Archive for the ‘Romans’ Category

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Romans Part 5: The Faith of Abraham

February 26, 2007

In chapter 4, Paul explained how Christian justification works. He based his explanation on the account of Abraham in Genesis 15.

Rom 4:3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Paul argued that, because God made his promise to Abraham (Gen 12, Gen 15) before he was circumcised (Gen 17), that therefore the blessing is not only for the circumcised, but also for the uncircumcised:

Rom 4:11-12 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

To understand what Paul is saying, and to reconcile it with what James said in James 2, one must understand the Genesis account of Abraham.

In Genesis 12, God approached Abram and called him to leave his home and travel to another place God would show him. God also made a magnificent promise to Abram at that time:

Gen 12:1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God did not say at that time why he was making the promise to Abram. He simply gave the instructions, and made the promise.

Then in Genesis 15, God elaborated on the promise:

Gen 15:1-6 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Again in this context, God did not tell why he was making the promise, or why he had chosen Abram to receive the promise.

In Genesis 17 God gave Abram three things: a new name (Abraham); the covenant of circumcision; and confirmation of the promise of a son (Isaac). But once more, he did not explain why he had chosen to give these great blessings to Abraham.

In Genesis 22, we finally learn more about why God was doing these things:

Gen 22:1-18 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

Here God revealed why he had chosen Abraham to receive these great blessings. The reason is stated two ways. First he said “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son“. Then he said “because you have obeyed my voice.” Because Abraham was willing to obey God’s command sacrifice Isaac, God made these great promises to him. For those reasons, God promised:

(1) to bless Abraham; (Gen 12:2-3)
(2) to multiply his offspring as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore; (Gen 15:5)
(3) to grant his offspring the gates of their enemies (Gen 12:7, 15:8, 17:8); and
(4) to bless all nations of the earth through his offspring.(Gen 12:3)

Notice that God made all these promises prior to testing Abraham. But in chapter 22 God made it very clear that the reason he made the promises was because of Abraham’s obedience to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Because Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, God sent his own son through Abraham as a sacrifice for all our sins. When God made the promise in chapters 12, 15, and 17, he knew in advance all the events that would follow. God saw the faith that was already present in Abraham before he had done anything. He knew what kind of faith it was.

Also notice the relationship between these promises and the righteousness that comes from faith:

Rom 4:13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

In other words, we are told on one hand that the promises were due to Abraham’s obedience (Gen 22:18); but on the other hand that they were due to the righteousness that comes by faith (Rom 4:13). Both obedience and faith are cited as the reason for the promises. That should not surprise us, since obedience and faith are inseparably linked. Abraham was the great example of obedience that comes from faith–the same thing Paul was also called to preach (Rom 1:5).

Paul spoke of this faith that existed in Abraham prior to his deeds of faith:

Rom 4:18-25 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Now let’s look at what James said about Abraham:

Jam 2:20-24 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

In this passage James taught that Abraham was justified (Gen 15 “credited as righteousness”) by what he did. He further explained that Abraham’s faith and deeds worked together. The works completed the faith. Though Abraham was justified before those deeds, he was also justified by them, as they demonstrated Abraham’s genuine faith. James even points out that by obediently offering Isaac, Abraham was fulfilling the scripture from Genesis 15:6. Without the deeds, the faith would have been incomplete and the crediting of righteousness would have been unfulfilled.

In Luke 17, Jesus taught a parable that clarifies this subject:

Luk 17:7-10 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”

Christians are servants of God. As servants, we have been given responsibilities to carry out. We are fully expected to fulfill those responsibilities. But after having carried them out, we are still servants. More importantly, after doing everything God has required, we are still unworthy servants. Obeying the commands of God will not make us righteous. Only God’s gift of righteousness through faith can do that. But like Abraham, we need to have the kind of faith that produces obedience. Those who have that kind of faith are the ones to whom God will credit righteousness.

