Futility, What Futility?

by Reed DePace

Let’s label it D3. The Bible teaches that in some manner the historical Fall of Adam brought about the introduction of three things as a curse-judgment on Adam and Eve’s sin: death, decay and destruction – D3.

If you believe in a historical Adam and a historical Fall, what does it mean for God to judicially administer these as judgment for sin? (If you do not believe in a historical Adam or a historical Fall, no disrespect, but this post is not addressed to you.)

If you think the death, decay and destruction existed before the fall:

Do you believe these things were in some manner also introduced in response to sin? If so, how are pre-fall forms of D3 different from post-fall forms of D3?

Do you think there is no difference between the pre-fall and post-fall forms of D3? If so, then what does God’s judicial administration of these on sin actually consist of?

If you want to limit the extent of God’s judicial administration of D3 on sin to just man, then what is the nature of the futility that the created order has been subjected to on account of sin (Rom 8:20)?

Do you believe God uses actual physical things to both picture and apply the gospel? If so, did God actually use a rainbow as a physical picture for a story that didn’t happen? Did God provide a real tree for a mythical test in a mythical garden? Etc., how do you determine where history ends and myth begins?

Sincerely, it does not appear that we are thinking through the necessary ramifications of affirming some sort of theistic evolution position.

by Reed DePace

POSTSCRIPT: these and the last two posts on this topic were written at the same time, last week. Nothing I’ve said in these may be construed ad specific responses to any discussion on these previous threads.

My focus in these posts has not been to make a positive argument for a specific pre-fall death scheme. Instead my focus has been ask my theistic evolution persuaded brothers to think about what this position does to the reality of a historic fall and God’s curse-judgment response to it. I do not believe theistic evolution enables an adequate explanation of sin and death. Please disagree. Please do not take personal offense.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: here is a good starting article to consider problems evolution: What Are the Top Ten Problems with Darwinian Evolution? This is a scientific perspective, not a biblical perspective. For those interested in an informed and reasonable critique of evolution from a science perspective, I recommend this site.

Fall, What Fall?

by Reed DePace

Theistic evolution maintains that the natural processes currently seen in the physical world are part of God’s original creation. That is, these are the processes he has used to bring into being all that we see.

Thus stars and planets evolved over billions of years through processes involving death, decay and destruction. The ecosystems of our planet (geology, meteorological, biological, etc.) similarly evolved over millions of years through processes involving death, decay, and destruction. And God was in charge of it all.

O.k., got it.

So what does that mean for God’s claim that He made everything good, very good, that is perfect? What does it mean that God created everything without the reign of death to be found anywhere in the created order?

Well, the deadly poison of theistic evolution can be seen in the kinds of arguments that are being offered by young folks raised to believe both that God created everything and that He created everything perfect. Watch the Q&A discussion Doug Wilson has with such young folk at the Indiana University, Bloomington. Their arguments demonstrate that they hold to the following convictions:

  • God created everything, including me.
  • God created everything perfect, including me.
  • God created the capacity to love as a part of this perfect creation, including in me.
  • I was born with the desire to love members of my own gender.
  • Therefore Christians who say homosexuality is wrong are acting wickedly – they are sinning!

It is not a surprise at all to find young folk raised in:

  • Schools teaching them that everything came about via evolution,
  • Communities that protect and promote their self-esteem,
  • Churches that tell them God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives, and
  • A Culture that says God (if He actually exists) doesn’t make mistakes,

Would reach the conclusion that their same gender sexual attractions are pure and holy.

Now, as Theistic Evolution has already affirmed that death, decay, and destruction are a normal, good, wholesome, beneficial part of God’s original creation,

How are we ever going to be able to justify the idea of sin and judgment?

It is no surprise when such folks, acting consistent with the necessary conclusions of Theistic Evolution, want to shut us up when we tell them the gospel.

“Fall, WHAT FALL! There is nothing wrong with me. You’re just a judgmental jerk!!”

by Reed DePace

POSTSCRIPT: For those who think I’m making ridiculous connections in this post, here is another example:

The Little Boy Who Wanted To Be a Girl

So how do you explain to these folks that the problem is the fall? How do you explain to them that God did not create this child this way? After all, mankind keeps evolving, right? If you follow theistic evolution you have no alternatives here.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: here is a good starting article to consider problems evolution: What Are the Top Ten Problems with Darwinian Evolution? This is a scientific perspective, not a biblical perspective. For those interested in an informed and reasonable critique of evolution from a science perspective, I recommend this site.

Need a Lift?

One of the most constant dangers that Christians face is the temptation to think that our sin is greater than God’s grace. It isn’t. Paul points this out rather extensively in Romans 5:15-17, where the entire theme is “how much more” is God’s grace than all sin in the world. Phillip Melanchthon’s commentary on the passage is worth quoting here for its pastoral sensitivity:

“The godly should diligently consider this superiority of grace in order that they may oppose it to the magnitutde of their sin and to their present weakness. No sin, no matter how great, ought to be considered greater than grace (p. 139 of the Kramer translation).”

The New Perspective on Paul Schools the FV

I was quite pleasantly surprised to find this in none other than James Dunn’s commentary on Romans. Given the recent discussions on faith versus faithfulness, I thought people might enjoy mulling over this quotation. Dunn is commenting on Romans 4:21 (which describes Abraham’s confidence that God fulfills His promises):

It was confidence in God, a positive acknowledgment of God’s power as creator, a calm certainty that God had made known to Abraham his purpose and could be relied on to perform it without further question or condition. Here from another aspect is the same reason why Abraham’s faith should not be though of in terms of covenant loyalty or as incomplete apart from works, for faith is confidence in God’s loyalty as alone necessary, as alone able, as alone sufficient to bring God’s promise to full effect (p. 239 of volume 1).

It should be noted here that in the context of Romans, Paul goes on immediately to apply Abraham’s faith as a template or example for us (see 4:23). I should note that this quotation does not alleviate the other problems in Dunn’s theology. However, on this point, Dunn seems to agree with the critics of the FV.

