Forum Class for January 4, 2004

America's Spiritual Decline

Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: "For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing to Your name." And again he says: "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!" And again: "Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!" And again, Isaiah says: "There shall be a root of Jesse; And He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, In Him the Gentiles shall hope." (Romans 15:8-12)

When Paul quotes Isaiah as saying that "the Gentiles will hope in him [that is, in Christ]," he is thinking of personal salvation, of course. Yet I cannot look at this text without thinking that it also applies to cultures, particularly American culture, and of the only hope we or any other people have to avoid utter spiritual bankruptcy and chaos. Romans 15:12 (quoting Isaiah 11:10) does speak of "the nations," after all, and we are one of them.

Not long ago someone gave me a copy of a speech William. Bennett gave to a special twentieth-anniversary gathering of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Bennett served as secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and later as drug czar under President George Bush. His address, called "Getting Used to Decadence," spoke to America's decline.

Bennett told of a conversation he had with a friend who lives in Asia about how America is perceived today by foreigners. According to Bennett's friend, the world continues to look on America as the leading economic and military power on earth. But, he said, "this same world no longer beholds us with the moral respect it once did. When the rest of the world looks at America. . . they no longer see a 'shining city on a hill.' Instead they see a society in decline, with exploding rates of crime and social pathologies." Foreigners who come to the United States these days no longer come hopefully but in fear. And they have cause to be fearful-a record number of them get killed here.

Early in 1993, through the Heritage Foundation, Bennett released a book titled The Index of Leading Culture Indicators, tracing changes in American behavior over the past thirty years (1960-90). There are a few relatively good signs: Since 1960, the population has increased 41 percent; the gross domestic product has nearly tripled; and total social spending by all levels of government (measured in constant 1990 dollars) has risen from $142.73 billion to $787.00 billion--more than a fivefold increase.

But during the same thirty-year period there has been a 560 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in illegitimate births; a quadrupling in divorces; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a 200 percent increase in the teenage suicide rate; and a drop of 75 points in the average SAT. scores of high school students. Today 30 percent of all births are illegitimate, and, according to Bennett, "By the end of the decade, according to the most reliable projections, 40 percent of all births and 80 percent of minority births will occur out of wedlock."

In 1940 teachers were asked to identify the top problems in America's schools. They answered: talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the hall, cutting in line, dress code infractions, and littering. When they were asked the same question in 1990, they identified drug use, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault.

Within my lifetime, says Bennett, the United States was looked upon as the bright moral conscience of the world. Today we have topped the industrialized world in murders, rapes, and violent crime. We are near the top in rates of abortions, divorces, and unwed births. In elementary and secondary education we are near the bottom in students' achievement scores.

And this is not the greatest problem. The greatest problem, according to Bennett, is that we have gotten used to this condition. We have accepted it. There is no shame, no protest, no outrage, no anger.

Not long ago a person who mugged and almost killed a seventy-two-year old man was shot by a police officer while fleeing the scene of the crime. A jury awarded him $4.3 million in damages, and no one protested. In California the trial of the two Menendez brothers, charged for killing their elderly parents with a shotgun, resulted in a hung jury. The jurors believed the psychiatrists' defense that they must have been somehow psychologically abused.

Bennett traces our problem to what the ancients called acedia, borrowing a term meaning "an aversion to and a negation of spiritual things." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian author and expatriate, called it "spiritual exhaustionThe late American novelist Walter Percy described it as America's "weariness, boredom, cynicism. greed and in the end helplessness before its great problems.'" Bennett himself called it "a corruption of the heart." Contrasting America's material prosperity with its spiritual impoverishment, he observed, "If we have full employment and greater economic growth-if we have cines of gold and alabaster-but our children have not learned how to walk in goodness, justice, and mercy, then the American experiment. no matter how gilded, will have failed. "

Pollster George Gallup has described America as richly religious but ethically impoverished. In an interview with Reformed Theological Seminary Journal he said:

Religious belief is remarkably high-certainly, the highest of any developed nation in the world. At the same time, American religious life is characterized by a series of gaps. First, an "ethics gap" exists between Americans' expressed beliefs and the state of the society they shape. While religion is highly popular in America, it is to a large extent superficial; it does not change peoples' lives to the degree one would expect from their level of professed faith. In ethical behavior, there is very little difference between the churched and the unchurched.

The problem is found in the second gap Gallup mentions, a gap between faith and knowledge. "Related to this is a 'knowledge gap' between Americans' stated faith and the lack of the most basic knowledge about that faith. Half of those who say they are Christians do not know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount," Gallup says.

We would like to think this is a problem only for nominal Christians or perhaps, speaking as evangelicals, for liberals. After all, liberals do not even believe the Bible, we think. But it is a problem for us too. Some time ago I read a book by David Wells, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor of historical and systematic theology, called No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology. Wells has a simple but very disturbing thesis: Evangelicalism as a religious force in American life is dead or is in the process of dying because it has abandoned any serious commitment to truth. He is not saying that evangelicalism is dead as a sociological force or presence, for evangelicals have large churches, many members, and a great deal of money. But since they no longer really care about the truthfulness of the gospel and the Christian faith as a whole, they are ceasing to make any significant difference.

