Category Archives: Apologetics
By *Lee Strobel
Skepticism is part of my DNA. That’s probably why I ended up combining the study of law and journalism to become the legal editor of the The Chicago Tribune–a career in which I relentlessly pursued hard facts in my investigations. And that’s undoubtedly why I was later attracted to a thorough examination of the evidence–whether it proved to be positive or negative–as a way to probe the legitimacy of the Christian faith.
A spiritual cynic. I became an atheist in high school. To me the concept of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe was so absurd on the surface that it didn’t even warrant serious consideration. I believed that God didn’t create people, but that people created God out of their fear of death and their desire to live forever in a utopia they called heaven.
I married an agnostic named Leslie. Several years later she came to me with the worst news I ever thought I could get: She had decided to become a follower of Jesus. My initial thought was that she was going to turn into an irrational holly roller who would waste all of her time serving the poor in a soup kitchen somewhere. Divorce, I figured, was inevitable.
Then something amazing occurred. During the ensuing months, I began to see positive changes in her character, her values, and the way she related to me and to the children. The transformation was winsome and attractive. So when day when she invited me to go to church with her, I decided to comply.
The pastor gave a talk called “Basic Christianity” in which he clearly spelled out the essentials of the faith. Did he shake me out of my atheism that day? No, not by a long shot. Still, I concluded that if what he was saying was true, it would have huge implications for my life.
That’s when I decided to apply my experience as a journalist to investigating whether there is any credibility to Christianity or any other faith system. I resolved to keep an open mind and follow the evidence wherever it pointed–even if it took me to some uncomfortable conclusions. In a sense, I was checking out the biggest story of my career.
At first, I thought my investigation would be short-lived. In my opinion, having “faith” meant you believed something even though you knew in your heart that it couldn’t be true. I anticipated that I would very quickly uncover facts that would devastate Christianity. Yet as I discovered books by atheists and Christians, interviewed scientists and theologians, and studied archaeology, ancient history, and world religions, I was stunned to find that Christianity’s factual foundation was a lot firmer than I had once believed.
Much of my investigation focused on science, where more recent discoveries have only further cemented the conclusions that I drew in those studies. For instance, cosmologists now agree that the universe and time itself came into existence at some point in the finite past. The logic is inexorable: Whatever begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, and therefore the universe has a cause. It makes sense that this cause must be immaterial, timeless, powerful, and intelligent.
What’s more, physicists have discovered in the last 50 years that many of the laws and constants of the universe–such as the force of gravity and the cosmological constant–are finely tuned to an incomprehensible precision in order for life to exist. This exactitude is so incredible that it defies the explanation of mere chance.
The existence of biological information in DNA also points to a Creator. Each of our cells contains the precise assembly instructions for every protein out of which our bodies are made, all spelled out in a four-letter chemical alphabet. Nature can produce patterns, but whenever we see information–whether it’s in a book or a computer system program–we know there’s intelligence behind it. Furthermore, scientists are finding complex biological machines on the cellular level that defy a Darwinian explanation and instead are better explained as the work of an Intelligent Designer.
To my great astonishment, I became convinced by the evidence that science supports the belief in a Creator who looks suspiciously like the God of the Bible. Spurred on by my discoveries, I then turned my attention to history.
I found that Jesus, and Jesus alone, fulfilled ancient messianic prophecies against all mathematical odds. I concluded that the New Testament is rooted in eyewitness testimony and that it passes the tests that historians routinely use to determine reliability. I learned that the Bible has been passed down through the ages with remarkable fidelity.
However, the pivotal issue for me was the resurrection of Jesus. Anyone can claim to be the Son of God, as Jesus clearly did. The question was whether Jesus could back up that assertion by miraculously returning from the dead.
One by one, the facts built a convincing and compelling case. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is as certain as anything in the ancient world. The accounts of His resurrection are too early to be the product of legendary development. Even the enemies of Jesus conceded that His tomb was empty on Easter morning. And the eyewitnesses encounters with the risen Jesus cannot be explained away as mere hallucinations or wishful thinking.
All of this just scratches the surface of what I uncovered in my nearly two-year investigation. Frankly, I was completely surprised by the death and breadth of the case for Christianity. And as someone trained in journalism and law, I felt I had no choice but to respond to the facts.
So on November 8, 1981, I took the step of faith in the same direction that the evidence was pointing–which is utterly rational to do–and became a follower o Jesus. And just like the experience of my wife, over time my character, values, and priorities began to change–for the good.
For me, apologetics proved to be the running point of my life and eternity. I’m thankful for the scholars who so passionately and effectively defend the truth of Christianity–and today my life’s goal is to do my part in helping others get answers to the questions that are blocking them in their spiritual journey toward Christ.
*SOURCE: The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville, TN.: Holman, 2007, pp. xxvi-xxvii.
Series Part 8 – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration
Preached on February 22, 2009 in Manhattan, New York at Redeemer Presbyterian Church
1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”
Let’s continue in verse 12.
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?
22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? – Romans 2:1-2, 12-26
We’re trying to trace out the storyline of the entire Bible. We started in Genesis, where we learn what’s wrong with the human race, and then we’ve gone now to Romans 1–4, where we’re learning what Paul says God has done about it through Jesus Christ. We’ve been going through Romans, and here at the beginning of chapter 2, Paul does a turnaround.
It’s so surprising and shocking that if I begin to … I don’t even have to introduce too much introduction here. I will start to explain it, and it’ll draw us right in. Please see, however, this chapter talks about three things: the failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law and, therefore, the need for a regenerated, new heart.
1. The failure of religion
Paul starts this chapter by saying, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you … do the same things.” This only makes sense if you go back and see what was in chapter 1. Right? Because “the same things” refers to chapter 1.
If you remember, Paul has been talking about Gentiles, pagans, idol worshipers worshiping, bowing down to figures of wood and stone and metal, sexual orgies … That has all been in Romans 1. All of a sudden, Paul turns and says, “Hey, you out there listening, sitting in judgment, you do the same thing.”
Paul knew this letter was going to be read. This letter would’ve been read out loud to the Roman congregation, and who was in the Roman congregation? Gentile Christian converts and Jewish Christian converts. Who would’ve been out there sitting, thinking, “Oh yeah, those pagans, those orgies, that bowing down to worship idols … That’s just awful”? Who would’ve been sitting there condemning? Who would’ve been sitting there passing judgment on all of that? It would’ve been the Jewish Christians, but now keep this in mind.
In this case Paul is actually speaking to people who essentially represent anyone who’s religious, anyone who has tried very hard not to be pagan, not to have orgies, not to bow down to little figures of wood and stone. He says, “Hey, you people out there, you people who all of your lives have been trying to obey the Bible, all of your lives have been relying on obedience to the law and feeling pretty good about it, saying, ‘I obey the biblical law,’ you out there, when you condemn those pagans, you condemn yourself, because you do the same things.”
