Choose Your Rut Carefully

(Jeremiah 17:5-11; Romans 6:15-23)

Have any of you ever heard of the Alcan Highway? If you’re not familiar with it, it was built during the Second World War to connect Alaska with the Lower 48, running through northern British Columbia and the Yukon. It was an adventure to drive the Alcan then; it still is, though at least all 1,387 miles of it are paved—except where the weather has destroyed the pavement, anyway. Well into the 1960s, however, it was all gravel, and a challenge only a bold driver with a tough truck would want to face. The difficulties of the Alcan in those days are neatly captured in a story told by Ray Stedman, a longtime evangelical pastor and writer in the Bay Area out in California. Why he was driving up there I don’t remember, but he told of crossing the border into Alaska and seeing a sign that read, “Choose your rut carefully—you’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.”

Choose your rut carefully. It is, I can attest, good advice on any four-wheel-drive road; and it’s wise advice for life more generally, because it reminds us that our actions and decisions are not independent of each other. As the old aphorism has it, “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Every thought we entertain, every step we take, every choice we make, influences the thoughts we will have, the steps we will take, the choices we will make, in the future. What we do and think in this moment isn’t just about this moment, it influences what we will do and think, and who we will be, tomorrow and the next day. Repeated thoughts, repeated actions, create ruts in our lives that become the path of least resistance; with enough repetition, habit makes our decisions for us.

We tend to resist Paul’s language in this passage, and even to resent it; we don’t like the idea that we’re either slaves to sin or slaves to God. There is something in us that wants to believe, as William Ernest Henley put it in his poem “Invictus,” that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. The truth is, though, that Paul has the right of it. Left to ourselves, our habits will master us, and they will be driven by our desires and shaped by our fears. We may think of that as freedom—the freedom not to be righteous, as Paul notes—but it’s no such thing, because in that state we cannot choose anything else. We are firmly in the grip of sin.

Only Jesus can set us free; and once he’s done so, he calls us to follow and serve him. From that point on, everything we think and say and do serves either to lay down a new groove in our lives, to build and reinforce new habits and patterns which are pleasing to him and in accordance with his will, or to put us back in the old rut. There are no other options, because every thought and every action either serves Jesus, or it doesn’t—and if it doesn’t, then it’s in service to sin. There’s no middle ground here, as if there were some other good out there besides God. As Bob Dylan put it, “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Therefore, Paul says, “You are slaves of the one whom you obey,” whether that be God or sin. Which raises the question: does that mean we can actually be re-enslaved to sin? Is he suggesting that we can lose our salvation? No, for he makes it clear that God has set us free from sin, and what God has done, no one can undo. But though we cannot lose our salvation in the life to come, we can most certainly lose the blessings of salvation in this life—as so many of the people of Israel did. Remember the passage from Exodus last week, how God delivered Israel by opening a road for them through the sea? Well, when the Israelites saw Pharaoh’s army come over the horizon, do you think they responded with faith that God would deliver them? No, they complained to Moses, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to stay in slavery than to die out here in the desert.”

That wasn’t a one-time complaint, either. Exodus 16:3:

The Israelites said . . . “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Exodus 17:3:

The people . . . grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Numbers 11:4-6:

The Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! In Egypt, we ate fish at no cost—we had cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we’ve lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

Numbers 14:2-4:

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! . . . Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

And on, and on, and on . . .

Now, mark this. When the journey was tough, or when they wanted something they couldn’t have in the wilderness, did the Israelites tell themselves that it was worth it to be free? No, they whined and complained and talked about the good old days when they were slaves in Egypt. God had freed them from their slavery, and he was leading them to the land he had promised them, a land where they could prosper—but that meant they had to serve him, and they didn’t want to do that. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep their focus on the blessing God had given them, much less the blessing he had in store for them; they couldn’t see past the pleasures they’d left behind, even though those pleasures had come with the agonies of slavery to a king who hated them. As a result, they made themselves miserable, they trained themselves to distrust God, and most of them never got to see the Promised Land at all.

You see, that’s the foolishness of “taking advantage” of grace, of using it as an opportunity to sin: it misses the whole point. Paul says at the end of chapter 5, “Where sin abounded, grace superabounded”—but how? In blessing for Israel? No, as Israel continued to rebel against God and refuse to trust him, God had to keep judging them, repeatedly and drastically. He remained faithful to them despite their faithlessness, he kept them together as a people and kept his promises to them, which he ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and in that, he showed them grace far beyond their sin; but they still missed out on much of the blessing God had for them.

Sin bears fruit, but its fruit is poisonous; it pays its soldiers what looks like a good wage, but that wage is death. Following Jesus, you don’t get free food in the land of slavery, you get a long road through the wilderness, and sometimes it’s hard and stony, and sometimes it’s full of thorns; but the end is life, and along the way, you learn that the wilderness is a beautiful place. It’s not pretty, it’s not comfortable, it’s wild and unpredictable and unsafe; but it’s beautiful, and it’s an adventure, and the adventure is full of the wild and unpredictable glory of God—and if you hang on to him, he will always bring you through. As John Piper put it, “If you live gladly to make others glad in God, life will be hard, risks will be high, and your joy will be full”—and it will be worth it.

Every choice you face either takes you deeper into the wilderness, where Jesus leads, or back toward the safety of slavery in Egypt—and makes you a little more likely to go that way with the next choice. Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it a long time.

“Only Human”?

(Exodus 14:15-31; Romans 6:1-14)

Moses and Aaron contended with Pharaoh and his magicians for the freedom of Israel, announcing the plagues God would send in judgment unless Pharaoh let Israel go free. After the last and worst, the angel of death that killed every firstborn son in Egypt, Pharaoh let them go. But God did not lead Israel by the normal route out of Egypt—instead, he led them down to the seashore and told them to make camp there. Pharaoh pursued them with his army and came upon them in that place, and the people of Israel panicked; but God stood between Israel and the army of Egypt, and he opened a road through the sea. He brought his people out on dry ground through the water, and then he allowed the Egyptians to follow them—and once they were out in the midst of the sea, he threw them into a panic, and then he released the water, and they were drowned.

