Some of you know I have the privilege of teaching Romans this Fall at my home church, Peninsula Bible Church of Palo Alto. I like teaching God's Word because it forces me to study. (If others are able to gain anything from my ramblings in front of the class that's surely God's doing). I have been thoroughly familiar with Romans for decades, and I have frequently quoted from it. This time around, Romans feels like a brand new book to me. James M. Boice has written a splendid four-volume commentary which has opened many new vistas for my thinking. (My notes for this current class on Romans, http://ldolphin.org/romans/, contain a number of quotes from Boice so you can see how very fine his commentary is.)
Romans is absolutely key to a sound Christian theological foundation and to a trustworthy Christian world-view. What Romans teaches is surely desperately needed in many churches across our land right now. Superficiality and easy-believism prevail. Biblical illiteracy is everywhere. Christian behavior is no different than non-Christians most of the time. George Barna's studies show that morality in our country continues to decay at all levels, in the church and outside the church, see http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=152&Reference=F. See also his study, Practical Outcomes Replace Biblical Principles As the Moral Standard, http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=97&Reference=B
The idea that there exists a body of essential truth from God that Christians should know and adhere to--called "sound doctrine"--is apparently never under much discussion these days. Today I was reading through Ray Stedman's 1980-something sermons on First and Second Timothy (http://raystedman.org/timothy). Ray's words leapt out of the page with startling relevance--to me they are more applicable in our own time than they were two decades ago. "If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3)
Across the Bay from us, Heresy Harold Camping of Family Radio continues to teach that God is finished with the church altogether. He says that believers should leave their local churches and go elsewhere. (see http://ldolphin.org/mirror.html). It is not hard to see why Camping has a large following even if he is teaching nonsense. Many churches probably ought to be forsaken and left behind. But of course Camping, and others like him, don't tell us where we are supposed to "go" if we abandon the local church. It's like the situation Peter faced when He considered his options in a time of crisis. "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?" But Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:66-68)
Romans calls attention to the sovereignty of God in election--God saves some but passes over others. Salvation is offered to all men but the human condition is so bad that "no one seeks after God." God has to save some of us individuals in spite of ourselves. Romans also calls attention to the reality that only a small number--a remnant of the Jews--were saved in most every generation down through the long history of Israel. Similarly, not everyone in the visible church is saved or will be saved. That is, only a small remnant among professing Christians find and know the Lord. (See The Concept of the Remnant, http://ldolphin.org/Remn.html). What will be interesting, church by church, is to see how many people show up for church as usual the Sunday following the rapture. I hope our church lot will be empty, but only God knows.
What I have noted in teaching Bible classes is that there is great power in the Word itself. God backs it up every time! I think the mistake of so much modern preaching is that the messages have been predigested and watered down by the preacher so that one can only dimly see God's heart and intent. No one gets really fed anymore. The relevance of the morning sermon, if any, often escapes us. "Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, "That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the LORD." (Amos 8:11)
Here is what James Montgomery Boice notices about one church where the entire central focus is set on presenting the entire Bible verse by verse:
During the decade I spent as chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978-1988), I listened to many sermons on the Bible, as well as preaching quite a few myself. But the best I heard was by Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. He gave it at ICBI's first "Summit Meeting" in Chicago in the fall of 1978.
At the time, Criswell had been pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for over thirty-five years. He had been in the ministry for more than fifty years, and he had been chosen to address this amazing gathering of 350 pastors, scholars, and leaders of the major para-church organizations on the subject "What Happens When I Preach the Bible as Literally True?" His answer was a tour de force, as he explained what had happened to himself, what had happened to his church, and what he believes happens to God when God's Word is thus used and honored.
About a year after Criswell had gone to the Dallas church, he announced to his already well-established congregation that he was going to preach through the Bible, beginning with Genesis and going right on to the last benedictory prayer in Revelation. "You never heard such lugubrious prognostications," he reported. People said it would kill the church. "Nobody will come to hear someone preach about Habakkuk, Haggai, and Nahum. Most people don't even know who those biblical books or characters are," they said. Criswell did it all the same, however. Much to everyone's astonishment, the problem that developed was not the demise of the church, but where to put all the people who were pressing in weekly to hear such biblical preaching. There were thousands of conversions, and today the First Baptist Church of Dallas is one of the largest, most effective, and most biblically sound churches in the entire country.
Scoffers abound. Critics multiply. But the lesson of history is the unique power of the Bible to change people's lives and build churches. (J.M. Boice, Romans, Baker Books 2000)
From my own experience, I have great respect for the Calvary Chapel churches and their format of teaching through the Bible, cover to cover, every few years. J. Vernon McGee is still on the radio around the world doing that very same thing--in English and also in twenty-five foreign languages! Though he went home to be with the Lord in 1988, he "is still speaking." (Hebrews 11:4). McGee's style may be plain vanilla but his straightforward teaching covers the whole counsel of God--and God's word still changes lives.