It’s very surprising, and how could that be? He was talking about orgies and bowing down to idols. How could he turn to the good, Bible-believing people who have been trying to obey the Bible all their lives and say, “You out there, smug people sitting around there saying, ‘Yes, that’s awful. That stuff is awful,’ you condemn yourselves because you do the same things”? How could that be?
If you go down a little deeper into the text, he actually talks about it. In verses 21 and 22, he says, “… you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?”
At that point the reason he’s saying, “You condemn yourselves,” is he’s talking to moral people, and he says, “Though you say publically you don’t commit adultery, a lot of you do commit adultery.” Any moral community, any church, any synagogue is going to have hypocrites in it, people who say, “This is what I believe,” but in private they’re doing the opposite.
That’s partly why he’s able to say, “Hey, you religious people, you Bible-believing, Bible-obeying people, looking at all these awful pagans out there, rolling in the streets together in their drunkenness and their orgies, you’re feeling superior to them. You’re doing the same thing.” Some of it is hypocrisy, but that’s not all he’s saying here, because then he says, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”
He’s talking to Jewish Christian believers as you can see from the title of the paragraph. This is completely inexplicable at first sight, because there is absolutely no record of Jews running a kind of operation where at night they would go out to temples and rob them and sell the idols on the black market. Is that what he’s talking about? There’s absolutely no evidence Jews did anything like that. What in the world is he talking about?
The answer is he must be talking metaphorically. By the way, he hints at that in verse 5, because when he says to them, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart …” this is something you could never tell by looking at it in English, but he’s using two Greek words that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament were always associated with idolaters.
What he’s actually saying is, “You’re religious, you’re obeying the Ten Commandments, and externally it looks like you’re complying with all the rules and regulations, but though you may not have idols of the hand, you have idols of the heart. You may not have idols you can pick up and move around, but you have idols in your heart.
You abhor idols, and yet essentially you’re no better than the idolaters, because though you’re obedient, the thing you really live for, the things that really give you meaning in life, the things you really are worshiping are career or achievement or power. Therefore, you stand condemned.”
How can he really say this, that the good, Bible-believing people are every bit as condemned, every bit as lost as the Gentiles and the pagans? How can he say that? We’ll get to that under point two, but first I’d like to stop. I want you to think about the amazing point one, because this is what he’s saying. He’s saying something that will show you, if we think about it, the unity of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel.
By the unity of the Bible, I mean this. If you were here in the fall, do you remember we talked about Jesus’ great parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15? We spent six weeks going through that parable, and in the parable Jesus gives us a father with two sons: a younger brother, who loves sex with prostitutes and takes away all the father’s money and squanders it … He’s materialistic. He’s licentious. He’s disobedient to the father.
Then he has a second son, and the older brother is very obedient and very compliant to the father and obeys everything the father says, and yet the point of the parable is they’re both lost. They’re both alienated from the father, and they both need salvation. That’s Jesus, but now here you have Paul. Paul is giving his greatest exposition of the gospel, and he’s saying exactly the same thing. In Romans 1 he’s talking about younger brothers. He’s talking about how they’re condemned.
He’s talking about how they’re lost, bowing down to idols of the hand, rolling around in drunkenness and sex. Okay, sin, the kind of sin everybody thinks of as sin, but now he turns to Romans 2. He says, “You elder brothers, you people who are trying so hard to be good and you think God owes you a good life because you’re so good, you are every bit as lost. You’re every bit as in need of salvation.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul is saying exactly the same thing Jesus was saying. Do you see the unity of the Bible?
Also, let me show you how unique the gospel is. For Paul to be saying, “You good people are condemned. You bad people are condemned. You’re all lost. You moral people, you immoral people, you’re all lost …” In the 1970s was this enormous best seller, as some of you may have heard. It has actually kind of passed into the language a little bit. It’s a book by Thomas Harris called I’m OK—You’re OK. It was a little self-help book. It was on the top of the New York Times best-seller list for two years.
In the 1990s a woman named Wendy Kaminer wrote a devastating critique of the self-help movement, and the name of her book was I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. It’s a tremendous critique. Basically, she shows how narcissistic the whole idea was.
She says, “How in the world can you say this is mental health to say, ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ yet out there in the world there is all the blood of the innocent crying out from the ground for justice? There’s genocide. There’s terrorism. There’s all this awful stuff. How in the world can you say it’s the sign of mental health to go out into the world and say, ‘Everybody is okay. You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re all okay’? That’s silly. That’s narcissism.”
She just hilariously deconstructed it. About 10 years later, after she really showed how silly it is to say, “I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,” she came back with another book that showed she was a bit in a bind, because her whole point was, “Hey, with all the injustice, with all the innocent blood crying out from the ground for justice, how can you say everybody is okay?”
She came back with another book in which she was very critical of what she called the “hard right,” because she saw a lot of people saying, “Yeah, there is evil out there, and we have to bring back the death penalty. We have to go to war.” She suddenly saw all these people saying, “I’m okay, and the rest of you are no way okay.” In fact, that was the subtitle of her book. The New York Times gave the book a subtitle: I’m okay, and you’re nowhere near okay.
She says the trouble with that … She says, “ ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ was narcissistic. That’s narcissism, but to say, ‘I’m okay, and I have the truth. You all are evil, and I’m going to punish you,’ that’s how you get death camps. That’s how you get, ‘I’m the superior race. You’re the inferior race. I’m the superior person. You’re the inferior person.’ ”
She says that’s moralism, and that’s as bad as narcissism. Narcissism is, “We’re all okay. You’re okay. I’m okay,” and moralism is, “I’m okay, and you’re not okay.” Wait a minute. So she was just saying, “I’m okay. Everybody is okay,” is narcissism, but then moralism is bad. What’s left? There’s masochism: “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.” Of course, that’s not right. What’s left?
In the 1970s a minister and a great Bible teacher, who is now passed away, named John Gerstner, was speaking, and he referenced the book I’m OK—You’re OK. He says, “How does that compare to the message of the Bible?” Then he told a story. It was about the fact that he and his wife were on a trip to Asia. They were actually in Cashmere, and at one point they went on an excursion in a little boat. It was he and his wife and a boat man who didn’t know much English and his grandson.
On their way back from the excursion, as they were starting to near shore, they actually bumped another boat. When they bumped the boat, there was a fair amount of water that kind of splashed in and got everybody wet up to the knees. The boat man started getting very, very agitated, and John Gerstner said, “Okay, it’s a little bit of water,” so he said, “It’s all right. We’re okay. Don’t get upset. We’re okay.”