The people of Israel passed through the water from Egypt, where they were slaves to Pharaoh, into the wilderness, where they were free to follow and serve God. They passed out of the land of death and into the land of life; the sea was the boundary between the two. Was it the water that delivered the Israelites? No, God delivered the Israelites. Indeed, he had already delivered them by this point; the passage through the Red Sea was simply the exclamation point, the final blow to Pharaoh, the act that sealed their deliverance and made the finality of God’s work obvious to everyone—even to hard-headed, hard-hearted Pharaoh. Israel through the centuries would look back to the passage through the Red Sea not because there was anything magical about the Red Sea, but because it was a sign and a symbol that encapsulated God’s great work of deliverance.

This was the physical reality of the Exodus, when God freed his people from slavery in Egypt; and it’s the story Paul is retelling in a theological, spiritual way as he explains the new Exodus, in which Jesus Christ has freed his people from slavery to sin. It might seem odd that he would do so here, but he does so for a profoundly important reason. He has said in chapter 5 that the law only served to make sin worse, but that the grace of God only increased all the more in response; but to that, the skeptic might well ask, “If that’s the case, why shouldn’t we just go ahead and sin, then? If the law can’t handle sin, how is grace going to make it better?”

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, one of the great 20th-century gospel preachers, had this to say about this in his commentary on Romans 6:

The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.

This is because, as Paul lays out in this chapter, the gospel deals with sin at a deeper level than the law, at a deeper level than mere obedience; and so people who look no deeper than to ask what they have to do in order to get the reward they want will tend to find in the gospel an excuse to sin. But Paul says, no, the gospel is about much more than just having a list of things to do and not do—the gospel tells us that we have a whole new life, that we live in a whole new world, and everything is different. We have passed through the water, out of the land of slavery and death and into the land of life.

Now, it isn’t the water of baptism that saves us, any more than it was the water of the Red Sea that saved the Israelites; Paul is using the word “baptism” here to represent the whole of God’s work of conversion and salvation in our lives, much as we might say “White House” to refer to the President and the whole administration. We don’t believe the actual house makes any decisions, and Paul doesn’t believe that the water transforms us. The water, however, is a sign and a symbol of God’s transforming work, and even if it doesn’t bring about salvation by itself, it matters, because God has chosen to use it.

The key is the truth signified in baptism: by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and therefore we no longer live under the power of sin; as Paul says in Colossians, we have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, in whom our sins have been forgiven, by whom we have been redeemed. Our old selves died when Christ was crucified, and were buried with him in his tomb—but when he got up, they didn’t; when he rose from the dead, he brought us with him, alive in him, sharing in his resurrection life. If you can look at your life and see a point in time when you came to faith, that is the point at which you first experienced your salvation in Christ, but that isn’t the point when your salvation was accomplished; when he died and rose again, you were saved then.

This, then, is how the gospel of grace is an answer to human sin—it changes our reality at the ground level. God has transformed us at the very core through the work of Christ. We are all born slaves to sin, under its power, completely convinced that we are who sin tells us we are—convinced, indeed, that we want to be slaves, that our slavery is really freedom. In Christ, those false selves are put to death, and we are raised again to life as new people over whom sin has no power, because the power of sin is the power of death, and the life of Christ has overcome death. We have crossed out of sin’s kingdom; we still have one foot in this world, but our true life is in the incoming kingdom of God.

Thus, Paul says, live like what you are. “Sin will not reign over you, since you are not under law but under grace”; therefore “do not let sin reign over you.” You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus; therefore “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Live as what you are—and when you don’t, face up to it squarely and admit it. The world loves to make excuses for sin, which mostly seem to boil down to this in the end: “It isn’t fair to expect me to be any better or to live up to your standards, because I’m only human.” As Christians, we can’t say that. We have been united with Christ, and we are no longer “only human” in that sense—we live in the power and presence of God. By faith in Jesus, we have a better life than that; we just need to learn to walk by faith, to live by grace, as those who have been made new in him.

Grace Reigns

(Genesis 2:15-17, Genesis 3:1-8; Romans 5:12-21)

Death looms large for me this weekend. In a few hours, we will celebrate a service of witness to the resurrection in honor of the life of Virginia Zuck; of course, hers was not exactly a life cut short, but even so. Last week, Anna Johnston’s grandmother died. This week, someone else for whom we’ve been praying got the news: stage 4 liver cancer. And David Chastain spent a fair bit of this week sitting in a hospital room in Elkhart with his foster father, who was frighteningly close to death before taking a turn for the better. Sometimes we may forget, but we live in a world that is born toward dying, and we cannot escape that fact very long before reality forces us to face it.

Death is our inheritance, because sin is our heritage. When Adam rebelled against God, the whole human race died with him—spiritually first, as sin alienated us from God, with physical death following close behind as a consequence. That was the legacy Adam left to all his descendants, and the kind of life he passed on to us—a life poisoned by sin and broken by death.

This disaster was so great and so complete that God chose to make it better by first making it worse: by giving his people his law. Sin isn’t counted when there is no law, but its power is at work nevertheless, and so death reigns regardless—it’s just that nobody knows why, and so they come up with all kinds of ideas to explain it, and to try to make it better, somehow. The law identifies the problem, and seems to offer a solution; but that doesn’t make it any better, because even once we have the law, we continue to sin. It’s just that now our sin is even worse than before, because now when we sin we’re knowingly breaking a direct commandment from God—which means that the law doesn’t reduce sin, it only increases it. The law shows us how we’re messed up, and how badly we’re messed up, and then it leaves us there, helpless to fix it.

The law is bad news, but it’s a blessing anyway because we need the bad news if we’re going to understand the good news. In forcing us to face the terrible situation into which we’re born, the law shows us that we need Jesus and his sacrifice. We do not naturally understand this. We don’t naturally think we’re that bad—we may realize the world is that bad, we may know that other people are that bad, but we don’t think we are that bad. We can’t buy the idea that God would do anything that drastic and extreme to save us because we don’t think he’d have to. Our understanding of our sin and our need for salvation is too small for us to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news.