2k – 2nd Table Only – Another Biblical Argument

(Reed DePace)

In a previous thread I presented a biblically based argument for the 2K proposition: in the new covenant era the civil magistrate’s duties are limited to the 2nd Table of the Ten Commandments (from honor to parents to no coveting of neighbor’s possessions). A number sought to challenge that argument by referencing Psalm 2, verses 10-12 in particular.

Some prayerful reflection on that passage led to a few observations, which when taken together, I believe present another biblically based argument in support of this Reformed 2K proposition. While you’re reading Psalm 2, go ahead and read Rom. 13:1-5 and also Heb. 13:17.

To begin, let’s note the context of Psalm 2:10-12. For the sake of the discussion here, let’s ignore the initial audience, the pagan civil magistrate under the Old Covenant era. (Although there appears to be an additional huge supporting biblical argument from reflections in that direction – maybe later).

Surely, given the reference in v. 6 (Zion) in part in view in Psalm 2 is Christ’s rule over His Church (2K terminology: the Sacred Kingdom). Yet it is also clear that the primary focus of the Psalm is Christ’s rule over the pagan nations of the world (2K terminology: the Secular Kingdom). In this context, the commands in Ps. 2:10-12 can only be understood as a direct command applicable to the pagan civil magistrates in the New Covenant era.

At the very least, it is a command for these civil magistrates to recognize from Whom they have their authority, and thus to Whom they are accountable for its use. Even more we could say the Psalm promise judgment to these civil magistrates for the failure to rightly use their God-given authority. Jesus is the Great King Who will demand an accounting of the civil reigning “in his name” as it were.

So now imagine the pagan civil magistrate who hears this warning? What’s the first question he is going to ask? “O.k., how do I rightly use this authority?” In the New Covenant era, the passage that best answers that question is Rom. 13:1-5. Here we see Psalm 2′s divine ordination of civil authority picked up and explained in practical terms. Again, tracking with the previous thread’s arguments, at the very least the civil magistrate would conclude he is responsible to use his authority with reference to 2nd Table issues, those dealing with man’s relationship with man.

But what about the 1st Table issues? Where in the New Covenant might I find insight into whether or not the civil magistrate’s authority includes these issues, man’s interaction with God? Hmm …

Turn to Heb. 13:17 and notice the some interesting comparisons and contrasts with Rom. 13:1-5. In both there is mention of a God-ordained authority. In both there is the notion of accountability for the exercise of that authority. Yet there are two critical differences between these passages. In the Hebrews passage, the ordained authority is the elders of the Church, not the civil magistrate. Further it is an authority that involves 1st Table matters, man’s relationship with God.

The parallels are pretty clear: both passages have in view the authority of the Great King Jesus, delegated to an ordained human authority, who will be held accountable for his use of that authority.

The differences are pretty clear as well: 2nd Table authority is delegated to the civil magistrate, and 1st Table authority is delegated to the church elder.

To be sure, these aren’t the only considerations for the authority of the church via its elders (i.e., they do exercise 2nd Table authority, but only spiritually, not materially). Nevertheless, the parallel/contrast does support the 2K argument that the civil magistrate is given authority only over 2nd Table issues.

I’m drawn to the hermeneutical principle that the unclear in Scripture is to be understood in light of the clear. This particularly applies from OT to NT. Psalm 2 is best understood in light of NT passages that inform its subject matter, such as the two here. This comparison/contrast between Rom 13:1-5 and Heb 13:17, coupled with the contextual considerations outlined in the previous thread, given me strong reason to believe the 2K proposition is right here: 2nd Table only for the civil magistrate.

(Reed DePace)

2K, 2nd Table ONLY, Biblical Based Inference

(Reed DePace)

The third “New Machen’s Warrior Children” thread is about to pass 500 comments so far. Simple observation (no criticism in view): this thread has focused itself more on theonomically informed opposition to 2K than it has understanding of the 2K position. All who want to continue to pursue those lines are encouraged to do so on that thread. (If/when it gets up to the 700-800 comment range, if folks want to keep that focus going, we’ll start a fourth thread for that.)

Here I want to shift to a different thread in the tapestry of the 2K argument. In my reading this morning I happened to be in Romans 13, a key passage for one’s understanding of the role of the civil magistrate, the civil authorities of the secular nations (one of the two kingdoms in the 2K position, the sacred, the Church being the other). Before engaging further with the argument I’m about to make, let me ask you to read Romans 13 so it will be fresh in your memory.

Note the basic pattern of the chapter:

  • Verses 1-4: the civil magistrate” role as God’s ordained minister to administer civil justice.
  • Verses 5-7: the Christian’s public-square response to the civil magistrate in his exercise of his authority.
  • Verses 8-10: the Christian’s interaction with others in the public square in light of the of the civil magistrate's exercise of his authority.
  • Verses 11-14: the Christian’s "private house" obedience to God in light of eschatological considerations.

Note specifically verse 9b-10. There the second great commandment provides the summary justification for why the Christian is submissive in the public square to the civil magistrate's authority. It is not because this authority inheres in the civil magistrate, but because it is from God. Submission to the second great commandment is part of the Christian life (no duh), and this finds explicit expression in how we submit to the civil magistrate.

I don't expect there is any disagreement between pro and anti-2K up to this point. But let me make one debatable observation. When Paul goes to apply, the exemplify his reference to the role of the civil magistrate note where he specifically goes – to the 2nd Table of the Mosaic law (commandment 5 through 10). Note what he does not mention, any law from the 1st Table of the Mosaic Law (commandments 1 through 4). He does not even make an application from the 1st Table. Nor are there any 1st Table inferences present in what Paul says.

Even when he gets into verses 11-14, where it could be argued his focus shifts from public square issues, to "private house" issues (i.e., how we live behind closed doors), Paul still does not make any reference or inference to 1st Table considerations. Again his examples are expressly 2nd Table considerations!