A couple of minutes later, the man was still getting even more agitated, and John was thinking he was very superior. He said this poor man either had an ego problem, or he … He said, “Don’t worry. We’re okay.” Then finally as they got almost to the dock, he got really agitated, and John Gerstner said, “We’re okay.”
The man looked up at him and said, “You not okay. I not okay,” pushed them out of the boat onto the dock, threw his grandson, jumped out onto the dock, and at that minute the boat was sucked down into the water and came up about six boats to the right on the other side. It turned out there had been a hole in the hull. The boat man had seen it. John Gerstner had not seen it, and if he had stayed in there one more second, they would’ve gone down with it.
Gerstner said, “I realize that’s the message of the Bible. I’m not okay. You’re not okay.” Do you realize what this means? It’s not the moralism of saying, “I’m okay, and you’re no way okay,” not the narcissism that says, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay,” not when there’s injustice out there in the world, and not the dysfunctionality, the masochism of saying, “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.”
No, what the Bible says is we’re all sinners. We’re all lost. Nobody has the right to look down at anybody else. We’re all in trouble. We’re all alienated from God. No one has the right to be trampling upon or exploiting anybody else. We all need God. I’m not okay. You’re not okay. If you don’t know that, you’re going to go to the bottom. That’s what’s so unique about the gospel. There really isn’t any other position like that, and it’s the right one. Why is it religious people stand condemned? The reason is, according to Paul, because of …
2. The terrible beauty of the law
What we see here, when Paul talks about the fact that judgment is going to be according to the law, is he shows us why nobody can stand in the judgment, no matter how religious and good you are. He shows us both the inwardness and the intuitiveness of the law. Let me give it to you here briefly.
A. The inwardness. Do you remember how I mentioned in verse 1 Paul actually says to the religious people, “You condemn all those Gentiles and those pagans out there for all those … But you do the same.” It says, “… you who pass judgment do the same things.” What are the things? They’re the things that are not on the page. They’re listed in the last verses of chapter 1.
He made a list of sins, and then he says, “You religious people do the same things.” What was that list? Here are some of the things on the list: evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant and boastful, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
If you look carefully, you’ll see almost all of these are not behavior but inner attitudes of the heart. Greed, envy, malice, insolent … By the way, that’s the Greek word hybris. Have you ever heard of that word? Arrogant, heartless, meaning not able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ruthless, obviously meaning exploitative.
Here’s what Paul is doing, and this is very important. Paul does what Jesus does. When we read the law, “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal …” because we’re trying to justify ourselves, we actually read just the surface. We read only about the external behaviors. We see only the external behaviors, and when you go away from the law of God in the Bible, you can feel like, “I’m not so bad.”
What Paul does, and what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, is what we all should do. The law of God is getting at a kind of person, a kind of heart. When you read the law, you need to actually be reading through it, because the law of God is actually an outline of the kind of beautiful character, kind of incredibly beautiful heart we should have, and the law of God is getting at it.
It is absolutely wrong of us to read the law in the most self-justifying way. “Oh, I don’t kill. That’s one law I’m not breaking.” When you get to the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see Jesus does exactly what Paul does here. What does he do? For example … listen … Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount actually expounds the Ten Commandments but shows the kind of heart and the kind of spirit the commandments are getting after.
Let me just give you one case. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say unto you anyone who looks at another person and says, ‘Raca,’ has broken this commandment.” What does raca mean? Does it mean, “You fool. You imbecile”? Is it an insult? No, it’s actually a word that means nobody. It means, “You nothing. You nobody.”
What Jesus is saying is if you look at any other human being and feel like this person isn’t important … in fact, you can barely pay attention to them because they’re nobody … if you look down your nose at anyone and disdain them or are indifferent to them or don’t treat them with importance, he says that’s like breaking the commandment. How could that be like murder, for crying out loud?
Do you know what Jesus is saying? He’s saying murder is a tree. Trees grow from acorns (at least oak trees do). What is the acorn? What is the seed of the tree? What does murder start with? Superiority, hubris, arrogance, a disdain, a contempt, a treating a person not as a person but as a thing, looking down, using people.
He says the only difference between a murderer and you is unless you welcome every human being that comes into your life, every human being who is presented to you, unless you treat that person as infinitely valuable, unless you treat every person as a person of infinite value and worth, if you just disdain certain people, ignore certain people, just don’t even care about certain people, he says that’s a seed.
The only difference between you and a murderer is the murderous seed has been watered and fertilized. Therefore, the commandment of God is getting after someone who cherishes people, cherishes every person. Even the persons the world considers unimportant, of no consequence, you treat as if they’re kings and queens. That’s the kind of heart Jesus says the law of God is trying to get after.
Then he goes through all the … If you read the Sermon on the Mount, what does he say? You should be so honest that you don’t ever have to swear an oath. He says every yes and every no, every interaction should be as honest as if you had sworn on a stack of Bibles in a courtroom. Then he says you should be so loving that if someone wrongs you, you don’t just refrain from revenge.
You forgive them in your heart, and even when you go and confront them and even when you go and seek justice, you do it with no ill will at all, filled with love in your heart for your enemy. He says you should be so generous to the poor that you give and give and you don’t even care if you get any thanks. That’s all in the Sermon on the Mount. He says you should be so trusting of God you don’t worry no matter what the circumstance is.
Some years ago a woman who was teaching literature at a university decided to have all of her students read the Sermon on the Mount. None of them had, and half of them hadn’t even heard of it. It was all fresh for them. They read it, and they all absolutely hated it. This is a typical comment she got in the response papers. “I did not like the Sermon on the Mount. It made me feel I had to be perfect.”
They all hated it. They said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody can be like that.” Then she said, “That’s okay.” She listened to them, and then she asked them a question. “Aren’t these, though, the kind of people you want around you? Don’t you want people who are so loving they don’t resent and they’re never indifferent, so generous they’re always grateful? Aren’t these the kind of people you want around you? Aren’t these the kinds of things you want in other people and you demand of other people?” They all got very quiet.
In other words, “I’m very angry if you hold me to this standard. On the other hand, actually I hold everybody else to this standard.” Therefore, you’re condemned from your own mouth. That’s exactly what Paul is saying, because the law of God, if you learn how to read it, is after a kind of person, a kind of heart, a life of absolute beauty, not just the external behavior, but the heart, the motivation, the attitude. When we see that and we see how we really demand it of other people but we refuse to demand it of ourselves, we’re condemned.
B. The intuitiveness. It’s not just the inwardness Paul talks about here. Do you know what is so amazing about this middle section where he says, “You are condemned from your own mouth” and then down in verse 12, he says, “All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law. Indeed the Gentiles, who do not have the law, show they do understand something of the law, and they will be held accountable for that”? What is that?
