesus says, “I will take mine to the cross.” We are so driven to prove ourselves the worthy Christians that we often leave Jesus at the diving board. He is ready to give us the medal before we even get our feet wet, ready to tell us how valuable we are and how much he loves us. May we pause long enough to hear Jesus calling us from behind. He will send us into the pool soon enough, so that we can call to those competing for their worth, so that we can tell them, “Everything you needed was ready for you at the start. Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be God with us? Could he possibly be what we were racing for all along” (Jn 4.29 italics added).

            Paul refers to Abraham’s story, in order to turn us around in the pool. Abraham “was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises” (Rom 4.21), and for this reason, Abraham was content with the promise of God, even though he could not understand it. Abraham developed that remarkable faith over many years, which ought to encourage those of us who feel dwarfed by his mighty faith. For Abraham and his wife, Sarah, there was nothing more humiliating than their failure to produce a legitimate heir together. They had left Haran and Abraham’s family because they were promised by God, “I will make you into a great nation [people; family tribe]. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. … All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2). To leave their family and their home was already a great sign of faith, but then Abraham and Sarah found themselves waiting and waiting. After many years, Abraham asked God, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? … You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir” (Gen 15.2, 3). God promises Abraham, “No your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir. … Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” (v 4, 5). Abraham believed, but may still have questioned how God would make this happen. He had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant and offered Ishmael to God for God’s blessing. But God intended for Abraham and Sarah to fully trust in his provision, so he blessed them with a son of their own, despite their barrenness.

            Finally, Abraham gets it: “The LORD will provide” (22.13). Even if Abraham must sacrifice his own son, Isaac, which God asks him to do before providing a ram in Isaac’s place, Abraham believes God will fulfill his promises. It is an incredible story. God blesses Abraham on account of his obedience, but the relationship Abraham has with God, as Paul points out, is established through faith (Rom 4.22; Gen 15.6). Through the story of Abraham, Paul determines that the cause of true obedience is faith. Yet the object or goal of our faith is not obedience at all, it is a single-minded focus on and reliance on Jesus Christ: “because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4.22-24). It is another of Paul’s paradoxes! Obedience comes out of the conviction that one can do absolutely nothing to gain God’s favor. Once we have realized that universal fact, we can finally have faith that Jesus is the only one who has earned and through whom we can receive God’s favor. And when the beautiful truth of Jesus’ love hits us, having already given up on ourselves, we can wholly give ourselves to Jesus. That is where true, faithful obedience begins.

            “If there was any idea that God had set us a sort of exam. and that we might get good marks by deserving them, that has to be wiped out. If there was any idea of a sort of bargain—any idea that we could perform our side of the contract and thus put God in our debt so that it was up to Him, in mere justice to perform His side—that has to be wiped out.

            “I think every one who has some vague belief in God, until he becomes a Christian, has the idea of an exam. or of a bargain in his mind. The first result of real Christianity is to blow that idea into bits. When they find it blown into bits, some people think this means that Christianity is a failure and give up. They seem to imagine that God is very simple-minded. In fact, of course, He knows all about this. One of the very things Christianity was designed to do was to blow this idea to bits. God has been waiting for the moment at which you discover that there is no question of earning a pass mark in this exam. or putting Him in your debt” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 142-143).

Rhetorical Questioning

Sermon on 7 August 2016 - Romans 3.1-12, 16-31

Pastor Don Pieper

As we move into the third chapter of Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, we find Paul using a common teaching tool of his day, the asking of rhetorical questions.  A rhetorical question is one in which the answer is so obvious that the person asking isn't really looking for an answer: “I didn't feel answers were necessary.  All the questions seemed rhetorical.” ... Uh-huh...!

If you go on-line you can find numerous sites providing such examples....:

How come people tell you to stay a kid for as long as you can, yet the moment you do anything childish or immature they tell you to grow up?   Why do they call it chili if it's served spicy hot?

How can a product be new and improved?  If it's new, what's it improving on? 

