January 25, 2010

Truly Jewish

“He is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” Romans 2.28

That might be one of the more controversial statements in the Bible! ‘Jewish ethnicity doesn’t actually make one a true Jew’, says Paul. If you walked into your local synagogue and threw these words out for discussion, you might raise quite a dust storm. But Paul means what he says. Of course there is such a thing as Jewish ethnicity. Paul does not deny that. But, more importantly, Paul’s definition of a truly Jewish person is more about spiritual condition than it is about ethnic origin. It is possible to be Jewish, according to Paul, without really being Jewish. It is possible to be an ethnic Jew while living as a spiritual Gentile.

Understanding this is important on a number of levels. First, this could be a starting place for sharing the good news of Jesus with a Jewish friend. I emphasize friend because you would want to gauge a person’s receptivity before dropping a bombshell like Romans 2.28 on them. But if you have a real relationship with a Jewish person, you might ask them to consider what it was that Paul, a former rabbi, was trying to say in this verse.

Romans 2.28 is also important for bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments. There is a difference between the two. But the gorge is not nearly as wide or difficult to cross as is sometimes believed. And the reason is that there are not two different peoples of God. The church (encompassing both ethnically Jewish and Gentile believers) is now “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6.16). All who believe on Christ are “sons of Abraham” because they, like Abraham, live by faith (Galatians 3.9). For, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2, “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” So Judaism lives on in the lives of all who believe – whether they are of Israelite blood or not. And what that means is that the promises, hopes, and teachings of the Old Testament belong to and have a great deal to say to the church today … because we are now the Jews, spiritually; we are children of Abraham by faith in Jesus.

Paul’s emphasis on inward Judaism over against outward Judaism is also a subtle reminder that ethnicity is really quite unimportant in the church of Jesus Christ. God doesn’t look to see what color our skin is, what our last name sounds like, or where our ancestors came from. He looks for faith in His Son. And therefore, Christian churches – as those who are Jews inwardly, though not necessarily outwardly – ought to throw out any and all ethnic demarcations and be one in Jesus (whether by way of outright racism, or in the forming of churches that intentionally cater only to certain kinds of people).

Finally, Paul’s statement about true Judaism can also be applied, two thousand years on, to true Christianity. ‘One is not a Christian who is one outwardly.’ In other words, just because a person was born to Israelite parents, participated in the life of the synagogue, and performed Jewish ceremonial rituals … that did not make him truly, spiritually Jewish. He was only really Jewish if he walked by faith; if his heart (and not just his religion) was right toward God. And the same is true of church-goers today. You and I are not Christians simply because our parents were, or because we have been through the water, or joined the church. We are not Christians because we put a little something (or a lot of something) in the offering plate and come to church regularly. A person can do all those things outwardly – and yet be completely bankrupt of real, inward, living, life-altering trust in Jesus. So beware. “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” And he is not a Christian who is one outwardly, either.

January 18, 2010

The Straw that Breaks the Sinner's Back

The kindness of God leads you to repentance.” So says the apostle Paul in Romans 2.4. ‘Okay, fine’ you reply. ‘I kind of knew that already.’ But actually, it’s not as obvious as one might think. For Romans 2.4 is tucked away inside 2 solid chapters worth of wrath, condemnation, and teaching on sin and sinners. Romans 2.4 is preceded by 18 verses worth of wrath. And it is followed by 44 more verses that are designed to make us see that Jew and Gentile alike are desperate sinners.

In other words, Paul spends the better part of 63 consecutive verses trying to convince us of how bad we really are. But, in the middle of it all (and quite surprisingly), he reminds us that it is actually “the kindness of God”– not just the wrath of God, the conviction of sin, or the desire to avoid hell – that leads us to repentance. Wrath, guilt, and fear, as the missionary Paris Reidhead said famously, all have their good office work in leading us to repentance. But none of them are the straw that breaks the sinner's back and brings him, finally, to his knees.