Some years ago a man named Francis Schaeffer summed this up beautifully and said something like, “Do you know what Romans 2 is about? Romans 2 is about the invisible tape recorder. Romans 2 is saying even though you don’t know it, there is an invisible tape recorder God has put around everybody’s neck. No, you can’t feel it or see it, so don’t try. It’s there. Romans 2 says it’s there.
On judgment day all of a sudden you’re going to appear before God, and a lot of people are going to say, ‘I didn’t even know you existed. Wait a minute. You can’t hold me responsible for the law of God.’ Other people are going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Bible, but I’ve never read the Bible. You can’t hold me responsible for this law. I didn’t realize the God of the Bible is the real God. Okay, here you are, but you can’t hold me responsible. You can’t judge me for something I didn’t believe in.’
Then what is God going to do? He’s going to reach around the back. He’s going to unclasp, and he’s going to get off your invisible tape record. It’ll become visible, and you’ll say, ‘I didn’t see that there.’ He’ll say, ‘No, you couldn’t have felt it. It was invisible.’ Then he’ll say, ‘I want you to know I am the fairest Judge you could possibly imagine. I am not going to judge you according to the Bible because you didn’t know the Bible. I’m not going to judge you according to Christ because you never heard of Christ.
I’m going to judge you by your own words, because this tape recorder only recorded throughout your life whenever you said to someone else, ‘You ought’ or ‘You should.’ This tape recorder has only recorded your standards for the people around you. Therefore, I’m not going to judge you by anything other than the standards by which you judged people your entire life.”
Nobody in the history of the world will be able to stand in the judgment day, because you’re not going to even be able to stand before your own words, before your own standards. Therefore, we are all absolutely lost. Where is the hope? Is there any hope? Of course, the answer is yes. The failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law means now at the very end there’s a need for a new heart.
3. The need for a regenerated, new heart
Suddenly at the end, Paul begins to talk about circumcision. This is almost the end of the chapter. He says, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, it has no value. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirement, they will be regarded as though they were circumcised, will they not?”
Then he goes on. Let me read you the end. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit … Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”
Here’s what Paul is saying. He is saying, “Do you know? You religious people …” Of course, in this case, the Bible-believing, religious people were Jewish Christians. He says, “Do you know? All of your life you’ve been trying to obey the law of God, and circumcision was a sign of being a Jew who was trying to obey the law of God. What you really need is circumcision of the heart. What you really need is a new heart, not obedience outwardly. You need to have a regenerated heart, or you will never, ever do what the law requires.”
Why does he bring up circumcision? What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal. When God entered into a relationship with Abraham, that was the first time God showed up and said to a man and his family, “I want to have a personal, intimate, covenant relationship with you.” As a sign of that relationship, he says to Abraham, “I want you to be circumcised.”
The circumcision was a sign of the relationship the way baptism is a sign of being in the church. Why circumcision, though? I think most people understand baptism, kind of like death and rebirth and the Spirit and all, but what was the symbolism of circumcision? I don’t want you to think about it too long, but that’s the point.
Why did God choose circumcision as a sign of this intimate, covenant relationship he had with Abraham? He said, “I want you to walk blamelessly before me, and if you walk blamelessly before me, if you follow my covenant, I will bless you. But if you disobey the covenant, if you enter into a covenant with me and then you go your own way and you disobey me, then you’ll be cut off from your people. You’ll be cut off from the Lord. You’ll be cut off from me.” That’s the natural punishment. Do you know what circumcision was?
In those days you didn’t sign a contract to bind a contract; you acted out the curse. In other words, when a person would enter into a covenant with someone else, he might pick up some sand and he might drop it on his head and say, “If I don’t do everything I’m saying I will do today, if I disobey the covenant I just made you today, may I be as this dust,” or a person would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces and say, “If I don’t do absolutely everything I have said today in this contract, may I be cut into pieces myself.”
What God was saying to Abraham was, “If you want to enter into a relationship with me, you need to be circumcised. That means you are admitting, if you disobey the covenant, you’ll be cut off.” Here’s my question. Did Abraham really obey the covenant? Did Isaac really obey the covenant? Did Jacob? Has anybody ever obeyed the covenant? Has anyone ever walked before God blamelessly? That’s the covenant.
No, of course not. Why in the world does God have any people at all? Why is there anybody called the people of God? Why is there anybody who God says, “You are my people, and I am your God”? How could anybody be in a covenant relationship with God? The answer is in Colossians 2, there is a little verse that almost always when you go by it … If you’re reading through Colossians, it’s one of those verses you read and you say, “What was that about?” and then you just go on. “I’ll ask Tim about it someday, but right now I don’t get it.”
In Colossians 2:11 and 12, Paul is talking about the cross. He’s talking about Jesus dying on the cross, and then he says, “In him you were also circumcised …” He’s talking to Gentiles, by the way, who weren’t literally circumcised. He says, “In him you were also circumcised … not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ …”
Here’s what he’s saying. On the cross Jesus was cut off. That’s why he calls it a circumcision. On the cross Jesus Christ said, “My God, my God, I can’t see you. I can’t feel you. Where are you?” Isaiah 53 says he was cut off from the land of the living. Why? He was getting what circumcision represented. He was being cut off. He was going under the knife. It was bloody. It was violent. He was getting the curse we deserve, because we can’t stand in the judgment. We can’t stand before the law.
That’s not all. It doesn’t just say he was circumcised on the cross. It says, “In him you were circumcised, not a circumcision made with hands,” he says, because the Gentiles weren’t. “You have a new heart. You have new life.” Why? “Because you’re circumcised with Christ.” What does that mean? It means now you stand in him in this way.
When you read the law properly, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, and you see what the law is getting after, the love, the peace, the generosity, the integrity it wants, instead of saying, “Oh my goodness! I hate this. I’ll never be like this,” instead realize what that is describing. It’s describing a person. Whenever you read the law of God and you see this incredible, perfect standard, do you know who it’s describing? It’s describing Jesus.
Don’t be crushed by the standard. See the beauty of Jesus. According to the Bible, when you believe in Jesus Christ and you give your life to him, then all of your sins and what they deserved are transferred to him. He’s cut off for you, and all of the beauty of his law-keeping, all the beauty of his life is transferred to you, and in Christ we’re told, “… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus …” Once you understand that, it pricks the heart.
The idea of a circumcised heart is pretty weird. It’s quite a metaphor. It’s intimate and it’s tender and it’s scary. What it means is your heart of stone begins to be a heart of flesh, and you have a new attitude toward the law, because when you see God sent his Son to die so the requirements of the law were fulfilled, you never look at the law of God and say, “Oh, I’m saved, so it doesn’t really matter.”