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Romans Part 4: Justified by Faith

February 19, 2007

The first two-and-a-half chapters of Romans describes the plight of all mankind before God. We are all under God’s wrath because of the godlessness and wickendness in our lives. Not a single person on the planet is exempt from that wrath. And there is absolutely nothing we can do ourselves to remedy the situation.

Then in the latter part of chapter 3, Paul described God’s solution to our sin problem. By his very nature, God had to punish sin. But because of his love for us he devised a way to save us. Rather than bring that punishment upon us, he offered Jesus as a substitute. The sacrifice of Jesus atones for the sin of those who have faith in Jesus.

As a result of God’s gift, through our faith, we are granted a righteousness we do not deserve and could not possibly earn. Yet the righteousness we have been given is not imaginary nor theoretical. It is not righteousness in name only. The righteousness is real because the punishment inflicted on Jesus was real. The price that was paid was real. We are really redeemed from our sin.

From the earliest days, some people have taken this gift as a license to sin. Paul was well aware of this. Throughout Romans, Paul presented potential objections and mistaken conclusions to warn us not to draw the wrong conclusions from what he was saying.

Rom 3:28-31 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Both circumcised and uncircumcised would be justified by faith. The Jew would not be saved by following the Law of Moses. And the Gentile would not be saved by following the law written on their hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Both would be saved by faith. And both would be expected to uphold the requirements of God.

As previously discussed, the gospel Paul preached calls us to the obedience that comes from faith. There is another kind of faith that does not produce obedience. Such faith does not save. (It is unfortunate that this even needs to be pointed out, but it most certainly does need to be said in today’s religious world.) But the good news is that, to all who respond to the gospel of Jesus with the kind of faith that produces obedience, God grants righteousness. We pass from death to life, from damnation to heaven, from wrath to blessedness. What a magnificent gift we have been given!

The better we understand that gift, the more we will appreciate it, and the more we will strive to live appropriately in response. In the next post we will go into chapter 4, to look more closely at the wonderful gift of righteousness.

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Romans: Another Sidebar

February 13, 2007

As I dig into Romans I am constantly running across things I will not have time to pursue on this time through the book. I am convinced that a month of sermons could be preached from each verse in chapters 2-3. Do not think that this series even begins to plumb the depths of this book!

I’ve been using a variety of study helps to dig deeper into Romans. That includes multiple Bible versions, Strongs and Thayer’s Greek concordances, and several commentaries coming from different perspectives. Albert Barnes and John Gill give a Calvinist perspective. Adam Clarke, John Wesley, and J. W. McGarvey give a Free Will perspective. I think it is important to get both sides, and to realize that there is some truth to both. But I don’t want to get bogged down in choosing sides on that controversy. I want to get beneath those things, to understand what God was trying to say through Paul.

I hope this series will inspire others to dig deeper into this book, to look at alternate perspectives, and to come away with a deeper appreciation for what we have in Christ. Paul often spoke of his prayers and efforts to that end (Eph 1:17-19, Eph 3:18-19, Col 1:10, Col 2:2, Titus 1:1…) God intends for us to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for what we have received. The more we understand, the more joy we will experience because of it, and the more benefit we will derive from it. We can get a glimpse of that joy and awe from Paul (note that he is the one expaining these deep truths to us!) in Rom 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Think back to the last time you felt what Paul expressed in that passage. I know I could not have written that. Seeing Paul’s passion, awe, joy, and amazement at the glory of God, makes me want to know God like Paul knew Him, and to understand the gift we have been given as Paul understood it. I have a long way to go.

What inspired Paul to write such exalted praise of God? He had just spent eleven chapters explaining the unrighteousness of all mankind, and the gift of righteousness God has prepared for those who have faith in Jesus. What Paul understood about that gift affected him deeply. It moved him. I want to get closer to that kind of appreciation for what God has given us. So it is time to move forward. In my next post I will pick up on the end of chapter 3 and begin the discussion of the righteousness that comes through faith.

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Romans Part 3: Righteousness by Faith (Only?)

