Posts Tagged ‘Romans’

A willingness to “own our crap”

July 7, 2011

I’ve been thinking, writing, and preaching a lot recently about sin, wrath, and our need for forgiveness. In part it’s because I’m doing this sermon series on the Letter to the Romans, and, let’s face it, Paul spills a lot of ink on these subjects. Acknowledgement of our sin is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without understanding the enormity of our sin problem—and the ways in which sin damages us, our relationship with others, and our relationship with God—the gospel is incomprehensible and irrelevant. If we acknowledge our problem with sin, then we see that we need to be forgiven—and, with God’s help, change.

My focus on sin is also, I suspect, personal: I am increasingly mindful of my own sin. When I say this, I’m not beating myself up about it (although I have at various times in the past); I’m not suffering from a temporary bout of low self-esteem (it’s actually pretty good at the moment); I’m not depressed about it. In fact, I actually feel better, spiritually speaking, with this increased awareness of my sin. The last thing I want is for someone to say, “Aw, Brent, you’re not so bad!” Because I really am. I am, in fact, a terrible sinner. I’m not too proud to say it. I happily pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

I think I’m experiencing something that John Wesley describes in a sermon entitled “The Repentance of Believers.” In it, Wesley talks about the kind of repentance that believers normally do through the process of sanctification (the grace by which the Holy Spirit changes us inwardly after we experience justification and new birth in Christ). Repentance as Wesley describes it is almost a new kind of self-awareness: even as we consciously sin less often (we hope!), we become more conscious of the sin that remains in our lives. And we trust the Spirit to change us. Read the rest of this entry »

The God-setting-things-right

June 27, 2011

I haven’t paid much attention over the years to Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, but I loved the way he translated/paraphrased Romans 3:21-24. Originally, I was going to quote it in my sermon yesterday, but I cut it in the interest of time.

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

The Common English Bible’s translation of v. 22a, “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” becomes “The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us.” “Righteousness,” a difficult word to translate in English, isn’t simply an attribute of God meaning that God always does the right thing. It’s active. It describes the way in which God sets things right. The Message captures that nuance.

Romans series: what to leave in, what to leave out

June 25, 2011

I’m enjoying our sermon series in Romans. It’s a challenge for me. Romans is Paul’s masterpiece, and the fullest, most concentrated statement of the gospel in the New Testament. But it’s difficult because it’s packed with meaning. No wasted words, no asides, no unimportant tangents. Every word, we should safely assume, serves Paul’s argument.

With that in mind, I’ve had great difficulty skipping over sections of the letter. If you look at the original schedule, you’ll see that I’ll have spent three weeks saying what I intended to say in one. At the same time, we don’t have time to go through the letter verse by verse.

So I thought I’d give you a brief update on what I’ve left out so far…

Which is mostly Paul’s reason for writing the letter in the first place! Sorry about that!

His main reason goes back to Paul’s thesis sentence in Romans 1:17-18: God’s righteousness. Of course, I’ve talked about God’s righteousness—in terms of God’s justifiable anger over sin and God’s way of dealing with the problem and “putting the world to rights” (as N.T. Wright likes to say). But I’ve talked about it in a very general way so far, whereas Paul also talks about it in a specific way: as it relates to God’s people Israel. This is what Paul deals with in Romans 2 and most of chapter 3 (which my sermons skip).

If God is righteous, that means two things: First, God is committed to justice—and dealing with sin, which is nothing less than a violation of God’s justice. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Jew and Gentile alike. But if that’s the case, where does that leave Israel? After all, God’s righteousness means not only that God is committed to seeing that justice is done (the usual way we think about righteousness), but that God is also a God who keeps his promises to Israel, his covenant people. Has God turned his back on Israel and the covenant—as if God said, “Well, I tried it this way, by establishing a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, but that failed, so I better try something else”?

That may be the way it appears, Paul says, but that isn’t what’s happened at all! It’s true that Israel failed to be faithful in its mission to reveal God to the world. (Given the nature of sin, how could they not?) The Old Testament prophets have a lot to say about this failure. Does that mean, therefore, that God’s promises to Abraham wouldn’t come true? That God had abandoned the covenant? No! Because now, Paul argues—in an unexpected way that few could imagine (although it’s clear from Isaiah 53, among other scriptures)—God enabled Israel to be successful in its mission: through Jesus, God’s Son, the Messiah, Israel’s faithful representative. Jesus did what did what Israel couldn’t do, so that through Abraham’s offspring the world would indeed be blessed.