The law is so important Jesus died to fulfill the requirements of the law. You don’t look at the law as a Christian and say, “It doesn’t matter how I live because, after all, I’m not condemned.” Jesus died because the law was so important, so you try like crazy to live according to the standards of the law. Yet when you fail, you don’t get crushed with guilt. You’re not crushed like, “Oh, what an awful person I am,” because you know what he did for you.
There’s this paradoxical attitude toward the law. We’re absolutely, fastidiously, diligently seeking to obey it and never crushed into the ground by it, nor hopeless when we disobey it. We get back up on the horse. It’s fascinating. In other words, we’re not saying, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay. After all, we can live any way we want,” or “I’m not okay. Everybody else is okay,” or “I’m okay, and you’re not close to being okay.” It’s none of those things.
“I’m not okay. You’re not okay. I’m no better than you. Yet in Jesus Christ I’m a beauty when God sees me. I’m beautiful.” As a result, I don’t judge anybody because God is the Judge. When somebody wrongs me, I leave that to God, and I forgive them. I don’t even judge myself. “Oh, how bad I am!” No, I’ve been judged in Jesus.
Don’t you see that at the center of your life ought to be Jesus Christ, the Judge of the earth but the Judge who was judged? If you bring into the center of your life the Judge of all the earth who was judged in your place, you have both a healthy respect for moral absolutes, and you know there’s right and there’s wrong. You know there’s injustice. You know it’s important to seek justice. You know it’s important to be a good person and a morally upright person.
On the other hand, you are not judgmental toward people. You forgive people. You’re not down on yourself, judging yourself when things go wrong. Oh, the uniqueness of the gospel! The uniqueness of a Christian! Bring the Judge who was judged in your place into the middle of your life. Let’s pray.
Thank you, Father, for giving us the bad news about judgment day, the bad news that no one can stand in the judgment, and the good news that your Son Jesus Christ was circumcised for us on the cross. He was cut off for us so now in him we have new hearts, and we thank you for all that.
Oh my word, Father, we thank you for it, and we ask would you please help us to live in accordance with it, to appropriate it, to have the joy and the poise and the power that would come with what we believe and what we know? We ask that you would grant it for Jesus’ sake. In his name we pray, amen.
SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration – Part 6
Prached on February 8, 2009 in Manhattan, N.Y.
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
5 Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. 7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:1-7, 14-17
Every week we start by saying we are tracing out the storyline of the Bible, because the Bible is not so much a series of disconnected, individual stories, each with a little lesson or moral telling us how to live. It’s primarily a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done to make things right, and how it’s all going to work out in the end.
We’re drilling down into three places in the Bible. We’ve drilled down into Genesis 1 to 4, where we learned something about what the Bible says about what’s wrong with us. Now we’re going to drill down into Romans 1 through 4, perhaps the single most comprehensive and packed place where, through a letter of Saint Paul, we learn what God did about it.
All scholars and students of Romans believe verses 16 and 17 are Paul’s way of putting the gospel in a nutshell, his message in a kind of thesis statement. Therefore, it’s an extremely important statement. I want to meditate on it with you to help you break through. That’s kind of an odd statement (break through). Let me tell you why I use the phrase.
Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, actually, later in his life told a story. In the preface to one of his collections of writings, he wrote a little reminisce of a great experience he had (it’s also called the “Tower Experience”) as a young man. Many people would call it his conversion experience. It all had to do with Romans and Romans 1:16 and 17.
He wrote, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.
Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. […] Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that, ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that … through gift and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” “When I saw that Law meant one thing and Gospel another, I broke through.”
That’s interesting. He had this breakthrough. What he means is he was completely transformed … his thinking, his heart, his life, everything … by these verses because he pondered and pondered until he broke through. I would like to help everybody here break through. That is to say if you haven’t, if these two verses have never done to you what they did to Luther, I’m going to try to show you three factors you have to grasp if you’re going to break through.
If it has, if the ideas here of these verses have transformed you, I’d like to give you by telling you the same three things (of course, since you’re all in the same room together) how you could help other people who are open have a breakthrough. There are three factors that have to do with breakthrough.
You have to grasp, according to, I think, this text, the form of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the power of the gospel. The form, the content, and the power. I’ll give you tests along the way. I’m being very focused. How do we break through? You have to understand …
1. The form of the gospel
You can see, especially if you read all the way through Romans 1:1–17, the word gospel shows up more here than any other place in the book. In fact, I think it may be the word gospel shows up more in these verses per phrase than any other place in the Bible. We have to ask ourselves, “What is so important? Why this word?”
The word gospel, as most of you know, is a Greek word we transliterate euaggelion. That is, eu, the good, and aggelos, an angel. We look at the word angel in English, of course. Right away we think of wings and things like that, which is wrong, because the word aggelos means a herald. What actually is at the very heart of the word gospel is the news media. Did you know that? News media? Okay.
How did news about great historic events get distributed back in those days? What was the news media? No print paper. No audio, video, radio, television. Well, then how was news …? What was the media for the news? The answer is it was heralds. That is, everybody is back in the town because they know there’s a great military battle that’s being fought miles away, so they’re behind the barricades. They don’t know what’s going to happen.
What happens when the general achieves a great military victory? How do we spread the news? He would send heralds. The aggelos. An aggelia, which is a message or a herald. The news. The herald would come in to the town and declare the news, “Victory!” Then he would run to the next town square and proclaim “Victory!” Then everyone would go back home with joy.
If that’s at the very, very heart of the word gospel, if that’s what the message is, the essence of the Christian message is news … good, joyful news … then this is the difference between the gospel and every other philosophy or religion. The gospel is not good advice about what you must do. It’s primarily good news about what’s already been done for you, something that’s already happened.
See, other religions say, “If you really want to meet God, do this, this, and this.” It’s good advice. Only Christianity is not good advice but primarily good news about something that’s already been done for you. This is test one. We’ve talked about this actually not too many weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s crucial. One of the breakthroughs is to realize how utterly different Christianity is because it’s good news, not good advice.
If I ask somebody here in New York, “What do you think the essence of Christianity is? What does it mean to be a Christian?” the average person on the street would say, “Well, I think it means to try to live like Jesus and try to love your neighbor, try to live by the Golden Rule.” I want you all to know I think that is an incredibly great idea. Let’s all do that. I’m all for it, but that’s not news. That’s not the heart of Christianity. It can’t be, because it’s not news.
Is that news? Is that news about what has been done for you … outside of you, for you … that inflicts in you such joy that you finally can live according to the Golden Rule? See, that’s Christianity. Something has happened outside you, something momentous. It’s happened outside you for you, and that’s what inflicts into you life-changing joy. Now I can live according to the Golden Rule.
To say being a Christian is the Golden Rule, that’s not news. Therefore, there’s no breakthrough. See, breakthrough, transformation, comes like this. If you say to somebody, “Here’s the essence of the Christian message. You need to live like Jesus and love your neighbor according to the Golden Rule,” there are only three responses to that. One is you say, “Sure, I knew that.” Shrug. Indifference.