The anger of God, by itself, is not enough to bring us to repentance. Neither is our recognition of the reality of our sin. According to Paul, people are brought to repentance when they are told of “the kindness of God” (v.4) – His “tolerance and patience”; His mercy toward sinners; His longsuffering and delaying of the punishment that we deserve; and, ultimately, His sending of His Son to pay sin’s penalty on our behalf.

Now don’t read too much into what I am saying. I am in no way arguing that the wrath of God is an optional part of the gospel. We cannot choose to either take or leave God’s anger toward sin and sinners when we share Jesus with our neighbors. If we could, Paul would not have dwelt on the subject for 63 verses! Indeed, the Bible never envisions a person coming to Jesus for salvation without, at the same time, feeling sorry over his sin. And “the kindness of God” never seems nearly as kind as it actually is unless we first see just how much hell we really deserve. So I am not eschewing God’s wrath – not even for a nanosecond.

I am just pointing out that God’s wrath, while an indispensible part of the gospel message, is not the clincher. People will never get to heaven simply by believing that God is angry with them … or even by feeling really sorry for their sins. Hellfire and brimstone are not enough. People get to heaven; people are brought to true saving repentance when, on the heels of the message of God’s anger, they learn also of God’s super-abundant kindness toward them – when they hear of Christ dying on their behalf, of God’s free grace to the undeserving, of the promise of eternal life … even to the ungodly. That is what breaks the stubborn sinner’s will – the recognition of the immeasurable “kindness of God”. Why? Because it makes him feel even more ashamed for His sin – that he has ignored and shaken his fist in the face of this kind of God for so long. And because, as he senses the great kindness of God, even for “a wretch like me”, his heart is melted.

So yes … believe what Paul says, in the first three chapters of Romans, about the wrath of God. Soak in it. Allow it to sting like alcohol poured into an open wound. It’s supposed to. But in the midst of it all, don’t forget “the kindness of God” – toward you and toward your neighbors.

January 13, 2010

Pray for Haiti

One Haitian official estimates that 100,000 lives may be lost as a result of yesterday's 7.0 earthquake. Perhaps that estimate is high (sometimes they are). But let's just quarter it to be conservative. That still means perhaps 25,000 people died yesterday or are dying as we speak. 25,000 souls gone into eternity ... with 2.9 million more who have the monumental task of trying to live again in the devastated quake zone. 75% of Haitians already live in abject poverty. 50% actively practice voodoo. 22% attend evangelical churches. So the needs right now - both physical and spiritual - are monumental. So are the open doors for aid and the gospel.

So please pray for Haiti ... that the Lord of the harvest would send out workers, both to gather the harvest and to heal bruised and broken reeds. And if you'd like to give to an organization committed both to the gospel and to Haitians' physical well-being ...

January 11, 2010

Defining Sin

If someone asked you to define sin, what would you say? Probably something like: ‘Sin is disobeying God’ or ‘Sin is doing wrong’ or maybe ‘Sin is hurting other people’. All those definitions would be true. If you are using My First Book of Questions and Answers with your kids (and I hope you are), you’d perhaps say that: “Sin is disobeying or not keeping God’s law in any way.” And that, too, would be a wonderful and basic answer.

But in the first chapter of Romans, Paul takes us one level deeper. How does the apostle define sin? Like this in Romans 1.21:

“Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.”

That is sin, in a nutshell: to know God (and, according to Romans 1.20, every human being knows Him, at the very least, as creator) … and, knowing Him, to refuse Him the honor and thanks that He deserves. So yes, hurting others is sin … but not first of all because of the others (though that is bad enough). Hurting others is sin because it reveals a heart that does not honor God who made those others in His own image and who commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And generically ‘doing wrong’ is sin too … but only because it is God who decides what is right and what is wrong! And yes, “disobeying God’s law in any way” is sin, as well …of course! Because disobeying God’s law is dishonoring God’s person!