Now, it is admitted that this is an argument from silence, or better yet, an argument from absence. Absent from what Paul says is any reference to 1st Table considerations. This does not mean that the absence here means the absence elsewhere in Scripture.

Yet at least it is a strong argument leaning in the direction of the 2K position that the civil magistrate in the New Covenant era only has authority over 2nd Table issues. It is almost as if Paul is providing a commentary on Jesus' bifurcated render to caesar/God command (Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 12:25). In the one place in his letters where Paul offers the fullest explanation of the gospel (comprehensively Romans is an explanation of the gospel), when it comes to a key application of the Christian life, when Paul expressly brings into view the Christian's public square relationship – it did not cross his mind to say anything about 1st Table issues.

This is a very, very strong biblically based inferential argument in support of the 2K position. The civil magistrate in the New Covenant era has no authority over 1st Table issues. These are not in Caesar's purview, but they are reserved exclusively to his Church, and her alone.

(Reed DePace)

The Ultimate Blow to Seeker-Sensitive Worship

I just came across this quotation in my research for Sunday’s Romans sermon. It is from Sproul’s recent expository commentary on Romans, and it has to be the final nail in the coffin of seeker-sensitive worship. He says,

It is foolish to structure worship for unbelievers who are seeking after God when the Bible tells us there aren’t any seekers. It manifests a failure to understand the things of God. If we understood the things of God, we would know that there is no such thing as unconverted seekers. Thomas Aquinas was asked on one occasion why there seem to be non-Christians who are searching for God, when the Bible says no one seeks after God in an unconverted state.

Aquinas replied that we see people all around us who are feverishly seeking for purpose in their lives, pursuing happiness, and looking for relief from guilt to silence the pangs of conscience. We see people searching for the things that we know can be found only in Christ, but we make the gratuitous assumption that because they are seeking the benefits of God, they must therefore be seeking God. That is the very dilemma of fallen creatures: we want the things that only God can give us, but we do not want him. We want peace but not the Prince of Peace. We want purpose but not the sovereign purposes decreed by God. We want meaning found in ourselves but not in his rule over us. We see desperate people, and we assume they are seeking for God, but they are not seeking for God. I know that because God says so. No one seeks after God (pp. 89-90).

He is commenting on Romans 3:11, which says, “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

God’s Wrath Against Fools

Romans 1:18-23


Audio Version

How would you like it if someone committed a terrible crime against you, kidnapped one of your children, but was caught; he was put in jail, had his day in court, was found guilty by the jury, but then the judge said, “It would be inhuman of me to pass any sentence on this man. Judge not, lest you be judged, as Jesus said. Therefore, I will let this man go scot-free.” Would you respect such a judge? Let’s try a different analogy. Let’s say a young man and a young woman just got married. They are about to move into their house, when they find out that it is infested with mice, termites, roaches, and other vermin. The young man promises to get all these vermin exterminated, but never seems to get around to it. He thinks it is just fine for his new wife to live in such a house. Do any of us think that his love fore his wife may be somewhat less than he thinks it is? Let’s try a third analogy. Imagine that you are a British subject in the late 1930′s, and you have just heard that Hitler has invaded all of Czechoslovakia, and all of Austria, after promising that he would not. Your Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, keeps on saying that we must avoid war at all costs. But you know better. You know that Hitler is bent on world domination. What do you think of PM Chamberlain? Wouldn’t your respect for him go downhill fast? In all three of these examples, we have some kind of evil that needs to be answered, and in all three cases, the person who can do something about refuses to do so. This is wrong, is it not? We know in our heart of hearts that there needs to be justice done on the kidnapper, that there needs to be a vermin-free house if the wife is going to be happy, and that Adolf Hitler needs to be stopped. There is such a thing as righteous wrath. And yet, when it comes to God, all of a sudden we get cold feet in talking about His wrath. A great deal of modern Christianity would prefer never to talk about God’s wrath. “God is love,” we shout at the top of our lungs. That God would send anyone to Hell seems unthinkable to us. What Paul is telling us here, however, is just that: God’s wrath is always evident against unbelief, and He will continue to oppose sin forever. Our message then is about the wrath of God. What I hope to show is that rather than hate God for exercising His wrath, we should actually come to love God for showing His wrath.

The context here is very important for showing what Paul is saying. Particularly verse 17 is important, since there is a parallel there that we need to see. In verse 17, we see three elements: “in the gospel,” “righteousness of God,” and “revealed.” In verse 18, we see three parallel elements: “from heaven,” “the wrath of God,” and “revealed.” So in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. We saw last week that this righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain by faith alone. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. But now, from heaven, the wrath of God is being revealed. What this tells us is that God’s love always has wrath as the flip side of it. Think about this for a moment, and it will make sense. How can God love us without hating our enemies? How can God love holiness and righteousness without hating wickedness? How can God love what is good without hating what is bad? The wrath of God should therefore make perfect sense to us, if we know God’s true character.

When it comes to wrath, however, we need to be careful to define it properly so that we do not get any wrong ideas about it. When we hear the word “wrath,” for instance, we tend to think of rage. We tend to think of a rage that is out of control and out of proportion. Neither is true of God. The wrath of God is His righteous opposition to all wickedness. And it is in perfect proportion, which is to say that God’s wrath is infinite, because any and all sin is infinitely heinous in the sight of God. So, there is no sin whatsoever in God’s holy wrath against sin.

