Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Spoils of Surrender- Rom. 5:1-5

This Independence Day many will adorn themselves with red, white, and blue, and gather around a grill with family and friends to celebrate the victory our nation won over England during the Revolutionary War. Our country’s history has been marked by many victories over some incredible foes and on days like the fourth, we ought to take great pride in our nation’s uncanny strength in the midst of  struggle. For all of its faults, the United States of America is still the greatest nation on earth and her greatness can be attributed to many battles fought and won.

However, as we celebrate our Nation’s birth this year, I want us also to celebrate something even more important—our spiritual rebirth. Interestingly, our salvation and all of its associated blessings did not come as a result of us winning anything. In fact, the benefits of salvation come precisely when we lose the struggle we are in with God because of our sin and surrender ourselves over to Him. Though it may not be common to celebrate those who surrender, this is exactly how salvation works. Those willing to forfeit everything to the Lord will enjoy all kinds of spoils—spoils worth celebrating. So let’s do just that! This Independence Day, let us celebrate what our dependence on the Lord offers by looking at five benefits of salvation in Romans 5:1-5.

1) Peace-5:1

“Therefore” in 5:1 connects the contents of Romans 1-4 to the remainder of the book. In fact, the opening phrase of chapter 5—“Therefore, having been justified by faith” acts as a summary of what has been disclosed in the letter to the Romans thus far. In chapters 1-4 Paul has made the following points: 1) we are all sinners in need of justification (see 1:18-3:20), 2) justification is not by the law, tradition, or circumcision (see 3:21-4:15), 3) justification comes by faith (see 4:16-25). With this firmly in view, Paul wants to discuss the present and ongoing effects or benefits of one’s justification here in 5:1-5. All of the specs of salvation, the “trim,” if you will, of this incredible gift, are dependent on whether or not one is justified. 

If one is justified, they have “peace with God” (5:1b). However, make no mistake, Paul is not talking about internal tranquility that manifests itself in the “warm fuzzies.” He means to depict an external and objective peace that exists because of a new relationship between God and those who turn to him in faith (Mounce, 133). Paul talks about this peace in Colossians:

Colossians 1:21-22-“And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in HIs fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach”

To have “peace with God” in these and other contexts means to enjoy a relationship with God. This is only possible because the enmity and hostility that once existed between mankind and the Divine has been removed.

Many people do not realize that indifference to God is not an option. When God looks upon the earth He sees two different kinds of people—those who are at war with Him and those who are at peace with Him. Many other people do not realize that to be at war with God can take on many forms. If someone is still in their sin, they are at war with God. If someone is trying to earn their salvation, they are at war with God. If someone believes that the law or tradition will save, they are at war with God. It is not just he obviously lost that are still at war with God—the pharisaic legalist can also be found in the enemy’s ranks.  Only those who have been justified by faith stand with the Lord in peaceful relationship.

Such a relationship is not brought on by anything that the believer does. Instead, this peace is brought about “through our Lord Jesus Christ”—the object of their faith. Paul explains how this works in Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:14-15-“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,…”

Jesus is the bridge by which man can clear the chasm of sin and meet the Lord. No longer do people 
have to be at war with God, Jesus has won the war and made it possible for people everywhere to have peace with Him!

2) Reconciliation-5:2

Not only does the believer enjoy peace as a benefit of salvation/justification, they also enjoy associated reconciliation. In fact, the realization of peace makes possible a reconciliation between God and man—“through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (5:2a).

According to this verse, reconciliation is accomplished the same way peace was—“through whom [Christ].” Christ’s activity has purchased peace and allowed reconciliation. In other words, Not only did Jesus fight and win the war between God and man as general of salvation, he has played the part of chief diplomat in arranging an introduction between these two formerly opposed nation-states. The introduction made between God and man is made “by faith” and leads the two into a relationship in which “grace” is bestowed.

Following WWII, most of Europe was in shambles. Those formerly Nazis occupied regions were especially hard hit, leaving people of all kinds in great disarray and destitution. Though the war had ended, if left to themselves, those in these areas would have struggled, suffered, and starved. However, in a great display of grace and goodwill, America wrote and passed the Marshall plan in which America gave $13 billion (approximately $130 billion in current dollar value as of June 2016) in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. These funds did not only go to help countries that were allies during the war. They also aided most parts of formerly Nazis-occupied Germany! This historical example of reconciliation and grace is similar to what Jesus makes possible for the believer.

After successfully ending the war between God and man for those who are justified, Jesus provides added blessings of reconciliation and grace that work to build up what was once destroyed. As a result, the believer no longer stoops under the wreckage of sin, he “stands” tall in the grace of God—“this grace in which we stand” (5:2a)

Those who embrace this reconciliation “exult it he hope of the glory of God” (5:2b). Though, as Paul said earlier in Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” through the provisions Christ has made, believers can know the glory of God again and rejoice. What else can they do? They were once at war with God. Now they know peace! They were once estranged from the Lord. Now they have a relationship! “The fall of humankind did not put an end to God’s plans once and for all but rather necessitated an eternally significant detour through the cross and the empty tomb. God’s plan that we should reflect his glory is not being realized in the lives of obedient believers” (Mounce, 135).