I can hear many questioning that. It is the evangelicals, rather than liberals, who believe the gospel, they say.

Well, there is a great deal of difference between what we say we believe or even think we believe and what we believe practically. To judge by what evangelicals do rather than by what they say, which is what Professor Wells is attempting, evangelicals actually believe in Madison Avenue techniques or miracles for evangelism, psychology for Christian growth and sanctification, spiritual voodoo for discerning the will or God, and the power of politics, wealth, or numbers for making an impact on society. This is not what the followers of Christ did in an earlier age, when they proclaimed and trusted in the truth of the gospel.

What is happening to evangelicals is what happened to the liberal church earlier in this century, though most evangelicals are unaware of it They are losing faith in the power of the truth of God, blessed by the Spirit of God, to make a difference. They are in fact becoming quite worldly. It can hardly be said of most of today's evangelical churches that they are "complete in knowledge," meaning a sound and significant knowledge of the truth of God's revelation, even though they may be proficient in launching and developing churches. Sadly, if this comparison holds, the prognosis for the future of the evangelical church is prefigured by the history of the liberal denominations that once had plenty of members and money but have been losing both quite rapidly. Churches will lose their significance, too. In order to influence society, a person or a movement must be different. But Christians will never be different unless they understand, believe, and act upon the revelation of the character and ways of God that we have in the Bible.

A while ago I asked the faculty at Gordon-Conwell Seminary what changes they had noticed in seminary students in recent years. David Wells was present at this gathering, and he replied that he had noticed four things. First, each entering class was more biblically illiterate than the last. Second, each class seemed to be filled with more individuals who were swamped with their own personal problems and thus were thinking mostly about themselves rather than about their studies or how they might help others. Third, they had a greater sense of their own personal rights or entitlements; they expected everything to be done for them. And fourth, they were sold out to and mostly uncritical of the surrounding secular culture. I find that frightening, now and with a glance to the future. Can it be said of us that we are "complete in knowledge"? We should be. The church in Rome was. What is going to happen to us if we are not? (Romans, James Boice, Baker Books, 1995)

Notes from Ray C. Stedman:


We are in the fifteenth chapter of this epistle of Romans, and Paul is concluding his discussion of the different views on what is wrong and what is right for Christians. Is it morally right for a Christian to drink wine, beer, or cocktails, or is that wrong? Is it morally wrong for a Christian to keep special days, such as Lent, or is that right? Is it morally wrong for a believer to smoke, or is that right? Is it morally right to eat pork, or is that wrong?

These are but some of the questions that Christians have asked through the years. You could go on and on, for there is an extensive list along these lines. I was just reading this morning that Dr.Carl McIntire, the flamboyant fundamentalist Presbyterian preacher, is now attacking Christians for going along with the change from Fahrenheit to Celsius, or centigrade. He says it is nothing but a sneaky Communist plot to take over the world by degrees!

So there are a lot of things you could get upset about and divide over. The apostle has been giving us some very helpful guidelines, and I am not going to retrace these arguments for you as our messages are in print. There is really no need to retrace them anyway, for in the opening two verses of Chapter 15, Paul summarizes them for us.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Rom 15:1-2 NIV)

There are two thumbnail rules to follow when you have to make a quick decision as to whether you ought to insist on liberty in a certain area, or give way to someone else's qualms, or prejudices, or differences of viewpoint. The first rule is: Choose to please your neighbor rather than yourself. Do not insist on your way of doing things; be quick to give in. After all, this is what love does. Love does not insist on its own rights, Paul tells us in First Corinthians 13. Therefore, if you are loving in your approach, love will adjust and adapt to others. I like J. B. Phillips' translation of this verse.

We who have strong faith ought to shoulder the burden of the doubts and qualms of others, and not just to go our own sweet way. (Rom 15:1 J. B. Phillips)

The second rule, however, says to be careful that your giving in does not allow your neighbor to be confirmed in his weakness, that you do not leave him without encouragement to grow, or to re-think his position. I think this is very important, and it reflects some of the things that Paul has said earlier in this account. We are to seek to build one another up. As I have pointed out before, in all these kinds of questions, if we do nothing but give way to people, and give in to their weaknesses, the church eventually ends up living at the level of the weakest conscience in its midst. This presents a twisted and distorted view of Christian liberty, and the world gets false ideas about what is important, and what Christianity is concerned about. So this helps to balance the situation. Please your neighbor, but for his own good, always leaving something there to challenge his thinking, or make him reach out a bit, and possibly change his viewpoint.