February 8, 2007

In Part 1 we looked at Paul addressing man’s unrighteousness, and God’s wrath towards that unrighteousness. Then in Part 2 (Rom 2:1-3:18) we saw Paul show that Jews and Gentiles are equally entrenched in that unrighteousness. Paul concluded that part of the argument by stating:

Rom 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Then Paul turned his attention to God’s solution to this seemingly unsolvable problem:

Rom 3:21-24 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood

God’s solution is to grant righteousness to all who have faith. He accomplished that through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. We are saved from our sins, not by obeying the Law, but by believing in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Paul explained futher:

Rom 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

This one verse has been center of controversy among believers since 1522. In December of that year, Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament first went to the printing press. Over the next 40 years, over 100,000 copies of that translation were printed, a phenomenal number for that day. The simple fact that the scriptures were being distributed in the common language was controversial enough at the time, but the greatest controversy centered on Luther’s treatment of this one verse. To the literal translation of Romans 3:28, Luther added the German allein (alone), rendering it as:

Rom 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from observing the law. [Luther]

It is understandable why Luther preferred that rendering. By the time he published his translation, he had been publicly embroiled in a controversy over salvation through works in the Catholic church for a number of years. In particular he was opposed to the practice of indulgences, a process whereby a Catholic believer supposedly could obtain absolution for sins he had committed by performing certain acts prescribed by the priest. In 1517 Luther produced his famous 95 theses indicting these and other related practices of the Catholic church. So when translating the New Testament five years later, he made it a point to add the word “alone” to emphasize how wrong those Catholic practices were.

Of course that created trouble with passages like James 2:14-26, especially verse 24:

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

To address that seeming contradiction, Luther moved the book of James to an appendix of his Bible along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, and added the following comment:

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle, and my reasons follow.

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works 2:24). It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac (2:20); Though in Romans 4:22-22 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15:6. Although it would be possible to “save” the epistle by a gloss giving a correct explanation of justification here ascribed to works, it is impossible to deny that it does refer to Moses’ words in Genesis 15 (which speaks not of Abraham’s works but of his faith, just as Paul makes plain in Romans 4) to Abraham’s works. This fault proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

Luther recognized that his translation of Romans was in direct contradiction to the book of James. His solution to that contradiction was to reject the apostolic authority of the book of James, rather than to question the correctness of his own understanding.

Remember what Peter said about Paul’s writings. He said that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand. And he said that men would distort what Paul wrote, to their own destruction. He also characterized those prone to such distortions as “lawless,” men who cast off restraints and live for their own pleasure.

Now consider the alteration Luther made to Romans 3:28. If we are saved by mere belief (faith alone), apart from any appropriate response, why not just believe in Jesus and continue to sin? What impact would the sin have on our salvation? The doctrine of salvation by faith only has led many people to their own destruction in exactly that way. As we saw in the previous post, Paul himself pointed out the folly of that teaching. Peter also warned about that kind of distortion. And James flatly stated that we are not saved by that kind of faith. It seems that all three writers, two apostles and the brother of the Lord himself, have amply warned us not to fall into the “faith only” trap.

We will still reap what we sow. In Galatians (perhaps his most direct frontal assault on salvation through law), Paul wrote:

Gal 6:7-9 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

It really does matter how we live. To teach otherwise is deception and a mockery of God.

So then, how are we justified? We will pursue that question further in the next post.

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Romans: Distortions Then and Now

February 6, 2007

In the Romans 1 post I briefly mentioned Peter’s comment about the difficult passages in Paul’s letters. Before proceeding further into Romans, I want to explore the topic of Paul’s difficult passages more thoroughly. Peter, Paul, and James all give us insight into the ways that these teachings were being distorted in their day. Understanding what these passages did not mean can help us in understanding what they do mean.