If we understand just how incredible our justification is—that peace reigns where war once ruled and where reconciliation has usurped acute separation—we too would celebrate jubilantly, we too would “exult in hope of the glory of God.” 

3) Perseverance-5:3

Paul cannot contain his excitement as he progresses through this passage. His eagerness to list more benefits that salvation provides can be heard at the opening of verse 3—“and not only this,” (5:3a). The third benefit Paul discloses of salvation is perseverance—“we also exult in our tribulations” (5:3b). In other words, the joy of reconciliation and peace that salvation affords is so compelling and so powerful that believers are even able to rejoice in the tribulations of life.

However, an additional reason believers are able to rejoice in tribulation is that they “know that tribulation brings about perseverance” (5:3b). For the lost or legalistic—tribulation breeds despair. For the redeemed, tribulation yields perseverance.

2 Corinthians 6:3-10-“… as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

James 1:2-4- “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

1 Peter 1:6-7 -“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”

Paul, James, and Peter are all agreed: for those who are saved, trials and tribulations are not encumbrances designed to discourage and destroy, they are opportunities for believers to build character and glorify God! What an awesome benefit it is for the redeemed to know that their tribulations are not without purpose and, in the long run, produce growth and strength! This is something the lost do not have. For them, tribulation is meaningless.

4) Hope-5:4

Such perseverance introduces another benefit of salvation—a hopeful character—“and perseverance, proven character…” (5:4a). The Greek term that Paul uses here is dokimhn. Paul is the only one who uses this word in the New Testament and it describes the kind of character that has been proven by trial. In the life of a believer, tribulations suffered produce such character. In fact, in one translation of this verse (the NEB) it reads, “endurance brings proof that we have stood the test.”

Many of the military commercials one hears on the radio or sees on the television depict simple character qualities that are, in most cases, admirable or desirous—honor, pride, unity, strength, etc. These are promoted alongside footage of what looks like a struggle of some kind (enemy fire, natural disasters, etc.). Why? Because people associate certain character qualities with overcoming obstacles. The viewer is supposed to believe that these Marines or National Guard troops have become men and women of honor, strength, and pride because they have overcome incredible odds or made it through perilous tribulations. The same is true in the Christian life.   

The experience of coming through a time of testing and growing as a result produces hope. After all, if Jesus has saved the believer from the war between God and man and carries him through each and every subsequent trial, it should give him hope that Christ will continue to carry him in a similar way until the end. The “confidence in God’s ability and willingness to bring [people] through difficult times leads to an even brighter hope for that which lies beyond” (Mounce, 135). This “hope” is not a wish or hunch, but a confident expectation of what will take place as though it were as good as already accomplished.

This benefit is yet another distinguishing characteristic of someone who has been justified before God. God’s people are people at peace, people in relationship with God, people who persevere, and people who have a hopeful character. People who still belong to the world, people who are still at war with God, are troubled, estranged from God, prone to giving up, and despairing.

5) Transformation-5:5

One final benefit that Paul elucidates is a heart filled with the love of God—“and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts” (5:5a). God fills the hearts of men that were once cold and hardened by sin with his overflowing love. This is yet another distinguishing mark of God’s people and it was predicted in the Old Testament.

Ezekiel 36:26-“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

This “heart of flesh” depicts a living heart that responds to God’s life-giving power and direction. This kind of heart replaced the failed heart of sin and enmity that is found in God’s natural-born foes.
This new heart comes by means of “the Holy Spirit who was given to us,” (5:5b). Only someone as powerful as God himself is able to breathe life into a dead heart. In a supernatural kind of spiritual open heart surgery, God reanimates the dead tissue of our souls, allowing us to enjoy a new life in his power with God and with others. As a result, none are more alive than those who have been saved by God and given His Spirit.

So What?

With salvation/justification comes peace, reconciliation, hope, perseverance, and transformation. Nothing in this world and nothing that we can do is able to provide these in any compelling way. So how does one acquire salvation/justification along with all of these peripheral blessings? These do not come by winning the war we find ourselves with God, by asserting ourselves, by working our way out of our guilt, or by somehow doing enough good to appease his holiness. These spoils come by surrendering everything over to him. It is the only conflict in which those who surrender are issued the benefits! This Independence Day, may we be reminded to celebrate our dependence on the Lord and, by proxy, enjoy the spoils that come with salvation—the peace we now have with our heavenly Father, the reconciled relationship with have with our God, the hope that informs our daily walk, the perseverance to keep going in the midst of struggle, and the Holy Spirit who strengthens our every step.

Perhaps people who call themselves Christians do not distinguish themselves as such and do not endorse peace, reconciliation, hope, perseverance, and the Holy Spirit in their lives because these believe that salvation is about winning, earning, and posturing.  We must understand that in so doing, people are going to look no different than the world we live in—a world in conflict with God, estranged from God, without any hope, unable to persevere, and lacking the Holy Spirit. What is necessary of God’s people is surrender, and, at least in this case, this is a beautiful thing! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Faith of a Father Pt. 2-Rom. 4:16-25

Last Sunday we were introduced to a great example of faith-- Abraham. Though Abraham was Jewish, Paul has argued that all who place their faith in God can stand to learn from him because he placed faith in God and was justified before any Jewish traditions even existed. Inasmuch as Abraham is a model of faith for all who believe, it stands to reason that we should learn as much as we can from this figure. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to describe Abraham’s faith in the remainder of chapter 4—particularly 4:16-25. Therefore, let’s take a close look at three final parts of Paul’s teaching on Abraham’s faith and learn what our faith ought to look like today.  