In Sacramento this past week, a man made an appointment to see me. He told me he was a teacher in a Christian school there and he had been asked by the board of the school to enforce a rule prohibiting students from wearing their hair long. It was a rule that he did not agree with, so he found himself in a serious dilemma. If he did not enforce the rule, the board had given him clear indication that he would lose his job. If he did enforce it, he would be upsetting the students and their parents, who felt that this was a matter that did not merit that kind of attention. Our culture has long since changed from regarding long hair as a symbol of rebellion, so this man found himself in between a rock and a hard place. His plea to me was, "What shall I do?" My counsel, whether right or wrong, in line with what we had learned here earlier in Romans 14, was that we should not push our ideas of liberty to the degree that they would upset the peace. So I said to him, "For the sake of peace, go along with the school board and enforce the rule for this year. But make a strong plea to the board to re-think their position and to change their viewpoint. At the end of the year if they are unwilling to do that, perhaps you might well consider moving to a different place, or getting another position. That way you would not be upsetting things, and creating a division or a faction within the school."

Now, I think that illustrates what Paul is bringing before us here. These kinds of decisions are not easy to make. Oftentimes people can lose sight of the main objectives of being together as Christians, and they get so focused in on these issues that a church can split right down the center. Or else these issues will create such arguing, bickering, fighting and dissension within the group that everyone is made unhappy, and the whole atmosphere of the church is changed. Paul is saying to us that this is really not necessary as there are things that can be done to work these problems out. To encourage us in this, he gives us three factors that we can count on for help with these problems. The first one is the encouragement of example that comes to us from the past (Verses 3-4):

For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scripture, we might have hope. (Rom 15:3-4 NIV)

Paul's first example for us is Jesus himself. He ran into this kind of problem though he was perfect, though he never did anything that was wrong or out of line. Even though he never on any occasion conducted himself in a way that was in the slightest degree displeasing to God the Father, nevertheless, he ran into these kinds of antagonisms. As Paul says, Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures that predicted that those who did not like God's methods would take it out on him. "The insults of those who insult you," he says, "have fallen on me," (Psa 69:9 NIV). And so our Lord had to bear with all the unhappiness and sometimes the insults of those who could not be pleased even with what God himself was doing.

Remember in Luke, Chapter 14, the Pharisees felt that Jesus was not keeping the Sabbath properly? They were very upset because he did things they felt were wrong to do on the Sabbath. Now what did our Lord do? Did he give in to their desire? No, he did not. He ignored their protest and went ahead and did things that upset them even more, because if he had gone along with their desires, they would never have learned what God intended the Sabbath to be. So the Lord did not adjust to their antagonism. But on another occasion the Lord was accused of not paying his taxes. When the disciples told him about this, he sent Peter down to the lake to catch a fish, and in the fish's mouth he would find a coin sufficient to pay the tax for both Peter and himself. Jesus said he did this in order not to offend them. That is, he adjusted to their complaint at that point.

If we think we have difficulty in applying these rules we must remember that the Lord himself had difficulty in this, and there is still a third occasion when he publicly acknowledged that there was no way to please everybody. Jesus said, "When John the Baptist came to you, he came neither eating nor drinking." That does not mean that John did not eat food; it means that he carefully observed certain dietary restrictions. He was probably a Nazirite and had taken a vow never to touch any kind of alcoholic beverage. So Jesus said, "When John came neither eating nor drinking, you said of him, 'He has a demon.' But when I came both eating and drinking, you called me a glutton and a drunkard. So how can I please you?" (Matt 11:18-19, Luke 7:33-34). Jesus simply recognized the impossibility, at times, of adjusting to everybody. Thus he went ahead and did what God had sent him to do and he let God take care of the difficulties.

I think this is what Paul has in mind here. He tells us that our Lord is the example, and there will be times when you cannot please anybody. There will be other times when you can, and, if you can, you should. But there will be still other times when if you did, you would hinder people in their spiritual growth, and then you should not seek to please them. Not only do we have our Lord's life as our example, but the Old Testament also helps us here, especially in the matter of yielding up our rights. Remember when Abraham and Lot, his nephew, stood looking over the valley of the Jordan River? It was evident that they would have to divide the land among them, and Abraham, who was the older of the two, and the one who, by rights, ought to have had the first choice, gave that choice to Lot. Lot chose first, and he chose the lush, beautiful, green areas of the Jordan valley, leaving Abraham the barren hills. Now Abraham is an example of graciousness; he gave up his rights.

Remember when Moses, according to the record, gave up his place as a prince in the household of Pharaoh? As Hebrews tells us, he gave it up in order that he might "suffer reproach with the people of God for a season," (cf, Heb 11:25-26). This is a beautiful example. Remember David and Jonathan who were such close friends? We see Jonathan so gracefully yielding his right to the throne to David, his friend, because he knew God had chosen him. And Jonathan also supported him against the wrath of his own father. What a beautiful picture this is. Jonathan is willing to give up in order that David might gain.