Let me give you an example. When Dr. Delores Williams of Union Seminary in New York said, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping, and weird stuff,” she also declared, “I think Jesus came for life and how to live together, what life was all about. . . . Jesus’ mandate is that we pass on tough love, love that’s whipping the thieves out of the temple.” She thought that was enough. She couldn’t understand the need for the atonement because she thought “tough love”—done by us who are the good people to them who are bad—she thought that combined with the power of a good example, that was enough to do what Jesus came to do. The law tells us, no, no, no—what is wrong with us is much worse, and much deeper, than that. The rot goes much deeper, and much farther. We can’t be satisfied with Jesus whipping the thieves out of the temple unless we realize, all the way down, that we are the thieves.

And then we realize that the same week he drove them out of the temple, he died for them—he died for us. We realize that God came down to be one of us, to live the life of perfect obedience that Adam abandoned, and then to take the weight of all our sin and all our death on himself and to die for a guilt that was not his—and yes, hanging on a cross, and blood dripping, and exactly all that stuff, to know the ugliest and cruelest part of this world in his own body—and take all of it all the way down to Hell where it belongs; and then to rip open the gates of Hell and blow out the power of sin from the inside, that he might lead us all out of that slavery and into freedom. God reached out and took our alienation from him into himself that it might no longer stand between us and him. He took our death, and he gave us life in return.

Because of this, through Jesus Christ, we have been delivered from the domination of sin and death and brought into a state of grace. We have a new life in which the grace of God reigns in righteousness; we have been cleansed of the guilt of sin by the sacrifice of Christ, and we have been freed from the control of sin in our lives, such that we are able to live in a righteous way, in a way that is pleasing to God. Though we were born toward dying—and though we still know that reality as we live in this world, as we do still sin, and sicken, and die—yet now we live toward resurrection, as God has given us his life through Jesus Christ, and his life has overcome death and will overcome it.

This is the only way of salvation—Jesus is the only way. I think that’s why Paul uses the word “all” in verse 18; he’s not saying that all people will be saved—that’s clear from the rest of the passage—but that all those who find life, all those who find justification before God, find it through Christ. Or rather, are found by him, for the initiative is his. But there is no other way, there is no other option, because only Jesus had the power to deliver us from sin and reconcile us to God, and only his sacrifice was big enough to accomplish that. No merely human work can ever save.

At the same time, no merely human work can undo or overpower the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. If the purpose of the law was to make sin worse, yet the grace of God is still greater, and his faithfulness to his people and his purpose is still unshakeable. Even if you could dig so deep as to lay out your sleeping bag in Hell’s sub-basement, the grace of God would still find you, with plenty to spare; and if you could flee to the farthest and most desolate corner of reality, you would still turn around to see God waiting there for you, reaching out to you in love. No matter how much sin may increase, yet the grace of God is still infinitely greater. No matter how great your sin may be, or mine, no matter what hold it might have over your life, no matter what power death might have over you, the grace of God is still infinitely greater for you, so that in your life grace might reign through righteousness, which is the eternal life of God in us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Let’s pray.

While We Were Enemies

(Hosea 11; Romans 5:1-11)

“Therefore,” says Paul, “since we have been justified by faith”—and with that, he tells us what the next four chapters are going to be about. He has firmly established that every human being, no matter who or what they are, begins life alienated from God; that this alienation is a fatal spiritual problem which human effort cannot overcome, and doesn’t particularly want to; that this includes the Jewish law, which shows us the problem but is unable to fix it; that God overcame this problem through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and that as a result, by faith in Jesus Christ—and Christ alone—we have been made right with God, we have been justified by his grace, and we have been given new life. All that being true, and profoundly important, it raises the question: how does this affect how we live? It’s to that question that Paul now turns.

The great theme in this great section is hope, and specifically the hope of participating in the glory of God through Christ; and because Paul understands that the hope of the people of God is rooted in the work of God as the one who delivers his people, Paul intends to anchor that hope in the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Underlying this is the idea, which we see explicitly in various other places in the New Testament, that Jesus came to lead a new Exodus, forming a new people for his name by delivering them from a far greater bondage—to the power of sin and death. Paul doesn’t say this here in so many words, but he will lay it out in chapters 6-8 by retelling the Exodus story theologically in terms of the life of the church in Christ.

Before he can do that, however, he has to establish that the hope of Israel and the promises of God to his people now apply more broadly than just ethnic Israel, and not simply or automatically on the basis of being a Jew, or even a law-abiding Jew. That’s the purpose of chapter 5, which lays out the justification for that shift.

The core of this first part of chapter 5 is verses 6-8: Christ died on our behalf, as our representative and our substitute, while we were still sinners. This had nothing to do with us being good enough for anything, because we weren’t; and what he did is nothing we can compare to anything any other human being has ever done. Christ didn’t die for us because we were righteous—but who ever has died for someone just because that person was righteous?

If you saw someone in trouble, would the fact that you know they were a moral person make you decide to give your life to save them? If it’s someone who has personally done you good, then you might be moved to die in order to save their life; but unless you love them greatly, maybe you wouldn’t be. But Jesus went far, far beyond that, dying for us when we were not his friends but his enemies—why? Because God loves each and every one of us greatly, more than we will ever fully comprehend.

And because Jesus died for us, the offense of our sin has been removed from us and we have been reconciled to God. We are no longer alienated from him, we are no longer estranged from him, and in Christ we now stand guiltless in his presence; his wrath against sin is no longer directed toward us, and we no longer see God as our enemy, because we have received his love and our hearts are being healed. Our salvation is assured, because there is absolutely nothing left standing to prevent it.

Therefore, through Jesus, we have peace with God. The Greek word here is eirēnē, which is actually where we get the name “Irene”; underlying it is the Hebrew word shalōm, and everything the Old Testament means by that word. This doesn’t just mean that we don’t fight with God, or that things are calm; this isn’t the sort of reconciliation that just means you go back to exchanging the occasional birthday card or e-mail, and smile politely if you happen to see each other at a family gathering.

Rather, as you may remember if you were here last December, the idea here is of being in complete harmony, first of all with God and his will; and second, as a result, within yourself—resulting in a calm, unshakeable sense that all is well, and freedom from anxiety. This in turn creates harmony with others, to the extent that they are willing to be at peace with you. A life of shalōm isn’t just a truce with God, or even a peace treaty, it’s full-out allegiance; it’s a life lived on the same page with God, ordered by his order, in accordance with his will. This is the life which Jesus gives to those who believe in him.