The second, like Luther, is, “Oh, that’s very hard. I can’t do that.” Crushed. Discouraged. The third is the Pharisees say, “I do that all the time.” So either shrugged or bugged or smug. No breakthrough. No breakthrough! No, “Oh my word! I never thought of that.” See, that’s what happened. When Luther broke through, he said, “This is a paradigm shift.” Sorry, it’s cliché, but it’s far more than that but it’s not less.
Here’s my question. Here’s the first test. I don’t know what you believe, but whatever you believe about God or how you ought to live, is it mainly about you, or is it mainly about what he has done? Is it mainly about you and what you must do, or mainly about him and what he has done? Which is it? See the breakthrough? The gospel is news, not advice.
2. The content of the gospel
The content of the gospel is that very spot where Luther meditated and meditated, where he says, “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that comes by (dia, through) faith. Just as it is written, the one who is righteous through faith, that’s the person who lives.” He was thinking and thinking about this until suddenly he realized, “The righteousness of God is a righteousness that comes to me, and I receive by faith.” That opened everything up.
If we want to understand this term, which isn’t a very ordinary term … It’s a technical term in a way. It’s a term Paul uses, though, so we need to try to figure it out. It changed Luther’s life. It changed mine. We’re justified by faith. Let me use two illustrations to show you. The second one is considerably more poignant than the first.
The first one, though, think about this. Whenever we talk about being justified, we’re talking about not a change in the object but a change in the relationship to the object. Not a change inside the object, but relationship to the object. For example, if you’re speaking to me, and you say something, and I say, “Hmm. Justify that statement,” what do I mean?
I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” What I’m actually saying is, “It’s hard for me to accept that. Do something. Say something to change my relationship to the statement, to change my regard for it so I can accept it.” I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” “Help me get into a new relationship with it because I’m about to reject it.” “Justify that statement” means, “Change my regard for it. Do something.”
That is actually what the word means, especially at certain points here but also in Romans 5 where Paul says in verse 2, “Since we’re justified by faith, we have access to this grace in which we stand.” The word stand there means to stand in the presence of a great God or a great king or judge. This is what Paul is saying. Jesus has done something so God, looking at us, in spite of everything wrong with us … Jesus has done something to change God’s regard for us, his relationship to us.
Something has been done. See, that’s the news. Something has been done so now the Father looks at us and loves us and delights in us and accepts us. Our relationship has been changed. It’s not so much something happened inside, because then that would all be about us. That wouldn’t be gospel. It would all be, “Well, you have to do something.” It’s about something that’s happened outside of us that has changed God’s relationship to us. What is that?
To me, the second factor in what brings a breakthrough over the gospel is when you realize the gospel is about more than just forgiveness. Follow me, please. It’s about more than just forgiveness. Please don’t think I’m saying there’s anything wrong with forgiveness, but most people think that’s what this is. That’s what salvation is. That’s what Jesus did.
The idea is because Jesus died on the cross, when I do something wrong, I can ask God for forgiveness, and I’m forgiven. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, of course it’s wonderful. It’s more than wonderful, but I want to show you here for a second it would not be enough. It’s way less than what’s being promised here. Yeah!
Because, see, if it’s true that that’s really salvation, that because Jesus died on the cross, now when I ask for forgiveness, I’m forgiven … God forgives me, wipes the slate clean. Do you realize what that means? It means that even though he has forgiven me for what I just did wrong, my relationship with him is still up to me because actually, in a sense, God says, “Hey, I just forgave you for what you did. I’m not going to hold that against you, but now you’d better get it right.” If that’s all forgiveness is, it’s not enough.
You know, for example, here’s a man, let’s just say, and he is in prison. What is going to get him a new life? Well, you could say the first thing that’s going to get him a new life is pardon. The governor writes a pardon, and he is out. Wow! He has a new life. No. He is just back to where all the rest of us slobs are. He is not in prison. Now he has to get a job. Now he has to work. It’s a long haul. He doesn’t have a new life yet.
You say, “Well, what more do you want?” I’ll tell you what’s more. The salvation of the gospel is not so much like simply getting a pardon to get out of prison. It’s besides getting a pardon, forgiveness. It’s also like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor on top of it. It’s a negative and a positive.
There’s a TV series called NCIS. It’s about Naval Criminal Investigative Services. It’s a cop show amongst military and criminal investigators. There’s a really great episode that was done about four years ago. The main character was played by Charles Durning, the great actor. The episode is about a poor broken-down old man, a former Marine, played by Charles Durning. He is in his eighties. He is broken down. He is kind of dowdy, and he is accused of murder. He is accused of murder!
At one point, two big, beefy Marines and a snarling Navy lawyer come after this poor little old man. They’re about to arrest him. They’re overshadowing him. Here he is standing in their presence accused. As they stand and they’re about to cuff him, actually, a friend of the old man pulls his tie aside. Under it is the Congressional Medal of Honor, because on Iwo Jima, he had done acts of extraordinary valor and bravery beyond the call of duty and had been given a Congressional Medal of Honor.
When he pulled that aside, the Marines and the snarling lawyer immediately saw what it was. Instead of looking at the poor little old man, the accused, condemned man, they saw that medal of honor, and they immediately snapped to attention and saluted. They were in awe. Just like that. It’s very, very good drama, and it’s very, very kind of moving to see. It is just an image, however faint, of what Paul is talking about here.
You know, one of the verses I always quote to you but I never explain is 2 Corinthians 5:21. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Well, think.
On the cross, what does it mean to say Jesus was made sin? God made him sin. Does that mean God made him sinful, God put sin in his heart so he became greedy and angry and violent? No! He was up there forgiving his enemies. I mean, no! He was up there loving his Father, even when his Father was turning on him. Absolutely it didn’t mean he became sinful. It means he was treated as our sins deserve. He was given the treatment our record deserves.
So what does it mean to say that when you give your life to Christ, our sins are put on him? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In him! What does that mean? It can’t mean that automatically the minute you become a Christian, you become righteous in your heart any more than he became sinful on the cross. No, no, no, no.
What it must mean is we are covered with his medals. We are covered with his glory. We’re covered with all the awards and the medals of his valor and his cosmic bravery because he took on evil and he went down to death. All that he deserved is now on us. Here’s where the illustration doesn’t quite work because that old man basically was suddenly given all this … Even though he was condemned, they suddenly saw his medal, which he had won in a former life. In our case, the medals on us were won by Jesus in a former life.
Now the whole universe salutes us. Now God himself delights in us. We have become the righteousness of God in him. Now do you see the test? Do you see where the breakthrough comes? The first breakthrough is when you see it’s not advice but news. The second breakthrough is when you see it’s not just forgiveness, but it’s being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It’s a righteousness from God given to me by a gift.