Image result for Abraham and Sarah

1] The Statement of Abraham’s Faith-4:16-17

Verse 16 opens with a major transitional statement—“for this reason.” This phrase points ahead to the program of salvation that Paul would like for the remainder of Romans to elucidate. Having already explained how and why people of all kinds are lost and having dispelled how NOT to be saved (works, circumcision, the law), Paul moves on in verse 16 of chapter 4 to spell out the nature of salvation in positive tones. I other words, now that we know what salvation isn’t, Paul wants to move on to what it is.

Interestingly, instead of deciding to work with a different example or analogy, Paul continues to endorse Abraham in order to make his point. This serves to, once again, strike a chord of continuity between the church age and the Old Testament age. Salvation by faith has been the same from the beginning and Paul reiterates this point in verse 16 which says “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham who is the father of us all.” As explained in 4:9-12 and then reiterated in 13-15, Abraham, inasmuch as faith alone saved him, is the spiritual patriarch of all who believe in God—regardless of whether or not they kept the traditions (like circumcision) or possessed the Law (the Old Testament). Just as grace through faith was applied to his account, so too is it applied to anyone’s account who trust in God for salvation.

Paul supports this statement with a corresponding reference in verse 17—“as it is written, ‘A father of many nations have I made you’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist…”. This reference serves several functions. First, it draws attention to what Abraham was asked to place faith in initially—namely, the promise God gave him that from him would come a great nation. Second, it demonstrates what faith in God is capable of achieving—“who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17). For Abraham and his wife Sara, faith in God resulted in the miracle birth of Isaac from Sarah’s once barren womb. Though her womb was “dead,” God, in response to the faith of Abraham “called into being that which did not exist”—a son.

God is pleased to bring life out of death and wake up that which is barren when faith is exercised. This is what was true in Abraham’s life and it is what Paul hoped would be true of in the lives of those in his audience. In fact, this particular reference to God’s life-giving and resurrection power serves as a subtle transition of focus. The power that performed this miracle in Abraham’s life is the same power that gave life to a dead Christ and called him forth from the tomb. This same power can be realized in anyone’s life if he/she places faith in the God of Abraham through Jesus Christ.
Though verses 16-17 provide us with a clear statement of Abraham’s faith, Paul has yet to really describe the shape this faith took and how far it was really stretched.

2] The Example of Abraham’s Faith-4:18-21

For the next four verses, Paul describes what the faith of Abraham looked like. First, Paul reveals that Abraham’s faith held up against hope—“in hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be’….” (4:18). In order to fully appreciate the acuity of Abraham’s trust in God, one must understand the unusual situation in which he was placed.

Having lived his whole life in an obscure land, God called Abraham to leave his family and home behind in order to follow God and start a new nation. The only thing this now elderly man and his wife had to go on was the promise of God!

Though, in God’s economy, Abraham’s actions were fully insured, here, Paul is looking at this Old Testament figure’s predicament from a worldly perspective. In a worldly sense, what Abraham did was nonsense and hopeless. People did not leave their family or homeland on a hunch, especially if there was no evidence that what was promised was going to happen.  However, this is exactly what Abraham did! How did he do it? By focusing more on the promises of God and less on human convention—“according to that which was spoken, ‘so shall your descendants be.’”

Are you being asked to trust God in what looks like a hopeless situation? Remember to be more impressed with the promises of God than what the world says makes sense.  

Not only did Abraham’s faith hold up against hope, it was steadfast in spite of appearances—“without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (4:19). Abraham’s trust in God did not only defy human convention, it defied biology. Elderly men were not known for starting nations, especially if they were wed to a barren wife. In fact, so impractical were Abraham and Sarah’s prospects that the Bible describes the two as “dead”—he was “as good as dead” and her womb was “dead.”

Paul cuts Abraham no favors here as he describes the plight of this old couple. However, their desperation only serves to highlight how strong their faith was. Against all human conventions and biological odds, these two trusted the Lord to use them to bring a great nation into the world.
Are you being asked to trust God in spite of appearances today? Remember, faith believes that the promises of God do not have governed by what’s always natural or typical.

Next, Paul highlights the longevity of Abraham’s faith. Not only did Abraham’s faith defy convention and dare to bet against appearances, it persevered under pressure—“Yet with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God,…” (4:20). The unwavering quality of Abraham’s faith is, perhaps, most impressive when one recognizes just how long Abraham had to wait in order to receive any indication that God’s promises would come true. Abraham was initially promised a son and nation in Genesis 12 while in his old homeland at the age of seventy five years old. It wasn’t until twenty five years later in Genesis 21 that Isaac is born! During this “long wait” Abraham’s faith did not waiver, deplete, or weaken. It grew! How? Abraham was resting on “the promise of God” not in how fast it was being fulfilled. In so doing, even though things seemed quiet on his end, God was being gloried on His end.