Among other things, this means that the way Romans 3:22 is often translated (that God’s righteousness comes through “faith in” Jesus) is misleading. It should be translated—as the new Common English Bible translates it: “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” The Greek is ambiguous: it could mean “faith of,” “faith in,” or “faithfulness of.” The faithfulness of Jesus makes the most sense: it carries with it the meaning of both Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel, and his life of sinless obedience to the Father. The emphasis is on what Christ has accomplished for the world, not on what we accomplish—as if placing faith in Jesus were a kind of meritorious work that Paul himself loudly excludes in the rest of the letter.

Besides, translating it as the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him” avoids the redundancy of the NIV or NRSV, which reads “faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” “Faith in Jesus for all who have faith in Jesus” is an awkward thing to say.

I’m not a Greek scholar. I’m leaning heavily, as I so often do, on N.T. Wright. Specifically, his words in Abingdon’s New Interpreter’s Bible commentary.

I hope this helps. If I were teaching a Bible study on Romans, I would talk through this stuff as well. As it is, I’m preaching sermons, and I hope you’re enjoying them!

More on God’s “giving them up”

June 22, 2011

I said in my sermon on Sunday that we Methodists speak of grace so loosely sometimes that we may give the impression (never saying it out loud, since it sounds so blasphemous!) that grace is God’s finally giving in to us, letting us have our way, not getting so worked up about sin. Is there a small, sinful part of us that may wish that God would just leave us alone?

In Romans 1:18-32, however, Paul says that God’s leaving us alone is the opposite of grace: it’s punishment. After all, what does Paul say is God’s response to human rebellion? What, in other words, is the consequence of God’s wrath? Paul says it three times: “God gave them up.” This is exactly the meaning of letting us do our own thing.

Paul isn’t speaking here of final judgment or hell, and let’s please be careful: God’s letting us—as punishment that may lead us to repentance—experience, however partially and imperfectly, the consequences of our sinful actions in this life does not preclude punishment in hell. It can’t, as a matter of justice. But I wonder if Paul’s words don’t point in the direction of the nature of that punishment.

C.S. Lewis thinks so. In the chapter entitled “Hell,” of his beautiful book The Problem of Pain, Lewis takes a cue from Paul’s words in Romans. He describes hell as the final and ultimate state of God’s “giving us up.”

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a  fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.

Sermon for 06-19-11: “Roman Road, Part 2: God Gave Them Up”

June 20, 2011

Sermon Text: Romans 1:18-32

The following is my original manuscript.

I’ve mentioned Serena in the past. Do you know Serena? Serena is my GPS receiver. My kids gave her that name on our first car trip with her. She speaks with an English accent, and she never gets lost. And she never judges me for my poor sense of direction. Just last week, Serena guided me to Annual Conference in Athens, but I missed my turn from Highway 120 to 316 and accidentally got on I-85. It wasn’t Serena’s fault. She told me where to turn, but I wasn’t listening to her voice. I was, in fact, listening to another voice—the voice of a narrator of a really interesting story on public radio’s This American Life.

According to Paul in today’s scripture, we human beings are a little bit like this when it comes to God. We are lost with a very faulty sense of direction. Spiritually speaking, we can’t get our bearings straight and our internal GPS system, which should naturally point us in the direction of God, has been badly compromised by sin. God has continually sent us signals about where to go, but—like me on my way to Athens—we’re not paying attention. We constantly make the wrong turn. In verses 19 and 20, Paul writes that within the fabric of Creation itself are signposts pointing us in the direction of the one true God.
Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 06-12-11: “Roman Road, Part 1: I Am Not Ashamed”

June 16, 2011

Our new summer sermon series in Vinebranch got off to a strong start, I think. Pay no attention to the title on the screen behind me: It’s “Roman Road,” not “Romans Road.” 

Sermon Text: Romans 1:16-17

The following is my original manuscript.

When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. As a result, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he often drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture. But here’s the rub: during each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he qualified it by saying: “My parents were medical missionaries; they weren’t there to convert people.” All of his students in the class understood what he meant: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—you know, offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that? How would that be useful?

By contrast, Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”— like there’s something shameful about going to China simply to try to persuade people to believe in Jesus and find salvation from God—so we need to offer something, you know, more practical, more useful, than simply the gospel. Back in the 1960s, a Catholic missionary, Father Vincent Donovan, described being a part of a mission to East Africa, where a nomadic tribe known as the Masai lived. For over a hundred years, the Catholic church had operated a mission in East Africa, in an effort to convert the Masai people to Christianity. They offered western medicine and education and agricultural assistance to the Masai, but for a hundred years they had almost no converts to show for it.