Against whom is God’s wrath directed? Verse 18 tells us quite clearly. God’s wrath is directed against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice the terms here. Godlessness refers to people’s failure to worship God as they ought. Wickedness refers to their failure to love their neighbors as themselves. So God is angry against both vertical sin committed against God, and horizontal sin, committed against other humans. What is more, all their wickedness, both vertical and horizontal, is being used to suppress the truth about God. We need to mull this over for a moment. Sin suppresses truth. If people do not acknowledge God, or give Him thanks for their lives, it is because they are in the grip of sin. We must never think that natural man, in his fallen state, has the ability to think clearly about God. Natural man cannot do so. This is part of what we mean by total depravity. Sin corrupts every part of us, including our minds. Sin warps our thinking so that we get wrong ideas about God. We can see this even in our own lives as Christians. We are still quite capable of distorting God’s truth by our own sin. How many times do we rationalize sin? We do that because we do not want to stop sinning in that manner. So we justify our sin, even though we know that such sin is wrong. We try desperately to quiet that annoying conscience that keeps on pricking us, but we cannot quiet the conscience. The truth about good and evil is built into us. So, seeking to suppress it is a little like trying to press down on a powerful spring. The more you try to press it down, the more it pushes back against you.

What is this truth that Paul is talking about? It is the truth that God has revealed Himself as the all-powerful God in creation. Theologians call this general revelation. Now, general revelation does not tell us everything there is to know about God. We might get that idea from the passage, but we would be misinterpreting the passage if we did. Paul says “what may be known about God is plain to them.” Paul does not mean “everything that may be known about God.” Instead he means “what we can know about God from the creation.” This is clear from verse 20, where Paul says that the creation of the world demonstrates God’s invisible qualities, namely, His eternal power and divine nature. That is what has been revealed. Notice how oddly Paul phrases himself here. He says that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly seen. How can you see something that is invisible? The last part of verse 20 tells us: through what has been made. It is a bit like Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit in John 3. The illustration He uses is the wind. You cannot see the wind. It is invisible, since it is only air that is moving. But you can see what it does. So also, God’s nature is evident in nature. Examples are innumerable, but I will only mention one. The earth is exactly the right distance from the sun and from the moon. Any closer, and we would burn up, although we seem to have come close to that this week! Any further, and we would freeze to death, although again, we often seem to come close to that as well! The earth is spinning just the right speed for life to work. The moon influences the tides of the ocean just correctly. Everything on earth is exactly perfect for life, and there is no room for error. The idea that all these things came about by chance is simply ludicrous.

The fact is that there are no real atheists. Everyone knows that there is a God, and they know He is all-powerful and that He hates sin. They know that there is a judgment coming, which is why they are frantically seeking anything and everything to quiet that noisy conscience. They are without excuse. Many people want to know about the poor, innocent African tribesman who has never heard about Jesus. Is it fair for God to throw such a person into Hell? Well, no it wouldn’t be fair for God to condemn someone who is innocent. If the man is innocent. But are there any innocent African tribesmen? Paul would say no. All are completely without excuse. But we might object at this point and say, “But they haven’t heard the gospel? How can they be judged for rejecting Jesus when they have never heard of Him.” The answer to this is that they will not be judged for rejecting Jesus. They will be judged for rejecting God. They know about God from creation and from their own conscience. Just because they haven’t heard the Gospel does not mean that they have an excuse. It is humanity’s fault, not God’s fault, that the level of information needed to render us without excuse (general revelation) is not as much information as what we need for salvation (special revelation). The fact that any people at all hear about Jesus is pure grace from God. God does not owe everyone or even anyone a hearing of the Gospel message. Before Adam and Eve fell into sin, the revelation of God in nature was all that they needed. That was enough information. They had what they needed to obey God completely. After the Fall, however, they needed special revelation from God. They needed the message of salvation if they were to be saved. God graciously provided that in the Bible that gradually unfolded until it came to a climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

But what was people’s reaction to this information in creation? They rejected it by their sin. Look at verses 21-23. They all know God, but they refuse to glorify God, and they refuse to give God thanks. This is why the poor African tribesman is without excuse. On the information that he has, he needs to glorify God as God and he needs to thank God for everything that he has. He cannot do that in his fallen state. Instead, their thinking becomes futile, their hearts are darkened. They became fools, even in the very process of claiming to be wise. And they make a very terrible exchange: they exchange the glory of God for anything to put in God’s place. What a reaction! They get rid of their greatest good in order to worship what is clearly not God. They make idols, in other words. We may not think that these temptations are ours today, but they most certainly are. We may not worship birds and animals and reptiles, but we certainly worship humans! We love to worship ourselves. And those who worship nature are also on the rise. The whole “Mother Nature” movement is an idolatry of creation. Which is more glorious: the creation or the one who creates it? Surely it is the Creator who deserves all praise and thanks!

Here, then, is the flow of Paul’s thought through the passage: the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sin. The sin of humanity tries to the suppress the truth about God. But this truth is clearly revealed in creation in such a way that all are without excuse. But sin in the hearts of human beings will do everything to avoid that terrible truth of God’s wrath and judgment. Therefore they will worship anything and everyone before they will worship God. But their denial of the truth does not make the truth any less true, does it? The wrath of God is coming whether or not we acknowledge it or not. I remember a coyote-roadrunner cartoon where coyote was in a stationary railroad car, and a train was coming to smash the railroad car. He didn’t have time to do anything or get out of the railroad car. So he simply drew down the curtain so that he couldn’t see the train coming. Of course that didn’t stop the train from hitting the railroad car at full force. It was a feeble attempt to deny the truth. And that is what all attempts to deny God’s judgment are: feeble! God is coming to judge the living and the dead, and His wrath will be poured out against all evildoers!