But, according to Romans 1.21, one may actually keep God’s law to the ‘t’ … and still be in sin. Why? Because, though the letter is adhered to, the way in which we adhere to it may actually be dishonoring to God. We can keep God’s law grudgingly – because we have to, not because we delight to. We can also keep God’s law in a minimalistic way – doing just enough to get by, with no concern as to whether our effort pleases the Lord. We can obey God’s law half-heartedly, or with ulterior motives, or in order to please people. And we could go on demonstrating ways in which we outwardly obey, while inwardly failing to honor God and/or give Him thanks.

So yes, it is true that “disobeying God’s law in any way” is a good, basic definition of sin. And yes, it is also true that we may disobey God’s law, and thus commit sin, even when we have the right motives … because sin is not merely about motives. That is to say that there is a black and white standard in most areas of behavior that, when crossed, is sin whether we meant well or not!

However, Paul reminds us that motives are vitally important. He urges us to be aware of how deceptive our hearts really are; of how prone we are to do right outwardly, while disregarding or dishonoring God in our hearts! And we need to be aware that, at its root, this is sin – failure to honor and give thanks to our Maker!

That is the definition of sin – not just outward transgression of certain laws, but also all those relatively unnoticed and seemingly harmless moments when we don’t thank God for our successes … or don’t do our work for His sake … or don’t eat our food to his glory … or when we read our Bibles, or pray, or exercise for merely personal (rather than Godward) reasons … and so on. And if that is the definition … then each of us is a lot more sinful than we thought!

Now we can see why Isaiah says that all our righteous deeds are like menstrual rags. Because so often, though we do the right things, we do them oblivious to God … and we finish without ever giving Him the praise. “Even though they knew God” … and truly worshipped Him on Sundays, and really trusted His Son for salvation, and had His help with such and such a project … very many times “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.”

What’s my point? And what is Paul’s? Not to make you feel overly guilty (though we should feel convicted). But rather to remind you of just how deep the roots of sin really go; to show you that they can and will never be eradicated by your own hard work and effort; and to, therefore, demonstrate just how badly you need Jesus … and how badly I do too!

Even as I type these words, I realize that part of my motivation is to honor the Lord … and part of it is simply to get this weekly article done and out of the way. And who knows what other selfish stuff is going on that I am not even spiritually alert enough to recognize! So how badly do I need a Savior? And how badly do you?

January 4, 2010

Under Obligation

“I am under obligation” Paul says in Romans 1.14 “both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.” “Under obligation”, as he goes on to explain in verse 15, to proclaim the good news of Jesus. “Under obligation” to tell the story of the God-man who came to earth to live without sin, to die for sin, and to rise in victory over sin. “Under obligation” to inform men and women, boys and girls that the ladder to heaven is not set up by our good works … but is actually let down by God’s good grace; that (v.16) “the righteous shall live by faith” (not by works). Paul was “under obligation” to get this news to the ends of the earth – both to civilized, “wise” Greeks, and to wild, “foolish”, barbarians (for all alike are sinners!). In other words, Paul simply had to preach.

But why? Why did Paul feel this sense of “obligation”? Why did he carry around this burden? Certainly part of it was that he was an apostle of the Lord Jesus. He had been specially commissioned, in person, by the risen Christ to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Surely that one-on-one encounter with the Lord was a large determining factor behind his feeling “under obligation.” But was that it? Did Paul feel compelled to pronounce glad tidings simply because it was his job? Merely because he was an apostle? I’m not so sure.

In fact, it seems to me that part of Paul’s sense of obligation must have stemmed simply from his heart as a Christian (and not solely from his role as an apostle). Of course he felt burdened to share the good news! He had been on the highway to hell. And Jesus literally met him on that broad road that leads to destruction and rescued him. Paul deserved to smell the stench of his own rotting flesh as it burned unceasingly in hell … and instead he’d been given the promise of heaven; the forgiveness of sins; and the assurance that God was his friend. Indeed, he’d been set free from his lifelong futile attempts at earning God’s approval (see Philippians 3.1-9)! He had been saved by grace.