If humans evolved from apes why are there still apes around today?   

And..., Why do your feet smell and your nose runs?  (That's getting a bit personal!) 

Actually, the rhetorical questions Paul asks in Romans three, also get rather personal. After asking an opening question to affirm God's plan to bring salvation to all people thru the Jews he goes on to ask a number of leading rhetorical questions in which the obvious answer is “no”.  There are a few examples of this kind of leading rhetorical question on the web site I was just quoting as well:

If you pamper a cow, do you get spoiled milk?   (No...!)   When the French swear do they say, 'pardon my English'?  (Not likely...!)    Or as young Calvin once asked, in typical, timeless fashion: “Questions I think know the answers to I don't need to ask, right?”   Uh..., wrong!  

Paul's rhetorical questions in Romans 3 address a common cause of confusion, the misunderstanding that sin is an archaic and overstated issue: “Some might say, 'our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is.  Isn't if unfair, then for him to punish us?'” (Romans 3:5).

The “it's unfair” argument persists today: How can a loving God send anyone to hell?  Wouldn't that be unfair?  The objections Paul quotes in his rhetorical questions point to a prevailing perception that Jesus and his followers focus far too much attention on the issue of human sin.  These objections can be summarized into four statements present here in Romans 3 and persist today:  

One, it's God's job to forgive so would you preachers stop going on about sin so much. 

Two, if God is so loving then he won't judge us.  God won't condemn us.   Except for a few, truly evil people, the vast majority of us are going to heaven. 

Three, sin isn't so bad – it teaches valuable lessons.  As they say, 'only the good die young'. 

Four, if we live as you suggest, we'll be out of touch with the culture around us. 

Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who served the church in Nazi German, summarized such thinking when he spoke of cheap grace.  In such thinking we minimize the danger of unrepented sin, convinced that if we do certain things, get baptized, give to a charity, to church occasionally, we'll go to heaven...  

It's the danger of discounting how sin separates us from our loving God and how we rationalize our own sin by comparing ourselves to the worst of sinners and convincing ourselves we're not so bad and thus acceptable to God.  Paul will have none of this, declaring at the end of his opening rhetorical questions: “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9).

To drive home his point, he cites a number of Old Testament passages, beginning with a convicting quote from Psalm 14: “No one is righteous – not even one.  No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away... No one does good, not a single one!” (Rom 3:10-12;PS 14:1-3)


Paul uses Old Testament references to show that humanity, in its present sinful condition, is in big do-do and unacceptable before God.  Psalm 14 is significant as it follows a series of psalms that recall what the ungodly have achieved. Psalm 14 serves as a sharp counterpoint, exposing the cause and depth of humanity's disgrace.  In quoting it, Paul highlights this contrast, revealing that every thought, every self-serving act, every behavior that is at odds with God's good and perfect will as revealed in Scripture, puts one on the path of destruction.   “Destruction and misery always follow.  They don't know where to find (real) peace” (Romans. 3:16-17/Isaiah 59:8).

Martin Luther often taught that God's Word is articulated primarily in two ways – as law and gospel.  Romans 1-3 articulates the law.  Paul himself clearly identifies its purpose in the following verse: “The law's purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God...  It is the law that shows us how sinful we really are”  (Romans 3:19-20).

Our sin is a big deal because it alienates us from our Heavenly Father.  As creator of all that exists, of all that is good and pure, God is holy.  Sin by nature is unholy and cannot exist in God's presence.  This is why the people of old actually were afraid of seeing God's face, why Moses dropped to the ground at the sound of God's voice and why the prophet Isaiah was filled with terror when he had his vision of God.  “Oh, no!” he exclaimed, “I am not pure, and I live among people who are not pure, but I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” (Isaiah 6:5).

Why was this man of God so terrified? Why was he so afraid of being in God's presence?  Because he was wax before the sun; a candle in a hurricane; a minnow at Niagara. God's holiness made Isaiah's sin-ridden impurity a lethal discrepancy. The holiness of God illuminates the sinfulness of man. 