When you come to the New Testament there is that scene when John the Baptist says of Jesus, "He must increase; I must decrease," (cf, John 3:30). And yet none of these men who gave up ever lost anything. Now that is the point the apostle is making. These men gained by this. God was glorified, and they themselves ultimately gained, because, in giving up, they achieved the objective that God was after. So Paul gives us this picture of willingness to give up, refusing to do so only when it is going to be hurtful to somebody, leaving them ignorant of the principles of Scripture, bound to some narrow, rigid point of view. So we get help from the past. Not only that, Paul goes on to show us there is encouragement right in the present. Verses 5-6:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5-6 NIV)

There is no need to panic or to be afraid that we cannot work these problems out, Paul says. God can drastically change the situation. He is that kind of a God. The apostle suggests two things we can do when we get involved in a disagreement like this:
First, there ought to be prayer, prayer for unity. Paul prays himself that God may grant "a spirit of unity among yourselves." In Luke 11:13 (NIV), Jesus said, "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those that ask him!" Now Jesus does not mean that is the way to get the Spirit of God to come into your life. He is talking there about problems and difficulties in your life when you need a special ministry of the Holy Spirit. He says, "If you know how to give good gifts to your children, even though basically you have evil in your nature, how much more willing is the heavenly Father to give the Holy Spirit to you in times of problems and difficulties, to preserve the spirit of unity that you desperately need."

This very week I learned of a situation of two brothers in Christ who had a serious difference of viewpoint. Not only did it bring them to a deadlock where they were not able to resolve it (for both felt they were right, and neither was able or willing to give in), but it affected a whole program that God was putting together, one that depended upon their working together. It looked as though the whole thing would come to an ignoble end; nothing could be worked out. But when others heard about this, and the two men involved began to pray, asking God to intervene, then, at the final meeting that was scheduled to try and work this out, one of the men said, "There is no need for us to talk about this, because God has already been talking to me. He showed me that I had been stubborn and obstinate about this, and I'm sorry. Let's go on to other things now; let's get the program started." The whole difficulty just faded away because God is able to change situations and bring about unity. So prayer for unity is one of the most important things we can do when there is this kind of disagreement among us. The second thing the apostle says is to praise God for the relationship you already have, "so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." With one heart and mouth. Remember that you are brothers. Give God thanks together for what unites you, and minimize the things that divide you. Remember the important thing is that in the eyes of the watching world you manifest the unity of brotherhood that God has brought about. You did not make yourselves brothers and sisters; God did. Therefore he desires that to be visible to the world around. That is why, in Ephesians 4, we are admonished to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," (cf, Eph 4:3). One of the present helps we have is to pray, to ask God for the spirit of unity, and then to praise him for the unity that already exists. We have had encouragement from the past, and encouragement from the present, and now Paul tells us to be encouraged by what the future holds (Verses 7-12):

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, so it is written:
"For this reason I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing hymns to your name."
[Psalm 18:49]
Again, it says,
"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people."
[Deut. 32:43]
And again,
"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and sing praises to him, all you peoples."
[Psalm 117:1]
And again, Isaiah says,
"The root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
the Gentiles will hope in him."
[Isaiah 11:10] (Rom 15:7-12 NIV)

Now what Paul is saying here is that God is already working out a great program that involves reconciling the Jews and the Gentiles. God has announced that he is going to do that, and he will bring it to pass. It has already started. It started when Christ accepted both Jews and Gentiles, regardless of the great differences between them.

I do not know if you have ever been involved in a church fight over an issue like drinking or smoking or movies or dances or whatever, but if you have, you know that tempers can get very hot. People can get very upset, and factions can form; divisions and feuds break out. And yet I have never heard of a church fight on those grounds that was any worse than the attitudes that Jews and Gentiles had toward one another in Paul's day. The Jews held the Gentiles in contempt; they called them dogs. They would have nothing to do with them. The Jews even regarded it as sinful to go into a Gentile's house and they would never dream of eating with a Gentile. They regarded them with utter contempt. In the book of Acts, Peter got into serious trouble with his Jewish friends because he went into the home of Cornelius the centurion, and ate with him. It was only because Peter was able to show that the Holy Spirit sent him there, and used him there, that he was able to justify his conduct to his friends.

Of course, if the Jews felt that way about the Gentiles, the Gentiles paid it right back in kind. They hated the Jews. They called them all kinds of names; they looked down on them. This is where modern anti-Semitism was born. These were opposing factions who hated one another, and would have nothing to do with one another, Yet, Paul says, that kind of division God is healing by the work of Jesus. And how did Jesus do it? Paul's point is that Jesus began his work by becoming himself a minister of circumcision. The version I have says he "became a servant of the Jews." That is based on the idea that what Paul wrote was, "Christ became a minister of the circumcision," which is another name for the Jews. Actually what the text says is, "he became a minister of circumcision," which does not necessarily refer to the Jews as a people, but refers to their customs and rituals and ceremonies.

What the apostle is arguing is that the Lord healed this breach between the Jews and the Gentiles by his giving in and limiting his own liberty. He who designed the human body, he who made it perfect, exactly as it ought to be, he himself consented to the act of circumcision. His body was mutilated. That part of his body which was the mark of the flesh was to be cut off. Jesus consented to that and limited himself in that way. He became a circumcised Jew. He who declared in his ministry that all foods are clean, and thus gave clear evidence that he understood the liberty that God gives us in the matter of eating, never once ate anything but kosher food. He never had a ham sandwich. He never had bacon and eggs for breakfast. He limited himself to the Jewish diet, even though he declared that all foods were clean.