In 2 Peter 3, Peter said:

2Pe 3:15-17 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Here Peter pointed out that portions of Paul’s letters are difficult to understand, and that some people were distorting those passages. Then Peter warned them not to be carried away by the error of lawless men. It seems that the distortions Peter mentioned were being taught by lawless (Gk athesmos) men. Thayer’s lexicon defines athesmos as one who breaks through the restraint of law and gratifies his lusts. In other words, people were twisting Paul’s writings, using them as a license to cast off restraints (rejecting all regulations against sin) so that they might sin without penalty. Peter warned us that drawing such conclusions from Paul’s letters puts our secure position in jeopardy.

Apparently those lawless men to whom he referred had already fallen from their secure position. They taught, based on a distortion of Paul’s teaching about grace, that Christians could sin with impunity. But according to Peter, acting on that teaching causes one to fall from his secure position. This conclusively eliminates arguments people make from Paul’s letters, attempting to prove that it is impossible to fall away from grace.

Paul also gave us insight into the prevalent distortions of his teachings:

Rom 3:7-8 Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say–as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say–“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved

Rom 6:1-2 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Rom 6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

In these passages Paul refuted distortions of his teaching. In each of these, we see the pattern about which Peter warned. Each example shows the false teacher trying to cast off restraint so that they could sin without penalty. Paul made it clear that this was not sound teaching. How we live does matter. How can we who died to sin continue to live in it?

James also addressed the issue of faith and obedience:

James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

While James did not mention Paul in this context, he certainly addressed one of the primary controversies that has been promoted by distorting Paul’s writings, a distortion that apparently was already prevalent at the time James penned these words. The controversy James addressed fits neatly into the class of distortions about which Peter warned — rejecting the need for obedience. It also parallels those distortions Paul identified–expecting grace without repentance from sin. James made it clear that faith alone does not justify us, and that faith without deeds is dead. Like Peter, James recognized this distortion of Paul’s teaching as a matter of spiritual life and death.

Note that in the introduction to Romans, Paul described his ministry as calling people “to the obedience that comes from faith.” His commission from God was not merely to call people to faith, but to obedience. Like James, Paul called people to the kind of faith that results in deeds that can be seen.

As we continue in the study of Romans, we must be careful not to be carried away by the error of lawless men. We must avoid conclusions that would absolve us from the responsibility to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. And we must avoid conclusions that would eliminate all consequences for not striving to live such a life. Those types of conclusions are distortions of Paul’s teaching.

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Romans Part 2: Sin and Law

February 2, 2007

Paul wrote Romans to address attitudes between Jews and Gentiles in Rome. Were the Jews in some way superior to the Gentiles? Did the Gentiles need to obey Jewish law? Paul’s answer revolved around the issue of righteousness. In chapter 1, Paul introduced the problem of unrighteous living, and the resulting wrath of God. By the end of chapter one, the Jewish audience may have been feeling pretty good about where this was headed. Of course, they may have thought, the Gentiles deserved the wrath of God. After all, think of all the sins they commit! Every sin listed by Paul in chapter 1 was widely practiced in Roman culture. Paul was indicting the Gentile culture in Rome. He was saying just what these Jews had been thinking all along.

But the careful Jewish listener would have realized that the message was deeper than that. Paul helped the rest to catch up, in chapter 2.

Rom 2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

Jews were not innocent. A review of the sins Paul had mentioned in chapter 1 would make that clear. Maybe they were not guilty of some of the “greater” (in their eyes) sins on that list, but they certainly were not innocent. Even the Pharisees were known for being hypocrites, not practicing what they preached. And it will be the practice, not the preaching, that will be judged in the last day:

Rom 2:6-8 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

But what about the law? Wouldn’t the law save the Jew? Not a chance:

Rom 2:12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

Even the Gentiles had a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong. Yet they were not innocent, and would therefore perish for their sin. The Jews had too a conscience, but they had a much better-trained sense of right and wrong. Yet they still sinned, and would perish for their sin. Paul gets right to the point about the Jews’ hypocrisy:

Rom 2:17-24 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Yes, the Jews had an advantage by possessing the law. But they did not obey the law and therefore forfeited the advantage. Jews and Gentiles were all alike under sin. If anything, the Jews were in worse position than the Gentiles. Although they knew God and knew his commands, they chose instead to sin.