Have you been waiting for something to happen that is consistent with what God has disclosed in his Word? Faith rests in the promises of God and grows in the waiting rooms of life. After all, Abraham waited 25 years for a son, Jacob waited 14 years before marrying Rachel, the Hebrews waited 400 years to be saved from slavery and then 40 more years in a wilderness before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites waited in exile twice, and spent 400 years waiting for God to break his silence.

As Paul finishes his description of Abraham’s faith, he reminds the reader of what kept Abraham trusting in spite of human convention, appearances, and time—“and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (4:21). Abraham was more impressed with the promises of God than he was in what he heard, saw, or how long he waited! “Being fully assured” calls to mind implicit and total trust. This is the shape that Abraham’s faith took and it is this same kind of faith in God that Paul encourages in the lives of those who read these words.

3] The Result of Abraham’s Faith-4:22-25

The “therefore” in verse 22 connects the description of Abraham’s faith with the results of Abraham’s faith. The consequence of Abraham’s faith in God was righteousness—“Therefore, it was also credited to him as righteousness” (4:22). Faith is awarded with the righteousness of God every time it is placed in the right object. For Abraham, faith in God’s promise of what was to come, resulted in his righteous standing before the Lord.

This righteous is not only required of Abraham in order to be in a right relationship with God, it is what is required of everyone in order to enter into a relationship with God. This is why Abraham’s faith is a model for everyone who follows him.

This is what Paul means when he says, “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited,…” (4:23). In other words, Abraham lived out this example and it was recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis so that all who come after him might follow his lead and be justified before God in the same way—through faith!

But faith in what? For Abraham, faith was placed in the promise of God for things to come (a great nation that would be used to bless the world). However, as Paul concludes chapter 4, he directs his audience’s attention to the proper destination of their faith—“as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (4:24-25).

So What?

Jesus Christ and His completed act of redemption is the only appropriate object of our faith. Jesus and the promise of salvation He represents alone can provide hope against hope—even the kind of hope that defies human convention. The promise of his resurrection is not limited to what is expected or can be explained naturally. While we and creation wait for this resurrection power to be realized for us, we have every reason to persevere in faith because the promise of what is to come is as assured as the grave is empty. Faith in Jesus and His ministry results in righteousness—the very same righteousness that allows anyone who believes a relationship with God.

Can this kind of faith be found in your life? Is your faith in Jesus more compelling to you than worldly conventions and what you can see? Does your faith in Him endure as you wait for his perfect answer for your life? Are you assured of what He has promised?

May it be said of us and our church that our faith in Jesus’ resurrection power is as hopeful, steadfast, and unwavering as Abraham’s was! If there was ever a time when the church needed to buck against convention, it is now. If there was ever a time when appearances were grim, it is now. If ever there was a sense of wait upon the Lord and his direction and blessing, it is now. These aren’t obstacles that should inhibit our faith; these are opportunities to let our faith shine and, by proxy, glorify God!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Faith of a Father- Rom. 4:9-12

Father’s day has taken on new meaning for me ever since my oldest (Audrey) came into the world. As I reflect on my relationship with my kids and what I hope to instill in them, I am reminded of what my own dad has passed down to me. How to take care of my dress shoes, my love for the San Antonio Spurs, appreciation for good Mexican food and Bluebell Ice Cream, commitment to excellence, cleanliness, punctuality, and my type A personality can all be, at least in some ways, traced back to my dad. All of these behaviors or character traits were inherited, in some degree, from what is witnessed in my father’s life. The same will be true (for better or worse), in the lives of my own children (I apologize in advance J).

Image result for Father's day

Some of the more important things that I picked up from my dad include attending church, getting involved in ministry, prayer, and serving others. These more fruitful characteristics have served me well and have helped shape me into the father that I am today. In fact, I hope to instill these more redemptive habits in the lives of my own children. However while these activities are great practices to endorse, there is at least one characteristic that is even more important to model before others (especially those who look up to us)—Faith.

The brave new world in which Paul was writing was not unlike our own. In it, people are more infatuated with what they can see and behaviors they can measure in some tangible way. However, when it comes to the most important relationship of all—one’s relationship with God—it is not so much about what someone can do, but about the faith that they have. This teaching is clearly witnessed in Paul’s discussion on one very important father—Abraham. When it came to the Jewish people’s appreciation for this figure, every day was Father’s Day. That said, when Paul is finished discussing Abraham and how/when he entered into a relationship with God we will soon learn that it is not just the Jews that should celebrate this Old Testament figure. The faith that was witnessed in his life is the greatest of all characteristics that any father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, leader, teacher, etc. can model before the world.

a) The Inquiry is Made-4:9-10b

Now that Paul has made it clear that his understanding of salvation and justification is not unlike what the Old Testament teaches (see 4:1-8), the question becomes “is this blessing intended for the Jews only?” After all, Paul was appealing to uniquely Jewish authorities (Abraham and the Old Testament) in order to support his position. Jewish reader’s/listeners in Paul’s day might be tempted to believe that God’s program of justification left no room for the Gentiles in the audience. Paul addresses this theory by floating a question that is posed by an imaginary conversation partner—“Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised?...” (4:9a). This particular variation of this inquiry appeals to one distinguishing feature of the Jewish people—male circumcision. 