Imagine you walk into a bathroom illuminated by a single window.  You look in the mirror and see your face as you are accustomed to seeing it – no big deal.  But when you flip on the light switch the light bulbs framing the mirror light up your face.  Suddenly you see what you had not seen.  Lines, blemishes, freckles, wrinkles, chocolate frosting.  Every mole and imperfection is illuminated. 

That's what happened to Isaiah.  When he came into God's presence he drew back in horror, crying, “I am unclean and my people are unclean!”  That's what the law does.  That's its divine purpose.  It points to our flaws while flashing a floodlight on God's character and the contrast between the two reveals something we are in danger of missing: our sin puts us in mortal danger! 

The author of Hebrews points to this same truth when he writes, “Anyone whose life is not holy will never see the Lord!” (Hebrews 12:14)  So where do we turn?  We can't turn off the light.  We can't flip the switch. What can we do? Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard!” (Romans 3:23).

Such is the law.  We need it or we're inclined to muddle through life, fatally disillusioned.  But Paul's not finished.  No sooner has he articulated the law and our terminal condition then he points beyond ourselves to our source of hope: “Yet even so, we are justified by God's grace, making us right in his sight.  He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins” (Romans 3:24).

Here, Paul borrows language from a Roman court of law.  The term, 'justified', means to be declared 'not guilty'.  Sin brings the sentence of death because it separates us from God, both in this life and in the life to come.  Jesus, by way of his death on the cross, has paid the penalty for us all.  His death cancels out our debt to our holy and living God.  Our soiled record is wiped clean. 

It brings to mind a scene from the musical, Scrooge, in which a man, deeply in debt to Scrooge, stands before a crowd, also seriously in debt, and sings a song of gratitude, dripping with irony, as they collectively thank Ebeneezer for dying and wiping clean their debt to him...

            [DVD clip from the film, Scrooge; 1:21:52 – 1:25:18] 

Our response to Jesus should be no less enthusiastic.  We also have had our debts wiped clean, and given a chance to start anew.  As the song goes, “I feel as if another life's begun for me!  I feel as though a losing war's been won for me!”  We join in worship and serve others, not out of duty, but gratitude..., for it's a rare and beautiful thing Christ has done for us today!  Thank you very much!

This is the gospel which Luther was referring to. This is good news. Though we are in a pitiful state – a condition that God can not tolerate, he has taken the initiative to draw us to himself thru the sacrificial blood of his son, Jesus.   As Paul put it: “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin.  People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life (on their behalf) (Romans 3:25).

This is why Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, and now here Paul after him, repeatedly call for those seeking to get right with God to repent, to turn away from the sins which imprison them. 

As Paul has already expressed it: “Don't you see how wonderfully kind and patient God is with you? Can't you see how his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  (Romans 2:4)  Or as another translation puts it, “God's kindness is intended to lead you toward repentance” (NIV).

I just started a book in which a pastor shares about a church out east that experienced a powerful outpouring of God's Spirit, a communal sense of coming into the presence of God, that was initiated by their getting real with God. Convicted of their junk they began to pour out their hearts to God.

“Even though the music was quiet and subdued, worship was rampant and uninhibited.  People were on their faces, on their feet, on their knees, but mostly in His presence.  There was so much of His power present that people began to feel an urgent need be baptized.  I watched people walk through the doors of repentance, and one after another experienced the glory and the presence of God” (from Tommy Tenney's God Chasers).

Among his concluding rhetorical questions, Paul asks: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to merit God's acceptance?” (Romans 3:27). In a word, no, but all the same, as we look in the proverbial mirror, recognize our need, and our hearts cry out for help, Jesus is there, tearing to shreds our notice of debt and welcoming us home into the very presence of God....  What might that look like if we were to experience that here today?  As we come clean we give him an opening.  “We are made right with God through faith...”  (Romans 3:28).

Shared Need

Sermon on 31 July, 2016 - Romans 2

Christopher Pieper

[Begin with prayer, then launching into “Narnia Lullaby” and the end of With You All the Way, by Max Lucado, beginning at page 27.]