How about us?

As Christians we possess the scriptures. We serve God. We give our money. We sing “O How I Love Jesus.” We don’t steal, drink, smoke, or cuss (at least some of us don’t…) Doesn’t that make us better than the unbelievers who live for their own pleasure?

Hopefully we know the basics of God’s commands. Yet we still sin. When we judge another we condemn ourselves, since we are also guilty. When we seek to justify ourselves by our long list of service and our supposed goodness, we are confusing the cause and the effect. We cannot save ourselves. We owe God a perfect life, and we have already blown it. We are guilty, and there is nothing we can do about that. We need to be rescued. More on that subject in part 3.

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Romans 1

January 28, 2007

I am preparing a series of classes on the book of Romans, so that will be my topic for the next few blog posts. I recently posted some thoughts on the historical context of the book.

Some of the teachings found in Romans are undoubtedly among those Peter referred to when he said:

2 Pet 3:16b His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Romans 3:8, Romans 6:1, Romans 6:15, Romans 7:7, and James 2:14-26 are a few indicators that Paul’s difficult teachings were being distorted even in his day.

The evident purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans was to stop the Judaizing influences in the church. In this letter Paul proved that Jews and Gentiles were equally separated from God and equally dependent upon God’s intervention to bring about redemption.

To prove this point, Paul taught the Romans about righteousness. The words righteous, unrighteous, and other variants appear over forty times in the book of Romans, and are found in each of the first ten chapters. The basic message was that Jews and Gentiles alike were unrighteous and helpless to do anything about it. But God intervened, providing a way for us to be granted righteousness through faith.

After greeting the Roman Christians in the first part of Romans 1, Paul introduced the theme of the book:

Rom 1:16-17 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Paul then immediately focused on the core problem of unrighteousness beginning in verse 18:

Rom 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness

The wickedness (KJV unrighteousness) resulted from men refusing to acknowledge God and becoming fools, following after created things rather than the creator. According to Paul, this is the root cause of sin.

And then Paul wrote some of the most sobering words in all scripture:

Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them over…

God gave them over! He did not prevent man from spiraling deeper into wickedness. The consequence for not acknowledging God is to be destroyed by our own folly and wickedness.As a direct consequence of men not acknowledging God, they were “given over” to sexual immorality, idolatry, and homosexuality.

Note that Paul made it unmistakably clear that homosexuality is sin, both for men and for women. In today’s American culture that is being called into question. But based on this passage, there can be no doubt where Paul stood on the question of homosexuality. This is certainly not one of Paul’s difficult passages! He called homosexuality shameful, unnatural, and indecent. He called it a perversion, for which there is a penalty due. Also note that Peter accepted Paul’s letters as scripture, the Word of God (2 Pet 3:16, see above). Those who take the opposing view on homosexuality cannot reasonably claim to hold the scriptures as their standard.

Paul listed numerous other sins that follow when men fail to acknowledge God, because of their depraved minds.

Rom 1:28-31 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, Godhaters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Here Paul presented an interesting list of evil deeds. Envy and deceit are in the same group as murder. Godhaters are right next to the slanderers, insolent, arrogant, and boastful. Disobedience to parents is listed along with ruthlessness. It is impossible to imagine a person who is not guilty on some point according to this list.

Then, so that there could be no doubt about the consequences for such sins, Paul stated:

Rom 1:32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

God has decreed that those who do these deeds deserve death.

Our proper response to these things will only become clear as we continue into the following chapters. But a few things are already obvious:

  1. We must acknowledge God in our lives. That means more than an intellectual admission that God exists. It also means that we need to glorify God and to give thanks to Him. And it means that we must not exchange God for the things of this world.
  2. We need to flee from the sins described in this passage!
  3. We must not approve of these sins, neither in our own lives nor in the lives of others.