So why should we love God for His wrath? What sense does that make? It makes sense to love God for His wrath because God has poured out His wrath on Jesus Christ in our place! Jesus Christ was called a fool. He became “foolish” in our place, as it were. It is very foolish to want to take on oneself the divine wrath. But Jesus wanted to do just that because of His love for us. You see, the good news of salvation doesn’t mean anything without the bad news that God’s wrath is directed towards us. In the good news, Jesus diverts God’s wrath from falling on us, so that it falls on Him instead. Going back to the coyote-roadrunner cartoon for a minute, it is as if we are coyote, waiting for the train to come and hit us, but before it can hit us, Jesus Christ comes and quickly builds a fork in the tracks (after all, anything is possible in the cartoon world, isn’t it?). He builds this fork and the train goes on the fork instead of hitting us. But Jesus does not get out of the way of the train, which then hits Him will all the force in the world. Can’t we see then, that the wrath of God is also in a sense God’s love? God cannot love us without hating our sin. And God wants to show us just how much He loves us by diverting His wrath from us so that it lands on Jesus Christ. And then, at last, we can come back to the one who is preparing a house for us. We wouldn’t want the new heavens and the new earth to have any blemish or sin or evil of any kind, would we? The wrath of God is so complete and total, that there will be no evil left. If God’s wrath were even slightly less powerful than it is, we might justly fear that there would be evil in the world that God is preparing. But be thankful that God’s wrath is so complete that all evil will be eradicated, and we will have no fear of evil ever again. So be thankful for the wrath of God. It is God’s holy anger against sin. And it is the flip-side of God’s love for us.

This has several implications for us beyond what we have already said. First of all, it has great importance for our evangelism. We may think that we should not start with the wrath of God in evangelism. However, if people don’t know that there is a problem, they will never flee to the solution, will they? How can people be saved if they don’t think that they need to be saved? Saved from what, after all? Paul starts his entire gospel of salvation by speaking about the wrath of God. We may not downplay or ignore what Paul has done here. And it is a good model for us to follow.

Secondly, whenever we sin, we are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This is just as possible for Christians to do, as for non-Christians. What are we suppressing? We are suppressing that voice of conscience that tells us that what we are doing is wrong. We need to listen to that voice of conscience.

Thirdly, we need to glorify God and give Him thanks. If we do not glorify God by worshiping Him, and if we do not thank Him, then we are worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. We are worshiping ourselves. We will become darkened in our thinking. We must not think that these things could not happen to us because we are Christians. Sin has all sorts of effects in our lives, far beyond what we even imagine. And it is very foolish indeed to underestimate sin’s power in the life of even a believer.

And fourthly, we need to see God in what He has made. Every little flower that opens, and every bird that sings. God has made them, every one, and He made their tiny wings. He is as evident in the petals of a flower as He is in the most powerful hurricane. God’s work is everywhere, and He is everywhere working! We need to see Him at work. God’s amazing love for us is demonstrated in that He rules every particle of this universe all for our benefit, so that we could have a beautiful world in which to live. Small thanks to God if we never worship Him, or are lax in our worship, or our thanks! Worship Him and give Him thanks, yes, even for His wrath!

The Verses That Changed Luther

Romans 1:16-17


Audio Version

These verses in Romans 1:16-17 have a fair claim to be the most important verses in the entire Bible. I can think of only one other passage that might rival these verses in importance, and that is John 3:16. But for us, Romans 1:16-17 can easily make the claim that they are more important. We would not be Reformed Christians today without Romans 1:16-17, for these verses changed Martin Luther. Without Luther’s transformation, there would have been no John Calvin. And if there had been no John Calvin, then there would have been no Reformation in Holland. And if there had been no Reformation in Holland, there would have been no Dutch Reformed immigrants to the United States. In a way, we can well say that theses two verses are our origins. They are the reason why we are Reformed. I need hardly add, then, that this sermon might very well be the most important sermon I will ever preach, since it is a sermon on perhaps the two most important verses in the entire Bible. I will certainly say that what I will attempt to say in this sermon will be the most important thing I hope our churches will ever get from my ministry. You might think I am exaggerating. But I do not think I am. All of God’s Word is important. However, some verses are more central in importance. There can be no verses more central in importance than these two verses. These are the verses that changed Martin Luther. May they change us as well.

In these two verses, Paul is giving us an outline of everything that he is going to say for the rest of the letter. Here is the whole of Romans in a nutshell. Notice how many themes of Romans are present here: gospel, power of God, salvation, faith, Jew/Gentile, righteousness of God, revelation, righteousness by faith, and eternal life. That is a lot of themes!

Paul starts by saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel. There were plenty of reasons to be ashamed of the gospel. After all, who wants to believe in someone who was crucified? That is the very height of humiliation and shame! And who would believe in the resurrection from the dead? Everyone knew in those days that people don’t come back to life. When Paul preached the resurrection to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, many of them laughed and ridiculed what he said. But there is more. The gospel includes the idea that all people are sinners. How many people do you know who love to be told that they are sinners? And how often are we tempted to downplay those aspects of the gospel, because we are ashamed of them? But Paul did not fall into those temptations. He was not ashamed of the gospel, in spite of all the reasons why he could have been. I wonder if we are ashamed of the gospel? Do we fear to tell people about it, because of so many things that we are simply not comfortable telling other people? Well, fear no longer, for there is good reason not to be ashamed.

The main reason why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is because it is the power of God for salvation. Notice that Paul does not say that the gospel tells us about the power of God. Nor does he say that the gospel introduces us to the power of God. Rather, Paul says that the gospel IS the power of God for salvation. We may think of it in terms of the power of the Word. Isaiah 55 tells us that the Word of God is powerful, always accomplishing that for which God sends it. Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. We must stop thinking of the power of God for salvation as if it resided somehow outside the gospel. God has infused His Holy Spirit into the gospel, as it were, so that the power of God resides in the good news itself. We can illustrate it this way: when we write a normal check, the money is not in the check itself. If we write a check, it is the same as a written promise that the money will be transferred from our account to the other person’s account. That is not what the gospel is like. Instead, the gospel is more like a cashier’s check. When you get a cashier’s check, the money is in the check itself. It does not take a day or two to clear the bank. The bank has invested the money in the check itself. It is possible to cash immediately a cashier’s check. That is what the gospel is like. The power is inside the gospel itself. God has put His Holy Spirit in the gospel of the Word of God just as a bank has put the money into the cashier’s check. When we give the gospel to other people, it is like having a cashier’s check in hand.