Remember, as per the discussion Paul gave earlier (particularly in Romans 2:28-29), circumcision is defined as an outward symbol of the relationship the Jews were supposed to be have with God.

Romans 2:28-29-“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, not is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise it not from me, but from God.”

The relationship the Jews were intended to maintain with God (a spiritual and holy relationship) was illustrated in this very physical way of setting oneself apart. However, people in Paul’s day were becoming more concerned about the outward sign than they were about the relationship that it was supposed to signify. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to remind everyone listening that physical marks are not enough to save—one must place his/her faith in Christ to be justified before God.

Therefore, the question that Paul asks here is probably the very same question that was on the minds of many Jews—“Is God’s program of salvation through faith the same for both Jew and Gentile—circumcised and uncircumcised?”

Interestingly, Paul gives an answer immediately after the first iteration of the question is posed when he says “…for we say ‘Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness’…” (4:9b). If what was said in 4:3 is correct—“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”—then that alone should settle this issue. If these references are true, then faith, not circumcision, saves. This would mean that justification is available to all—circumcised and uncircumcised alike. However, this does not appear to satisfy the hypothetical inquirer. 

Paul’s imaginary conversation partner asks “how then was it credited?”  (4:10a). I mean, God can’t just give this kind of a gift to people without having done something to earn it. It just doesn’t work that way (at least not according to the traditional/legalistic way of thinking). Something must be DONE in order to be justified—something more than mere trust.

This insatiable search for the “how” of justification and a corresponding “work” for salvation is evident today. In fact, the greatness of God’s grace is a stumbling block for many in our works-based system. We educate ourselves to get a good job. We do a job to receive pay. We please our boss so that we might eventually get promoted. We land a promotion to better provide for our family. We better provide for our family in order that they might be successful and maybe get an education. Then the process continues on and on and on. However. Paul has been throwing this popular paradigm out the window by suggesting that a relationship with God is not dependent on one’s works or what is done. It is a gift that is truly radical and totally against our natural way of thinking.

Therefore, believing that he’s found a work that can be connected to how God’s people relate to him, the hypothetical conversation partner asks “while he was circumcised or uncircumcised?” In other words, was Abraham justified before or after he was circumcised? If Abraham was circumcised before he was justified, one might be able to make the case that his actions had a part in saving him—his circumcision produced or affected his relationship with God in some way/shape/or form.

Ultimately, these three questions all ask the same thing—“is salvation reserved for those who have been circumcised—i.e. the good Jews who have kept the Law and done what it prescribes? Or, is it available to others as well—the uncircumcised?” The answer to this seems to be riding on when Abraham was circumcised. 

b) The Explanation is Given-4:10b-12

Paul puts this whole thing to rest by satisfying the tension with a quick answer and corresponding explanation. In the second part of verse 10 he says, “Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised…” (4:10c). Abraham was circumcised AFTER he was saved. This puts to rest any notion that his circumcision played any effective role in his justification or establishing his special relationship with God.

The Genesis account proves this. Abraham is initially called of God in chapter 12 and obeys. Later, in chapter 15, the promises to Abraham are reiterated. It is not until well after Ishmael is born (13 years) in chapter 17 that the signs of the covenant are provided. This includes a statement of Abraham and his servant’s circumcision.

Genesis 17:23-24-“Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him. Now Abraham was ninety-nine year old when he was circumcised…”

In other words, Abraham had been called, had obeyed, and was following the Lord well before he was circumcised.

Paul explains what this all means in verse 11 of Romans 4 when he says “and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised,…” (4:11a). This statement is important for several reasons. First, it establishes the nature of circumcision. As was argued in chapter 2, Paul reminds all reading this that circumcision is merely a “sign.” Second, this verse explains that circumcision in Jewish life is a “seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised.” In other words, it demonstrates outwardly the inner and spiritual transaction that has already taken place.

Circumcision was a label that identified the justified, not the means by which people were justified and given a relationship with God.

Had Abraham been saved through circumcision, then only the Jews could call him father. But because Abraham is justified by faith and not by exclusive works and/or traditions, he can be called “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might credited to them,…” (4:11b). If Jew or Gentile has faith in God, he or she can call Abraham their spiritual example. Abraham, in other words, is the spiritual mentor for all who believe and are justified by faith.

Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!!!

But what of the Jewish people? Are we not told that Abraham was the father of a nation that would eventually be called Israel? Surely Abraham’s legacy is Jewish in some ways! This is true, for, as Paul continues “and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised” (4:12). God did call Abraham to begin a tradition of circumcision and to be patriarch of the Jewish people. However, only those who “follow in the steps of the faith of…Abraham” are his true children. After all, Abraham had faith before he had the tradition and outward signs.  

So What?