He who was without sin insisted on a sinner's baptism. He came to John, and John said, "Why are you coming to me? I need to be baptized by you. You do not need to be baptized." Jesus said, "Allow it to be so, for in this way it becomes us. It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness," (cf, Matt 3:15). So he who had no reason to be baptized consented to be baptized. He who longed to heal the hurts of the world said that when he came, he limited himself to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Now, Paul's argument is that the results of that limitation were that Jesus broke the back of the argument and of the contempt between the Jew and the Gentile. He reached both Jews and Gentiles to the glory of God. If you trace this through you can see that what Paul is saying is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God showed his faithfulness to the Jews in fulfilling the promises made to the patriarchs; and he showed his mercy to the Gentiles, saving them who were without any promises at all. Thus the two, Jew and Gentile, shall fully become one, just as the Scriptures predict here.

You have quotations from the Psalms (the Writings); from Deuteronomy (the Law); and from Isaiah (the Prophets). So you have the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings all agreeing that God can work out these kinds of problems. From the past, from the present, and from the future there is encouragement to work them out. What Paul is really saying is, "You do not need to separate; you do not need to split; you do not need to fight; you do not need to sue one another; you do not need to quit. You can work the problems out, for there is help available from all these sources, and God is honored and glorified when you do so." Then Paul concludes with this magnificent benediction, Verse 13:

May the God of hope fill you with great joy and peace so you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:13 NIV)

What a magnificent verse! Whenever I am asked to give an autograph, I almost always include this verse in it. It is such a beautiful expression. Look how much you have got going for you. All the great words of the Christian faith appear here: hope, twice (once it is called "overflowing hope"); and joy, great joy; and peace, calmness and confidence; and trust, belief in a living God; and finally, the power of the Holy Spirit, the invisible force that can open doors and no man shuts them, and can shut and no man opens -- the power of God released among us.

Now I think we Christians need to remember this. I am delighted that here at Peninsula Bible Church we have had very, very little of this kind of strife. I am just so grateful for it. I have been in places where the whole testimony of Christ in a community has been wrecked by the divisions and the attitudes that people have had toward one another in these areas; when we presume to write one another off because one has liberty we do not feel they should have; when we talk down to people and disparage those who do not have the faith and strength to act in liberty such as we do, we destroy the work of God.

What the apostle is urging us to do is to unite on the great positive words of our faith, and that we allow these qualities of hope, and joy, and peace, and trust, and power to be visible when others see us gathered together as Christians. When they hear us talking about each other we are to reflect these qualities, rather than the miniscule divisions and arguments that many of us have.

In some ways the letter to the Romans ends with that verse. Paul goes on, it is true, to give some personal words about his own ministry which we will be looking at together next Sunday, and in the sixteenth chapter there is a long list of his friends, and his greetings to them. But, in a sense, the whole argument of this epistle is drawn to a close with this tremendous benediction:

May the God of hope fill you with great joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:13 NIV)


We are drawing to a close in our study of this great epistle to the Romans, and this letter closes just as it began, with a personal word from the apostle about himself, and about the church in Rome. There are two themes in the closing section of Chapter 15 -- one is the church at Rome, and the other is the ministry of the Apostle Paul. I hope you will follow in your Bible, for this is a rather extended passage, and one that I am going to have to move rapidly through. The apostle says (Verse 14):

I myself am convinced my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Rom 15:14 NIV)

When I was in Sacramento last week, I was introduced to the congregation of the Arcade Baptist Church by the pastor, Dr. Lee Toms. He not only introduced me to the congregation, but he introduced the congregation to me. He said he wanted me to meet the finest congregation in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. But I demurred, saying that I knew of one congregation that was finer. We had a polite little exchange over that but, since I was the speaker, I had the last word.

Those who know anything about the ancient city of Rome know that it was built on seven hills. The largest of those hills was called the Palatine, and you can still visit the Palatine, down by the Roman Forum. I have always imagined, as I read this letter to the Romans, these early Christians gathering somewhere around the foot of the Palatine hill, studying this letter and other Scriptures as well. Since they were a church that understood and knew the Scriptures, I am sure they called themselves the Palatine Bible Church -- PBC! Now, the Scriptures do not actually teach that. You only discover that kind of information as a result of what might be called "sanctified imagination." But there are many similarities, I think, between the church at Rome and Peninsula Bible Church. You remember that this letter began with the recognition of the apostle that the faith of these people was known around the world; and even in a much bigger world than Paul knew, this is true of this church here. God has given us a very deep responsibility, in that many people around the world know of this church and its faith.

In this chapter of Romans, Paul gives us a little further insight into this church, and tells us certain things that were true of it that, again, remind me of Peninsula Bible Church. Here, in Verse 14, there are three things that he says about this church, three great qualities that they possessed.

First, he says, "I am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness." That is, their motives were right. They had come to the place where they were motivated by a sense of goodness, and I believe that this is also true here at PBC. Certainly, this church at Rome was a responsive church, a compassionate church. It reached out to people who were in need. It responded to those who had hurts and burdens and concerns. I think this is one of the qualities I have appreciated most about this congregation here. Whenever a need is shared, there is always a compassionate response. I feel it could be said of this church, as it was said of the church at Rome, that the congregation is "full of goodness."