And because of this, we have the hope of the glory of God, because in Jesus he has delivered his people—us—from slavery, and the promises of God are now for us; as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1, in the passage from which we took last week’s call to worship, all the promises of God find their “Yes!” in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus we have come to have “access into this grace in which we stand,” and by which we stand. We cannot put ourselves in a state of grace; we were born under law, and left to our own strength we will die under the law, but Jesus has brought us out from under the law into a new life in which grace reigns. Grace is the ground on which we stand in the presence of God, and it is the power by which we are able to stand, and to keep standing; it is only by grace that we live, and indeed only by grace that we are not crushed.

This is reason for us to rejoice, not only in good times but even in times of suffering—Paul has no rose-colored glasses here, he doesn’t imagine that we should somehow be exempt from the pains of this world. Rather, he says that we have been given so great a hope, we even have reason to rejoice because of our suffering. He doesn’t restrict this to suffering caused directly by our faith, either; as the NT scholar Douglas Moo puts it,

all the evil that the Christian experiences reflects the conflict between “this age,” dominated by Satan, and “the age to come,” to which the Christian has been transferred by faith. All suffering betrays the presence of the enemy and involves attacks on our relationship to Christ. If met with doubt in God’s goodness and promise, or bitterness toward others, or despair and even resignation, these sufferings can bring spiritual defeat to the believer. But if met with the attitude of “confidence and rejoicing” that Paul encourages here, these sufferings will produce . . . valuable spiritual qualities.

Suffering, Paul tells us, functions as spiritual exercise. I’ve been so busy lately, and so tired so much of the time, that I haven’t rowed much at all. I’m feeling it in my back, too. But for all that I need it if I’m going to stay healthy and function at my best, it’s easy for me to make excuses to myself not to row, because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do it. I don’t like being sweaty, and that a part of me still doesn’t like the pain that comes with it. Some of you I know are saying, “But it’s a good hurt,” and that’s true—but it was a hard concept for me to learn.

Suffering, Paul says, is like that, because without suffering we never learn to endure—we never learn that we can endure; and we need endurance, we need stick-to-itive-ness, if we’re going to keep the faith in this life, because life just keeps going and going and going. It’s only by sticking to it, by continuing to hang on and follow Jesus through all the ups and downs and around all the curves, that we grow in faith and develop a proven character; and if we do, we find along the way that our hope has grown and strengthened, because we’ve been exercising it.

It isn’t when we feel no need for hope because everything’s going fine that hope grows, and it isn’t when the road ahead seems obvious and easy that we need to live by faith—it’s when we hurt and we struggle and we need to hold on to faith that God is with us and hope in him to hang on to us and bring us through, and when we see that he is faithful, that we see that “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Through Faith Alone

(Genesis 15:1-6, Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16; Romans 3:27-4:25)

At Regent one year, they asked Dave Diewert, who teaches Hebrew, to preach a sermon on “The Family of God.” Diewert’s an interesting guy, not too inhibited by conventional expectations, and he opened the sermon by telling us that when they asked him, his first thought was, “God help us.”

He titled that message “The Dysfunctional Family of God,” and he didn’t pull any punches, because the Bible doesn’t. If you imagine the model churchgoing family, then think of the exact opposite, the opposite is a lot closer to what we see in the Old Testament. Cain kills his brother, Ham sees his father naked, Abraham has a child by his maid and tries to pass off his wife as his sister, Jacob cheats his brother and his uncle (though his uncle scammed him first), his sons kill off an entire town and sell their brother into slavery, Judah’s daughter-in-law is forced to run a sting operation on him to keep her place in the family . . . then you get to Moses and David, and the stories don’t get any better. The family God chose is not the sort we would have chosen, if it were up to us.

But then, if we were going to try to transform the world, we wouldn’t have chosen a family at all. We generally try to change the world through governments, rulers, diplomats, armies, constitutions, treaties, and mass movements of one form or another. Our instruments of change are politicians, media figures, and business leaders, the rich, the famous and the powerful, people who can command wide attention and vast numbers of minions to do their bidding. We work from the top down and aim as high as we can. But God begins with a family—just one—and his instruments of change are fathers and mothers. Even when his family becomes a nation, the family relationships of its rulers stand at the center of everything else that happens, for good or ill; the Bible is much more interested in David the husband and father than David the general.

God wants to teach us things we can only learn from family, whether the family in which we’re born or one of the other families to which we become attached over the course of life, including the church. Partly that’s because it’s in our families that we first learn to live by law, and thus it must be in our families that we first learn what it means to experience grace, and to show grace, and to live by faith. More, family gives us the ability to show each other grace to a degree that the world cannot match, because we’re committed to each other in ways that the rest of the world never will be. (This is probably why Mother’s Day has a different feel to it than Father’s Day; it isn’t true in every case, but in general, mothers tend to be more the parents through whom grace comes.)

That’s why Paul turns to the story of Abraham in chapter 4. He’s stated the purpose of God’s work in history in 1:16-17, to bring salvation to all who believe; in 1:18-3:20, he’s shown us why that’s necessary, telling the story of the Fall and its disastrous effects on humanity. In 3:21-26 he tells us God’s solution to that problem, that God has given us salvation in and through Jesus Christ alone. Now here, he shows us God putting his plan into motion, beginning the steps that will lead to Jesus—and again, God doesn’t begin with laws or nations. Those will come later, within the family; the family is first. It’s through the family, not through the law or the ruler, that God will reconcile the world to himself; and for all the problems with that family, it was a family that operated by faith from the very beginning. What, after all, was the righteousness of Abraham? When God made him a promise he could never verify, he believed God, and took action accordingly.

We need to understand this, because Paul isn’t just discussing technical details of how God saves us—he’s laying out a whole approach to life which is profoundly different from any form of legalism, including that of his Jewish critics. In lifting up Abraham, he’s trying to show them that the life of faith he’s laying out precedes the Old Testament Law, and in fact underlies the Law—that what he’s talking about is what the Old Testament was really all about from the beginning. Those who think they are standing for the Law against Paul are really doing nothing of the sort: they’ve read the letter of the Law, but they’ve completely missed the spirit and the point of it.