Seek the LORD while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:6-11)
There is, of course, more to Bible teaching than just presenting the Word. An epistle like Romans contains many difficult words, concepts, and terms. The text needs explaining, unfolding and elaboration. The great tradition of expository preaching Ray Stedman championed among us can be traced back to Ezra the scribe. "And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." (Nehemiah 8:8) (see http://raystedman.org/adventure/0216.html). All sorts of preachers today claim to be doing expository preaching but in my view many of them don't have a clue what the term means. Ray Stedman talks about this whole subject in a classic message, The Primacy of Preaching, http://raystedman.org/misc/primacy.html.
Several things have come to the forefront of my thinking this Fall as a result of delving into Romans. First, the holiness of God has once again become of key importance in my daily life. Years ago I was greatly helped by six classic messages on the Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul of Ligonier ministries. The fact that God is holy is more central to He is than the more familiar "God is love." God is holy and can be attractive, awe-inspiring to us--but He is also terrifying. Isaiah had a brief glimpse of God and cried out, "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts." (6:5)
Holiness is not optional for a Christian.
"...even more important is the pursuit of holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. Whether this seeing of the Lord refers to the beatific vision of God, or to seeing Jesus at his Second Coming, it clearly precludes any who are not pursuing holiness from having a close and vital relationship with God. The need to make every effort suggests continuance and is perhaps better translated "pursue." As we have noted before, it is a mistake to take holiness as referring only to righteous behavior apart from seeing it also as a gift of God who imparts righteousness to the one who believes in Jesus. If we pursue righteous behavior only as a means to "seeing" the Lord, we will eventually find ourselves with the Pharisees. They were blindly ignorant of terrible failure but claimed a relationship that did not really exist. But if we truly practice a continual reckoning of ourselves as already righteous within by a gracious act of God on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we will find ourselves strongly motivated to live righteously and inwardly distressed at any failure to do so. This inward distress will bring us again and again to the throne of grace for forgiveness and recovery. We will progressively be "transformed into his (Christ's) likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). That is what is meant by the exhortation to "pursue holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." (Ray Stedman, http://raystedman.org/hebrews2/heb2comm2.html).
I am also lately renewed in my awareness of God as Just. God can not act unjustly. He must treat all men with perfect justice. Since there are only a few believers in the entire world, the coming time of God's righteous judgment will be "great and terrible." Can any of us really appreciate a God who is totally and thoroughly just and who must give everyone who has refused His grace, what they really deserve? Do moist Christians today have any clue what they have been saved from, and what the cost of their salvation was to a holy and just God? Romans shows us much about these deep subjects.
Romans also deals thoroughly with human evil. (Have you heard of a class in any secular university on the subject of "human evil? I haven't.) We all want to think highly of ourselves whenever we can. Society keeps insisting that people are all "basically good" and deserving of heaven with no questions asked. Romans shoots own these myths. We are all--by birth and by conduct--totally depraved, enemies of God, destined to die and doomed face a full accounting of all our deeds (were it not for God's intervening mercy). We hate God because we insist on the "right" to be our own gods, as our forefathers all the way back to Adam did. If we can not totally ignore God we settle for "religion--which allows us to remake the Deity into someone, or something, we will find easier to live with. This is an even greater insult to the true and living God. (He is not amused). The ability we all have to deceive ourselves is astounding--at least that has true in my own experience. We are lost and don't know it, in big trouble with the real God, and oblivious to His very real holy anger against our sin.
"One of the really surprising things about the present bewilderment of humanity is that the Christian Church now finds herself called upon to proclaim the old and hated doctrine of sin as a gospel of cheer and encouragement. The final tendency of the modern philosophies, hailed in their day as a release from the burden of sinfulness, has been to bind man hard and fast in the chains of an iron determinism. The influence of heredity and environment, of glandular makeup and the control exercised by the unconscious, of economic necessity and the mechanics of biological development, have all been invoked to assure man that he is not responsible for his misfortune and therefore not to be held guilty. Evil has been represented as something imposed on us from without, not made by us from within. The dreadful conclusion follows inevitably that as he is not responsible for evil; he cannot alter it. Even though evolution and progress may offer some alleviation in the future there is no hope for you and me now. I well remember how an aunt of mine, brought up in an old-fashioned liberalism, protested angrily against having continuously to call herself a miserable sinner when reciting the Litany. Today, if we could really be persuaded that we are miserable sinners, that the trouble is not outside us but inside us, and that therefore, by the grace of God, we can do something to put it right, we should receive that message as the most helpful and heartening thing that can be imagined." (Dorothy Sayers)
Some of us, a few of us in this world, are believers and followers of Jesus as Lord--by the grace and mercy of God alone. The standards of righteousness God requires of us are very high--unattainably high. Good moral behavior and good deeds are never enough. We are measured by Jesus as the standard. Jesus is the righteousness of God. In comparison, "We are all an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6). Our daily lives are supposed to be lived as Jesus lived--it total dependence on Another living and working through us. "Nothing coming from me, everything coming from Him." That is what used to be called "the normal Christian life." What survives into eternity in the life of a Christian are the actions of our Lord Jesus in and through us, never our own works done in the energy of the flesh. (see The Judgment Seat of Christ, http://ldolphin.org/Jseat.html). Who among us can boast except of God's mercy and grace? Paul wrote, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
But is there enough grace and mercy available to save us from ourselves? Indeed there is--for even the worst of us can be made whole and new. Romans very thoroughly and in detail presents the good news of God's love for all mankind. Often people won't accept the cure until they see how serious the disease they have really is. Romans lets us know that our sins are intolerable to God and that he alone has a solution which spares the sinner through the substitutionary death of Jesus on our behalf. Romans says men have no fear of God (3:3) yet most people around us remain ignorant of the deadly peril they are in as they continue to live for themselves as enemies of God. How vital, how important it is therefore that God's truth be broadly-cast over and over again, in every generation, into a lost world. "For the Scripture says, 'Whoever believes on Jesus will not be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For 'whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.' How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!'" (10:11-15)
Romans draws sharp and clear boundaries for us to help us tell the difference between our old life as it was "in Adam" and our radically new life "in Christ." Nothing in the old life we inherited from Adam can be saved.