No wonder Luther said, “Oh my word! That’s incredible.” It is incredible. When you ask somebody (I do all the time), “Hey, are you a Christian?” and the person says, “Well, I’m trying,” that shows they have no idea about what Christianity is about because Christianity is a standing. We have access to this grace in which we stand. See? It means you have no idea about what it means to be a Christian. You’re still stuck back in the idea it’s good advice.
Some people say, “Well, I hate to call myself a Christian, because I don’t feel worthy of the name.” Of course you don’t feel good enough, but you’re in him if you understand the gospel. He is always good enough. He is utterly good enough. Covered with his medals. Covered with his trophies. Covered with his badges and banners and ribbons in glory.
You know, some people will say, “That’s interesting. I guess the Luther types, religious people … Gosh. He was a monk. How much more religious can you get than that? I guess there are people who are always filled with guilt and shame. They’re religious, and they need this. They need this idea.” No, it’s not just them. Oh no!
I have talked to an awful lot of people recently who have lost an awful lot of money. Do you know what? One of the things you can see (in fact, sometimes they tell me) is it was a lot more than money. They didn’t know. They didn’t know! There’s a disorientation at the center of their being. They’re not sure who they are. There’s a complete loss of identity. There’s a complete loss of confidence. Do you know why? Because that money was their righteousness.
See, irreligious people don’t use the word righteousness. As we said a couple of week ago when we were talking about Cain and Abel, no human being can assure themselves … We cannot assure ourselves of our value and worth. We have to get somebody outside approving us, acclaiming us, declaring us worthy, declaring us a people of value.
Some people do it through, “I want to look beautiful.” Some people say, “I want to make money.” Some people say, “I want to achieve.” Whatever. The fact is, everybody is desperately struggling for righteousness. Here’s the weird thing. Everybody’s righteousness, if it’s not God’s, is going to be blown away. Recession is one way, but it’s going to happen. Old age is another way. Everybody’s righteousness is going to blow away unless this is upon you.
The second breakthrough then that you see is not just forgiveness, wiping the slate clean, but getting the cosmic Medal of Honor. You know, being accepted in the beloved, having the righteousness of God put upon us in Jesus. Being legally righteous even when we’re actually unrighteous. We’ll see more about that. Thirdly, the last thing you have to do if you’re really going to understand and break through is you have to have a sense of …
3. The power of the gospel
Not just the form, not just the content, but the power. Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation …” I guess in my case, of all these … You know, even though it’s brief (verses 16 and 17 are brief), this is my favorite part of this nutshell.
Because, see, it’s not saying that the gospel brings the power of God or it results in the power of God or it’s a means to the power of God, does it? Well, no, it doesn’t. What does it say? It says the gospel is the power of God in verbal form. Therefore, when I believe it, when I hear it, when I understand it, when I grasp its propositions, its meanings, its words, to the degree that I actually get this gospel into my life, the power of God is coursing through me.
It is the power of God! Therefore, the way you know you’re beginning to understand the gospel and breaking through is instead of it just being a set of ideas, you begin to sense it being a power. How is that so? Well, here are a couple of ways. First of all, one of the ways you know you’re breaking through (or perhaps breaking through or have a chance of breaking through) is you feel its offensiveness.
Notice connected to this idea of the power of God, he says, “I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed of the gospel.” When you say something like that, “I am not ashamed of her. I am not ashamed of him. I am not ashamed of that,” that means there are whole lot of other people who are, or you wouldn’t have said that. Okay? There are a whole lot of other people who are offended or they think it’s crazy.
I want you to know everybody who hasn’t broken through or isn’t on the verge of breaking through thinks the gospel is crazy. Everybody! I’ve had two churches: one in a very blue collar, traditional, conservative place (a small southern town) and the opposite place. Here’s what’s so interesting. Everybody is offended by the gospel.
In Hopewell, Virginia, where I was pastor, everybody was hard working. They’re all religious. Even the atheists are Baptists. Everybody! I mean, even the atheists, the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God. Everybody is religious. Everybody is very traditional. Everybody is hard working. Everybody is conservative. They’re offended by the gospel because they think it’s too easy.
I’ll never forget one of the first people I shared the gospel with was a woman. Right across the parking lot behind our church was a very broken down area. You know, rental property. Bad rental property, by the way. Trailers and things like that. There was a woman there. She was a very unhappy woman. Her name was Joy. In a southern town in the late 70s, she was divorced. She had two children. One was, I think, with no husband. One was with her former husband.
She was living essentially in poverty. She was a mess. She was disgraced. She was ashamed. We went in there. Three of us sat down, and we shared what I just shared with you, almost exactly the same thing. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “You mean, in spite of everything, he can accept me?”
I remember one of the things we talked about was I said, “Well, you know, if you really understand the gospel, that means the minute you believe in Christ and ask God to accept you because of what he has done, the minute your sins are put on him and his righteousness is put on you, God loves you and delights in you as much this very second as he will a billion years from now when you’re perfect and glorious and someone can’t even look at you without sunglasses. You see?” I said, “He won’t love you any more then than now, any less now than then.”
She couldn’t believe it. She cried. She thought it was the greatest thing. She embraced it. She believed it. A week later, we came back. You know, followup. We sat down. She was really upset because she had called her sister. Her sister was a very hard-working woman. She had a husband, three or four children. They were upstanding citizens. They went to church. They were good people.
When Joy called her older sister up and told her she was born again, she was saved, God loved her and all that, the sister said, “What are you talking about? It can’t be that easy. You have to work for this sort of thing. You have to work very hard, years of self-discipline, years of moral effort. I don’t know what kind of God that pastor is talking to you about, but I have no respect for him that he would just take somebody like you like that. It’s too easy.”
You see, it sounds really very dignified to say, “I can’t believe in a God. I have higher standards than that,” except do you know what? That sister had built her identity on being the good daughter, and Joy was the bad daughter. It was incredibly self-justifying to say, “It can’t be that easy.” You know, the gospel was in danger of destroying that wonderful dysfunctional family system in which Joy was the sick one. See?
So we had to go right back with the gospel. It did. I think it did. You see, in a traditional conservative culture, it’s too easy. Now we come up here where everybody is liberal and sophisticated and secular. Up here, it’s offensive not because it’s too easy but because it’s too simplistic. Here’s why. Because, you see, everything here is ambiguous and difficult. Nobody is sure.
See, we like philosophy here. We like ethics. We like discussions. Here are the pros and the cons. We get together, and we have discussions and forums. Everybody is a little bit right, and everybody is a little bit wrong. Nobody is really sure. Then we can go home and live anyway we want. It’s a great, great system, because who is to say. The clarity of the gospel, the absolute clarity of it, you know? They even like religion better because in it, you’re always trying, and you’re trying. You’re never quite sure whether you’ve done it. The clarity of it.