Now, why do I say that? Consider the question: once you’ve been made right with God, once you have this status as one of God’s people—then what? The Jews would say, well, then you keep the law, and if you keep it well enough, then you hang on to that status. Then you debate what constitutes “well enough,” and you get into all the drawing of lines and splitting of hairs that characterizes legalism in all its forms. To that, Paul says, no: look at Abraham. Abraham didn’t keep the law, because he didn’t have the law. But when God called him to go, he went, and when God told him to do, he did, trusting that God knew what he was doing and would be faithful to keep his promise. Faith isn’t just the beginning of the life with God, it is the whole of the life with God.

Put another way, to say we are justified through faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone doesn’t only mean that we have been saved through faith in Christ alone—it means we are being saved through faith in Christ alone, and that the life we have been given is a life we live through faith in Christ alone. It’s not that faith in Christ gets you in the door, and then you live by law the rest of the way—it’s all by faith, every step.

The Old Testament is still God’s word to us; it’s still important for us as we seek to know God better, and to understand how to live in a way that pleases him; but it doesn’t function for us as a checklist. It isn’t: here’s a list of things you have to do, and if you do them well enough then you’ll keep God happy. It isn’t: if your life looks enough like this list, then you’re better than everyone around you and you have reason to brag about how holy you are. That’s not what the law is for, because that sort of checklist holiness isn’t what God is on about. You can live a highly moral life because you love Jesus and want more than anything else to please him in everything you do; or you can live a highly moral life because you worship your reputation and want everyone to admire your holiness. The first is Paul, the second is the Pharisees.

Now, if we cannot justify ourselves before God by keeping the law, it follows that we cannot do his work by imposing his law on others. This is not to say that all law is bad—it’s obvious that societies need laws, and households need rules, and the content of those laws and rules is obviously a proper concern of ours; we do have a responsibility to do what we can to see that they reflect the character of God, and especially his justice. But it is to say that we must not fool ourselves: while laws and rules have their place, they will never be of primary importance in accomplishing the purposes of God.

God send us better laws, and better politicians to write and administer them, but we will not make this country what God would have it to be through laws and politicians. And God make us better mothers and fathers, of our own children or someone else’s, but may we never think that’s primarily about being lawgivers to our children; we will not raise them to be who God would have them to be by dictating their decisions. For our lives, for our children, for our nation, for our church, we are called to follow the example of Abraham: recognize that it’s all God’s work, not anything we can make happen in our own strength, and live accordingly. Trust not in our own holiness, to measure ourselves by the morality of our neighbors; trust not in our understanding of the laws of economics, to let the numbers on the balance sheet govern our decisions; trust not in our ability to make laws for others, as if external compulsion could ever produce inner change. Rather, go as God inspires us to go, do what he puts before us to do, make decisions as best as we understand him to be leading us—and trust him for the rest.

None May Boast

(Leviticus 16:11-19; Romans 3:1-26)

Three years ago, while I was at a conference in Chicago, Sara took the girls to the Shedd Aquarium. She figured we’d go back sometime when I could go too, so she bought a family membership. She was right, of course—I love aquariums—and the day we all went, we got there to find, not a line for admission, but a crowd stretching down the steps and well out into the park. It looked like we were going to be there a long time, but Sara worked her way up to the doors and discovered that the Shedd has a separate members’ entrance; a few minutes later, we were in.

That was essentially the popular Jewish view of salvation in Paul’s day, except of course that the great crowds wouldn’t get in at all. That’s what they understood their advantage with God to mean: access to him and his favor from which everyone else was excluded. Paul, of course, thoroughly destroys that idea in chapter 2, leaving his opponents to say, “If that’s the case, then there’s really no advantage to being a Jew at all, is there?” Was God’s blessing on his chosen people just a cruel joke?

To this Paul says, no, the Jews had a great advantage: God had given them his word and his promises. They didn’t have to figure out the big questions of life on their own—as a nation, they knew the creator of the whole world, and he had told them who he was, how he wanted them to live, and what his purpose was for them. They knew that someone all-good, all-wise and all-powerful had charge of their destiny, and everyone else’s, and that he would always be faithful and true no matter what; and they knew he had promised to bless them. The thing was, he had also promised to judge them if they were unfaithful to him, if they did not keep his commands; God could not simply ignore sin or wave it away as unimportant. As Paul shows, for God to do that, even for his own people, would be to violate his own righteousness.

Paul drives his point home, that Jews are under sin just as much as Gentiles, with a long catalog of denunciation from the Old Testament, which he concludes with the observation that “whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law”—the Jews are not exempt from this—so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God,” and no one may have any excuse to make for themselves. And then he says this, which crystallizes the dilemma in his argument: “No human being will be justified in God’s sight through works of the law, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Implicit here is the recognition that no one can keep the law perfectly, and the understanding that the righteousness of God demands no less.

And yet, while God cannot be false to his own character, and thus cannot simply accept human sin and let it stand—to do so would be a betrayal of his justice—at the same time, he cannot be false to his character and simply leave the world to its sin, with no hope of salvation; to do so would be a betrayal of his love, which seeks to make us righteous—to restore us to right relationship with him. If we could make ourselves perfect, this wouldn’t be a problem, but we can’t; we have all sinned, and we all continue to sin, despite our best efforts. We are all each day falling short of the glory of God, and it’s beyond our strength to change that. For God to be true to his character, then, he somehow had to make us perfect himself.

Thus we have verses 21-26, which are the second thematic passage in Romans. We had 1:16-17, which state the theme of the letter, and then this long section through 3:20 which tells the story of the Fall, thus setting forth the problem to be solved. Here Paul tells us God’s solution: Jesus Christ. God’s saving righteousness does not come to us through the law, which depends on our effort; rather, it is entirely by his own action. The law could not permanently appease the wrath of God against sin, nor could it permanently remove human guilt—it was just a temporary measure until Jesus should come, who could and did permanently remove our guilt and pay the penalty for our sin by dying in our place on the cross. He took all our evil and all our unrighteousness on himself on the cross, and he took it down with him into death, so that in him we might be made forever right with God.

It’s important that we understand this. To say we are Christians isn’t to say we’re good people, it’s to confess that we aren’t, but God loves us anyway. To say that we’re Christians isn’t to say we found the truth, it’s to admit that we weren’t looking for it, but he found us anyway. To call ourselves Christians isn’t to say that we have the right to judge others, it’s to humbly acknowledge that we deserve judgment, but received mercy anyway. To proclaim ourselves Christians isn’t to praise ourselves, it’s to declare that all our praise is for Jesus, who knew we were unworthy and saved us anyway. For any of us to say “I am a Christian” isn’t to claim to be better or more moral or holier than anyone else, it is to affirm with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The glory, the credit, the honor, the praise, are to Christ alone.