            Reading the end of a children’s story while listening to flute music is a rather unusual way to begin a sermon, but I want the art to pique our imaginations and to assist us with our task of digging into the text. Like the knights in Max Lucado’s short tale, we are each likely to be distracted by the sounds that surround us. Fear holds us fast, anger misleads us, doubt threatens us. We are constantly in danger of getting caught in it all, beginning to turn in circles, hearing the tunes of the forest, but failing to recognize the melody the king plays in order to guide us. Paul cautioned us last week – just as he warned the Romans – we are all prone to being misled. Like the knights in Lucado’s story, we must be humble enough to admit that our strengths and our desires will not save us. They will not get us through the parabolic forest that is full of temptations and distractions. Only one person will do that for us, Jesus. Lucado’s Cassidon says, “I knew there was only one who could play [the king’s] song exactly like [him]. …There is no one else I would have trusted to be with me all the way” (31), and Paul similarly writes, only “God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish [from the beginning of the quest until we reach the king’s castle] by faith [trusting in the king’s son all the way]. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Rom 1.17 NLT).

            Last week’s passage from Romans, as well as this week’s, is difficult to take in. Paul unreservedly emphasizes our shortcomings. He wants to make it absolutely clear that we do not come even close to what God requires of us. Paul is extremely personal. He makes us uncomfortable. We read these verses from Romans, and we may be uncertain that Paul’s good news is “good” at all.

            The Roman church was a phenomenon for the early church. We don’t know how the Roman church began, but we are fairly certain that the apostles weren’t directly involved with its planting. Moreover, the Epistle to the Romans suggests that the majority in the congregation were likely gentile. Paul was thinking of gentiles (non-Jews), when he wrote what we read last week, “Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip” (Rom 1.29). And, if you are anything like me, you were looking for a way to evade those words. I mentally sidestepped a little bit and thought, “Well, I’m not that bad. I make mistakes, but for the most part I’m on God’s side. I’m not as bad as them – the others.”  

            Watch what Paul does, though, in one of the last verses we read last week (and reread this week). He heard my thought. “You are defenseless, o man, who judges everyone; for while judging another, you condemn yourself, for you – the one who judges – are committing the same things” (Rom 2.1). Of course, I am being a little facetious. I don’t perfectly fit the characteristics of this “man” whom Paul is speaking to in verse one. Paul isn’t directly addressing me. It becomes apparent that Paul is addressing a hypothetical Jew in the Roman church. Paul admonishes him, “you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God” (2.28-29a emphasis added).

            Paul is being no less personal with the Jewish believer than he was with the gentile believers. “The Jew [Paul is speaking to] seems to have supposed that he occupied a privileged position” (Erdman 38), just as Acts 10 reveals that the apostle, Peter, had thought (cf. 17 July sermon). Paul provocatively claims, “The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. … And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit” (2.25, 29). Paul is making some incredibly brave statements here. To say that circumcision makes no difference between the Jew and the gentile is to make a serious jab at Jewish patriotism.

            Here is a little context: Between the events of the Old and New Testaments, king Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to wipe out the Jewish faith by forbidding circumcision. The Maccabean Revolt (166-160 BC) was the resultantly successful uprising of the Jews against the pagan leaders. The Jews remembered (and still remember) the Maccabean Revolt as a miracle, in part because the opposing army outnumbered the Jews about four-to-one. Following the insurrection against the Hellenistic (Greek) king, Hanukkah and circumcision were the most highly prized marks of Jewish loyalty to God in remembrance of that uprising (Moo 1896).

            When Paul writes to the Jewish Christians in the Roman church, he is basically rejecting the importance of all that. The Jews have always been a people of memory. They remember their exiles, the Exodus, the kingship of David, more exile, the Maccabean Revolt, the rebuilding of the Temple, the dispersion out of Israel, their separated years in Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, all across the globe, and the more recent tragedy of the Holocaust. Today, the Jews still remember all these things in order to remember who they are. So imagine their shock—the shock of the Jewish Christians in Rome—when Paul says, “you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision” (Rom 2.28). Isn’t a Jew’s heritage precisely what makes him or her a Jew?