And I suggest to you that this was a large and central reason why he felt “under obligation” to preach in Rome and to all the other cities where he toiled. He was amazed by grace, dazzled by Jesus, in love with the Father, and enthralled with the gospel. And if God could do all this for him (the chief of sinners) … then surely this “power of God” (v.16) would be effective in others lives … if someone told them the news!

So yes, having been commissioned as an apostle by Jesus Himself, Paul sensed a great responsibility, a great “obligation.” And I think any one of us, if commissioned the way Paul was, would carry around the same weight. But I also believe that any one of us who has been saved in the same way as Paul (and all of us who are real Christians have!) … will also feel a bit of a burden, a desire, a longing, and “obligation” to tell others the grand news!

No, your role in God’s grand scheme of things will never be anything close to that which the apostle Paul occupied (so breathe easy!). You have not been given the tasks Paul was given. However, if you’ve been saved by grace through faith in Jesus, I’d be willing to wager that you probably feel just a little “obligation” to do what you can to see that others are too! That is true Christianity! And it’s a wonderful and exhilarating burden to carry!

January 1, 2010

Three Profound Words

As we embark upon what I hope will be a year-long devotional journey through the book of Romans, we should begin by noticing what may be the three most crucial English words in the entire book. Perhaps they are not the three most memorable words, though some of the most memorable words in the Bible are found here in Paul’s letter to Rome. They may not be the three words that we would pull out first when sharing the good news with a friend either … although Romans is the most directly evangelistic book in the Bible. Nor are they likely to be the first three words we’d turn to when giving a eulogy, or comforting someone at a hospital bedside … though Romans is filled with comfort for the suffering. And yet I say they may be the three most important words in the book – because they summarize everything that Paul was trying to say … indeed everything that he lived for. These three words summarize the book of Romans. That is to say that every last one of the thousands of memorable, evangelistic, comforting words that Paul wedged into this, his magnum opus, may be categorized under the enormous umbrella of these three simple words.

What are these three profound words? Glad you asked! You will find them in chapter 1, and verse 3: “concerning His Son”. If we didn’t already have a name for Paul’s ancient letter to the Christians at Rome, this might be a fitting title: Concerning His Son! For these three straightforward English words describe the entirety of this (at times) complex, sixteen chapter long treatise. Paul set out to write an entire book about: “The gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son.”

That is the topic sentence for the book of Romans. And, as you read it, do you see my point? There is a great deal to say about “the gospel of God”. It was “promised beforehand”. It came to us, first, “through the prophets”. It is revealed “in the Holy Scriptures”. And there are dozens of other descriptions of the gospel that we will give as we work our way through Paul’s pages. And every word that was “promised beforehand … through His prophets … in the Holy Scriptures” is “concerning His Son”!

So many of the doctrines we love – and which are indispensable to our faith – are found in this grand book of Romans: the depravity of man; the sovereignty of God; salvation by grace alone, through faith alone; and so on. And, in many senses, we can say that Romans is a textbook on those various doctrines. But at its most basic level, this is a book “concerning His Son”! For the only reason that human depravity is actually a part of God’s good news is because “His Son” came to redeem us out of it! And God’s sovereignty in saving us was only worked out as He sent “His Son.” Indeed, we saved by grace alone, through faith alone only when that faith is placed in “His Son”.

Now be careful! Don’t anyone confuse this article for a plea against the importance of right doctrine! My intent is exactly the opposite! There are those who minimize doctrine … to their own peril. But I do not wish minimize doctrine for one instant. I love every jot and tittle of God’s word – and want to contend to make sure that all scriptural doctrine is kept pure. And I trust you do as well. And Romans 1.3 explains the reason why we value correct doctrine so much: because all doctrine is “concerning His Son”!

That is what the book of Romans is all about – rich, profound, finely contoured, carefully explained, infallibly true, wonderful, soul-nourishing, life-saving, absolutely indispensable doctrine … “concerning His Son.” So join with me in the months ahead as we try to scoop up every loose piece of theological grain from the harvest that God has planted for us in Paul’s epistle. And do it all so that you might better know and love and trust “His Son.”