The power of God mentioned here is the power of God for salvation. The power of God is manifested in many ways throughout Scripture, but the most amazing form God’s power takes is the power of salvation. This is nothing less that God justifying the ungodly, resurrecting dead souls, bringing them from death to life, infusing His Holy Spirit into the person from the Word. The power that God has put into His Word is the same power that changes people.

How do we get that power? We get it by faith. Notice that Paul does not tell us that the saving power of God goes out to everyone. Rather, it goes to everyone who believes. Faith is the way we grab hold of God’s power. It is the conduit through which God’s power comes to us. The power is not in the faith. The power is the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the Word of God, the gospel. But we lay hold of that power through faith. Do we have that faith? Faith is here said to be belief. Belief in whom? We might notice that there is one major theme that is missing from these verses, and that is the theme of Jesus Christ. But Paul has already told us what the gospel is. Verses 2-3 of chapter one tell us of this gospel, which is concerning the Son of God, who was humiliated and exalted on our behalf. It’s that gospel that Paul is talking about in verse 16. We are supposed to remember verses 2-3 when we come to verse 16. This is another reason why it is helpful to preach through books of the Bible. Having already studied the first verses, we are in a better position to know what Paul means when uses the term “gospel.” He means what Christ has done on the cross and in the now empty tomb. The gospel then comes to us when we believe it. That is, when we believe that it is for us that Jesus did these things, that is when the power of God for salvation comes to us.

It is of faith from first to last. Notice that is how the NIV translates that part of verse 17. A righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last. This is directly opposed to any idea that we can get this righteousness by works at any time in our lives. The righteousness which we acquire by our works is the righteousness of sanctification, which follows from our justification. But when we are made right with God, it is completely Christ’s righteousness. And it is always His righteousness that keeps us right with God. We do not start out by grace, and end with works. It is by grace through faith from first to last. Our sanctification is vitally important, but our justification never depends on it. It is rather the result of justification. We do not stay justified by our works. Rather, our works come because of our justification.

Now, it doesn’t matter what state or race or gender we are, salvation comes to all who believe. That is the point of saying “first for the Jew, then also for the Gentile.” Paul is not saying here that the Jews are more saved than the Gentiles. The Greek construction here plainly puts Gentiles on the same level as Jews when it comes to salvation. What Paul is saying here is that salvation came from the Jews, and came to the Jews first in time. It is a simple statement regarding time. Salvation came first to the Jews, and then afterwards came to the Gentiles. Paul will explain this more fully in chapters 9-11.

It is in verse 17 that we come to the real heart of our obtaining the gospel. This is the verse that plagued Martin Luther until he finally understood it. Particularly, it is this phrase “the righteousness of God” that was crucial to Luther. Luther was a monk. He desired to obtain salvation by what he did. Luther not only held to the rules rigidly, but he confessed all his sins. In fact, he confessed so much and for so long every day that his confessor told him to stop confessing until he had done enough sin to confess! It wasn’t enough for Luther. He asked this question, “how can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?” When he looked at this phrase “the righteousness of God,” he understood it to mean the righteousness of God as judge, by which He condemns all sinners to everlasting torment. Now, the righteousness of God does do that to all who will not believe, but that is not what this verse is talking about. It was when Luther finally realized what this phrase meant that he was born again. Luther finally came to realize that here in Romans 1:17, the righteousness of God does not mean God’s condemning righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ that is given to us as a free gift when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ. Instead of being our condemnation, the righteousness of God is instead our salvation. He got there by looking at the last part of the verse, which quotes Habakkuk 2:4. The one who is righteous by faith will live. You see, it is not the righteousness of the law that will save us. Instead, it is the righteousness that we can have by faith in Jesus Christ that will save us. It is what Luther called “an alien righteousness.” What he meant by that is that it is a righteousness that is completely outside of us. It is not a righteousness to which we contribute at all. It is the righteousness which Jesus acquired throughout His life, and in His death. It is that perfect righteousness, answering in every respect to that righteousness which we need before an infinitely holy God. And it is just that righteousness which we can have as a free gift. That is what the righteousness of God means in this passage. We should probably translate the Habbakuk quotation slightly differently than the NIV. It should say, “The one who is righteous by faith shall live.” The meaning here is that we are righteous by faith, and not by works. The one who has that righteousness by faith and not by works is the one who shall live. When Luther came to understand this, he tells us that it was as if the very gates of heaven itself had opened up to him. He went and reread the whole Bible with this in mind, and everything was different. It changed everything for Luther. That transformation of his understanding is what sparked the Reformation. So we may say truly that this is not only Luther’s text, but it is the text of the Reformation.

This righteousness is continually being revealed to us. Here we have the theme of revelation. It is a continual revelation of God’s righteousness to us. Herein we see the love of God! For God did not hide this method of salvation, and tell us to search diligently for it as for an answer to a riddle. No, He revealed it and is revealing it now plainly in the Word of God. What is revealed is God’s righteousness in Christ, that is given to us as a gift.

However, the gift does not end there. The end is eternal life. Look once more at the quotation from Habakkuk. The one who is righteous by faith shall live. It is not just present life that Habakkuk is talking about. He is talking about eternal life. How do we pass from death to eternal life? By faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is then given to us. Then we have eternal life, when we believe that Jesus Christ is our salvation.