Here’s this first-century carpenter. He dies. Everything changes if you believe in that. You believe in that, and then you’re in. You don’t believe in that, and you’re out. Oh my gosh! The clarity of it! The simplicity of it! Don’t you see? Liberal or conservative, blue collar or white collar, north, south, east, west. The gospel is absolutely unique. It’s absolutely on its own. Everybody hates it. It makes absolutely no sense to anyone. It contradicts every system of thought in the world. It contradicts the heart of every culture in the world, every worldview.
It’s completely on its own. It offends everyone. See, whoever you are, you have to come from somewhere. You have to come from north or south or east or west or conservative or liberal. Something! You’re human beings. Therefore, unless you’ve felt the offense of the gospel, you don’t know yet what it even claims. Unless you’ve wrestled with it, struggled with it, you don’t even know what’s in it. You couldn’t know what’s in it.
When you begin to feel it and you begin to wrestle and struggle, then you at least have the possibility of breaking through. By the way, the gospel is not an academic thing. It’s not a set of bullet points we’re trying to get you to memorize. It’s from a person to a person. Therefore, it feels personal. When you’re really beginning to hear the gospel truly and understand the gospel, you start to sense there’s a power dealing with you, disturbing you, upsetting you. Maybe during this sermon, I hope. Maybe when you think about it or talk to a friend about it.
Do you find the gospel upsetting you, kind of dealing with you? Are you wrestling with it? Is it bothering you? I would rather somebody came to Redeemer for a couple of weeks and was so revolted that they had to leave. At least they were feeling the power rather than just saying, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t have much time for that.” Then you’re absolutely, absolutely in no position to ever have a breakthrough.
You have to feel the power of it. You have to feel the offensiveness of it. Here’s the other way in which is the power. Some people would say, “Well, all that matters, I suppose, is that you … Now that you’ve received the righteousness of Christ, that’s all that matters. Now you’re fine. It doesn’t matter how you live.” No, no, no, no, no. You know, what’s so amazing about Paul is he is able to get sound gospel theology everywhere.
Look at verse 7. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints …” At the beginning of the memo: “To, From, Re:” He already has the gospel in there. Do you know why? He says, “What is a Christian?” “To all … who are loved by God and called to be saints …” Look at that. What is a Christian? Not primarily someone who is living in a certain way. The first is you’re loved by God. Your relationship has been changed. Something has been done to justify you.
You’re loved, but if you’re loved and if you know you’re loved, then you’re called. That means you’re invited. That means you’re attracted to be saints, which means to be holy. You never, ever, ever have the righteousness of God put upon you without, at the same time, finding it’s beginning to develop in you. You never, ever, ever, ever are loved by God in spite of your bad character without that starting to change your character.
You’re never justified except that you automatically begin to get sanctified. The righteousness of God will never be put upon you without it developed within you. If it’s not developed within you, then you haven’t really received it upon you. That’s the reason why Paul could look at Peter in Galatians 2, where Peter’s old racist sensibilities have begun to come back. He is not eating with Gentile Christians. He won’t even eat with them.
What does Paul say? Paul doesn’t say, “Peter, you broke the ‘no racism’ rule.” (Even though there is a ‘no racism’ rule; Christians shouldn’t be racist.) What he says is, “Peter, you say you’re justified by faith, not by works. You say you’re a sinner saved by grace. How can you be superior to any other race? You say you have the righteousness of Christ on you, but you’re not living in righteousness. Therefore, it’s not upon you if it’s not beginning to develop within you.”
If you are loved, then you are called, you’re attracted, into holiness. You want it. You long for it because, “I want to look like the One who did this for me. I want to please the One who did this for me.” If you don’t want to please, if you don’t want to look like the one who did this for you, then it’s still not personal. You really still don’t know what’s happened.
One of the great things I love about … There’s a passage in Matthew 11 where John the Baptist, in prison, about to be beheaded, sends some messengers to Jesus. The messengers say, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John the Baptist is doubting. I can understand why. You know, he declared Jesus the Messiah. He said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but everything is going wrong. He is in prison.
“Wait a minute. You’re the Messiah, and I’m with you. I’m about to get my head chopped off. Are you really the one who is to come, or should we be looking for somebody else?” He is doubting. Jesus so nicely says, “Go back and tell John the Baptist, ‘The blind see … the poor have good news preached to them.’ ” He gives him some arguments why he is the Messiah. Then he says, “Say this to John: ‘And blessed is he who does not take offense at me.’ ”
What I loved about that is instead of Jesus saying, “How dare you question me! I’m the Messiah,” he says, “Let me give you some answers. I want you to know I am not offended by people who are struggling with my offensiveness. Good luck. Hope you get through it. It’s not very easy. I hope you get the blessedness of people who finally get through that offensiveness and break through.”
What a man. He is not offended that we struggle with his offensiveness. He is not at all upset about the fact that it’s hard. He says, “Here are some answers to questions. If you have any more, please come back.” What a Savior. What a man. Go to him. Let us pray.
Our Father, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you that we’re able to look these few weeks together at what Saint Paul has said that has changed so many lives. It’s changed mine. It’s changed so many here. We ask you would help us to break through. We ask you would help us to grasp the form, the content, and the power of the gospel in such a way that we do so that we, knowing we’re loved by you, sense your calling into a whole new life. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
ABOUT THE PREACHER
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
There are certain positive actions that all of us as adult Christians can and should take if we are determined to help ease the tension over issues like the future unfolding of God’s plan or the age of the earth (areas that we disagree on):
(1) Determine to understand opposing views better and why they are held.
(2) Determine to be less caustic about other evangelicals and their views when they differ from your own.
(3) Determine not to suspect a person’s orthodoxy because he or she doesn’t agree with you.
(4) Determine to cooperate and build fellowship whenever and wherever possible with those evangleicals who hold different views than your own.
NEGATIVE ACTIONS NEEDED
(1) Avoid majoring on minors.
(2) Avoid unwanted dogmatism and conclusions.
(3) Avoid a holier-than-thou attitude.
(4) Avoid giving the impression that you have all the answers and others have all the problems.
(5) Avoid thinking a view must be without problems or it can’t be right.
An epithet appears in a Latin treatise designed to uphold Lutheranism and at the same time call for peace in that church. This treatise reportedly was published in Germany sometime between 1615 and 1630. The message of the poem is most fitting for our day as well, especially in regard to differences over God’s plan for the future. I can’t think of a better suggestion for action than this. Translated into English it reads:
“In essentials unity. In uncertainties freedom, In all things love.”
*SOURCE: Adapted from pp. 185-86 in The Last Days Handbook by Robert P. Lightner. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.