With Our Own Petard

(Proverbs 24:10-12, Isaiah 52:3-6; Romans 2)

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius the usurper king, has ordered Hamlet to England in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he has given them a sealed letter to convey to the king of England with instructions to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet will later find that letter and rewrite it so that it contains instructions to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed instead. Before his departure, however, he says this to his mother:

I must to England—you know that. . . .

There’s letters sealed and my two schoolfellows—
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged—
They bear the mandate, they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work.

He’s using military language here, describing the situation in terms of siege warfare; he doesn’t know what exactly is going on, but he clearly understands that the king intends to use them to make sure Hamlet never makes it back to Denmark.

He continues:

For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard, and’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.

The enginer is the maker of “engines”—which is to say, devices such as bombs; a petard was a type of bomb, a shaped charge used in attacking fortifications. Hamlet knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be armed in some way to destroy him; he intends to outwit them and turn the plan against them, so that they will be “hoist with their own petard”—blown into the air by their own bomb. Not that it’s really their plan, but no matter—they’re serving Claudius in his intrigues, rather than seeing him truly enough to resist him, so they’re guilty too. That the judgment they bear should be turned against them is poetic justice.

You can see where I’m going with this. There’s a similar dynamic here in Romans 2 as Paul turns to address the Jews in the church. In chapter 1 he’s made it clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation available to anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, and that all people are under the wrath of God for their ungodliness and unrighteousness; but as he unpacks that, he does so in terms which seem to indict only the Gentiles, because their idolatry and wickedness are obvious to anyone who knows the Scriptures. (Indeed, they were obvious to many in that time who didn’t.)

The danger here is the assumption, which was already becoming common among Jews at that time, that the wrath of God against unrighteousness didn’t apply to them because they were his chosen people. One of the books of the Apocrypha, for instance, the Wisdom of Solomon, has a multi-chapter diatribe about the sin and idolatry of the Gentiles, a lot like Romans 1 only longer; and then comes this: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours.” You get the idea—because we’re God’s chosen people and have his law, even if we sin, it doesn’t really count as sin, and God won’t judge us.

Obviously, Paul can’t let that stand; but by laying out his argument as he does, he turns that attitude back against any Jews who take that approach. They think their special status exempts them from condemnation, but he says, no: it actually holds them to a higher standard. If they have responded to the previous passage with a spirit of judgment, cheering Paul on as he condemns “those bad people out there,” he slams their judgment back in their face, bringing their self-righteous verdict down on their own heads. The bomb they thought was for the Gentiles blows up right beneath their feet.

The principle here is that you’re judged on the basis of what you know; it’s the same idea we see in James 3:1 where he says, “Not many of you should seek to become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Paul makes it clear in Romans 1 that the Gentiles are responsible for refusing to believe what they could have known about God from his creation. Here, he points out that while the Gentiles don’t have the written law of God, they do have some sense of his moral law, which influences their behavior—and that they will be judged for doing what they know to be wrong, even without written notice from God to that effect.

And if that’s so, then how much more will the judgment of God fall on those who do have his word, who have been clearly told who God is and what he requires? Having the law of God, hearing the law of God, is only a benefit if you do the law of God. If you don’t, Paul tells them, then you are all the more guilty for having his law, because you know all the more clearly how wrong you are. The idea that knowing God’s law somehow means that you can get away without keeping it is completely backwards.

Let me borrow an illustration here from the preacher and writer Francis Chan—you might have heard this before. Imagine I tell Lydia to go clean her room. (She’s actually quite self-motivated on that, but imagine.) She goes up and closes the door, and an hour or two later she comes back down and says, “Dad, I memorized what you said. You said, ‘Go clean your room.’ I can say it in Greek—Πηγαίνετε καθαρός το δωμάτιό σας. I’m going to e-mail a couple of my friends, and we’re going to get together and study what it would mean for me to clean my room, and what that might look like.” Am I going to be impressed? Is that what I had in mind when I told her to clean her room? No, it isn’t—she hasn’t done what I told her, and that was the whole point.

All well and good then to condemn the Gentiles as envious, quarrelsome, insolent, boastful, prone to gossip, foolish, heartless, and all the rest—but Paul’s Jewish readers are guilty of all those things too, and they shouldn’t be. As a consequence, far from being the witness to God they were supposed to be, they have become one more reason for many Gentiles to reject God. They should not expect to escape judgment for that merely because they’re Jewish. Indeed, Paul says, the only thing that matters is the reality of our hearts—not that we have God’s word, but that his Spirit is at work in our lives training us to do God’s word.

So then, is Paul slamming the Jews because he thinks they could have kept God’s law well enough? No, of course not. Rather, he’s hammering the argument home that to rely on the law for salvation is foolish, because the law cannot make you good enough to be saved—it can only make you more guilty for being bad. He’s driving them to a point where they will realize that their need for something more is every bit as deep and desperate as the Gentiles’ need, to prepare them for the conclusion of chapter 3: that the righteousness of God can only be found through faith in Jesus Christ, even if you’re a law-abiding Jew. Yes, he’s already said that, and yes, he’s writing to a church, so they probably all nodded agreement—but he doesn’t want them just to know this in their heads, he wants them to know it in their guts.

Them—and us. The Jews had grown so used to being God’s chosen people that many of them took him, and their own righteousness, for granted; and that attitude had carried into the church. It was easy for them to focus on the immorality and idolatry of their culture, which was blatant and disgusting, and easy to feel superior as a consequence. When that mindset takes hold, grace becomes something other people need—those people who aren’t up to our standard yet; from there, it’s a short step to demanding they measure up, and grace goes out the window.