Of what practical value, then, is this gospel? It is difficult to know where to start, actually. For this gospel reaches out its tendrils into absolutely every aspect of our lives. It changes everything. It changes how we react to God and His work in our lives. It changes how we treat one another. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do. It changes our prayer lives. It changes our relationships. It changes our behavior. There is nothing more practical that this doctrine of justification by faith alone. How then can a person remain unchanged when they come to believe this gospel? For instance, how can a person remain enslaved to sin when they have died to sin, as Paul will say in Romans 6? How can we not offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, as chapter 12:1-2 say? How will we not recognize that our freedom of conscience does not give us liberty to trample the consciences of others, as chapter 14 says? If we remember that these verses contain the message of Romans in a nutshell, then we will also realize that everything practical in chapters 12-16 is based on these verses. Not least of the applications that we can make is that we must connect practical things to doctrine. They must never be separated. For the reason why we live for God is because Jesus died for us. What I would encourage us all to do is to use our imaginations this week and see how this doctrine of justification by faith applies to us in so many different areas of life. It is almost limitless in its application. Even in most sermons, the applications are only suggestive, not exhaustive. But that is especially true here. The applications of this doctrine can never be exhausted, for they encompass all of life. Let us live our lives, then, knowing and holding firmly to what these two most important verses have to say to us: that the power of God in the gospel reveals the righteousness of God given to us freely and obtained by faith alone. That is a gospel of which we should never be ashamed.

Faith Strengthened

Romans 1:8-15


Audio Version

It is a wonderful thing to have one’s faith strengthened by someone else. It could be a small or a big thing. Maybe it gives you that boost that you needed to start climbing your way out of despair. Or maybe you just needed a little pep in your walk, and someone gives you a word of encouragement. Maybe it’s a worship service that seemingly lifts you to heaven itself. Regardless of what it is, you know that God sent it to you at just the right time. That may well have been how the Romans would have felt on hearing these words from the apostle Paul. Of course, most of the Roman Christians had not ever seen the apostle Paul. However, most of them would have known that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Some of them might have wondered why it was that the apostle to the Gentiles had never visited the capital of the Gentile world: Rome. They might even have felt a little neglected by Paul. So Paul here reassures them that they are in his mind very often, and that he wanted to go see them, but had been prevented until then from going to Rome. For us, as we look at this passage, we will be focusing our attention on the ways in which faith can be strengthened.

First, faith is strengthened by Paul’s words of thanksgiving and encouragement that show that he is impressed with their faith, and thankful to God for their faith. Verse 8 shows us Paul’s attitude towards the Romans. He thanks God for their faith. Now, that in itself is a remarkable thing, for how many times have we thanked God for someone else’s faith? If we thank God at all for anything, usually it’s what He has given us, not what He has given our neighbor. But Paul is very unselfish here. He thanks God for the faith that has been given by God to the Romans.

Notice this small phrase “through Jesus Christ.” Paul never forgets that all our prayers (and thanksgiving is certainly one of those prayers) can only be heard through the mediation of Jesus Christ. He is our mediator, who is our advocate at the throne of God. He pleads with the Father that the Father should hear our prayers. God the Father hears our prayers because of Jesus Christ. In this case, it is the thanksgiving of Paul that is mediated through Jesus Christ, and is then heard by the Father.

Paul commends the faith of the Romans, saying that it is reported all over the world. I’m sure that Paul here means the known world, specifically, the Christians within it. It would be a great encouragement to many people to know that there were Christians at the very heart of the Roman empire. So, Paul thanks God and encourages the Romans by his words. We should encourage one another concerning their faith. We should mention to people that we thank God because of their faith, and the things that they have done for God. We should make it one of our missions in life to encourage other believers. Some of us are very good at this. You would hardly hear a word of criticism from them. Others of us, however, will only speak up to someone if they have a word of criticism. It might feel weird to some of us to encourage someone else, but we should seek to try to get used to saying those kinds of things. Goodness knows we need far more encouragement than criticism in our lives, although criticism has its place. But we should imitate Paul’s example here and thank the Lord for other people’s faith, and encourage them by saying so.

Secondly, faith is strengthened by prayer. And in this case, it is the prayers of other people, the prayers of Paul, that strengthen the faith of the Roman Christians. Paul wants them to know how much he prays for them. In fact, Paul swears an oath here that he has prayed for them many times. He calls God to witness, as in a court of law, that he has prayed for the Romans constantly. Notice in verse 9 that Paul desires the Romans to know that he is sincere in this. He says that he serves God with his whole heart. Paul’s religion is not some window-dressing that masks a heart full of hatred. No, he serves God with his whole being. It is one thing to hear that someone is praying for you. It is quite another to know that this person who is praying for you is a genuine, fervent Christian who is praying for you! It is that kind of assurance that Paul wishes to give to the Roman Christians.

This kind of Christian, in the form of the apostle Paul, is the one praying for the faith of the Roman Christians. And God uses that prayer of Paul to strengthen the faith of the believers there. Hear this truth, then: our prayers can strengthen the faith of other believers. This happens because God is the one who uses our prayers to accomplish His will. It is obviously God’s will that the faith of the saints be strengthened. Therefore, God will use our prayers for other people in order to strengthen their faith. How often do we pray for those Christians we know that their faith be strengthened? All too often, we have this idea that once they’re a Christian, we don’t really need to pray for them anymore. As if regeneration and conversion were all there was to the Christian life! If Romans itself is any indication, conversion is just the beginning. The rest of life is then a constant battle between the old sin nature that dwells within us and the regenerated part of us, which is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. We need to be growing constantly in the faith. And prayer is one of those things that is absolutely essential, both our own prayers, and the prayers of others on our behalf. One prayer isn’t enough, either. For notice Paul’s words here. He prays constantly for them at all times (verses 9-10). He does not simply pray for them once, and then forget about them. He prays for them all the time.

Prayer, however, can be a puzzle to us, can’t it, especially the connection between prayer and faith? Let us consider some errors in this area of doctrine before we consider what the truth of the matter is. Many people think that strong faith means prayer is answered, whereas a weak faith means that prayer might not be answered. Know this for a certainty: the prayers of all true Christians, no matter how weak their faith is, will be answered. God might answer “no.” But He answers “no” to strong Christians like Paul, as well as to weak Christians. Paul mentions in verse 13 that he planned to come to the Romans many times, but was prevented. There were good reasons for this, since God had other work for Paul to do. We must remember, then, that if God doesn’t not give us the answer we want, He will have His reason for saying no. Maybe it is to humble us, to help us realize that we are not as indispensable as we think we are. Maybe it is because God has other work for us. Maybe it is because the thing we pray for would not be a good thing for us to have or to do. Faith trusts in God that He knows better than we do. So it is not the power of our faith that fuels the power of prayer. The prayers of even the strongest saint needs the help of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, in order for God to hear it. This, by the way, is the reason why God does not answer the prayers of non-believers. They have no mediator.