The second thing that the apostle says is that they were complete in knowledge. Now that is rather remarkable. Here was a church to which Paul did not need to give any new theology. He acknowledges that they had it already. Though this is one of the most deeply penetrative theological treatises in the New Testament, Paul did not write it because these people did not already know the truth that he was giving them. If you think back through the letter, there were certain themes that the apostle emphasized: One was justification by faith, i.e., the gift of worth in God's sight. This gift could not be earned: It was a gift because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. It was not earned by trying to do good works before God -- this is impossible, and they understood that. They knew that though they did not deserve anything from God, nevertheless, they were his dearly loved children, and God accepted them fully. This, I think, is one of the great truths that has always rung strong and clear throughout the Christian centuries. For it is the one truth, above almost anything else, that God wants us to know to start our Christian lives with. It is the basis for worth. If we know God loves us, then we know we can love our neighbor and we can accept others, because we ourselves have been accepted by God. There is a profound psychological reality here that these people understood. And they understood the nature of the flesh, the need for sanctification, to use the theological term. They knew that even though they had been redeemed, they were still possessed of an old nature. The old Adam was still there, giving them trouble.

I still struggle with the old Adam, and so do you. I can see you doing it. Young Philip Melancthon, the colleague of Martin Luther, once wrote to Luther and said, "Old Adam is too strong for young Philip." These people at Rome understood this truth and they knew that this would be the struggle of their Christian lives. Paul did not have to tell them that; they knew it before he wrote. But they knew also that God is working out a great plan, that he is creating a whole new humanity, and building a new creation. Right in the midst of the ruins of the old, he is producing a new man, and they were part of it. They understood the great themes of glorification, and of the eternal ages to come. So Paul writes and says they were complete in knowledge, and I think in many ways we can say this about PBC. We are well taught, deeply understanding the great truths and the great themes of Scripture. The third thing the apostle had to say about this church was that they were competent to instruct one another. (This is where Dr. Jay Adams gets the title of his well known book, Competent to Counsel.) What the apostle said here was, "You are able to counsel one another." I think that is a remarkable thing.

This is the answer, by the way, to all the terrible pressure that is placed upon pastors, who are expected to solve all the problems of their congregations, and to counsel everyone first-hand. That was never God's intention. The plan of God is that the whole congregation be involved in the work of counseling. The whole congregation is to be aware of what is going on with neighbors and friends and brothers and sisters, and do something about meeting their problems. And the way this is done is by the imparting of the gifts of the Spirit. I think this is something we can rejoice in here, that so many are ministering in this area, sharing the load of counseling -- and, by the way, there are many more who could be involved. So the church at Rome had the right motives, they had complete knowledge, and they had the full range of gifts, so that they were able to do many things within their church community and in the city of Rome. But Paul also recognized that there were three things they lacked (Verses 15-16):

I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:15-16 NIV)

Now, you would think that a church that was theologically knowledgeable, able to instruct and counsel one another in the deep problems of life, and filled with a spirit of goodness and compassion, would hardly need anything more said to them. Yet it is to that kind of a church that Paul addressed his letter to the Romans. And he wrote, he says, because they needed three other things that he sets forth here. First, they needed a bold reminder of the truth. "I have written you quite boldly on some points, to remind you of them again."

I saw a man the other day with a string around his finger. The string was to remind him of something. The fact that we so easily forget things is somehow built into our humanity and I think one of the greatest proofs of the fall of man is that we have such a hard time remembering what we want to remember, yet we so easily remember what we want to forget!

We even need to be reminded again and again of these great themes of the gospel. That is why in, Chapter 12, Paul says, "You need your mind renewed by the Holy Spirit," (cf, Rom 12:2). That is one reason to gather together every Sunday: We need to have our minds renewed. We need to be called back to a vision of reality. Living out in the world, as many of you are, working every day among non-Christians, it is so easy to be sucked into the attitudes of the world around. It is so easy to get the idea that life is designed to be a pleasant picnic, that we can work toward the day when we can retire and enjoy ourselves. I find that attitude prevalent among people everywhere, but that is not what the Bible says. The Bible says we are in the midst of a battle, a battle to the death, against a keen and crafty foe. He wants to discourage us and defeat us, and to make us feel angry and hostile. He knows how to do it, and he never lets up. This life is not designed to be a time of relaxing. There are times when we need recreation and vacations, when we can slow down a bit. But you never see the Apostle Paul talking about quitting the battle. You cannot quit, as long as life is there. So Paul tells us that we need to be reminded, day by day and week by week, that we are in a battle and that we have a crafty foe. This life is not all there is, by any means. This is school time, a training ground, where we are to learn our lessons. This life is getting us ready for the real thing that is yet to come.
The second thing the apostle said the Christians at Rome needed was a priestly ministry. He told them, "You not only need to be reminded of the truth, but you need an example to follow. You need somebody you can see doing this kind of thing. That is what God has given me the privilege of doing. I have been called of God into this ministry, not only to be an example of leadership, but also to be like a priest working in the temple, to awaken among you a sense of worship, a sense of the greatness of God." I think we need this frequently. I know I do. Ron Ritchie was saying to me before the service this morning that he feels sort of dead inside. I get that way, and so do you. Despite all the exciting things happening, despite all the tremendous encouragement on every side, there are times when we need to lift our eyes from our circumstances and stand before the greatness of God and see who it is we have to deal with, who it is that is working through us. That is why Paul wrote the book of Romans. That is why we have in the eleventh chapter that passage dealing with how great God is (Verse 33):

Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out! (Rom 11:33 NIV)

The third thing they needed, Paul says, is that "the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." Every congregation needs this. We need to labor, to pray, to work, to counsel, to evangelize. But all of the activity of the Christian life is of no avail if it is not sanctified by the Holy Spirit, if it does not have in it that touch of God, that unction from on high, that divine wind blowing upon the dead bones and making them come to life. I think Paul is reminding them here of the ministry of prayer, and the need to remember that God himself must touch something -- otherwise it is dead and useless. So Paul calls this church at Rome back to this tremendous reality. They had so much, but they needed this as well.

Today at Peninsula Bible Church we have so much, but we need the same thing; we need daily reminders of the truth. We need our minds renewed, or else we are going to slip right back into thinking like everybody else. We need a model, and there are models among us that we can follow, men and women who are exercising this kind of ministry. And we need the touch of God above all else, that sense that God himself must make it go.

Now that brings us to the theme that the apostle develops here on his own ministry. Here is a fantastic passage, where, for the first time in this letter, we get a close look at this mighty apostle himself. Did you ever stop to ask yourself what influence the Apostle Paul has had in your own life? He lived two thousand years ago, and yet there is not a man or woman, boy or girl among us, who has not had their life drastically affected by this man. The whole course of history has been changed by the truths he taught. In fact, for the most part, history itself has been built around the letters and teachings and doctrine and ministry of the Apostle Paul. We would not even be here, for America as a nation would not exist if this man had never lived. Even today we feel the freshness of his spirit, the greatness of his mind, and the fullness of his heart. He touches us all.

Paul tells us three things about his own ministry in this last section: The principles that he worked under; the practice by which he carried them out; and finally, a word about the power that he relied upon (Verses 17-20):

Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done -- by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. (Rom 15:17-20 NIV)

Concerning the principles of his ministry, Paul tells us five things: First, everywhere he went he found himself rejoicing. He said, "I rejoice, I glory in Christ Jesus, in my service to God." Why? Because when this man came into a city, he usually found it in the grip of Roman authority, and ruled with an iron hand. He would find the people in widespread despair, empty and longing for something they could not find, and fallen into terribly degrading habits that were destroying homes and the very fabric of society itself. He would find them in the grip of superstitious fears. No church existed where he went, but after he had been there a while, and had begun to preach these tremendous themes, light began to spring up in the darkness. People were changed; they began to live for the first time. They discovered why they were made, and excitement appeared in their lives. So Paul just spent his life rejoicing over what was happening. That is the kind of ministry he had, and he gives us the secret of it in Verse 18: "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done." That is the greatest secret God has to teach man -- that man was designed, not to do something to make God happy, but to let God work through the man. God would do the work -- that is what Paul said, ".. .Christ has accomplished through me."

Not a week goes by but half a dozen posters and pamphlets across my desk promoting the work of some man, telling me how much he has done for God. I get them all the time, and so do you, these boasting, promotional pieces trying to convince you they are God's gift to earth. I have learned to throw most of them into the waste basket unopened. In fact, I recognize them from their titles by now, and I just throw them away. You never hear that from Paul. You never hear him telling how much he has done for God. Everywhere it is how much God has done through him, and that is the secret of a truly effective life. It took the apostle ten years to learn that secret.

Like many young Christians, he started out with a great amount of zeal and desire to turn the world upside down, and he thought he had the equipment and the gifts to do it. It took God ten years to show him that his brilliant mind, his mighty gifts and great personality and influence and contacts were of no value in the service of God. All God wanted was the man himself; he would work through him. And when Paul learned that secret, he launched upon this great ministry that changed the history of the world.

A young man asked me this week, "Why did God punish King David for numbering Israel?" That is one of the puzzles of the Old Testament. Why did God severely punish the king and his people when he took a census of Israel? That does not sound like a very serious aim, does it? But that represented David's departure from the principle of dependence upon God to be his resource, and a shift to the world's resource of numbers. Nothing has contributed more to the weakness of the church than this dependence upon numbers, as though a great crowd of people can do something. When you meet a man or a woman who is willing to trust God to work through them, there is no limit to what God can do. This is the secret of Paul's ministry. Then its manifestation, which is power (Verse 19): "by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit." These signs and miracles were the signs of an apostle. Paul tells us in Second Corinthians that wherever he went he performed signs and wonders. People say today, "Well, why can't we do them?" The answer is because they were the mark of an apostle, and only apostles did these things. Today we do not need any more apostles; we have the original ones, and their writings are available to us. What we have is what Paul mentions, the power of the Spirit, and its impact on human lives. Remember he wrote to the Corinthians, who had the nerve to write him and say, "The next time you show up in Corinth, how about bringing a letter of recommendation from Peter and James and John?" Paul wrote back and said, "Do you mean that? Could you really mean that? Why, don't you understand that you are my letter of recommendation? Look at what's happened in your lives: You used to be drunkards and homosexuals and thieves and murders -- such were some of you! But what are you now? Look at the change! You are all the letter of recommendation I need," (cf, 2 Cor 3:1-3).