It’s a universal temptation for the righteous, to self-righteousness—the delusion that we are righteous in ourselves rather than in Christ, and only by his grace. But as Paul shows us, if we forget that we need God’s grace as badly as anyone, if we let ourselves grow self-righteous and judgmental in spirit, then we will end up hoist with our own petard just as surely as old Wile E., condemned by our own verdict. Judgment begins with the house of God, after all. We just need to keep looking back to Jesus and the gospel of grace, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

Identity Idolatry

(Genesis 1:26-27, Jeremiah 2:9-13; Romans 1:16-32)

In addressing this passage from Romans, we should probably begin by clearing the decks: this passage is not about homosexual activity. It addresses homosexual activity, but that’s neither the focus of the passage nor its purpose. The focus is Paul’s explanation of how and why this world is broken; homosexual sex is just a symptom.

What we need to see, if indeed Romans is a theological retelling of salvation history, is that what we have beginning in verse 18 is the Creation and the Fall. That’s why Paul draws so intentionally on the language of Genesis. He’s laying out the universal disaster of human sin in order to make it clear that salvation comes through Christ alone. For him, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church is a major concern, especially as it seems to have become a problem in Rome, and so his key point to this is that Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing before God. Thus in verse 16 he declares that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” There is a distinction, but no separation.

And thus Paul says in verse 18 that the wrath of God is revealed—it’s shown to be active, it’s seen in operation, unfolding in human history—against all human ungodliness and unrighteousness. This isn’t just Gentiles, or even uniquely true of the Gentiles, as he’ll make clear in chapters 2-3. No one is innocent; all are guilty.

Now, when we think about sin, we tend to think about sins—we focus on particular acts, and argue about how bad they are, and maybe try to get something taken off the list. Paul goes below the surface to the root of our sin: idolatry, the choice to worship something other than God. Even for those who don’t have the Scriptures, there is enough reason to acknowledge and worship God just in this world that he has made; we do not fail to worship God out of ignorance. When the sinful heart comes up against the truth of God’s existence and his character—and the idea that such a God would have the right to expect things of us and to make demands of us—it suppresses that truth. The root impulse of sin is the desire to be the sole rulers of our own lives, and thus to acknowledge no god that we haven’t chosen for ourselves, on our own terms. All the people and goals and desires that mean more to us than God are expressions of the central desire of our sinful nature: to be first in our own lives, to bow to no authority but our own.

There’s an old saying that the man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer; it’s also said that he has a fool for a client, and both things are true. How much more, then, is he a fool who has himself for a god? As we’ve seen, if we turn away from the one who spoke the world into being, we become spiritually deaf; if we reject the one who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, we are blinded by the darkness of our hearts; if we refuse to accept the one who is Truth and is the source of all wisdom, there is nothing left for us but lies and folly. And against the terrors of the world, there is left no defense, and no option but to worship them in hopes of somehow appeasing them.

If we alienate ourselves from the one who made us, we cannot know who we are; if we must be gods to ourselves, we cannot be truly human to ourselves, and thus we cannot truly know what it means to be human. In this, I think, is one of the subtlest forms of idolatry, and one which is increasingly coming out into the open and taking center stage in our culture: the idolatry of identity. We worship the right to decide for ourselves who we are, to determine for ourselves what defines us. Anything connected to that becomes an inalienable right, because it’s part of who we are; no question or challenge is allowed.

That, of course, is why Romans 1 is so controversial in Western culture. I lived five years in Canada; if I chose to preach on this passage there, I could be accused of a hate crime and put on trial by one of their Human Rights Commissions, so-called. Why? For being “anti-gay,” or whatever terminology they might use. For attacking people for their “sexual identity.” There’s the key word: identity. The desire is definitive.

This isn’t just about sex, though; we see it all over the place. Our culture likes to redefine sins as diseases—thus, for instance, a disobedient child who throws a temper tantrum anytime he’s told “no” isn’t a kid who needs to be disciplined so he learns to grow up, he has ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). He’s not a sinner, he’s just sick. This is a trick we use to avoid admitting that we’re sinful, but it does more than that—it gives us an identity in our sin. This approach teaches us to name ourselves by our besetting sins, and allow them to define us. Which, honestly, is pretty twisted.

Beyond that, think of how we tell people who we are. We identify ourselves by our work—I am a pastor—or by our relationships—I am Sara’s husband, I am Lydia’s father (and Rebekah’s, and Bronwyn’s, and Iain’s). We identify ourselves by our country—I am an American—and our political party. We identify ourselves by our gender, and many of us identify ourselves by our heritage, including that aspect which we wrongly call “race.” We identify ourselves by where we went to school—IU or Purdue? All these “I am” statements are statements of identity—they are all examples of us defining ourselves outside of who we are in Christ. That doesn’t mean all of them are therefore idolatrous, as if it were somehow morally different for me to say “I am a pastor” versus “I pastor a church”; but they often are.

I’ve certainly known men and women who found their primary identity in being married—or in being single, whether they considered that positive or negative. I’ve known more than a few people who truly defined themselves by their political party. I’ve seen folks who were so concerned about what it meant to be a man or a woman that they considered that to be the primary fact about themselves. And yes, there are those who think that who they want to sleep with is absolutely essential to their inmost being.

Now, obviously, some of these are more central to who we are than others. We are created male and female by God, and so this is a fundamental part of who we are, far more profound than whether you voted for Nixon in ’72 or Kerry in ’04. Regardless, if we belong to Christ, that is our primary identity; that is what defines us above all other things. Everything else—even that we are male and female, which is a reality God created before the Fall, when we were still perfect—everything else is secondary. If we find our identity first in any of these things rather than in Christ, that is idolatry.

Anything that we think is essential to who we are (and thus to our well-being) is something we will defend against anyone and anything that seems to threaten it—even God. If I find my identity in being a pastor, my ministry won’t be the ministry of Christ, it will be all about me. If your idea of what it means to be a man or a woman—because that’s really where the identity issue lies, in our interpretation of that fact—if that is most important to you, everything else will be distorted or denied to fit that. And, yes, to anyone who believes their sexual desires are who they are, any suggestion that those desires might not be in accordance with the will of God is going to feel like a rejection of them as people and a vicious attack on their very souls.

Even so, if we’re going to preach the gospel clearly to our culture, we have to begin where Paul begins, here and in Acts: by exposing, naming, and confronting its idols. We have to help people see that what they take for freedom is really slavery, and that they aren’t really who they think they are—they were created to be more, in Jesus Christ.