"The cross is the symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of the human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was not going out to have his life redirected. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all of the man completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. it struck swift and hard and when it had finished its work the man was no more. That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of man is false to the Bible and cruel to the soul of the hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world. It intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our life up on to a higher plane. We leave it at a cross. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. That is the beginning of the gospel." (A.W. Tozer)
The subject of "judgment to come" is something I never hear talked about very much these days at church, or elsewhere for that matter. According to John Chapter 5 it is Jesus who is the appointed Judge of all mankind. On the Cross, Jesus carried three major judgments. Satan was judged, the world was judged, and sin nature of us believers was judged in our co-crucifixion with Jesus. When we each die, Jesus is the judge of our works. Jesus will not judge the collective church, but He is the appointed judge of the nation of Israel (encompassing all of Israel's long history). Jesus will judge the nations of our world after His return, and He will judge the angels. Finally, one-by-one Jesus will judge all the unbelievers who have ever lived. There is more to this in that Christians are involved in at least two of these judgments: the judgment of the angels (1 Cor. 6:3) and the judgment of the world. (1 Cor. 6:2). (more on this later.)
C.S. Lewis said,
"It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
"All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours." (from The Weight of Glory)
A Lexicon web site for Christianese words: Please visit and post to http://lexicon.rail.com/phpLexicon/. This new web site is intended to explain Christian clichés and theological terms to make them clearer to our modern setting. Please feel free to contribute.
Good Book: Everyone ought to understand the age we live in. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr., is excellent for a fresh understanding of things as they seem to be in the world today. (Crossway Books 1994). Postmodernism is very depressing, but since it is everywhere we all need to know what is about and how to present unchanging and absolute truth from the Word of God to a generation which does not believe that real truth exists. Postmodernism may be "strong delusion" but it is holding many people in deep darkness and ignorance. "But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us." (2 Corinthians 4:3-7)
My Planned Move to Oregon? On hold for the present. God knows. Though I had planned to move up North to Grants Pass last June, God said "no" for the near present time. There is an old saying around our church, "bloom where you are planted" so lately I feel like the barren fig tree in the vineyard addressed in a parable by Jesus. "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?' But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13:6-9)
Contributions: I am very grateful for the financial help of friends who help me stay actively available to the Lord Jesus Christ. The last time I worked for a living was some fifteen years ago. I am, however not "retired," but busier than ever before. I do not have a secretary or an outside rented office. My typing is still two-fingered. My income is limited to Social Security, a modest retirement check, and, most essential of all, the contributions of wonderful friends. In the past few years two or three very generous friends have carried most of this latter burden for me. As I result of the help of these special friends I have had great freedom to stay busy in Christian service here in Silicon Valley South of San Francisco. One major contributor has now had to cut back because of a business downturn. Hudson's Taylor's is purported to have said that "God's work done in God's way never lacks God's supply." May God help me to do Hi work, His way! I'd be grateful for any help you are able to send my way.
Your contributions can be addressed to Peninsula Bible Church (include a note that it is for my ministry support); 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306. I do not receive a list of contributors so I am not able to write individual thank you notes.
Newsletters are archived on my web site, http://ldolphin.org/news/. Recent articles usually are found at the top of my library page, http://ldolphin.org/asstbib.shtml. Email is welcome. We do our best to answer each and every email personally. When I get too busy I share email with my coworkers in the Paraclete Forum, http://paracleteforum.org. God be with you!
Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
November 19, 2003. Web Archive for these newsletters: http://ldolphin.org/news/