Donovan got an idea: What if I simply went to the people directly, and asked to share the gospel message—you know, with words—instead of dressing it up with all this extra stuff, which the church was using almost like a bribe? He resolved to do just that, but he wrote in his memoir that there was a problem: he was so unaccustomed to actually putting the gospel into words, that he had to re-learn what exactly it was and why it mattered. And when he told the tribal elders that the reason the church was there in the first place was to share this gospel message, they said, “If that’s what you wanted to do, why didn’t you just say so?”

I am not ashamed of the gospel. Read the rest of this entry »

The way of sin and death

June 13, 2011

Our new “Roman Road” sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans got off to a great start yesterday, in my opinion—not that I’m biased. I talked mostly about the thesis statement of Paul’s letter, Romans 1:16-17, but I also touched on v. 18 and God’s wrath. I said that in order for us to not be ashamed of the gospel, we have to understand why humanity needs it in the first place: human sin and God’s response to it (i.e., wrath or anger). You can read or watch my sermon later this week and decide for yourself, but I think I gave the congregation a helpful way of thinking about the meaning of God’s anger toward sin.

As I pointed out yesterday, contemporary American culture mostly doesn’t understand why God would be angry about sin. Here, N.T. Wright proves helpful to me again. I like the way this passage from his Paul for Everyone commentary (on Romans 1:28-32) points to the death-dealing way of all sin:

All this points to the critical statement: they know God’s decree, that those who do things like that are, literally, ‘worthy of death’. Don’t misunderstand. People suppose God’s laws are arbitrary. They imagine that God (if such a being exists, they might add) has invented a set of rules to amuse himself, and that he then enjoys the thought of punishing people if they don’t keep them… The ‘decrees’ of God are not that kind of thing at all. They are built into the fabric of creation itself. Evil behaviour is inherently destructive. It points, like a signpost, towards death. This is obvious in the case of murder and other violence; it should be almost as obvious in the case of gossip and slander, where someone’s reputation and life are pulled to pieces, often without any chance of redress. People who are self-important and boastful are effectively pushing themselves into space belonging to others, as though the others shouldn’t really exist. And so on. God has made the world in such a way that kindness, gentleness, generosity, humility—love in all its many forms—is life-giving, while evil in its many forms is deadly.

Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 26-27.

Praying (and preaching) from the heart

June 10, 2011

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

The problem with preaching a sermon series on Romans, as I am starting to do this Sunday, is that the preacher has to actually understand what Paul is getting at. Don’t laugh! I’m being completely serious! Have you read Romans recently? It’s dense and difficult, and we often have to suspend our disbelief that Paul is making one cohesive argument, rather than going off on a hundred different tangents. (I like N.T. Wright’s comparison of Romans to a great symphony: motifs appear and reappear, often in different keys and with counterpoints, etc. Wright is a classical musician; I am not.)

Of course we all have our favorite verses and passages from Romans. If you grew up Baptist in the Bible Belt, like me, you will no doubt be familiar with the “Romans Road to Salvation” (a quick Google search can’t determine whether it should be “Roman Road” or “Romans Road”), a collection of six or seven verses or scripture passages scattered throughout the book that purport to tell how one “gets saved.” And I’m not implying that those verses aren’t useful shorthand for explaining some part of the process of salvation, but they are incomplete and often beside Paul’s point.

Speaking of which, I’m carefully reading the New Interpreter’s commentary on Romans, which happens to be written by Wright—whom, as my regular blog reader(s) know(s), I already love. Nearly every section of his commentary includes words along these lines: “Of course, my exegesis goes against the traditional Reformed interpretation of these verses. The principle or doctrine behind this interpretation isn’t wrong—and Paul would no doubt agree with it—but is beside Paul’s main point here.” Something like that. No wonder Wright, an evangelical Anglican, has made some enemies among the hyper-Calvinists among us.

Be that as it may, I was reading Wright’s reflections on Romans 3:27-31. In it, he talks about some ways in which Paul’s discussion of “justification by faith apart from works” has been misappropriated by Enlightenment- and Romantic-influenced thinkers over the past two or three centuries, and how, as a result, this thinking has negatively influenced worship. One consequence, he writes, is a deeply Protestant suspicion of anything in worship that isn’t spontaneous—like, for example, scripted public prayer (not to mention liturgy in general). Against this prejudice, he writes:

There is of course great value in the stumbling prayer that comes from the heart as against the beautifully phrased prayer read from a book while the heart is busy elsewhere. But many, perhaps most, of the greatest spiritual guides would regard this as a quite false antithesis. Often somebody else’s words will act as lightning conductors, enabling one’s belief in, and sense of, God’s presence to go down to the very center of one’s being.