Not Ashamed

This will be an interesting sermon series for me—something of a voyage of discovery. This past January, up at Calvin, I heard N. T. Wright talk about baptism in the light of Romans 6, and he argued that Romans 6-8 is a theological retelling of the story of the Exodus. Which made a lot of sense to me, and got me thinking that maybe he didn’t go far enough with his idea; maybe all of Romans, or at least much of it, is a theological retelling of the whole story of Israel—and thus of our story as the people of God.

It’s an attractive idea, I think, both because it helps make sense of some things in the structure of the book and because it addresses the biggest question I’ve always had about Romans: why was it written? Why did Paul just decide one day to sit down and write a theology textbook to a church he’d never visited? If it isn’t just a theology textbook, if there’s a deeper purpose to it, then that makes more sense to me. The only way to work out this idea and see how true it might be is actually to go through and write the sermons and see how it works.

If I’m right, then the purpose of Romans is not just to tell us what the church should believe, but to give us an overarching vision of what the church ought to be—what we ought to be on about as the people of God, what life as a follower of Christ should look like, and what the ministry of Christ ought to be about. We saw this Christmas that a key idea in Matthew’s gospel is that the life of Christ recapitulates the history of Israel; in Romans, I think, we have Paul doing by his teaching what Jesus did by his life and his example. The life of Christ is the model for the life of the people of God, because we his people have been given his life; Romans unpacks that for us and helps us to understand it. Paul wants us to understand what it means for us to live in and by the life of Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit as his redeemed people.

We see this in Paul’s introduction, which we read this morning. His description of himself normally takes up just a line or two in his letters; here it’s six verses long and basically a thumbnail sketch of his mission and message. His thanksgiving for them is briefer than usual, because this is a church he doesn’t know—it quickly shifts into a statement of his desire to visit them, culminating in the declaration, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”

And here’s the interesting thing: we see the theme of this letter in verses 16-17—and yeah, there’s a lot there, and we’re not going to unpack it all this morning—but these two verses are grammatically subordinate to verse 15. 15 is the main sentence, 16-17 function as a causal clause. We know this sort of thing—it’s like when I tell my wife, “I’m going to the store because we’re out of milk.” She doesn’t need me to tell her we’re out of milk, she already knows that; what she needs to know is that I’m taking the car keys. I tell her “we’re out of milk” so that she knows why.

It’s the same deal here. This has given some scholars heartburn—how can this be the main point of the letter if it isn’t even the main point of the sentence—but I think it’s really quite important. He says this, he lays out the heart of his message, for a specific reason: to explain why he’s eager to preach the gospel to them. This is why he preaches, this is why he ministers, this is what his ministry is all about. Paul is in it for the gospel, driven by the gospel, inspired by the gospel, powered by the gospel, guided by the gospel—and nothing else. This is what he does, and all he does, and he wants the same thing to be true of them as the church.

This is the vision, nothing more and nothing less. Notice, I’m not saying it’s Paul’s vision. It is, in a sense; we can talk about this as Paul’s vision for the church, or my vision for the church, in the sense of being captured by this vision. But it isn’t his vision in the sense that it began with him or belongs to him. If it were, it would be merely a human vision, and no merely human vision can build the church. As Andrew Purves of Pittsburgh Seminary says, no human ministry can redeem anyone; only the ministry of Christ is redemptive. Human vision may build a large, successful organization—it often does—but it won’t be the church, because it will only be a human organization. What we need is the vision of Christ for the church, which shines through Paul here.

The vision is that the church should be people of the gospel, all about the gospel, first, last, and always. We should be a people who recognize our absolute dependence on Jesus Christ—that we are not in the least righteous by our own power, but only through faith in him; that we depend completely on his righteousness, for our own attempts are worth nothing. We are called to be a people of grace, who humbly acknowledge before God and each other our need for grace—that we sin, that we fail, that we fall short, that we let others down, inevitably—we cannot be satisfactory people in our own strength.

We will always fall short of even what we consider “reasonable” expectations, because we are limited, fallible, and still struggling with our sin; we need grace, and so we need to show grace to others. We need to tell each other and to tell the world that the good news of Jesus isn’t “Work harder,” though to be sure we all have things on which we need to keep working; rather, the good news is that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and he is sufficient for us. He has redeemed us by his power, and he is transforming us by his power, making us righteous according to his will. We need to give him our best, not because it means we’ll get the result we want—we might not—but simply because it’s our best and it’s what God asks of us. The rest is up to him.

The key is, the power of salvation isn’t ours, it’s God’s, and his power and his righteousness are far beyond anything we can manage; this is why Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” We usually read this as an individual statement, and it is; Paul is an evangelist because he understands that only in the gospel is the power of God for salvation that brings true life. Indeed, this is the only motivation for evangelism that really bears fruit for the long term, if we are captured by the glory and goodness of Jesus Christ and our salvation in him—if we are full to overflowing with his love, and with gratitude for all he has done for us, then we will tell others naturally, every chance we get, the same way that those who are in love are always talking about their beloved. That’s what fills their hearts and their thoughts, and so that’s what fills their speech as well. In the same way, if we would be effective in telling others about Jesus, we must begin by looking to him ourselves and delighting in his presence.

That said, what Paul is saying here is about more than just our individual witness, it’s also about how we live together as the church. It’s about putting the gospel front and center in everything we do and refusing to be about anything else. We lose sight of this because the church has become organizationalized. It’s become all about the organization, thinking like an organization—and an organization exists first and foremost to keep itself in existence, and then if it can, to get bigger, so as to give itself more resources to stay in existence. The church in this country has a bad habit of thinking and evaluating itself in those terms, and so it becomes all about the numbers and how you attract people; and you do that through programs and worship style and stuff you can advertise.

Now, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with programs, and certainly everyone has a style, but there are a couple bad assumptions here. The first is that the church is supposed to be successful on organizational terms, which means strength in numbers; the second is that we have to be the ones to make that happen, and we have to use the same techniques the world does. When we get into that mindset, we end up ashamed of the gospel, because the gospel doesn’t fit the marketing paradigm; we put the stuff front and center that goes over well with the test audience. Paul is calling us to something different: to fix our eyes firmly on Jesus, to proclaim the gospel in every way we can find to do it—which is where our programs come in, to give us different ways and opportunities to proclaim the gospel—and let God worry about the rest.