Given the inquiry made and the explanation given in this passage, the readers of Romans walk away with some very important lessons concerning salvation via justification. First, salvation is by faith, not by corresponding symbols like circumcision. Though we do not associate circumcision with salvation in the protestant world today, many make the mistake of imbuing baptism with salvific powers. Whether one is talking about circumcision or baptism, we must not confuse confirming acts that evidence salvation after the fact (circumcision, baptism, spiritual gifts, etc.) with the means by which salvation is bestowed. Second, if Abraham was saved before he was circumcised, this means that he is a spiritual father-like example to all who are saved—Jew and Gentile alike. He is an example in faith for all the redeemed given the way in which he was justified before God (by faith alone) and he is an example in faith to the Jews given the way this was symbolized (through his circumcision). Third, given that Abraham is spiritual patriarch to all today, there is at least one lesson that we can learn from him given what this passage says—a lesson that fathers should especially commit themselves to and pass down to their children. This lesson is faith.

More than the outward practices of the faithful (attending church, participating in projects, etc.), your kids, my kids, and those who look up to any one of us need to know that we are men and women of faith—faith that believes God when it doesn’t make sense (just like Abraham believed that God would make of him a great nation in spite of being old and childless with a barren wife), faith that obeys God even when things are uncertain (as when Abraham followed God’s instructions and left his homeland to a new country), and faith that is willing to sacrifice everything for the Lord (just as Abraham showed willingness to sacrifice Isaac on the altar).

Thankfully, my dad has demonstrated this kind of faith throughout his lifespan. Dad placed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as a young person, and has exercised faith in spite of great difficulty since. When his health failed during a bout with cancer and he was being treated with chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant, his faith kept him sane and his hope in Jesus kept him strong. When the company he adores and for which he has worked for over 30 years nearly collapsed and everything was especially precarious, Dad’s faith in the Lord Jesus gave him confidence that no matter what happened, he would be taken care of. My prayer for myself is that a similar example and legacy of faith might be passed down to my own children. I hope you have a similar prayer for yourself and those around you this Father’s day. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Personal Remedy for the "Monday Morning Blues" - Pastoral Reflections

Though many bemoan the emergence of the work week, pastors are especially susceptible to catching an unusually acute case of what has been coined "the Monday morning blues." On this unique phenomenon Charles Stone writes, 

"A pastor's life is filled with both ups and downs. Sundays can be either. Good attendance, a message well-received and positive people can make it an up day. Low attendance, poor offerings and critical people can make it a down day. However, in my 30-plus years of ministry, whether Sunday is up or down, I've found that most of us pastors often face the Monday morning blues" (Stone, “Monday Morning Blues? Try these Six Antidotes,” 2014)

In his own reflections on this debilitating condition Rick Duncan claims, 

"Ministers, pastors, and church planters pour themselves out for the cause of Christ over the weekend. They enter the weekend with great hope. But criticisms, lack of visible results, and conflicts show up on Saturdays and Sundays. Self-doubts and guilt feelings pile up. Many weekends, a leader will self-diagnose and do the self-blame thing for an apparent failure to communicate with clarity and life-changing power. All these disappointments combine to conspire against a leader’s hope" (Duncan, “3 Ways to Beat the Monday Morning Ministry Blues,” 2012).  

Often the minister’s joy and sense of hope struggles most as soon as the weekend comes to a close. In his own thoughts on the matter, Thom Rainer writes that Monday “can be the toughest day of the week” (Rainer, “Seven Ways Pastors can Deal with Monday Morning Blues,” 2016).

Seeing as how I suffer from my own bouts of this chronic condition more often than I’d like to admit, I can sympathize with these sentiments. Though many have offered tips or steps to combat this recurring issue (in threes, sixes, and sevens), I have, by God’s grace, stumbled upon a solution that works wonders for my own spiritual and emotional well-being—preparing for next week’s sermon on Monday morning. What I will share concerning this preventative measure is not intended to be prescriptive. Instead, the following represents my personal thoughts on a potential solution to a very real issue that is worth considering.

The Healing Power of Monday Morning Sermon Preparation

While many ministers refrain from scheduling too much on Mondays or even take the day off completely, I covet my time in my office on Monday mornings feverishly preparing for the next Sunday’s message for the following reasons:  

A Healthy Preoccupation

Inasmuch as idle hands and an idle mind can serve as playgrounds for Satan, rigorous study of God’s Word provides me with the kind of healthy preoccupation that can help stave off the demons of temptation. Not only that, but sermon preparation also distracts from the whispers of criticism or unmet expectations of the previous weekend. When I’m steeped in planning and organizing what has been yielded from my exegesis for that week’s homily, my mind is being set on things above (Col. 3:2), my spirit is fascinated by what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8), and my ministry is focusing on what is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Such thoughts are a redemptive alternative to the lingering and subversive discouragements that can sneak in uninvited when my mind is allowed to wander. These considerations also provide me with a formidable foundation upon which to minister throughout my week.

A Practical Advantage

In addition to focusing my mind on that which is helpful and holy, sermon preparation conducted at the very beginning of the week allows me a practical ministry advantage. If I’m able to prepare the majority of my sermon on Monday, I am freed up to spend the remainder of my week out in the community, meeting with congregants, strategizing, etc. Not only that, when/if something unforeseen surfaces (an unexpected death, emergency, ministry opportunity), I’m able to devote more time and attention to the players and situations involved without the added anxiety of having to make sure that my primary responsibility (preaching the Word) is fulfilled (Acts 6:4).  On the rare occasion that these “divine interruptions” take place on Monday and I am forced to put my normal preparations on hold until later, I know that I have the rest of the week to write my sermon. Either way, setting aside time on Monday to prepare gives me a ministry advantage and a feeling of accomplishment early in the week (something that in and of itself is an encouragement).