As I am a frequent pray-er of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, I couldn’t agree more. More generally, I strongly reject the idea, as would Wright, that words that are thoroughly thought-through and written down before being spoken are somehow less “authentic,” less “from the heart,” than more spontaneous words.

This bias has infiltrated my profession. I write out a manuscript of my sermon each week (lucky for you, since I post it here). I put on paper exactly what I want to say. If, in rehearsing my sermon, I decide to say it another way, I literally make a change to my manuscript in my word-processing program of choice. I’ve been doing this for seven years (although I might not re-print it now, thanks to the recent gift of an iPad). Of course it helps that I know how to type well.

Writing a manuscript used to be the norm for preachers, but it’s currently unfashionable in homiletical circles. It’s gone the way of classic three-point expository sermons. (There’s nothing wrong with those, either.) To be clear, I’m not arguing the merits of preaching from a manuscript as opposed to an outline or with nothing at all. Whatever works for you, I say. But I strongly disagree with the premise—which I have heard some preacher acquaintances actually say out loud—that preaching from a manuscript makes you less “authentic” or “heartfelt” or “Spirit-filled” than you would be if you preached without it.

“Step away from the manuscript,” they say. “Be yourself.” Spare me! I pour my heart into my manuscript, and it reflects, as much as anyone might want it to, my true self. Of course this doesn’t mean that I never step away from it, deviate from it, be spontaneous, go down a different path while preaching it; it just means that at 10:59 a.m. on Sunday morning, after I have prayerfully and deliberately written and edited it, this is the sermon that I honestly believe that Holy Spirit is leading me to preach. If that wind, which blows where it will, is blowing in a different direction at 11:35, I’ll try my best to tack in that new direction.

What I hope critics of manuscript preaching are really saying is that they don’t like preachers who simply read a manuscript from the pulpit. Who does? Preaching from a manuscript, if you follow good rules of public speaking, shouldn’t mean that! Churchill and JFK, to take two prominent secular examples, used manuscripts, and they were effective communicators. Likewise, I hope these critics dislike those preachers without manuscripts who stumble around from one point to another, ramble off track, constantly repeat themselves, and speak in a drab, artless way. See what I mean? It goes both ways.

Every preacher, regardless of whether they use a manuscript or not, should prepare. And that preparation takes hours if it’s done right. Speaking of which, I have to get back to it!

† N.T. Wright in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 486.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel”

June 9, 2011

When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. Consequently, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture.

During each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he immediately inserted this qualification: “My parents were medical missionaries, not proselytizing missionaries.” All of us students got his drift: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that?

A couple of thoughts: I’m not in a position to comment on the fairness of this characterization of his parents’ work. The fact that they were Methodist missionaries implies—I hope—that regardless of their actual work in China, their motivation was explicitly religious and specifically Christian: they were so inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ that they wanted to share Christ’s love with others, using the gifts he gave them for medicine. I’m sure they felt called by God to do this work. If, in part because of their efforts, some Chinese people became Christians along the way… well, it seems likely that his parents wouldn’t have minded, you know? They might have even welcomed it.

Besides, what’s wrong with proselytizing? Not only is there nothing wrong with trying to persuade people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, there is everything right about it, no matter what our culture says. This is the heart of the church’s mission. (I would only qualify this by saying that “becoming disciples” is more of a lifelong process than a moment of decision. We’re always becoming!)

How do we go about this mission? Again, at the risk of pointing out the obvious: by sharing the gospel. And when I say “gospel,” I mean the plain, unvarnished gospel. In other words, we speak words and live lives that communicate what God has done for the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and describe how God’s saving work relates to our present situation.

The gospel, according to Paul in Romans 1:16-17, is “the power of God,” which is not just another way of saying that it’s a powerful message—the way Schindler’s List is a powerful message. And it’s not even saying that it’s the most powerful message, although it surely is. No, from Paul’s perspective, the gospel is power itself. It’s God’s power. And it’s enough. Or at least it ought to be.

I’m writing the words of this blog post to myself… For the next time I’m sweating over a sermon, searching for just the right words, trying too hard to be clever or funny or endearing. Just give them the gospel, Brent. It’s all you need!