Paul's life and ministry were constantly characterized by the display of the power of God to change lives. Then look at how widespread his ministry was (Verse 19): "So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ." You really have to have a map to see that. Jerusalem is way down on the eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, in Asia. Paul had traveled up and down that coast, on into what we call Turkey, in Asia Minor, up and across the Dardanelles, into Europe, then into Macedonia and Greece. He had gone, as he tells us here, into what we call Yugoslavia. Illyricum is Yugoslavia, now dominated by the Communists, but the Apostle Paul preached there. And the nature of his ministry was pioneering (Verse 20): "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known." He never wanted to build on another man's work.

Some weeks ago I shared with you a little booklet I ran across that described the difference between "Settler" theology and "Pioneering" theology -- a very interesting and humorous little booklet. This book says there are two kinds of Christians: Some want to be Settlers, to live around the courthouse and let the mayor run everything. They have lost all desire to reach out. But then there are the Pioneers, like Paul. They want to be getting into new areas that have never been touched adequately. I believe this is characteristic of the Spirit of God. He loves to thrust out into new areas.

Some of us are praying for a thrust into East Palo Alto, to touch folks who have never been touched much. We ask you to pray with us that we may reach into these areas, that something will develop that will have the touch of God upon it. And this is Paul's great hunger. (Did you ever notice that the word for news, as in good news, is made up of the first letters of north, east, west, and south?) We are to reach out with the good news, as Paul did. Now for a paragraph on how he practiced this ministry (Verses 22-23):

This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you aid me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Rom 15:22-24 NIV)

There is Paul's word about how practical his ministry was. It always involved three things: First, it involved planning for the future. I am always running into Christians who think that God gives his orders directly to them while they are moving. They think of the Christian life as going on automatic pilot, where they just float around, waiting for orders as they go. They never think of planning or looking ahead. But Paul did not live like that. For many years he had longed to go to Spain, and he planned to do so. But notice something about his planning. The second factor about his planning is found in Verse 25 and on:

Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia [Greece] were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. (Rom 15:25-29 NIV)

Now, not only was Paul practical in that he planned, but also he fulfilled past commitments. Some Christians, I find, are always jumping into new things before finishing the old. But Paul did not do that. Many years before this, in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, which tells about the council of the church, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Antioch with a letter to the church, settling the question of circumcision for the Gentiles. In that letter, Paul was specifically asked that he be careful to remember the poor in Jerusalem. Now, many years later, he is fulfilling that requirement. He has taken up an offering every place he has gone, and now he wants to deliver it personally to the famine-stricken saints in Jerusalem. And notice that it is not beneath the apostle to give material help. He is not going up there to preach to these people; he is going to help them with material things. Christianity involves that as well.

I read the other day that Charles Spurgeon, the great English preacher, was once invited by a wealthy man to come down and preach in a country church in order to help them raise funds to pay a debt. The man told Spurgeon he was free to use his country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon wrote back and said, "Sell one of the places and pay the debt yourself." That is how practical he was.

Paul was willing to take up offerings and personally carry the money to those in need. But here he gives us the principle of sharing (Verse 27): "for if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings." If somebody blesses you spiritually, and the only way you can thank him is with material things, then do it, Paul says. That is God's program, to give back in material things for the spiritual blessings you have received. Notice it says, "After I have completed this task..." He is not going to quit until he is through. He will wrap it up well and do it right. "When I have made sure that they have received this fruit, then I will go to Spain and visit you on the way." The third aspect of the practical character of Paul's ministry is his trust in the power of God (Verse 29): "I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ." He counted on God to come through. That brings us to the last paragraph, where you have his touch on the power of his ministry (Verses 30-33):

I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there. Then by God's will I can come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Rom 15:30-33 NIV)

What was behind this mighty apostle's ministry? Why has it lasted for two thousand years? What was it that opened the doors and gave him access even into Caesar's household, and before the throne of the emperor himself? Paul would tell you it was because of the prayers of God's people for him. He was well aware of the ministry of prayer, and he urges them to pray. You get a brief word on the nature of prayer. What is the basis of it? "I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit..." Prayer is born of the Spirit of God within us, awakening a desire to help, a sense of love and compassion. We pray to honor the Lord Jesus. This is what will stir people to pray more than anything else -- not beating them with a whip. I learned that long ago. (

Romans Class Notes:   Index  |  1  | 2  |  3  |  4  | 5  |  6  |   |  8  |  9  | 10  |  11  | 12  | 13  |  14  |  15  |  16  |  17  |  18

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Lambert Dolphin | | | 10/13/03