Yet as we continue into Romans we will find that even doing all this will not make us righteous. We need to be rescued fom ourselves.

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The Church at Rome

January 17, 2007

First century Rome was similar in some important ways to major cities today. By looking at those similarities, and contemplating the letter that Paul wrote to those Christians, we can better understand what the church ought to be like in the modern world.

It is not known when the church was established in Rome. On the day of Pentecost there were visitors from Rome (Acts 2:10) in the crowd at Jerusalem when Peter preached and 3000 were baptized. It is quite likely that some of these Jews eventually returned to Rome (perhaps after the stoning of Stephen) and began to build the Roman church. At least, we know that Andronicus and Junias (Rom 16:7) were converted before Paul, quite possibly before the dispersion in Acts 8.

Sometime during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD), the emperor ordered all the Jews to leave Rome (Acts 18:2, Priscilla and Aquilla). By this time there must have been a substantial congregation of Gentile Christians, who were left to fend for themselves when their Jewish brothers and sisters were evicted.

During the intervening years while the Jews were banished, the Gentile church continued to grow, and new leaders must have stepped forward out of necessity. Without the influence of the Jews who had started the church, their worship undoubtedly drifted farther and farther from the style of the Jews. These became Gentile congregations, in every sense. This is important to remember when trying to understand Romans.

After the death of Claudius in AD 54, the edict became void, and the Jews returned to Rome. So by the time Romans was written (maybe AD 57), Priscilla and Aquilla had returned to Rome, and a congregation was meeting in their home. This may well have been primarily a Jewish congregation. At least it was being led by Aquilla and Priscilla, who were Jews.

By the time of Paul’s letter, there were numerous congregations meeting in different places in Rome, each with its own leadership. Paul greets several distinct groups in chapter 16:

  • the church meeting in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house (Rom 16:5)
  • Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers with them (Rom 16:14)
  • Philologus, Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them (Rom 16:15)

Those named were probably the leaders in different house churches. The others whom Paul greeted individually may also have been part of separate congregations (since Paul chose to group them separately from the other congregations in the greeting).

By the time the Jews returned, there must have been multiple established Gentile congregations in Rome. And the Jews who returned may well have “flocked together” as mainly Jewish congregations.

This is the environment Paul addressed in the Roman letter. There were growing cultural differences between Jewish and Gentile congregations in Rome, and these were leading to conflict. Paul explained that the Jews and Gentiles were in the same condition, with no hope other than Jesus. He pointed out that they shared the same baptism. They were part of the same olive tree. He warned the Jew that he could be cut out of the olive tree, and he warned the Gentile that he could also be cut out after having been grafted in. Paul opened up his heart as he shared his concern for the salvation of Israel. And then he turned to practicals.

Remember the situation in the Roman church as you consider chapters 12-15. There were multiple congregations, with striking differences between Jews and Gentiles. Paul called all of them to be living sacrifices; not to think of themselves too highly; and to respect the differences among them. He instructed them to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. (devoted = Gk philostorgoi, the mutual love between parent and child). They were to treat one another as family–not only the fellow Jews but also the Gentiles; not only those in their own congregation, but also those in other congregations. They were to treat one another as family, despite all the differences and despite their being in different congregations.

Chapters 14 and 15 address differing doctrinal understandings between Jews and Gentiles (things like eating meat, drinking wine, and observing special days). Once again the message is clear: they were to accept one another despite these differences.

Jews and Gentiles alike were all sinners. They were all baptized into Christ, and thus united in His death and in his resurrection. They were all united, in Christ. The differences among them did not prevent them from being united in Christ.

How about us? As descendents of the Restoration Movement, what should we learn from Romans?

Like first century Rome, many of our cities have multiple congregations of baptized believers. These congregations have different cultures and even some different doctrinal understandings. But the differences among our congregations pale in significance when contrasted to the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the first century church. The message of Romans to our churches today is to accept one another despite our differences. If we have been united with Christ, we are united with one another. And we should reflect that in how we treat one another.