An Investment in a Great Relationship

Time spent in the Word of God is time spent with the WORD of God. I’ve always considered my time in Bible study and subsequent homiletical formulation as an investment in my personal relationship with Christ. Who better to dialogue with after coming off of the high highs or low lows that inevitably come on Sunday? He is never late, always right, and knows just what to say to correct, encourage, or challenge me as I begin my week. Therefore, rather than take a day off or schedule meetings with church members/leaders on Monday (particularly in the mornings), I have a standing appointment with the Savior of the World that is enjoyed in the form of my sermon preparation. When this meeting goes well, I can be confident that all subsequent activities and appointments will bring glory and honor to Him.

Sermon preparation directs my mind where it needs to be, provides my ministry with a practical advantage, and forces me to invest in the most important relationship that I have. Not only that, but homily-building even acts as a healing salve that can be applied to the injuries one’s fragile spirit may suffer at the hands of negative criticism, self-doubt, or the enemy’s forces. What better time is there to take advantage of these benefits of sermon preparation than when ministers are most vulnerable to discouragement, frustration, and temptation (Monday mornings)?  In fact, hitting the ground running in the Word through sermon preparation on Monday mornings just might help stave off those very real and annoying “blues.” Give it a try! What do you have to lose? 

Monday, June 5, 2017

3, 2, 1 "We're Debt Free!" Rom. 4:1-8

Dave Ramsey is a popular radio personality and financial guru that has helped many people climb out of financial debt. Sometimes when I’m on my way home later at night, I catch some of his show and hear people who have come into the studio to share how they have overcome a mountain of debt by endorsing some of the common-sense directives found in Ramsey’s popular Financial Peace University. After a time of sharing and celebration, Dave announces the couple’s name, how much debt they’ve paid off, how long it took them, and then after a brief countdown they all scream “WE’RE DEBT FREE!” This is followed by cheers, a playback from Braveheart, music, and all kinds of fanfare. It just goes to show how exciting and utterly relieving it is to be disconnected from the slavery of financial struggle and the weight of monetary debt.

Image result for Debt Paid Off

However, today I want to discuss along with Paul something even more exciting and something even more profound. I want to talk about relief from spiritual debt owed to God himself. I want to talk about being disconnected from the slavery and weight of sin. To be sure, Financial Peace University will not take care of such a deficit. What is necessary is justification by faith and it has been on Paul’s mind ever since chapter 3 of Romans. As Paul opens chapter 4, after having taught the basics of justification, he introduces someone into the studio who is able to say “I’m debt free!” This presentation both inspires his audience and supports his argument for justification by faith. Therefore, let’s listen in as we hear two parts of this case study as it is presented in Romans 4:1-8.

1) Confusion-What about Abraham?-4:1-3a

Chapter 4 helps prove that the program of salvation Paul is describing in Romans has been in place from the beginning. Paul argues that Justification by faith (not works) is not a new doctrine, but a continuation of what was always the case. To forward his point, Paul asks his audience, particularly the Jews in his audience, to consider one of their greatest heroes—Abraham.

This is a great example of an appeal to authority. If I was trying to make a point about good acting, I might have you consider people like Daniel Day Lewis and Nicole Kidman to prove my point. If I was talking about tennis, I might have you consider the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. If I was arguing what it means to be a great chef, I might mention Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsey. These have earned the right to be called authorities in their respective fields and any consideration of either acting, tennis play, or cooking, must mention these prominent figures as a good reference. The same was true of Abraham.

When it came to understanding how people related to God, especially the Jews, there was none better to consider than the Patriarch of the Jewish people. This is why Paul begins chapter 4 by asking “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?...” (4:1). If Paul can demonstrate that Abraham related to God in the same way the apostle has described in chapter 3, then he can call all people, especially the Jews, to model this in their own lives. 

The Old Testament itself calls Abraham the “father” of Israel (Isa. 51:2) and recognizes the role that Genesis gives him as the founder of the people of God (Gen. 12:1-3) (Moo, ZIBBC, 26). However, the Jewish tradition made Abraham even more significant. Many attributed Abraham’s unique relationship with God to his acts of obedience. Others also believed that Abraham was justified before God because of these acts/works of obedience. Therefore, in order to get the Jews to believe that salvation was by faith and not by works, Paul has to demonstrate, against the trends of his day, that even Abraham was justified in this way. After all, as Paul continues “for if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about…” (4:2).

That said, Paul makes it very clear that Abraham, in fact, does not have anything to boast about before God—“but not before God” (4:2). He is, in many ways, just like those Paul discussed earlier—“Where then is boasting? It is excluded” (3:27).

Paul’s next comment sets up the remainder of this passage and also establishes the main inquiry being made—“For what does the Scripture saw?” (4:3a). Ultimately, the people to which Paul was writing would be best served if they could see what the Old Testament (their Scriptures) had to say on the matter. After all, these same Scriptures gave the Jews their understanding of Abraham. If Paul could get his audience to see that the Scriptures are saying the same thing that he is saying, his case will be that much stronger. This question is the ultimate appeal to authority!