            Paul points to the gentiles, these Latinized and Hellenistic Christians – those whom the Jews painstakingly differentiated themselves from during the Maccabean Revolt and through their obedience to food laws and circumcision – and Paul says, No. “In fact uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. … And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people” (2.27, 29b-c). In no uncertain terms, Paul is emphasizing the same lesson that Peter learned when he went to Cornelius, the first gentile recorded to have been filled by the Holy Spirit: You want to separate yourself from those other people who have sinned or simply have a different background. You want to think that you are not as bad as the rest of them.  “You may think you can condemn such people, o man, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things” (Rom 2.1). You cannot escape this.

            Paul is proclaiming universal need. We are all wanting the perfection God requires. The universal need in Romans 1 and 2 parallels God’s universal provision, which Paul also wrote about. “All who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.27-28). As difficult as passages like those from Romans 1 and 2 may be to read and take in, Paul declares them because they reveal a truth we desperately need to grasp. The identities of the Jew and the Greek, the American and the Iranian, the white and the black, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the male and the female, the mentally advanced and handicapped, the educated and the uneducated, the billionaire and the homeless are no different before the face of God. We are all in need. We share this need. The Maccabean Revolt and circumcision do not make a true Jew. Only the transformation of the Holy Spirit forms a Jew.

            Paul is cleverly undermining the expectations of his readers. In verses 28 and 29, I think Paul is referring to the old Hebraic meaning of Jew (Gk. Ἰουδαιος), which is “praised” or “he/she who is praised.” The apostle writes, “No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people” (Rom 2.29). In other words, the people whom God chooses – not those who have claimed some particular identity apart from God – are those who are worthy of praise. They are the true Jews, the truly praised. Your value is imparted by God. When he praises you, you do not need the praise of any other. Just as much as it was a message for the Jewish and gentile Romans, this is a message for us today. GOD claims us for relationship with himself. GOD is our heritage. GOD is the worker of our new circumcision, “a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit.”

            We must give up our claims to particularity and privilege. We have no room for pride. Nothing inherently separates us from the atheist at work. Nothing inherently separates us from the destitute druggie across the street. We are just as bankrupt as they are, and there is only one lender, He who has lent to everyone: “Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, ‘Take this [cup] and share it among yourselves.’ [I give this to fulfill your every need.] … ‘This cup is the new covenant [agreement] between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you’” (Luke 22.17, 20).

            One of the things I love about Paul’s writings is his use paradox. He knew so well how unfathomable God is and was fascinated by the ways in which God works. In Romans 2.6, Paul writes to the Romans, “He [God] will judge everyone according to what they have done,” which sounds so much like we have to prove ourselves to God. Not only does the letter of Romans as a whole testify otherwise, but Paul is quoting Psalm 62 when he writes this sentence. He is giving us a foreshadowing of his greater point, while telling us how serious sin is. Psalm 62 is all about the ability of God alone to save and protect his people. It begins, “I wait quietly before God, for my victory comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken” (vv 1-2). It ends, “God has spoken plainly, and I have heard it many times: Power, O God, belongs to you; unfailing love, O Lord, is yours. Surely you repay all people according to what they have done” (vv 11-12). Both the Psalmist, David, and the apostle, Paul, are reminding that us our good work, as well as the core of who we are, are first and foremost the recreative work of God. Power belongs to God. Love belongs to God. In his great, unfathomable love for you, he has given you his son, Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the mercy of God that allows you to do what is pleasing to God. It is the mercy of God that makes of you someone who is “praised.” Like any true Jew, God chooses you to be praised with his Son, Jesus, because of his Son, Jesus. You, despite all the sin that Paul honestly tells you that you are steeped in, have been chosen by God. He loves you.

            “You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Col 1.21-22).