Does prayer do anything? Yes, it does. It does two things. Firstly, prayer is what God uses to accomplish His will in our lives. That is the relationship between our prayer and the sovereignty of God. When our prayers line up with God’s revealed will, then God will use our prayers to accomplish His will. Furthermore, prayer changes us. Talking to God is always something that will change us. James Montgomery Boice told the story of a missionary who had served long and hard overseas, seeking to make converts to the Gospel. When he came home to America, he happened to be on the same boat as Theodore Roosevelt, who naturally got all the attention. There was, in fact, no one to welcome the missionaries home. The missionary was offended by this, until his wife told him to take the matter up with God. After praying to the Lord, the missionary felt much better. He said to his wife that he had told God how he felt, and it was as if God had laid His hand on the man’s shoulder and said to him, “But, my son, you are not home yet. When you come home, then I will give you a royal welcome.” Prayer changed him, and it changes us. It changes our attitude. It can be very useful, for instance, if we are having a dispute with someone, and our attitude is getting out of hand. We may not even realize it at the time, but if we can only remember to pray right then, we will find that our attitude will change in the circumstance. So prayer changes us, and God uses it to bring about His will. That is especially true with regard to other people. When we pray for others, that their faith will be strengthened, God will answer that prayer with a yes.

Praying for other people is therefore essential. However, sometimes there is simply no substitute for being with the other person. And that is our third point. Faith is strengthened by the communion of saints. That is one of the things we say in the Apostles Creed. We believe in the communion of saints. Here in verses 10-13, we have a beautiful picture of what the communion of saints looks like. It starts with prayer. That is how our second point leads to our third point. For Paul was praying that he might at long last, finally get to see the Roman Christians. He has been very eager to get there, but has been prevented until then. What good will the communion of saints do to the Roman Christians? Verse 11 tells us that there will be an impartation of spiritual gifts from Paul to the Romans, and that such a gift will help to make them strong.

Notice how humble Paul is here. Paul immediately corrects himself in verse 12. The Roman Christians might think that the strengthening might go only one way: from the great apostle Paul to the Roman Christians. But Paul wants the Romans to know that he needs encouragement and strengthening as well. So that is why he says in verse 12 that the strengthening goes both ways. Even the apostle Paul, one of the strongest Christians ever, still needs strengthening and encouragement. The faith of Paul and the faith of the Romans will strengthen each other’s faith. That is the beautiful thing about the communion of saints, isn’t it? It is like how geese travel. They travel in a V shape so that the air lift that comes from the one in front helps the goose that comes behind. And no one is at the front of the V for very long, before it is relieved of its post, so that it doesn’t get too tired. They help each other fly, and in that way, can cover much longer distances. So it is with the Christian faith. We all have something about our faith that will help someone else’s faith. It doesn’t matter how small we think our gift is. It will help someone else. Even if it’s just a small lift, that is important. Let’s ask ourselves this question: is my faith encouraging other people’s faith? It is one of the most important aspects about faith, the effect that it has on other people. Faith believes in the God who gives us the communion of saints.

Finally, faith has obligations. Paul says here that he is obligated, or under debt, to everyone, that he preach the gospel to them. To understand how this works, we need to look at two different kinds of debt. If person A borrows money from person B, then person A owes that money back to person B. That is one kind of debt, what we might call “direct” debt. However, supposing person A gave something to person B in order to give that something to person C. In that case, as long as person B has the item, he is in debt to person C in order to give it to them. This is what we might call “indirect” debt. It is the debt of having something entrusted to us, that we might give that in turn to someone else. That is the kind of debt Paul is talking about here. Paul was entrusted with the gospel in order that he might give it to all other people. He had never simply been given the gospel to keep it to himself. And here we see the last aspect of faith that Paul writes about here: the indebtedness of faith. When God gives us faith, He tells us that that faith is not ever meant to be kept to ourselves, but must also be given away to others. We are in debt to all other people to give them the knowledge of what faith is. Paul says he has to give this to Greeks and non-Greeks, to the wise and to the foolish. This is everyone in the world. He is in debt to everyone in the world. It is never wise to live in constant debt. Therefore, we must pay off that debt by sharing the gospel to everyone. We need to make sure that everyone has heard the gospel and knows what is the true nature of faith. Has everyone in Hague, Strasburg, Pollock, Linton, and Herreid heard what the gospel truly is? I think not. Our way forward is clear. Probably everyone in those towns is known by someone or other in our congregations. That means that we have the opportunity to reach every single person in those towns for Christ.

Our problem here is that we can tend to have the wrong idea about what faith really is, and it is on this point that I will close. Faith is not the same thing as sincerity, although we certainly want faith to be sincere. But people can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. We are not saved by sincerity. We are saved by faith. Faith is not the same thing as emotional feeling, either, although there again, faith includes our emotions. But emotional feeling can be just as wrong as sincerity. Muslims are sincere, and they can be very emotional! But that does not mean that they are saved. Faith is knowledge, assent and trust in Jesus Christ. Faith knows Jesus personally, agrees with the truths concerning Jesus Christ that are laid out in the Bible, and entrusts itself to Jesus Christ. That is true faith: knowing Jesus, agreeing with the truth, or believing the truth, and then entrusting oneself to Jesus, as the crucified and risen Lord. That is the only thing that will save. It is that faith that we need to seek that others should have. And it is that faith that needs to be constantly strengthened by encouragement, prayer, and the communion of saints.

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