Notice that Paul does not appeal to himself even though he very well could have. After all, Paul is an apostle, church planter, and world traveler. He had been through an incredible conversion episode, was an expert in the Old Testament, and had been personally disciple by the likes of Peter, James, and John. In spite of all of this, Paul does not base his argument on his own expertise. He bases everything on the Revelation of God—“For what does the Scripture say?”

2) Clarification-Abraham had Faith!-4:3b-8

The Scriptures say in black and white “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3b). To prove his own teaching about righteousness/salvation through faith, Paul employs Genesis 15:6 (see also Gal. 3:6) (Moo, ZIBBC, 26). The context in which this reference is found has everything to do with Abraham’s conviction that God would make good on his promise of a natural descendent, thereby setting into motion the promise that God would make a great nation from Abraham that would bless the entire world. With a barren wife, old age working against him, and time passing by, there was nothing that Abraham could DO in order to make this happen. All he could do was TRUST in God to fulfill His promise. This faith, exercised against all odds, was awarded with righteousness.

“It was critical that Paul show that this proof text (Abraham in general and Genesis 15:6 in particular), far from establishing the importance of works for justification, actually proves the opposite when properly understood” (Mounce, 122).

Understood correctly, this Old Testament reference of Abraham and Paul’s teaching can be applied in at least two different ways. First, Paul discusses how works are rewarded in a real world scenario—“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as favor, but as what is due” (4:4). In other words “When people work, their wages come not as gifts but because they have earned them” (Mounce, 123).

It is not as though a boss/manager throws out paychecks out of the goodness of his heart. People work for their pay. Pay in such a paradigm is earned.

This is not so in the spiritual realm. Paul continues and says “but to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5). Spiritually speaking, those who cannot work so as to earn their way into God’s good graces believe. In their believing they are regarded by God as righteous. This is not a merit-based system as much as it is a trust-based system.

In this illustration, God is not a boss giving a paycheck, he is a father who gives his love to his children freely because of their implicit trust in him. 

Paul’s explanation takes the unprecedented step of suggesting that the one “who justifies” justifies the “ungodly.” This would come as a shock to the Jews as in Exodus 23:7 God reveals “I will not acquit the guilty” and in Proverbs 17:15 one learns that God “detests” the practice of acquitting the guilty (see also Prov. 24:24; Isa. 5:23). Is Paul wrong to go this far? No! Paul’s statement is in keeping with the incredible fact that a holy God accepts as righteous unholy people through faith (Mounce, 123).  

Romans 3:28-“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

This is the good news of the Gospel. Everyone, no matter their past or pedigree, from Abraham to a former church persecutor like Paul can be righteous before God through faith and not works. In these situations faith is “credited” to the faithful as righteousness. This verb describes a transaction in which the insufficient funds in one’s account because of sin are infused with a windfall of grace that more than makes up for the debts owed.

Just in case the Jews in Paul’s audience were not convinced by Abraham’s reference, Paul invokes another Jewish Old Testament hero—“Just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works;…”(4:6). Surely the Jews would take seriously the writings of the great King David who was described as a man after God’s own heart. If anybody had any understanding of how to relate to God, it was him.

Paul quotes David in Psalm 35:1-2 and says “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

In quoting this Psalm, Paul is using a Jewish style of argumentation called Midrash to support the point he made earlier. In this technique, texts from the Prophets or the Psalms are used to illustrate an original text from the law (Genesis-Deuteronomy). So much as a single word common to both texts was often enough to bring two different passages together. In this case “take into account” in Psalm 35:1-2 is the same Greek word for “credit” (logizomai) found in Genesis 15:6 (referenced earlier in Romans 4:3).

David, more than most Old Testament heroes, understood what it was like to receive undeserved grace and have “lawless deeds…forgiven.” After all, David was guilty of adultery and the death of a loyal follower. David knew God’s grace in spite of his works, not because of them. Those who, like David, put their faith in God, can be completely forgiven of their sin. Like Abraham and David, “believers are the most fortunate people imaginable because the question of their sin has been settled forever” (Mounce, 124). Their “sins have been covered!” The Lord “will not take their sin into account!”

So What?

The Case study of Abraham has illustrated that Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is not new. Everyone who has ever been justified before God has gone through the same process. He/she, in spite of their debt of sin, places faith in God and His Christ and as a result is credited with his righteousness. These credits render them capable of entering into a relationship with God that is wrought with all kinds of amazing blessings. Abraham, because of his faith and resulting relationship with God was used to make a nation that would bless the world. David, in spite of his treachery, was forgiven because of his faith and allowed to lead a kingdom of God’s people. Even Paul, though he was once a persecutor of the church, was justified through faith and used to plant churches across the Roman Empire and write the majority of the New Testament. Just imagine what God could do with you when your debt of sin is cancelled! Just imagine if the holds/leans are your account were lifted and a windfall of grace swept over your life! Isn’t it time you were able to say along with Abraham, David, and Paul, “We're debt free!”